"Every dark cloud is having its backside warmed by the sun"
‘Come up and see my etchings,’ he said. It was 1963 and the young man was an
assistant where I was staying at the Derwentwater Youth Hostel. And there were
etchings! Replying to my letter home dad wrote that he would have viewed such an
invitation ‘with trepidation.’ This was my first leaving and when his weekly letters
began; they continued for the next eighteen years till following a stroke six months
earlier he died on Christmas Day 1980. The letters from his final six months trail and
slope over the page, describing a life shrunk, a life shuffling between the bed downstairs
and the wheel chair but they remain keenly alive
My father, William Henry Sturgess was born deaf in 1900, a factory hand at thirteen he
married Joyce in 1936, the year they bought ‘Bonny Braeside’, a modest 1930’s
Midlands semi [so named after a brief honeymoon in Stranraer] , The row of semis was
built on a hill , the backs facing north overlooking farmland and the occasional village
church tower rising above distant clusters of trees. South though it is a different story.
During my youth buses took men north to work in the pits returning with blackened
faces in the evening. Hundreds of factory hands, mostly women, were bussed into the
village to work in the numerous boot and shoe and hosiery factories.
After seven childless years my brother Chris was born and I arrived three years later
when my father was forty- six.
Perhaps being the youngest and much wanted only son doted on by a household of
females , my father possessed enviable inner confidence and a profound faith in a
benign universe no matter what life presented. His was the bright side. He would have
slapped Mr Macawber on the back and congratulated him on his positive outlook.
Confident, with a child –like trust in the world, imaginative, intelligent and always open
to possibilities he was a wonderful father to small children perhaps because he was
rather child-like himself. But there was a dark side (isn’t there always!) . Worshipped as
a child the clouds began to gather for me when I reached puberty. ‘Where’s my little
girl?’ ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Cheer up..’ What that was all about? At the time I was just
miserable and lonely but in retrospect I see myself expelled from Eden, clutching my
shameful sexuality. I can see now how ill equipped I was to cope with the world.: I
gave myself away and at times seriously contemplated suicide. Often there is a sharp
disparity between my reality and his letters. Of course he only responded to what I told
him but I early learned there was little to be gained from telling him the truth since I
would be told to cheer up and perhaps I also wanted to protect his remorseless
But who tells their parents everything! Occasionally though I will interject
with an account of my reality.
But we all love best we can and those weekly letters were a constant as was his love for
me. His is a voice from another age, a time when people stayed put, made do and
expected little. And he was deaf. The machines he operated were potentially dangerous,
periods of unemployment were interspersed with gruelling shift work He never
complained and was grateful for anything he could get.
Not a lot happens in the letters. It is a small world , gardening, bell ringing, the
weather… but whatever my father describes he is always engaged with a child-like
enthusiasm , the same enthusiasm that almost had me convinced when
we picked out eight draws every Tuesday that the next Saturday this time we would win on the pools.
Finally, always there was mum, the driving force….scratting and scraping, making do
and mending, ’That meal cost nine pence. I paid three pence for the suet, we grew the
potatoes, the butcher threw in the scrag- end’… Dad, ‘Isn’t your mother wonderful?’ and
Chris and I like a Greek chorus,’ Yes, she is wonderful.’ Now when I think of her I feel
sad…always something to prove and a need to try harder. She was usually tense,
worrying and critical, the control and power behind everything but rarely at peace. I
was generally a trial,’Oh our Joy, you’ll drive me scranny. But she was such a clever and
talented woman and if she was hard on me she was much harder on herself. Dad and
mum complemented one another perfectly. He was happy to subscribe to the belief that
he was useless at all things practical…’Oh Bill, let me do that,’ while his constant praise
and reassurance poured oil on very troubled waters.
The Main Characters...
...is No 9 in a row of 1930’s semis, each with a strip of back garden leading down to the field. The houses are numbered No 5 -13. When I was growing up this row was sandwiched between some ancient cottages and The Plough Inn next to No 13. Most of the activity relevant to me was between No’s 5 and 9 because eleven children were born into these three houses. We called all the neighbours aunt and uncle, my parent’s close friends too. Auntie Gwen and Uncle John lived in No 5. They had four children and were definitely a cut above us because Uncle John was a director where he worked. They possessed things, notably a car, a television and a telephone. I always felt not good enough in Auntie Gwen and Uncle John’s house. Years later Auntie Gwen announced with some surprise that I hadn’t turned out too badly. Auntie Gwen and Uncle John did take me out a lot though because their daughter Elizabeth (Liz) and I were fairly close in age. I did love spending time in their house.
Uncle Albert and Auntie Ethel lived next door at No 7 with their five children. Albert had a ferocious temper and because we shared a partition wall our family often froze in silence when he came home from work in a bad mood. When we were younger Chris and I took it in turns doing shifts practicing the piano in the morning. Every second week I was on the half six early shift and always knew my time was up when I heard Albert coughing (he smoked). They too owned things but Auntie Ethel used the front room for hairdressing and always seemed to be busy. I liked their lower garden because it was overgrown and hence a great place for building fires. Liz and I played with Lesley the youngest and I was often not kind to her. Liz, Les and I were all youngest children but I was the eldest of the three and often chose Liz and left Les out...I think I was sometimes a bit of a bully.
The Taylors lived at No 11 and Auntie Win. moved in when they left. We never called the Taylors auntie and uncle. Mr Taylor was cross . One day after they left they invited us to see their new house in Nuneaton . On the journey to visit them I remember the slag heap gliding past the train window and the interminable afternoon spent with them. Auntie Win who replaced them had been my infant school teacher. We had to call her Auntie but I never warmed to her. She wore pebble glasses and I had been afraid of her when in her class. She was sad and I think rather bitter. Three times she had been engaged during the First World War but her men were all killed.
My brother Chris and I sometimes seem like opposite sides of the same coin. I reacted and left home as soon as I could and he stayed. Except for long cycling holidays and the years when he was in Worcester training to be a teacher he has always lived in the family home and still does. His schooling, like mine, was something of a disaster and straight after his A Levels he began a printing apprenticeship. In his late twenties he handed in his notice and took a job at the local Co-op so that he could repeat his A levels. His results then and at Worcester Teacher Training College were outstanding and he went on to become a brilliant junior teacher, always creative and fully engaged with his classes. Moving back to Earl Shilton and working in schools within cycling distance, his life continued to centre around home...digging the garden, ringing the bells etc, a continuum of our early life. His life had stability at the centre of a network of neighbours, family and friends, a stability that my life lacked. With one or two unavoidable gaps he has visited Ireland every year since 1974. Chris never married but he has loved and been loved. We have learned not to talk about politics and at times our differences have caused some strife (usually because of my intolerance) but we love one another dearly.
It is possible to get a fairly clear picture of mam from dad’s letters. She was the eldest of five children and the only girl. Her young life was tough because for years her mother was dying with stomach cancer and mam had to be a little mother to her four younger brothers. In addition, her father was a harsh man. If he disapproved of something she did he would hit her across the face and if she then cried she would receive another hit. She learned to hide her feelings. Mam was a hotbed of suppressed feelings that found expression through feverish work. She never stopped. In addition, the greatest crime in our house was waste and everything was saved, everything (every elastic band, length of string , envelope, sheet of wrapping paper...) . Everything around the subject of money was fraught. The family myth was that I was the emotional, wasteful one. One day when I was fourteen and we were disagreeing about something mam said,’ Well, do as you like,’ and effectively washed her hands of me. Sometimes I gained her approval but mostly I was perceived to be wild and unmanageable.
Mam never seemed to know where she fitted in. Sometimes she would insist that we were just as good as others but she had a finely tuned nose for what was common. Our house/ income was modest but mam was very aware that she had married into a family that was above her. That probably explains why she spent so much time with Auntie Sylvia. Mam had four brothers, George, Arthur, Jim and Charles.
Gran Cis ( see below) lived in the cottage where my mother grew up. It was attached to Prospect House , the grand house near the hollow. My grandfather Piercy (Arthur) had quite a bit of land around the cottage and when my mother lived there the family grew all their food and reared a pig each year. Her father later sold the land to the village and once flattened it became the village bowling green and tennis courts. There was a condition to the sale that all of his children could use the new facilities freely. This accounts for my mother becoming a county tennis champion and why a slap on the back of my legs could leave its imprint for days.
Mam left school when she was thirteen . The miss Everards who lived next door in Prospect House never married and ran a dame school . My mother went to school there .
It has taken me years to recover from the last time I saw my mother. She was in a Leicester hospice dying with mouth cancer. At that time I was living in Ireland, had three small children and a sick husband so my time in England was limited. I had to travel over to England to say goodbye and was told that I could do this on condition that I wouldn’t cry. The night before saying goodbye I couldn’t sleep for crying. The next morning I thought I had cried it all out but when I arrived at the hospital it was clear that there were more tears. I made my way up to the hospice slowly, crouching down behind buildings to cry before taking in a deep breath and composing myself sufficiently for the visit. And all was well until a passing nurse said,’ You all right me duck? You look choked up,’ and that did it. I cried and mam hit me. A weak sideways hit, nothing like her old back handers and she asked me to leave. At the entrance she hit me again and I said, ’Mam, you can’t let a hit be the last thing between us.’ And then she gave me a stiff hug. Now I know that it was her own tears she was afraid of.
Auntie Sylvia .
Auntie Sylvia , my father’s cousin, was the daughter of Jack Best who until the advent of sliced, wrapped loaves in the early sixties, baked the village bread. By then however he had made his money and his family lived in an expensively furnished detached house at the smarter end of the village. His two daughters , Sylvia and Madge, had been to the fee paying grammar school. Auntie Sylvia was sad. She was the plain sister. Madge, her beautiful sister, had married but died giving birth to baby John who was then reared by Auntie Sylvia until he died of Diphtheria aged two. It was then Auntie Sylvia’s lot to mind her aging parents, Min and Jack. I remember them both in wheelchairs either side of the fire. Uncle Jack was grim and judgmental and Min had a ferocious temper. I remember her shaking her fists at Uncle Jack and the general atmosphere of bitter disapproval. Auntie Sylvia told how when she was twenty-five her father had found her powder compact and thrown it onto the back of the fire. Life had passed her by and she was negative and bitter. For years Saturday afternoon was spent visiting Auntie Sylvia with my mother. I spent eons there while Auntie Sylvia and my mother embroidered, gossiping about anyone and everyone. There was a lot of negative criticism ...negativity in general and teatime though welcomed as an interval amidst the tedium was fraught, a balancing act with best china, nests of tables and impossible decisions; Auntie Sylvia was not a good cook... choose another piece of cake and it would be reported later that I made a pig of myself and if I refused then she would ask what was wrong with her cooking.
Throughout mam’s life she courted a succession of negative elder women seeking their approval. Dad may have been deaf, unskilled and broke but his family was a class above my mothers. This may explain why mam faithfully clung to Auntie Sylvia when many gave her a wide berth. Auntie Sylvia always gave me expensive but wholly inappropriate presents like a first edition Spode china cup and saucer which then had to be locked away and never used. I still have a collection of these up in the attic. Generally Auntie Sylvia could be counted on to disapprove. When short skirts were in she ‘d sniff and comment, ’That’s a bit short isn’t it?’ and when long, it was ,’That’s a bit long isn’t it.’ She was my godmother and despite everything I was fond of her. She died alone, sitting in her chair for two days before someone found her.
Gran Cis a lovely warm and homely woman was my mother’s step –mother and is mentioned frequently. She lived alone in the ancient two up three down family cottage , my mother’s homeplace ( my grandfather died when I was small). For many years Sunday evenings meant cards with Gran Cis. She had a surprising side too since she read tealeaves, the cards and consulted her crystal ball. ; sometimes she could be persuaded to tell my future something she did with long pregnant pauses and much quiet drama.
I loved the cottage smells...its wainscoting the bowed floor upstairs, its ancient beams, the sunken floor in the washhouse and I especially loved the drama of a visit to the outside toilet in the dark, flashlight in hand. Gran Cis had a brother Tig who became a tramp. At intervals he appeared with bent cans of food he had
begged from the Co-op and lived in the washhouse till he moved on again.
Gran Cis was the daughter of a prosperous farmer and her maiden name was De Ville. She slipped in the occasional French word, always mispronounced. The cottage had no bathroom and if you called and she was washing at the kitchen sink she’d say, ’Oh, you’ve caught me in my ‘disabille.’ She was always invited to our house on special occasions and so was Auntie Sylvia... chalk and cheese. Gran Cis had been the plain one in the family. Her sister Kate had married a factory owner. She modeled herself on a 1950’s movie star with a three quarter length fur coat, bright red lipstick and a cigarette holder( she even had a gap between her front two teeth) . I disliked her . There was another sister we never met and we didn’t meet her bother Tig either but that trip to the outside toilet past the washhouse always had an edge to it.
My father was forty-six when I was born and since his two sisters were much older than him they and their families seemed irrelevant to me. Dad’s sister ,Hilda had married a Shetlands schoolmaster, Jack Peace, and rarely visited. Auntie Hilda sent really boring presents knitted with Shetland wool...a pair of socks etc. On her very rare visit I was spellbound since she was so exotic and striking with her abundant strawberry blonde wavy hair and air of authority. My father’s sister Ivy lived down the main street. She was married to Bill Jacques. Bill was angry and rough. When dad and I called in after church on Sundays we were invariably met with ,’Bugger off,’ from Bill. At home Ivy was generally referred to as, ’Poor Ivy.’ Bill and Ivy had two daughters who were so much older then me but when I met them years later I liked them both.
There was no contact with the Sturgess relations. When my Sturgess grandfather, William Henry, was mentioned it was always in passing and with my mother’s disapproving rapid intake of breath. The dark cloud that hung over his memory I later assumed was linked to his bankruptcy since in our family waste was a terrible sin. He died when my father was sixteen. Dad always insisted that he caught Pneumonia from sitting on the top deck of a tram rushing into Leicester to try and sort out his affairs. He also said that on his deathbed he sang ’Abide with me’ !
My father’s letters glow with warmth. I always knew he loved me but now I know that he didn’t protect me from my mother’s harshness The house revolved around mam and she kept a stern eye on him when he was with me...’Bill, you’re spoiling her,’ was a refrain and often his attention to me was clandestine.
My paternal grandmother,
My granny Jane Best died soon after I was born. Her mother Bertha had been in service and in one letter it mentions that she had been housekeeper to Gerald Balfour, Arthur Balfour’s brother. Jane was one of nine children, most of whom lived in Earl Shilton. She was born when her mother was in service at Dovedale House in Blockley, Gloucestershire. How that side of the family managed to move from service to relative prosperity in so short a time is a mystery. When I was small, Bests owned the village shop up at our end of the village and Bests baked the village bread. I don’t associate that side of the family with warmth. However, for better or worse I always felt that they were my tribe. I look like them. Those in service are often more snobbish than their employers. Many of the Bests possessed an air of superior, authoritative disapproval and lacked warmth. Nothing was good enough for my father’s mother Jane and certainly my mother wasn’t good enough for her son Will. When widowed and poor Jane rented out an upstairs room to a dentist (my father remembers the fireplace full of pulled teeth after he had left) and the downstairs front room became a sweet shop run by herself and her sister Hepsibah. However, after my father married she still found time to call at ‘Braeside ‘ three times a day to inspect what Will had been given for each meal.
My mother’s brothers and their wives were warm and empathetic. All four brothers survived the Second World War and returned content to work in the boot and shoe factories or in my Uncle Charley’s case, down a mine. Their wives gave me Christmas and birthday presents I liked, usually age appropriate bright and plastic.. Sadly, though I loved my Piercy aunts and uncles, I never truly bonded with them . Auntie Dulcie, Arthur’s wife, Auntie Lil , George’s wife and Auntie Joan, Jim’s wife were all wonderful women .
Other people mentioned in the letters are the bell ringers and their wives. My father in addition to ringing the church bells was a member of a hand- bell-ringing group that stayed together for more than fifty years...Bill Newton, Percy Coe and Ernie Chesterton. These are men he grew up with who all lived locally because until I reached my forties the ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ (neighbours) and all the characters who had peopled our lives stayed put. Doris and Ernie Chesterton had lived in a detached house over the road. Their garden was huge so when they sold up and moved close by thirty starter homes were built where once there had been one. People aged, got sick and died. And the village population grew and became more fluid. The village shop was razed and a petrol station was built there, the bakery became a factory and Uncle Frank Best’s posh house became a fish and chip shop. The Bests moved away or died out.
It is very clear from my entries that I was very troubled. Sometimes I am amazed that I survived. Even now I compare dad’s sweet letters to what was going on for me at the time and remember how despite having two parents and a brother who loved me I felt very alone and frequently full of anger and shame.
But they never gave up on me though I am sure that my behaviour must have frequently bewildered and worried them.
One constant for me was Eileen Mackinlay, my tutor at Newton Park. She always had faith in me. I worked hard and she believed that I was talented. This meant so much to me. She later published a book about teaching, focusing on students from my year (Shared Experience. Methuen & Co (1972)) and included my thesis and an extract from a letter I wrote to her. She was always positive ...and I was so used to criticism and disapproval. She remained my friend until she died in 2003.