Sunday, 29 September 2013

My Journey: 2. - Meet the Parents

My psychotherapist would have a field day with this. I start a chapter entitled ‘Meet the Family’ and give my parents only a passing mention. Well, that’s how it is in my memories. My happiest childhood memories are, without a doubt, the times that I spent with my grandparents and my time at school.

First up I should make it clear that I was never abused in the conventional sense of the word. I was never beaten or sexually abused, my parents didn’t have drink or drug problems and we lived comfortably. Deprived I certainly was not. But, and it’s a big but, I never, ever, had the benefit of any fatherly love. There, I’ve said it. Just like the film with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts; Pretty Woman, ‘I’m angry with my father.’

Well I’m not angry with him really. He’s my father and I love him. It would be so easy to blame it all on him; ‘I’m an alcoholic, depressive because my father didn’t love me. It’s all his fault.’ I know he loves me but the silly bugger was, and is, just incapable of showing it.

My father really did have a tough upbringing. His father was a pilot in the Second World War and was killed in a flying accident when my dad was still young. His mother re-married, fairly swiftly after his father’s death I believe, to a man that we knew as Grandpa. I think that there are some skeletons in the family’s closet over the swiftness of the re-marriage and other potential earlier shenanigans between the two but I will probably never know the truth about that.

To me, my mother’s side of the family; Grandma, Granddad, Uncle Brian and the rest of the tribe were always my family but somehow my dad’s side were, well, kind of like the in-laws rather than family. I always felt at home with Grandma and Granddad. It was always relaxed. We could play, we could join in conversations and we all used to play games together as a family too. Sometimes there were so many of the family around that we had to combine two decks of cards so that we could all play sevens together.
But the atmosphere at Nana’s house, that’s what we called dads mum, was always cold and that wasn’t just the atmosphere that was the temperature as well. Nana lived in the same two up two down terraced house in Wimbledon that she had done all her life. For a long time, there was no central heating, just the coal fire in the back room, and the toilet was outside in the garden.

I remember very little about Grandpa other than he was a grumpy old man who sat in his favourite chair by the window and said little. He died when I was quite young.

Nana was a stern woman who I can only describe to you as a London version of Nora Batty from the TV show Last of the Summer Wine. She wasn’t a nasty woman, far from it, but you always felt that you were there to be seen and not heard. Most visits were just for a few hours at a time culminating in tea in the afternoon before we left again.

Visits seemed to consist of my brother and I sitting quietly on the floor, watching the coal fire, whilst nana updated dad on all the latest goings on of the family and other people who lived nearby that dad might know.  This, less than scintillating, conversation was only worsened by the incessant loud tick-tock of the large brown clock, that sat atop the mantelpiece above the fire, as the hands limped there way, oh so slowly, towards the time to go home again.

Even teatime didn’t bring a respite to the pain. Not only did the conversation, which rarely if ever included us, continue unabated but the food was awful too. Unfortunately, nana was a woman of habit and hadn’t changed her taste in food since the war years so tinned ham sandwiches and tea made with sterilised milk were the order of the day.

So Nana was a hard woman of the old school and my dad can’t have had a joy filled childhood himself but, rather than change that for his own children, he tried to continue in the style of parenting with us though not the sterilised milk and tinned ham sandwiches, thank God.

Put bluntly, my dad was, and is, a control freak. He has to be in control of everything and everyone around him at all times. Perhaps showing emotion or love would be a loss of that control, I don’t know, but he never showed me or my brother any sort of fatherly love at all.

To be honest, some of his antics wouldn’t be out of place in a TV sitcom.

When we were young, we used to go on camping and latterly when he got a bit more money, caravanning holidays. The holidays themselves were bad enough with the ‘we don’t do beaches’ approach of visiting places of interest like stately homes, castles and museums but getting there in the first place was just as much of a nightmare. No hitching up the caravan and off we go for us. Oh, no. A journey from Reading to the New Forest takes careful planning you know.

Dad would have planned the whole holiday meticulously. He’d have a little folder prepared complete with a printed route, with timings and including pre-defined stopping points at Little Chef restaurants, booking details of the camp sight and an itinerary for the two week stay. He even had a check list of what clothes to pack. He must still have nightmares about the times we went on holiday with uncle Brian, who would turn up in a car that was unlikely to last the whole two weeks,  an amount of petrol in the tank and money in the wallet that certainly wouldn’t and not a care in the world.

Home was worst though. Holidays were relatively relaxed in comparison.

Life at home for me and my brother was lived through a series of strict rules. Some were fair, some were reasonable but most were just downright ludicrous and nearly all were imposed by my father. Here are just a few:

We don’t believe in fireworks. Ok, not so much as a rule but a stated belief. What it amounted to was that we never had fireworks at home on bonfire night. No big deal you might think. That is until you are one of the two sad little faces peering out of your bedroom window at the next doors children’s firework party.

No TV until you’ve had your tea. And believe me, dad used to check the TV to see if it was warm when he got home from work to make sure.

No birthday parties. You can have a friend round to tea though and you can go to other people’s parties. Ok, so I can go to everyone else’s party but only invite one of them to mine.

No playing in the street. This one was a dandy. We lived in quiet cul-de-sac and all the other kids would go out to play but we simply weren’t allowed for some reason.

You have to wear a tie when we go shopping. If we went into the town centre to do shopping with mum and dad we had to wear a shirt and tie. Likewise, at Christmas, whilst every other child runs down the stairs in their pyjamas on Christmas morning, we had to put our best clothes on first.

Life could have been worst, I hear you cry, and I would agree. But when you take the rules and combine them with the complete lack of affection you get a not terrible childhood but equally not a happy childhood either. I once got a school desk for Christmas, for goodness sake, so that it would be easier for me to do my homework!

I can laugh about it now, but I do think it did have effect on me. To start with, I was painfully shy when I first left school, until that was, I discovered alcohol and I believe that another side-effect has been my constant need to achieve acceptance and praise, probably because I never got any from my father.

 And where was my mother through all this? She was there, the dutiful wife and loving mother but always, always in the ever present, overbearing shadow of my father. To sum up my mum in just one sentence does her an injustice. She was always caring, attentive and everything a mum should be, it just all had to be squeezed into the precious few moments that my dad wasn’t in the house in much the same way that she is squeezed into this chapter.

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