Call me unpretentious

Ian Hamilton

  • Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother by Terry Major-Ball
    Duckworth, 167 pp, £12.95, August 1994, ISBN 0 7156 2631 0

When John Major ascended to 10 Downing Street, the wits were at first unsure quite how to set about him. There was the obvious, the elementary ‘grey’ approach: the Burton suits, the haircut, the delicious fry-ups and so on. On this reading, Major could be presented as a drearier-than-either cross between James Stewart and J. Alfred Prufrock. He was prime minister by accident, or for-a-day. He’d won the premiership in a raffle, or had it laid on for him by Jim’ll Fix It.

There was of course a brutal snobbishness in this approach, as there had been in all the sneers about Mrs Thatcher’s origins. There was a danger too. By pushing the suburban-man assault too hard, Major’s critics ran the risk of confessing that they would much rather be governed by a toff. After all, to poke fun at Major’s dinginess was to poke fun at half of Britain. At the same time, though, everybody knows that non-toffs don’t get to lead the Tory Party simply by plodding up the ladder. Thatcher was different: she was touched by the feather of unreason. Was Major perhaps similarly touched? He seemed not to be, but who could tell?

The hunt was on for something non-grey in the grey man’s genealogy: a bad apple on the Major family tree, an errant gene, a skeleton in one of those long-ago suburban cupboards. And straightaway there seemed to be rich pickings. This nobody from nowhere turned out to have a family background both garish and eccentric. His father, it was revealed, once manufactured and sold garden ornaments: gnomes, pelicans and cherubs. Before that, he worked as a trapeze artist in a circus and was married to a comedienne (not Major’s mother) who delivered stage-monologues in verse:

And can you ever remember a Tommy,
A Swaddie, a Tiffy, or Jack,
Hear a word said against Mother England,
And not biff the foreigner back?

And then there was the business of Dad Major’s name. Here there were vivacities galore. Dad’s real name was not Major; it was Ball. Christened Tom Ball, he took ‘Major’ as his stage name (with his verse-speaking first wife, he had formed a music-hall double act called Drum and Major). When a business career beckoned, he retitled himself ‘Major-Ball’. And then in old age he finally settled for plain Major. He was 64, and had dropped the Ball, when he fathered our PM.

All this seemed fairly promising, but some of it proved difficult to follow up, or even to substantiate. By the time John had made his mark in politics, both of his parents had been dead for several years. So much for visions of double-page spreads of the old troupers in their leotards. The garden-gnome business had gone bust; data on the trapeze artistry were hard to come by. The Prime Minister was understandably not keen to divulge more than the hacks could discover for themselves. The trail seemed ready to go cold.

At this point, enter Terry Major-Ball, the PM’s brother. Eleven years John’s senior, Terry is the sort of close relative politicians ought to be able to disown: tickled pink by all the publicity, anxious to set the record straight on matters pertaining to the clan, time on his hands, not well-off, loves a chat. A skeleton indeed, and still alive. Terry even looks like John: the expansive upper lip, the trapdoor mouth. The haircut is the same and so, too, are the giant specs.

And for Terry there are other resemblances. John’s career has blossomed and Terry’s has (through no fault of his own, he’d have us know) somewhat declined. Each in his way, though, stands for the same values of integrity, straightforwardness and inner resolution. John is prime minister; Terry is now a dab hand at the DIY. The two callings are not worlds apart, as some may think. And Terry, as the bigger boy, still has the edge. On the front cover of his ‘Memories of an Older Brother’, he is to be seen alongside one of the old firm’s garden ornaments: a dinky humanoid in ruminative stance. Terry is slightly in the background: sage, senior, supportive.

And this tends to be his authorial demeanour. Young John has somehow got himself into a tricky scrape and is currently holed up in No 10, at the mercy of mendacious journalists. It is Terry’s plain duty to speak up for him, and for the clan, just as it was when John was knee-high to a concrete cupid. After all, who knows the kid better than he does? Are they not peas from the same pod?

My mother solemnly warned me ... that what sometimes passes for love is actually passion. Real love, she said, was for marriage. As a result of my mother’s strictures, I have told only one girl that I loved her, and that was my wife. It follows that my brother, who had the same mother, must have much the same philosophy, which is why I regard with contempt the lurid conjecture in some magazines in recent years.

John may be jetting around the world these days – ‘like an astronaut’ – but he knows that big Terry will always be there for him, and so, too, will the principles implanted in the pair of them by their joint Mum – a sprightly old dear, by the sound of it: ‘She could do the splits as an old lady, even when she was so frail and breathless that she couldn’t get up again unaided.’ (Senile agility seems to have run in the family. Of Grandfather Major, we learn here that ‘when he was an elderly man he once went missing. He was subsequently found up a tree sawing off a branch while sitting on the wrong side of the cut.’)

For Prime Minister Major, such reminiscences must read like threats, and it says something for his foresight that he has clearly been at pains to keep Terry well away from the corridors of power. There is little about politics in Terry’s book. ‘We never discuss politics, though sometimes I can’t resist making the odd joke about current news-items.’ In any case, what Terry does know is strictly hush-hush. ‘I’m often asked how Norma felt when John became prime minister, but I’m not hedging when I say I don’t know. If someone wants to know, they should ask Norma.’ ‘Shirley’ – Mrs Major-Ball – ‘is sometimes a little exasperated, when she says “Now come on, John, what’s that President Bush or Clinton like? We’d really like to know,” only to find that he changes the subject to more mundane matters. But we have to remember that he spends his whole time talking politics, and that family-time is precious for him too.’

We should not get the idea, though, that Terry does not have his own fixed political opinions. As an ex-small-businessman who has served time in the public sector (fixing meters for the South-Eastern Electricity Board), he has always been a ‘true blue Tory’. He remains loyal to Margaret Thatcher, even though ‘her policies led to ... me losing my job in 1988’, and in spite of the ‘less than helpful things’ she has been saying recently. And he supported her throughout her final days, ‘even after I was certain a change was needed, because I felt that, if an expert like John was prepared to support her, I should too.’ When her opponents claimed that she ‘didn’t care about ordinary people’, Terry had ‘a stock reply. Oh yes, she does, I would say with some authority. John tells me so.’

This was when John was a mere Chancellor. As prime minister, he can of course now count on Terry’s vote:

My brother and sister and I all have a strong sense of family loyalty inherited from our parents, so of course we always like to defend each other. I genuinely think he is an excellent leader of his party and of the country. It is annoying sometimes to be asked whether he knows what he wants or where he’s going, because I happen to know he always does.

Does this sound a shade lukewarm? ‘Family-time’ may indeed be precious to John Major but he spends precious little of it with his brother. Only one visit to the Terry household is recorded here, and that a pretty brisk one. Terry claims to bear no grudges. John and Norma may have ‘moved in completely the opposite direction from us’ – him and Shirley – ‘in practically every sense’, but strip away the pomp and circumstance and you’ll find the old blood-bond is still in splendid shape:

The next time I saw John I told him about my experiences [in America, where Terry had been taken on an Evening Standard freebie], and ... he listened politely and with genuine interest. Then he said: ‘Sorry, Terry, I must go now. I’m due at a meeting, in the Cabinet Room.’ As he left his flat to go downstairs, I thought once again how very little time for relaxation there is in the busy life of a Prime Minister.

On the Downing Street front, then, John gets off fairly lightly. But Terry is not so easily discouraged when it comes to digging up the past. ‘Family and honour are the most important things in my life,’ he says, and his chief purpose as an author is to see justice done to the memory of his dead father, whom he evidently worshipped. A malign side-effect of brother John’s elevation has been the calling-into-question of their dad’s heroic status. For Terry, protecting Dad is more important than protecting John.

This being so, he might have made a better job of his defence. As a boy, Terry (and John too, perhaps) sat ‘goggle-eyed’ as Father recounted tall tales from his distant past. Most of these are uncheckable today, although Terry has put in long hours at Colindale and St Catherine’s House, and at several public libraries, from Sutton to New York. At various times, according to his fireside yarns, Tom Major was an acrobat, an actor, a songwriter, a gambler, a soldier in the Uruguayan Army, a mace-swinger for President Grover Cleveland, and a stalwart of the Walsall Swimming Club.

This last Terry has been able to check out: in 1897 a Tom Ball won the club’s canoe-race, dressed up as a ballerina. In another year he lifted the swimming cup, this time attired as a ‘New Woman’. As to the trapeze story: the evidence is inconclusive, although Tom told many tales of the high-wire. When, in the Forties, the Majors moved from Worcester Park to Brixton, some important family heirlooms were lost or destroyed. All that remained of father’s circus triumphs were a ginger wig and a pair of outsize plastic feet. Having thought it all through, Terry now reckons that Tom Major might well have been a clown.

On the subject of his mother, Terry is more tentative. When Tom met Gwen, his second wife, he was already married to Kitty, the verse-speaker. He and Kitty were in their forties; Gwen was 17, ‘an attractive young speciality dancer’ who teamed up with the ageing Majors for some of their song-and-dance routines. She was a big hit in ‘Tarzan’s Wooing’ and later became an expert ‘baton and Indian club swinger’, with Tom as her tutor. In 1928, Kitty died ‘as a result of an accident with a stage prop’, and in 1929 ‘Father married Mother, after what some might think was an indecently short interval.’ For a time, ‘Father kept his second marriage fairly quiet.’ Beyond this, Terry does not pursue the matter, although – forestalling any unsavoury conjectures – he does point out that it was Kitty’s dying wish that Tom and Gwen should marry.

Terry was born in 1932, and the larger part of his slow-trudging narrative concerns his own career. It is a saga of low-powered misfortune – misfortune borne not with fortitude but with complacency, near-relish. Businesses fail, jobs don’t work out, and with each career move Terry eases himself down a rung or two, with a genial shrug. Nothing impinges on his rock-solid self-esteem. His DIY, his annual holiday at Butlin’s, the benign companionship of Shirley, his ‘small garden big enough to sit in but not too big to be a problem to look after’: these are the blessings Terry counts, repeatedly. ‘Call me unpretentious but I don’t have any complaints about life in the suburbs near Croydon.’

And it is lines like these that give us pause. They are a bit too much what we would wish the likes of Terry to come out with. They remind us of John Major’s Diary in Private Eye. And when Terry devotes a whole chapter to the delights of Bognor’s Butlin’s, or to promotion prospects for management trainees at Woolworths, it seems clear that he is not in sole charge of his own banalities:

Talking to people about our holidays in Butlin’s I am often astounded by their view of such places and their ignorance of the facilities available. Many of the people who turn their noses up at these true holiday centres through lack of information would thoroughly enjoy them if they had the chance.

I like a quiet but active holiday, whereas Shirley prefers a lazier one ... sometimes Shirley sits and reads while I creep around the trees, with my camera at the ready, trying to get a good photograph of the squirrels or ducks.

Sometimes I think I have been unfair, always taking my wife to the same place on holiday. One day, perhaps, we shall go on a cruise.

Terry’s original manuscript, we understand, was turned down by several publishers before being ‘polished’ into shape by James Hughes-Onslow, the Evening Standard journalist who took Terry to New York in 1993. In his final chapter, Terry pays tribute to Hughes-Onslow, calling him ‘my friend’: ‘I know I should be careful about calling a journalist my friend, but James is a friend, though he can be quite mischievous with stories he thinks are funny.’ Major Major has an introduction by Hughes-Onslow in which he says that ‘the sniggering classes will snigger at this book.’ He’s right about that but is he sniggering too?