THE YEAR I GREW UP

A film of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, the sight of her father stumbling along a railway platform, a play read at school: these were the experiences that woke Beryl Bainbridge into adulthood
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The Independent Culture
THE ADAGE that the child is father to the man is undoubtedly correct. Who and what we are is dictated first by an accidental inheriting of characteristics - my mother and father met on the top deck of a tram clanking up to Everton Brow - and secondly by a random set of circumstances accompanying our formative years.

Our view of the world is intertwined with family values and scientific progress. I stopped shoplifting from Woolworths because I thought God would strike me dead. Cleanliness was next to Godliness because hot water wasn't readily available. Strong drink was evil; it squandered money and liberated urges. Sexual intercourse outside marriage led to Hell. And who among us had heard of drugs beyond tobacco and liquor? My offspring, attending the Hampstead comprehensives of the Seventies, came to regard God as a myth. Central heating, washing machines, cars, television, cannabis, abortion, heart transplants, the Pill and state aid from cradle to the grave became familiar as rain. The generation gap is enormous.

If we are happy in childhood, we will believe for some years that happiness is a natural state; if the reverse be the case, the shock will not come so hard. My expectations lay somewhere between the two extremes, and were alleviated by language. Liverpool folk, however uneducated or bigoted, understood the necessity for communication, and my relations used words as though they were talking to save their lives. Realities such as income, political allegiance and sex might be hidden, but emotions and judgements flowed from them like blood. If you sat in the corner being seen and not heard, you could in the space of a few moments hear a whole character being assassinated, dissected and chucked in the bin, to be plucked out and redeemed in another short sentence.

Thus my mother, in a discussion with Auntie Margo concerning her sister, Auntie Nellie the Martyr, would say how lacking in depth Nellie was, too dour, too Sunday School, too big for her boots. And Auntie Margo, glad to heap coals on the fire, would bring up incidents of malice and deceitfulness: the man from the Pru's money had vanished last Wednesday; Mr Aveyard, her intended, had called twice on Monday but Nellie hadn't let on; the cat had done a whoopsie on the back-door mat owing to her forgetting to let the poor thing out, as was her job.

My mother sat there at the table, lips sucked in, head nodding in grim delight until, just as Auntie Nellie lay unravelled before my eyes, Auntie Margo would say: "By heck, but you can't fault her sponge cake."

It was also considered necessary in those far-off days for words to be written down as well as spoken, and most young girls were encouraged by parents and teachers to keep a diary. I began one when I was 10, although the entries were on the scanty side:

"25th, April, 1942. Government bans embroidery on all underwear and nightwear. I haven't got a nightie, just my liberty bodice and school knickers.

"Nov. 26. 1942. Siege of Stalingrad begun. It's cruchal.

"27th Nov. 1942. Stalin worried not a bit. I hate my Dad."

Three years later my diary for the year singles out as important, without the need for words, one single date, that of 28 April. Now turned the colour of curry is a glued-in newspaper photograph of Mussolini, Il Duce, chest exposed, bullet-holed and hanging upside-down beside his mistress on the facade of a petrol station in Milan. There's a body next to him, unnamed, bloody vest sagging up to his chin. Mussolini's mistress wears a skirt, but that's tied to her knees, out of decency. I think I cut the photograph out because of Scripture lessons, of being told about Barrabas and that other thug, the one who Jesus promised would sit beside him in Paradise.

A year later the war ended. My mother and father took me into town, to a businessmen's luncheon held in the State Restaurant to celebrate VE Day. It was the 8th of May, the weather mild. I wore my angora jumper, knitted by Auntie Margo. In the streets people were singing and kissing one another; on the bomb sites the weeds had sprouted purple flowers. Outside Hackins Hay, skirts squished up, a woman lay in the gutter clutching her gas-mask. My mother side-stepped her as though faced with leprosy; I'd just done Father Damien in Scripture, he who only knew he'd caught the disease when he stepped on broken glass and didn't feel any pain. My Dad blew his nose, a sure sign he was affected by the sight.

The man who earned his living by having boulders broken on his chest in Williamson Square was standing outside the restaurant belting out the song "It's a lovely day tomorrow,/ Tomorrow is a lovely Day". My Dad gave him a shilling and shook his hand ... like they were equals. My mother made him go instantly to the Gents, to wash off the germs. My Aunties were waiting for us in the restaurant. My Dad hadn't told my mother they would be there, and she was huffy. He excused their inclusion on the grounds that he'd asked them out of respect for Alf Bickerton, who had come home gassed from the First World War and rendered Margo a widow, but you could tell it didn't go down well with my Mum. She grew very grand and told the waiter she didn't "farncy" the oxtail soup. When the pudding came she brought up the subject of the Dutch seamen taken in by my aunts as lodgers, in particular the chap with the blond beard and four children over whom Margo had made such a fool of herself.

"It was love," Auntie Margo cried out, and then she began laughing and choking on her ciggie, which was just like her, seeing as she never behaved as expected.

After the lunch (it was called dinner in those days) my father was very merry. Usually he was of a morose disposition, owing to being a bankrupt and unlucky in love. None of us liked him, not his wife, his son or his daughter, but that was because my mother had married him on the rebound after being rejected by a tennis player called Walter. My brother and I could have loved him, or at least shown we did, if unhappiness hadn't made him so bad-tempered. I did get close to him two years before he died and I now recognise there's a lot of him in me, only I've had the advantage of being able to turn the miseries of life into fiction.

After the lunch we saw my Aunties on to a tram and walked to Exchange Station for the rail journey home. My father, feeling lit-up, took off his sports coat, clumsily, and got himself into a sort of straitjacket. He was standing on the platform, spinning round like a top and singing the Red Flag, when the whistle blew and my mother bundled me into the nearest carriage; the doors slammed and the train began to move off.

My father ran alongside the window, an armless man, mouthing he didn't want to be left; he looked little, frightened. My mother, her face the colour of paper, hissed, "Don't encourage him, Beryl. Look straight ahead." And, God forgive me, l did.

Some months later, the pupils of the school I attended, Merchant Taylors, Crosby, marched in crocodile to take the train journey to Liverpool en route for the Philharmonic Hall; we were to view the showing of the unexpurgated version of the film taken by British troops entering Bergen-Belsen.

That month our English class had been studying a play by James Elroy Flecker entitled Hassan. In the drama, the lovers, Rafi and Pervaneh, have to choose between separation for life and death on the rack after a single night of love. They choose the latter, believing that death cannot part them. The Caliph taunts them with the knowledge that when they become ghosts they'll have forgotten who they were, let alone what they died for.

The stage directions are very precise: "The stage grows absolutely dark, save for a shining of light from the torture chamber. ln the silence rises the splashing of the fountain and the whirring of a wheel. Music begins softly. A cry of pain is half smothered by the violins. At last the silver light of the moon floods the garden."

The Caliph is proved right. When the lovers meet as wraiths in the Garden of Roses they no longer remember each other. The ghost of Pervaneh whispers, "I am cold ... cold ... Rafi ..." and Rafi whispers back, "Rafi, Rafi - who was Rafi?"

When the newsreels started and we saw those stick insects in striped pyjamas crawling across the compound, and those other poor skeletons being piled into heaps by bulldozers, it struck me that Hassan was relevant, and not just a chunk of poetic education.

I returned home and went upstairs to the boxroom. I slept with my mother and my brother slept with my Dad, to keep them apart, but there was space next to the loft which had been fitted out as a study. It had a table, a chair, a shelf of books and two photographs, one of Rasputin and the other of a woman, one breast hanging out, carrying a pitcher of water on her head.

I wrote: "I will never perceive anything as clearly as I do now and I won't ever be better inside." I remember the sentence because I'd just mastered the rule that "i" comes before "e" except after "c".

At this distance it's hard to know what I was thinking, as opposed to feeling. Anyone, if so disposed, can read or learn; thinking must be agitated by action, like coals under the breath of the bellows. I know I was upset and that the pictures wouldn't leave my head.

Nowadays, subjected at an early age to cinematic and television images of starving babies with swollen bellies, of smart bombs streaking through the sky behind a war correspondent's head, of baddies shot down in a hail of gunfire and Superman soaring the skies, it's hard for the young to gauge the difference between fact and fiction. One would have thought that the reality, the truth of the moment as recorded by the camera, would have wiped out cruelty, but then familiarity breeds contempt, or at least acceptance.

All I know is that my rosy view of the world, my optimistic belief in retribution and justice as taught at school, my compliance with the notion that Tomorrow is a Lovely Day came to an abrupt halt after seeing the human debris of Bergen-Belsen, and that in a peculiar way the bony dead became entangled with my tipsy father stumbling alongside a moving train.

I'm not alone. Every one of us encounters a moment, early or late, good or bad, when his or her snapshot of life is suddenly taken and, once exposed, obliterates all other images.

I don't know that I would wish it to have been any different. When the dead Pervaneh asks the Ghost of the Garden of Roses, "Is this existence darker than the last?", the Ghost replies, "Didst thou hope for a revelation? Why should the dead be wiser than the living? The dead know only this - that it was better to be alive."

I'm content with that.

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