Thursday, December 28, 2017

O Reader's Essay: MOM


     In Britain she would be Mum, in much of America, Mom, and in Wales, Mam.
     I come from the UK, so Mum was the standard. She passed away several months ago aged 98, and those in the know made a few nice comments on this blog and back-channel.
     So this is a brief review of her life.
     She was born in 1919 to older parents. Her father was in his 40s, having risen to company secretary in a very large textile company in Bradford. Her mother had nursed a sweetheart for ten years before he died of MS and was well into her 30s. They met during the First World War at a Gilbert and Sullivan choir practice in London, when he was down south on business and where she came from. He’d put on shows at the Bradford Alhambra Theater, and my grandmother came from a theatrical background and was a singer, accustomed to doing most of the (cruel) older women parts in G and S. They clicked, they married, and along came a single daughter who was doted on.
     Her world came crashing down when her father died suddenly when she was 13. Her mother got away from Bradford as soon as she could having never been truly accepted as a southerner, and finally settled back in London.  My mother grew up but then went back to the Bradford area by accident when training as a nurse during the Second World War. (Nearly seventy years later we took her back again and met school friends she hadn’t seen since a child.)
     My grandmother, when not singing became manageress of a large holiday hotel that put on concerts for residents. On a war time family visit to join her, my mother met the master of ceremonies and official comedian who was there for a resident two week stint. He was a widower, in real life a company secretary like her father, also an entertainer like her father, and more than old enough to actually be her father. It ticked the boxes. On his side he wanted to join a family he really clicked with and the easiest way was to marry the one unattached female in the party. Remnants of that family still remember him with great affection, which is more than my mother did.
     Hence my parents got married, both with totally unrealistic expectations.
     As a child I regularly saw my father on the stage – “That’s my Dad” “Shuuush” – and also both parents performing. They did a routine impersonating two well-known singers in the UK, Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth. They would announce that Ann and Webster had been booked, but weren’t able to come – so instead… My father would be in drag as Ann Zeigler and my mother would do a Vesta Tilley routine as Webster Booth. There was an old vaudeville act in the UK for about 50 years called Wilson, Keppel and Betty who did an Egyptian sand dance, and who kept going so long they used to change the girl playing “Betty” about every seven years. My parents did a pared-down version of their act with just the two of them – I remember that too. I used to think my father’s act was wonderful (and my mother’s contribution not bad) – only later in time did I discover where he stole all his material from. (Towards the end I did some writing for him, which was probably even worse, but that’s another story).
     Not that long after they married my mother embraced a religion that dealt in certainties. She still supported her husband in shows and an annual pantomime at a huge American air base near us, but now drew the line at supporting him in ladies’ night at the Masonic Temple, where he was Grand Master. Keeping up appearances and getting on in business were almost paranoid obsessions of his, and eventually he did a runner.
     He used to say his first wife led him a dog’s life – he was a little more careful about what he said about my mother to me – but his subsequent third marriage was equally dismal for him. My mother summed him up as very funny on stage but a real misery off it. I suspect she had a certain prejudice by that time, but there was probably a kernel of truth in it.
     Anyhow, this is about my mother. She worked full time for the religion she had adopted for several years and then as the sole breadwinner went back to nursing. She kept on nursing all her working life, ending up working in a nursing home where she was older than most of the residents. She loved her work and was nothing if not determined.
     We moved from the suburbs back into London to care for my grandmother when she grew old, and there my mother met her second husband, E. I left home to do voluntary work as soon as I could in my late teens and I think that was an arrangement that suited all of us.
     My abiding memory of my mother over the years was the performing. The meetings she attended gave a certain limited scope for theatricals, which she embraced with a gusto that meant you never knew what you were going to get. Quite often it wasn’t even what she’d planned – she had the let’s-drop-the-props-and-bump-into-the-scenery quality about her – but could improvise. When it was her turn on the platform we would settle down and wait for it.
     There’s an anecdote I’ve told before on this blog, but it sort of fits here again. One of the religious meetings I attended with her was called a school. People rehearsed before an audience how they might approach different sorts of people with their message in such a way that they might get a hearing ear.
     My mother was never contents with just doing it straight. She would dress up for the part. As a little lad I remember she had one special friend who we shall call Eve. They were often put on together. The audience loved it. You never knew what you were going to get. The intent may have been serious, but the results were often Laurel and Hardy.
     We had a meeting room on the outskirts of London that had formerly been a welfare institute for Railway workers. Using what was already at hand, it had quite a high raised platform at one end, and the backdrop was three large panels. The middle one was brought forward about three feet. It meant that you could enter from the rear, either stage left or stage right, walking around the middle panel.
     So picture the scene. My mother appears from rear stage left and sits at a table with her props. She is shelling peas or something similar from that era, wearing an apron and humming a nameless ditty. Everything is lined up for the Oscars. Move over Marlon Brando, this is method acting for all it’s worth.
     Eve is supposed to mime knocking on a door so that my mother can rise and greet her, invite her inside to then be disarmed by Eve’s presentation. Perhaps they had some illustration lined up that would fit the scene. Who knows?
     So my mother sits there, humming away while fiddling with the vegetables, but starts looking less than pleased as long seconds go by. There are appreciative titters from the audience. They’ve no idea what this is about, but it looks like it will be a lot more interesting than the previous part of the program. My mother frowns, and in the loudest of stage whispers known to the hard of hearing mutters out of the side of her mouth - “Eve....Eve... Come on, come on...”
     Nothing happens. My mother scowls. Now she could stop a naughty boy in his tracks at a hundred paces with just a glance. Next, she gets up from her table and with a look like thunder goes to investigate rear stage left.
     The split second she disappears rear stage left, Eve bounds into sight from rear stage right, to be faced with a totally empty platform – no partner, and an audience now in hysterics. The look of first surprise and then panic that covered her face has stayed with me down through the years. The presentation never recovered.
     The years went by and she and her husband left London and came to live near us. From this era, her granddaughter has a memory of being teamed with her – most unwillingly – in a sketch where an older person helps a young person to reason on certain matters. My mother made a big production of presenting my daughter with a notebook and pen, instructing her to write down the litany then presented. My daughter was of an age where she pretended to write and allowed her mind to wander elsewhere, only to be brought up horribly short by her grandmother demanding she read back what she had written… They used to time these playlets and ring a bell when your time was up. If ever “saved by the bell” was apt, this was it.
     The group regularly put on large social gatherings where different ones did their party pieces. (Some would be dire, some would be quite good, and as I became older and respectable I generally escaped by being behind a camera.) Well into her mid-80s, now widowed, my mother would recite Stanley Holloway and Moore Marriot monologues that Brits of a certain age would remember. I would be out there in worry-mode, mouthing the lines along with her in case it all went pear-shaped, but she remained word perfect and had the Yorkshire accent nailed.
     Her last years were sad. She lost her mobility, then her sight, then her hearing to a large degree. We fought and won battles with officials who can only “follow procedures” and watch their own backs to keep her in her own home as she wished as she went from using a motorized wheelchair in supermarkets (running down other shoppers) to a wheelchair we propelled, to permanent bed and carers around the clock.
     Everyone in the area knew her. Her very direct old-school proselytizing was well known, and even though neighbours didn’t share her views they would never turn her away and had a huge affection for her, attending her memorial service along with the carers.
     For me, a history and a lot of memories.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Lost in Paradise or the Further Adventures of O. Reader


     Well, the Occasionals have been away on vacation again. For the last ten years we’ve only been able to go away by arrangement, organising care for my mother while absent. Since she passed away in October, we took off this month for a whole two weeks to North Wales.

     Most of our first week was spent at a caravan site called Sea Breezes. I should have taken warning from that. The wind raged across the site, barely protected by an ugly sea wall. Fifteen years ago the area had its own version of the New Orleans disaster, when the existing sea walls were breached and the whole area went underwater. Of course we only found this out when we arrived. Still it was nice to crash out in a caravan – even if buffeted by the wind – and not be on the end of a telephone.

     Our second week was a lot better with a flat in the center of Chester.                                   

     We’d passed through Chester on vacation a year or two back and wanted to return. It’s a very attractive city with a speciality of old shops on two levels in the main streets, all dating from the Victorian era or earlier. The place goes back to Roman times and the museum has a fine collection of engraved Roman gravestones, which each tell a personal history. Apparently as the city walls fell into disrepair the locals used to steal these stones from the abandoned Roman cemeteries. Then in the 19th century when the walls were properly restored, many of these stones from the past were retrieved, cleaned up, put on show and told their stories.

     The city is very close to the Welsh border and Welsh could be heard in the streets on occasion. Apparently the bad feeling between the Welsh and English meant that several clock towers in Chester have clocks on three faces but the side facing Wales is blank. To coin a phrase, they weren’t going to give them the time of day.

     The first thing we did was to behave like the total tourists we were, and took the tour bus. It was actually a much restored London bus from the time of the first World War – open topped and taller than modern vehicles meaning you had to duck to avoid being decapitated under modern Chester Bridges.

     The commentary was slick and professional with well-rehearsed jokes and we learned a bit about Roman Chester and its subsequent history. However, there was a lesson for modern writers and commentators. Trundling past an ancient cemetery we were told that here was the grave of the writer of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. That’s Thomas Hughes, and no he wasn’t – he was buried in Brighton. And also the father of postage stamps, Roland Hill, and no, he wasn’t buried there either but in Westminster Abbey.  Also in the same cemetery was supposed to be someone who, with multiple births, gave birth to 33 children. Ouch. I didn’t get a name so didn’t check that one out. But once you find a glaring error of fact in an account, it calls into question everything else you’re told. As someone who writes on history, where the line between facts and opinions is easily blurred, there’s a lesson there.

     Twice during our stay we travelled to a Welsh language religious meeting. Originally we planned to go to one in Bangor but that one is always filmed and shared on the internet. The thought of my strangulated Welsh being watched by mystified people in Patagonia did not appeal, so we went to a nearer location. While waiting for their own Hall this group hires a room in a Welsh castle.

      It was actually a place Mrs O and I visited more than 20 years ago. I used to organise podiatry seminars and our committee suddenly found we had too much money. We had to spend some before the end of the year, so arranged a weekend committee meeting at this castle, and had a medieval banquet thrown in. That was an experience. We were all given huge bibs to protect our clothes and then set to work with fingers on medieval food using medieval wet-wipes. We were served copious quantities of mead by buxom wenches, and then a Welsh choir came and sang at us. The visit wasn’t QUITE as exciting this time.

     We walked around Chester on top of the city walls, which is a two mile circuit and generally quite high. And we went to Chester Zoo.  As Tom Paxton sang: “We’re going to the zoo zoo zoo, how about you you you, you can come too too too” etc.  My daughter was a little girl the last time we visited a conventional zoo. I think we once did a safari park in the interim, where you drive through enclosures and small monkeys leap on your car and scream obscenities, while trying to wrench off your windscreen wipers; but we have been zoo-less for many years.

     I have to say it was very impressive, with a huge fanfare given to its programs to breed endangered species. We saw all the usual animals you would expect to see. But there was a lot of walking. And I surprised myself, I got tired. VERY TIRED. As soon as we got back to base we cracked another bottle of Cava and then I was done for. Flat out on the bed, Law and Order on the TV - out like a light… But I don’t remember feeling so tired since the day A LONG TIME AGO when I was single and pedal cycled from Cardiff to Manchester for a special meeting with a typewriter tied to the back of my bike (don’t ask) and then from Manchester to London, 180 miles with a headwind. The latter stage took 18 hours and I collapsed into a hot bath at the end. It was half an hour of sheer bliss. And then I found I was totally seized up and unable to get out… (Compartmented into my personal collection of one hundred worst moments of my life…)

     I did a bit of writing and a bit of reading. I was supposed to be preparing some lessons for a seminar I’m helping to take when I get home, but that sort of fell by the wayside. I will just have to be busy with that next week. My main non-fiction reading was a recent biography of Josephine Tey. I did write a number of critical paragraphs on this, but Tey really could do with an essay on her own. But then, since American readers have probably never heard of her, I junked most of it.

     To-morrow we leave and I am left with the usual feeling.

     I think I need a vacation.

     To get over this one.