Friday, 11 November 2011

Remembrance Day: Mum and Dad

Remembrance Day: Mum and Dad

There are many myths and stories around my parents long and happy romance, but the most memorable were those years during the 2nd World War. It not only brought them together, but changed my mother’s world out of all recognition.

My mum grew up in one of the poorest areas in Bristol at the time, in a nineteen-thirties slum: a go to bed hungry, wear raggedy hand-me-downs, no shoes slum. Her life before Dad was pretty much Dickensian. A mother who despised her, a step-father who brutalized … Dad would say to us kids – ‘Don’t ask your Mum. She had a horrible life back then.’ What I do know is that her step-father was a violent drunkard – Joe Knowles – who worked on the docks and who’d buy firewood, chop it up small, and send my mother out with a cart selling bundles door to door at the age of 10 just so he could buy more beer. Or send her off to pawn his best suit until payday when she’d have to go and buy it back.

Dad said that he first clapped eyes on Mum at a local school’s sports day. He’d stopped to watch, his eye caught by the pretty girl stuck fast in the ground-level netting of the Obstacle Race. He said he knew then.

Later, when Dad (a handsome Home Guard soldier) was patrolling a patch of Easton near the railway line – he lived in a two-up-two-down bursting-at-the-seams-with-a-large-family house in Barton Hill – he bumped into Mum by the bridge. On their first date, Dad told Mum they’d be together for at least fifty years. These days he’d sound like some crazed stalker, but this was the War years, he was smitten, Mum had film-star good looks and a lively intelligence – it was romance. It was love. It was fifty-four years until she died.

Those war years were some of the happiest of Mum’s life. Not only the war spirit of -we’re all in this together - or the stolen kisses, the dances, the Yanks over-sexed and over-here … but also because for the first time Mum was in the same billet as girls from all walks of life. Mum’s best friend was an upper middle class girl who taught Mum how to speak, instructed her on all matters etiquette. This transformed Mum from what she considered herself to be - an uncouth working class girl - to a confident woman. It gave her aspirations and helped their later social mobility up to the middle classes. Dad already had an easy affability which meant he could fit in anywhere.

So, The War moulded my mother. It saved her in many ways too. She’d insist Dad was her knight in shining armour (raised on the Golden Years of Hollywood!). And who could blame her? One in a million, your dad, she’d say. Handsome, talented, liked by all – and could handle himself in a fight. He once punched Joe Knowles on the nose when he caught him threatening Mum. Yes, one day I shall write about it. Maybe here is a start.

So, today – 11/11/11 - I shall think of Mum and Dad. Of their getting married on a forty-eight-hour pass, of their strolling arm-in-arm down Wine Street and all those other streets which were wiped out during German nighttime bombing raids of WWII; of how - sharing a lover’s walk - they had to dodge the fires, witness sights, screams, smells none of us can imagine; as the Great Blitz of Bristol happened all around them, and how The War shaped a whole generation. How it shaped them both.

They’re gone now. Soon I shall visit that spot where they first met. You can just make out the bridge which crossed the railway line. It was demolished long ago, and is now a cycle path. I can almost imagine them there, Irene with her dark hair and long legs, Charles with his strong walk and uniform. They’re both eighteen, their future before them. They’re laughing, smiling, stopping for a kiss, lighting a cigarette and gazing up into the night sky. Their story not told – yet. xxx

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