Monday, April 21, 2014

The Country of My Heart

My mother Valerie (left) and her sisters Mollie (center) and Pauline (right) 
picking wildflowers in Beeston, Nottingham

I may have painted an unfairly bleak picture of Nottingham in my last post. Even in its most industrial, smoggy years, it was always a city set in the midst of bucolic countryside. From their house in Beeston, my mother and her sisters used to walk across a golf course (which is still there) and the gravel pits (now the Attenborough Nature Reserve) to the fields that lined the banks of the River Trent. That’s where the picture above was taken on a sunny summer’s day in around 1943.

Even in that most industrial of novels, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton takes his married lover Brenda “on long walks to Strelley Woods and Cossal Fields” and goes fishing on the banks of the Nottingham canal in Bramcote Hills.

“He cast out his line over the narrow sleeve of still water, with elderberry leaves bending across from the opposite bank and white cloud-edges moving across green branches. It was a quiet and passionless place to be, where few people passed, hemmed in by steep bush-covered banks of a cutting against which, by the towpath, lay his bicycle. There was no sign of the city. It lay four miles over the hills, yet distant enough when measured by silence and peace as he sat with a cigarette between his fingers watching the float near the far bank, concentric rings of water that snapped around it, and water-beetles skating gracefully like tiny rowing boats between broad-leaved water lilies.”

 And after a wild night on the town, Arthur and his brother Fred head home, talking about escaping to the countryside at the weekend.

“The maze of streets sleeping between tobacco factory and bicycle factory drew them into the enormous spread of its suburban bosom and embraced them in sympathetic darkness. Beyond the empires of new red-bricked  houses lay fields and woods that rolled on to the Erewash valley and the hills of Derbyshire, and as they entered the house they were talking about the pleasure of cycling to Matlock on the first fine Sunday in spring.”

The beauty of this swathe of countryside on the west side of Nottingham was fully explored in the work of D.H. Lawrence. Though he was born and raised in Eastwood, a coal mining town, he wrote as much about the surrounding farmland full of stooks of corn and gently nodding plough horses.  He called it “the country of my heart.”

In his essay Nottingham and the Mining County (1929), he wrote, “I was born nearly forty-four year ago, in Eastwood, a mining village of some three thousand souls about eight miles from Nottingham, and one mile from the small stream, the Erewash, which divides Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. It is hilly country, looking west to Crich and towards Matlock, sixteen miles away and east and northeast towards Mansfield and the Sherwood Forest district. To me it seemed, and still seems an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and oak trees of Nottingham and the cold limestone, the ash trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire.” 

The view from Lawrence’s bedroom window in Eastwood

It was in this landscape that he set many of his novels, including The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love. In The Rainbow, he wrote about the Brangwens who “had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.  Two miles away, a church tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens lifted his head from his work, he saw the church tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky." 

And in Sons and Lovers, the young hero Paul Morel takes the train into Nottingham every day to work as a clerk in a surgical appliance factory in a dark, narrow street leading to the Castle. But on his half-day, he takes a walk with his mother from their home near the colliery to Willey Farm:

“The mother and son went through the wheat and oats, over a little bridge into a wild meadow. Peewits, with their white breasts glistening, wheeled and screamed about them. The lake was still and blue. High overhead a heron floated. Opposite, the wood heaped on the hill, green and still… They found a little gate, and soon were in a broad green alley of the wood, with a new thicket of fir and pine on one hand, an old oak glade dipping down on the other. And among the oaks the bluebells stood in pools of azure, under the green hazels, upon a pale fawn floor of oak-leaves. He found flowers for her.”  
Just as thirty years later, three young girls would pick wildflowers for their own mother in another unspoiled meadow near Nottingham.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Life on the Never Never

Albert Finney, Norman Rossington, and Shirley Anne Field
filming a scene from the movie Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
in Nottingham Market Square, 1960

On my most recent visit to England last month, I was able to take a nostalgia trip to the city 150 miles north of London where the story of my family began ‒ Nottingham in the English Midlands. Famous for Robin Hood, Nottingham Castle, and the lace industry, the town holds a powerful place in my imagination because of the many vivid stories I heard about it from my parents and grandparents as I grew up.

My father was born in the city in 1927 and my mother in 1932. In the writer Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life, he describes Nottingham as it was in the late 1920s when he went to work there as a cub reporter. 
“I arrived one wet night in Nottingham and woke next morning in the unknown city to an equally dark day. This was not like a London smog; the streets were free of vapour, the electric lights shone clearly: the fog lay somewhere out of sight beyond the lamps. When I read Dickens on Victorian London, I think of Nottingham in the twenties. There was an elderly ‘boots’ still employed at the Black Dog Inn, there were girls suffering from unemployment in the lace trade, who would, so it was said, sleep with you in return for a high tea with muffins, and a haggard blue-haired prostitute, ruined by amateur competition, haunted the corner by W.H. Smith’s bookshop. Trams rattled downhill through the goose-market and on to the blackened castle. Against the rockface leant the oldest pub in England with all the grades of a social guide: the private bar, the saloon, the ladies’, the snug, the public. Little dark cinemas offered matinee seats for fourpence in the stalls. I had found a town as haunting as Berkhampsted, where years later I would lay the scene of a novel and a play. ... It was the focal point of failure, a place undisturbed by ambition, a place to be resigned to, a home from home.”
This was in this very city of fogs and trams and industry into which my parents were born. My mother remembers times coming home from school on the bus when the air was so thick that conductor would have to walk ahead of the bus to guide the driver.

She and my father grew up a few miles away from each other – my mother in Beeston to the west, and my father in Sherwood to the north. Their families were far from prosperous. One of my grandfathers was a corporation electrician and the other was an insurance salesman. Both families moved many times, and considered themselves lucky when they were able to afford a house with an indoor toilet and bathtub.

When World War II broke out in Europe, my mother was 7 and my father was 12. Nottingham was a strategic target because of its many armaments-related factories, airfields, and the Royal Ordnance factory at Ranskill. The city was bombed 11 times. It even had its own Blitz on the night of May 8-9, 1941, which killed 159 people.

The wartime atmosphere in the city is well captured in this passage from the gritty bestselling novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe:

“He remembered his father digging up the back garden to plant an Anderson Shelter, Arthur stumbling into the hole and getting a clout for doing so. And later the family sat on the planks inside, coughing from the damp moist soil, scratching their scabied bodies, and listening to the weird-sounding hollowness of the naval guns behind Beechdale woods, his white-faced father rushing in at midnight, a teapot in one hand and half a dozen cups strung along the fingers of the other, having braved falling shrapnel to mash [make tea], back just in time to escape the Jerry plane that sprayed the factory with its machine gun. In the long high-pitched whistle of a bomb the whole world was caught and suspended so that you just wondered, wondered, wondered, keeping quite still during the whistle, not breathing, not moving a finger, your eyes open wide, until the explosion on the railway yards or on a pack of houses in the next street made you glad to be still alive.”
My father knew that feeling. During Nottingham’s first bombardment on the night of August 30th, 1940, he was with his mother and young brother in their Anderson shelter in their back yard when a high explosive bomb made a direct hit on a neighbor’s house. Eighteen people were injured and an 18-month-old baby died of his injuries. The next day, undaunted, my father clambered over the rubble in search of prize bits of shrapnel. At around the same time, my mother and her younger sister were “evacuated” a mere three streets away to their grandparents’ house, which ironically was closer to the ammunition storage depot in Chilwell. My mother remembered walking home from school during a daylight raid and, in an attempt to reassure her younger sister, saying, “Don’t be scared, Paul, it’s only a bomb.” To this day, aged 82, she goes pale if she hears the wail of an air raid siren on some television drama. 

L: My mother, her sister and a friend. R: My father

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was not a book about the war but about its social aftermath. It encapsulated the Nottingham of the 1950s, as did the film that was made from it in 1960 directed by Karel Reisz. It starred Albert Finney as the hard-drinking, womanizing young Arthur Seaton whose only desire is for the world to “let a bloke live.” The book is as much about the hardscrabble working class streets of Nottingham as it is about Arthur himself:  

“[The street] was long, straight, and cobblestoned, with lamp posts and intersections at regular intervals, terraces branching off here and there. You stepped out of the front door and found yourself on the pavement. Red-ochre had been blackened by soot, paint was faded and cracked, everything was a hundred years old except for the furniture inside. ‘What will they think on next?’ Seaton said, after glancing upwards and seeing a television aerial hooked on to almost every chimney, like a string of radar stations, each installed on the never never [hire purchase].” 

Another still from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

This is the Nottingham that my parents lived in as young adults. The picture at the top of this post is of Finney, Shirley Anne Field, and Norman Rossington filming the movie in the Nottingham Market Square. The Market Square is where my mother, still in high school, once made a date to meet four different young men on the same evening, one at each corner, and then stood them all up and went to the pictures with her sister. The fictional Arthur Seaton works on the production line at the famous Raleigh bicycle factory as did his creator, Alan Sillitoe. During the same period, my mother as a newly-wed was also working at “the Raleigh,” first in the typing pool and then as personal secretary to the Export Director. 

Both of my grandfathers had left their families either during or immediately after the war so money remained extremely tight. To help support his mother and brother, my father left school at 14 to become a Post Office telephone engineer, one of the young men who climbed up the poles. After doing his National Service, he took advantage of his education benefits under the UK government’s equivalent of the GI Bill and enrolled in Nottingham University where he met my mother. They were both the first in their families to go to college and found they had plenty more in common. My mother would have preferred to go to art school but settled for a degree in French while my father got a First in Physics. He stayed on at the University to do a PhD in electrical engineering, and my mother’s boss at “the Raleigh” let her borrow one of the firm’s electric typewriters so she could type out my father’s thesis.

As a result of his excellent academic credentials, my father was head-hunted by the famous Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, so in 1956 my parents set sail for the United States. It was a world a million miles away from Arthur Seaton’s soot-stained terraces and their own bomb-haunted childhoods – a chance for clean start in a vibrant and prosperous land far from the land of the never never.