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.
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)