‘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 positivity. 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.