Out Now!

Friday, 23 February 2007

A letter from Sea

The picture above is of our Dad posing in the back garden of Ribblesdale Avenue - in the same place as an earlier photo of his mother Brigid.

I thought deeply about this and eventually decided that for all my words, nothing describes my dad, or captures his spirit better than this letter. It’s a bit of a miracle that it still survives. For those who come later and are confused by his reference to a ‘daughter’ his certainty was misplaced. The child turned out to be my brother, Tony and my sparring partner ever since. What comes across to me is the intense loneliness of a family man at sea for great tracts of time, his love for our mother, and the strong Victorian values that got in the way of so many things. As you’ll see in the next posting, I didn’t always measure up to his ideal.

At sea

Dear Son,
This is your Dad’s first letter to you; don’t let your mother know or she’ll be jealous. She thinks I shouldn’t write to anyone but her. By the time you get this you should be about one month off two years old and will probably be full of mischief. Well your Dad was too when he was young so I suppose we’ll have to look with a lenient eye upon your misdeeds.

You have a lot of discoveries to make, some good and some bad, but you and I, Son will discover the world together. We might let your mom into it too. You’ve yet to feel the thrill of your first circus, your first visit to the zoo, your first Grotto and Santa Claus and your first Pantomime. All these things that delighted your Dad will delight you and perhaps I might catch the spirit of my childhood in just watching your face. Anyway old boy, until you are old enough to enjoy these things there’s plenty of fun you and I can have together.

Now young fellow, here is the serious part of my letter. Your Mother, God bless her, will, with the help of God give you a little sister to play with, but remember Son, she’s your responsibility to see no harm befalls her. Don’t forget, you’ll be her big brother and if you do the job well, when you are older, I’ll put the Dearest thing I possess in this world under your protection while I’m away, and that is your Mother.

You are still too young yet to realise it but she is also Your Dearest possession, and remember you can never be a man without being a good Son and I can forgive you quite a lot if I see you loving, obedient and respectful to your mother. What your mother has done and gone through for you, you’ll never know but it merits all the love and respect of your whole life. Whether I have your love or not is a different thing, but I can always command your respect if necessary. Still I’m not worrying too much because I think you’ve got the right stuff in you. Your mother is proud of you now, don’t ever let her lose that pride in you. If you do, you’ve lost a priceless possession.

I don’t know why I’m writing this to you as you can’t read yet, but it is just the mood I’m in and I’m giving my mood expression. But to continue, there are very few women in this world like your Mother. I was lucky like you, Son. I had a good mother and in later years when she passed on, as we all have to, if you can say to yourself I’ve never brought an unnecessary tear to those loving eyes, that my Son will be the greatest consolation to your sorrow.

But, little fellow you’re too young to think of sorrow, so make every day a holiday and your Dad will help you when he comes home. In the meantime you can have all the fun you like tearing up the first letter to you from your loving Dad. X

Thursday, 22 February 2007

They Meet At Last

My mum met and became more acquainted with my Dad through the cousin Margaret. (Margaret Gordon I don’t know whether that’s her maiden name or her later married name) She still lived in 14 Ribblesdale and I imagine shared the back bedroom with Doris, leaving the smaller front bedroom for my dad when he returned from one of his voyages. She was a friend of my mum and in a sense was the ‘Go-between’ through which she and my dad came to know each other.

My mum’s sister, Lily remembers our dad then as “…a quiet man, quite the gentleman, who read a lot of books about the sea in Ince Woods.” My uncle Dave remembers the ‘adventures’ and the stories he told about life at sea, the countries he’d been to and the Far East in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Whenever I see a Fred Astaire film, a Humphrey Bogart, I think of out dad.

I know a man of great will. He started as a deck-hand and through sheer hard work and private study worked his way up to becoming a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy. He had a great love of Dickens. He would read chapters at a time to my mother - (well, we didn’t have a TV until the second series of ‘Rin Tin Tin’ - some time in the early sixties) and his conversation would be punctuated be cryptic phrases such as ‘Barkas is willing’ or, after refusing seconds of pudding, ‘I’ve had an elegant sufficiency’. My brother’s nickname was ‘Weller’ - mine less Dickensian, but equally affectionate.

Our bookshelf was dominated by two sets of Charles Dickens,, a set of Harmsworth Encyclopaedias, and a twenty volume collection of ‘The Masterpiece Library of Short Stories’ arranged in countries.

Our dad had one other great passion. Gilbert and Sullivan. He and our mother would sing together over the piano. They tried to inculcate their children with the same filthy stuff! I’m still embarrassed over ‘Tit Willow’.

A recurring feature of great tyrants like Hitler and Stalin is a tendency to sentimentalism. I was in danger of developing into the greatest tyrant of them all, sobbing my heart out at the story of Tit Willow, as sung by Cyril and May Keyton. Cruel and unusual punishment they call it now, I think. Give me the mind of a child until he is seven, the Jesuits said. I still break out into a cold sweat over Tit Willow.

Our dad was also a strong disciplinarian. It came with the time along with his background. Strictly speaking, he was a Victorian with a strong sense of duty, and he married late in life. I remember, via my mum that some in the wider family believed he was making a mistake treating his children as though they were a potentially mutinous crew. He valued honesty above everything and admitting the crime would lessen the punishment. Even so we’d be told to go to the small front bedroom and wait. Then we’d hear his footsteps on the stairs. Punishment involved a leather belt.

His love however was something we realised more fully later in life. He believed that boys needed strong discipline otherwise they would take advantage or go bad.
The worst of it was that there was no over all consistency because he was so often at sea and our mother was much softer, and it was then, I suppose, our father was proved right. We took advantage, though to what extent I can’t remember. Our parents wrote on a daily basis to each other and our ‘sins’ were toted up and held in balance for our dad’s home-coming. A bit like Judgement Day, I suppose. He loved coming home, hated going off to sea. Must have hated punishing us for ‘cold’ crimes we’d committed whilst he was away.

I still remember our mum’s intense excitement, the bright red coat she knew he liked, the bus journey - sometimes taxi - to Liverpool Docks…and the long, long wait on the quayside for the ship to come in. Ships were never punctual, like say a train - though today it might be the other way round. (Sorry Owen )
We were excited, and also scared, wondering what punishments would be exacted…and what presents he’d have for us from the Americas, Africa or from wherever he’d been. On the Georgetown sugar cane run there’d be raw sugar cane, the operative word being cane. We’d gnaw it for all it was worth, trying to convince ourselves that it was better than ice-cream. They were real teeth-breakers leaving only a thin trace of sugar in our mouths for all of our sucking. We much preferred the coconuts.
Once he brought home a Mynah bird that was supposed to talk. But it sat miserably in its cage, every so often emitting a mournful ‘bloop’; and that was what it was called. I still feel bad about it: to be carried away from a colourful rain-forest and end your days in a small terraced house thick in tobacco smoke. But then, ‘worse things happen at sea’ was another of my Dad’s sayings.

There were less controversial presents. There were also the toys. I remember a wonderful mechanical ocean liner with red and green flashing lights. I sailed it across the great grey ocean separating one pavement from another. Another toy I remember was a mechanical ‘Man on the Flying Trapeze’ who did the business whilst a music box in its base gave out a tinny rendition of a popular song of the time: ‘He Sails Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease, that Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.’

In the time honoured phrase, life was much simpler then. A puppet show made from string and balloons created a magic I can remember, but no longer able to understand.

It’s bizarre what the mind chooses to remember. Why out of everything do I remember his disappearing trick that never actually worked though we always believed it might. It was very simple. After some portentous mumbo-jumbo about the mysteries of the orient, he’d place a pale blue satin napkin over our heads. Through its folds we’d be able to see the blurred shadows of our parents…hear our mother saying ‘Don’t do it Cyril. Don’t do it.’ The chanting would continue and then our Dad would say: “This is your last chance, do you really want to disappear…for good. I may not be able to bring you back.” We’d whip those napkins off our heads in a flash. He may have been telling the truth. We never found out.

Monday, 19 February 2007

The Parry's on the Move

14 Ribblesdale Avenue. 12 Ribblesdale can just be seen to the right.

In 1934 the Parry’s moved to 12 Ribblesdale Avenue. My mother was 14 years old.

Next door, at 14 Ribblesdale, lived the Keyton’s: Agnes Bridget Keyton, Doris, and Cyril Keyton. Living with them was a cousin called Margaret. I doubt that my mum really knew Cyril then because he was 34 years old and was at sea for great tracts of time, mostly in the Pacific and the Far East.

By this time Owen Parry had married again, Annie Cowley from the Isle of Man. In my aunty Lily’s words: “When Dad married again, we were very happy. We grew to love her and she loved us. It was like she stepped into mother’s shoes, and life went on.”
Whenever my mum or Lily would ask about how their first mother died, Owen Parry’s response was always the same. ‘Never look back, always look forward.” Soon there were more children on the way. The elder sisters, May, Lily and Emmie were joined by Mary, John, Owen and Dave. Clearly a three bedroom house in Ribblesdale would no longer suit so the Parry’s moved moved across Warbreck Moor and rented a house with more bedrooms, 24 Helsby Road. Our future mum and dad were now a little further apart.

Friday, 9 February 2007

The Black Bull

This is a picture of the Black Bull in Aintree. I used to have a quiet drink there on a Sunday morning, when I should have been at Church. You could buy knock-off stuff in the Black Bull - if you were quick. Men with sharp faces would slip in, open a bag, suitcase or whatever they had; money would change hands and they’d equally quickly disappear into the night. I imagine it was fairly common in most pubs - especially in the 80’s when times were tough. I never bought anything, but I did have a pint there that I can still taste. It was terrible. A pint of Double Diamond. The jingle still rings in my head. Its sweet, chemical taste still taints my tongue. Some jingles never go away: ‘A Double Diamond works wonders, works wonders, works wonders. A Double Diamond works wonders, so drink some today.’ I wish the taste would. This is also the pub my Grand-dad stood outside waiting for my mother that night of the blitz. Behind it is the Aintree Institute where the Beatles played.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Liver-bird is not hit!

The seven nights of the 1941 May Blitz (1st-7th May) were the heaviest consecutive nights of bombing experienced by Liverpool during the whole of the Second World War. In those few nights around 681 planes dropped 870 tonnes of high explosives and over 112,000 incendiaries (firebombs) on the area, killing over 1,700 people and making around 76,000 homeless. The number of homeless was deemed bad, but not in proportion to the damage done. Provision was made for 3000, so one wonders what happened to the rest

3000 troops were ordered into the city to help with traffic control and debris clearance. The Corn Exchange and two hospitals along with Bootle Gasworks, parts of the docks and many other public buildings were damaged that night.


This represents a triumph of British propaganda. Even years after the war our family would discuss the hammering Liverpool experienced at the hand of ‘jerry’. Thousands had been left homeless, factories destroyed and for a good decade after, chunks of Liverpool remained blank, or had been turned into car-parks. But invariably a cheery soul would pop up with the rousing observation, ‘But they never got the Liver-bird!’ - another dastardly Nazi plot thwarted - as though that had been the over-arching aim of the Luftwaffe, the other stuff just getting in the way. The Liver-bird is a very pretty gilded statue that adorns the top of the Liver building, and it is a distinctive landmark. It possesses no military value, bore little relation to the conduct of the war, but that didn’t stop the Liverpool Echo running the headline. “Liver-Bird Not Hit’.

And yet through it all, life went on as usual, or as much as usual, young, old, men, women, children walked their way to work or school, taking the twisted landscape pretty much for granted. This is the world my parents experienced.

The pictures above show where my mum walked home from when she was trapped in an air raid that hit Bootle Gasworks.

My mum went to see a Dora, a friend who lived in Bootle. Whilst there the bombing began, air sirens sounded, and she spent much of the night in an air-raid shelter. That was the night Bootle gasworks went up. The sky was red for miles around. My Grand-dad was besides himself with worry. He walked to the Black-bull in Walton Vale, and stayed outside for most of the night, waiting for my mother to walk home, all the time fearing the worst. When, in the early hours of the morning, he spotted her weaving her way between rubble, he was so happy he slapped and kicked her all the way home. There are large parts of the world where people still experience this kind of stress, for the moment at least, we don’t.

Saturday, 3 February 2007


A ward in the work house
Walton Work House

The picture is one of my mum, sitting down and her sister, Lily.

Our mum was born 4th January, 1920. She spent her whole life giving and - over a life time - getting less than she deserved. It’s a value judgement. That of a guilty son perhaps.
She started life as May Parry and she started giving from the age of eight. That was when her own mum died. The last time she saw her mother was when she was being carried out on a stretcher from their house in 128 Rice Lane, Walton. They were taking her to Walton Hospital, which was then a Workhouse and just across the road My mum told this story often:

of how her mother looked up to where the three children were clustered at the foot of the stairs. “You will have to be their mother now, May. Look after your father.”

The middle sister, my aunt Lily who was seven at the time remembers the day her mother died:
"Dad let us see all the flowers. They were in the parlour."

The following day my grandfather resumed work at the docks. He made and packed sandwiches for the three children - May, Lily and Emmy (who was five months old), counted out some bus money, and sent them off to his sister. On the bus the conductor asked them where they were off to. “Oh, my mother’s dead and we’re going to my aunt’s, but we have sandwiches.”
When they arrived their aunt shut the door in their faces and by sheer chance they travelled back on the very same bus.
“Where’re you girls off to now?”
“Our aunt didn’t want us. We’re going back home.”
I don't remember now whether my grandad found them on the step when he got home, or whether they were taken in by neighbours.

My mum had both amazing recall and an ear for dialogue. She could and would recite word for word: ‘what she said to him and what he said to her’ from any and every encounter: funerals, weddings, Dave the Butcher - her favourite forum was Edie’s a greengrocers shop on the corner of Melling Avenue. There whole worlds were put to right and conclusions brought home with the potatoes.

Conclusions are conclusions, but not always necessarily based on fact. In families, myths are important too - I hope this 'myth' is qualified in time:

My grandmother’s maiden name was Margaret May Henry,(born 1891 - died 3rd August 1928 aged 37) According to the ‘Parry’ version of history there had never been good relations between the two families. The Henry’s thought that their daughter could have done better for herself than to marry a Liverpool docker. The ill-will intensified when she died amongst the poor in Walton workhouse and partly in consequence of this the Henry’s left Liverpool and settled in America in the mid 1920’s. My cousin Kathy and her family live in Idaho. By chance or destiny I made contact with them in the 1960’s, but that is a different story.

Money was always tight in the Parry family. My ‘uncle’ Dave likes to tell the story of how my grand-dad would trap pigeons in the grain warehouses and cook great pots of pigeon stew. (I don’t think I entirely believe his claim that they would pick out the pigeon feet and arrange them neatly round a plate otherwise scraped clean.)
My grand-dad, Owen Parry was a hard working man, a disciplinarian with a great zest for life. I remember him and his second wife (Annie nee Cowley from the Isle of Man) coming to visit us every other weekend. The door bell would ring and they would be standing there proud and smiling. My grand-dad had crisp, white hair, sparkling brown eyes and cheeks like polished apples. And he always pressed a shiny shilling in me and brother’s hands. Sometimes half a crown, or a florin.

When he was young, however, times were extremely hard. Everyone had to find work, sacrifices made. My mum was musical, with so much promise she was taking piano lessons. They were stopped and at the age of fourteen she was cleaning bottles in the basement of a large department store.

World War 11 must have come as some relief to her. In 1940 she joined the WAAF and was stationed for a time at Lindenholm. Lily was also called up. At the time official thinking was that sisters should never serve on the same base in case a direct hit wiped out two children in one go, so for most of the war they saw each other rarely. Despite all this, and despite the discipline I sense from her stories that for the first time she felt really free. For people of a later generation the feeling may be akin to settling into an - albeit a very Spartan - university. As children we were told endless stories of endless bike-rides and of her voracious appetite for cheese. My aunty Lily also learnt a useful trade - carpentry!

Sex was dealt with discreetly. Our mum slapped a man once for being too fresh and once she was seriously proposed to by an Italian prisoner of war who had taken a fancy to her. I think she liked the attention - to the extent of sometimes slipping him an extra portion or two of rationed food. Luckily for both me and my brother the advances went no further. Such are the accidents of chance. There is more about my mother, as you’d expect, but for the moment it can wait.

Friday, 2 February 2007

And I was born.

I have two favourite stories about Mick Jagger. Once, when interviewed at the height of Flower power and the so called ‘Summer of Love’ he was asked why the music was so important. ‘The money, man’ he said. The most recent story concerns a real or reputed meanness, but which I wholly identify with. Despite his vast wealth and libertine reputation, he apparently throws a wobbly whenever anyone leaves a light switched on after leaving a room. This is a man from the immediate post-war generation, when things were scarce and life was hoarded. This might interest my children, but nobody else.

I was born in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1947 in the front bedroom of 14 Ribblesdale Avenue, a respectable red-bricked terraced house midway between Walton Vale and Aintree Racecourse. Each house was fronted by ornamental iron railings - until World War II when they were all collected as scrap to make spitfires.

My dad, Cyril was pacing the floor downstairs with my Granddad Owen Parry. They were disturbed by my step-nan who came hurtling into the room and held by dad by both arms. “He’s deformed,” she said. “Brace yourself, Cyril he’s deformed.”
And so I was. My head was swollen in the shape of a medium sized pumpkin.
Dr. Rosenthal came down the stairs a moment or two later having pushed and moulded my head back into shape - reasonably so by most standards - though I swear I still cannot find a hat that really suits me.

And that is how it was. Legend has it that my mum went into labour prematurely having been excited by the crying of excited neighbours in the street below. ‘The Turkey’s are in. Turkeys - they’re here!” Very big news in a country still governed by ration books. A less charitable legend has it that it was I that heard the cry, and pushed myself out determined to have first bite. There have always been calumnies about my appetite, disseminated now by my children.

I prefer to see my appetite as one governed by as much curiosity as greed. My earliest memory bears this out. Potty training then involved being left unsupervised for long periods on a stainless steel bowl. The temptation proved irresistible. What was this stuff? It smelled of liver and stale chocolate, but it was mine. I remember poking my fingers in, bringing a smidgeon of its contents to my mouth. The smell was off-putting, the texture crumbly and moist. To this day I can not tolerate pate.
The stainless steel bowl had another use however. It was very shiny, rubbed to a smooth gleam every day by my mum, and I became immensely attached to it. Literally. So much so that it threatened to retard my ‘toddling stage’ indefinitely. Who could be bothered with a slow and ungainly totter when, propelled by energetic hands, you could skim across a linoleum floor like a crab on wheels.

And then the adventure ended. I learnt to use a toilet - and how to totter like the rest of mankind. But this is about memories, as brief and fragmentary as coloured beads. Rosary beads. My first rosary beads were a pale, translucent blue. And I can remember a pair of black-trousered legs. Just the calf - from ankle to knee. They flashed by and then stopped and a face stared down at me and black curls bounced and red lips smiled. It’s the earliest memory I have of my mother.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Brigit Agnes Keyton

Bridget Agnes Keyton was thirty years old when her husband died and she lived in 15 Othells Street with her two children, Cyril and Doris, along with many other lodgers. My father worshipped her, holding her up as the main reason for his own success. She worked, she pushed, and in a world without state benefits, haunted auctions where she would buy what took her fancy. All the beautiful things in our house were bought by her and later on by my dad: oil paintings, prints, watercolours, stuffed birds in glass domes; later came the more substantial stuff: a mahogany sideboard and a large matching cupboard and book-case of mahogany and glass. The living room was dominated by a big rosewood table which we managed to scuff and damage and which was subsequently covered by a golden brown table-cloth. All this was done, along with bringing up two children by sheer hard work and Victorian thrift.
In the 1920’s with help from my dad, who was by this time at sea, they moved into 14 Ribblesdale Avenue, Aintree. In line with most men at this time, my dad would give every penny of his earning to his mother and take back what pocket money she could afford. That changed of course when my dad met began courting, but by this time Brigit Agnes Tobin was dead.
I wish I knew more about my grandmother, but the photograph above tells you a lot. It’s quite a fierce face. What strikes me is that she never forgot her husband, but had lived all this time without him. When you compare the two photos you sense the wasted years.
It is hard to tell if she is posing or was taken by surprise. She is standing in our tiny backyard which housed both a coal-shed and a lavatory. What was left she turned into a garden. The outside lavatory, by the way was a favourite, though frustrating ‘reading room’. We wiped our backsides on squares of the Liverpool Echo attached to the wall by string. The number of bizarre but disjointed stories kept me going until my knees turned blue and the cold forced me in.