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Chapter One: The Founder of Our Plenty
Fifteen years after a mother has left the earth there is a grown-up daughter standing in a shop, saying petulantly to a saleswoman, "I know it looks nice -- but I don't wear purple." Why doesn't she wear purple? Because as a little girl, and then as a bigger little girl, a voice was saying, "Don't wear purple, it's for old people." The same voice that said, "Once you go into brown you never wear anything else," and "Short-sleeved jackets are common," and "Pull your shoulders back and don't frown."
And when the little girl had stopped frowning, rejected the purple outfit and the jacket with short sleeves, but was still undecided between the green dress and the blue dress, the final command: "Have both."
This is my mother's voice. The stylish, excessive, gold-medal shopper.
There was also my mother the unyielding, unforgiving taskmaster. So a cleaning lady or a gardener or an offspring foolishly imagining an element of corner-cutting would go unnoticed ended up terrorized and forever regretted the economy.
Then again, there was my mother the empowerer. "You are," she would declare with an endearing certainty, "second to none. You can go out into the world and do anything!"
The empowering voice, throughout my life, is the one that girlfriends have envied. "If only," they have so often cried, "my mother had talked to me like that."
But it wasn't all rosy.
We lived permanently in extremes. A confusing seesaw existence in which best intentions were constantly thwarted by unintentional abuse.
Yet, to her credit, I never experienced a mother who was also a jealous competitor. In her book, disloyalty to a daughter was worse than the murder of a stranger. She believed jealousy was the vice of mothers who wished to stay young and attractive for their husbands and who ruthlessly eradicated any competitors. Especially daughters.
To my mother, the notion of being suspicious or fearful of one's own flesh and blood was unimaginable. She, in contrast, had only a touching and unrealistic faith in the genius of her children. In her order of priorities my brother came first. It was hardly to his benefit. I came second. Her husband, my father, came not first but last. Probably of the three of us under her control being second was the least traumatic position. But it was still a mixed blessing.
Nevertheless, on her tombstone it would have been fair to write: "She would have died for her children. She did what she thought was her best."
Alas, a mother's best is rarely enough. A mother's best can result in shocking damage and the second half of a child's life spent recovering from the first.
A mother's place is in the wrong.
To begin with, of course, we didn't know our mother was a star. We accepted as normal her energy, her quick wit, her beauty, her dazzling fearlessness, her scary exacting standards and her startling ability to make money. The last talent matched only by her gift for self-maintenance. Emptying Bond Street was a regular hobby. Then again, her generosity within the family was as huge as her stinginess in business.
Auntie Mame crossed with Howard Hughes out of Vogue and Mother Teresa. Eccentricity, secrecy, style, kindness. An exotic cocktail except on a very bad day when, without warning, added to the mix were those unforgettable Stalinesque tendencies. Self-doubt, if it existed, was not on show. With every part she played there was an uncrushable belief in her right to do exactly what she wanted.
And whatever the role of the moment it ran alongside an undisguised contempt for housewifery. Her order to have a facial once a month and get plenty of help in the house was just one of her maxims. Being "up at six and out at five" was another. Ostensibly a bit of Irish nonsense, we were in no doubt what it meant.
In her book, to be second, to be caught out, to be diddled by another who was sharper and quicker and up earlier in the morning was shameful. As was "being taken for a ride."
This was the philosophy of the street trader. It whistled round our lives and our home in St. Michael's Road, Blundellsands in Crosby outside of Liverpool. An imposing thirties house bought with three thousand used one-pound notes toward the end of the war. My mother was a third-, maybe fourth-generation trader. My great-grandmother and my grandmother before her had been in St. John's Market selling chickens.
The family was part of the mass exodus from Ireland. Peasants who came to Liverpool during the famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds. None of the women in the family appeared to have married a man of means. Or one who could turn much of a penny. The women, however, were rather good at it, perhaps out of necessity. And St. John's Market, a forbidding early-nineteenth-century building darkened by years of grime in the center of Liverpool, offered the dash for freedom. It allowed traders to rent a stall by the day. Or even to stand outside the building selling their wares. The women would journey from other parts of Liverpool. Sometimes they had only worn-out secondhand clothes to sell. The better-off could afford to trade in fruit or fish or chickens they bought early each morning in the wholesale market across the road. By the time my mother came along, the family stall in St. John's was a permanent one. It was her fresh blood that sent it spinning into an astoundingly lucrative business. First, in the early forties, unashamedly on the black market, dealing in rabbits. After that as a wholesaler, supplying ships and hotels and railways in the north of England.
By all accounts, my grandmother, less of a business head, shared her daughter's relish for spending. Her market coats were not the traditional white, but navy blue silk especially tailored for her. A week's profit could sensibly be blown on a new hat from Bon Marché. The bailiffs might be circling the door of her rented home but she would still be demanding her new son-in-law drive her to Southport to inspect a row of houses she fancied buying.
Quite how a family of Irish peasants developed such grandness and appetite for all things luxurious plus, admirably, an appetite to make the money that provided for high living, heaven knows.
My mother's pitch was the corner stall in the second aisle. A. Wilson was comparatively small, but in a prize position on one of the busiest corners. Behind the display of chickens was an office with high stools and a long desk, probably unchanged from the previous century, except for the telephone (ROYal 3841). Outside, the goods were laid out, dressed with price tickets. The giblets (1/6d a plate) were separate. Fresh sawdust was sprinkled on the floor. Sweeping up the sawdust and scrubbing down the blocks were parts of the ritual of shutting down at 6 p.m. after the big iron gates had closed the market to shoppers.
To my generation, the Second World War and the early postwar years were likely to have involved austerity, going without, sacrifice and suffering. In our home, of course, it typically meant exactly the opposite. There were two cars in the drive, which had In and Out gates. There was a housekeeper. A gardener. Occasionally a cook, when from time to time an attempt would be made to ape more precisely the conventional middle-class lifestyles that surrounded us. But these experiments rarely lasted. My mother's patience with anyone who did not automatically move with the speed of sound hovered around zero. For the first decade of our lives my brother and I could have been forgiven for imagining our names were Hurry Up.
Our war, which may not have been your war, was a puzzle for a child growing up in its smoldering shadow. At school they taught you about the loss of lives, the bravery, the going without. At every turn in Liverpool bomb damage was evident. Churches without spires. Holes in the ground. Rows of houses half standing, so you could see the wallpaper from the bedroom. Men without legs, hobbling on crutches or with one sleeve of their jacket empty. At home, however, the grown-ups appeared to have enjoyed the very best of times. This was particularly true of my mother, who naturally judged good and bad on the simple basis of how well the business was going. And business wasn't just good during the war years, it was spectacular.
The black market raged. If a movie writer wanted to illustrate how it operated he would invariably create an image of a man in a heavy beige overcoat and a Trilby hat with a cigarette in his mouth who talked in whispers and produced nylons out of the back of an old lorry. What he would not have described was a slim, strikingly beautiful blond woman with a husky voice, a new Rover car, dressed in a well-cut suit and a Mitzi hat. Her shoes and handbag by Mr. Rayne. Her rings from Boodle and Dunthorne. There ended the difference. My mother's dealings were no less dramatic, her risk-taking every bit as great as the other profiteers.
By being up earlier in the morning than anyone else, she managed to commandeer the entire allocation of rabbits for Liverpool. These came in boxes of ten. Two pounds were added to the price of each box. The man who delivered them got five shillings. My mother kept the rest. All cash. Thousands of cases a week passed through her hands.
The butchers of Liverpool and Lancashire were thrilled. They never asked questions. Nor did my father, who benefited hugely. His officer's uniform (he was commissioned almost immediately because of his education) was hand-stitched by Liverpool's finest tailor, John Snell. So magnificent was business that occasionally one picked up a hint that the most compelling reason for the arrival of my brother in 1942 and me in 1944 was because it ruled out any question of the young Mrs. Robinson being enlisted to drive an ambulance.
The avoidance of making a proper effort for the country in wartime, the dealings on the black market and the skulduggery it involved, was normal business practice to her. This neither clashed with nor made a nonsense of Anne Wilson, the good Catholic, who for years since leaving school had risen early to catch the first Mass of the day.
There is a story of George Orwell journeying to the northeast to chronicle the effects of poverty and deprivation during the worst years of the Depression. He found a mother and her four babies barely existing between the walls of a tiny, damp basement room, struggling to survive without water or heat. "How long have you lived in these conditions?" he asked. "Ever since they told us about them," the mother replied.
That punchline mirrored our early backdrop. No one told us we were different. Only as we started to visit other homes did it slowly dawn on us just how bizarre was our family's way of doing things.
Out there, for example, in the postwar years of going without, there were ration books, an absence of luxuries. Often necessities were no easier to come by -- or so we learned later. At the time, no one told my brother and me. We toddled around in cozy ignorance. One day in our local village I went to buy some sweets. The woman asked politely for my coupons. "We don't use them," I replied equally politely. "In our house," as my auntie once remarked with Irish pride, "despite Hitler, there was fruit on the sideboard and nobody ill in the house."
Legend has it that my father came back from a visit to relatives and told my maternal grandfather that at his cousins' they were sharing two eggs a week between the whole family. "The fellow is talking through his backside again," said my grandfather, who had known only juicy steaks, eggs galore, even bananas, during all the time the Germans had been razing Liverpool to the ground.
Directly opposite my mother's stall in St. John's was another poultry stall, Harris's. As I type the name I almost bow with respect. Mrs. Harris was the opposition. As is still the case with markets, the same goods were on other counters only yards away. Do stallholders today live in any greater harmony than they did in St. John's? I don't know. But certainly to A. Wilson the Harrises were the enemy. To begin with there was old Mrs. Harris. Then later there were her daughters Eileen and Fanny. Before I was born, Mrs. Harris senior had apparently done everything to put my mother out of business. Quite what "everything" meant was never clear. My mother's customary habit of painting broad strokes on the canvas made it difficult to know. In any case, by the time I came along the Harris family had been kicked into touch. But whatever they did or did not do, we owed them a lot.
Old Mrs. Harris had sharpened my mother's brain when it came to fighting dirty or defending her corner. The middle-aged Harris daughters, in their brown felt hats and white market coats, one pinched-faced and thin, the other barrel-like, looked benign enough to me. Perhaps they lacked their mother's appetite for commercial espionage. No matter, it was their mother whose memory we marked.
Every year, from the age of four until my mid-teens, we decamped to the South of France for anything up to six weeks. There on the terrace of our hotel we took part in a first-night ritual. My mother would order us to raise our glasses to Mrs. Harris. "Without her, we wouldn't be here," she would announce solemnly. Sadly, the Harris family only went to Colwyn Bay for their holidays.
The lesson: learn from your enemies. They are your greatest teachers. It ran parallel with the idea that there were no victims, only volunteers. That to look adversity in the face was the only respectable option. To shy away from a fight was unthinkable.
The details of how, when she lay dying, old Mrs. Harris had called for Miss Wilson was one of my mother's favorite stories. Apparently the old girl's conscience would not allow her to breathe her last until she had made peace with her young adversary and congratulated her on her cleverness.
I imagined having a market stall was normal. Unaware that few other mothers, nay, no other mother, in comfortable, middle-class Blundellsands, stood in the kitchen at six o'clock in the evening and cooked with their hat still on. Or asked her children to feel her hands. In winter, still icy after a seven-mile car journey from the market.
Did other families leap with joy at the arrival of a brand-new Morris Minor? A second car that only weeks later was on its way to the Isle of Man because someone had offered more than market value for it.
Did other mothers constantly say: "Give me a telephone and I'll buy the opposition at one end of the street and sell it at the other"?
Or: "Don't ever clean a kitchen floor. You go out and make the money to pay others to do housework"?
Who else's mother would declare with unconcealed contempt of almost any Blundellsands wife who stayed at home, "She's very empty"?
Most people were terrified of my mother. We certainly were.
When years later feminism arrived, heralded by bra-burning, demonstrations and the wholesale condemnation of men, as well as the angry demand for women everywhere to release themselves from the tyranny of domestic duties and domestic violence, it was hard for me to grasp. Sure there was massive inequality in poorer homes, particularly for young mothers on the breadline. In the workplace, yes, the hours and rates for women were atrocious compared to men. But what was so tricky about life for middle-class, educated women? Nothing, I considered, that couldn't be solved by being up at six and out at five. By having a facial once a month and getting plenty of help in the house. By using one's head to save one legs. By having a job, for God's sake.
My approach to the woes of sisterhood was hardly surprising, coming from a home where men, far from posing a threat, were regarded by the head of the house as variously stupid, incompetent, slow and only very occasionally equal. The odd clever, rich one would have my mother cooing and flirting in the best traditions of Barbara Cartland, but there weren't enough of them for a daughter to form any idea that this sort of male was commonplace.
Unique in working-class Bootle, my mother was sent away to a boarding school, Seafield Convent (Cherie Blair's old school), only a few miles along the coast at Crosby. Alas, when she was fifteen the bailiffs stopped circling her parents and pounced. She was taken away. The legacy is still perhaps in the convent's vaults: "A. Wilson, fees unpaid." From then it was she who righted the family business. My grandfather, a ship's engineer, was presumably on the high seas when the furniture was being emptied from the rented home. He appeared not to have involved himself in the family's precarious finances. Perhaps it was his absence that resulted in my mother becoming the parent. The hardworking, conscientious girl who had barely any time for enjoyment and courtship. Money, money, money. It had to be made. How else do you dress like a lady, own a car, become a cut above the rest?
She was twenty-seven by the time she met and married my father, a handsome, dashing local schoolteacher. His mother, a widow, had a small sweet shop opposite St. James, the school in Marsh Lane, Bootle, where my father went first as a student teacher and later as master in charge of science, geography and, unofficially, jokes, japes and entertainment.
A grammar-school boy and university graduate, Bernard Robinson was more than a step up from the dock workers in flat caps who cycled to work and who expected no favors from life. A professional man. An exceptional "catch." Hadn't Anne Wilson done well? they said around Bootle.
Certainly the wedding was like nothing else the community had witnessed. There was morning dress, the bridesmaids in the finest satin, the bride, exquisitely beautiful in hand-stitched satin. "The honeymoon is being spent on the Riviera," said the Bootle Times. Impressive, presuming Bootle had the foggiest idea about the Riviera. Or what it represented.
Southport, twenty miles away, was only just dawning as an adventure. Mostly, as it happened, by courtesy of my uncle Paddy Flanagan, only brother to my maternal grandmother (one of four sisters), who had introduced the first coaches to the area. Those who made it further afield to Blackpool for a few days' holiday at a boardinghouse took their own salt and pepper and expected to be locked out from after breakfast until teatime. Many more would settle for a day trip to New Brighton. A foreign jaunt was a week's camping on the Isle of Man.
That Anne Wilson, the market-stall girl, had upped her station was a forgivable assumption. Bootle wasn't aware that it was the bride who had paid for the wedding and the honeymoon. Why should it be? My mother then and for the rest of her life disliked anyone knowing her business. Nevertheless, being misjudged by her new husband's colleagues was to seal a lifelong scorn for his profession.
Her resentment of teachers -- with some justification -- had begun at school. She had learned very little and as a result and to her everlasting regret her spelling was poor, her general education sparse. It made her feel inferior. A deficiency she tried to right by reading newspapers, going to the theater and generally "keeping up." Commendable but hardly necessary since her lack of basic schooling was largely regarded as immaterial and irrelevant to anyone who saw her operate in business. Or add a line of figures faster than a calculator.
No matter, teachers joined, nay headed, the canon of things she distrusted and avoided, along with November, Easter, Winston Churchill, meanness, small portions, crude jokes, nuns (excepting those from the Convent of Adoration), politicians, particularly Bessie Braddock, a famous female Labor MP (but not Michael Foot and Lord Boothby, whom she admired), paying income tax and housewives, especially those whose lives revolved around sewing and making dainty cakes.
With equal passion, she adored fortune-tellers, tarot cards, the Irish, the law, barristers, judges, Jews, newspapers, quality bed linen, fresh flowers, well-cut clothes, beautiful hats, a "good deal," boxing, the theater and anyone with a sense of humor. In her rare spare time after leaving school she would slip off to the city's law courts and revel in hearing Maxwell Fyfe (later 1st Earl of Kilmuir) and Lord Birkenhead and Lord Birkett. Why and who introduced her to this form of entertainment is another mystery.
If Bootle was knocked sideways by the wedding of the year on August Bank Holiday 1937, the first night of the honeymoon was no less adventurous. By today's standards, it would have made a page lead in a Sunday tabloid.
My mother told the tale with great pride. They were at the Savoy Hotel in London (where else? as she would say). That night "your father had to ask the hotel to call the doctor. He came and examined me. 'Mr. Robinson,' he said to your father, 'you are an exceedingly lucky man -- your wife is a virgin.'"
Sometimes a piece of oft-repeated family folklore becomes unremarkable simply by its familiarity. Only when I passed on this anecdote in my own middle age and saw the looks of astonishment on the faces of others did I realize just how bizarre the first night of the honeymoon must have been for all concerned. My mother, my father, the Savoy hotel doctor.
Did my mother have sex that night? Did she enjoy it? Had my father ever had sex before? Did sex remain something to do with doctors and duty? Who knows? I don't ever remember being curious about the details. Although, if I had been, I would not have asked much more. Sex we never spoke of, beyond my mother's firm belief that girls who were "loose" were never respected.
But even without any further and better particulars, the bare bones of the situation meant that a twenty-seven-year-old who could pay for an exotic wedding and a film-star-quality honeymoon had no idea where babies came from. It set the tone for her future life: rigid convention colliding on a daily basis with a breathtaking lack of orthodoxy.
Was my father a lucky man? My mother never gave the impression that lovemaking was anything other than something to be endured. And, inevitably, nine months from the honeymoon, in the spring of 1938, their first baby, Rita, was born.
Rita's life lasted just fourteen months. When we were growing up we learned that the doctor had diagnosed her as suffering from diphtheria, which was raging at the time. But in fact, said my mother, she was wrongly treated. Her problem was teething and it was the treatment that killed her. Was this a fudged truth? Or did the diphtheria represent a hint of neglect on behalf of my parents that made their version of events easier to live with? We will never know. In all likelihood, even the central players shied from discussing the truth.
It was a typical family secret. In those days there were no counselors and shrinks, twelve-step programs or daytime television shows offering viewers the chance to share their grisly confidences.
In our home, the most obvious result of the loss of the much-adored Rita was the treatment of my brother. When he was born four years later, he was nursed and cosseted. "Peter arrived during the Blitz and bombing so he was bound to be highly strung," my mother would explain. This was expected to excuse anything her only son did or said.
(Peter only recently learned more than half a century later, after giving this version of events on a radio program, that there was no bombing in August 1942. But there was plenty in January of that year. "So I was conceived during the Blitz," he wrote to me recently. "You, Anne, were born when the bombing had stopped and the country was optimistic about its future.")
My father was another precious son. A working-class prince, an only child whose father was a checker on the docks and a drunk. At some point he was thrown out of the house by his wife Annie (née O'Rourke), who was already running her own sweet shop. Thus Bernard Robinson as a baby found himself surrounded by women. He never mentioned his father, who was later crushed by a crane and died alone from pneumonia.
Presumably, like the women in my mother's family, Annie O'Rourke had taken to trade to put food on the table. All of this was a barely noticed route to emancipation for working-class women. And hardly remarked on by the feminists of later years.
In my mother's formative years, a woman's place was very much at the back of the bus. She was nine when women over the age of thirty were finally granted the vote. In 1937, the year she was married, the divorce laws were extended to give women the right to petition on grounds of their husband's cruelty, desertion or madness. In the thirties, women's dependence on men extended to a restaurant manager being entitled to refuse a woman a table if she entered on her own.
Meanwhile, there was bohemian London. This allowed the upper classes and the artists and writers and actors of the day to ignore all convention. So Vita Sackville-West could conduct a grand and public affair with Violet Trefusis, while living the life of wife to a diplomat and later Tory MP, and travel Europe with her female lover without risk of attracting public scorn. Not that lesbianism or women's rights (or wrongs) ever cropped up in our house. The talk was much more likely to be of the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson. My mother regarded Mrs. Simpson, on the whole, as a good thing because her suits fitted and she was elegant.
Born in 1909 and 1911, respectively, my mother and father were still children during the First World War; the Depression was looming as they moved from their teens to their twenties. For them poverty, disease, hunger, children without shoes, mothers without medical treatment, families without homes, ran alongside the dawn of Hollywood, of motion pictures, of dances and music and jazz and the Charleston. Forty years later they were still humming "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" and "When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." Al Jolson was their musical hero. My father was a talented musician who played the saxophone, the piano and the ukulele. My mother with no hesitation shared his hobbies. Her love of glamor and the theater complemented his enthusiasm. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, being elegant, carefree and gravity defying, were film stars they copied on a Saturday night at the Lyceum, Reece's Café and the Grafton Rooms.
For the young Catholic men and women from Bootle, if Reece's Café and the Grafton were social cornerstones, the parish church was another. The parish priest, as far as his community was concerned, had the judgment of Solomon.
When the Second World War came my father, at twenty-eight, was immediately called up. My mother accompanied him to sign on at the temporary office in Williamson Square in the center of Liverpool. She claimed she "dropped" the clerk ten shillings and had him assure her that my father would not have to leave Britain to fight abroad.
This was absurd. The clerk must have enjoyed his luck and taken the ten shillings anyway. It's true my father never did leave England, eventually becoming a captain in the Royal Artillery, but that was because of his skill in training men. Not that he ever interrupted or disputed my mother's tale or suggested to her that others might find it disgracefully unpatriotic.
He was, as far as she was concerned, an ongoing trial and disappointment. As she remarked despairingly whenever he had goofed, which was often, "In all the years he has been with me, he's learned nothing." She would humiliate him without a second thought. He rarely answered back. Their relationship was an uneven balance of criticism, admiration and a strange sense of commitment.
Only after they had both gone did I begin to understand how the relationship worked. His priorities were different from hers. He wished to be amusing and to be liked. This naturally had no place in her mission statement, which was to be on the lookout for a bargain, a good deal, never to be taken for a ride and to hell with whether people liked you.
So, from the start, the idea that he might profit from watching her way of doing things was doomed. But to take her orders was what he was used to. Women had brought him up. He was trained to service their needs. If at times he resented her power, he didn't often show it. But he would sometimes defy her silently.
People loved his easy charm. His humor. His lack of judgment. Without effort he would have folk believing that bumping into them was quite the nicest thing that had happened to him that day. Probably -- as is often the case with the easygoing -- his cheerfulness masked a great deal of indifference.
My mother's manner, meanwhile, was one of uninhibited directness. She would shout, she would rail at her staff, her competitors and the salesmen on the market. Confusingly for the recipient, however, a ferocious battle over a halfpenny a pound in the price of a consignment would end with her asking sweetly and with genuine interest whether this son or that daughter had heard from the university of their choice. How a wife's pregnancy was faring and to be sure to remember to tell the wife -- whose name she would always know -- that Miss Wilson wished to be remembered. The hapless male would end up not knowing if he was coming or going.
She loathed bullies, while being a disgraceful bully herself. Not that anyone had the nerve to say so -- least of all my father. We lived by her bizarre codes of practice. Questioning her wisdom, doubting her decisions, was not an option. She was part monster, part magic. I have felt comfortable in the company of bullies, monsters and madness every since.
Copyright © 2001 by Anne Robinson