Book excerpt

Untold Stories

Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

  Untold StoriesThere is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.‘No,’ I say confidently, and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district, and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’‘No,’ I say, and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one in the family. I’ve been to Oxford. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it. ‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as for Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’The ‘this’ that it wasn’t like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with startling suddenness. Over a matter of weeks she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the days passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion; the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel, and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown, and Dad found her wandering in the street, whence she could only be fetched back into the house after some resistance.Occurring in Leeds, where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed it was partly the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to (‘I’m the centrepiece here’) that might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad looked back on the childhood holidays he had spent on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folk visiting.’The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back, and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. This was in 1966. A few years later I wrote a television play, Sunset Across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62, bearing them away to a new life, the wife calls out, ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ And so it had seemed. Now Dad was being told that it was this longed-for escape that had brought down this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly he would not believe it.In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending upheaval. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms, still with all the decorating to be done.‘Your Mam’ll be better when we’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of her list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that stair-carpet was only the beginning of it, and indeed when my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days Mam seemed scarcely to notice, the clouds did not lift, and in due course my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while, but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired — he had all the time in the world to care.

‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs — the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage, dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living room because there was someone there.‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.‘Tell anybody what?’‘Tell them what I’ve done.’‘You haven’t done anything.’‘But you won’t tell them?’‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door and then wrote TALKING in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out, with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’‘They can see you.’‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say, ‘be quiet.’A play could begin like this, I used to think — with a man on stage, sporadically angry with a woman off stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the off-stage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.Or set in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on stage? Violence, probably.It was all so banal. Missionary for her sunless world, my mother was concerned to convince us in the face of all vehement denial that sooner or later she would be taken away. And of course she was right.Her other fears … of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected … were ordinary stuff too. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her fears not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors; Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance, it was hard not to think these delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naive of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together was not normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her behaviour hardest to bear.‘I wouldn’t care,’ Dad said, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’ Not perceiving her irrationalities as symptoms, my father had no other remedy than common sense.‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he would say, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.But few nights passed uninterrupted, and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the car park that she said was watching the house.How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always this missionary side to her depression, the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that his shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of … what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her, but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how insane the world had become.‘We used to be such pals,’ she’d say to me, shaking her head and refusing to say more because the radio was listening, instead creeping upstairs to the cold bedroom to perch on one of the flimsy bedroom chairs, beckoning me to stay silent and do the same as if this were a satisfactory way to spend the morning.And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depression was not madness. It would lift. Light would return. But when? The young, sympathetic doctor from the local practise could not say. The senior partner whom we had at first consulted was a distinguished-looking figure, silver-haired, loud-talking, a Rotarian and pillar of the community. Unsurprisingly he was also a pull your socks up merchant and did not hold with depression. At his happiest going down potholes to assist stricken cavers, he was less adept at getting patients out of their more inaccessible holes.How long such depressions lasted no doctor was prepared to say, nor anyone else that I talked to. There seemed to be no timetable, this want of a timetable almost a definition of the disease. It might be months (the optimistic view), but one of the books I looked into talked about years, though what all the authorities did seem agreed on was that, treated or not, depression cleared up in time. One school of thought held that time was of the essence, and that the depression should be allowed to run its course unalleviated and unaccelerated by drugs. But on my mother drugs seemed to have no effect anyway, and if the depression were to run its course and it did take years, many months even, what would happen to my father?Alone in the house, knowing no one in the village well enough to call on them for help, he was both nurse and gaoler. Coaxing his weeping parody of a wife to eat, with every mouthful a struggle, then smuggling himself out of the house to do some hasty shopping, hoping that she would not come running down the street after him, he spent every day and every fitful night besieged by Mam’s persistent assaults on reality, foiling her attempts to switch off the television, turn off the lights or pull the curtains against her imaginary enemies, knowing that if he once let her out of his sight she would be scrabbling at the lock of the front door trying to flee this house which was both her prison and her refuge.

Thus it was that after six weeks of what Dad called ‘this flaming carry-on’ it was as much for his sake as for hers that the doctor arranged that she should be voluntarily admitted to the mental hospital in Lancaster.Lancaster Moor Hospital is not a welcoming institution. It was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century as the County Asylum and Workhouse, and seen from the M6 it has always looked to me like a gaunt grey penitentiary. Like Dickens’s Coketown, the gaol might have been the infirmary and the infirmary the gaol. It was a relief, therefore, to find the psychiatric wing where Mam was to be admitted not part of the main complex but a villa, Ridge Lee, set in its own grounds, and as we left Mam with a nurse in the entrance hall that September morning it seemed almost cheerful. Dad was not uncheerful too, relieved that now at any rate something was going to be done and that ‘she’s in professional hands’. Even Mam seemed resigned to it, and though she had never been in hospital in her life she let us kiss her goodbye and leave without protest.It was actually only to be goodbye for a few hours, as visiting times were from seven to eight and though it was a fifty mile round trip from home Dad was insistent that we would return that same evening, his conscientiousness in this first instance setting the pattern for the hundreds of hospital visits he was to make over the next eight years, with never a single one missed and agitated if he was likely to be even five minutes late.I had reached early middle age with next to no experience of mental illness. At Oxford there had been undergraduates who had had nervous breakdowns, though I never quite believed in them and had never visited the Warnford Hospital on the outskirts of the city where they were usually consigned. Later, teaching at Magdalen, I had had a pupil, an irritating, distracted boy who would arrive two hours late for tutorials or ignore them altogether, and when he did turn up with an essay it would be sixty or seventy pages long. When I complained about him in pretty unfeeling terms one of the Fellows took me on one side and explained kindly that he was ‘unbalanced’, something that had never occurred to me though it was hard to miss. Part of me probably still thought of neurosis as somehow ‘put on’, a way of making oneself interesting—the reason why when I was younger I thought of myself as slightly neurotic.When I was seventeen I had had a friend a few years older than me who, I realise when I look back, must have been schizophrenic. He had several times gone through the dreadful ordeal of insulin-induced comas that were the fashionable treatment then, but I never asked him about it, partly out of embarrassment but also because I was culpably incurious. Going into the army and then to university, I lost touch with him, and it was only in 1966, on the verge of leaving Leeds, that I learned that he had committed suicide.I went to the funeral at St Michael’s, Headingley, the church where in our teens we had both been enthusiastic worshippers. Every Friday night a group of us gathered in the chancel to say the office of Compline with, at the heart of it, Psalm 91: ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall beside thee,’ we sang, ‘and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee.’ Now it had, and as the remnants of our group stood awkwardly outside the church, I reflected that he was the first person of our generation to have died. Oddly it was my mother who was most upset, far more so than her acquaintance with him warranted, the fact that he had not died a natural death but had committed suicide seeming particularly to grieve her in a way I might have thought strange were not her own shadows by that time already beginning to gather.

Driving over the moors to the hospital that evening, I thought how precarious our previous well-being had been, how unwittingly blessed in our collective balance of mind, and how much I’d taken it for granted. I said so to Dad, who just stared out of the window saying nothing. Sanity and its vagaries were much discussed at this time, the fashionable theorists R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. Their ideas had never impinged on my father nor were they likely to; balance of mind was something you were entitled to take for granted so far as he was concerned, ‘Item no. I on the agenda, to get your Mam back to normal.’Except affliction was normal too, and this one seemingly more common than I’d thought. Arriving at the lighted villa in its own little park, we found we were far from alone, the car park full, the nurse busy at Reception, and hanging about the entrance hall, as in all institutions (hospitals, law courts, passport offices), characters who joked with the staff, were clued up on the routine and, whether visitors or patients, seemed utterly at home. It was one of these knowing individuals, a young man familiar rather than affable, who took us along to what the nurse said was Mam’s ward.He flung open the door on Bedlam, a scene of unimagined wretchedness. What hit you first was the noise. The hospitals I had been in previously were calm and unhurried; voices were hushed; sickness, during visiting hours at least, went hand in hand with decorum. Not here. Crammed with wild and distracted women, lying or lurching about in all the wanton disarray of a Hogarth print, it was a place of terrible tumult. Some of the grey-gowned wild-eyed creatures were weeping, others shouting, while one demented wretch shrieked at short and regular intervals like some tropical bird. Almost worse was a big dull-eyed woman who sat bolt upright on her bed, oblivious to the surrounding tumult, as silent and unmoving as a stone deity.Obviously, I thought, we have strayed into the wrong ward, much as Elizabeth Taylor did in the film of Suddenly Last Summer. Mam was not ill like this. She had nothing to do with the distracted creature who sat by the nearest bed, her gown hitched high above her knees, banging her spoon on a tray. But as I turned to go I saw that Dad was walking on down the ward.We had left Mam at the hospital that morning looking, even after weeks of illness, not much different from her usual self: weeping and distraught, it’s true, but still plump and pretty, clutching her everlasting handbag and still somehow managing to face the world. As I followed my father down the ward I wondered why we were bothering: there was no such person here.He stopped at the bed of a sad, shrunken woman with wild hair, who cringed back against the pillows.‘Here’s your Mam,’ he said.And of course it was only that, by one of the casual cruelties that routine inflicts, she had on admission been bathed, her hair washed and left uncombed and uncurled, so that now it stood out round her head in a mad halo, this straightaway drafting her into the ranks of the demented. Yet the change was so dramatic, the obliteration of her usual self so utter and complete, that to restore her even to an appearance of normality now seemed beyond hope. She was mad because she looked mad.Dad sat down by the bed and took her hand.‘What have you done to me, Walt?’ she said.‘Nay, Lil,’ he said, and kissed her hand. ‘Nay, love.’And in the kissing and the naming my parents were revealed stripped of all defence. Because they seldom kissed, and though they were the tenderest and most self-sufficient couple, I had never seen my father do anything so intimate as to kiss my mother’s hand and seldom since childhood heard them call each other by name. ‘Mam’ and ‘Dad’ was what my brother and I called them and what they called each other, their names kept for best. Or worst.They had been Lil and Walt in their courting days, living on opposite sides of Tong Road in the twenties. Marriage and children had changed them to Mam and Dad, and it took a catastrophe for them to christen themselves again. So when in 1946 he collapsed in the street and was taken to St James’s with a perforated ulcer, Dad became Walt once more. And when Mam was crying with pain having had all her teeth out, she was not Mam but Lil. And to him she was Lil now.There was only one chair by Mam’s bed and no room for another; besides, Mam was crying, and Dad too, so I walked round the ward. Though many of the patients were unvisited, their disturbance and distress unalleviated by company, other beds hosted families as stunned and bewildered as we were. They sat huddled round a stricken mother, or a weeping daughter, careful to avoid the eye of other visitors and with none of the convivialities and camaraderie a usual hospital visit engenders.Yet there were others who seemed entirely at ease in these surroundings, elderly sons of vacant mothers, jovial husbands of demented wives, and some whose faces were more coarse and void than those of whom they were visiting. They sat round the bed in bovine indifference, chatting across the demented creature in their midst, as if the lunacy of a loved one was no more than was to be expected.It was from this time I conceived a dislike of Lancaster I’ve never since lost. Having seen madness on that ward, I saw it echoed in face after face in the town. Though it’s a pleasant enough place I find the people there less amiable and appealing than elsewhere in Lancashire, with the possible exception of Liverpool. There’s an openness and generosity in Black-burn, Preston and Rochdale, maybe because these were virtues fostered in the mills; Lancaster, commercial, agricultural and (like Liverpool) once a port, seems sullen, tight-fisted and at night raw and violent.Sometime in the course of this terrible hour a neat middle-aged woman stopped at the foot of Mam’s bed.‘It’s Mary, love. I’m off now. They’ve just rung me a taxi.’ She turned to me. ‘Could you just go and see if it’s come?’I went out into the entrance hall, cheered that one of these desperate women could, by a stay even in such unpromising surroundings, be recovered for normality and turned back into a sane and sensible creature. There must after all be hope. But if there was hope there was certainly no taxi, so I went back to the ward. Mary had by now passed on, making her farewells at another bed. I went over to tell her the taxi hadn’t come only to find she was now telling her tale to an empty pillow.In her ensuing bouts of depression Mam was in three hospitals and in each one there was a Mary, a Goodbye Girl who hung about the door, often with her bag packed, accosting everyone who came in, claiming she was about to leave, with the taxi ordered.‘Are you my taxi?’ she would say to anyone who came near, though this persistent expectation of departure did not necessarily mean she was dissatisfied with her circumstances, and there are after all worse ways to live than in a constant readiness to depart. The irony was that it would only be when she stopped thinking that she was on the point of departing that she would be pronounced cured and allowed to do so.The next night I got into conversation with a pleasant young man who was sitting in the entrance hall and whom I took to be a student, possibly at Lancaster University. He was telling me in great detail about a forthcoming visit to Russia and I asked him how he was planning to go.‘By Ribble Motors. They run a coach service to Moscow starting every night from Morecambe Pier.’If these were lighter moments they hardly seemed so then. A nurse told us that this was the Admissions Ward where, until diagnosis could sort them out, the confused and the senile, the deranged and the merely depressed were lumped together for observation, the implication being that the next ward would be better. It could hardly be worse, and to leave Mam in such a situation a moment longer than we had to seemed unthinkable. I longed to bundle her up then and there and, as in some Dickensian deliverance, convey her far away from this yelling hell-hole to a place that was light and calm and clean.After two days’ obstruction by the ward sister we eventually managed to see the doctor in charge, who was kindly and understanding but as weary and defeated as someone out of Chekhov. He would be happy, he said, to have her transferred to another hospital if we could arrange it. I cannot think nowadays it would be so easy, and there would be the rigmarole of quotas to be considered and competing budgets, but in those days it just meant a visit to the Mental Health Welfare Officer, and it is this errand that has brought us straight from Lancaster to Settle this September night, to Mr Parr’s bleak office above the police station.‘Nearly done,’ says Mr Parr. ‘What did Mrs Bennett’s parents die of?’‘Her mother died of cancer,’ I say, ‘and her father had a heart attack.’ Dad shakes his head, meaning that these questions seem to him to have little to do with Mam’s current illness. At least that’s what I take him to mean and I reckon not to see, because while I tend to agree I don’t think now is the time to make an issue of it.As Mr Parr is noting this down Dad gently touches my knee. This is a man who never touches, seldom kisses, but Oxford-educated as I am and regularly to be seen on television I fail to appreciate the magnitude of the gesture, and blunder on.‘Well, perhaps not a heart attack,’ I say. ‘It may have been a coronary thrombosis. He dropped dead anyway’It was in 1925, in the kitchen at Gilpin Place, the spot pointed out: there by the dresser your Grandad died, plain in the sight of everybody. That they were not living at Gilpin Place at the time never, of course, occurred to me.The form completed, Mr Parr locks up his office, walks us back along the street to where we have parked the car; he promises to make the arrangements for Mam’s transfer the next day, and we say goodnight.‘Did those questions matter?’ asks Dad. ‘Would they affect the treatment? ’ I tell him that I don’t think so and that what Mr Parr was after, presumably, was whether there had been anything similar in the family before. I start the car. ‘Only it was your Grandad Peel. He didn’t have a heart attack. He killed himself.’I turn the engine off, sit there and digest this, Dad volunteering no more information. Eventually, though it doesn’t seem to me to affect Mam’s situation one way or another, I go and knock on Mr Parr’s door and explain that I’d just this minute found out that Mam’s father didn’t die of a heart attack; he had drowned himself in the canal.Mr Parr doesn’t think it’s relevant either, but standing on his doorstep as we drive away he may well be thinking that this is an odd family that censors its own history, and it’s that that’s relevant.


As we drove home Dad told me that as soon as the interview started he realised the true facts of Mam’s father’s death were likely to come out, and it was this that had made him want to put his hand on my knee, lest the suicide be a shock. It had been a shock, but the shocking thing was not the act itself so much as the way it had been concealed and misrepresented for more than forty years.Truth to tell I found the suicide intriguing too (and felt ashamed a little that I did so). Like a child who longs to be an orphan, or at least not the offspring of his humdrum parents, I was excited by this man who had drowned and had his drowning buried; it made my family more interesting. In 1966 I had just begun to write but had already given up on my own background because the material seemed so thin. This perked things up a bit.In fairness to myself I had never known my grandfather, nor understandably in the circumstances had he been much talked about. ‘He was a lovely feller’ was Mam’s description of him, her stock phrase for men she liked; his only son, her brother Clarence, was a ‘lovely feller’ too, killed at Ypres in 1917, and when his time came my father would also be a ‘lovely feller’. ‘Your Grandad Peel’, as he was known to distinguish him from ‘Your Grandad Bennett’, occurred in some of the family photographs I used to find in the dresser drawer at Grandma’s where I went rooting as a child. He was a stocky man with thick dark hair and a moustache, not fierce-looking as some of the men in old photographs were but with no clue as to what he was like. Mam had said he was keen on ‘nature study’ and knew about trees and flowers; he went on walks.The drowning, though, straightaway shed light on an incident early in her depression which at the time I’d thought almost a joke. Dad had gone out and Mam and I were alone in the house. Motioning me into the passage where we would not be overheard, she whispered that she had done something terrible. I was having none of it, but she got hold of my arm and pulled me up the stairs and pointed to the bathroom but would not go in. There were six inches of water in the bath.My mother’s family, the Peels, had once been well-to-do, owning mills in Halifax, and were descendants, so Mam’s sister Myra claimed, of Sir Robert Peel. The youngest of the three sisters, Aunty Myra was the keeper of the family flame, determined that if her present did not amount to much, a sales assistant in White’s Ladies’ Mantles Shop in Briggate, now living in a back-to-back in Wortley, then the past could be called in to compensate. When my brother was christened, Aunty Myra wanted him given Peel as a middle name, and there was a muttered row at the font when Dad, who thought one name sufficient and two pretentious, would have none of it. He didn’t have much time for the Sir Robert Peel business either, or with any attempt to put it on or talk posh, which Aunty Kathleen and Aunty Myra both went in for. But even my mother, who took his line, thought that the family had come down in the world, saying that there had been two branches of the Peels in Halifax, both with mills, and that at the time of the Boer War the run on cloth for uniforms had tempted their branch of the family, her grandfather possibly, to invest in new machinery. With the end of the war came a slump and with it bankruptcy, the other less enterprising branch of the family going on to further prosperity. Certainly every Christmas on the mantelpiece of the back-to-back in Gilpin Place there would be a grand card from some country Peels, whom I took to be the gentry they had become and we might have been. But it may all have been romance; in private life Beatrice Lillie was Lady Peel and my aunties even adduced her as a distant connection.The mill gone, my grandparents then bought a hardware shop in West Vale outside Halifax but that too went bankrupt, through sheer kindheartedness my mother said, and letting too much stuff out on credit. There is a picture of the shop in the sheaf of crumpled photographs and newspaper clippings that passes for our family album, the shop assistants lined up on the steps flanked by those Karnak columns of linoleum that enfiladed every hardware store even in my own childhood, and peeping through the door my mother’s blurred ten-year-old face.The shame of this second bankruptcy drove the family to Leeds, where they lived in Wortley, Grandad Peel now managing a gents’ outfitters in Wellington Road. The three sisters, Kathleen, Lilian and Lemira, and their elder brother Clarence all went to Green Lane School, its gaunt hulk one of the few buildings undemolished among the new houses dinky as houses in Monopoly that nowadays cover the slopes below Armley Gaol; the school, the gaol and St Bartholomew’s Church all that is left of a thriving neighbourhood, the pillars of a sometime community.All this I sort of knew in 1966 but without ever enquiring into the details, our family history a series of vivid scenes of uncertain chronology and mostly connected with Mam’s side of the family. There was Uncle Clarence’s death at Ypres and the telegraph boy riding his bike along Bruce Street in 1917, with women stood fearfully on their doorsteps to see which door he would knock at. There was Mam, working upstairs at Stylo Shoes in Briggate in 1926, watching mounted police charge the strikers. There was the outbreak of war, the actual declaration catching us on a tram going down to Vicar Lane bus station to get a bus to safety and Pateley Bridge; VE night outside Guildford Town Hall, sitting on my Uncle George’s shoulders, marvelling at floodlights, which I’d never seen before. And Grandma Peel sitting in her chair at Gilpin Place in 1949, beginning to bleed from the womb, and as Aunty Kathleen cleans her up joking grimly, ‘Nay, lass, I’m seventy-nine but I think I must be starting again.’Still, if I knew little of my mother’s family I knew even less about my father’s, not that there seemed much to know. My father was not a typical butcher — thin, anxious, dogged all his life by stomach ulcers and a temperament ill-suited to the job. The youngest of four brothers, he had lost his mother at the age of five, when his father, faced with bringing up four sons, had hurriedly remarried. This second wife was a narrow, vicious woman, a stepmother out of a fairy story; she was pious, chapel-going and a hypocrite who beat the youngest boys, Walter and George, and then told lies about them to her new husband so that when he came home from work he gave them the strap again. Whereas the elder boys were old enough to escape the house and too big to beat, Dad and his brother George (‘our butt’ as he always called him) bore the brunt of her frustrated rage. It was she who put him to butchering at the age of eleven, an offence for which he never forgave her but which earned her her nickname. To this day I don’t know what she was really called, and I have never troubled to find out, but she was always referred to by all the Bennetts as the Gimmer, a gimmer a sheep that has no lambs and a nickname Dad must have brought home from the slaughterhouse in Oldfield Lane, where he was condemned to work. I can only just remember her, a figure in shiny black satin seemingly out of the depths of the nineteenth century but who must have died in the early forties. Shortly before her death she immortalised herself in the family by saying to my nine-year-old brother, Gordon, ‘Get off that stool, you, or I’ll kick you off.’ Her funeral was an occasion of undiluted joy, sheer hysteria breaking out among the mourners when her coffin went down into the grave and Mam slipped and nearly went after it.Grandad Bennett was as bald as an egg. He had worked at the gasworks in Wellington Road, the stench of which pervaded the acres of sooty red-brick streets around Armley Gaol. He had been in an explosion which perhaps literally or as the result of shock blew away all his hair, a cruel fate in our family, where the men all have thick and often un-greying hair. His second wife’s piety must have infected him because in his old age he took to marching behind the Salvation Army band, his gleaming head jeered at by the unfeeling youths of Lower Wortley.At some point when he was still a boy Dad took it into his head to learn the violin. Why he chose an instrument that in its initial stages is so unrewarding I don’t know; it’s one of the many questions I never got round to asking him. He got no help at home, where he could only practise in the freezing parlour, the Gimmer too mean even to let him have any light so that he had to manage with what there was from the gas lamp in the street outside. Whether he was born with perfect pitch I don’t know but in later life he would play along to the hymns on the wireless, telling you the notes of the tune he was accompanying as easily as if he was spelling a word. In happier circumstances he would have been a professional violinist but there was never any hope of that and a butcher he remained, working firstly for the Co-op, before in 1946 buying a shop of his own, which he had to give up ten years later through ill health, then buying a smaller one and the same thing happening. With no money to speak of and the job having given him precious little satisfaction, he was never so happy as when in 1966 he was able to give up butchering for good.Happy, that is, until ‘this business with your Mam’. Driving backwards and forwards to Lancaster, I had never spent so much time with my father as then, and though there was no other revelation as startling as that to do with Grandad Peel, he talked more freely than he’d ever done about Mam and their life together, the car a kind of confessional. I was doing the driving and it helped that road safety precluded much eye contact, my own occasional embarrassment betrayed by abrupt bursts of speed as I suddenly put my foot down as if to get away as fast as I could from the past he was talking about.The suicide, though, he could not be persuaded to discuss. Having let on to the fact, he still seemed to want to keep it hidden and would not be questioned about it, sensing perhaps that my interest in it was as drama and only one stage up from gossip. As a child I was clever and knew it, and when I showed off, as I often did, Dad would not trouble to hide his distaste. I detected a whiff of that still; he was probably wishing he’d kept his mouth shut and never mentioned the tragedy at all.I did ask about his other revelation, ‘the similar do’ he had told Mr Parr that Mam had had just before they were married. Had that been to do with the suicide, I asked, as it must have been around the same time? Not really, said Dad. He thought it was more to do with their wedding.It had never occurred to me as a child that there were no photographs of my parents’ wedding. Along with the cut-glass fruit bowl, the stand of cork table mats and the lady leashing in her Alsatian, a wedding photograph was a component of the sideboard of every house of every friend or relative that I had been into. Typical was the wedding photograph of Uncle George and Aunty Flo, taken around 1925. Uncle George is in a suit, wing collar and spats, Aunty Flo in a white wedding-dress and veil, the folds of her dress carefully arranged to cascade down the sooty steps of St Mary of Bethany, Tong Road, where Uncle George sings in the choir, and watched off-camera by their respective families, the Rostrons and the Bennetts, and also by anybody who happens to be waiting this Saturday morning at the tram stop at the bottom of Fourteenth Avenue.The absence of a similar photograph from our sideboard had never struck me. And if it was not on the sideboard nor was it in the top right-hand dressing-table drawer in Mam and Dad’s bedroom where, along with a pot of wintergreen ointment and an old scent spray and the tuning fork for Dad’s violin, the family photographic archive was kept. It was a slender collection, fitting easily into two or three tattered Kodak wallets and consisting chiefly of snaps of holidays at Morecambe or Filey: Mam stroking a baby donkey on the sands somewhere, Dad in a bathing costume holding Gordon up to the camera, the pair of us, me a baby, Gordon three, sitting on Grandma’s knee on the wall at Gilpin Place. But no wedding.The natural assumption by an imaginative child, particularly if he was a romancer as I was, would be that he was illegitimate or at any rate not his parents’ child. Both possibilities had occurred to me, but I had seen their marriage certificate (also kept in the dressing-table drawer) and this disposed of the first possibility while a look in the mirror put paid to the second. There, depressingly, was the same pink face and long chin that all the Bennetts had. Grandma would sometimes take me with her when she went bowling at the Recreation Ground, her friends (black cloche hats, long duster coats) would look at me in the pushchair and say, ‘Oh yes, Poll. He’s a right Bennett.’ It was never something I much wanted to be, until a year or two ago, unexpectedly coming across my cousin Geoff in a hotel car park in Wetherby, I saw both his father, Uncle George, in his face and my father too, and the grin neither of them was ever able quite to suppress, and I was not unhappy that I looked a bit like that too.Had I given any thought to the missing photographs I would probably have taken this to be just another instance of our family never managing to be like other families, of which there were far more urgent and contentious instances than a mere unrecorded ceremony. There was never being allowed to wear an open-necked shirt, for instance, for fear we caught TB; there was never going without a cap lest we got sunstroke; never having a drink of cold water and it always having to be ‘aired’, and not being allowed to share a lemonade bottle with other boys (TB again); after Wolf Cubs most of my friends would have two-pennyworth of chips, but we weren’t supposed to as they kept us awake, Mam even smelling our breath for vinegar just in case. Our family was no better or worse off than our neighbours but in all sorts of ways, that were no less weighty for being trivial, we never managed to be quite the same.On the other hand, had there been a photograph of Mam and Dad’s wedding it was likely to have been an early casualty of Mam’s precocious interest in antiques, which led to a gradual purge of items like the fruit bowl, the table mats and the woodpecker calendar. Wedding presents though these items often were, the forties saw them gradually relegated to the attic to be replaced by her first tentative acquisitions from junk shops: a brass candlestick she bought in Ripon for 8s. 6d.; a green glass doorstop; a chipped lustre jug. To her credit she had never gone in for the lady and the Alsatian dog or (worse) the little boy holding a smockful of cherries who often kept her company. Both these items were unhesitatingly dubbed as ‘common’ by my mother, and she would be mortified today to see them on bric-à-brac stalls enjoying equal status with the lustre and the candlesticks, one as much sought after as the other, collectables all.There was no question that Mam’s liking for these ancient objets trouvés was entirely genuine, though in acquiring them she was also laying claim to a sort of refinement which was genuine too; it was hard to say where it came from, women’s magazines, possibly and in particular Beverley Nichols’s column in Woman’s Own. Some of it, though, was instinctive if not inbred. She knew, for instance, without having read it anywhere, that the old-fashioned kitchen range that we had was preferable, had more ‘character’ than the tiled fireplaces everybody round about thought were the height of sophistication, and that the brass pot which held our fire irons was superior to the ceramic knight-in-armour wielding poker and tongs that stood sentinel on neighbouring hearthstones.Desperate I think it now, and touching too, this faith she had in what constituted a better life. It couldn’t be called a hobby, it was never systematic enough for that, though going through cupboards at home nowadays I’ll still sometimes come across one of the many little notebooks she started, with wispy drawings of chair-backs labelled ‘Sheraton’ or ‘Hepple-white’, and lists of pottery marks she copied out of library books; then there are some blank pages and another list, ‘Bits of music I like’: Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, The Dream of Olwen, the spelling all over the place.Nowadays when ‘bygones’ are the stuff of half a dozen TV programmes, and nuggets of the more tuneful classics are trotted out to the banalities of disc jockeys who can scarcely pronounce the composers’ names, such aspirations in a middle-aged working-class woman would not be particularly remarkable. But in Leeds in 1946 it was precocious if not eccentric, particularly since it hardly linked up with the way we lived, over a butcher’s shop in a house with no hallway, the living room giving straight onto the street where Mam’s painfully collected gentilities were periodically overwhelmed by the stench of fat being rendered in the cellar. Nothing she bought was ever worth much, her Staffordshire ornaments were always cracked, the ‘Sheraton’ chair an Edwardian reproduction and the turbanned Rockingham man smoking a pipe had lost his hand (a little mitten-like paw made of plasticine Mam’s unconvincing prosthesis).Still, her antiques, touching though they were in their inadequacy, were not an attempt to improve our social status. Though she herself would have said she liked ‘old stuff’ because it was ‘classy’, this definition had nothing to do with class, ‘classy’ in her vocabulary simply the opposite of ‘common’. That was the real nub of it. Because if there was one consideration that determined my parents’ conduct and defined their position in the world it was not to be (or to be thought) common.Common, like camp (with which it shares a frontier), is not easy to define. At its simplest meaning vulgar or ostentatious, it is a more subtle and various disparagement than that or was in our family anyway, taking in such widely disparate manifestations as tattoos, red paint, yellow gloves and two-tone cardigans, all entries in a catalogue of disapproval that ranged through fake leopard-skin coats and dyed (blonde) hair to slacks, cocktail cabinets, the aforementioned ladies with Alsatian dogs and boy with cherries, and umpteen other embellishments, domestic and personal.The opposite of ‘common’ is not ‘uncommon’; indeed an element of uncommonness in the ostentatious sense is part of being common – the dyed blonde hair and leopard-skin coat of Miss Fairey, the chemist’s assistant at Armley Moor Top, or twenty years later the white Jaguar in which Russell Harty’s parents would roll up to visit him in Oxford. So flaunting it (whatever ‘it’ was) and splashing money around were part of it. But so was having no aspirations at all or living in something approaching squalor while squandering money on gambling or drink; that was common too.A dog could be common — a barbered poodle — but seldom a cat; colours like the red of paint (on a house) and purple (practically anywhere). ‘Them’s common curtains,’ Mam’s frequent observation from the top deck of a bus; it always had to be the top because Dad was a smoker and it served as a grandstand for a running commentary on the social scene. ‘Tangerine! I wouldn’t have tangerine curtains if you paid me. And look at that camel-hair coat. Makes him look like a bookie.’ Haircuts were a dangerous area: if Dad had his cut too short he was thought to look ‘right common’; cafés, too, particularly those doing too much fried stuff but omitting to serve toasted teacakes. These days shell suits would undoubtedly be condemned, as would walking down the street drinking from a can, and it would do as a definition of what’s gone wrong with England in the last twenty years that it’s got more common.Such fastidious deprecations were invariably made privately and to each other, my parents too timid to think their views worth broadcasting or that they might be shared with anyone else, still less meet with general agreement; this reticence helping to reinforce the notion that we were a peculiar family and somehow set apart. Cheerful, rumbustious even within the security of the home, off their home ground they were shy and easily intimidated; there was an absence of swagger and they never, unlike my mother’s self-confident sisters, ‘had a lot off’. So when they stigmatised ostentatious behaviour as common it reaffirmed their natural preference not to want to attract attention and to get by unnoticed; they knew what they took to be their place, and kept to it.Wanting to go unnoticed was what Mam’s depression was about. Pressed to define why it was she found the village intimidating, she said, ‘You don’t understand. I’m the centrepiece here.’ So it was hardly surprising that when Dad revealed that there had been something similar in the past it should have been on the eve of her wedding, an occasion when there could be no going unnoticed either: ‘I’m the centrepiece here’, which is a bride’s boast, was my mother’s dread. Was this why there were no photographs?What was agitating her, and maybe it agitated him too, as he was in many ways more shy even than her, was the ceremony itself and the churchful of people it would inevitably involve. Marriage is a kind of going public, and I could see, as Dad couldn’t or wouldn’t, that coming to live in the village which had maybe brought on this second bout forty years later was a kind of going public too.Not that the ceremony she was dreading was likely to be an elaborate one, as neither family can have had any money. A proper wedding, though, would have run to bridesmaids and they were there to hand in her two sisters, Kathleen and Myra, and this may well have been part of the trouble, as she had always felt overshadowed by them and something of a Cinderella. Unlike her they revelled in any kind of public show, edging into whatever limelight was going. Later in life they made far more of my brother’s and my achievements than Mam and Dad did. When I got my degree at Oxford Dad wrote, ‘We haven’t let on to your aunties yet that you’re getting your cap and gown. You won’t be wanting a lot of splother’ – splother Dad’s word for the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.The splother attendant upon the wedding was harder to get round, and Mam’s fear of the occasion persisted until there came a point, Dad told me, when they nearly broke off their engagement because neither of them could see a way of ever getting over this first necessary hurdle. Eventually Dad sought the advice of the local vicar.These days this would mean a cosy, even chummy chat with counselling the keynote. And why not? But Leeds in those days was the proving ground for many a future dean or bishop, some of the grandest Anglican dynasties – Hollises, Bickersteths, Vaughans — ministering to the slums of Hunslet and Holbeck. St Bartholomew’s was a great slum parish too, its huge black church set on a hill above Armley and Wortley, and though the slums around it have gone, or at any rate changed their character, its heavy spire still dominates the southwestern approaches to Leeds. The vicar in 1928 was the Reverend H. Lovell Clarke, subsequently Archdeacon of Leeds, and it was to him rather than to one of his several curates that Dad went.It must have been hard to explain: all brides are nervous, after all; why should this Lilian Peel require special treatment? Public school and Cambridge, the vicar is just the kind of figure (‘very better class’) to make Dad nervous and tongue-tied. What he has come along to ask is whether the vicar will marry them at seven-thirty in the morning, with no fuss, no congregation and in time for Dad to get to work at Lower Wortley Co-op by eight-fifteen. Lovell Clarke says that this is out of the question; the law does not permit him to marry anyone before eight in the morning. However, he has no objection to performing the ceremony beginning at eight o’clock, and surely if he is getting married the Co-op won’t mind if he is half an hour late for work? Dad enquires: the Co-op does mind; he has to be at work by eight-fifteen.There are occasions in life, often not in the least momentous, which nail one’s colours to the mast. There was the morning, ten days before the end of my National Service, when a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps at Maresfield made me scrub out a urinal with my bare hands; another when a consultant at the Radcliffe Infirmary discussed my naked body without reference to me with a class of smirking medical students; and though it occurred years before I was born, this moment in St Bartholomew’s Vicarage when my father, baffled at every turn, tells Mr Lovell Clarke that he cannot get a quarter of an hour off work in order to get married is another. Logic, education, upbringing leave such moments uhshifted and unforgotten. They are the self at its core.My father, I suspect, gives up at this point but the vicar does not, and indeed comes up with a solution that is ingenious, even cheeky. To begin with the young couple will need a special licence from the Bishop of Ripon, dispensing with the need for the banns to be read, the vicar sensibly assuming that whatever plan he comes up with is better carried out quickly rather than waiting the three weeks that proclaiming the banns will involve. Then armed with the licence they are to present themselves at the church at seven-thirty the following morning, at which time the vicar will say the whole wedding service up to but not including the vows, thus complying with the law. On the stroke of eight the vows themselves can be said, the ring put on and this young butcher still have time to get to work by eight-fifteen. And on 28 September 1928 that is how it is done. Dad goes off of work, Mam goes home and in the evening, in lieu of a honeymoon, they get tickets for the Theatre Royal to see The Desert Song.That was why there was no photograph on top of the sideboard or in the dressing-table drawer. At eight o‘clock on a sooty September morning it would have been too dark; besides, a photograph would have taken time and would in any case have probably come under Dad’s definition of ‘splother’. But were I a poet I would write about those moments in that great empty church, the anxious groom in his working clothes with his tentative bride, and the urbane cleric, standing on the altar steps waiting for the clock to strike, the pause before the off. A former chaplain to nearby Armley Gaol, where prisoners used regularly to be hanged, Lovell Clarke must have waited many times for eight o’clock, the pause before a more terrible off. What he was like I have no idea, though I imagine him as a clergyman of the old school. But across seventy and more years, Herbert Lovell Clarke, I would like to shake your hand.


In every other circumstance a man who hung back, follower not leader, visiting his wife in hospital my father was always in the front rank. The second the visiting bell went he would hurry down the ward ahead of the rest of the pack, always with a carrier or a parcel containing the vest he had washed or some of the Creamline toffees Mam liked and a few marigolds from the garden. And though he might have come thirty miles he was always on the dot, no second of the permitted time let go to waste.Ferrying him to the hospital at Lancaster those first few nights I found his insistent punctuality irritating, particularly as there seemed to me nothing to be punctual for, so much of the visit passed in silence with Dad just sitting by the bed holding Mam’s hand. They seemed even in misery such a self-contained couple that I thought he would have been happier coming alone. Their absorption in each other was total and almost wordless, a kind of anxious courting, and feeling spare I’d leave them to it, and wandering about the hospital or trailing glumly round the perimeter I reflected that to have a mother who is deranged is bad enough, but that wasn’t really why I was there; I was there because, alone among my contemporaries, I had a father who couldn’t drive.He had made at least two attempts. Twenty years before, in the late forties when he had had his first shop, he had invested in a second-hand motorbike and sidecar; except that it wasn’t a sidecar but a large coffin-like box which Dad, never happier than when he had a brush in his hand, straightaway painted green. The theory was that Dad would go round on this dilapidated combination delivering orders to his customers in Far Headingley, Cookridge and West Park. And perhaps this did happen once or twice, though since delivering necessarily involved a good deal of stopping and starting, and starting was not the bike’s strong point, this mode of transport never became a regular routine or superseded the push-bike with its basket (W. Bennett, High Class Meat Purveyors) pedalled laboriously up the suburban drives and crescents of north Leeds by ‘The Boy’.I suspect the motorbike was bought as another means of escape, something to ‘go off’ on at weekends perhaps or for little evening runs round the lanes of Adel, Eccup and Arthington. It’s hard to imagine, looking back, that Mam could ever have been persuaded to ride pillion, but though she was never keen (‘too draughty for me’) she was still game enough in those days to give it a try. Had crash helmets been obligatory then, that would have clinched it, as I cannot imagine either of them got up in the necessary gear. As it was, Mam would be in her usual clothes (‘my little swagger coat and that turban thing’) and Dad in his raincoat and trilby, making any concessions to what this mode of transport required thought to be pretending to be something they weren’t … and they certainly weren’t bikers. Sometimes even all four of us would go out, with Gordon and me laid on a bit of old curtain inside the closed box.Dad had never got as far as a test and still had L-plates, and though helmets might not be obligatory it was already an offence for a learner driver to carry passengers. Thus it was that on one of our few outings as a whole family the bike was flagged down by a particularly pompous local policeman, PC Brownlow, who proceeded to lecture Dad on this point of law; Mam presumably still sitting on the pillion clutching her eternal handbag, mortified at this public humiliation, particularly in a part as better class as Adel.His lecture on the Highway Code completed, PC Brownlow lengthily puts away his pencil and adjusts his cape so that my brother and I, thinking he’s gone, choose this moment to open the lid of the box and reveal our presence, thus triggering a further lecture. Dad is ordered to drive home alone as Mam and my brother and I trail back to the tram terminus at Lawnswood, all of us knowing that the bike’s days are now numbered.Though it straightaway took its place on the list of ‘your Dad’s crazes’ (fretwork, fishing, home-made beer) the idea of a motorbike wasn’t instantly extinguished, dwindling away via another short-lived investment in a contraption called a Cyclemaster, whereby a motor was attached to the back wheel of a pedal cycle, and which came into play when climbing hills. Or didn’t, as proved too often to be the case, so that it ended up like the fretsaw and the double bass advertised in the Miscellaneous Column of the Yorkshire Evening Post. After this they stuck to the bus.It wasn’t until twenty years later, when Dad was over sixty and they knew they were about to leave Leeds, that Dad had some driving lessons and took his test in Harrogate. Always a considerate man, he had got it into his head that courtesy towards other drivers was on a par with the more basic requirements of the Highway Code. The result was that coming up to one of the town’s many elaborately planted roundabouts he was so concerned to raise his hand to another driver who had given way to him (out of prudence, I should think) that he drove the wrong way round the Floral Clock and was failed instantly.Harrogate had always been a favourite place with my parents, but the recollection of this humiliation was so keen that they seldom went there again and when he did take some more driving lessons it was in Skipton and he kept it a secret. The night of his test he telephoned me in London, but boasting was so foreign to him it was some time before he mentioned it. ‘I took your Mam out in the car this afternoon.’ ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ I said, not catching the reference. ‘I thought we’d have a run out. I passed my test.’ For him it was as if he had joined the human race. Nothing that he had ever accomplished gave him so much pleasure or, I think, made him feel so much a man.His first and only car was a khaki-coloured Mini which transformed their lives, put paid to hanging about in bus stations and set them free to range the countryside and visit places they had only read about. It affected my life, too, though in ways which, for them, were less welcome. Previously I had gone north at regular intervals really to Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in London, England.