The Way I Was: Lonely and a little bit lost: Margaret Beckett tells Nicholas Roe how the death of her father when she was only 12 changed the way she looked at life

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
MY SISTERS were both away at university when my father died, so when this photo was taken I was starting to adjust to the fact that there was only myself and my mother at home.

My father had been chronically ill from when I was about three and nearly died every winter, or so it seemed. His illness was like a dark cloud over the household almost all the time, then eventually, when I was 12, his heart just gave out.

I suppose we were prepared for his dying, but what I was not prepared for was the effect it had on my mother, who was a very strong person - lively, ebullient, always able to cope without complaint while my father was alive. But in the year or two after he died - during the time this picture was taken - she became a very sad person, very lonely, and stopped coping so well. She aged about 10 years in six months, so it was a rather sad household for quite some time.

I suppose I'd had a relationship with my father, but it was never easy because, in the years I was growing up, his health was steadily deteriorating, and obviously children can be a bit of a nuisance when you are not well. I always had my nose in a book, anyway, though it's possible that one of the reasons was that he was so often ill . . .

When I came home from school, he had always been there; then, of course, there was no one. I was the first one back, so in one sense it was good for me because it made me more responsible. I would have to set the fire and so on, for my mother coming home.

We each had our routines. We had a division of household duties - I had three rooms to clean, I think - and I moved into a different bedroom and had more grown-up furniture. There was a greater responsibility shown, a greater degree of maturity assumed.

We went to the pictures together sometimes, and we discovered what the other's favourite meals were, what were treats . . . that kind of natural development of life where you gradually find your own tastes, and where you are living with one other person and have to work out a pattern between you.

I think at the time this photograph was taken I was just coming out from under the worst of things: but rather lonely, not quite knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I think anybody who has a parent die when they are young is unquestionably affected: I suppose it makes you more of a pessimist, but I happen to think it's a better thing to be a pessimist, anyway, because you are more prepared for life's traumas. I think it gives you a greater degree of independence, whether you like it or not.

My older sister came home for a year when I was about 16, then went off again, and I think, after that, as I was getting older, what had become a more stable relationship with my mother began to get a little more difficult. We didn't find it easy living under the same roof, and it was years before I realised - a terrible light dawned on me - that it was because we were so alike; we both wanted our own way.

In my twenties I began to feel more secure, and I do say that the great advantage of not having had a particularly happy childhood is that, against your expectations, things actually become better as you grow older.

One of the things I say to children when I go to schools is that you'll find that lots of people tell you that these are the best days of your life and, fortunately, it isn't true.

What a depressing thing to say to kids: there they all are, poor souls, and the rest of their lives is downhill . . .

Margaret Beckett is Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

(Photograph omitted)