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 dont 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 1920s 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 Hoffmans factory in Chelmsford.
Ill say this for himhe was never out of work. He looked after us to the utmost of his capability; we were as poor as church mice, but we didnt starve to death, although I know that my mother often went without food to feed us children.
My Dads 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 gentlemans 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 -KELLYS EYE. He had a pseudonym for every number up to a hundred. I can remember some of them:
she was onlysweet sixteen
all the sixesclickety-click
key of the doortwenty-one
a couple of duckstwenty-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 fathers family, and fourteen in my mothers. 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, dont giggle, dont point, dont stare and dont make faces, otherwise youll 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 wasnt 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 arms 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 sisters 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 hes 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 mothers body; if I had done so I would have been none the wiser.
When the time was ripe I was sent to my grandmothers for a couple of weeks. There I had a grand time playing on Clapham Common every day with the boy next door. I didnt want to go home. When I finally had to I was led solemnly into my Mums 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 didnt 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 wasnt stupid, and I would have got the message.
For most of the time I was practically unaware of my brothers 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 familythree 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 childrens 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 Kens 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 couldnt, 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 itovernight 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 Flos 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 wouldnt 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.
Kens 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, Noras 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 shed 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 brothers 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. Ive 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 theyd 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, Itas 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 theyd 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. Stans 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, its 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. Im just looking for someones address. Cant find it anywhere.
I saw Stan again at the funeral when my mother died. The house was filled with people I didnt know, but who all turned out to be aunts and uncles and cousins that I hadnt 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? Im Ron, your cousin? He grinned weakly. Oh, yes. Youre the musician. Yes, I thought, and youre 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 Dads sisters, and Id stayed with them a few times, too. Theyd had a snotty-nosed daughter called Sylvia, whom I couldnt 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 dont know where they got all of those quaint Victorian ideas. You couldnt 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, Henrys 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 shed 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