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Man to Man
Frank returns to Douglas (3,2,3) Between these origins and that ending is where the weather is, fair or foul: the climate of a life. Not, as some have said, a dream, but a climate, a microclimate, le temps qu'il fait.
--Times cross-word puzzle clue
There can have been no salting of herring at our place during the autumn of 1919; my mother was pregnant and pregnant women cannot put down herring, it will simply disintegrate and leave you with a barrel of smelly slush. Taken with boiled potatoes and with buttermilk or water--Adam's ale--or, on rare occasions, real ale for Father, herring was a staple. Having to forfeit it was the first of many disappointments or privations imposed on a struggling young couple by their first child. They began even before he was born. That event took place at the end of November, in a tenement bedroom, neither place nor season propitious. Clearly he survived, and they lived through a herringless winter to ensure that he did, well enough to be writing this seventy-five wild Decembers later, dotage fended off, for the moment, by the thin roof of sanity.
Part of the difficulty these kind people experienced in rearing me was that I was generally unable, with my best efforts, to do things that other children seemed to manage without much thought, certainly without the terror that immobilised me at the prospect of failing in tasks where success was the norm, such as tying shoelaces. The other day my garden was invaded by rabbits. I wasn't in the least terrified, after all I have seen worse in my time, though I notice that by way of excusing my failure to act I have just said "rabbits" when in fact I sawonly one, and there may have been only one--a large one, however--which nevertheless ran away when challenged by a territorially outraged squirrel. If there had been a plague of rabbits I doubt if I'd have done anything about it except hurry slowly to the telephone. The dripping tap, the puncture, the broken lock, the rat in the yard, even the light bulb that burns out in a fairly inaccessible socket, I take these problems under consideration and do nothing. Here, alone in a house with more rooms than I can use, I can close a door on broken chairs, bury my blank tax return deep in a chaotic filing cabinet, easily lose my keys or my diary. All this may be attended to, with much shouting, groaning, and cursing, another day, when it has become obvious that it must be, and that nobody else is going to do it.
My mother was quick to notice this trait. "Traa dy lioaur," she would say, time enough is your motto. Always at the heel of the hunt. The Manx expression, though variously spelt, is understandable, for she had been a farm girl and some Manx still lingered in the countryside at the beginning of the century; as late as when I was around you might be given good-day in Manx on country roads and were expected to answer accordingly. But I've never heard "the heel of the hunt" anywhere else, and wonder where she can have picked it up; there are, no foxes on the Isle of Man, and no word for fox in Manx, which puzzled the Bible translators when they came to the little foxes of the Song of Songs and several others as well. Samson alone needed three hundred of them, three hundred of what shall we say, they must have asked themselves, surely not rabbits? Here was a clear indication that to be Manx was to be, in an admittedly not deeply wounding way, exiled from the life and language of the English. Moreover, gentry were scanty on this island, and can only have hunted other beasts, rabbits perhaps, but they could conceivably have used this teasing expression of those who arrived late at the paltry kill. My mother's early life was not something she said much about, her origins were fascinatingly obscure, but phrases of this sort are unlikely to have derived from her own experience. I suppose she may, as a girl, have collided with some mini-squire and picked up this and other exogenously lively terms.
One such I remember because it certainly came from a world of which she can't have been anything but entirely innocent. Somehow she had made the acquaintance of a Mr. MacNulty, a commercial traveller no doubt, Irish obviously. I see his bow tie and spats, and his jolly red face, his bright little blue eyes and bristling red hair. I now recognise him as a serious drinker, but to me as I then was he was only a most courteous jolly red man, out to charm us all with his kind knowingness and all the good things he would say in his phlegmy voice. How he formed the habit of calling on us, and how she formed the habit of encouraging him to do so, I have no idea, except that she often referred to him as her notion of a gentleman. She placed a high value on gentlemen, often urging me to become one, and told of specimens she had met when she was a waitress--people who had spent time in England and even been to London, there acquiring the needed polish. On this particular evening MacNulty knocked and entered as usual; she was welcoming but embarrassed because the house was unusually untidy. "Oh, Mr. MacNulty," she said, "do come in. I'm sorry you find me in this state, the place is like a whore's garret." MacNulty's face, against all precedent, grew solemn, and he replied, "You must promise me never to say that again. It means something very bad." Of course she never did say it again. Like the heel of the hunt, it had blown in from some alien scene and settled on her word-hoard. She liked the sound of words. As we discovered only after her death, she had in her youth won prizes and certificates as a reciter of dialect poetry. To love words, whatever they meant--even without knowing what they meant--more than the world, which you can't properly handle unless you have some understanding how its things work, was part of my inheritance.
I think MacNulty kept on coming because he admired her readiness to be ecstatically impressed by his blarney, but also because he was intrigued by her innocence. Hogarthian whores' garrets may well have been a familiar element of his world, but so was the idea of a young woman who had nothing to do with such a world and ought not to make even ignorant allusion to it. I still wonder where the banned expression came from, and where she can have heard it. I have never come across it since.
The big war was not long over, a destroyer of innocence, one might have supposed; it must have been so for those who, like my father, survived several years in France. But apart from some incidental hardships, those who escaped death, mutilation, or premature bereavement were probably not much changed by it. A town of about twenty thousand people is just small enough to sustain relationships of blood or acquaintance which, simply because they are tenuous, are frequently and in pleasurable disputation researched and rehearsed, so that Douglas had quite enough complexity to satisfy its inhabitants' desire for security in a world interesting enough in itself, without their having to bother about Britain, which they simply called "away" or "across." Its ways of life, its ways of earning, its ways of talking, its preferences in wickedness were alien and a bit menacing. The occasional incursion of an exotic like MacNulty was enough to satisfy our curiosity about "away." As far as I could tell, my father's military service, which must have set him among the English, Welsh, and Scottish daily for several years, had not the slightest effect on his assumptions and prejudices or his speech, which remained a slow and cautious Manx, to him of course the norm from which the fuss of the Welsh, the whining of Liverpool, the apparent gormlessness of northern English, and the suspiciously smart foreign clatter of the southern dialects were simply aberrations, as, in a way, their speakers themselves were.
There was no strong need to join such people. You left the island if a war made it necessary, or--rarest of exigencies--to go to college or university, and were expected in any case to come back as soon as you could. Indeed, it was close to unthinkable that you might think of not coming back. Yet the mesh of family and social relationships was so fine that any tear, whether caused by death or disgrace, including the disgrace of emigration, was soon mended. The idea of living anywhere else can never have occurred to my parents. I'm not sure when I first entertained it, though after my own war was over I had long been quite sure that I had to choose exile. It was, to the Manx of the time, a perverse and inexplicable choice. For a while when I was over on a visit people would stop me in the street, a man of thirty or so, and express surprise that I should still be a student. What other reason could there now be for my long absences? Then as time passed and my visits grew less frequent, the mesh was mended and nobody knew me at all.
So the town, considering the odds against the enterprise--time, sin, poverty, death--made a good attempt at seeming changeless. The new gossip was really only the old recycled. The names on the war memorial began by representing
loss but became part of a reassuring permanence, like the missing leg of the butcher or the presence always of children wearing clogs, hilarious girls, and white-moustached old men, each behaving as beclogged children, jolly girls, and sourly amused old men on bowling greens always do behave.
Yet there were harbingers of change, intimations of mutability, like the foreign-sounding voices of Savoy Hill, barely audible through a large gramophone horn attached to the wireless my father built around 1924. From that horn there had previously emerged only the sounds of my father's favourite records, ranging from comic songs like "When Father Painted the Parlour You Couldn't See Pa for Paint" to the pure tenors of Joseph Hislop and Heddle Nash. Now it transmitted whispers, in accents we hardly recognised, which sought to make more actual a world elsewhere that was grander than ours, though ours had its own gradations of grandness. Remote as these voices were, they were soon more immediate to us than the English newspapers, received late in the day and in any case lacking for us both the miraculous immediacy of broadcasting and the authoritative gossip of the local journals. One of those local journals was the sage and serious Mona's Herald, Mona being the Roman name for the island; the editor was the father of my schoolfellow Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass Experiment was to introduce supernatural horror into the tradition of television drama. Perhaps Kneale, his head full of the tales of wicked Manx fairies, also crouched over his father's wireless and heard strange, distant foreign voices, as from another planet.
We were much too far from any transmitter to use a crystal set, and the wireless was large and cumbersome, the first thing you noticed when you went into the room. It required batteries both wet and dry. Every week I would take the wet battery to a garage in Athol Street, where they would recharge it for sixpence. These errands took me into the intellectual and administrative centre of the town. That Athol Street had a few small garages and shops did not seem to harm its dignity. It represented, among other things, the Inns of Court of our world. The courts themselves were nearby, and so was the House of Keys, the parliament of that world. The police station was just round the corner. The advocates, as we called them, practised their own peculiar Manx brand of law in their offices in Athol Street. Nowadays the street is also occupied--infested, as some might say--by offshore banks and companies whose operations occasionally transcend the ordinary limits of just conduct as implied by almost any system of law; but in my day Athol Street still marked a frontier between respectability and disgrace. "If he doesn't change his ways he'll find himself in Athol Street" was a dire prediction, of bankruptcy if you were well off, of worse if you weren't.
The young and the poor heard a great many such warnings, but the lawyers and businessmen who actually found themselves daily in Athol Street were naturally exempt. They were among those on whom my mother had founded her conception of the gentleman. This was not entirely a matter of giving women the wall rather than the gutter, or of confidently reacting to certain social stimuli, for example the approach of a lady or a funeral, by raising the hat or cap. It had also to do with the way important people addressed their inferiors or, in the good old sense of the word, condescended to them. But it was hardly conceivable that such displays of chivalrous conduct could be consistent with irregular dress. The clothes worn by the gentlemen of Athol Street, rich, ample, watch-chained, confirmed their status, too high for envy but not for emulation. I had no inferiors but could practise with my cap. My father, a workingman, had a rich array of hats, including a bowler for Sunday walks, the main object of which was to offer opportunities for its courteous removal. I even remember a top hat, held close to the spout of a steaming kettle to freshen the nap, but I may be borrowing this hat from someone else's father, or someone else's memory.
Much later, his morale destroyed, he wore detachable collars, which to my priggish annoyance he would tear off as soon as he got home. Modern men who work as he did would never dream of wearing collars, ties, and suits, but at that time open-necked shirts were either not invented or considered suitable only for strolling on seaside promenades. Once in his own house, and no longer needing to be respectable, he was entirely indifferent to his appearance, at any rate between the neck and the calf. In spite of his impatience with collars he was strangely obsessed with extremities and their decorous covering, and placed what seemed to me a fanatical emphasis on the care and cleaning of shoes. This was a permanent cause of friction between me and an otherwise quite good-natured parent. Gentlemen had gleaming, perfectly formed shoes, not scuffed on the toe caps by kicking stones or crumpled at the back by the lazy habit of stuffing the foot in without undoing the laces.
It was an important consideration that many of my contemporaries had no shoes at all, and understandably lacked aspirations to gentility. In the 1930s, when almost everybody was out of work for at least forty weeks a year, poor children were issued with clogs at the public expense. Showers of sparks followed them as they tore round the streets and the school playground. They didn't seem to mind, but I knew very well how I'd have suffered. If I failed to clean my shoes, or if my dissolute ways drove my father to such despair that he was bankrupted or took to drink and lost his job, I would be compelled to wear clogs. Here was a threat, but it came to nothing, like so many others. It is interesting for an old man to reflect that few of the very dreadful retributions that threatened him in youth were ever exacted, even when deserved. So far, anyway.
Perhaps bringing up children was done in a more threatening way in those days, especially among the lower classes, and since the threats were so frequent and various, many would never be realised, and one came to assume, perhaps too easily, that they were just forms of words, their disciplinary work done there and then rather than in some blighted future. But the shadows of such threats, even if mostly lacking the power to inflict real harm, capable at best of creating an atavistic unease, can persist throughout life; now that I am perfectly free to neglect my shoes entirely if I want to, I still feel unhappy when I notice that I have used them roughly and neglected to polish them. I take every opportunity, when in America, of having my shoes cleaned by professionals, whose skill I greatly admire. It is a confessional experience: one steps down from the dais glowing with restored virtue. But even now my shoes could never, after the first weeks, survive a paternal inspection. Every crack in the uppers reminds me of the sudden transformation of my father, spotting a scuffed toe cap or a trace of mud on the heel, into a loud, bitter enemy, he who was ordinarily quite gentle and affectionate, the more remarkably in that he had so inexplicably begotten a son who resembled him in no way whatsoever, being fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty (not only as to footwear), and very unlikely to add to the family store of sporting cups and medals, tributes to his skills in football, swimming, and, later, bowls, at which he was a champion. I am glad to say I have a son, and a brother-in-law, who are able to win cups and medals as he did.
An even more troublesome survival of my early training is, or was, a habit of deference, acquired to please an insistent mother, and now hardly a bother at all, cancelled by the insouciance of old age. Formerly, though, it was very irksome, and got me into difficulties at important moments in my life. It was a tendency to irrational and premature compliance with the expectations of anybody who assumed the right to demand it. This was partly a consequence of having been born poor,
but to reliable people who trusted one another without question and rarely imagined they were being imposed upon, even though they very often were. In a way you could trust even the boss or a policeman, trust them to do their office. After all, there is no doubting the reality of an authority that can give you the sack or, even if you are on first-name terms, as you very well might be with the local constable, lock you up. But this trust could also extend to people who had no such sanctions at their disposal. In short, I have been much too ready to assume in all acquaintances an innocence of motive, as if it were impossible that they should be deceivers, slanderers, cheats, without pity for anybody who made such an absurd assumption. But that is not the end of it; having found out my mistake I might well react excessively, for to break such a habit may call for a violent effort.
Such reactions have sometimes got me into trouble, and then I blame that early training in politeness and motiveless civility, mostly, as I've said, at the hands of my mother. Why was she so keen on it? Partly, no doubt, because of her early training. Just what form this took it is impossible to say. Information about her childhood lay under a permanent ban. It seems certain, though barely credible, that her parents emigrated to the United States when she was no more than a few days old, leaving her behind. We know little about her fostering, though it has been established that in her second year a fifteen-year-old girl carried her on foot from Douglas to Braddan church, a long walk with such a burden, and there had her christened by a certain Canon Kermode (no known connection with the family she later married into). It is not known how she came to spend her youth at Kewaigue, a hamlet two or three miles out of Douglas, in the parish of Braddan. She must have gone to school somewhere, very likely one of those tiny village schools with only one classroom that were still to be seen in the villages when I was walking about the island. And perhaps it was a good school, for she was not ignorant, only innocent.
After that she went to work in a Douglas cafe, the very place where those well-shod and courtly advocates and businessmen gathered for coffee or light lunches. It still stands where it stood eighty-odd years ago, though somewhat changed. The girls no longer live above the shop as they did then. My mother always spoke of this time (the earliest time she ever did speak of) with affection. Her memory was not only of the impressive customers but of the gaiety of the girls. They wrote, facetious rhymes in one another's albums, and probably went in for a little gentle flirtation. Lively girls, they did not mind looking alike in their white blouses and long black skirts. They had left school at fourteen unconvinced of the sadness of their lives. Given as she was to little bursts of giggling, it was easier than you might expect to think of my mother being gay, even a little wild, though the fun was associated with a condition of servitude, however benignly imposed. Later her memories of the shop were always of fun and giggling, which would make her giggle again and, as she grew old, laugh more hugely, gulping for breath and laughing on. In her last years she wept a good deal but giggled still, sometimes imagining herself to be a girl in a teashop, weeping on her visits to the empty present. So she never wholly lost her gaiety, though she did lose her mind.
On the day she was told of my father's death, a brilliant cold day in late March with the wind rattling the hospital windows, she understood what we were telling her; her face crumpled and her eyes poured tears. But the matron, passing briskly through the ward, called out, "What's this? What's this? Tears on Easter morning?" and she giggled and said, "Oh no, matron, that won't do, will it?" Authority, ignorant of her real wants, was ordering her to be cheerful, and she obeyed.
Still, there may have been a moment in her life when she herself had been capricious, officious, demanding deference, as was the right of pretty young women. After my father's death she mistook me for him as he had been long ago. Once she demanded the present of a scarf she had seen in a draper's window in the town, I suppose fifty-odd years before. Having no idea how to deal with this command, I foolishly rushed off to the town and bought a scarf that was in that same shop window. When I got back to her, she had returned to the desolate present and scolded me for this absurdity, asking what possible use such a frippery could be to her.
Somehow the gaiety was dependent on the vulnerability, it derived from the threat of desolation, it was a carnival escape from fear; it might even have been a fear of hell, a terror long in decline in the thoughts of the educated classes though not in the pulpits of our town. But she was obedient rather than religious, and what she feared most was the capacity of other human beings, especially those close to her, to threaten, cheat, and betray, after all a very reasonable fear, though her having to deal with it as she did was probably a reason for my discounting it.
I reflect often on this association of gaiety with terror, giggling with desolation. It had nothing to do with the wellknown comic defiances of the poor, the boldness of the music hall, the naughtiness of Marle Lloyd and her imitators, with some of whom I was early acquainted. Large and ornate women and beery male comics from Lancashire would, in summer, pack the huge halls of my native town and tell off-colourjokes about the Rector of Stiffkey, who was defrocked for some sexual offence and later, doubtless driven by extreme poverty, had exploited his notoriety by allowing himself to be exhibited in a barrel at Blackpool, where, I seem to remember, he was attacked by a lion; or Gandhi, his diet described as consisting of a glass of water and a caraway seed; or posh London girls caught taking cocaine. They made a world, blowsy, bawdy, and wicked, which their holiday audiences could inhabit for a carnival hour, for it contained images not only of the absurdities and miseries of a la-di-da upper class that wasn't, in the 1930s, feeling much of the real pinch. This pleasure they could have in Douglas, as in Blackpool, another favourite summer resort, without needing to abandon their own tripe-and-cowheel world, and their own reassuring, saving kinds of coarseness and sentimentality. The singer Florrie Ford came year after year for a generation, fat, loud, rich, fantastically overdressed, but certainly in touch and offering the audience a hugely magnified image of their own Cockaignes. It's said that when a man threw a banana at her she caught it, ate it, and invited him to come back afterwards and get his skin back. I once met Miss Ford; it must have been in the summer of 1939, when I was working at a summer job collecting tickets on the Fleetwood or Liverpool ferries. Reclining, vast and perfumed, in her private cabin, she handed me two tickets, one for herself and one for her dog. She wanted me to ask where the dog was, so I did. "Dead!" she cried, exploding with grief.
Although they were arranged for the benefit of the inhabitants of Lancashire mill towns emptied by their annual holidays or "wakes," and for the vast armies of Scottish shipyard workers, we natives got some good from these mildly libertine summer shows, and we could dance to the big bands, Jack Hjlton, Roy Fox, and the rest, picking up girls in the vast ballrooms, pretending to be carefree "visitors" with wealthy parents living in some part of England that sounded remote and posh, say, Sussex, or any other place not in the north, enj'oying exceptional liberties to which we were certainly not entitled, exploiting our superior knowledge of the place, its glens, beaches, pubs.
But Douglas did not, in those hectic summer weeks, really belong to us. It reverted to us only in mid-September, when we settled down to the severity of winter manners and, for many of us, the struggle to survive the long months of unemployment. The only release came at the end of the year, especially on New Year's Eve, still for Celts in those days the more important winter festival, though there might, from time to time, be a wedding, at which some relaxation was permitted, and when the gaiety of all had been fuelled by port or, on the grandest occasions, whisky, the lights might go out and the house ring with squeals and giggles as the young did, or came near to doing, what was never spoken of. To people who did their normal courting in cold doorways, bundled up in overcoats, these moments of licensed excess, this freedom to giggle, touch, and unbutton, must have been almost unimaginably precious. In the ordinary way there was little licence on offer to the young, who were then younger than now, though I feel the young of my mother's youth must have been younger still, and still more strictly inhibited. All the same, they found their way to be occasionally happy, the wild giggling above the shop consistent with maidenly propriety, though not, when inopportunely remembered, with the end-time of senility.