My mother lived a long life, and saw nearly all this troubled century. When she was born in 1898, Queen Victoria still had three more years of her reign to come. By the time she died, in 1993, in her mid-nineties, there had been a moon-landing, and the Berlin Wall had come down. The inventions and quandaries of the 21st century were already in sight. The nature of marriage, the family and gender itself had all deeply changed.
Over her lifetime, my mother had seen two World Wars, as well as the long Cold one. She had seen Britain go from the proud imperial confidence of the Victorian age to the gradual drain of power after World War 2. She'd started her life in an age of long skirts, widows' weeds, houses packed with servants, churchgoing each Sunday. She'd seen votes for women, easy contraception, a total change in female opportunities, and the wild fashion styles of the modern catwalk.
Like all children, I only knew a portion of my mother's life – from her mid-thirties on. She married in her late twenties, and I was born in 1932. Just at this time my father got a good new position: a railwayman, he was appointed to an office job with the London and North Eastern Railway, at Liverpool Street station. He bought a fine new semi in Metroland, out in Rayner's Lane, still close to the countryside, and commuted to work each day on the new red trains of the Central Line.
I think these years were the happiest of my mother's life. She'd moved down from the north into her first married home. This was a good time for family life in Britain. Modern domestic appliances – Hoovers and gas-cookers and modern fireplaces – were taking many of the old chores out of domestic existence. In new communities like this, there were friendly modern neighbours, a Home and Colonial store, a brand new Odeon to watch romantic Hollywood movies, a smart hair-salon where you could have a permanent wave.
My mother was light-hearted and very spirited; she was also quite reserved and shy. She was tall, dark-haired, willowy – a kind of look I find I have always admired in women. She wore very little make-up, and bought all her clothes with care, looking for things that would outlast the season's fashions. She liked going to the cinema once a week "for a treat," but she also read a great deal, borrowing books from the local public library and Boot's. She had not had the chance of anything more than a board school education, but she was highly intelligent.
As her first child, I was probably something of a trouble to her. I had been born with a heart defect, and was supposed not to run or play games. From time to time she took me round the London specialists in the great hospitals of Edgeware or Great Ormond Street, and she looked after me with enormous care. My younger brother was born in 1935, and throughout the Thirties she devoted herself to the problems of raising a young family on a just about sufficient income.
For various reasons she almost never talked about her own earlier days. It was partly reticence; partly, I think, her pleasure in getting away from home into a new life of her own; and partly a kind of embarrassment – very common in the Thirties – among people who had already done better than their parents, but were doing all they could to make sure their children would do better still.
So it was not really until after her death, when a small suitcase of papers filled with those things that families always keep – certificates of birth and marriage and death, old photographs that get pushed away in the backs of drawers – came my way amongst her possessions, that I began to have much sense of her earlier years, and how her life had started out.
She had been born in Darnall, a working class district of Sheffield, which until quite recently still clanked with the noise of the nearby steelworks and the railway carriage and wagon works. Her father was an engine-driver, her mother – remembered by me only as an elderly grannie with grey pinned-back hair, wearing a long black dress and a flowered pinafore, sitting all day in a chair tended by three unmarried daughters – a linen power-loom weaver. One generation back of that, her grandmother, on her marriage, had signed her name with a cross.
She grew up in a family of seven children by two different fathers; five of them were girls. In the Twenties, her father had been killed in a street accident, run down by a "car-owner" named Garside, who was prosecuted but acquitted. The two sons had already married, leaving together a household of women, who fended in various ways: nursing, hairdressing, shorthand typing. Only two of the daughters ever married. This was the generation whose marriage prospects were blighted by the wholesale male slaughter of the Great War.
My mother must have had a short but quite good education, which included learning to play the piano. Then she trained to become a skilled shorthand typist, and worked as a railway clerk for the Great Northern Railway, and afterwards the LNER, at Sheffield Victoria Station. Here she met and married my father, an ambitious young booking clerk from Cheshire who sang with the Sheffield Orpheus choir. When he got the promotion to London he wanted, she remained with her family in Darnall to have her first child.
I was born at Nether Edge Maternity Hospital. According to the family papers, I cost £5.4s.3d., only a pound or so more than the fine maroon pram she pushed me in when she re-joined my father in London. She and my father were close, but with very different temperaments. He was strong-minded, firm in opinion, talkative, gregarious, fond of travel. And, as he worked for the railway, he got free or cheap travel round Britain and in Europe – even in the difficult postwar years when foreign travel was restricted.
So we went – my father, mother, younger brother and myself – to the Butlin's and Pontin's holiday camps at Skegness and Portcawl, the classic family holidays of the Thirties. In wartime, when the trains were filled with troops, he took us off to bed-and-breakfast in Scotland and Ireland. After the war, when much of Europe was still in ruins, we went by train to Spain, Italy, France and Austria. My father had no foreign language, but a great ability to start conversations. My mother was uncomfortable – it got much worse after they began taking holidays by plane – and long for the place she liked best: home.
When war came in 1939, our life of the Thirties came to an end. The railways were strategic, and my father was moved all round the country, organizing troop train movements. When the blitz began to shatter London, my mother moved to stay with her married sister in Sheffield. It wasn't perhaps an ideal move. Sheffield was blitzed heavily, and we spent much of the war huddled in a garden shelter, as the German bombers smashed the city.
It was a grimly unpleasant time, but we survived it as a family. Finally my father was able to move us to the greater safety of Nottingham, and there, in the last years of the war and the postwar austerity, I grew up. The new educational opportunities of the welfare state gave children like myself a fresh layer of opportunity. I won a free place at grammar school, then went on to university. Slowly my life began to move away from that of my parents, intellectually and geographically.
But we stayed very close. I returned home as frequently as I could, and I remained particularly close to my mother. I was never very sure what she made of what I did. When I started to write articles and then books, she was plainly proud I had written them. But I was never sure she read them, and she never commented on anything I produced. Until she died, so recently, I worried that in some way they might upset or offend her, though I don't know they ever did.
And when I became a university teacher, she was just as unfamiliar with that world. Universities were strange distant places, places she hardly ever visited – though she did go to see my brother graduate, and I would sometimes drive her through the campus to look at the buildings, without her ever wanting to go inside. She was not fond of restaurants; she rarely went to the theatre, except once in a while for the pantomime when we were young. She preferred reading and home entertainment – though by the time I started writing for television she was convinced the programmes were already "going off."
Once my father retired, my parents moved to a bungalow on the south coast. Then came the great tragedy in her life; another car accident first paralyzed, and then killed, my younger brother, who was also a university teacher. The accident deeply upset her. Always reserved, she became withdrawn and almost agorophobic, not wanting to leave the house. When my father died, my wife, to whom she was wonderfully close, brought her to Norwich, to a flat nearby. Though she rarely left it, she remained interested in everything, following the world in newspapers and magazines.
I greatly miss my mother, and feel every day that I have inherited, like some gene, a considerable part of her character. Like her, I have a taste for home and family life. Like her, I seek privacy and my own independence. I distrust crowds, and I don't much like big cities. I feel very suspicious of fads and fashions. I distrust extremes and wild enthusiasms. I respect ordinary common sense, and want people to behave with moral responsibility.
All these feelings are hers, engrained in me, I suppose, when she spent so much time with me as a child needing considerable attention, before and during the war. Today I suppose her life would be seen by modern women as narrow, self-sacrificing, too much devoted to others. I don't think that was how she saw it, and I don't think that was how it was. It was a private, unspectacular life of great value. And I still look for qualities like hers, considerate, thoughtful and restrained, in the women, and the men, I meet.