Untold Stories

Alan Bennett

There is a wood, the canal, the river and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.

‘No,’ I say confidently and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.

‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’

Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.

‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’

‘No,’ I say and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one of the family. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it.

‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’

‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’

The ‘this’ that it hadn’t been like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with relative suddenness. In the space of a month or so she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the weeks passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion: the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown and Dad found her wandering in the street whence she could only be fetched back into the house after loud resistance.

Occurring in Leeds where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.

My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad had never even had an allotment, but in his childhood he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding, which he always talked of as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folks visiting.’ The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. A few years after they moved I wrote a television play, Sunset across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62 bearing them away to a new life the wife calls out: ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ That had always been the dream. Now Dad was being told that it was their longed for escape that had brought this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly, he would not believe it.

In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending move. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted, so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms still with all the decorating to be done.

‘Your Mam’ll be better when I’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.

My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of Mam’s list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that the stair-carpet was only the beginning of it but my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days. Mam seemed scarcely to notice and when, stair-carpet or no stair-carpet, the clouds did not lift my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.

Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired – he had all the time in the world to care.

‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs – the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living-room because there was someone there.

‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.

‘Tell anybody what?’

‘Tell them what I’ve done?’

‘You haven’t done anything.’

‘But you won’t tell them?’

‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door then wrote ‘TALKING’ in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.

As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.

‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.

‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’

‘They can see you.’

‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’

‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’

It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.

‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say. ‘Be quiet.’

A play could begin like this, I used to think – with a man on-stage, sporadically angry with a woman off-stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the offstage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.

Or set it in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on-stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on-stage? Violence, probably.

Her fears – of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected – were ordinary stuff. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her dread not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors ... Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not even getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.

Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.

It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance it was hard not to think her delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them, the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naive of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together did not constitute normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her conduct hardest to bear.

‘I wouldn’t care’ Dad would say, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’

‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he said, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’

The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.

Few nights passed uninterrupted and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the carpark that she said was watching the house.

How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of ... what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how inexplicable the world had become.

‘We used to be such pals,’ she’d say to me, shaking her head and refusing to say any more because the radio was listening, instead creeping upstairs to the cold bedroom to perch on one of the flimsy bedroom chairs, beckoning me to stay silent and do the same, as if this were a satisfactory way to spend the morning.

And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depression was not madness. It would lift. Light would return. But when? The young sympathetic doctor from the local practice could not say. The senior partner, whom we had first consulted, was a distinguished looking figure, silver-haired, loud-talking, a Rotarian and pillar of the community. Unsurprisingly he was also a pull your socks up merchant and did not hold with depression. At his happiest going down potholes to assist stricken cavers, he was less adept at getting patients out of their more inaccessible holes.

How long depressions lasted no doctor was prepared to say, nor anyone else that I talked to. There seemed to be no timetable, this want of a timetable almost a definition of the disease. It might be months, but one of the books I looked into talked about years, though what all the authorities did seem agreed on was that, treated or not, depression cleared up in time. One school of thought held that the depression should be allowed to run its course unalleviated and unaccelerated by drugs. But on my mother drugs seemed to have no effect anyway, and if the depression were to run its course and it did take years, many months even, what would happen to my father?

Alone in the house, knowing no one in the village well enough to call on them for help, he was both nurse and jailer. Coaxing his weeping parody of a wife to eat, with every mouthful a struggle, then smuggling himself out of the house to do some hasty shopping, hoping that she would not come running down the street after him, he spent every day and every fitful night besieged by Mam’s persistent assaults on reality, foiling her attempts to switch off the television, turn off the lights or pull the curtains against her imaginary enemies, knowing that if he once let her out of his sight she would be at the front door trying to flee this house which was at the same time her prison and her refuge.

Thus it was that after six weeks of what Dad called ‘this flaming carry-on’ it was as much for his sake as for hers that the doctor arranged that she should be voluntarily admitted to the mental hospital in Lancaster.

Lancaster Moor Hospital is not a welcoming institution. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century as the County Asylum and Workhouse, and seen from the M6 it has always looked to me like a gaunt grey penitentiary. It was a relief to find the psychiatric wing Mam was to be admitted to not part of the main complex but a villa, Ridge Lee, set in its own grounds, and as we left Mam with a nurse in the entrance hall it seemed almost cheerful. Dad was not uncheerful either, relieved that now at any rate something was going to be done and that she was ‘in professional hands’. Even Mam seemed resigned to it, and though she had never been in hospital in her life, she let us kiss her goodbye and leave without protest.

It was actually only to be goodbye for a few hours, as visiting times were from seven to eight, and though it was a fifty-mile round trip from home, Dad insisted that we should return that same evening, his conscientiousness in this first instance setting the pattern for the hundreds of hospital visits he was to make over the next eight years, with never a single one missed, and with him getting agitated if he was likely to be even five minutes late.

I had reached early middle age with next to no experience of mental illness. At Oxford there had been undergraduates who had had nervous breakdowns, though I didn’t altogether believe in them and had never visited the Warneford Hospital on the outskirts of the city where sufferers were usually consigned. Later, teaching at Magdalen, I had as a pupil an irritating, distracted boy who would arrive two hours late for tutorials or ignore them altogether, and if he did turn up with an essay it would be sixty or seventy pages long. When I complained about him in pretty unfeeling terms, one of the fellows took me on one side and explained kindly that he was ‘unbalanced’, something that had never occurred to me, though it was hard to miss. Part of me probably still thought of neurosis as somehow ‘put on’, a way of making oneself interesting – the reason why, when I was younger, I thought of myself as slightly neurotic.

When I was 17 I had a friend a few years older than me who, I realise when I look back, must have been schizophrenic. He had several times gone though the dreadful ordeal of insulin-induced comas that were the fashionable treatment then, but I never asked him about it, partly out of embarrassment but also because I was culpably incurious. Going into the Army and then to university we lost touch, and it was only in 1966, on the verge of leaving Leeds, that I learned he had committed suicide.

I went to the funeral at St Michael’s, Headingley, the church where in our teens we had both been enthusiastic worshippers. Every Friday night a group of us would gather in the chancel to say the office of Compline with at the heart of it Psalm 91: ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall beside thee,’ we sang, ‘and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.’ Now it has, I thought, and as the remnants of our group stood awkwardly outside the church, reflected that he was the first person of our generation to have died. Oddly it was my mother who was most upset, far more so than her acquaintance with him warranted, the fact that he had not died a natural death but had committed suicide seeming particularly to grieve her in a way I might have thought strange had not her own shadows by that time already begun to gather.

Driving over the moors to the hospital on the evening after Mam was committed, I thought how precarious our previous well-being had been, how unwittingly blessed we had been in our collective balance of mind and how much I’d taken it for granted. I said so to Dad, who just stared out of the window, saying nothing. Sanity and its vagaries were much discussed at this time, the fashionable theorists being R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. Their ideas had never impinged on my father nor were they likely to; balance of mind was something you were entitled to take for granted so far as he was concerned: ‘Item No. 1 on the agenda, to get your Mam back to normal.’

Except affliction was normal too and this one seemingly more common than I’d thought. Arriving at the lighted villa in its own little park, we found we were far from alone, the carpark full, the nurse busy at Reception, and hanging about the entrance hall as in all institutions (hospitals, law courts, passport offices), characters who joked with the staff, were clued up on the routine and, whether visitors or patients, seemed utterly at home. It was one of these knowing individuals, a young man familiar rather than affable, who took us along to what the nurse said was Mam’s ward.

He flung open the door on Bedlam, a scene of unimagined wretchedness. What hit you first was the noise. The hospitals I had been in previously were calm and unhurried; voices were hushed; sickness, during visiting hours at least, went hand in hand with decorum. Not here. Crammed with wild and distracted women, lying or lurching about in all the wanton disarray of a Hogarth print, it was a place of terrible tumult. Some of the grey-gowned wild-eyed creatures were weeping, others shouting, while one demented wretch shrieked at short and regular intervals like a tropical bird. Almost worse was a big dull-eyed woman who sat bolt upright in her bed, oblivious to the surrounding tumult, as silent and unmoving as a stone deity.

Obviously, I thought, we have strayed into the wrong ward, much as Elizabeth Taylor did in the film of Suddenly Last Summer. Mam was not ill like this. She had nothing to do with the distracted creature who sat by the nearest bed, her gown hitched high above her knees, banging her spoon on a tray. But as I turned to go I saw that Dad was walking on down the ward.

We had left Mam at the hospital that morning looking even after weeks of illness not much different from her usual self; weeping and distraught, it’s true, but still plump and pretty, clutching her everlasting handbag and still somehow managing to face the world. As I followed my father down the ward I wondered why we were bothering: there was no such person here.

He stopped at the bed of a sad, shrunken woman with wild hair, who cringed back against the pillows.

‘Here’s your Mam,’ he said.

And of course it was only that, by one of the casual cruelties routine inflicts, she had on admission been bathed, her hair washed then left uncombed and uncurled so that it now stood out round her head in a mad halo, this straightaway drafting her into the ranks of the demented. Yet the change was so dramatic, the obliteration of her usual self so complete, that to restore her even to an appearance of normality now seemed a hopeless task. She was mad because she looked mad.

Dad sat down by the bed and took her hand.

‘What have you done to me, Walt?’ she said.

‘Nay, Lil,’ he said and kissed her hand. ‘Nay, love.’

And in the kissing and the naming my parents were revealed stripped of all defence. Though they were the tenderest and most self-sufficient couple, I had never seen my father do anything so intimate as to kiss my mother’s hand and seldom since childhood heard them call each other by name. ‘Mam’ and ‘Dad’ was what my brother and I called them and what they called each other, their proper names kept for best. Or worst.

They had been Lil and Walt in their courting days, living on opposite sides of Tong Road in the Twenties. Marriage and children had changed them to Mam and Dad and it took a catastrophe for them to christen themselves again. So when in 1946 he collapsed in the street and was taken to St James’s with a perforated ulcer Dad became Walt once more. And when Mam was crying with pain having had all her teeth out she was not Mam but Lil. And to him she was Lil now.

There was only one chair by Mam’s bed and no room for another; besides, Mam was crying and Dad too, so I walked round the ward. Though many of the patients were unvisited, their disturbance and distress unalleviated by company, other beds hosted families as stricken and bewildered as we were. They sat huddled round a distracted mother or a weeping daughter, avoiding the eye of other visitors and with none of the convivialities and camaraderie engendered by the usual hospital visit.

Yet there were others who seemed entirely at ease in these surroundings, elderly sons of vacant mothers, jovial husbands of demented wives, and some whose faces were more coarse and void than those of the patients they were visiting. They sat round the bed in bovine indifference, chatting across the lost creature in their midst as if the lunacy of a loved one was no more than was to be expected.

It was from this time I conceived a dislike of Lancaster I’ve never since lost. Having seen madness on that ward I saw it echoed in face after face in the town. Though it’s a pleasant enough place I find the people there less amiable and appealing than anywhere in Lancashire, with the exception perhaps of Liverpool. There’s an openness and generosity in Blackburn, Preston and Rochdale, maybe because these were virtues fostered in the mills; Lancaster, commercial, agricultural and (like Liverpool) once a port, seems sullen, tight-fisted and at night raw and violent.

Sometime in the course of this terrible hour a neat middle-aged woman stopped at the foot of Mam’s bed.

‘It’s Mary, love. I’m off now. They’ve just rung me a taxi.’ She turned to me: ‘Could you just go and see if it’s come.’

I went out into the entrance hall, cheered that one of these desperate women could by a stay in such unpromising surroundings be recovered for normality and turned back into a sane and sensible creature. There must after all be hope. But if there was hope there was certainly no taxi so I went back to the ward. Mary had by now passed on, making her farewells at another bed. I went over to tell her the taxi hadn’t come, only to find she was now telling her tale to an empty pillow.

In her ensuing bouts of depression Mam was in three hospitals and in each one there was a Mary, a Goodbye Girl who hung about the door, often with her bag packed, accosting everyone who came in, claiming she was about to leave with the taxi ordered.

‘Are you my taxi?’ she would say, the question itself meaning that she was doomed to stay. It was only when she stopped expecting to leave that she would be anywhere near doing so.

The next night I got into conversation with a pleasant young man who was sitting in the entrance hall and whom I took to be a student, possibly at Lancaster University. He was telling me in great detail about a forthcoming visit to Russia and I asked him how he was planning to go.

‘By Ribble Motors. They run a coach service to Moscow starting every night from Morecambe Pier.’

If these were lighter moments they hardly seemed so then. A nurse told us that this was the Admissions Ward where, until diagnosis could sort them out, the confused and the senile, the deranged and the merely depressed, were lumped together for observation, the implication being that the next ward would be better. It could hardly be worse and to leave Mam in such a situation a moment longer than we had to seemed unthinkable. I longed to bundle her up then and there and, as in some Dickensian deliverance, convey her far away from this yelling hell-hole to a place that was light and calm and clean.

After two days’ obstruction by the ward sister we eventually managed to see the doctor in charge, who was kindly and understanding but as weary and defeated as someone out of Chekhov. He would be happy, he said, to have her transferred to another hospital if we could arrange it. I cannot think nowadays it would be so easy – there would be the rigmarole of quotas to be considered and competing budgets, but in those days it just meant a visit to the Mental Health Welfare Officer.

It is this errand that has brought us straight from Lancaster to Settle this September night to Mr Parr’s bleak office above the police station.

‘Nearly done,’ says Mr Parr. ‘What did Mrs Bennett’s parents die of?’

‘Her mother died of cancer,’ I say, ‘and her father had a heart attack.’

Dad shakes his head, meaning that these questions seem to him to have little to do with Mam’s current illness. At least, that’s what I take him to mean and I pretend not to see, because while I tend to agree, I don’t think now is the time to make an issue of it.

As Mr Parr is noting this down Dad gently touches my knee. This is a man who never touches, seldom kisses but Oxford-educated as I am and regularly to be seen on television I fail to appreciate the magnitude of the gesture and blunder on.

‘Well, perhaps not a heart attack,’ I say. ‘It may have been a coronary thrombosis. He dropped dead anyway.’

It was in 1925, in the kitchen at Gilpin Place, the spot pointed out: ‘There by the dresser your grandad died, plain in the sight of everybody.’ That they were not living at Gilpin Place at the time had never, of course, occurred to me.

The form completed, Mr Parr locks up his office, walks us back along the street to where we have parked the car; he promises to make the arrangements for Mam’s transfer the next day and we say goodnight.

‘Did those questions matter?’ asks Dad. ‘Would they affect the treatment?’

I tell him that I don’t think so and that what Mr Parr was after, presumably, was whether there had been anything similar in the family before. I start the car.

‘Only it was your Grandad Peel. He didn’t have a heart attack. He killed himself.’

I turn the engine off, sit there and digest this, Dad volunteering no more information. Eventually, though it doesn’t seem to me to affect my mother’s situation one way or another, I go and knock on Mr Parr’s door and explain that I’d just this minute found out that Mam’s father didn’t die of a heart attack; he had drowned himself in the canal.

Mr Parr doesn’t think it’s relevant either, but standing on his doorstep as we drive away he may well be thinking that this is an odd family that censors its own history and it’s that that’s relevant.

As we drive home Dad tells me that as soon as the interview started he realised the true facts of Mam’s father’s death were likely to come out and it was this that had made him want to put his hand on my knee, lest the suicide be a shock. It is a shock, but the shocking thing is not the act itself so much as the way it has been concealed and misrepresented for more than forty years.

Truth to tell, I find the suicide intriguing too (while being a little ashamed of myself for that). Like a child who longs to be an orphan, or at least not the offspring of his humdrum parents, I am excited by this man who has drowned and had his drowning concealed; it makes my family more interesting. In 1966 I have just begun to write but have already given up on my own background because the material seems so thin. This perks things up a bit.

In fairness to myself I had never known my grandfather nor, understandably in the circumstances, had he been much talked about. ‘He was a lovely feller’ was Mam’s description of him, her stock phrase for men she liked; his only son, her brother Clarence, was a lovely feller, killed at Ypres in 1917, and when his time came, my father would be ‘a lovely feller’ too. ‘Your Grandad Peel’, as he was known to distinguish him from ‘Your Grandad Bennett’, occurred in some of the family photographs I found in the dresser drawer at Grandma’s where I used to go rooting as a child. He was a stocky man with thick dark hair and a moustache, not fierce-looking as some of the men in the old photographs were, but giving no clue as to what he was like. Mam had said he was keen on ‘nature study’ and knew about trees and flowers; he went on walks.

The drowning, though, straightaway shed light on an incident early on in my mother’s depression which at the time I’d thought almost a joke. Dad had gone out and we were alone in the house. Motioning me into the passage where we would not be over-heard, she again whispered that she had done something terrible. I was having none of it, but she got hold of my arm, pulled me up the stairs and pointed to the bathroom, though she would not go in. There were six inches of water in the bath.

My mother’s family, the Peels, descendants, so Mam’s sister Lemira claimed, of Sir Robert Peel, had once been well-to-do, owning mills in Halifax. The youngest of the three sisters, Aunty Myra was the keeper of the family flame, determined that if her present did not amount to much, a sales assistant in White’s Gown Shop in Briggate living in a back-to-back in Wortley, then the past could be called in to compensate. When my brother was christened, Aunty Myra wanted him given Peel as a middle name and there was a muttered row at the font when Dad, who thought one name sufficient and two pretentious, would have none of it. He didn’t have much time for the Sir Robert Peel business or with any attempt to put it on or talk posh, which Aunty Kathleen and Aunty Myra both went in for. But even my mother, who took the same unpretentious line, thought that the family had come down in the world, saying that there had been two branches of the Peels in Halifax, both with mills, and that at the time of the Boer War the run on cloth for uniforms had tempted their branch of the family, her grandfather possibly, to invest in new machinery. With the end of the war came a slump and for them bankruptcy, while the other, less enterprising branch of the family went on to further prosperity. Certainly every Christmas on the mantelpiece of the back-to-back in Gilpin Place there would be a grand card from some country Peels, whom I took to be the gentry they had become and we might have been. But it may all have been romance; in private life Beatrice Lillie was Lady Peel and my aunties even adduced her as a distant connection.

The mill gone, my grandparents bought a hardware shop in West Vale outside Halifax but that too went bankrupt, through sheer kind-heartedness my mother said, and letting too much stuff out on credit. There is a picture of the shop in the sheaf of crumpled photographs and newspaper clippings that passes for our family album, the shop assistants lined up on the steps flanked by those Karnak columns of linoleum that enfiladed every hardware store down to my own childhood, and peeping through the door my mother’s blurred ten-year-old face.

The shame of this second bankruptcy drove the family to Leeds, where they lived in Wortley, Grandad Peel now managing a gents outfitters in Wellington Road. The three sisters, Kathleen, Lilian and Lemira, and their elder brother Clarence all went to Green Lane School, its gaunt hulk one of the few buildings still undemolished in 1966, rearing up among the new houses, dinky as houses in Monopoly, that were beginning to cover the slopes below Armley Jail; the school, the jail and St Bartholomew’s Church, relics of a thriving neighbourhood, the pillars of a sometime community.

All this I sort of know in 1966 but without ever enquiring into the details, our family history a series of vivid scenes of uncertain chronology and mostly connected with Mam’s side of the family. There was Uncle Clarence’s death at Ypres: the telegraph boy riding his bike along Bruce Street in 1917, and women stood fearfully on their doorsteps to see which door he would knock at. There was Mam, working upstairs at Stylo Shoes in Briggate in 1926, watching mounted police charge the strikers. There was the outbreak of war in September 1939, the actual declaration catching us on a tram going down to Vicar Lane bus station to get a bus to safety and Pateley Bridge; VE night outside Guildford Town Hall, me on my Uncle George’s shoulders marvelling at floodlights which I’d never seen before. And Grandma Peel sitting in her chair at Gilpin Place in 1949, beginning to bleed from the womb, and as Aunty Kathleen cleans her up, joking grimly: ‘Nay, lass, I’m 78 but I think I must be starting again.’

Still, if I knew little of my mother’s family I knew even less about my father’s, not that there seemed much to know. My father was not a typical butcher – thin, anxious, dogged all his life by stomach ulcers and a temperament ill-suited to the job. The youngest of four brothers, he had lost his mother at the age of five and his father, faced with bringing up four sons, had speedily remarried. His second wife was a narrow, vicious woman, a stepmother out of a fairy story: pious, chapel-going and a hypocrite who beat the youngest boys, Walter and George, and then told lies about them to her new husband so that when he came home from work he gave them the strap all over again. The two elder boys were old enough to escape the house and too big to beat, so Dad and his brother George (‘our butt’, as he always called him) bore the brunt of her frustrated rage. It was she who put Dad to butchering at the age of II, an offence for which he never forgave her but which earned her her nickname. To this day I don’t know what she was really called and I have never troubled to find out but she was always referred to by the Bennetts as ‘the Gimmer’, a ‘gimmer’ a sheep that has no lambs and a nickname Dad must have brought home from the slaughterhouse in Oldfield Lane where he was condemned to work. I can only just remember her, a figure in shiny black satin seemingly out of the depths of the 19th century but who must have died in the early Forties. Shortly before her death she immortalised herself in the family by saying to my nine-year-old brother Gordon: ‘Get off that stool, you, or I’ll kick you off.’ Her funeral was an occasion of undiluted joy, sheer hysteria breaking out among the mourners when her coffin went down into the grave and Mam slipped and nearly went after it.

Grandad Bennett was as bald as an egg. He had worked at the gasworks in Wellington Road, the stench of which pervaded the acres of sooty redbrick streets around Armley Jail. He had been in an explosion which, perhaps literally, blew away all his hair, though it may have been the result of shock. In any case it was a cruel fate in our family where the men all have thick and often un-greying hair. His second wife’s piety must have infected him because in his old age he took to marching behind the Salvation Army band, his gleaming head jeered at by the unfeeling youths of Lower Wortley.

At some point when he was still a boy Dad took it into his head to learn the violin. Why he chose an instrument that in its initial stages is so unrewarding I don’t know; it’s one of the many questions I never got round to asking him. He got no help at home, where he could only practise in the freezing parlour, the Gimmer too mean even to let him have any light, so that he had to manage with what there was from the gas lamp in the street outside. Whether he was born with perfect pitch I don’t know, but in later life he would play along to the hymns on the wireless, telling you the notes of the tune he was accompanying as easily as if he was spelling a word. In happier circumstances he would have been a professional violinist but there was never any hope of that and a butcher he remained, working first for the Co-op then, in 1946, buying a shop of his own, which he had to sell ten years later because of ill-health, then buying a smaller one and the same thing happening. Having made no money and the job having given him precious little satisfaction, he was never so happy as when in 1966 he was able to abandon butchering for good.

Happy, that is, until ‘this business with your Mam’. I have never spent so much time with my father as now, driving backwards and forwards to Lancaster, and though there is no other revelation as startling as that to do with Grandad Peel, he talks more freely than he’s ever done about Mam and their life together, the car a kind of confessional. I am doing the driving and it helps that road safety precludes much eye contact, my own occasional embarrassment betrayed by abrupt bursts of speed when I suddenly put my foot down, as if to get away as fast as I can from the past he is talking about.

The suicide, though, he cannot be persuaded to discuss. Having let on to the fact, he still seems to want to keep it hidden and will not be questioned about it, sensing perhaps that my interest in it is as drama and only one stage up from gossip. As a child I was clever and knew it and when I showed off, as I often did, Dad would not trouble to hide his distaste. I detect a whiff of that still; he is probably wishing he’d kept his mouth shut and never mentioned the tragedy at all.

I do ask, though, about his other revelation, ‘the similar do’ he had told Mr Parr that Mam had had just before they were married. Was that to do with the suicide, I ask, as it must have been around the same time? Not really, says Dad. He thinks it was more to do with their wedding.

It had never occurred to me as a child that there were no photographs of my parents’ wedding. Along with the cut-glass fruit bowl, the stand of cork table-mats and the lady leashing in her Alsatian, a wedding photograph was a component of the sideboard of every house of every friend or relative I had been into. Typical was the wedding photograph of Uncle George and Aunty Flo, taken around 1925. Uncle George is in a suit, wing collar and spats, Aunty Flo in a short white wedding dress and veil. They are standing on the sooty steps of St Mary of Bethany, Tong Road in Wortley, where Uncle George sang in the choir, and are watched off camera by their respective families, the Rostrons and the Bennetts, and also by anybody who happened to be waiting at the tram stop at the bottom of Fourteenth Avenue.

The absence of a similar photograph from our sideboard had never struck me. And if it was not on the sideboard nor was it in the top right-hand dressing-table drawer in Mam and Dad’s bedroom, where along with a pot of wintergreen ointment and an old scent spray and the tuning-fork of Dad’s violin, the photographic archive was kept. It was a slender collection, fitting easily into two or three battered Kodak wallets and consisting chiefly of snaps of holidays at Morecambe or Filey: Mam stroking a baby donkey, on the sands somewhere, Dad in a bathing costume holding Gordon up to the camera, the pair of us, me a baby, Gordon three, sitting on Grandma’s knee at Gilpin Place. But no wedding.

The natural assumption for an imaginative child, particularly if he was a romancer as I was, would be that he was illegitimate or at any rate not his parents’ child. Both possibilities had occurred to me, but I had seen their marriage certificate (also kept in the dressing-table drawer) and this disposed of the first possibility while a look in the mirror put paid to the second. There, depressingly, was the same pink face and long chin that all the Bennetts had. Grandma would sometimes take me with her when she went bowling at the Recreation Ground; her friends (black cloche hats, long duster coats) would look at me in the pushchair and say: ‘Oh yes, Poll. He’s a right Bennett.’ It is never something I much wanted to be until a few years ago, unexpectedly coming across my cousin Geoff in a hotel carpark in Wetherby, I see both my father and Uncle George in his face and the grin neither of them was ever able quite to suppress, and I am not unhappy that I look a bit like that too.

Had I given any thought to the missing photographs I would probably have taken this to be just another instance of our family never managing to be like other families, of which there were far more urgent and contentious instances than a mere unrecorded ceremony. There was never being allowed to wear an open-necked shirt, for instance, for fear we caught TB; there was never going without a cap lest we got sunstroke; never having a drink of cold water and it always having to be ‘aired’ and not being allowed to share a lemonade bottle with other boys (TB again); after Wolf Cubs most of my friends would have two pennyworth of chips but we weren’t supposed to, as they kept us awake, Mam even smelling our breath for vinegar just in case. Our family was no better or worse off than the neighbours, but in all sorts of ways that were no less weighty for being trivial, we never managed to be quite the same.

On the other hand, had there been a photograph of Mam and Dad’s wedding it was likely to have been an early casualty of Mam’s precocious interest in antiques, which led to a gradual purge of items like the fruit bowl, the table-mats and the woodpecker calendar. Wedding presents though these items often were, the Forties saw them gradually relegated to the attic to be replaced by her first tentative acquisitions from junk shops: a brass candlestick she bought in Ripon for 8/6d; a green glass doorstop; a chipped lustre jug. She had never gone in for the lady and the Alsatian dog or (worse) the little boy holding a smockful of cherries who often kept her company. Both these items were unhesitatingly dubbed as ‘common’ by my mother and she would be mortified today to see them on bric-à-brac stalls enjoying equal status with the lustre and the candlesticks, one as much sought after as the other, collectable all.

There was no question that Mam’s liking for these ancient objets trouvés was entirely genuine, but in acquiring them she was also laying claim to a sort of refinement. It was hard to say where it came from; women’s magazines possibly, and in particular Beverly Nichols’s column in Woman’s Own. Some of it was instinctive, if not inbred. She knew, for instance, without having read it anywhere, that the old-fashioned kitchen range that we had was preferable, had more ‘character’ than the tiled fireplaces everybody round about thought were the height of sophistication, and that the brass pot which held our fire-irons was superior to the ceramic knights in armour wielding poker and tongs that were taking up their post on neighbouring hearthstones.

Desperate, I think it now, this faith she had in what constituted a better life. It couldn’t be called a hobby, it was never systematic enough for that, though going through cupboards at home nowadays I’ll still sometimes come across one of the many little notebooks she started, with wispy drawings of chair-backs, labelled ‘Sheraton’ or ‘Hepplewhite’, and lists of pottery marks she copied out of library books; then there are some blank pages and another list: ‘Bits of music I like’ – Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Mendelssohn Italian Symphony, The Dream of Olwen, and the spelling all over the place.

Nowadays when ‘bygones’ are the stuff of half a dozen TV programmes and nuggets of the more tuneful classics are trotted out to the banalities of disc-jockeys who can scarcely pronounce the composers’ names, such aspirations in a middle-aged working-class woman would not be particularly remarkable. In Leeds in 1946 it was precocious if not eccentric, particularly since it hardly linked up with the way we lived, over a butcher’s shop in a house with no hallway, the living-room giving straight onto the street, and where Mam’s painfully accumulated gentilities were periodically overwhelmed by the stench of fat being rendered in the cellar. Nothing she bought was ever worth much; her Staffordshire ornaments were always cracked, the ‘Sheraton’ chair an Edwardian reproduction and the little Rockingham man smoking a pipe had lost his hand, a mitten-like paw made of plasticine Mam’s unconvincing prosthesis.

Still, her antiques, touching though they were in their inadequacy, were not an attempt to improve our social status. Though she herself would have said she liked ‘old stuff’ because it was ‘classy’, this definition had nothing to do with class, ‘classy’ in her vocabulary simply the opposite of ‘common’. That was the real nub of it. Because if there was one consideration that determined my parents’ conduct and defined their position in the world it was not to be (or to be thought) common.

Common, like camp (with which it shares a frontier), is not easy to define. At its simplest meaning ‘vulgar’ or ‘ostentatious’, it is a more subtle and various disparagement than that, or was in our family anyway, taking in such widely disparate manifestations as tattoos, red paint, yellow gloves and two-tone cardigans, all entries in a catalogue of disapproval that ranged through fake leopardskin coats, dyed (blonde) hair to slacks, cocktail cabinets, the aforementioned ladies with Alsatian dogs and boys with cherries and umpteen other embellishments, domestic and personal. These days shell suits would undoubtedly have been condemned, as would walking down the street drinking from a can, and it would do as a definition of what’s gone wrong with England in the last twenty years that it’s got more common.

Such fastidious deprecations were invariably made privately and to each other, my parents too timid to think their views worth broadcasting or that they might be shared with anyone else, still less meet with general agreement, this reticence helping to reinforce the notion that we were a peculiar family and somehow set apart. Cheerful, even rumbustious within the security of the home, off their home ground they were shy and easily intimidated; there was an absence of swagger and they never, unlike my mother’s sisters, ‘had a lot off’. So when they stigmatised ostentatious behaviour as common it reaffirmed their natural preference not to want to attract attention and to get by unnoticed. They knew what they took to be their place and kept to it.

Wanting to go unnoticed is what Mam’s depression is about. Pressed to define why it is she finds the village daunting, she says: ‘You don’t understand. I’m the centrepiece here.’ So it is hardly surprising that when Dad reveals that there has been something similar in the past it should have been on the eve of her wedding, an occasion when there could be no going unnoticed either – ‘I’m the centrepiece here,’ which is a bride’s boast, my mother’s dread. Is this why there are no photographs?

What was agitating her, and maybe it agitated my father too, as he was in many ways more shy even than her, was the ceremony itself and the churchful of people it must inevitably involve. Marriage is a kind of going public and I can see, as Dad can’t or won’t, that coming to live in the village, which has maybe brought on this second bout forty years later, is a kind of going public too.

Not that the ceremony she was dreading was likely to be an elaborate one as neither family can have had any money. A proper wedding, though, would have run to bridesmaids and they were there to hand in her two sisters, Kathleen and Lemira, and this may well have been part of the trouble, as she had always felt overshadowed by them and something of a Cinderella. Unlike her, they revelled in any kind of public show, edging into whatever limelight was going. Later in life, they made far more of my brother’s and my achievements than Mam and Dad did. So when I got my degree Dad wrote, ‘We haven’t let on to your aunties yet that you’re getting your cap and gown. You won’t be wanting a lot of splother’ – ‘splother’ Dad’s word for the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.

The splother attendant on the wedding was harder to get round and Mam’s fear of the occasion persisted until there came a point, Dad told me, when they nearly broke off their engagement because neither of them could see a way of getting over this first necessary hurdle. Eventually Dad sought the advice of the local vicar.

These days this would mean a cosy, even chummy chat with counselling the keynote. And why not? But Leeds in those days was the proving ground for many a future dean or bishop, some of the grandest Anglican dynasties – Hollises, Bicker-steths, Vaughans – ministering to the slums of Hunslet and Holbeck. St Bartholomew’s was a great slum parish too, its huge black church set on a hill above Armley and Wortley, and though the slums around it have gone, or at any rate changed their character, its heavy spire still dominates the southern approaches to Leeds. The vicar in 1928 was the Reverend H. Lovell Clarke, subsequently Archdeacon of Leeds, and it was to him rather than to one of his several curates that Dad went.

It must have been hard to explain. All brides are nervous, after all: why should this Lilian Peel require special treatment? Public school and Cambridge, the vicar is just the kind of figure (‘very better class’) to make Dad nervous and tongue-tied. What he has come along to ask is whether the vicar will marry them at 7.30 in the morning, with no fuss, no congregation and in time for Dad to get to work at Lower Wortley Co-op by 8.15. Lovell Clarke says that this is out of the question; the law does not permit him to marry anyone before eight in the morning. However, he has no objection to performing the ceremony beginning at eight o’clock, and surely if it is to get married the Co-op won’t mind if Dad were half an hour late for work. Dad enquires: the Co-op does mind – he has to be at work by 8.15.

There are occasions in life, often not in the least momentous, which nail one’s colours to the mast. There is the morning ten days before the end of my National Service when a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps at Maresfield makes me scrub out a urinal with my bare hands; another when a consultant at the Radcliffe Infirmary (a Mr Corrie) discusses my naked body without reference to me with his class of smirking medical students; and though it occurs years before I was born, this moment in St Bartholomew’s Vicarage when my father, baffled at every turn, tells Mr Lovell Clarke that he cannot get a quarter of an hour off work in order to get married is another. Logic, education, upbringing leave such moments unshifted and unforgotten. They are the self at its core.

My father, I suspect, gives up at this point but the vicar does not and indeed comes up with a solution that is ingenious, even cheeky. To begin with the young couple will need a special licence from the Bishop of Ripon, dispensing with the need for the banns to be read, the vicar sensibly assuming that whatever plan he can come up with is better carried out quickly rather than wait the three weeks that proclaiming the banns will involve. Then, armed with the licence they are to present themselves at the church at seven thirty the following morning at which time the vicar will say the whole wedding service up to but not including the vows, thus complying with the law. Then on the stroke of eight the vows themselves can be said, the ring put on and this young butcher still have time to get to work by 8.15. And on 28 September 1928 that is how it is done. Dad goes off to work, Mam goes home and in the evening, in lieu of a honeymoon, they get tickets for the Grand Theatre to see The Gondoliers.

That is why there are no photographs on top of the sideboard or in the dressing-table drawer. At eight o’clock on a sooty September morning it would have been too dark; besides a photograph would have taken time and would in any case have probably come under Dad’s definition of ‘splother’. But were I a poet I would write about those moments in that great empty church, the anxious groom in his working clothes with his tentative bride and the urbane cleric, standing on the altar steps waiting for the clock to strike, the pause before the off. A former chaplain to nearby Armley Jail, where prisoners were regularly hanged, Lovell Clarke must have waited many times for eight o’clock, the pause before a more terrible off. What he was like I have no idea, though I imagine him as a clergyman of the old school. But across seventy years, Herbert Lovell Clarke, I would like to shake your hand.