What time …

do you call this!  From nowhere my mum came back to life this week when these words rang out from my PC speakers – ‘What time do you call this’ was the constant refrain of my upbringing.  It started with my elder sister who was subjected to this interrogation every Friday and Saturday night throughout her teenage years. As the irritating (much) younger brother I took quiet delight in her scolding, little realising that I would be subjected to deeper hot water when my time came. The price of schadenfreude.

My teenage reaction was ‘how can parents be so unreasonable, were they never young, were they never just a little wild and carefree!’  And the answer for my mother’s generation is, almost certainly not.  Only just sixteen when war broke out, mum was married with a one-year-old by the time of VE Day, seventy years ago yesterday.

The picture was taken by my dad somewhere in the Lake District in 1942 – a few days escape from fear and conflict.

057-The Lakes-1-wordpress

The context of the lyrics is not right but the repetition of the phrase is perfect. I have seen no reviews but a film that also features The National on the soundtrack at least has to be good to listen to:

Gone …

but not forgotten.  This is an unusual image, unique among the family archive for its outward display of affection. Their emotional roles were reversed; my dad was the soft place to fall, my mother the disciplinarian. My upbringing was unbalanced – “just wait until your dad gets home” held no perils for me.

They could argue enthusiastically and, frequently, I was the subject of the disagreement. My dad was a constant voice of reason but his exasperation could, in extremis, set him afire. Ultimately though, he was always fiercely loyal to mum and I learned, too early, not to depend on anyone.

And yet, I still miss them both.


Jonathon Meades captures this generation perfectly in An Encyclopaedia of Myself :

Two world wars, economic depressions, genocidal dictators, material privations, the ominpresence of death … enduring such stuff is not propitious for the embrace of affective ostentation, for the desire to get in touch with our inner entitlements, for the infantile need to share our pain, for the comfy validation of our self-pity, for the slovenly annihilating of our restraint, for the quashing of our shame.

For the public exposure of our past, for the tortuous excuses we make 😉

Mum – a tribute read at her funeral on 18th May 2012

Marion Peggy Down – 13th August 1923 – 12th May 2012

On 13th August 1923 to Mr and Mrs F E T, Collingbourne Villas, Old Winton Road, Andover a daughter.

For the week ending Friday August 17th Andover Cottage Hospital:

Number of patients in Hospital – 8
Admitted – 5
Discharged – 3

Gifts – Eggs Mrs Craddock, Mrs Ellen and Mrs Withers Cakes, Mrs Bert Miles Vegetables, Mr Pearce Jam,  Mrs Withers shin of beef, Mr Ponting Illustrated Papers

Mum was born into a different wholly unrecognisable world.

On 13th August 1923 her Dad, Frederick Earnest T was 31 and Florence May her mother 27 – a pretty young thing who turned into our Grandmother, a woman so alarming I called her Mrs Kipper and cried buckets if left alone in her company.  Fred was different though – a handsome warm man who smelled constantly of Three Nuns pipe tobacco which he rubbed in big brown scarred hands.

Fred’s life reads like a Michael Palin Ripping Yarn, a life not possible today.  Ordinary people in ordinary lives doing extraordinary things. Apprenticed as a motor engineer after leaving school, his entire life was enmeshed in the mechanical.   A member of the ‘Terriers’ he went to Gallipoli in 1914 and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt.  Between the wars he continued to work in motor engineering and in his spare time took part in motorcycle trials, built a Lea Francis from two wrecked halves and then raced at Brooklands.  By combining his passion for cars with a keen interest in local football he organised what was claimed to be the first floodlit match in the country; they simply surrounded the pitch with cars and turned on the headlights.  A full time officer in the local fire brigade, he raised enough money for Andover’s first ambulance and during World War II fought the fires at Southampton and Portsmouth blitzes.

Mum worshipped him.

Mum met Dad at a dance although the precise date and circumstance are vague – a surprising outcome – Dad was very athletic – a good tennis player, captain of cricket and football at Andover Grammar but in my entire life I never once saw him dance.  It seems remarkable to me that they found each other – a short adapted quote from a Garrison Keillor story:

The stove stands in the middle of the floor where decades of dancers have stepped up and down to keep their feet warm and the benches run around the walls inscribed with old thoughts of romance, some of them shocking to a child, news that mother or dad instead of getting down to business and having you was fooling around planting big wet smackers on a stranger who if he or she had hooked up with her or him, you would not be yourself but some other kid.  This terrible prospect from the past makes a child stop and think.

Chance is a wonderful thing and that is how we are here today – not just me and Pat but everything and everyone that has sprung from that seemingly random but surely inevitable, intended event.

Mum and Dad married in 1943 in the depths of war – she was only 19 and almost immediately my sister began her journey into life – not a baby boomer but a war child, a remarkable act of optimism.

In 1951 I was born to the mother of invention.  In a tight corner, looking for an excuse, making a quick decision, providing reassurance, Mum had a quick-fire, quick-witted imagination.  Five examples from life:

  • She was a good driver – never a crash in fifty years – I had two in my first.  Giving a lift to an ageing nervous spinster she would try to inspire confidence – ‘don’t worry my dear, I drove lorries for the Land Army during the war’.
  • One crowded Christmas I had to sleep on a camp bed at the bottom of Mum and Dad’s – Pat had one of her suspect boyfriends staying for a few nights.  I was woken by Ken, Ken, Ken – I am sure of it, I have seen that man on Police Five.
  • Then there was my first serious girlfriend who was much disapproved of – That girl is a gold digger Robin – she is just after your moneyBut Mum, I don’t have any!  Well if you did she would be!
  • Dad worked in Mexico for several years in the early 70s and Mum adapted to shopping wonderfully – faced with uncomprehending market stall owner she would make a sound like a chicken, flap her arms and point to her chest – determined to buy a chicken breast.
  • This is my favourite because I think the concern was genuine – it demonstrates a wonderful naivety and shows that all she ever wanted to do was protect us, no matter how small the threat – Mum and Dad retired to a village near Sherbourne and on one my visits I bought a well-used ex US Army coat in the town, actually a lined parka complete with insignia.  I was most pleased and proudly wore it home – Mum was immediately alarmed Robin, you can’t possibly wear that, you will catch Venereal Disease! 

Manchester was near where we lived, grew up and eventually flew the nest.  In the 1950s and 1960s it was a black and grey landscape.   The fogs came and stayed for weeks, fed by all those home fires and  the heavy industry of Manchester’s Trafford Park, a place of smells and smoke where Dad worked at ICI;  Trapped Under the Smog of the Industrial Blanket.  It was a partially derelict city where bombed-out buildings remained for years after the war but we were, nevertheless, proud Mancunians.

You can place a person’s position in history by the people they admire and the things they enjoy – Mum’s favourites were, in order of preference to a bored young boy, Coronation Street (as it used to be) Billy Cotton, Russ Conway, Val Doonican, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKella, the Black & White Minstrel Show, the Queen Mother and latterly Prince Phillip.  No wonder we rebelled!

After Munich 1958 she became a staunch supporter of Manchester United with great admiration for Matt Busby and the precious surviving Babes – so the gene has been passed down the generations.  We are reds not blues so we will not mention a more recent tragedy.  There were limits though – I once inscribed Up the Reds in 6 foot letters on the beach at Newquay and was immediately told to rub it out for fear we were thought communists.

Imagination, single minded determination and a quick wit, she passed on those genes down the generations too.  This is the remarkable sequence of pictures I carry in my head based on some photographs from the time.  It is early summer 1941.  She is standing on the platform at Andover Station waiting for a train – in her hand a small brown suitcase loaned by her father.  She is still only 17. Did her Dad really know where she was going, I like to think not.   The station is buzzing, the line was used heavily by the military throughout the war.  She is in a summer dress, light cardigan, flat white shoes and white ankle socks.  She is travelling to see Dad and we will suppose it is via London.  She is a young girl in a closed carriage compartment pulled by a blackened steam train – when she reaches Waterloo, she pulls on the worn leather strap to open the window and twist the outside handle to open the door, careful not to get marks from the filthy carriage on her clean summer dress.  She walks from Waterloo to Liverpool Street Station determined to catch the train to Cambridge.  She doesn’t have enough money for tubes or trains and anyway feels safer alone and above ground.  There is evidence of war everywhere – bombed out buildings, barrage balloons, sandbags, the Home Guard.  Later that day, exhausted, she finally reaches 8 Oxford Road Cambridge where Dad is living in digs with a very watchful landlady.

She could have stayed at home, she could have teamed up with someone else, she could have taken a softer option, but that is not what she did and that is not what we do.  Bless you Mum for making us everything we are.