Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Mother - In Memoriam, Part 2

My mother's short autobiography describes her early life. I can't add much to that, for the obvious reason that I wasn't there, but there are a few more details that can be tacked on.

She describes her brother and his untimely end, but what she doesn't say is how close they were. He was her very protective big brother, nurturing her at a time when her parents didn't have much time or attention to give her. His death left a huge gap in her life which in some ways was never filled.

To stretch the pennies we ate various kinds of offal when I was a child. Liver was a favourite, as was steak and kidney. But one thing we never ate was tripe - the lining of a sheep's stomach. The reason is simple - she doesn't mention that the flat in Southwark was next door to a tripe yard, a place where lorries loaded up with piles of raw tripe would arrive, their load broken down into smaller lots for distribution to the butchers' shops. I've never eaten tripe in my life. Just sitting next to people eating andouillette - French tripe sausage - once turned my stomach. The smell of lorries full of the stuff must be foul beyond belief.

My parents met at a dance, soon after the end of the war in 1945. My Dad had been married before the war, and had a daughter (Anne) in 1938. He spent the war, all of it, teaching soldiers Morse Code in North Wales, and his marriage didn't survive the separation. He was 17 years older than my mother, but very handsome for his age and very charming.

They married in 1949, living in a single room in a house in Brixton that they shared with my mother's sister and her husband, and their mother and father. (Later the house, 22 Normandy Road, was the sparking point for the Brixton riots in 1985). Anne came to stay with them, at 12 years old. It must have been very cozy. She had her own place to sleep, but when the LCC inspector came to assess them for a home of their own, she moved all their things into their bedroom. The ruse worked, and they were assigned a brand new council house on the outskirts of London, in the new development of Harold Hill. That was where I spent the first 9 years of my life, at 61 Hilldene Avenue with a busy bus-stop directly outside the bedroom windows - maybe the reason why I became fascinated by London's buses.

My father worked in a shop selling haberdashery - a quaint word now, meaning all the accessories associated with making clothes - to East London's "rag trade". He earned very little, so it was imperative for my mother to make some money if we were to live at anything beyond a subsistence level. She was an extremely accomplished typist, achieving a speed of 90 words per minute. On a modern electronic keyboard that is very fast. On a manual typewriter, where every imprinted letter is a direct result of the typist's physical strength in her fingers, it is truly extraordinary. It was astounding to watch her type, almost like watching Yuja Wang play the piano.

Before I was old enough for her to leave me with anyone, she took on typing work at home. That meant we always had a nearly-new manual typewriter, and when she wasn't working, I used it too. I never learned to touch type, but thanks to that home-work, I became a formidable two/three/four finger typist.

She started working again when I was very small, even before I went to school - needs must. We'll gloss over the dreadful woman who was supposed to take care of me - this is my mother's story, not mine. For a long time she worked for an accountant, Stuart Lever, typing balance sheets and profit and loss accounts for his customers. She had to stop that when my brother David was born, when I was 7.

Money was still very short, though. Somehow she had to earn some, even though she couldn't work during the week. Her solution was weekend work, on Saturday taking calls from punters at the bookmaker's William Hill, and on Sunday checking pools coupons at Zetters, then one of Britain's biggest football pool companies. That lasted for three or four years, during which time she was promoted to floor supervisor at Zetters. The training came in very handy for me when, later, I also worked there for pocket money while I was still at school.

As soon as my brother was old enough to be looked after, it was time for her to get full time work again. For a while she did secretarial work for the District Bank, one of the predecessors of today's NatWest. I must have been about 12 when she took the job of personal assistant to a City estate agent (realtor), Marcus King. He was a very interesting character, a doyen of City life, a central member of the Rotary Club and involved in all sorts of societies and institutions. To make it more complicated, he was also an orthodox Jew, respecting all of the dietary and other laws imposed by his religion. There are some easy and well-known ones - no pork of course, and no mixing meat and dairy. But there are dozens more, and it was my mother's job to make sure that in all of his lunch and dinner engagements, they were all respected. She probably knew more about the constraints of orthodox Judaism than any other gentile in the country. Even now I can remember words like mezuzah (a charm placed on a doorpost) and yamulka (the Jewish prayer cap).

Marcus King owned a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, which he parked in the street outside his office in Cheapside. One day it broke down, and it fell to my mother to call Rolls and try to persuade them to come to the rescue, as they were reputed to do, before some lesser garage had to rescue it. They refused. So much for tradition.

I've mentioned only her professional life. Meanwhile, though, she was raising her two sons and her step-daughter, and generally taking care of the family. In those days it was considered normal that men didn't deal with household stuff, beyond buying the paraffin for the kitchen heaters, and so she was also responsible for cooking meals every day, and for keeping the house tidy and organised. For a good few years it was my job to take the washing to the launderette every Saturday.

As a mother she was very demanding. There was never any doubt of her love for her children, but her own upbringing had taught her not to make it too obvious. When, at 11 years old, I moved to a Grammar School, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would have to make a serious effort to compete with the smart kids from the middle class areas that the school also took in. As it turned out, they weren't very smart at all, and academically I did very well. I don't remember ever being praised for it though. It took me many, many years to overcome my resentment about this, for never being given any appreciation or praise or even encouragement. But maybe it was also an incentive to strive and try harder, and maybe such success as I have had would have eluded me without that kind of pressure.

Public displays of affection were not at all the thing of my parents' generation - just think of Brief Encounters, one of my father's favourite films. I can only recall seeing them hold hands just once. It shocked me so much that I still remember the details of the occasion - I was about 11, and we were walking along a road at North Woolwich, by the famous Free Ferry. I certainly never saw them kiss, or show any other sign of intimacy.

I can only remember seeing her cry once in my whole life. We had cats on and off throughout my childhood, and one of them got very sick. His rear legs had been paralysed by eating slug poison, which happened to be both very attractive to cats and to destroy their nervous systems. Ugh. The poor thing was dragging himself round by his front paws, and there was only one thing left to do. My mother sobbed for that poor cat.

When I think of her professional life, I think of a company called Roha, and Harry Schmiedl. She had done some temp work for him earlier, before Marcus King. Some time in my teens, he called her and told her he needed her. And that was the rest of her career. Schmiedl was quite a character, the classic East European Jew made good. He had left his native Czechoslovakia in 1937, for obvious reasons. In London he sold cloth from a barrow in street markets, gradually building up enough money through his financial savvy to start his own company, Roha. He had a big house in Hampstead, and drove a Jaguar Mk X - the ultimate arriviste motor in those days.

She worked for Roha for about 20 years, until her retirement at 60. They were "textile converters". A company, typically a big retailer - their biggest customer by far was Marks & Spencer - would decide on say a dress for their summer collection. They would decide on the fabric and the design. Roha would then find the mills to make enough fabric, the printers to print it, and all the rest of the complicated logistics involved. They made their money by taking a margin on the deal, and as you might imagine Marks & Spencer drove a hard bargain. But Schmiedl was up to the job. He carried with him a tiny Curta mechanical calculator, which he would twirl frantically while on the phone to suppliers and customers to figure out how to get his wafer-thin margin. (I wonder what happened to that calculator? They are sought after antiques now, worth $1000 or more on eBay).

While doing deals made the money, most of the work was in the logistics of manufacture, shipping and printing. My mother excelled at this kind of organisation, and her talents were quickly used to the full. She travelled frequently, most often to the mills and printers in Germany, Alsace and in northern England. She visited Germany often enough to become a competent German speaker. Often she carried huge samples with her, like on the occasion when one of them became so firmly wedged into a corner of the baggage hold (no containers in those days) that it took over an hour to dislodge it.

From being the boss's secretary she became a Director of the company - the British equivalent of a VP. Today she would have been called the Chief Operations Officer. It was typical of her though that she refused to accept a corresponding level of pay. It was always in her mind that one day she might want to quit, and go back to secretarial work. Both of my parents were horrified at the thought of anything ostentatious, and I think that was part of it too.

A little story about that... when I was about 17, Schmiedl insisted on her having a company car. Back then this was a huge tax advantage. Rear-view mirrors then were bolted to the wings by the selling garage, not built in to the doors. They called to ask whether she wanted plane (flat) or convex mirrors on her new 1970 Ford Escort (EUC 996J - funny how I still remember that). My mother heard this as plain - as in not fancy - and was certainly not going to have anything fancy on her car.  A pity, because convex mirrors give you a wider field of view, which can be very useful.

I left home to go to university in 1971, when I was 18, and married not long after. For the next 17 years visits to my parents were en famille and while we remained firmly in touch, the daily conversations weren't there to stay in touch with events. My father retired in about 1978. Under considerable pressure from my mother, he started for the first time to take part in the general running of the house. In the same year my brother left home, too. With all three children out of the way (my sister Anne had married in 1964, although she lived only a couple of miles away), they started to travel. Holidays in Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Europe were common. Until then, my father had barely ever left Britain.

Our relationship changed again in 1988, when my own marriage broke up. For three years I lived alone on the other side of London, and would often travel over in the evening to spend an evening at the family home, and spend the night in my old bed in my old bedroom. But at first, things were very difficult. My father, especially, was very upset at this turn of events, and for several months didn't speak to me. It was my mother who brokered a truce. At first I would meet her in secret for lunch or dinner in London. Then she accepted to meet my new partner over dinner. I think she probably told my father to get over it after that, because our relationship returned to normal soon after.

Not long afterwards I had a skiing accident. It happened in France but I was fixed up at a hospital a few miles from my parents. They came to see me every day, and taught me to play Killer Scrabble. It's like ordinary Scrabble, except viciously competitive. If you leave a triple word score open, you can be absolutely sure that your opponent will find a way to use it. Later I spent a few days convalescing at their home, sitting in their garden enjoying the spring sunshine. And playing Killer Scrabble in the evenings.

Both my parents were keen gardeners. My father did all the heavy work, digging the garden over every spring for planting, cutting the grass and so on. It was mostly my mother who took care of the actual plants, and everything else once my father had passed on. She loved her garden. It produced massive amounts of fruit, especially raspberries. We moved to that house when I was 9. The previous tenants had planted raspberry canes, which in the English climate propagate like weeds. They bear huge quantities of delicious fruit over a very short time, to the point where she couldn't even give it away. There were also blackberries, gooseberries, redcurrants and apples, as well as decorative flowers.

In 1988 my mother retired. Roha had changed completely by then. Harry Schmiedl had retired and the company was sold to a Manchester-based conglomerate. She had had enough of it all, and was very happy to leave it behind. She applied her organisational talent and drive to the local retired people's activities. When I was a small child, my parents had been one of the major forces behind the Pensioners' Pals, a kind of support group for the old dears on the estate. Now that she was one of their number, she organised cross-channel shopping trips and outings all over Britain. She kept that up until she was well into her 80s. She knew all the local coach operators and could haggle the best deals for a day trip to Calais for a busload of pensioners.

In 1991 we had a big family celebration for my father's 80th birthday. A year later he was seriously ill, and he passed away in February of 1993. I moved to France at the end of 1991, but got back to England often, and visited Romford every few weeks. There would be an excellent dinner of one of my childhood favourites, steak and kidney pie for example, a bottle of wine, a chat after dinner. And then a session of Killer Scrabble. We usually found time for three games, which we won in about equal measure. Right up to my very last visit in 2014, she never lost her touch. The routine stayed much the same when, from 1997 to 2001, I spent most weeks in my flat in London, and then after I moved to the US in 2001 - though the Scrabble sessions were sometimes cut short as I fell asleep from jetlag.

Always I slept in my old bedroom, the same place where I spent every night from 9 years old to 18. There was a bookcase beside the bed, with books that my father had bought with cigarette coupons before I was born - the Readers' Digest series of DIY companions, 100 Years in Pictures with its picture of the Tay Bridge Disaster (1879) that so impressed me as a child.

She visited us a couple of times in California, enjoying every minute of it. One moment I especially remember: we were flying back from San Luis Obispo in my plane, in and out of the tops of the clouds. It's a very spectacular feeling, almost like flying into a wall except it doesn't hurt. And my mother said, "When I was a little girl, I imagined that going to heaven would be like this". On her final visit we went to Yosemite, the first time she had been there, and to Mono Lake.

My mother was an avid reader throughout her life, though she bought very few books. The local public library was her resource, an extraordinary place with a far greater wealth of books than one would ever have expected. Every week she borrowed her limit of four books, often biographies, and read them all. During my childhood we had just one small bookcase in the living room containing the couple of dozen books that we owned - my Eagle Book of Trains and Beezer annuals for example - together with our library books. Children copy their parents, and I took it for granted to visit the library a couple of times a week and to read in every spare moment, including at the dinner table. One of the saddest things, when she became ill, was that she lost all interest in reading.

Our last Scrabble evening together was in June 2014. Not long afterwards, she fell and never recovered fully from the botched operations to repair her femur. It would be too sad to talk about anything that happened after that. Now she is at peace, and no doubt already telling the angels how to run the place.

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