My youngest daughter, Molly Ernestine, can be no stranger to regular readers of this blog, not least for her photographs, which, in addition to being posted here on occasion, are prominently featured alongside my poems in the recent Shoestring Press publication, Aslant. So, on Fathers’ Day, time, perhaps, to cast an eye towards my older children, Tom & Leanne, who shared their 50th birthday at the end of last year.
First, a little look back …
and here, older now …
MAKING MAPS for Tom
Pushing up from Browning
through the Blackfeet Reservation
white crosses at the roadside
in fives and sixes now,
dead in the back yards
of broken shacks
We grin as ‘All Shook Up’
grinds out from the radio
lean our heads close and
sing as hard as we can
Driving through England
memory surprises me …
You made dams wherever we went
crouched patient over small streams
all the way from Castle to Iceberg
Lake, stopping time with your hands
When the deer breathed down
through the trees to the salt lick
at dusk I reckoned you’d earned it
Storms and rainbows
surrounded us. We drove
through three states,
three thousand miles
and love drove us fast together.
… later still, Leanne in Paris …
It seems too much of a cliché,
almost, to tell it,
but there, up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there amongst the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:
I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
with some cute little kid
watching the sun go down –
as if it could ever happen.
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth,
when one minute after they
let you out into the world
you can see everyone else is lying.
You try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last
five minutes and I’ll tell you this:
I haven’t met a single person
since I was sixteen who wasn’t
a bitch underneath, and I just
haven’t the strength to stand
up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and a half, and one thing I’m
sure of, it isn’t sitting out
on a dumb porch into the middle
of nowhere staring into some
She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her …
What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have
the ice cream as well, maybe
the chocolate sauce?
Seeing my face, she smiled.
Here they are, almost up to date …
And lest you think she’s been forgotten, this is Molly and I enjoying another afternoon watching Notts County. Come on you Pies!
My parents, Tom and Helen – Thomas Herbert Harvey and Helen Barton White – were married in the St. Pancras Registrar’s Office, Highgate Road, London, on the 29th of August, 1936; the marriage, as the certificate testifies, being solemnized in the presence of their mothers, Alice Harvey and Louise Barton White. My father’s father – no knowing if he were present or not – is listed as John James Harvey, Railway Engine Driver, and my mother’s father as John Barton White, Dramatic Author (deceased).
The certificate gives my father’s occupation as a commercial clerk, but lists my mother as a spinster without rank or profession, whereas I had always believed that she would already have been employed at Leonard’s, the dress shop in Kentish Town where she worked, initially as a salesgirl and later manager and buyer, until ill health finally forced her to retire. And there is one other anomaly, though it would not have been evident at the time: my father’s age is given as 30, my mother’s as 32, when she was, in fact, 35, the true date of her birth, 1901, not coming to light until she died.
In those early years of their marriage, the years before the war, it seems they went on holiday to the Continent – as they would have called it – on more than one occasion, beginning with a honeymoon in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, which is where, I believe, this photograph was taken.
The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder, set aside now in favour of pale slacks, white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer; sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera, that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.
The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still,her voice small and clear yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …
Now she sits with her arm resting on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open, waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing. the world waiting …
Those carefree days before the war.
… from Aslant (Shoestring Press, Nottingham. 2019)
As I noted in my previous post, in his Country Noir novel, Give Us a Kiss, Daniel Woodrell gives us a protagonist – Doyle Redmond – who is a published but, in his own eyes, barely successful novelist. When, at one point in the story, Redmond is forced to move home, he takes his library with him – the contents, it’s reasonable to assume, not that distant from Woodrell’s own.
My move-in was swift. I had only the blue pillowcase of my travelling clothes and one box of book in the Volvo trunk. I immediately displayed the books on the kitchen counter, as these books I never left behind and made any crap hold I landed in home to me. There were a couple of Elizabeth Bowen novels, a quartet by Lewis Wallant, one volume of Pierce Egan’s Boxing, The Williamsburg Trilogy by Daniel Fuchs, Carson McCuller’s oeuvre, a stack of Twain, a batch of Erskine Caldwell’s thin li’l wonders, some Liam O’Flaherty and John McGahern and Grace Caley and Faulkner, all of Chandler, and a copy of Jim Harrison’s A Good Day To Die. Also, a jumbo volume of Robinson Jeffers poetry, and various guidebooks to flora and fauna. Dictionary and thesaurus, of course, and my boot-camp yearbook from Platoon 3039, which would have been my junior year in high school. Plus, copies of my own output.
In about seven minutes I had relocated and settled in cozy.!
For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.
Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.
Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.
I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my 8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!
Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …
I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.
… and …
I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.
Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …
He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”
We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.
Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.
The poet and environmentalist, Nancy Nielsen, died on May 23rd, 2016, after a lengthy period of declining health. Her partner for many years, Alan Brooks, has recently published a collection of poems, maybe someday, written during the last months of her illness and the two years following, and is putting together a collection of Nancy’s poems for future publication.
I was fortunate enough to visit Alan and Nancy a number of times in their secluded cabin on the shores of Straight Bay, in Lubec, Maine, and remember with pleasure evenings when, after supper, we sat around and read poems, our own and others’, and, if we were very lucky, Alan could be persuaded to fetch his guitar down from the attic and give us a song or two.
What follows is a poem of Nancy’s, sent as a New Year card; a poem of mine, published in a slightly different version in Out of Silence, and two poems of Alan’s from maybe sunday,
The Light This Morning for Nancy Nielsen
The light this morning is touching everything
the poet says, and I imagine you
standing tall again
no longer numbed or navvied
letting loose the dogs
then stepping with them
into the pool of early morning,
the dew on the grass
fresh around your feet
I see you
walking in this early light
bending to your garden
setting things to rights,
these moments before
the day itself is up and going
A bird starts up from the trees
and you turn back towards the house
the cool of the kitchen
smell of coffee newly ground
the small clear crack of shell
as the eggs are loosed into the bowl
apples sliced straight into the butter
foaming ready in the pan
flour, a dusting of sugar, cinnamon:
The taste of it;
the cabin encircled, almost, by trees;
the clearing into which we walked
and you walked out to greet us
the light around us touching everything
Your poet’s eye
your stubborn hardiness and grace.
At Your Graveside
faint skirl of gulls from the flats –
ache of a yellowleg’s cry from the marsh: end end end end end summer’s ending
The sky today holds everything
we ever asked of it.
Encircled by goldenrod,
I say your name over and over –
you, who are now in this earth and of it.
Leaf shadows play
among first leaves falling.
Coyote Came In The Night
Coyote came in the night. I was gone.
Coyote, surely you know
we moved away years ago?
Surely you watched us leave –
felt our sadness –
saw us, a rare once in awhile,
return by day for an hour or two
and mostly me, alone, and then
and then, and then
only me alone?
She would have smiled, Coyote,
to see by first light that you’d visited –
come right to the back door –
and that you’d eaten of our fallen apples.
You sang to her often
and she called you Wise One,
sometimes even Friend.
Soon I will be here, Coyote,
both day and night. Come to me then
not as a tradesman or servant.
Our house is too humble for that.
Come to the front door as honoured guest.
Sing to me in the crisp nights of Fall
as a reveler, and in the longest nights
as a caroler singing
beyond this world’s grief
As I explained in a recent post, my mother came from a theatrical family; her father, John Barton White [otherwise known, for his romantic proclivities, as ‘The Bounder’] was both playwright and actor and ran his own successful touring company; her mother, Louise, was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom appeared on the stage from a very early age – Louise, Katie, Ruby and Pearl. Both her father and mother died before I was born, but I did get to meet my great aunts, Katie and Pearl on several occasions, most memorably, in Brighton, early in 1942.
By then, Katie would have been in her early 70s, Pearl some ten years younger. I would have been some months past my third birthday and not long started at kindergarten under the watchful eye of the nuns of the La Sainte Union Catholic School in north London, and the war would have been well into its third year.
We were in the kitchen when the bomb dropped. Or was it bombs? Whatever the case, the sound of the explosion was sudden, frightening; the vibrations close and strong enough to send every pot and pan from the high open shelves cannoning across the room and along the floor. What happened then, I don’t know. Did I scream or cry? I imagine my mother attempting to comfort me while my aunts, perhaps, put on a brave show of it, singing – they both regularly appeared in musical theatre and pantomime – as they cleared away and set things to rights.
There was more to come. We were walking, my mother and I, along the front, heading for the station, when a German plane – I presume on its way home after a raid – flew low towards us, strafing the promenade with machine gun fire. From nowhere, a man rushed towards us and shepherded us urgently towards one of the benches, under which we took shelter. It was over in moments: I remember it clearly. That and the saucepans flying from the shelves. Brighton, 1942.
A fascinating piece about Roland Kirk in Richard Williams’ always interesting blog, thebluemoment.com sent my back to these two poems of mine, which I used to read in and around Nottingham with a fine little band led by tenor player/flautist Mel Thorpe, the exchanges between voice and flute giving Mel the chance to give his best humming, whistling, growling impression of Kirk at his most fiery.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?
Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?
Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?
Would you say he was blind?
Would you say he was missing you?
YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!
It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St. Pancras Town Hall.
The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing “I’ve Got the World on a String”
in a high almost falsetto moan.
Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.
“You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!”
Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.
There it is, amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.
Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.
Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.
And this is how it begins …
He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.
Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …
I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.
It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”
He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.
… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.
My father served joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service just before or not long after the declaration of war in September, 1939 and served until a little after the war’s end in 1945. For most of that time, he was stationed at Chester Road fire station, opposite Highgate Cemetery in north London. You can see him clearly below, third from the left.
The AFS was a reserve firefighting force set up as part of the Air Raid Precautions Act in 1937 and with the outbreak of war all 23,000 of its firemen and women joined the 2,700 regulars of the London Fire Brigade to form the London Fire Service. For a long time I’d wanted to find a way of writing about what it must have been like for him, during the years of the Blitz especially, 1940-41. Trying to get him to talk about it in any detail proved nigh on impossible. Oh, he’d talk about the companionship, easily enough, the camaraderie, but the danger, the experience of climbing a swaying ladder towards the top of a blazing building … He’d shrug his shoulders, light another John Player’s and see if there wasn’t another cup of tea in the pot.
So, over the years, I picked up books on the subject – personal accounts, histories – and it was reading one of those that I first came across fire service messengers – boys in their teens, too young to be called up, who, when the phone lines were down, which was often, carried messages by bike from headquarters in different parts of London to officers in the field. Well, I thought, there has to be a story there, and when my French publisher asked for a book for young adult readers as a follow-up to my earlier Nick’s Blues, there was my chance. The story of a young cycle messenger and his fireman father during the worst of the London Blitz. Blue Watch.
Writer, translator and journalist, Seba Pezzani, had translated Nick’s Blues into Italian and since I knew he had read Blue Watch I asked him to let me know his thoughts. Here is his response …
I have had the honour of translating three novels by John Harvey, including Nick’s Blues, a riveting story of an adolescent who struggles with the memory of a long dead father. So, when I found out that his new young adult novel Blue Watch had been published, I purchased it immediately. Now, I fancy myself to be a writer, with one novel and four non-fiction books in print, as well as hundreds of articles published in a couple of Italian national newspapers, but, to my mind, John Harvey is THE writer and with Blue Watch he nails it once again.
Harvey’s narrative style flows easily, the mark of a true master. His young hero, Jack, the son of a Fire Brigade officer, finds himself answering a higher calling when his country is under siege by the forces of evil, the German bombers. In a credible, burning London, Jack will come to understand the power of loyalty and belonging and will discover the natural pull of life called love along the way. Set at one of London’s most difficult times in history, this novel is a page turner, a book that can be read by adolescents and adults alike. I dare anybody who tries reading it to refrain from shedding the odd tear or summoning up a smile and not feel for Jack and his mission.
John Harvey makes the difficult task of writing so simple that I feel like banging my head against the edge of my desk because not in a million years will I be able to match his ease. If you are a fan of Harvey’s, you cannot miss this book. If you are not, it will be a good starting point and from there you will go back and start reading all of his previous novels. But, whatever the case, read it. If will be worth the few quid it costs. Mind you, though, you may get hooked and there will be plenty more spending to come.
As much by luck as judgement, I’ve ended up, these last dozen years or so, living just three short streets away from where my grandparents lived – my father’s parents – and where, when I was little, I went every day after school, staying there until either my mum or dad was likely to be home from work. It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 that I was given a key of my own.
Mostly, I sat at the table in my grandparents’ small kitchen, doing homework or reading comics – Beano and Dandy, Film Fun – but once in a while – a bit of an adventure – two buses – I’d go with my nan to Chapel Market, tagging along as she searched for bargains amongst the crowded stalls. The treat of treats, however, was when she took me to see a cowboy film at the little Gaisford cinema in Kentish Town – Gene Autry it might be, Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane or Roy Rogers with Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers. Red River too much to hope for.
Where my nan was easy to get along with and even seemed to enjoy my company, my grandfather was the opposite. A long distance train driver who often spent nights away from home, in the small low-ceilinged house he was a silent, almost frightening presence.
My father’s father was the opposite, silent, unspeaking,
small pan of Camp coffee, black as pitch,
forever simmering on the stove.
Later, when I came to Dickens, he was the perfect Magwitch,
escaped from the prison ships on the estuary
to haunt my dreams. *
My other grandparents – my mother’s parents – I never knew – both had died before I was born – and my mother mentioned them rarely. Of my grandmother, Louise, I learned little other than that, like her three sisters, Katie, Ruby and Marie Pearl, she had been on the stage, and that she was beautiful. My grandfather, John Barton White, wrote plays as well as acting. It was how they met. About their lives together, the few facts I gleaned were sketchy, and eeked out over the years.
My mother had a book she treasured, presented to her as a school prize. The only school, she would say, she went to for as much as a whole term. The reason for this – again, this only came out in dribs and drabs – was that she was living with her father and travelled with him from one set of theatrical digs to another, the ones she mentioned mostly in London – Clapham, Kennington, Brixton, Stockwell – but there were others – Reigate, Worthing, Bognor – some further afield, Nottingham, Sunderland, South Shields.
Why her father? How had that happened? The answer seemed to be that her parents, had either separated or divorced, and my grandfather had left the family home, somewhere around 1903 or 04, leaving Louise with four children to look after: Reuben, born 1892, Katie, born 1895, Marjorie, born 1899 and Helen – my mother – born 1901. Some little time later, for whatever reason – possibly Louise was finding looking after four children difficult and asked John Barton to take one, the youngest, off her hands – my mother went to live with her father, an arrangement that seems to have continued for a number of years. The manner in which she was handed over seems to have been particularly thoughtless, even cruel. Apparently, she was taken to a railway station (by her mother?) and left on the platform until her father arrived to take her away. She would have been no more than nine years old.
She explains it another way:
When my mother was nine years old
she got off the train at Colchester station
a hand at her back
moving her across the platform
to where a man was waiting
A man steps through steam
(I suppose there was steam)
smoking a cigarette
“You’re going to live with your father now”
He stepped hesitant towards her
(I hope he was hesitant)
He is a fair man
you will see … **
Fair, possibly. A womaniser, certainly. His estranged wife – according to my mother – living in the dread expectation of at least one young woman turning up on her doorstep with a babe in arms, demanding to see its father. In the end, my mother said, with more than a hint of distaste, he took up with a “bit of a girl” – Mary Alice James – who, when she was seventeen, had been my grandmother’s maid, and together they had no less than sixteen children. Yes, sixteen. A son, John, in 1906, and then fifteen more. It seems barely credible, especially when you consider that during a great deal of this time he was travelling around the country with his daughter – my mother – in tow. If my mother ever met any of these children, or even knew of them at the time, she never said.
But in the end, true to his memory, she gave me his name. John Barton White. John Barton Harvey.
*from Winter Notebook, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)
**from She Explains It Another Way, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)