Robert Edric is six or seven years older than me, but scenes of a Sheffield childhood are remarkably similar to mine. A writer’s job is to remember. I remember my da punched my mum. My sisters would probably make some excuse, as if it never happened. I don’t remember me wee brother setting his jammies on fire, and him being rushed to hospital. I was only a kid, but I find it strange I forgot what happened that day.
Edric does remember everything was paid for in notes and coins. Workers were paid cash in a brown envelope. His father gave him mum housekeeping money from it to keep the house and his three children—Robert was the oldest—as if he was doing her a favour. It was never enough. But that was her problem.
‘My mother, in her angriest moments—perhaps finally understanding all that she had forsaken in marrying this scornful, restless and resentful man, and subjugating herself entirely to him and bearing him two more children—would tell the story of how her prospective mother-in-law had warned her against marrying her own son. It was in his nature, my mother was told, to demean and belittle, to make anyone close to him as unsettled and unhappy as he was.’
Edric asks and answers the question, what choice did my mother have? She was six months pregnant. Abortion wasn’t an option then (or now, for many American women). She just had to get on with it, like so many others.
Their lives fitted around their father’s work and home life. Most evenings he went to the pub. The memoir begins when Robert is twelve years old. He’d been the only working-class kid to pass his eleven-plus and get a grammar school place. His father had come home early. That threw him a bit. He liked to be organised and know how much time he had to do his homework, and watch telly.
Telly had moved from being something you rented to something you owned. They got bigger and better. But they were still black and white. Colour hadn’t been invented yet. All of the houses in Sheffield were covered in a thick coating of stour from the many chimneys. New council estates were springing up, with inside toilets and all mod cons. They lived adjacent to the largest working-man’s club in Sheffield that had strippers on a Sunday afternoon—men only—but it had few parking spaces. Nobody much could afford a car. Punters generally travelled by bus or train. But his da had a boxy car, with a big steering wheel, and he worked in the business with lorries. He knew how to make rudimentary repairs—the same as all men should. He made sure to box in any car that dared park in his parking space, outside his front door so they’d know better next time.
His da thought himself a snappy dresser, with his watch and jewellery a sign of how well he was doing. But he’d a terrible secret. He was bald.
‘he was now sitting in his usual place—his chair, beside the fire, facing the television, wearing an all too obvious wig to cover his balding head. He was still a young man—thirty-four or five—but his hair was already half lost, leaving a thin, carefully configured wreath above his ears and across the back of his head.’
Robert has to negotiate the public and private world his da has now created. His family know he’s bald, but they must act as if he’s not bald. His mum has already conceded the impossible is perfectly possible as long as they go along with it. His da is determined to drag everybody down to his level.
Robert’s escape route is public schooling. Something I abhor. But he finds fatherly figures whose first instinct is to be helpful and build him up. Not try and destroy what little confidence he had. Ironically, he was terrible at maths. He would never get a University place at Hull now because he failed the O’grade equivalent of maths, even when he re-sat it, he failed it again. He certainly wouldn’t have got a grant. A tenner a week, enough to live on, and to get away from his father. He wouldn’t get his fees paid now. And I’m not sure students would be allowed to study for a degree in Geography. Perhaps I’m mixing up the past with the present. We all do. F for failure. Your own worst enemy. H for humanity, humility and humour. For some, Scenes of a Childhood will bring it all back. Read on.