” … It’s a loud voice, and
though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage.
On my knees,
Mrs. Worthington,
Please,
Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage.”

It was my mother, who first uttered these words to my ears, many years ago. Whilst the last line may be an oft recited phrase from that 1935 Noel Coward song, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage”, it represents an irony in my mother’s life.

Don’t get me wrong, she was not a representation of Mrs Worthington’s daughter for sure. In her prime, she was a very attractive and vivacious redhead, who will have set a flame to many a male heart. But her vivacity belied a troubled heart; some emotional baggage that, in hindsight with the benefit of much subsequent revealed knowledge of her early life, probably plagued her with insecurities.

Her lowly born, but ambitious mother, ‘Queenie’, as she became affectionately know, was herself born of a father, who had been raised until his teenaged years in ‘the Old Nichol’, one of the worst slums in late Victorian London. Queenie herself was born in Walthamstowe, where she met and married the younger, albeit somewhat wayward son of a local establishment family. She was a strong woman whose personal attributes clearly informed my mother’s character and so it may have continued to do so, had it not been for her tragic early death when my mother was only nineteen.

For the rest of her life, my mother always blamed her father for the loss of her mother. He seemingly disappeared from their life, five years before her mother died. My mother was consequently left alone. On the rebound, she married the son of a millionaire and quite possibly enjoyed the high life for a while, before the marriage failed. He was, apparently, a ‘man’s man’. In London, five years later, during the war, she became a victim of the bombing on the worst night of the blitz in May 1942. She was buried under the rubble of her home and lost everything material, including precious family photographs and family treasures.

After her convalescence, some time later, she rediscovered the ‘high life’ in London and remarried; a musician she’d met in a night club she would frequent with friends. It didn’t last for long as he turned out to be some kind of perverted abuser. Then a chance meeting, through mutual friends, with a handsome young RAF fighter pilot, who would become my father.

Jim & Beryl, Switzerland

My father and mother on honeymoon in Switzerland (1945)

This marriage eventually failed before I was a teenager, when my father went abroad, not to return until I was in my mid-thirties. My mother remarried for a final time, within two years of my father’s departure, but to a troubled man, who turned out to be an alcoholic. Despite this, perhaps surprisingly, their, albeit rocky, marriage lasted until death parted them twenty-seven years later.

Act II Scene VII of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ begins with the famous monologue, known as the ‘seven ages of man’. Spoken by the melancholy Jaques, it begins:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …”

[As a footnote here, I’m sure our William would not be averse to agreeing that, by “one man” he also means woman too play their parts. To have included both genders, although very correct in modern times, would have upset the scansion of that line, which is, as ever, written in his ubiquitous iambic pentameter!]

So, for my mother, she played her parts. In some ways I feel this was in denial of her past, in other ways it was an expression of her ambitions; her own mother’s ambitions, which were quite understandably for a better hand than her maternal ancestry had been dealt.

My mother was undoubtedly egocentric. When she entered the room, there was never any doubt who would be the centre of attention. But deep down, this was not a commanding ploy, but rather a defensive play; an expression of her need for love; to be admired; to be praised. All those things that it would appear she lacked as the only child of an ambitious mother and a wayward and eventually absent father. So she made the world her stage. She adopted an accent that reflected the upper middle class background of my father’s family; an accent that he, much later after her death, would observe that sometimes she allowed inadvertently to drop, in times of stress or excitement, when it took on hints of her East End roots.

I too recall my sometimes stressful teenaged years and early adulthood, which were, no doubt,a result of those influences and how it made me resort particularly to music – a plastic ukulele at age seven, my grandmother’s baby grand piano, my own guitar, which my grandmother bought me in my teens, my introduction to singing as a wee choir boy in church and school (also the influence of my grandmother) – and to sport – I was very athletic at school and beyond – and latterly, writing. This is my stage; these are my plays.

Whatever the individual causes, each one of us has a unique set of influences that provide the stresses and anxieties that agitate us into being what we are and doing what we do to make something of our lives. We will never be in complete control of our lives, from the outset, but we can take control of how we set the stage and what part we will play.

Beryl Harlestone
My mother, late in her life

I am grateful to my mother, difficult and painful though she was to live with at times. She provided me with an opportunity to learn from her life as an example of how we can make something of what we have, whatever the circumstances into which we were born; whatever and wherever the stage, on which we find ourselves having to be a player. For a few of us, that stage becomes real; for most of us, it is the place we find ourselves every day, when we walk through the door into the world.

© 2017, memoir and photographs, John Anstie

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