Poor, but happy


Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.

But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).

I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.

Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.

The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.

I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.

Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.

Download: Poor Boy – Nick Drake (mp3)

And you may ask yourself…


2010 was yet another banner year in my life with the birth of our second child and the milestone of a 10th wedding anniversary. Both caused a fair amount of “Well, how did I get here?” reflection on my part but it was the birth of my son that was the most existentially discombobulating. Having one kid is a big enough deal but two of them, besides all the extra work, feels like a whole different game of soldiers entirely. Instead of just being 2+1 we’re now a proper family which is, you know, a real thing. Finding myself part of a classic nuclear family with the house in the suburbs and the car in the driveway (we only need .5 more children and we’ll have ticked all the boxes) seem all the more surreal to me because I grew up in a single-parent family in a council flat. At dinner time when I look across the table at my wife and children — besides being filled with so much love and happiness I think I might burst at the seams — I have this peculiar out-of-body feeling of disbelief as if it’s not my own real life I’m living in and instead I’m the “Dad” character in a sitcom. But more than that it all seems so terribly adult which is another suit of clothes I can’t get to quite fit naturally.

My dad was in the same position as me by the time he was 28 but his generation were raised with completely different expectations than mine, we had the luxury of being able to put off all that boring growing-up stuff until much later in life and extending our youth with all it’s fun self-indulgences beyond our 20s and sometimes well into our 30s. I never even lived with a girl before I got married at 38 and then had my first kid at the ripe old age of 44 so I delayed it all even more than most (but boy, did I have a great time in Florida in my 30s). So despite having now acquired all the trappings of mature adulthood I still find it odd when people in shops call me “Sir” — Sir? Me? — because deep down I always think of myself as a twerpy young kid with an immature obsession with music and records (though thankfully I gave up reading comics a long time ago), not as a husband and father.

Blogging seems a bit of a juvenile pursuit too I must admit (I mean, can you imagine John Wayne blogging? ) but what should I give it up for? Gardening? Pipe-smoking? Cardigan-wearing?

Download: Once In A Lifetime (live) — Talking Heads
Buy: Stop Making Sense (album)

Every picture tells a story


If you have a copy of the terrific photo book London Through A Lens turn to page 199 where you’ll find the above picture titled “Roll’s-Royce at the Hilton” taken in 1965 with a caption that describes it as “the perfect image of urban glamour and sophistication in 1960s London”. Which it is, but besides being a great photo what makes it special to me (and gave me quite a nice surprise when I first looked through the book) is that the man in the top hat is my grandfather.

He was a doorman at The Hilton (and then The Dorchester) in the 60s and 70s and I imagine that working the door at such a swanky, jet-setter hotel during the height of Swinging London he must have seen and met a lot of the beautiful people of the era. Unfortunately I don’t have any stories about that or if I did I’ve forgotten them, and back then I wouldn’t have cared anyway unless he told me Captain Scarlet had stayed the night. That salute he’s giving reminds me that another thing I never knew much about was his military service. I knew he’d been in the Navy on a submarine during WWII (which seems to have been about the toughest job a sailor could have ) but his generation never talked about that and, to be honest, my generation never asked either. Besides I reckon he’d rather play golf than talk about that stuff anyway, the only hint that he might have had another, more serious, life in the past was the faded tattoos of anchors on his forearms. But I never could quite square those and what they implied with the warm, happy man who used to give me 50p to wash his Ford Capri at the weekends.

As is often the case by the time I was old enough to think that maybe my grandad did have some interesting stories to tell he had passed away, having a heart attack while playing golf in the early 80s. At least he went doing something he loved and it gives me a real happy feeling to see him immortalized in such a great book — as part of London’s history too.

Download: A Salty Dog — Procol Harum

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The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com

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