Mum and the Snake

While Dad fought in the Korean War, and when I was 9, my mother and my brother lived in the Highlands of Scotland. Strathpeffer (pop. 1,500) was and is an old Victorian spa town whose imposing Highland Hotel was commandeered by the army in WWII for army families, many still billeted there in 1953. It had a sweeping, varnished staircase up which I once saw a man in brown overalls carry a tiny coffin; it had spacious grounds with rhododendron bushes where I played; and my mother would gather other children from the hotel and take us walking up into the mountains. Like the Pied Piper, Mum would lead us joyous kids along tracks, through woods and beside clear-running burns. Once on a narrow path we came across an adder, the only venomous snake in Britain. I can see her now, worried sick for us, waving her flock behind her, raising a rock above her head, crushing the poor reptile to death.


Birthday Party

It’s a town in Lancashire, population 79,000, known since the Middle Ages for cotton spinning, black puddings and now Metrolink, a train that becomes a tram once it enters the nearby city of Manchester. Auntie Alice and I once travelled to and from Old Trafford on this system in 1993, even right behind Warne when he bamboozled Gatting first ball of the series. One of its famous sons, Sir Robert Peel, founded the Metropolitan Police and sadly the Conservative Party. Another of these sons was my father, born 1923 around the corner from the Bensons Sweet factory. And he, indirectly, was the reason that we drove to Bury one recent Sunday.

We were going to a birthday party, my Aunty Lily’s 90th. Lily has lived in Bury all her life, still manages well on her own, although her eyesight is failing. Well known in the town because of her lifelong voluntary work with schizophrenia carers, she received the MBE one day at the palace in 2006; I know this, because on my 62nd birthday I watched the HM pin it on her.

These days we don’t undertake such long drives: 175 miles over three and a half hours along two of the busiest motorways M1 and M6 – at least it was a Sunday. And we were late, having to stop for the loo at a Macdonald’s. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it doesn’t matter, we can just mingle surreptitiously.’ No chance. When we entered Elton Liberal club, the celebration was a sit-down job, with china cakestands, tablecloths, trimmed sandwiches and pots of tea. And there seemed over a 100 people, including the town mayor and his deputy in their chains and ties.

My sister and her West Yorkshire contingent of husband, son and daughter had kept places for us, so we were thankfully able to ease into the throng quickly but more publicly than I had wanted. Lily looked pretty amazing for her age and was infused with birthday pleasure. More formal that I had thought, speeches were delivered including my own one about the late 60s, when as a student I would take buses to Bury from Stockport and do the rounds of clubs and pubs with aunts Lily and Alice. Those events were not as alcohol-fuelled as separate outings with my Uncle Jack, who besides paying for my beer gave me half-a-crown for the and bus fare. Boundless was my gratitude since my grant was always much diminished; most likely both our as Jack was often on the dole.

Back to the tea party, where its time slot (hire-free to pensioners) was coming to an end, and we were to drive over the Pennines to my sister’s, where my niece was to have her own birthday do. We had a rushed goodbye with Lily, actually had to queue, and still she was lapping up being birthday girl.

As we drove away, I remembered how Dad hated going back to his home town. Memories of the Depression, unheated houses, outside toilets, horse-drawn moonlight flits, being fostered out for several years and once age 15, having run away to sea, his mother dragging him back for the pittance he earned from some god-forsaken job, all did not endear him. Thatcherism or a derivative of it administered the coup de grâce, and it doesn’t look much like I knew it 50 years ago, let alone almost a hundred.

This journey, into which I was rightfully pressed as family duty, reminded me of my paternal roots. Dad was 14 when The Road to Wigan Pier was published, a shocking glimpse of the living conditions of the British underclass (compare to the Grenfell Tower fire, 80 years later so – plus ça change). Lucky me to be born into the fairer socialism of postwar Britain; or not, because I don’t have a town to call home. And that’s Dad’s fault.

(Photo above is actually from Lily’s 80th birthday)


Buckingham Palace, 2006

Reading in High Places

My career took place in business class,
Living out of an impossibly small
Roll-on that never saw the hold.

As a perk of this caper, I read novels,
Drank champers and ate
Smoked salmon that I got to hate,

Flew a day and a quarter from Sydney to
Delaware to the maw of corporate HQ, where
They talk a language I’ve guiltlessly discarded.

From London once, all day to the Caucasus
I read and drank the silences from
The empty seats beside me, fore and aft.

That afternoon the pilot banked obligingly
Over Istanbul to balance me above
Coppery glints of minarets and domes.

At darkening India, I fell asleep over
My third novel and dreamt of
Ants at prayers in mosques.

28 January 2008