Forever England : North and South /
Beryl Bainbridge.
1st Carroll & Graf ed.
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999.
174 p. ; 22 cm.
More Details
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999.
general note
Based on the television series, Forever England, which ... focused on the expectations and attitudes of six families, three in the North and three in the South". -- Pref.
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Macleans of Liverpool

It took longer than expected to get to the first pub because the taxi driver had forgotten that concrete blocks had been set along the top of the road to cause a diversion. We had to keep going round and round what was left of the houses to find an escape route.

    It didn't matter about the delay. We weren't meeting the rest of the family until eight o'clock and it was not yet seven.

    I asked Rosie if she thought they would all turn up and she said we would have to take pot luck.

    George said, `Get away, they'll all be there, girl.' I told him that my father had been the youngest of nine.

    `Deborah,' I said, `Nellie, Margaret, Jack, Sally who died of a broken heart, Jim, Frederick and Harold.'

    I made up the last three. There had been nine of them; but my father had never been able to remember the names of his elder brothers. It was true about Sally; she had gone into a decline after her sweetheart came back gassed from France and died on the steps of Alder Hay Hospital. George and Rosie showed polite interest -- compared with their own family such numbers were hardly spectacular.

    The driver said it was a blasted assault course driving through this part of Liverpool. He was separated from his passengers by a metal grille so that nobody could hit him over the head with a bottle. Anywhere else one might have supposed that the blocks had been put down to make the area more pleasant, less hazardous for pedestrians; in this case it was more probable that they were positioned to hinder car thieves and burglars from making a getaway. I could be wrong. I do know that five years ago, for that very reason, they made a similar adjustment to the road outside the new housing estate in Upper Stanhope Street, shortly before they planted saplings on the waste ground behind Faulkner Square -- though that was to deter residents from throwing bricks at policemen on mild summer nights.

    It's painful returning to a place that is always being demolished and refurbished. The past, which is a state of mind rather than an accumulation of time, is liable to suffer disturbance when its boundaries are destroyed. Everything becomes topsy-turvy; in dreams I can walk down those once familiar streets but when I'm awake I can't find them.

    My father-in-law, who was considered wealthy as well as middle-class, used to live in a house off Faulkner Street. His neighbours were surgeons and sculptors and cotton merchants. He wore a monocle in his glass eye, having lost the real one in the First World War leaning out of his aeroplane to drop bombs on the bosch at St Amand. At Christmas he threw fancy-dress parties during which ornaments got broken. His background or his education had given him different aspirations from those of my parents, both of whom insisted that if you paid them good money they wouldn't be caught dead living in one of those draughty mausoleums in the slums of Liverpool. They belonged to another class whose particular castle stood in the suburbs in the shape of a new bungalow, a bank manager over the garden fence on one side, a shipping clerk on the other, and a tea-party round a brass tray on an Indian table in the lounge one Sunday afternoon in a lifetime. Their preference for the new had something to do with an abhorrence of second-hand property, of whatever sort. Old houses were similar to old clothes in that one could never be sure who had last been seen in them. My mother wouldn't even countenance second-hand furniture, employing instead a cabinet-maker to reproduce copies of things she admired. She was proud of the Jacobean chest, the George IV mahogany table, the six Queen Anne chairs, all made in Southport in 1931. It could be that she was suffering from a childhood stuffed with hand-me-down goods. My father boasted of having attended St Emmanuel's church school, Anfield, and of leaving it for the world of commerce, never to look back, when he was no more than nine years old. My mother kept under her hat where she was born and in what circumstances she had lived before the success of my grandfather's paint firm had catapulted her to pianoforte lessons in that continental establishment across the sea. But then, my father had risen in the world and in pin-pointing his beginnings was simply charting the distance he'd travelled. My own attachment to old buildings, my rejection of new ones, I blame on Dickens. There is nothing like reading Bleak House at an impressionable age in a bungalow for fixing the mind ever afterwards on garrets and cellars and aspidistras in the parlour.

    At any rate, when I looked out of the window of the cab I couldn't tell where I was and it unsettled me. Pulling down the big houses and putting up little ones has somehow altered the scale of the city -- the roads seem too wide, the sky too high. I complained as much to George, who said, `Yes, you're right', in a sympathetic tone of voice, but he was humouring me. I suppose if you're on the spot and it goes on in front of your eyes, change is neither shocking nor apparent, rather like friends who see one another every day and never notice that they're growing older.

    That first pub we went into was as big as a brewery and gloomy as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The light bulbs hung so close to the nicotine sheen of the brown vaulted ceiling that below we sat in rippling shadow, faces reflected in water. There was a picture of the Queen Mother, smiling, mounted on a piece of card beside the dartboard; she had puncture marks in her hat. Somewhere in the darkness they were playing billiards. I couldn't see anyone but every now and then I heard the dull little clop of a ball as it dropped into the pocket.

    George wanted to leave after one drink. He said there was going to be trouble at the next table where a woman in a silver-flecked jumper was trying to stop an angry man in a donkey jacket from hitting her daughter. She kept crooking her arm about the man's neck, the pear-drop of her bony elbow luminous against the anaglypta of the wall, and he kept attempting to shake her loose, clawing at the skin of her arm with his nails as though picking off cobwebs; she was throttling him. The argument had something to do with a rent book that had gone missing. There were witnesses who could swear it had been under the milk jug after the telly had finished the night before. The woman said several times, `You've got to see our Teresa's point of view, Jacko', and once the girl told her that she was wasting her breath. `He's pig-ignorant, Mam,' she said. She was eating peanuts, looking at the man slyly, licking the salt from her fingers. She was angry too, but only because it made it easier to hold herself in check. If she had weakened for a moment, to the extent of uttering one soft word of appeasement, of understanding, she might have burst into tears. Already, in the expression of her eyes, the beginnings of her small triumphant smile, there was more than a touch of the martyr.

    We walked to the next pub against wind and rain and heard the music even before we turned the corner by the black railings of the gutted church. Ahead of us a daisy-chain of young girls in sleeveless summer dresses, arms linked, white high-heeled shoes prinking over the puddles, broke shrieking across the road. But for the noise they made they might have been ghosts, those pale girls shimmering above the asphalt gloss of the wet, lamplit street. In an instant they had pushed back the door and engulfed in bluish vapour vanished into the Angel Vaults. `Granddaughters,' said Rosie complacently.

    Inside the musicians were playing like men possessed, amplifiers turned up full blast, the plucked notes of the electric guitar cracking the air like a whiplash. Deafened, we sat under the pink glow of paper lanterns, mouthing greetings, lip-reading names. We were all grimacing, nodding, ferociously listening. `I like a family pub where they don't encourage conversation,' shouted George.

    He introduced me to his sister Monica who with her husband had come up from Wales for the weekend. She was a handsome woman in a fur coat, big and strong-boned, graciously smiling and showing a forthright affection for her brother.

    `We were up the road,' George told her, `but we had to blow.' He nudged me confidentially. `That other place,' he said. `It was leading to aggro -- understand what! mean?'

    `It's rough up the road,' said Rosie.

    Peter, her fourth son, the one coming between Christi and Terence, came and sat down beside her. He worked at Higson's brewery and he and his wife Joanie lived in the same road as his parents. Sometimes Joanie had asthma attacks and then he ran for his Mam.

    `I love her bones,' he said, and he meant Rosie as well as Joanie. He'd never left Liverpool and never would. Last year he became friendly with a French photographer whose car had broken down in Northumberland Street. They got talking, and later they went out for a bevvy together, and what with one thing and another the Frenchman and his wife ended up staying in Peter's house. The photographer was loony about Liverpool, possessed you might say. He was nothing like those Japanese wallahs who arrived every summer lisping to be taken for a walk round Strawberry Fields and Abbey Road and Penny Lane; this bloke was caught up in its history, spellbound by its streets, snapping the docks and the cobblestones and the crumbling warehouses as if it was the remains of an ancient civilisation he was capturing on film. When he got back to Paris he wrote to Peter and asked him over on a visit. He never went. How could he? For one, he didn't want his likeness stuck into a passport, and for another he couldn't leave his Mam.

    I would have liked to have asked Rosie if there had been times when she had gone hungry, she and all those children living in inadequate rooms in unheated tenements, but I didn't suppose she could reply with her hand on her heart. I remember once telling a school friend in front of my mother that my Auntie Nellie and my Auntie Margo were poor. My mother snapped my head off; she said it wasn't nice to use that word. And another time she stopped speaking to my grandmother for weeks on end because she overheard her confiding to me that she had worked in a lollypop factory when she was a young girl. It wasn't nice to talk about things like that either. My mother timed her death down to the last penny. She left when she had spent the small inheritance bequeathed to her by my grandfather. In the wardrobe was her old age pension book and five pounds in loose change. To be poor then was something that shamed the individual. Now, shame is transferred to the State.

    George was in the middle of a story about a bird, a feathered one. I thought at first he was talking about pigeons, but then he spanned the smoke-filled air with his hands as though measuring an eagle. I couldn't catch the half of it, until the band suddenly stopped for a breather and I heard him say, `... and there was the parrot in the oven.' Everyone nodded emphatically, swearing it wasn't a lie, and George dug Rosie in the ribs, demanding to know if it wasn't God's truth.

    Rosie wasn't listening; she sat there, taking a back seat, twisting the silver strap of her wrist-watch, gazing placidly out at a room full of family. She had seven sons, four daughters and twenty-seven grandchildren, seven of whom had children of their own. She didn't look her age and yet nothing remained of her youthful self, except in that way she had of perching far back on the padded upholstery of the bench so that her plump legs, crossed at the ankles, didn't quite touch the floor; that, and her expression of stoic acceptance. There was a lantern above her head but the light fell only partly on her; she was leaning against George and in his shadow, where perhaps she had always been.

    Then the band started up again and it was time for George's party piece. He swaggered onto the floor and stood there, moistening his lips above the black snout of the microphone, shoulders hunched in his smart tweed jacket, those black eyebrows raised in mock bewilderment as he waited for the opening bars of the refrain.

    Monica told me that George had always been a fine singer. He'd taken part in a talent contest at the Rialto ballroom with the Billy Cotton Dance-band -- he'd leapt up onto the stage as if he didn't have a nerve in his body. She was tickled pink, eyes beaming behind her tinted spectacles, her charm bracelet slithering on her wrist as she fluttered her fingers to the beat of the band.

    `He could have been a star,' she said.

    `I'm dancing with tears in my eyes,' sang George.

    He was hesitant at first, then he got into his stride and mimicking Jolson, wriggled down almost to his knees, arms held out to Mammy in supplication.

    `I'm dancing,' he crooned, `yes I'm dancing, can't you see me, can't you see I'm dancing with tears in my eyes?'

    Rosie had moved to a table nearer to the centre of the floor. She sat sideways on her chair, watching him, fiddling with a little scrap of handkerchief as if preparing for the rapture of her own tears. We were all watching him now; the married men and their wives leaning companionably shoulder to shoulder, marvelling at the cheek of him, the courting couples holding hands, the young girls and the clowning boys.

    At the very end he held out his hand to Rosie. At first she resisted, not wanting to make a show of herself, and then she let him pull her to her feet and went readily enough into his arms, clinging to him as they swayed awkwardly across the floor.

    Nothing in the world could be better than those moments, than those half circles they performed within the wider circle of the family.

* * *

As a working man, Christopher Maclean counts himself among the fortunate. With the exception of two years on the dole when he was first married, he has been employed on the docks as a boat handler for the best part of twenty years. A man has a necessity for work; it's his right. He doesn't have any respect for himself if he can't organise his life, support his own family. His eldest boy, young Chris, who is married and lives with his wife and children up the road in a decaying pre-war tenement in Dingle Mount, is employed at the moment, though there's no guarantee how long it will last. Before that he was out of work for two years, and before that he was on one of those dead-end government schemes. He got himself qualifications as a welder and just as he was about to be made up from apprenticeship to full wages, they gave him the push. It broke his heart. Tony has never had a job. Christopher understands why he can't get out of his bed until the afternoon and yet it irritates him, hearing young Tony wandering round the house in the small hours, turning night into day. Young Chris keeps a lot of misery inside him. He's never asked either of them for a penny but he gets depressed because he's an able man, a willing man who wants to work. His father got angry with him a while back -- he started talking about himself as though he was a down and out, of no account or worth. It was sickening and saddening listening to him, and it was all wrong, a thoughtful responsible young man like that reduced to having such a low opinion of himself.

* * *

My father went out to business. Sometimes, if he was delayed by some task imposed on him by my mother, he would remark petulantly that he should be off to his work. It was a slip of the tongue; he was self-employed and had business to attend to. Work implied some menial job in which he was a mere cog in the machine. A man had a right to be in business, to make his own decisions.

    Miss Burns, our neighbour, who was middle-aged and lived with her swindler of a brother, went out to business as well. In her case she was a typist at the municipal offices in Bootie. Neither she nor her brother, whether they were in business or not, had any right to the house next door. Its rightful owner, Mr Rimmer, the bank manager, had been press-ganged into something hush-hush down South at the start of the war, and he had let the house to the Burnses. When the war was concluded he tried to move them out but there was some damn-fool legislation which had turned them into protected tenants and the beggars wouldn't shift. My father detested them. They wouldn't pay their whack to have the fence repaired when it blew down in the gales. They said it was Rimmer's responsibility and of course, in the circumstances, he wasn't about to cough up a brass farthing. Who could blame him? The fence was of no use to him, down or up, not when he couldn't set foot inside his own front door, let alone the garden. My father turned the hose on Mr Burns, accidentally on purpose, shortly after VE-Day and they never spoke to each other again.

    Mrs Riley, across the road, had two jobs, pig keeping and piano teaching. When my brother came back from his lesson my mother made him go and hang up his blazer on the privet hedge -- to get rid of the smell. Mrs Riley boiled the pig swill on the kitchen range; she went in and out to stir the peelings, sleeves rolled up to her elbows while he played his Rachmaninov prelude. As both her jobs were conducted on the premises it couldn't be said that she went out to business.

    My Auntie Margo was a dressmaker and received her customers in the front parlour of the rented house in Bingley Road. For a short while during the war she worked in the munitions factory at Speke, but that was kept quiet. Years before, Auntie Nellie had been employed in some capacity at the Belmont Road hospital, in the wing for naughty girls who had to have their heads shaved and their clothes taken away from them. Auntie Margo let out that Nellie had been a cleaner there but my mother insisted that she was romancing as usual.

    Naturally, my mother didn't go out to either work or business. She had enough to do painting the furniture and rearranging the ornaments. We had little figurines trembling on every window-sill and shelf, and a row of plaster dogs, painted over so often that it was no longer possible to tell which breed they resembled, stalking the narrow ledge above the picture rail in the hall. A too hastily slammed door could bring the lot down. My brother complained it was like walking through a mine-field. Everything was in its place, though never for long. We had only to grow used to the dancing girl, painted dazzling white on the dining-room mantelpiece, and she was gone, holding her skirts now dark green and luminous above the mahogany bookcase in the lounge. My father said my mother was a menace with a paintbrush; she had no self-control. If we didn't watch out she'd undercoat the lot of us to tone in with the colour of the wallpaper.

    The furniture in our house was shifted round so often that we stopped talking about the lounge and the dining-room. They were only courtesy titles anyway. It hardly mattered what they were called, seeing that we never did any lounging or dining in either of them. We spent our lives cooped up in the side-room -- wisely never referred to as the living-room -- crawling under the table to fetch a glass of water from the scullery, fighting for space to do our homework, jostling each other as we took it in turns to get warm at the fire. If anybody called, perish the thought, my brother had to stand out in the hall. It was no use ushering visitors into the front-room; without a fire laid hours in advance, they ran the risk of frostbite. When my brother was allowed in there to do his piano practice he had to keep breaking off to rub his chilblains against the edge of the keys. If somebody did ring the front door bell we turned off the light and went quiet. We weren't fit to be seen. My mother and father kept their good clothes for the outside world. Indoors my mother wore her slip and an old suit jacket torn under the arms. My father sat engulfed in an air-raid warden's uniform which would have fitted a man twice his size.

    We took holidays, which was unusual in our street, though never abroad. Nobody did, or not anybody we had ever met. The days had gone when people like my grandfather, that upright, self-improving man, who stuck pins through dried butterflies in the cramped box-room of his suburban villa in West Derby, could travel first class on a passenger steamer to Barcelona. My mother, once her continental days had passed, could no more afford to gallivant in his wake than could her own mother, who, in failing to rise from her lollypop beginnings, had been left behind in more ways than one.

    My father's attitude to marriage was pessimistic. He himself had not considered it until he was almost forty. Before he met my mother on the top deck of a tram in Lord Street he had been engaged for seven years to a woman called Ann Moss -- my mother nicknamed her Animosity. He lived with his widowed mother, Ellen, and his two sisters, Nellie and Margo. Nellie was a martyr who had sacrificed herself, willingly, in order to look after Mother, who was halfway between a saint and an angel. According to my mother, Ellen was one of those saints who came over queer and had to lie down whenever she was asked to do anything. My father had hopes that my mother would have her to live with them after they were married, to give Nellie her chance, but he was whistling on the wind. Margo had been briefly wed in 1915 to a soldier-boy who was buried in the mud of the trenches. She got a war widow's pension out of it. Later, during the next war, she made a spectacle of herself over a school teacher who was billeted on them and she would have married him if it hadn't been for my father and Nellie, who both accused her of giddiness, of being soft in the head at even contemplating giving up her pension.

    The notion that a man should get married when young was foreign to my father. My brother would never have dared to suggest it, not until he was through university and had something in the bank, and even then there was no call to rush things. When I told him I was thinking of getting married he went to see my young man -- he was nearly thirty - and tried to talk him out of it. He said I was hopeless in the home and would only be a millstone round his neck.

    My father had no hobbies. He read his daily paper, subscribed to the Statesman and Nation and the Windjammer and listened to the wireless in the dark. And for a time he dug for victory. He fancied himself as a gardener, though he appeared to find more aggravation than pleasure in the occupation. He was out in all weathers in that voluminous battledress, a black beret jammed over his ears, his trousers held up with a length of elastic, cursing and groaning as he fought the elements. In winter he complained that his particular patch of England was nothing but a blasted quagmire, and he ground his teeth in fury when the warmer days came, turning the earth to a thin sand which blew from his lettuce beds and lay in drifts beneath the poplar trees at the fence.

    My mother tended roses, sweet williams, dahlias. Come November the airing-cupboard rustled with wizened tubers smelling of old newspapers. She grew tomatoes in the little greenhouse beyond the washing-line where once the air-raid shelter had stood. My father dug the shelter but after only two days the foundations flooded and he filled them in again, flinging the sheets of corrugated tin and the wooden planks into the nettles of the back field. He said we would have to take our chances in the coal-hole under the stairs -- a direct hit would be quicker than drowning.

    When he was feeling sorry for himself he sulked in the greenhouse and we took his meals down to him on a tray. My mother said it was more convenient having him outside. Sometimes he refused to open the door and we left his tray on the grass and the dog walked all over it, whining, leaving paw marks on the mashed potatoes. When my father emerged my mother ran down the path and shoved the greenhouse door backwards and forwards on its hinges as though the air inside had been contaminated.

    My father had animals to contend with as well as the weather. There were rabbits in the back field and Mrs Riley had rats because of her pigs. Our dog had a heart condition, and if it spotted a rabbit and gave chase, my father had to sit up nights with it, feeding it brandy from a spoon. Times without number the wind tore in from the sea across the flat fields, uprooting the pole of the washing line and scattering the clothes on the ground. Then, one or other of us would rush to pick up the soiled jumpers and shirts, trampling the seedlings into oblivion. Stamping his feet like an Indian on the warpath, whirling the rake above his head like a tomahawk, my father consigned us all to hell. He was not by any means one of those sons of the soil who thought he was nearer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth. Our garden was part investment, part show; it had to be kept decent both for its property value and for the sake of the neighbours.


Excerpted from Forever England by Beryl Bainbridge Copyright © 1987 by Beryl Bainbridge. Excerpted by permission.
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-06-21:
Based on a British TV series, English novelist Bainbridge's chatty group portrait of six English familiesÄthree from the North, three from the SouthÄoffers an unvarnished look at how ordinary English folks live, work and plan for the future. Her spin on the North/South dichotomy that still haunts England may come as a revelation to American readers unaware that England has its own cultural Mason-Dixon Line. Northerners, Bainbridge explains, display a grit and belligerence born of hard times and local customs; in contrast, soft-spoken Southerners exhibit a detached complacency, are more affluent and less preoccupied with regional roots. Furthermore, many Northerners feel they've had a raw deal, losing brains, talent and money to London and the South. A long-time Londoner, Bainbridge grew up in Liverpool and exhibits much ambivalence toward the old working communities of the North, especially toward what she perceives as a narrowness of outlook and lack of expectation. Half the book consists of her own nostalgic autobiographical reminiscences, recalling her fervent socialist father and thrifty, apolitical mother, her acting experience, early marriage and exodus from Liverpool. Writing with the gimlet wit and sharp eye familiar to readers of her novels (The Birthday Boys, etc.), Bainbridge gets her subjects to bare their souls as they cope with cramped living quarters, joblessness, mortgages and life's various traumas. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-07:
Based on a six-part BBC series that originally aired in Britain in the 1980s, this volume mixes interviews and memoir to explore the lives of three families from the north and three from the south of England at the height of the Thatcher era. Bainbridge visits towns like Hastings, Barnsley, and Bentley, talking to sheep farmers, fishermen, stockbrokers, and the chronically unemployed, all the while drawing on her own experience of growing up in Liverpool after World War II. With acute insight, she explains how the Conservative government helped deepen the divide between north and south, the underprivileged and the privileged. The interviews begin with immediate family and branch out to friends and relatives in wider orbits. It is instructive to travel back a decade and see how the seeds of despair were sownÄmines were closed and resources depleted, putting families out of work and onto welfare. Add to this Bainbridge's own wry reminiscences and you have a book well worth the asking price. Recommended for all public libraries.ÄBarbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ontario Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, June 1999
Library Journal, July 1999
Washington Post, July 1999
Booklist, August 1999
New York Times Book Review, August 1999
New York Times Book Review, December 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Prefacep. 9
Introductionp. 11
The Macleans of Liverpoolp. 19
The Coglans of Hastingsp. 51
The Brittons of Barnsleyp. 75
The Powells of Bentleyp. 103
The Johnsons of Northumberlandp. 129
The Roses of Birminghamp. 153
Epiloguep. 173
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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