The author describes this book as an ‘auto- biographical novel’, but since it would be quite beyond me to distinguish fact from fiction in this hair-raising account of his childhood years, I propose to treat it as if it were all true, especially as I can’t imagine anyone making any of it up.
The author describes this book as an ‘auto- biographical novel’, but since it would be quite beyond me to distinguish fact from fiction in this hair-raising account of his childhood years, I propose to treat it as if it were all true, especially as I can’t imagine anyone making any of it up. The autobiography is of the stammering, sensitive figure of Roy Kerridge, the victim as a child of horrifying domestic circumstances. But the central character is really his mother, Thea, a misguided, naive but heroic figure who clings desperately to her ideals and her faith in humanity despite repeated disappointments and betrayals.
Thea is the daughter of Adolf Frankel, a prosperous Polish businessman and communist, and his much younger Danish wife, Magda, who emigrated to England in the 1920s and were living at the start of the second world war in North Wembley, Middlesex. Thea had attended London University, but left early after a shotgun marriage to a fellow student, Sam Barber, by whom she was expecting Roy. They were both communists, but with Sam subsequently away with the army in Northern Ireland, Thea was left alone in London to fly the red flag
She worked doggedly for the cause, selling communist newspapers in all weathers outside a factory gate. She not only earned the derision of the factory workers for her middle-class ways but also was barely tolerated by her comrades, who eventually branded her a Trotskyist for urging them to come clean in public about their communism and stop feigning allegiance to the Labour party. She did not understand deceit.
Back from the war, her husband Sam turned out to be a monster, using the family flat only as a base from which to pursue a degree in history at London University, openly loathing his two sons (Roy now had a younger brother, Michael) and abusing his wife in a very uncomradely manner. He would even hide things from her and then ask her to bring them to him, hoping to make her feel she was going mad — the same torture inflicted on his wife by the villain in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. Getting no money from Sam, Thea fell seriously ill from malnutrition and was eventually granted a divorce on grounds of cruelty (despite Sam being represented in court by the famous socialist barrister, John Platts-Mills).
Sam was only the first man to let Thea down. The communists at that time were busily courting immigrants from Africa to help in the struggle against British imperialism. Roy, then a little boy, was asked by a schoolfriend what communism meant. He replied: ‘It means that you like Russia more than England, you don’t like God and Empire, but you do like folk tales and folksongs. You like primitive people better than white people, so you stick up for the Indians, not Cowboys.’
Imagining communists to be incapable of colour prejudice, Thea was deeply shocked when white girls at a communist social evening refused to dance with some newly arrived London University scholars from West Africa; and later she went up to one of them to apologise. He was a Nigerian history student called Joseph, a kind, gentle man who became her lover; and it was Roy’s hope that his mother would marry him and that they would all go and live in Africa among the wild animals he admired so much. But Joseph dashed this hope when one day he tearfully ended the affair, telling Thea that his mother suffered from colour prejudice herself and that it would break her heart if he returned to Africa with a white wife.
Far worse was to come. Thea’s parents — particularly her mother, who had high social ambitions for Roy — were so appalled by her taking a black lover that they cut themselves off from her completely. When she later moved into a slum in Islington with an immigrant from Freetown, Sierra Leone, having been taken in by his oratory on behalf of a group of pimps and conmen calling itself the League of African People Seeking Freedom from Imperial Tyranny (LAPFIT), her loyalty was rewarded with insults and beatings.
John Sidbury-Wellings, as this Sierra Leone creole was bizarrely called, had like many other Africans yearned to be in England but, on finally getting there, found it a bitter disappointment. His revenge was to exploit and brutalise English women. Thea took on menial jobs to buy food for her sons, but was usually sacked unfairly — once as a Woolworth’s salesgirl for calling back and refunding a customer she had accidentally overcharged, and on another occasion as a hospital cleaner for working too hard.
She only walked out on John after finding that he had told at least two other women, as well as her, that he considered himself married to them ‘by African tradition’. When she left for a bungalow near Brighton she took not only Roy and Michael but the two sons and a daughter that she had subsequently had with John.
All of the children turned out well — Roy as an eccentric but gifted writer, Michael as a businessman, and the three half-African children as gentle lovers of dance, music and culture. Thea did not give in to bitterness or resentment. She did not come to hate Africans. She did not lose her ideals. She was the winner in the end.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 1, 2011Tags: Autobiography, Non-fiction