Lockdown has made this a hot topic, again and the passage of a new government Bill through Parliament has added grist to the mill. Last Thursday I was invited to attend a video conference to listen to speakers on the topic. It was organised by a charitable fundraising group I have supported and so I accepted the invitation.
We heard from a couple of professionals on the topic but the main segment was given over to a woman called Kerry-not-her-real-name who described the harrowing experiences that she and her son were subjected to, initially by her husband and subsequently by the full panoply of the State apparatus: police, justice, care home, social services, benefits system, etc, etc.
I found the experience extremely challenging. I was very uncomfortable throughout and on several occasions I just wanted to turn it off and leave. To do so felt like I was betraying not only ‘Kerry’ and her son, but all those who’d taken the time to put this together and all those other women, children and, yes, men who suffer in one way or another. I stayed to the end feeling terribly uncomfortable, like a voyeur and a perpetrator and a victim, all at once.
It was only on reflection that I considered whether my own story had an impact on my reaction. It’s not that I dwell on it in any sense, nor that I feel I need help with it or, heaven forbid, sympathy but it is in me, it’s part of my character, of me and these things do, as we know, have a subconscious impact on us in many ways, often unrecognised, unappreciated or indeed, unimportant. Some of them may indeed be important but I don’t dwell, I just let it all be me, whatever that is, for good or ill.
What struck me most, during this terrible tale from ‘Kerry’ was the failure of the state apparatus to do what they say on their tins. They don’t protect, they don’t support, they are not blind in their dispensation of justice and they do not offer a protective and supportive environment for those they claim to “be there” for. Often they fail because they believe they are doing the right thing, a very subjective basis for decision-making. It struck me, in particular, because it was exactly the same for my mother, and my family, over sixty years ago and, to my jaundiced eye, precious little has changed or improved in all those years.
My mind was taken back to my mother’s journals which I discovered before she died, aged ninety, in a care home and suffering from dementia. Unfortunately, she was already too far “gone” for me to discuss them with her and, in any event, why would I want to take her back to those traumatic times in her last days on earth?
I looked them out last night and sat up till 3 am reading them, again. It’s the closest I’ve felt to my mum in a long time. The humanity, bewilderment, desperation, her struggles to find solutions, to get help, her loneliness, attempts to try to get my dad to stop drinking, her lost children, her embarrassment, degradation, imprisonment and incarceration. It would be heart-wrenching if I was reading about a stranger, like ‘Kerry’ but this was my mum, me, my brothers, my family. It doesn’t come closer than this.
These journals were written for a purpose. I’m sure it was important for her to get these memories and events down in writing, in many ways, not least of all catharsis but the driver behind writing them was the divorce she wanted from my father. Divorce was no simple matter in those days and any woman seeking to divorce their husband needed compelling evidence to have any chance of success – unless he agreed, which he didn’t. With that in mind, and without the merest hint of a slight to my mother, I regard these memoirs as *her truth, with no judgment from me. There are enough facts in there I recognise that I know most of it to be founded in fact.
I’ll save my comments to the end. For the bulk of this article, I’ll leave my mum to do the talking. I will just set the scene, a little. My mother was born in 1918, my dad a couple of years earlier. My mum’s father was a violent drunk, a veteran of the First War. My Gran threw him out and, god knows how, raised four children on her own, remarkably successfully in the circumstances, post war and through the Great Depression. Mum, being the eldest, became Gran’s right-hand helper when she should have been enjoying childhood. This was the background to my mother’s own family experience which mirrors ours almost perfectly. Mum’s sister (along with her daughter, my cousin) is the only immediate survivor of that young family at the time of writing but I have many younger relations, in Australia, as my two Uncles both emigrated there in the fifties. My mother was engaged to be married before the Second War to someone “eminently suitable”, I gather. When war broke out, my mum was keen to sign up, to do whatever she could. Her fiancee was totally opposed to the notion of working women and actually used that time honoured phrase, “No wife of mine will be seen going out to work!”. He obviously didn’t know her very well. That red rag to my mother’s bull had her marching down to the recruitment centre in double time. She enlisted in the Womens’ Royal Air Corp and spent the war driving ambulances on RAF airfields. What horrific sights she must have seen. Her fiancee took umbrage, called off the wedding and threatened to sue her for ruining his reputation. Then, inevitably, my mother made the mistake of falling in love with a fighter pilot who, as was a statistical certainty, didn’t make it through the Battle of Britain. She was bereft. I’m not sure she ever recovered.
I know very little about my Dad’s family but I remember Granny Gordon and my Aunt Rita, though I saw very little of them, they weren’t close to us. I believe my paternal grandfather was rather like the maternal one, rather like my dad, funny that. I never met either of them.
Dad was in the Territorial Army before the Second War and so enlisted and was urgently shipped out with the British Expeditionary Force, almost immediately war broke out. He was in the force sent to Belgium in those early days and was thus, one of the defeated soldiers rescued from the hell hole that was Dunkirk. After a couple of years back in Blighty, he was shipped out to North Africa as a Bombardier in the Royal Artillery with the Eighth Army fighting against Rommel. A Desert Rat, if you will. After Rommel’s defeat he was shipped to Italy, to that other hotspot, the Battle for Monte Casino. I think that was his last major engagement. During this he was promoted to War Sergeant, a rank that means you don’t receive the full benefits of rank once the war is over, it was a cost-saving promotion. He declined it but it was imposed on him anyway. I’d love to know that back-story but I never will.
He and mum met a couple of years after the end of the war, I don’t know how. At this point, I’ll let Mum take up the story:
“The day we were married, we went home to his Mother’s house. His Mother was very upset because we were getting married, she said he had only just come home from the war and she did not expect to lose him again so soon. So, very much against my better judgement, I agreed to live with her [and her daughter] for a while.
I think we arrived there about 8:30pm. We did not go ‘away’ at all. At 9pm Bill [my father] asked if I would mind if he went out to meet the boys for an hour. What else could I say but “no”. He came back at 11pm.
There are only two downstairs rooms in his Mother’s house, the kitchen and the living room but the living room was never used and they lived in the kitchen. As soon as Bill went out, his Mother and Sister announced that they were going to bed and went, at 9 o’clock, leaving me sitting in the kitchen. I went up into what was supposed to be our bedroom and waited for Bill to come in, he was rolling drunk when he came.
We had arranged to go to Goodwood Races the following day, as our honeymoon. We arrived back around 9pm and again he asked if I minded if hr went out for an hour. The following day he went out and I was left at home with his mother who pretty well expected me to do all the housework and all the meals too. She only had a dirty old range to cook on. When she asked me to do the cooking and baking I had to tell her I was perfectly willing to prepare the food for her but I couldn’t possibly bake on that kind of an over as I’d never had any experience of such fire ovens. I had no knowledge of how to regulate it and learning the art was liable to prove expensive.
When I suggested she use the living room she was bewildered and said the kitchen was much more convenient and comfortable. What she meant by comfortable I couldn’t imagine. We were only there a few weeks and I couldn’t stand it. Bill never gave me a penny this whole time.
I found two rooms for 25/= per week and persuaded him to take them. When we moved he offered me 30/= per week for housekeeping. I told him I couldn’t possibly manage on that. I think he was drawing £7 at the time. ….My cigarettes were rationed. At one time he made me cut down to five per day, he handed them to me one at a time. He still went out as soon as he’d finished his tea and returned between 11pm and midnight. I was alone in the house all day and half the night. I couldn’t stand this but I was pregnant and did not know what to do. So I sank all my pride and asked Mother if she would let us have a room in her house until the baby was born……
[My dad was an inveterate gambler and drinker. The pattern he established on the night of their wedding continued for every single day of their marriage. He would go dancing or to a club, he would never, ever stay home. He doubtless had affairs]
The day Christopher [my recently deceased brother] was born, the nurses left me and did not return until 15 minutes after the birth. Consequently he got his lungs full of fluid (he was born at midday) and kept choking. We were continually calling the doctor and nurses back to drain him, towards evening he actually died [stopped breathing]. I revived him myself and the catheter tube was then left with me in case I needed it again.
I asked the nurses to call at the flat to ask Bill to come and help me….
The next day he came to see me…..He said he must have been asleep in bed when the nurse called. He had had a few drinks “to wet the babies head” and had gone straight home to bed. When I eventually arrived home, I found he had been sick all over the bedroom and the bed, he said he had drunk some bad beer the night Christopher was born. Whenever he is sick, it’s always because he’s drunk some bad beer, never the fact that he had drunk too much.
While we were in the flat he would come home between 11:30 and 1am so drunk and abusive that on about six occasions I went out and walked the streets wondering what I could do. I had to return because of the children and when I did he was fast asleep in bed not even knowing or caring that I was out.While I was carrying Christopher I was so miserable and upset by his behaviour that I used to sit in the chair from the time he went out at 6:30pm until he came in rolling drunk at midnight, sobbing my heart out. I don’t think he ever knew. When he came in he would pull me out of the chair and push me into the bedroom and tell me to get into bed.
A fortnight before my first daughter was born [I have no sisters, all three miscarried] she was already four weeks overdue – I had Christopher vaccinated. He was very ill after it and one night half an hour after Bill had come in and gone to bed, he woke up screaming at around 1:30am. I tried to wake Bill but he was too drunk so I got up myself and picked Christopher up. He was struggling and fighting, he was delirious. Nigel [my elder brother] wakened and I asked him to try to waken Bill. He couldn’t and I could neither hold Christopher nor put him down, he was struggling so hard and kicking me all the time. I knew he was killing the baby but I could do nothing about it…. The next day I knew the baby was dead.
….A friend once persuaded me to go with her to the cinema. Bill gave his permission willingly but when the friend arrived, Bill was not back from the club as promised. I rang him once and he said he was on his way. Half an hour later I rang him again and he said he had forgotten.
[I’m seriously abbreviating the dialogue to spare you, the reader, whilst giving you a broad flavour of the situation]
When Robin was born [finally I get a walk-on part!] we could not afford a home help and he arranged to take a fortnight’s holiday to look after me. Every day after dinner, he would lock Nigel and Christopher in the bedroom with me, while he went out. He said he went to the office to do some work but he was supposed to be on holiday [and always came home drunk].
When I drew my insurance in 1950, I bought Nigel his first outdoor suit, it cost me £8.5/=. While I was in Hellingly [a mental institution, read on] Robin was wearing it, it was still in perfect condition and showed no signs of wear. Bill did not supervise Robin properly and he burned the coat. Bill claimed £3 from his insurance company but I never saw any of it. I could not afford to replace the coat and Robin had to continue wearing it with a big ugly patch right in the front. I was obliged to cut up the cap to patch the coat.
While I was in Hellingly, Bill transferred the mortgage from the Building Society to a private mortgage where he only pays the interest on the money borrowed and had increased the amount to £1,400. [The house cost £1,010]. [This was to cover drinking and gambling debts].
[That particular journal then goes on to list various examples of my dad’s poor behaviour, I’ll spare you. On a loose, torn page at the end, it reads:
“Separation or Divorce, which is best for the Children.“
[I could add much to the dialogue but I’ll refrain because this is her story. As a witness, I can attest to the constant arguing, shouting, door slamming, fighting, occasionally carving knife incidents. Life at home was miserable most of the time, especially if they were both home. My brothers would fight, routinely (can’t imagine where they got that idea from) or they’d gang up on me and beat me mercilessly. I don’t blame them, not now. The pervasive threads were that Mum worked all day, out, which Dad hated because that meant Mum wasn’t always there to wait on him, and then again back at home. Dad, an FCA, a practising Chartered Accountant, drank every day working or not. He was always drunk, even though he was practised at maintaining composure, he stank of it. He only watched TV for the races, or wrestling, or anything else he gambled on and only so he could check on what usually turned out to be his losses. Fast forward a couple of years and Mum picks up the story]
“I had repeatedly asked my doctor for help, without success. I thought that if someone whom he respected would speak to him with authority and show him where he was wrong, then he might alter a little but Dr Sutherland [family GP] was a client, I tried to impress upon him the severity of the situation without blackening Bill’s character too much.
He was continually forcing me into pregnancy, I had 6 children in 8 years. He said he wanted a football team but didn’t consider that the children all had to be clothed and fed. Any old rags were good enough to clothe them with. If I said anything he would say “Your wealth is in your children, not in material possessions”. After the death of the first girl, he told me he wouldn’t have known what to do with a daughter anyway but he had proved himself a man by being able to produce one…..
I always seemed to be ill while I was pregnant, I was always thoroughly tired and exhausted. My doctor never found anything wrong but every time I went to hospital they took a blood count and pumped iron into me and instructed me to continue this when I left. I suffered agonies with cramp at night, which the doctor didn’t diagnose, he kept saying the baby must be lying on a nerve. [!] It was not until I heard a broadcast on cramp by the radio doctor, that I suspected the true cause and when I mentioned this to my doctor, he agreed that it was caused by a vitamin deficiency and he eventually prescribed Ossivite [Calcium Carbonate and Vitamin D3].
During these years I nearly drove myself mad trying to work out a solution. I could not leave him with the children. I had nowhere to go and I was unable to go out to work. [because of the children]. I could get no help from anyone and there was only one way out. I threatened him with this time and time again as I could foresee no future at all for the children. He simply treated me as a troublesome child or with derision. The fact that I might be serious was beyond his comprehension. A wife’s purpose was merely to provide her husband with his children and nothing more.
He once told me that he had chosen me to be the mother of his children because I was more intelligent than any woman he had ever known.
One evening in 1956 we went to the Seven Club. We had called in several pubs on the way. We never go out to one place, whenever he takes me out we always go on a pub crawl. He was so disgustingly drunk this night, I just left him and started to walk home. As I got to the corner of Buckhurst Road, a taxi drew up, he was in it, he opened the door and said “do you want a lift”. I ignored him and he carried on. I didn’t know what to do. I had wanted to get home before he did so that I could lock the doors, now I could not do that. I was terrified of going home, at the same time the children were alone with him and I was frightened of what he might do to them, he gets visions and is violent when he’s very drunk. I walked back to the sea front and sat in a shelter on the colonnade wondering what to do. Eventually a policeman, who had passed me twice, came to speak, he wanted to know what I was doing there, I have no idea what the time was. I did not tell him anything and I think I aroused his suspicions.
Eventually I decided to go to the police station and asked if someone could accompany me home and told them the reason. A policeman took me home, he did not come in but waited on the doorstep while I checked everything. Bill was asleep so I told the policeman it would be alright, so he left.
On Sunday Oct 28th he came in to dinner about 2:45 or 3pm. This time I had not waited for him [every Sunday we would be left sitting at the dinner table waiting for Dad to come home, late and drunk] but he was drunk and picked up the carving knife and held it over me ready to strike. I didn’t know what to do so I remained as calm as I could and got ready to try to grab his wrist if he attempted to strike me with it. After a few minutes, he put it down.
I was trembling and couldn’t speak. Mother just sat there and watched, saying nothing, the children did not say anything either. I never knew what they thought, Nigel’s face had gone white.
I realised now there was only one solution, I could not possibly leave the children in his hands and there was no time to get a court order against him, in any case knowing the way he can talk I had no doubt he would be able to get it rescinded.
There was only one hope and that would mean very drastic action, I had to give him a very severe shock, if that were possible, it seemed nothing could touch him. He just didn’t believe anything I said. The next four days I spent trying to figure out the best way to sort things out. I thought of asking Mr Kimber [family solicitor] to speak to him but decided things had gone too far for that. In any case, he would probably take the same attitude as Ben [Dr Sutherland].
There was only one thing to do. Before actually murdering the children and committing suicide I would see if I could shock him into some sense of responsibility by threatening it in earnest. I had to be very careful to make it appear really authentic or I would just be back where I started.
In the meantime since Sunday’s episode I had been sleeping in the nursery with the boys and moving a very heavy oak bed in front of the door so that he could not get in the room. I was frightened of him trying to do something while we were asleep. In moving this bed, I must have torn something in the abdomen, the pain got progressively worse.
If any further impetus was needed this was it. I did not know what I had done nor how serious. I had to make the final attempt to finish things completely. I decided to give him a last chance.
On the Thursday afternoon before meeting the children I wrote 3 letters, one to Bill, one to Mother and a third in the form of a will. At this time I had a part-time job driving an old lady occasionally and her car was garaged next door ro me. I filled the car with pillows and rugs, put the hose pipe in the back and took some Pethidine tablets with me, also some comics and sweets for the children. I arranged things so that I would be leaving the house at 5:35 just as Mother was coming in, I knew she would stop me going and I anticipated that Bill would arrive while we were arguing but unfortunately she was late on this evening. I waited until 5:45 and knew that Bill would be coming and if I waited any longer he would know that I had waited on purpose and the whole effort would fall to pieces.
I had to go and rely on him calling the police to find me. I had intended going down Pebsham Lane to the footbridge and waiting there. I told the children I was taking them to see the aeroplanes lit up but when I got to Pebsham Lane, I found the road under repair and impassable. I drove around a long time and eventually got on to the Pevensey Marshes. I had no idea where I was and just stayed there, it seemed hours. I was beginning to think that I had no choice but to carry out that threat, I could not possibly just go back as I would have achieved nothing except to confirm Bill’s belief that I did not mean what I said. I was just considering going somewhere else less open and going through with it when a car came along the road behind me. I moved forward for him to pass me because the road was too narrow and then turned a corner and stopped to allow this other car room. He pulled up in front of me and I saw it was a police car.
I had given them up by this time and I was extremely relieved to see them. I did not know what I was in for. I was not aware I had committed a legal offence, I had not attempted anything. I had only threatened and the letters were addressed to members of my own family. I did not know they could charge me with this. I feel sure even now that they could have preferred no charge without my husband’s instructions to do so. Anything I did was completely within my own family circle and affected no other members of society. [Mum was actually charged with Attempted Murder of my elder brother, Nigel. A “sample charge” as it’s known]
I was taken to the Inspector who had been called out. He asked me if I wished to make a statement. I said I would only make a statement to my solicitor and would he contact him. He asked me if I was willing to go into Hellingly, I said “for what purpose”, he did not answer me. He asked if I wanted to see my husband, I said “yes, he’ll get Mr Kimber for me”.
They took me to the cells, later Bill came in and I asked him to phone Kimber. He said he couldn’t at that time of night but would see him first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, Ben was there and would see me. Ben examined me, I told him about the torn muscle, I was bent almost double with the pain from it. I did not have an opportunity of speaking with him privately. I was extremely embarrassed and ashamed of the clothes I was wearing, a thin cotton vest and pants, a thin cotton frock and my old spring maternity coat. I had nothing else to wear. I was frozen, I was shivering all over. This was November 2nd.
He gave me a sleeping pill but I did not sleep. Mrs Russell [family friend] sat in the cell all night with me. In the morning they brought me something to eat but I couldn’t face it. Then Bill came in and said Kimber would be coming later.
Kimber came rushing in and said “What’s all this about?” We were not alone so I started to tell him what I had done. I told him I had taken the hose and Pethidine tablets and the children in the car, that was as far as I got. He said “Well, I have to be in court in two minutes, I have to go now” and rushed out. I never saw him again to speak to until I came out of Hellingly.
I was taken into court and Kimber and Ben tried to get me sent to Hellingly on remand, it had all been arranged with Dr. Rice and I would be well guarded but the police objected, saying they were considering the safety of the children and the magistrate ordered me to be sent to Holloway. I nearly collapsed when I heard this. I was so stunned, I couldn’t even speak, I just hobbled out of the box on the arm of the policewoman, I could not stand up for the pain.
I was taken to Holloway and left in a cubicle alone for a long time then I was taken to an office where all my clothes were taken from me and replaced with a dressing gown that would not go around me. I was told to have a bath. I had the bath and was then put through several revolting medical examinations, still with no clothes except the inadequate dressing gown and there were dozens of other prisoners wandering about the hall. When the doctor saw me she said “Oh I see you’re pregnant, is it your husband’s child?”
I was given some prison clothes which would not fit and taken to the ward in the hospital. The warder who took me kept telling me to hurry and stand up straight. It was a terribly long way, up and down huge flights of iron stairways.
Before I left Bexhill I had asked Ben for a supply of Ossivite tablets, I could not go without them but he said they would give them to me when I got there. Mother bought me some new clothes and sent them in for me, the governor gave me permission to wear them. The governor and the Matron were very nice but had to be careful not to show any preference.
I was on a ward with ten other women, including the woman who murdered her twins by stamping on their faces in high-heeled shoes and setting fire to the houseboat, an abortionist who murdered her daughter and another woman who was sentenced to death, I cannot remember who she was.
In the cells were the woman who murdered her children with Chloral tablets and a girl who stabbed her adoptive mother with a breadknife. Some of them never disclosed why they were there, I never mentioned my case.
I was forced to go out on exercise twice a day in the snow and frost. The pain seemed to be getting worse and spreading over a larger area. I could not get my Ossivite tablets, the doctor there had never heard of them.
I was told to attend a medical parade for VD infection, some of the women told me this was a revolting examination and I refused to go. On the Thursday before I was due to leave I had to see the psychiatrist and she asked me why I had refused the examination. I told her that in my case she ought to realised it was unnecessary but she advised me to go as they could keep me there if I did not have it, so I stupidly went. She really put me through the mill. It was not for two weeks afterward that I realised what she must have done.
My womb will never stay in the correct position, it twists back to front and I think this was the trouble at the time and she put it right. The baby’s position was higher and more comfortable after she had finished with me. I went straight back to the ward and lay on my bed.
This time the warders and nurses didn’t say anything to me, I think they must have been warned. I kept getting contractions and was terrified the baby would arrive before I could get out of there. I got through the night without mishap and got up in the morning very carefully, the pains were quite bad and I thought “if only I can get out of here I may be able to get to a hospital in time”, I went downstairs and I was told to wait. I sat on a form and waited some time still in pain and I had a contraction again, stronger than the others and I was terribly worried in case I didn’t get out.
I was then told I would have to go to reception to collect my belongings. It was about a mile away up and down steep flights of iron stairs. I knew I would never make it and said that I did not want my things, I would go without them but they would not let me. I said I did not feel well enough to walk that far. It made no difference, I was ordered to go. I knew I would be lucky if I got half way there, let alone back again. I just had to tell them I was in pain. They put me to bed in a cell close by and sent for the doctor.
I was frantic, I couldn’t get out, I could not communicate with anyone and I knew if they left me there till the last minute and I had a hemorrhage it would be too late. They kept me in bed for a couple of days and one of the nurses told me she didn’t believe I had any pain at all. She told me I had been lying. When my brother came to see me at the weekend he told me they had postponed the case for three weeks.”
Not surprisingly, mum miscarried this third in utero sister of mine.
When she finally got to court, she was sent to the mental institution, ‘the loony bin’, at Hellingly. My two brothers had been sent to live with my uncle and aunt. I was placed in a childrens’ home in, ironically, Sutherland Avenue. I have absolutely no recollection of the place, aside from one visual snapshot of the exterior on arriving there. I can picture it now.
I honestly have no idea whether Mum intended to murder us all and commit suicide but I am tempted to believe her more convincing claim that she was just screaming for attention, to be taken seriously. I have the vaguest of memories of driving around for hours with the promise that we were to go and watch the aeroplanes at Lydd Airport. I don’t know what year this was, I think I was four or five. I have one other snapshot memory, slightly more detailed, of being in a nice warm police station, in the mess room. My older brothers were playing snooker on the huge table that I couldn’t quite see over, so I just rolled balls onto the table. I remember huge, friendly policemen bringing me slices of rich fruit slab cake cut from the largest cake I had ever seen.
I don’t feel like a victim, I don’t seek sympathy, nor do I feel any need to blame anyone nor to seek therapeutic help but I am well aware that I didn’t escape the effects that will have deeply impacted my character. I didn’t treat my mother well, as a child. I was almost certainly influenced by love for my mostly absent and permanently drunk father, the permanent feeling of living in a battle zone, the actions and reactions of my two older brothers. Not what you’d call a happy childhood, that’s for sure. If anything it helped make me who I am today, for better or worse. I vowed never to have any children of my own as I knew, only too well, that I was poorly equipped as a father. My first wife had other ideas and ‘forgot’ her contraception on a couple of occasions, enough to bless me with two boys who I love to bits. I did my utmost to ensure they never suffered everything like that I had. I think it worked, in the main. I am aware that I have traits in common with each of my parents, some great, some not so good. I work against those as far as possible but I’m not ashamed of my genes. I am proud of both my parents, for very different reasons. We are all a mix of good and less good qualities. My father was fighting his own demons, his poor childhood, his horrific wartime experiences and a Victorian culture of marriage. Until his drinking started to affect his work, he was admired as an eminent accountant, particularly by his clients who greatly admired his work. He was awarded the Victor Ludorum three years running at the same Grammar School that we three boys attended, as was pointed out to me by the masters on frequent occasions, in an effort to shame/motivate me. He never imparted those sporting genes to me, I have zero interest in any form of sport, to this day – aside from motor racing. After my father eventually left home, I saw him just once, in Hastings on a weekend visit from my Approved School which, it turned out, was largely a way of him extracting some more largess from the Chartered Accountant’s Benevolent Association and the DHSS. He had given up work as he was incapable of employment. Unfortunately, that was also the day I succumbed to Hepatitis and had to return early whereupon I was put into an isolation ward in an Essex hospital for the next six weeks. One morning, many months later, I was coming downstairs and paused at the top, seeing my mother at the foot of the stairs. She called up to me in a completely flat tone, “Your father’s dead”. That was it, that was her genteel way of breaking bad news to a 15 year old.
My mother had a similarly terrible childhood and a Victorian attitude but she imbued in me a sense of determination, of never giving up even when I was utterly exhausted by the challenges, of always finding a solution to every problem because there has to be one, of standing up to bullies of all kinds, the knowledge that whatever I wanted, I could achieve, if I would only try. As she would frequently admonish us, “There’s no such word as can’t”. My mother never did divorce my father, she settled for a legal separation agreement wherein he was ordered to pay her 2/= per year, not that he kept that up, even. Years later, in her eighties, I was intrigued to note that she had added a couple of framed pictures to her wall. One was my father’s Chartered Accountant’s Fellowship Certificate, the other was a picture of him performing the Mikado in an Amateur Dramatic society play. Nostalgia? Regret? Who knows. She must have loved him, in one way or another, despite everything.
That was our family story. Of course, there is much more to it. Of course, many have a much worse tale to tell. I don’t think one can measure and compare very easily. To a young child, pain and loss is pain and loss. It’s all-embracing, overpowering but it’s also for some of us, an education, a foundation for one’s character and determination. I’ve met many people with similarly horrible tales to tell and, for the most part, they are adults whom I admire greatly and contribute much to society. It’s not that I advocate hardship in childhood, you understand but nor do I shy away from it’s existence, it’s effects and its place in the panoply of human experience. To call for its eradication is like trying to control the weather. What is possible and what we should all be focussed on, is drastically improving the social fabric that is there to support and assist people in such situations. Those State Institutions, those neighbours, those friends and professionals in the law, medicine and everywhere appear to my eye to have not progressed one jot in the intervening sixty years, aside from the words. Words are cheap, action is what’s needed. x