Roy Hattersley’s book is an engaging account of what life was like for those caught in the poverty trap in Britain during the Thirties and Forties. The Hattersley family eventually climbed out: Enid, his mother, became Lady Mayoress of Sheffield and Roy a possible future prime minister. Like Mr Tebbitt’s celebrated parent, his father got on his bike, and at one time pedalled thirty miles each way to Barnsley on a machine with a front wheel so buckled it threw its rider into the air like a circus performer. There was no money for a new wheel, so the daily journey was made moving up and down as well as forward.
Roy’s dad was the Roman Catholic priest in the village of Shirebrook when he met Enid, whom he subsequently married. Hattersley Senior never confided this well-kept secret to his son. Years later, after his father died, Roy showed his mother a letter from the Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, hoping to provoke some response: ‘She slowly absorbed the final promise to say prayers for the repose of his good soul and then stared remoselessly at the name signed next to the little Maltese Cross below the benediction. “That,” she said, “was the man they sent to take your father back. Not a word,” she went on smiling still at the memory, “of the achievement ever appeared in a newspaper.” ’
It was the first but by no means the last of his remarkable mother’s achievements. It was she who decided that the three Hattersley brothers and the new Hattersley wife would all stay together and, of course, her mother came too. Old Mrs Brackenbury was helpless and almost completely paralysed by rheumatoid arthritis. The family nursed her steadfastly and she eventually died, as for ten years or so she had lived, huddled and immobile in her little bed under the living-room window. When his mother broke the news, Roy repeated a phrase he had only half-understood and assured her it was all for the best. ‘My grandmother had endured a week of unremitting and incurable agony but it was not what my mother wanted me to say. Crying after she had left the bedroom made no amends.’
The curious niceness which persisted in the British character throughout the years during which our Roy grew up, and which is captured both by him and by the authors of Dad’s Army, is everywhere apparent, although his neighbours come in for a good bit of stick. Goaded on one occasion by their refusal to return a cricket ball and subsequently subjected to a hail of golf balls, he told the tale to his uncle, who departed forthwith to a junkyard, to return with the materials for erecting a fence between the properties. Unfortunately, most of the timber selected consisted of lavatory doors with the designations as to sex still apparent. Legal proceedings were instituted and the Hattersleys forced to dismantle the barricade. They didn’t forgive their neighbours for twenty years. Nor were the Browns satisfactory neighbours when fire-watching rotas were compiled. Mr Brown was a golf enthusiast and nominated his wife as his deputy. When Roy’s father complained that Mrs Brown was not really a suitable replacement, the entire fire-watch party descended on Mr Brown demanding an explanation. Mr Brown, unperturbed and still swinging his niblick, indicated the garage. ‘ “I should not, of course, be telling you this,” he said, “but you force my hand. That building is full of equipment which I must man whenever enemy action seems imminent.” The lynch mob apologised and slunk home and from then onwards my father fire-watched alone.’ Roy kept to himself the knowledge that the garage housed a defunct Morris Opal.
If there was one thing the small happy family had set their heart on it was Roy’s studies. His mother’s eagerness for him to do well was acutely painful to both of them: his father, though he wanted his child to succeed, almost always expected him to fail. Both of them, he knew, were always interested in what he did. His mother eventually taught him the most important truth in her own life – never, never to give up. Writing about the family pet, whom he nursed back to health after a near-fatal encounter with an Austin Seven, he tells how he was obliged to carry her enormous bulk twice daily over a mile to the local common in order that she might still obey her earlier training never to defecate in the garden. ‘Saving her life was very important to me,’ Roy remarks.
She represented that quality of life I admired the most. She was incurably hopeful. On holiday in the corrugated-iron bungalows we rented for a week each summer, I would watch her chase seagulls along the littered beach. She was fat, she was unhealthy and when on form she could jump 18 inches into the air. But until the end of her life she believed that one day she would catch a bird in mid-flight just below the clouds.
On the back cover of Letters to a Grandson, Lord Home is pictured at Eton standing beside Matthew, the recipient of the correspondence. The fly-leaf expresses the hope that Matthew won’t object to publication. Lord Home also promises not to publish anything of Matthew’s without first obtaining permission. Both Lord Home and Matthew are posed uneasily in front of iron railings guarding a statue of what may conceivably be the founder of the college: on the sleeve of Roy Hattersley’s book is a photograph of his proud parents swinging their offspring, in a solar topee, across the sands at Bridlington.
There is no doubt in my mind which of the two authors was born with the traditional silver spoon. Lord Home’s book exhibits an entire absence of affectionate concern for his grandson and little knowledge of him. ‘I am assuming,’ he writes, ‘that you are not a pacifist.’ Couldn’t he have asked? ‘It is difficult,’ he begins, ‘to know where to start the story. I am going to do so with my father. To mark the change between then and now I must tell you he went to war on his horse.’ Not, mark you, any old horse – his own horse. After that there is no further mention of his dad, except that among his friends was Haig, whose fear that the French were unlikely to be reliable allies he confided to the author. Lord Home notes that when Haig succeeded to the High Command he employed the same tactics of mass attack and attrition as his predecessors. Had he seen a better way, adds his Lordship, he would certainly have adopted it, ‘for I remember him as one of the most humane of men.’
The continuing theme of these letters is an abiding dislike and mistrust of the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese. To him the yellow peril is as real today as it was presumably in his nursery. He once asked Gromyko to send a lot of Russian young to meet a comparable number of British boys and girls at work and play. Mr Gromyko replied that he wouldn’t like to expose his young to the decadence of our modern youth. Of course the real reason, adds the writer, was that he didn’t dare to allow young Communists to get a taste for the liberties which are a commonplace in our democratic society. That would depend, I suppose, on where they were to be entertained. If I was a Russian I would think twice before consigning my child to one of our inner cities. It is not pleasant to know that we live in a country where youths who slash babies’ cheeks with broken bottles in order to snatch their mothers’ handbags can confide to their victims that ‘this is our living, lady.’
In a postscript his Lordship introduces a rare note of hope that the rest of mankind will see the error of their ways. He still apparently feels impelled to take out an insurance policy but with less expectation of a crash. He looks forward to his grandson’s reactions to his account of the events of the last seventy years and asks, while admitting that it’s a dirty trick: would you have done differently and where would you go from here? A weak inconclusive finish to a weak inconclusive book. His nephew will have to learn that it’s a different wall game now.