A Minstrel in Spain

Chapter Eight

The Family

My family has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It was composed of individuals; there was no family spirit between the three children that I could discern. As my father was hardly ever there during our youth, we grew up to all intents and purposes without him. My mother held what there was of us to­gether.

I did not realise this at the time. At the back of my mind lurked always the conviction that my youth was a happy one. I don’t know about the others, but I had a whale of a time. At least, I think I did. Perhaps I was car­ried through that period more on the strength of my fantasy.

It is easy for me to talk about my father, because, to me, he was a per­fect stranger. If I were to meet a man, say over dinner, and we were to en­gage one an­other in conversation for three or four hours, then I would know more about that man after­wards than I ever knew about my fa­ther.

Born in the London slums of Lambeth just before the turn of the cen­tury, the son of a platelayer, who, for some reason known only to himself, put his head in the gas oven and killed himself at the age of 55, my Dad was on the wrong foot right from the word go.

Never learning a trade, he drifted from job to job. On his mar­riage certificate it says that he was a Filler of Orders, which is rather like calling a dustman a Refuse Dis­posal Executive. Having emi­grated to Canada to seek work in the 1920’s he took a job in the base­ment of Eatons in Winnipeg and packed things that people had bought into delivery boxes. Later on, in Lon­don once more, he apparently worked as man­ager in a chocolate factory, something which I have never been able to credit; as an insurance agent, pounding the streets; as a furniture salesman; and as a ballbearing inspector at Hoffman’s factory in Chelmsford.

I’ll say this for him—he was never out of work. He looked after us to the ut­most of his capability; we were as poor as church mice, but we didn’t starve to death, al­though I know that my mother often went without food to feed us children.

My Dad’s greatest achievements in life were made as a soldier. He served in the Royal Fusiliers, the grenade throwers of the First World War, was shot twice and honourably dis­charged from the army without a pension. For all I know he was wounded by friendly fire. He lay for days in the mud and rain in a French wood, with a bullet in his leg, awaiting reinforcements that never came. Finally, another soldier wheeled him back to the British lines in a wheelbar­row. He got into the wheelbarrow with his leg bent under him. By the time he ar­rived at the field hos­pital his leg was straightened out and stiff. This is all he ever told me about his eighteen years or so in the army, span­ning two world wars.

I know that he was in the Eighth Army, and that he was picked to command the Guard of Honour for General Montgomery at the launching cere­mony of a loco­motive engine in honour of that gentleman’s achieve­ments.

It would not be true to say that we never conversed. We spoke quite fre­quently, but, as he really had little to say that really interested me, I learned nothing from him, and can consequently recall nothing of our conversations.

He played chess and the piano badly. The only thing he did well was to play the bones. I once found a nigger-minstrel costume in one of our trunks. Apparently, in earlier days he would don the fancy suit, black up and do an Amos ‘n Andy act. He had one song only, a medley of tunes with comic words passed on to him by the film actor Miles Malleson, who had been in the army with him in the First World War. Whenever called upon, right up to his death at age 83, he would sing that same song. My Mum would accompany him on the piano.

When we had gas-lighting, and no radio or television to occupy our leisure hours, he was great entertainment. In the army he was in constant demand as a Housey-Housey barker, in what is known today as Bingo. There, on stage before packed houses, he would reach into the bin, pull out a counter, and intone in mea­sured ca­dence, dead-pan, in his Sergeant-Major voice, NUMBER ONE -KELLY’S EYE. He had a pseudonym for every number up to a hundred. I can remember some of them:

she was only—sweet sixteen

all the sixes—clickety-click

key of the door—twenty-one

a couple of ducks—twenty-two

—and so on. The soldiers would join in to chant the numbers.

As far as he was concerned my Dad had been cursed with a name that was to plague him for his whole life. His father had been named Augustus Montague Toplady Simmonds, a pretty elaborate title for someone who had lived and died in abject pov­erty. My Dad copped the first two names. He went around forever telling people to call him Bob. This had the adverse effect of causing to ev­eryone address him as Gus, which infuriated him.

Under the circumstances it is hardly likely that I was handed my musi­cal tal­ents from his side of the family. I have to thank him for conceiving me, and I do so fer­vently, but I am positive that any shreds of talent I may have, however well hidden, must come from my mother.

There were eleven children in my father’s family, and fourteen in my mother’s. There seemed to be an unending stream of Aunt Dollys, Fannys, Nellys and Lizzys. Any friends or neighbours of my Mum also became, automati­cally, aunts or uncles as well.

I was brought up to sit up straight at the table, don’t giggle, don’t point, don’t stare and don’t make faces, otherwise you’ll get struck like it forever. The constant repetition of these Basic Rules of Life only caused me to break them all the more, but for my entire child­hood I never had a hand raised against me in anger.

As a boy I read at the table, ate with my Scout knife and drank my tea from the saucer. Eschewing the use of doors I would enter and leave the house through my bedroom window. My mother never commented on any of these things, with the result that I quickly tired of doing them.

I loved my mother dearly. She was a proper Mum to me, always there to com­fort and advise. She had taught me to read, write, count and play chess by the time I was four years old. It wasn’t as if she sat down and said do this and do that. She seemed to sense the right moment to slip me some­thing that I was ready for, like the flute she gave me later on. Somehow she made learning inter­esting. My mother would have made a mar­vellous schoolteacher.

The result of all this was that when I finally did go to school at the age of nine, I was al­ready way ahead of my age group, and had to sit around stifling yawns while my contemporaries learned it all the hard way. I had time to fantasize.

My sister Joan was five years older than me, which put her into a so­cial class way be­yond my reach. She was too old for me, and I was be­low consideration for her as a playmate. We grew up keeping one another at arm’s length.

I used to torment her mercilessly. I made up a song containing all the names of the local village boys of her age, and would sing it to a jolly little Mozart air when­ever she was within ear­shot. The fact that she would turn a beetroot red when I did so made me increase my ef­forts.

When she had mumps, and was not supposed to laugh, I crept up and made spook noises outside her bedroom door, or fired arrows with secret messages through her bedroom window.

Sometimes my Dandy comic would contain a packet of luminous paint. I would construct a large skeleton out of cardboard, cover it with the paint and charge it up at an electric light bulb in my bedroom. At a strategic moment I would whip open her bedroom door, switch off the light and dance the glowing skeleton around in the door­way, moaning and groaning like a churchyard full of lost souls.

Her terrified screams were music in my ears. But this was the limit of our communica­tion. To this day I know nothing of my sister’s real life, other than that which I have seen with my own eyes.

The only attempt she ever made at getting back at me misfired badly.

Someone had given my Dad a box of two hundred cigarettes for Christmas. By Boxing Day he was already missing about twenty and was looking around for them.

My sister Joan jumped up suddenly, rushed out of the lounge and into my bed­room. I was close on her heels, but she managed to slam and lock the door in my face.

I was on my knees, hammering on the door and pleading with her to let me in. My Mum and Dad were convulsed with laughter. Then Joan came out, triumphantly holding high the missing cigarettes. By the look on her face I was going to get mine now, and no mistake. But my Dad just took them back, counted them, and told me that smoking would stunt my growth.

Actually, Joan got the wrong end of the stick most of the time. Just be­fore we went in for Sunday dinner I would take her aside and say, very seri­ously, ‘I have just hypnotised you. From now on, every time I look at you like this, you will gig­gle.’

After that I only had to look at her covertly out of the corner of one eye for her to go at once into convulsions, and be sent out of the room.

‘But he’s making me do it! He has hypnotised me!’

But I was innocent, and out she went.

I could always scare the lights out of Joan just by pointing a stick at her and saying that it was a gun. She would rush around with me close on her tail.

‘Stop! Stop! It might just go off,’ she would scream.

Even later in life I could get her to do things, like prop­ping up one side of the television set when the picture was a bit slant­ing.

Ours was a secretive family in all senses of the word. There al­ways seemed to be some­thing going on about which I was not allowed to be in­formed. It was no use spelling out words in front of me because I could deci­pher their content at once.

Meaningful looks would be exchanged instead, and there were occa­sions when much se­cret coded conversation took place between my mother and sister.

I suppose this all had something to do with my sister reaching the age of pu­berty, and there were many discussions involving such everyday things as clothes from which I was also ex­cluded. Girls’ underwear, in­deed, all ar­ticles of feminine clothing, came under the heading of ta­boo subjects in our household. This was the age of sexual repression, and, presumably, anything relating to the female body had to be kept strictly under wraps as far as boys were concerned. At the time, knickers was a naughty word, not to be used in pub­lic. Comedians such as Max Miller and George Doonan based their acts on it. I used to practise saying the word out loud in private, roll­ing it around my tongue. Knickers. I was a dirty-minded little sod.

I was never allowed to see my sister even partially naked. I went to an awful lot of trouble to try and rectify this. I bored peepholes in doors, held up mirrors tied to sticks outside her bedroom window. I risked life and limb climbing on the roof in an attempt to catch her without her clothes on. I burst into her room several times with­out warning. She was fully dressed at all times. I be­gan to wonder whether she ever took her clothes off at all.

My brother Ken arrived suddenly when I was nine. The circumstances sur­round­ing his birth were, naturally, secretive. I was kept completely un­aware of what was going on. I had never noticed any physical alterations in my mother’s body; if I had done so I would have been none the wiser.

When the time was ripe I was sent to my grandmother’s for a couple of weeks. There I had a grand time playing on Clapham Common every day with the boy next door. I didn’t want to go home. When I finally had to I was led solemnly into my Mum’s bedroom. There, laying wrapped up in a drawer, was my newly born brother.

I believe to this day that the secrecy involved in that birth set back all future re­la­tionships with my brother Ken. I never really became friends with him until I was in my fifties. Confronted suddenly with this small, red, squirming, loud and smelly crea­ture, without knowing where he came from, or why, I regarded him at once as an un­invited guest in our household. I can remem­ber constantly asking my mother when she was going to give him back.

He kept well out of my way, bless him, but that didn’t prevent me from bul­ly­ing him unmercifully when he got older.

On this subject I can find one of the very few mistakes my mother made in my upbring­ing. She should have taken me aside and explained just what it meant to have a brother and sis­ter, and how very valuable they were to me. I may have been all kinds of things, but I wasn’t stu­pid, and I would have got the message.

For most of the time I was practically unaware of my brother’s presence, such was my preoccupation with myself. He grew up entirely without my friend­ship, some­thing which saddens me when I think about it. What a waste of valuable time.

So, that was the family—three children who had no method of com­mu­nication with one another; we played no games together, held no dis­cus­sions, there was no love lost between us. We had a father who was hardly ever there. Only my mother saved the situation. And yet I have al­ways been con­vinced that I had a very happy childhood. How does one explain that?

When my Dad finally came out of the army, almost ten years after the war had ended, he entered the household as a stranger. I was already long gone from the scene.

My father came out of an environment where he, as Company Sergeant-Major, had absolute command over a great number of men, into a house contain­ing only his wife and two children. The sudden change was too much for him. In the house he became a despot.

He took a job as head of the messenger service in the Ocean Insurance Com­pany in the City of London, another job where he could order other people about. Most mornings, as he left for work, he managed to leave my mother in tears. He dom­i­neered everyone in the house. If he was crossed, which was seldom, he would leave the room to sulk in the bed­room.

The results were not long in coming. My brother considered leaving; my sis­ter lost her memory and disappeared, wandering around for a week on Wimbledon Com­mon, while everyone sat waiting for her at home. I have been told that, during this pe­riod, it never occurred to my par­ents to inform the police. This would have been wholly unpleasant for them. All my Dad did was to go out into the road in front of the house from time to time and look up and down it, to see if she was coming.

This is really incredible. My house was a only a short distance away, and we had tele­phones, but I only found out about all this long after it was all over.

When she finally did wander back my sister said nothing to them. She came into the house, climbed into bed and slept for several days. A doctor was called, then the vicar. They both told my father that he was entirely to blame, and recommended that she get out of the house, and away from him at all costs.

This she did, giving up her job as secretary and becoming a children’s mother up in Sut­ton Coldfield. There she looked after orphans and unwanted chil­dren. Child­less herself, through a failed marriage when she was eighteen, the change of job altered her life completely. From a shy, frightened girl, she became a confi­dent, self-assured woman.

The most noticeable change was in her driving. When she got her first small car, fi­nanced presumably by him, my Dad made it crystal clear to her that, although he himself could not drive, she would be unable to do so herself unless he was sit­ting be­side her telling her what to do.

He was like a mother hen over that car, a Morris Minor. Having seen her into the garage around the back of the house, giving her left and right in­structions as she backed in, as if she were manipulating a trailer truck, he would fuss all over it, in­spect­ing for dents or blem­ishes. Every evening he would charge the battery. It must have been like liv­ing in a madhouse with him.

My brother quickly left home to become a musician, too. He played trumpet in several bands up north, took lessons on clarinet and piano, and fi­nally studied math­e­matics. In an exami­nation he came first in a field of ei­ther 2,500 or 25,000 entrants, I forget which. Maybe it was 250,000. He sure was clever enough. This subse­quently gained him a managerial position in the computer department of a fa­mous London in­sur­ance company. He married a lovely Irish girl from Dublin named Ita, and bought a house near our parents.

One day my mother appeared at Ken’s house and said that she had left my fa­ther.

All kinds of things happened after that. My Dad came round to say that she was missing and was refused entrance to the house. He pleaded at the door. He could not live without her. Of course he couldn’t, for she was do­ing everything for him, and get­ting no thanks for it. She re­mained adamant.

Finally he was informed that my mother would come back if he dras­ti­cally al­tered his behaviour, otherwise she would stay away for good. The shock did it—overnight he became a dif­ferent person. As usual, I found out about that, too, long af­ter it was all over.

My father was a great authority on all subjects, although, in re­ality, he knew very little about anything. He would nevertheless try and cram what­ever little knowl­edge he possessed down your throat, repeating himself several times to make sure that his listeners had fully grasped what he was saying. One of the worst things you could do was to ask him the way to any part of Lon­don. The resulting series of cor­rec­tions, backtrack­ing, repeats and reasser­tions would not have been out of place in one of the Goon Shows. If any one of my uncles happened to be present at the time the dis­cus­sion became preposterous.

Now and then, though, some interesting anecdotes emerged about old London, in the days when a pound a year was considered to be a good wage, everyone wore a hat, electricity was unknown and trams and buses were horse-drawn, with men em­ployed to run behind them shovelling up the turds.

When we visited uncles and aunts for tea there was a lot of talk of the old days. Now and again there would be a lot of nodding and winking as they got into the raun­chy bits, like who had gotten divorced, or which woman acquaintance had been seen smoking in the street. Because I was present some of the words would get spelled out, with many meaningful looks in my direc­tion. No one realised that my avid pe­rusal of comic books had enabled me to be able to read at a very early age, and, in­deed, some­times I managed to catch them out with their spelling.

On one occasion I managed to make an enemy for life of my Aunty Nora, only getting to speak to her again when my mother died some forty-five years later.

I admired my Aunty Nora very much; I thought she was beautiful, compared with all the rest of them. I had overheard the word putrid one day, and, convinced by the sound of it that it must be a superlative for all things wise and wonderful I told her one day, in confidence, that I thought she was putrid. Her reaction, and that of those around her, amazed me. Of course she complained at once to my mother, and I never saw her again until she was over 70.

My sister Joan, at the age of 64, after both of our parents had died, fi­nally mar­ried for the second time. Her first marriage had been from a wartime ro­mance in Coventry, brought about by the bombing.

We had moved into rooms in a house nearby after one of the raids badly dam­aged my Aunty Flo’s house. Joan established rapport with the young man of the house, an engineering draughtsman, and they en­tered upon a very unhappy mar­riage. After making various attempts at seducing my girl friend Ruth behind my back, her husband eventually did a moonlight flit with a woman from his office, and wound up living in a derelict bus in Bristol.

I know even less about my brother Ken than I do about my Dad. I was fully oc­cupied with myself all the time when we lived together. Ken was a sort of blur on the periphery of my vision.

When I was twenty-one my brother got shot in the eye at school by a kid who was firing paperclips around the room with an elastic band. The teacher had been late, otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t have happened.

There was no way of saving his eye, and Ken has had to go through life with only one eye. The trauma attached to that at first was terrific, but he managed ad­mirably. Only people in the know were aware of his dis­ability.

The accident gave him mono vision, which makes it difficult to judge dis­tances and perspective. My mother, with remarkable foresight, bought him a small billiard table, to help him get used to this.

The school, presumably responsible for the safety of the children in its care, very quickly exonerated itself from blame for the incident. The parents of the boy respon­sible were poor, and so Ken got absolutely no compensation for the loss of his eye. It was, and still is, an absolute dis­grace.

During some of the discussions on the subject I got to meet Knocker West, who had been headmaster of the school when I attended it earlier on and still was now. This time we met on different terms and, un­der the circumstances, I found myself regard­ing him with con­tempt. He was even smaller and more runtish than I re­mem­bered, while I, now fully grown, towered above him.

Ken’s wife Ita, is probably the closest person to an angel I have ever met (with the exception of my present wife, I hasten to add). As I have met several really outstanding persons in my life­time, this de­scription of her is not lightly given. An Irish Catholic, she is the one of the few persons I know who are good all the way through. It is easy to talk to her, something my mother must have found out early on, be­cause she told Ita eve­rything about her past life that she forgot to tell the rest of us.

If I ever want information on our family, Ita will supply it. She is a hu­man da­tabank. She has come up with the names of aunts and uncles of mine that I have never heard of, together with de­tails of their children, grandchil­dren, and the name of the dog. It was Ita who told me that my Uncle Ron, Nora’s husband, whom I had al­ways pictured as being a very successful business man, had spent his life doing menial jobs, end­ing up finally as a toilet attendant in a public lava­tory.

One of the things my Mum told Ita was that she became bitterly disap­pointed in my fa­ther shortly after they were married. The laws of the day, and the general aver­sion to divorce, if it were indeed possi­ble, forced her to spend a life of utter boredom with him. I often wonder what might have become of her, or any of us, if she had had more luck in her choice.

The last time I saw Ita she told me that she felt sorry for my mother be­cause she’d had a life of constant hard work. In fact, Ita her­self has an even greater burden to bear, without even noticing it. If she is ever taken really seriously ill, my brother’s house­hold will col­lapse around them. She works every day in the centre of London. At home she cooks, cleans, washes, plans, sews, advises and takes confessions.

Ita will travel to the ends of the earth to help anyone. I’ve seen her do it, es­pe­cially if the person in need is old. Sometimes people take advantage of her gen­erosity. Still she helps them.

From early in the morning to six in the evening each day she works for Her Majesty the Queen in an office in the centre of London. When big events involving royalty take place in Westminster Abbey she gets invited along with all the other im­portant people.

At the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, she was within touching dis­tance of the Queen, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and various other minis­ters and high-ranking offi­cers. The security there was incredible because of the dan­ger at such gatherings of a terrorist at­tack. She told me afterwards that she had been afraid to open her mouth.

‘If anyone had heard my Dublin accent they’d have clapped me in irons right away,’ she said. ‘Still I had a lovely time.’ One has to hear that word lovely spoken by Ita to appreciate the beautiful Irish lilt in her voice.

At the time of publishing this Ita has left her Government job. Sadly, my brother, Ita’s husband, died in May 2001 at the age of 63. Their two children, as greatly talented as their parents, are now grown up. John, married with one child, is manager of a flourishing estate agency in Manchester. Anna, his younger sister, lives with her mother and teaches flute and piano privately.

My cousin Stanley was a wimp. He was weak, skinny, red-haired, freckled, and wore glasses. He couldn't help all that, poor sod. I used to go and stay with him for a couple of weeks now and then in the summer holidays. My Aunt Nellie wouldn't let him play with me in the street, though, because I was coarse and rough and he might get hurt, or get his clothes dirty, or break his glasses.

I don't know what his Dad did for a living. I don't even remember having any conversations with my uncle Will. He wore dark suits, was tall and thin, and kept pretty much in the background.

The worst thing that ever happened to Stan was his mother. She was determined to bring him up as a model of obedience and had quite a collection of school canes to deal with any insubordination.

He never did anything wrong, as far as I could tell, he was too scared for that, but Nellie would invent misdeeds for him. Reckless eyeballing or dumb insolence would be excuse enough for her. His elder sister Olive left the house as soon as she became of age.

When he was twenty he took a job as printer in HM Stationary Office, working on the Hansard newspaper beside my uncle Frank.

Stan won a lot of money on the pools, enough to see him off com­fort­ably for the rest of his life. After his parents died he got taken for a sucker by a beautiful girl who said she loved him. He only needed to take one honest look in the mirror to re­al­ise that she must have been kid­ding, but it was enough for Stan. He bought her a house and a brand new Jaguar car. Then she dis­appeared, after selling both of them. Later on the police told him that they’d caught her doing the same thing to an­other wimp, and they wanted him to testify against her at the trial. He refused to do anything against her. She had provided the only tiny spot of love, real or other­wise, in his un­happy life.

He lives now as a recluse, in a house with permanently drawn cur­tains, shun­ning all so­cial contact with the outside world, no doubt through the highly question­able upbringing he re­ceived from his stupid parents.

Ken called around to see him one day. Stan’s parents were long dead, but he still lived in the house full of memories of his unhappy childhood. When my brother rang the front door bell it was raining heavily. There was no protection from the rain on the small porch. After two or three rings the door opened a crack and Stan looked out. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ he said, and shut the door again.

Ken rang the bell again, the rain pouring down his neck. After an interval the door opened again. ‘Can I come in?’ said Ken.

‘Oh. Yes. Of course.’ Stan led the way into the lounge, which was only dimly lit as he had drawn all the curtains. On every piece of furniture there was a used en­ve­lope. The whole room was covered with envelopes, in fact. Ken stared at the mess in astonishment. Stan said ‘Oh, yeah. I’m just looking for someone’s address. Can’t find it anywhere.’

I saw Stan again at the funeral when my mother died. The house was filled with people I didn’t know, but who all turned out to be aunts and un­cles and cousins that I hadn’t seen since I was ten years of age. Our family has never been one for big reunions.

Stan was now about fifty-five. I discovered him leaning up against the wall in the kitchen, staring blankly into space.

‘Remember me? I’m Ron, your cousin?’ He grinned weakly. ‘Oh, yes. You’re the musi­cian.’ Yes, I thought, and you’re the wimp.

One of the biggest surprises for me that day was what I learned about my Un­cle Ron. He was married to Nora, one of my Dad’s sisters, and I’d stayed with them a few times, too. They’d had a snotty-nosed daugh­ter called Sylvia, whom I couldn’t stand at any cost. But Uncle Ron had im­pressed me greatly. He was a big, solid man, with a large hooked nose.

Uncle Ron knew everything about everything. I could curl up and listen to him for hours. I was anxious to know what had become of him. He must have been a tre­mendously intelligent man, a business executive, per­haps. My aunt clammed up when I asked her. Later on my sister-in-law told me that my Uncle Ron had been a toilet attendant for most of his life. I sup­pose you can even get philosophic about that.

Sylvia was there, with her husband, who was a member of Mensa. She had turned into a very beautiful intelligent girl. I doubt whether she re­membered me at all. I was surrounded by strangers.

My Uncle Henry was also there. I had never met him because he had di­vorced his first wife when I was eight years old, and that had made him persona non grata as far as my family had been concerned. I don’t know where they got all of those quaint Victorian ideas. You couldn’t have got lower class than we were, our families on both sides coming out of some of the worst slums in London.

Later in life some of our relatives came over on a visit from Vancouver, and I drove them over the river to see the place where they had been born and raised. They were always shocked beyond words. Even today Lambeth is a slum area.

Uncle Henry was now 93 or thereabouts, deaf, baldheaded, hale and hearty. He was much in demand in Norwich as a reader of lessons in the local churches. Henry had a deep reso­nant voice, rather like Charles Laughton, who, when he gave up film-making, also used to hold whole con­gregations enthralled with his readings in church, and his stirring renderings of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and other biblical tales.

When he left that evening, Henry’s second wife Rosemary, now 78, clapped a crash hel­met over his head and strapped him into the passenger seat of their car as tight as a Formula One driver. Ken and I were lurking around behind the car, wondering whether she’d need a push, or anything, but when she drove off there was no mess­ing about. Whoosh, a cloud of dust, and they were gone.

About any other one of my relatives, on either side of the family, I know ab­so­lutely nothing.

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved