The true story behind 'A Yorkshire Boyhood'

Roy Hattersley From a talk given by the writer and politician at the International Ross-on-Wye Festival in Herefordshire
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The Independent Online

When I wrote A Yorkshire Boyhood it was intended to be, and I believe it was, the story of a generation. Men and women of my age were born in the dying days of the Great Depression. Our first memories were the constant austerity and occasional trauma of the Second World War. Early adolescence was spent during the dawn of the welfare state – free health care, secondary education and the prospects of a place at a university. It was a time of hope. Many of us really believed – though most of us were proved wrong – that nothing was beyond us.

I tired to enliven the story with anecdotes of suburban eccentricities and I recorded – simply because it was part of the narrative – that my own upbringing had been distinguished from that of my friends by the fact that, unbeknown to me, my father was once a Catholic priest who had left the Roman Catholic church when he met my mother. The fact that he knew that Bonny Prince Charlie's brother had become a Cardinal and Archbishop of Frascati seemed far less strange than the behaviour of Mr Woolhouse, down the road. Although a headmaster, he kept racing pigeons. Headmasters, in our respectable view, did not do that sort of thing.

My father's secret was not revealed in the text. It was unknown to me at the time about which A Yorkshire Boyhood was written and it in no way affected my secure childhood. I did, however, begin to pursue the circumstances of my father's apostasy – partly as the background for a novel and partly because I felt proud of what he had done. We were close. But I thought of him as a gentle, self-effacing, even timid, man. I wanted to know more of what I regarded as his heroic moments. My father's great friend at the English College in Rome had been William Ellis – described by my mother as "the man they sent to take your father back". He became Bishop of Nottingham. It seemed sensible to make enquiries about my father from his successor.

Bishop McGuinness could not have been more helpful. He invited me to lunch. Towards the end of the meal he asked me if I wanted to know the whole truth. When I told him that I did, he explained that my father had "married my mother" twice. The Bishop meant that the priest of St Joseph's church, Shirebrook, had first performed the ceremony at which Enid Brackenbury had married Jack O'Hara and then run away with the bride. In fact they had pedalled away. Both were children of Sheffielders and had been brought up to believe that if they could get as far as that city all their troubles would be ended. They were wrong.

There were no advertisements in the local newspapers offering employment to apostate priests, and my father was unemployed for almost three years. They were joined in the dilapidated house they rented by my maternal grandmother, crippled with arthritis, and my father's two younger brothers. George, a seminarian at Valladolid, had announced that if his elder brother could leave the church so could he. Sydney, a schoolboy at Ratcliffe College, was expelled when his brother's sin was discovered. I arrived about a year after the great escape.

All that was left for me to discover was the story of the second marriage. That, the Bishop told me, took place in 1956 after Jack O'Hara died. The news caused me no problems but, suspecting he was embarrassed, I made a silly joke. "I have been a professional politician for 25 years and often called a bastard. But this is the first time I realised it was true." The Bishop's secretary handed his boss a £5 note. "That," he said, "was exactly what his Lordship gambled you would say."

The new introduction is essentially the story of my parents. It changes the nature of the text, even though not a word has been changed from the original. A Yorkshire Boyhood is still the history of a generation. But it is no longer woven around the unexceptional activities of a schoolboy. It is built upon a quite extraordinary love story.

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