Mothers

Michael Church

  • Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee by Erik Lee Preminger
    Deutsch, 277 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 233 97736 8
  • George Thomas, Mr Speaker: The Memoirs of Viscount Tonypandy
    Century, 242 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0706 4
  • Toff down Pit by Kit Fraser
    Quartet, 129 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2513 6
  • Menlove: The Life of John Menlove Edwards by Jim Perrin
    Gollancz, 347 pp, £14.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 575 03571 4

For his 15th Christmas, Erik Lee Preminger’s mother gave him an antique gold watch and two glass eyes set in clay, with a card which said: ‘Remember dear, Mother is always watching.’ She thought it a hysterically funny gift, but he found it strange and unsettling. The last thing he needed, on the brink of manhood, was a symbolic reminder of her domestic omnipotence. Preminger may not move on the exalted literary plane of Edmund Gosse, but the impulse behind his book is not dissimilar to that which gave rise to Father and Son. Gypsy and Me absolutely had to be written, ostensibly as a tribute to a remarkable woman, but more importantly as a way of resolving a near-mortal conflict.

That conflict consisted of nothing so banal as simple hostility. The author is 12 as his tale begins, and he implies that until this stage the relationship has been agreeably harmonious. He introduces his mother at a turning-point in her career, and he introduces himself in a role which would make psychiatrists reach eagerly for their notebooks. We meet Gypsy Rose Lee, world-famous stripper and comedienne, as she works a New Year’s Eve date in a provincial club. Erik is her acolyte and general factotum. She is imperiously displeased with everything and everyone, and his thankless job is constantly to smooth things over. She has decided it’s time to quit, and the ground trembles under his feet. He panders nervously to her whims, feeds her superstitions (12 grapes to be consumed as midnight strikes), but is swept joyfully into her show once it gets under way. Four hands animated by a single brain, they prepare the spell together. She glues on her G-string and the black lace bows (one carefully crooked) that cover her breasts. Between numbers, he officiates as dresser, the spotlights set so that only his arms are seen: she wants the audience to assume her dresser is a maid. The act is provocative yet chaste: the audience are maddened with delight, and he is proud and happy.

As her career begins to veer and dip, Erik moves into the rapids of adolescence. The huge success of her autobiographical show Gypsy finances a grand European tour on which he acts as her cameraman, helps her spend vast sums on antiques, and aids and abets her kleptomaniac raids on hotel foyers and linen-cupboards. He enjoys all this, but he also learns the pleasure of defying her, if initially over trivialities. Back at their palatial Manhattan home things start to go wrong. She ‘employs’ him to sell copies of her books outside theatres, and pleads poverty when he asks for a new suit. His lifelong habit of petty thieving from her coffers is suddenly no longer petty, and rows ensue. Legally under age, he gets himself wheels, and gets himself laid. She sends him to a psychiatrist, who bolsters his rebellion. But the worst thing is that, to her, all this represents merely a peripheral disturbance. While he is drowning in the maelstrom of her casual caprices, she is plotting new projects and gallivanting around with her high-powered showbiz friends. One day, with sudden and shocking brutality, she forces him to terminate his first big love affair, as he weeps into the phone under her unrelenting stare. His first feeling, he says, was self-loathing, but ‘next I hated Mother, not passionately, but with an icy revulsion.’

That a progressive moral collapse should follow – hippiedom, then the army – is hardly surprising. He has been robbed of identity at every level. Enjoying equal status with money and her disagreeable little dog (‘darling’ applies to both it and him), he has not even been allowed his own hobbies (‘his’ stamp collection and train layout are in reality hers). There is also the little matter of his name, which has changed more than once in tandem with her changing allegiances, and there is the related issue of his real father’s identity. When 18-year-old Erik finally asks who she was with on the night in question, her first reply is that it’s none of his business, and his first reaction is to accept that reply as reasonable. Persistence obtains her admission that the father, carefully chosen for his sterling qualities, was Otto Preminger, and from this moment on Erik’s story becomes strangely benign.

In an extraordinarily touching scene, he meets his film-maker father (the famous surname is not immediately conferred) and is subsequently employed by him; he marries and procreates. At length the emotional miracle occurs. Time and distance allow him to see his mother’s faults as facets of her tenaciously creative personality, and one day truth comes in the guise of a lemon meringue pie. ‘Your favourite,’ she says, thrusting a slice at him and beaming. He has always loathed the stuff, but ‘in less time than it took to think the thought, I realised that she couldn’t help herself. She genuinely loved me ... but a short-circuit in her psyche prevented her from empathising, from making that step outside of her feelings into mine.’ He takes a big bite and feigns enjoyment. His book began as bitter comedy, but it ends, with her early death from cancer, in a rush of love.

There seems to have been nothing problematic about George Thomas’s relationship with his mother, even if he has dedicated his memoirs not to her but to the Mother of Parliaments. His mercifully long-lived Mam was, he tells us in his first paragraph, ‘the single most important influence in my life’, and that assertion is borne out at every stage of his serenely upward progress. His opening chapter, a true-romance account of his part in the recent Royal Wedding, reads like one of those taking-tea-with-the-Queen dreams which most commoners experience at one time or another, but bliss for him requires a further ingredient. ‘As I read the Archbishop’s words’ – inviting him to read the lesson – ‘I looked at my mother’s picture on the mantel piece and thought, if only you were here now.’ Happily, Mam was able to share many of his other triumphs, and the biggest photograph in George Thomas, Mr Speaker shows her presenting him with a daffodil on the day he was appointed Secretary of State for Wales. Fighting the election for Cardiff Central in 1945, he took as his slogan: ‘I will fight to ensure that no other mother suffers as mine has done.’ Her sufferings were economic, of course, like those of any other coalminer’s wife in the Thirties. In little George, who never married, she had the perfect son.

Much of his book reads like a series of postcards home, complete with snaps: Self with the Queen, Self with Prince Charles, Kenyatta, Chairman Hua, Lee Kuan Yew, Self receiving life-membership of the NUT (some gift!), Self receiving honorary doctorate, Self in state robes. The great events of history alternate, paragraph by cosy paragraph, with the great events of his career, and with the truisms he exultantly unearths. The world shrinks under his gaze. Life, for him, is a matter of simple politics and simple Sabbatarian piety: from Chicago to Colombo, he preaches in the local Methodist church wherever he goes. He meets the Birdman of Alcatraz, but has nothing to say about him. He recalls a mining disaster, but its prime interest lies in its moral lesson for him. Since he was the nerve-wracked minister in charge when the Aberfan tip collapsed we may forgive the conventionality of his account of that event, but his routine lack of curiosity becomes wearisome.

Some people think his very limitations, even his pathological obsession with pomp, made him a good Speaker, insofar as that job requires the maintenance of a still political centre. The detractors he has recently acquired would say that the slavered-over wig and silver buckles adorned a vacuum, and when one compares the complexity of the task with the simplicity of his mind the latter view is persuasive. Has he betrayed his office by breaking confidence and revealing the backstage manoeuvres of Michael Foot and others? Yes, but the revelations are of interest in that they indicate a secret system. Whether they are accurate is another question, of more interest to Mr Foot and his friends than it is to the rest of us. The most amusing revelation of all dates from long before the boy from the Rhondda made it to the Speaker’s chair, and shows Jim Callaghan dropping on his knees to pray with Thomas and then, having softened him up, requesting his support for the party leadership. True or false – and who cares? – this is just old-fashioned Parliamentary back-stabbing, and Viscount Tonypandy, with his charm, humbug, snobbery and sentimentality, is at bottom just an old-fashioned Parliamentarian.

Thomas’s memories of the 1926 strike and its aftermath ring a loud contemporary bell. His mother helped set up soup kitchens for the children of the unemployed. He recalls the impossibility of dole applicants’ ‘genuinely seeking work’ in a world of silent pits, and the local businessmen’s faith that their customers would honour the enormous debts they had incurred while out of work. Toff down Pit describes a social foray which took place prior to 1984, but its interest is greatly enhanced by what has happened since. The publisher’s blurb compares it, with predictable effrontery, to The Road to Wigan Pier, but the respective authors share little beyond their privileged backgrounds and their chosen subject-matter. Whereas Orwell’s report on underground life was the prelude to a formidable piece of political analysis, Kit Fraser’s jaunt had a limited, descriptive purpose.

Just as the gossipy bits of Mr Speaker were gleefully brandished by the press, so with Mr Fraser’s assertion that, on a good day, work at the coalface would hardly tax a debutante. The right-wing columnists who seized on that quote preferred not to read on to the following paragraph, in which the author describes the pain and exhaustion when things go wrong, but since the whole book oscillates between serious observation and puerile playing to the gallery, that will doubtless not be seen by him as a disaster. Fraser decided, at 23, to spend a year as a miner to prove his manhood. At the lowest conceivable level he did: he recounts the grimy details of his first copulation with triumphant candour. At a more dignified level, he learned to endure quite nasty persecution, physical violence in the pit-shaft lift, lighted cigarettes quietly inserted into his pockets, public humiliation every hour of the day. He had the guts to challenge a tormentor to a fight, if also the luck to have that challenge contemptuously ignored. He learned to labour as part of a team. If the chronicle closes with his climbing up onto his parents’ bed in tears, at the prospect of once more quitting the ancestral pile for a South Shields bedsit, he did at least survive.

That survival was due in part, he thinks, to his adoption of a caricature persona, a Spectator young-fogey sort of image, with braying voice and flamboyantly pompous opinions. Loudness, he says, is liked down the pit, and this kind allowed the men to accept him. He appreciates their problem. For example, having lost his mates their unsocial-hours allowance through an innocent request, he made it up out of his own pocket: the latter crime (of being ‘soft’) only compounded the former, as well as emphasising the fact that he was there by choice rather than from economic necessity. The progress of his relationship with a rabidly republican Irishman, with whom he rashly chose to share digs, is both funny and frightening. Initially, like creatures from alien planets, they cautiously got on, playing Scrabble and shopping together in the local supermarket, but things soon degenerated to the point where they would watch television and eat breakfast in silence, going off each day to open war at work.

In his gossamer-light way, and when he forgets to pose (the book is cast in the form of dormitory epistles to an old school chum), Fraser is genuinely interesting. The miners’ communal generosity, their right-wing social views, the town-council atmosphere of their Lodge, their modest and sensibly-controlled little strikes, the admirable processes whereby deputies and overmen are selected – all this is convincingly presented. He writes entertainingly of their more private customs, including their methods of obtaining a ‘sharp loose’ (early finish). This desirable prize may be won by escorting an injured miner from the pit (very light injuries can apparently count), and it may also be earned by taking out damaged gear (which is, like damaged men, in consequently great demand). He describes the aftermath of a fatal accident in a memorable passage. He provides a glossary of the miners’ often poetic technical terms (‘endless’ – a circular haulage rope; ‘inbye’ and ‘outbye’ – towards the coalface and the shaft respectively), and he explains the overtones in ‘calling’ (gossiping slanderously) and ‘bubbling’ (informing). One closes the book feeling that he was probably a pain to work with, that he’ll dine out on the experience for ever, but that he’s earned the right to speak.

Menlove was a common Lancashire name early this century, but it perfectly denotes both the splendour and the misery of Jim Perrin’s subject. Menlove Edwards was a great rock-climber, a bad poet, the author of some remarkable prose fragments, a conscientious objector, a good psychotherapist and a bad psychological theorist whose overarchingly simple notions pointed towards the paranoia which would lead, after several grotesquely botched attempts, to his suicide. Perrin is himself a leading rock-climber, and Menlove is his devoted attempt to explain the pain and celebrate what he sees as the achievement of his subject’s life. Though he makes no extravagant claims for the poetry, his commentary is more than a touch reminiscent of Dr Kinbote’s stalking of John Shade’s poetic essence in Pale Fire. He leads the increasingly reluctant reader as though in a seminar, speculating on the significance of the not very significant. Despite his eloquent beginning, on Menlove’s austerely happy home background, his book reads like a case-history of a case-history.

You rock, you heaviness a man can clasp,
You steady buttress-block for hold ...

Sexual lyrics like this link animal and mineral activities in a remarkable way, and shed light on the real meaning of the sport, possibly for others besides Menlove. Flake Crack, Girdle Traverse, Purgatory, Belle Vue Bastion, Lot’s Groove, Nose Direct: the names which he and his friends bestowed on the ‘classic’ climbs they created are very suggestive. Discussing the ‘almost symbiotic relationship’ which developed between Menlove and a particular cluster of damp grooves in North Wales, Perrin moves into analysis: ‘Did he equate their rottenness with his own feelings of guilt about his homosexuality? Was there ... subconscious acceptance of the received opinion that he who climbed here could not be of sound mind?’ No detail is too trivial for inclusion in Perrin’s exhaustive accounts of his hero’s climbs, and the language is quaintly specialised: ‘An enjoyable Very Severe, delicate, open, and on clean rock with sparse, indefinite holds.’

The affectionate little boy grew into a charismatic youth, who became an altruistic social campaigner, who became a mad middle-aged man given to diatribes resembling John Cleese sketches. The innocent heartiness of his exploits lives on in the memory of his friends. It is all suffocatingly sad.