I HAVE recently reread Blake Morrison’s award-winning 1993 memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? and am reminded once again of our parallel lives.
The book begins in the early 1960s with the Morrison family’s Alvis stuck in a queue of cars outside Oulton Park motor racing circuit in Cheshire. Blake’s father Arthur, a GP, grows tired of waiting and, after draping his stethoscope around the rear-view mirror, pulls out of the line and roars past it to the VIP entrance. A steward points out that he has only brown tickets, which are for the standard ‘pleb’ section, but he blags his way in by playing the ‘I’m a doctor’ card.
One of the vehicles that he bypassed was almost certainly our green Morris van, with my parents in the front while my cousin Janet and I hid giggling under a blanket in the back because Dad felt the entrance fee for children was excessive. He got away with his little bit of rebellion, too.
The Morrisons (Blake’s mother Agnes was also a GP) lived and worked in Earby, a few miles from my home in Nelson, Lancashire. Blake is five years older than me but we both went to village schools followed by grammar schools and worked on national newspapers. We were both regulars (at different times) at the Cross Keys in East Marton. We both had younger sisters named Gillian.
What really resonates with me about the book is the family expressions. When Arthur Morrison had over-indulged at the pub, he would describe himself, as would my own father, as ‘a bit fresh’. No one ever farted, they trumped. And ‘too true’ was a phrase often used.
My wife Margaret, who adored my mum, has urged me for years to write down some of her sayings before they are forgotten for ever, so here goes.
If someone was in an angry mood, he would be ‘crammed as a wasp’.
And he would have ‘a face like a bad ham’.
If she was hungry she could ‘eat a scabby donkey’ and complained: ‘Me belly feels like me throat’s been cut.’
In hot weather we would be ‘sweating cobs’ while the sun was ‘crackin’ t’flags’.
Someone who was extremely common ‘could worry rats’. A good-for-nothing was a ‘lob lol’. If you were extremely cold you were ‘clammed to death’. Bouncing on the bed was termed ‘roncing’ and was strictly verboten.
Anyone who tried to swindle her was ‘taking me for a ta-ta’ and ‘must think I fell off a flittin’.’ Hard labour was ‘horse work’.
My mum and her own mother would often say of an unpleasant experience: ‘And I wouldn’t wish it on a dog.’ Until the age of about ten I thought their words were: ‘Now wouldn’t we shit on a dog?’, so you can imagine my confusion.
When she was really, really cross with me, my sister or both of us, Mum would draw herself up to her full height of 5ft 1in and declare: ‘You’re like dead lice!’
She and Dad would, on the rare occasions they were hung over, gasp: ‘I’ve got a head like Birkenhead.’
This is by no means exclusive to our family, but any mean person would be described as ‘tight as a duck’s arse’. Invariably followed by: ‘And that’s watertight.’ Of someone very thin it would be said that he ‘i’n’t as far through as a maggit’, while someone bow-legged ‘couldn’t stop a pig in a ginnel’.
Rare events would be described as ‘once every Preston Guild’ – a reference to the celebration of Lancashire tradesmen held every 20 years since 1179.
Another historical reference: ‘If that’s true I’ll stand the Drop of York.’ Meaning that you would plunge through the trapdoor at the notorious York gallows yet survive. Not likely.
Mum’s second husband Brian, an extremely thick former miner, used to take exception when, during family card games, she would slip her aces and kings under the table to our children. When he protested she would say: ‘Come on, we’re not playing for t’town hall clock.’
And her last words to me as she lay dying in a Carlisle hospital in 2007 were in reference to his being generally useless. ‘Brian?’ she muttered hoarsely. ‘He’s worse than my arse.’
After reading his memoir for the first time almost 30 years ago I contacted Blake Morrison to say I’d enjoyed it and we arranged to have a drink at a pub near his home in Blackheath, south London. I travelled from Bromley by public transport on a horrible stormy night and arrived soaked to the skin at the appointed hour of 8pm. He had said I would recognise him by his unusual jumper. After ten minutes a chap came in and took off his coat to reveal some bizarre knitwear. I nodded and smiled at him only to receive a homicidal glare. He was apparently not Blake Morrison and thought I was trying to pick him up. For the next half an hour he and his mates looked daggers at me and I refrained from going to the bogs in case of ambush.
It was almost nine when the man himself arrived in an even more garish sweater, saying he was late because he had been putting the children to bed. By now I was dying for a wee, cold and pretty grumpy after sitting in sodden clothes for an hour. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t hit it off, with him being a Leftie Guardian-reading poet and me a Daily Mail thug. We parted after a few pints agreeing to do it again some time on a more clement evening but knowing it would never happen.
Blake Morrison is now Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
I don’t envy him. I am thankful to have retired and left the Great Wen and its madness far behind us. Margaret and I often drive past the Cross Keys on the way to Skipton but sadly the last few times it has been closed and, as is the case with many pubs around here, the forlorn For Sale signs were up.
Last Thursday would have been Mum’s 88th birthday and I wish she’d been here to share it with us. Much missed, every hour of every day.
A PS from PG
In build and appearance, Tuppy somewhat resembles a bulldog, and his aspect now was that of one of these fine animals who has just been refused a slice of cake.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves