Isobal and Henry

Picture of Isobel and Joseph

by Margaret Yip

 I was born in the middle of Clement Attlee’s term as prime minister in 1949. I was the fourth child born to my parents. My mother, Isobal, had been in service before marriage, and my father, Henry, was a miner. After my birth, they went on to have five more children, all born before 1960. 

Henry was born and bred in the small village of Frizington, Cumbria. He was brought up with six siblings: three brothers and three sisters. They all lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house, with an outside loo and washhouse, which my grandparents bought for £200.

They were non-drinkers and non-smokers because they followed the Pentecost religion. My father was employed at the William Pit on the west coast during the war. William Pit suffered a huge disaster in 1947, when over 100 people were killed due to an explosion.

After the Second World war, in 1946, my parents moved to Derby, where one of my dad’s sisters already lived, to seek a better life. Housing was in short supply. My mother, with two young children (and another on the way), lodged with a woman called Sally and her husband Les, while my dad traipsed the roads looking for work.

After a few weeks, my dad had not found a job, so my mother had no choice but to enter the workhouse. History says workhouses ended in 1930, but my mother insisted that she was admitted to a workhouse in 1946. I was born in 1949.

My father continued to tramp about every day, looking for employment. After a few months, my mother had had enough and managed to get a message to him. She declared that he didn’t come and take them from the workhouse, she would return to Cumbria to live with her sister, Tizzy. He came and signed us out of the workhouse.

In a deserted wooden shack Henry had found on his travels up on Breadsall Moor, Derbyshire, we took shelter while he continued to look for work. He was successful after a few weeks, finding employment with The British Ceylonese; a chemical factory in Spondon, which is still operating today.

My father didn’t own any sort of vehicle and there was no public transport either, so l have no idea how he or my mother managed day-to-day living: travelling, shopping, visiting the public baths and attending Pentecostal church. My father, on his day off, wrote letters to newspapers, politicians and even the Prime Minister to inform them of the homeless situation and to petition them for more social housing for the people who needed it, like us. 

My father wrote letters to petition for more social housing

In the 3 – 4 decades after the war, 4 to 5 million new social houses were built, and in the end my parents were successful in obtaining a three-bedroom house in Spondon, with an inside bathroom and a huge garden. This address is on my birth certificate, so I think my father’s letters must have borne fruit pretty quickly. In the next few years, my parents changed houses when my father changed jobs.

But my father’s job at the British Ceylonese factory ended when he contracted a skin disease. Even though by this time we had the marvellous NHS, my parents seldom used it. Henry treated his dermatitis himself by sprinkling potash into the bath water to stop the severe itching. Then he covering the affected areas with homemade ointment and wrapped them in crepe bandages. I can only remember seeing a doctor once as a child. The result was my tonsils being removed. All nine of us children were treated with home remedies. 

While they used the NHS sparingly, my parents did take full advantage of welfare state ‘freebies‘ such as cod liver oil, malt extract, orange juice, and national dried milk. I can’t remember a day as a young child when I missed any of these benefits! We even had free school meals in the school holidays and 2 weeks’ holiday by the seaside. We were given two new outfits, and two pairs of new shoes every year, when my dad was too ill to work. 

During the fifties, we continued as members of the Pentecostal church. We attended bible study on Wednesday evenings as well as Sunday school and evening services. The congregation was made up of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, Jamaican, African, and Ceylonese members. I remember fondly the colourful outfits, turbans, and beautiful hats that the ladies wore. Their husbands sported smart suits, silk scarves and polished shoes.

Most of the Pentecostal congregation were brilliant gospel singers, and there was always lots of clapping and joyful piano and guitar music. We were taught to embrace all cultures, creeds, and races through these church services, and all the members socialised outside of the meetings, either visiting each other’s houses or seeing each other at the many conventions. 

My elder sister’s first boyfriend was actually a gentleman she met in the church from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Both my parents welcomed him with open arms.

l remember strolling through the Arboretum park with them both after church one Sunday when two men spat at them. There were lots of stares and whispers. At this time in Derby, there was quite a lot of racism, and boarding houses had discriminatory notices in their front windows.

My parents said we should pray for racists and pity their ignorance

I also remember that shops would sometimes refuse to serve Bala, my sister’s boyfriend, when he went to buy us sweets if we were out for a walk. When we told the story at home, my parents said we should pray for those who had treated him this way and pity their ignorance.  

We were settled very comfortably in our home now, which was furnished with very solid, posh furniture that we had bought mostly from jumble sales. After the war, people wanted new light modern furniture. So, solid sideboards, tables, chairs, wardrobes, and beds could be bought for next to nothing. 

During the fifties, l don’t believe a week went by that my father didn’t return home without a couple of men or more, that he hoped to help.

Isobal,”  he would say to my mother. “Make these men a hot dinner. They are traipsing about looking for work and are sorely in need of it.”

One night he arrived home late with an old lady whom he had met at Derby bus station. She was visiting relatives and had missed her last connection. She slept in a bed with me and my sister and had porridge with us for breakfast before she went on her way the next morning. 

Looking back, we had the most marvellous childhood. Church outings, lots of freedom, walks, camp making, gardening, and riding homemade ‘bogeys’. Swearing and bad behaviour were not tolerated in school or at home. Pastor Phillips and his church in Whiston remained the mainstay in our lives, leading us to a visit to Derby to see the evangelist Billy Graham in 1961.

I discovered a new kind of prejudice

Little did l know, this visit would see the end of my family living in Derby. We were suddenly obliged to make our return to the north because of intolerant attitudes toward my 17-year-old, older sister who got pregnant out of wedlock.

I discovered a new kind of prejudice: Cruelly, the church l had been christened in and that spent all my formative years in as a member, decided that my elder sister was to be expelled. They decided that the rest of the family could remain .

“It is her sin. She has to be banished.” The church leaders said.

My parents were so ashamed and disappointed that we returned hastily to the north. Shortly after our return and after we were being settled into a house my uncle owned, l came home from school one day to find two priests from the church across the road. They were enjoying my mother’s tea and cake.

One of the fathers asked my mother to which church we belonged. She replied, “Pentecost“. He then asked me,

“How many brothers and sisters do you have? ,”

l answered: “Eight.”

He turned to the other priest and said: “All these children, and not one a Catholic. What a sin! They will all perish in hell.” The priests’ poisonous comments affected me greatly. I have never forgotten them.

In 1965, when l was 15, my dad became ill. The doctors said it was schizophrenia. He refused treatment. l came home from school one day to disaster. My dad had taken everything out of the house. Everything! He made a huge bonfire in the back garden and burned it all; all the photos and mementos, too. He burnt everything, put his coat on and disappeared. I saw him only once 3 years later. He died, aged 75.

We lead happy lives, now

My five grown-up children

Time has passed. I am a mother and a grandmother. I and my family have enjoyed 60 years of genuine friendships and lead happy lives. But I want to celebrate my mother and father and remember how they struggled and remember the hardships and injustices they faced at a time when there was no NHS and no social housing. I want to remember the damage that was done to my family by religious intolerance.

Now 60 years on, prejudice, racism and hate is once again spiralling out of control and the church is far too silent about it. But there is hope. People like me, following the example of my parents, are speaking out and we are using new platforms like Ars Notoria to do so. We all have to stand up for humanity and confront prejudice and injustice..

My hope for the future is that people always speak out, stand up and be counted. Say enough is enough and stop prejudice. Defend the NHS and social housing and the benefits we deserve and fought for. We don’t want history repeating. As Martin Luther king said,

” It is not the words of our enemies we will remember, but the silence of our friends.”

Margaret Yip

Margaret Yip is a mother of 5, grandmother of 7 and great grandmother of 2. She lives in a small village in Cumbria. She is for social and economic justice, social housing and the NHS and she opposes all forms of prejudice and hatred.

May Uprising, Paris, 1968

by Garry O’Connor

‘The past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis, happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.

My English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying. Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking action.


Then came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the worn and creaking boards stood the weight.

Everyone talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal. They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a ‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.

‘Let the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’

Monsieur Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred. There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression. Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with its faction-ridden societies and nations?

Actors tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women; musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.

The Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a century of religion, or not at all’.

During the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me. ‘THE MORE I MAKE REVOLUTION THE MORE I MAKE LOVE.’ Next day I was still there and I couldn’t leave.

The real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be rats. You’ll see….’

I laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things, their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench. First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife, obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked – until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director, Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown sympathy, he was relieved of his post.

Then walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.

My assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they propelled me in a certain direction.

‘Where the hell are you taking me?’

They didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They looked older than the students, and were military professionals. Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’ was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’

A room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived. Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and Harpagon.

The next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels, chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails. We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

There were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.

‘You must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.

‘We heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly, chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to join in and place our physical strength at the service of the revolution.’

‘The pay here can’t be very good.’

I regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.

‘There isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.

‘So how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.

‘We have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained, was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.

‘But why do you come here, to the theatre?’

At this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose intention. I had better not press the question.

‘Please, what do you want with me?’ I asked.

‘You must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’

His purpose was plain. I was a hostage.

They brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew tired of it.

The nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself dissolved in the dark?

I fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on – and then I fell asleep and had this dream.

I’m waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old – the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road, about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.

I wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach. Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe they’ll be back.

Arms linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone half mad and out of control.

It’s your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for. The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.

Ever since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called him ‘your father’).

So I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….

The pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you, throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than the other thousand-odd members of the house.

By many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the dreamy fabric of your songs—

I’m bound for the hills and the valleys beyond
So good night pretty maiden, goodnight.
I follow Fortune that beckons me on
I catch at her skirts and the lady is gone
But that’s just my lot, if so right….

Your clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.

You finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.

‘And now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the World Behind”.’

Cheers. Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.

I’m not a millionaire
Who’s burdened down with care
Somehow that’s passed me by….

But Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire! Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?

Would you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given, would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.

But what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go on for him – and forever?

I woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated, battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.

The CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon would be reoccupied by the authorities.

‘What will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.

He sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’

‘No fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of Katanga?’

‘Jackie’s not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are offering a big fee.’

‘But how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’

The other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’

Once a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the others.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’

The guard shrugged.

A voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside. ‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’

I looked at my captors.

‘Where does that leave me?’

‘Shut up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s down there now.’

Another Katangais put his head round the door.

‘Come on: the order has come through. We’re going!’

‘What about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.

‘He’s nothing to do with us now.’

I beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their papers to the police control and marched off without a word.

In the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects, stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’ prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.

In the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s strength to grab him and haul him back inside.

What was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the future? Was this what destiny had in store?

Dad was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was, expose him to the world?

A line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est ton maître?’

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.

An audience with Samuel Beckett

by Garry O’Connor

Ian Herbert, another friend from King’s, was working for Pitman’s. He commissioned a book on French theatre. I decided I would try to interview Samuel Beckett, intending a whole chapter just on him. I wrote to ask if I could see him and gave him some dates I could be in Paris. For six months I kept this up and received eight tiny letters scribbled almost illegibly in a right-slanting hand on flimsy tissue paper saying he was never there when I was there.

It must have been rather like God that Harold Hobson interceded on my behalf, for after these very polite but ‘sorry-to-disappoint-you’ evasions, Beckett, in much bolder ink, and with fluctuating pen strokes and stronger legibility, wrote ‘I could meet you for a drink May 28 in the bar of the “Closerie des Lilas”, 171 Bld du Montparnasse. If this suits you do not trouble to confirm.’ I had found the combination to access the inaccessible.

I arrive at the Closerie full of excitement. He was waiting but I had been forewarned, ‘I hope you do not expect me to talk about myself or my work, there’s not a squeak left in me on that sore subject!’ There were two faces of Beckett confronting me over glasses of whisky. One was upright and severe, that of a lean but august figure dressed in baggy clothes, a tweed jacket which had very padded shoulders just like a superior working man from an O’Casey early play. The hands weren’t those of a Dublin labourer, but very long, very fine – aristocratic. He could have been an ascetic Irish priest, even a mystic, a saint – or a pope.

The other face was warm but animated, etiolated and linear like that of a racehorse – again Irish. Its fluidity and mobility reminded me of Jackie McGowran whom I’d seen in Endgame (was I thinking of Lucien Freud’s male faces, which look similar to those of horses?).

He talks very quietly, but he is not at all dry in manner. I had translated some of Céline’s work for the RSC, and hear that the famously denounced collaborator, lauded for his Voyage au bout de la nuit, ‘went to Germany where he sided with Laval, and then to Norway. After the war they left him alone [as they did Maurice Chevalier]. He lived in Boulogne with his wife, and Gallimard [his publisher] tried to screw the most out of him!’

He left London because he couldn’t find a publisher. A certain resentment for publishers and exploiters, or neglecters, of Beckett’s talent, can be detected. Dare one call it paranoiac? He decries the ‘nakedness of his own self-pity’ in the true and steeply paranoid decline of Ionesco in his last plays.

‘What do you think of Jean Genet?’ I ask.

‘Genet?’ he replies.

‘Yes, Genet,’ I repeat.

‘Genet?’ he says a second time, with a frown as if I am obscurely trying to confuse him.

‘Jean Genet,’ I repeat so there should be no doubt.

‘Oh, Jean Genet,’ he says at last with a surrendering flicker of recognition.

‘Genet doesn’t want anyone to do his plays anymore.’

He isn’t altogether happy with Genet’s plays. We were edging into personal areas. I don’t push it. I had the sense, in the way between us the time passed, that he likes spending time for its own sake – this is quite mystical – that time for him passes very slowly, in contrast to people who are diffuse, through whose hands time passes quickly.

He talks so quietly that I have to keep asking him a second time, or in silence wait till I feel I can complete his sentence. He looks away frequently, as if he is extremely shy. I leave long silences, which he breaks about fifty-fifty. He will sometimes resume with the same subject.

‘I spent two miserable years in London, in [Chelsea’s] World’s End, in a bedsit for thirty shillings a week. I regretted it…. I don’t want to go back to Ireland, I had lots of relations and children [not his, for he was childless] in Wicklow. Last time I was in Ireland was in 1968 for two weeks.’

The Irish poor mouth! Oh God, not shades of…Marlowe’s, ‘I have run up and down this world with a case of rapiers, wounding myself when I had none to fight withal.’ Marlowe could well have been Irish.

He offers me a cigar, before lighting one. He says that he is worried about his eyes: he’s had two cataract operations which have succeeded, so why does he worry? I haven’t asked personal questions, or about his work, and I can sense this is a relief. Unprompted he starts to tell me in awe that Joyce, his friend and mentor for whom he worked as secretary, spent seventeen years on Finnegans Wake,while ‘even the Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo only four!’ He receives letters from ‘a lunatic asylum’ from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, to whom, long ago, in the early 1930s, he had become attracted. Joyce’s son Mario is in ‘Germany, married to a rich American; his grandson, Stephen, lives in Paris and works in an office.’ He says his own work is quite paltry and unimportant compared to that of Joyce. Chesterton’s definition of a saint is someone who is always in the presence of one greater than himself, so here the description fits.

We’ve drunk several rounds by now. I have been with him for over an hour and a half so my audience is almost over. He plays obsessively with something from his pocket, rolling it on the table, then with an almost compulsive movement puts it away. His body and movements are tense: of someone who has eliminated most forms of emotion or spiritual despair from his mind, I guess, but not from his physical being, where the tension is still manifest.

It’s not so hard to believe that here is someone who suffered considerable if not continual rejection all his life until Peter Hall’s production of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre came along. But one mustn’t forget he didn’t really like how Peter Hall had made Godot into a burlesque, with hilarious comic routines, drawing out audience laughter he hadn’t intended.

He had written up all those reflexes of being rejected, but fashioned fastidiously and with exquisite workmanship, into literary art. Where from? Was it in the first instance from his middle-class family, in the second by the literary world? He destroys all letters, he tells me. Rejection, resentment, and bitterness can indeed by very funny, and wonderful for actors to explore. […]

When we part he seems regretful of leaving, saying very lightly ‘Enjoy yourself!’ He has a profound twinkle in his eye. I gently tease him with ‘Did you vote in the last election?’ to which he replies,

‘No, no – I don’t do anything like that!’

Dislocation of consciousness is the name of Beckett’s game, life through a lens giving it distinctive distortions. It reminds me of some work done by Johnny my brother: curious, anamorphic paintings of intricate detail which require a glass cylinder to be placed on top to reveal the full image. Given that Beckett destroys all letters, I can’t understand why he is so keen to have my address which he asks for.

I won’t forget the eight tiny missives. The first few were tentative, spidery, evasive in the handwriting, almost unreadable. As he decided to see me they grew bolder and stronger in pressure and use of ink on the flimsy paper until he splashed out an assent. Beckett was master of forging a merciless no out of a longing for yes, showing a world constantly on the edge of disintegration.

Jean-Paul Sartre – much less likeable but an interesting playwright – had one answer to why Beckett was so popular. He dismissed ‘the solitude, the despair, the commonplaces of non-communication’ as being ‘profoundly and essentially bourgeois’. He scorned Godot, ‘by far Beckett’s best play’ for being ‘pessimistic, expressionist’, yet he pointed out that it was ‘the kind of thing which appeals to the middle class’. […]

I fail to understand the quasi-religious obeisance to those increasingly hermetic late plays, which are hallowed like relics, variations of focus on a vanishing point of faith, hope, and love, playing the game of hunt the thimble, man’s reduced soul. The endgames of Beckett and Pinter would have us believe that Nature has forgotten us and is no more.

HAMM Nature has forgotten us.
CLOV There’s no more nature.

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.

Araminta: The story of an Austin 10

By Eve Hall

We bought Araminta the day after the doctor told us we would soon be the proud parents of twins. Until then, we’d found our scooter perfectly adequate – it was simply a matter of wedging our two-year-old son between driver and pillion passenger. But by no stretch of ingenuity could we fit a family of five on a two-saddle scooter. It was time, we decided, to move into the car-owning bracket.

And so, for £45, we became the puffed-up possessors of a thirty-year-old Austin 10 saloon, Araminta. Her name came with her pedigree. She was small, dark green, square and lady-like; an old gentlewoman, fallen on hard times, hiding her patches, darns and brittle bones under turquoise corduroy seat covers with red piping and a dignified, glossy bonnet.

Life had obviously dealt her some hard knocks. South African roads in the 30’s weren’t geared to smooth driving. There were ruts, potholes and seasonal rivers – with either dry stony beds or foot high torrents. All lay in a small car’s path with horrible caprice. Araminta had negotiated them with well-bred dignity, but life’s roughness had left its marks. The silky, tarred roads of the 60’s were kinder to her delicately spoked wheels, but she could only cope with gentle outings.

She was to be mine; the two of us would ride daintily to the shopping centres, we would take my son to the park and make fortnightly visits to the hospital. On Sundays, Araminta shuddered a little as my six foot two-inch husband lowered himself gingerly into one of her bucket seats; but she accepted the extra burden with a sigh, and a slight sag.

Time had lowered Araminta’s standards. We found out that almost any small, flat instrument could be used to switch on her ignition and set her purring.

Life with Araminta was sometimes pleasant. She empathised with my breeding mood. Pregnancy has always sharpened and altered my sense of smell and she billowed fumes from her dashboard that smelt terrible to others, but delightful to me. Our reliable petrol gauge was a long bamboo pole that we indelicately poked into her petrol tank – a six-inch mark meant almost a week’s fuel inside her, while a damp patch at the end meant she was in dire need of nourishment.

Time had lowered Araminta’s standards. We found out that almost any small, flat instrument could be used to switch on her ignition and set her purring. If I mislaid my keys, she would, obligingly, allow herself to be turned on with a nail file, a screwdriver, or a knife. She was a little cranky; her windscreen wipers only worked manually. It was uncomfortable to steer her with one hand and with the other to have to rhythmically turn a large wiper knob back and forth, almost as if I were spinning a top. This happened whenever I was caught in one of Johannesburg’s violent summer storms.

Sadly, Aramínta’s terminals were worn. At first; I called mechanic whenever, abruptly, her engine faded away; but I soon found out how to revive her without expert aid. Surrounded by buses and home-going rush-hour cars, all hooting and jeering at my inert Araminta, I waddled out serenely, stomach to the fore, lifted her bonnet, and jiggled each terminal for 20 seconds. Araminta once more came back to life as I turned the nail file, and with my young son waving his podgy hand at the angry motorists, we could chug off once more.

Araminta and I parted company for a while, when my stomach grew too large to fit behind the steering wheel. My legs were too short to reach her pedals when the seat was shoved back. My husband took over the wheel and I became a passenger, which I think she resented. But on the day the twins heralded their arrival, she took us to the hospital with gentleness and despatch.

Araminta greeted the slimmer me with coolness. She was hard put to accommodate the two carry-cots with their noisy occupants and a bouncing toddler, and she groaned under the weight of the huge shopping bags. I think she found the atmosphere of fecundity indelicate, and she particularly resented our Sunday outings when five people and their paraphernalia strained her springs to the point of twanging.

She registered her first protest without warning. As we went over a slight bump in the road, her back window quietly fell out and vanished between the back seat and the boot. We fished it out and tried to squeeze it back into its original position, but the slightest jolt always brought it down again. We tried plastic sheeting too, but it wasn’t completely successful, and then agreed that the best plan was to add an umbrella as a permanent fixture. The umbrella was stored at our feet alongside the petrol gauge, and when the heavens broke open (as they often do in the high veld) I sat on the back seat and held the umbrella over the sleeping twins.

Araminta and I grew further apart. The heady fumes I had so enjoyed when I was pregnant now made me feel dizzy, and I was worried in case they should poison the children. Her terminals had to be jiggled more and more often, and a trip of two miles sometimes left me exhausted with the exercise of constantly hopping in and out of the car. Her back seat sloped in such a way that no matter which way the carry cots were placed, the twins were always lying at an angle, with their feet up high and their heads lower down, jammed into a corner.

The orange box that held up the front passenger seat snagged stockings and it meant that any additional passengers could choose between riding astride the box, or sitting buddha like, cross-legged, on the seat – a very uncomfortable position to maintain if you happen to be holding an umbrella over two carry cots.

Then, one crowded, eventful Sunday, Araminta greeted us with a flat right back tyre. Surprisingly enough, she had never had a puncture before. This was fortunate because there was no spare wheel.

A friend towed limping Araminta to a garage where she was greeted with the usual hilarity, mingled with pity and disbelief; cars in South Africa in the 60s tended to be large and American, glittering with chrome. They lived fast and died young.

An attendant whipped off Araminta’s wheel, patched up the tube, and put it back on again. With a light laugh, disdainfully, he waved us away accepting no money. We were obviously deserving of charity.

We re-loaded children, bottles, parcels of nappies and bathing suits and set off once more. People on the pavements and drivers in big flashy cars stared at us as we began to weave our way through the weekend traffic. They waved energetically, They even hooted. We were used to attracting attention, and so we waved back with fine grace, smiling at their friendliness and enthusiasm. They carried on waving. Some of them seemed to be shouting.

“You know” said my husband “I think they’re trying to tell us something.”

That made us both thoughtful. No smoke was pouring fore or aft. Nothing rattled more than it usually did. Was her gait perhaps a little unsteady? Rocking slightly, we reached the top of a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, perhaps 500 yards away, was a garage.

“I’ll coast down to it”.

Silently now, carefully, engine off, we rolled down the hill. Araminta was hobbling now. The garage attendants stood at the bottom of the hill looking up at us as we descended. They were openmouthed. A small crowd had gathered. We pulled into the garage and came to a stop.

Araminta lurched, tipping back at an angle as the right rear wheel detached and rolled forwards for a few yards. It spun lazily and came to rest against a petrol pump.

The pump attendants started laughing, which startled the children making them wail. My husband murmured ‘Christ!’ and reached, hands trembling, for a cigarette.

It wasn’t Araminta’s fault, of course. The wheel had been carelessly put back on.

But this incident was the beginning of the end. Over the next few months, Araminta shed more of her parts. She also started discharging her batteries every time we took her out, leaving us stranded and then tired. We made one last attempt to save her, but the mechanic told us it would cost £100 to have Araminta rewired. We decided to part company. We gave her to a young man who lived down the road.

For months afterwards, as we sped past his garage in comfort in our new, more streamlined car, with its full complement of fittings and, oddly soundless springs, we saw Araminta in the young man’s driveway: there she was, dismembered and disemboweled, her bonnet gleaming like a polished skull, while the young man whistled happily over her black old bones.

Eve Hall, 1968

Eve Hall in the 70s

Eve Hall was a writer, a fighter, a tireless development worker and a pioneer in income-generating projects for women for the ILO. In Kenya she was the women’s editor of the Daily Nation, In Dar-es-salaam she started the ANC magazine the Voice of Women, in India she worked as Oxfam’s press officer. She spent ten years in Somalia working with refugee women and another ten years working for women and girls in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Eve grew up in Paris during the war, but moved to South Africa with her mother, Lisa, to rejoin her father. Eve was one of the small group of Congress of Democrats Activists (the white wing of the ANC) who stood up against Apartheid in the early 60s, which resulted in her imprisonment. Her husband Tony, a journalist, was banned and subsequently they took their three children, and travelled from country to country, doing their best to make a contribution to the general human weal. In 1991 Eve and her husband Tony returned to South Africa.

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