You were such an odd child”
In my mid-40s, I talked to my mum about a memory I had from when I was very small. It was sitting on the edge of my parents bed with her, mum holding me close and singing to me. In my memories, she often sang to me ,and the song I remembered most was “Nature Boy”, a Nat King Cole record which talked about “a very strange enchanted boy”. I had never realised that my mum was singing to me as that strange boy, but I always knew that that was what I was.
I never really even felt like a boy. To a degree, I don't think I have ever known how that is supposed to feel. It's not like anyone ever sits you down and gives you a manual, telling you “these are boys feelings”. All you ever know is behaviour, and I think I understood very early that how you behaved was not necessarily how you felt.
My early life is fragments of memories. Being sat on my mother's lap while a photographer took a picture of us together, and me separately while holding my favourite toy tractor. The memory fixed because of the number of times that I relived it later, looking at that photograph. I think I was about four years old at the time.
In this part of my life, my dad looms large in places, small in others. Dad understood young children well, and had their sense of playfulness and humour. When I became a rebellious teenager, he stopped knowing what to do with me and retreated into a cloud of Woodbine smoke emerging from behind his newspaper. Our interactions then involved politics – he was anti-immigration, like most working class men of his age, background and era, and I remember snarling at him and accusing him of being a fascist.
We re-bonded over a dog, going on walks together and finding that we loved each other's company. And our relationship remained like that until he died: gentle, humorous, rooted. I loved – and love – him very much. Dad was also not an adventurous person by nature.
Born in Derby to a family that had been in Derby for hundreds of years, travel for him was limited to British holidays and places you could get to using train or car for most of his life. He discovered his sense of adventure only when life forced his hand, when my brother moved to Australia and Dad's choice was travel or never see him again. Even then, the first time the opportunity arose, it was my mother who took that trip alone. Dad found his wings later on, and once found, used them to travel far and wide.
Mum, on the other hand, was born into a family where travel was a core part of their lives. Patricia Porter was born in Multan in what's now part of Pakistan, but in 1931 was still part of the British Raj. Her family was anglo-Indian, that distinct ethnic group which mixed Indian heritage with often hyper-British sentiment and behaviour. Her father was an English soldier, born in Nottingham, and when he abandoned the family to go back to England not long after she was born, my grandmother decided she wasn't having it and followed him. Whether he liked it or not, he was going to pay for my Mother's life.
Gran, as she was always known, was a tough minded woman and she had the advantage of already having family in Britain. Like many anglo-Indian families, there had always been a steady diaspora spreading around the world. Initially, she stayed with relatives in Bristol, but within months she was in the midlands and taking my grandfather through the courts to get maintenance. He protested he would take her back. She was clear she wasn't prepared to take him back.
Travelling from Pakistan to Britain with a small child in tow is easier now, but then it meant weeks on a boat, all the while sure in the knowledge that you would never see your parents or family at home again, and that the only communication with them would be the odd letter. What drove her? I never spoke to her about it, but from my experiences of gran I suspect it was largely her determination that my grandfather shouldn't get away with it. That she wasn't going to let him run away from his responsibilities towards my mother.
These, at least, are the family myths: my gran, resolute in never taking him back. Him, a useless parent who ran back to his regiment at the first opportunity. But there is a deeper story here too. When looking through census records, I found that in 1939 my gran and mother were living with him, in Nottingham. How did that happen? And importantly, why was it never talked about? We will never know. Perhaps this was simply convenience; perhaps their relationship was rekindled, only to break again.
Either way, mum always claimed that she never really knew or lived with her father, so the final breakdown was severe enough to make her want to forget him. By 1966, mum couldn't even be bothered to tell him that I had been born, despite him still living just a few miles away in Nottingham. She always told me that he didn’t even know I existed. Was that true, or was it a way of making it less likely I would go and look for him?
Dad's family was large: his mum, my other gran who died before I was born, had ten children and, like Gran, mostly raised them herself after my paternal grandfather John died a young death. Grandma Betteridge, it was always said, scrubbed floors to keep them in shoes, and dad left school at 14 to go straight into work to help support the family. This was how working class families survived, not by the largesse of parents or the state, but by all the children working as soon as they were physically able to.
And dad worked in the same job, coach painter for the LMS railway, then British Rail, then BREL, for his whole life. He never even got on to the next rung of the ladder as foreman, and in truth I don't think he ever wanted to. He loved the camaraderie of work, but he kept his work mates away from his family. In all the time I knew him I only remember one work mate visiting, and that was a young apprentice who he had befriended and who was a long way from home.
Perhaps that is because he was a different person at work. While my mum always claimed that he never swore — and the worst I remember coming from him lips was a slightly-uncomfortable “crappy” — at work he was an industrial in his language and manners as everyone else. His work was a place of men, with all that entailed at the time.
Growing up, both my parents always worked, which was a relatively rare thing then. Mum, as a qualified psychiatric nurse, actually earned more than dad did. That meant a bigger role in my life for my Gran, who would look after me when both parents were working. Gran was like a third parent, and I loved her just as much as I loved mum and dad.