I saw very little of my father, so most of what I know about him is from hearsay, and most of what I understand of him is by conjecture. His mother sent him to Radley College, and afterwards, briefly, to the Sorbonne. He seems to have spent some time in Spain, too, probably under the auspices of F. M. Laing & Co., and certainly in order to learn something about the manufacture of port and sherry.
In any event, by the time he was 21 he was married to my mother.
My mother was the youngest, prettiest and quite spoilt daughter of James Thomson Foster, a tailor from Kilmarnock who had settled in Newcastle in the 1880s. He claimed descent from the family of James Thomson, the famous 18th century poet and author of “The Seasons”, and this is commemorated in his name. He had romantic inclinations, which caused him to collect what he called “curios”, a wide ranging category which might include anything from ammonites to paintings of South Sea Islanders.
He wrote a dreadful doggerel verse of his own, quite outdoing McGonagall in its bathos. My favourite, if favourite is the word, is ‘To An Artist’ in eight stanzas, which begins:
‘May fortune grant you oft the chance
To visit Scenes that thee entrance
Farm, Waterfall and Wooded Hill
Or Cottage by a Rippling Rill’
’Hast thou not dreamt as here described
Lake, Hill and Sunset in its true Ray
Transformed it with an artist’s pride
May your reward only be R.A.’
Like all romantics he had a melancholic tendency, one which increased in its severity as he grew older, until it became full-fledged depression because of which he spent most of the last years of his life immobile and in bed, leaving my tiny but tireless and indomitable grandmother the responsibility of providing for and bringing up his large family of children.
My mother was, as I have said, spoilt and also foolish. These qualities in a pretty young girl are not necessarily devastating, and to a naive young man fresh from the cloistered isolation of a British public school they may even have appeared attractive. Suffice it to say my father fell for her and they were quickly married. This marriage, which effectively lasted for only five years, was indisputably the high point of my mother’s life, one which she was never able to forget or to leave behind her, however desirable and sensible such a course of action would have been. For 5 years she was the wife of a comparatively wealthy man with an enviable social status in the city and in the county, and although cracks soon appeared in the marriage, it was the cataclysmic events of the second world war which finally wrecked it.
At first everything seemed quite well. In 1934 they built a house in the new suburbs of Newcastle at Kenton, an area now enveloped by more and denser building but at that time backing onto open fields with a distant view of the Cheviot Hills. My father began work at P.M. Laing & Company, but when by the age of 22 he had still not been made a Director of the company my mother persuaded him to go to his Uncle Farquhar (then head of the firm) and issue an ultimatum: either he was to be made a director immediately or he would resign. Quite properly Farquhar told him that he could not be a director at such a young age, and that he’d therefore better go. Embarrassingly he then had to find work elsewhere. At the same time my mother’s brother (also called James Thomson Foster) involved him in two ambitious and expensive schemes which succeeded in losing him quite a lot of money.
One, an enterprise called “World’s Foods”, involved the delivery of groceries by bicycle; the other was the development of a draftman’s pen with an ink reservoir, doomed to failure because the India ink used in those days was waterproof and clogged the pens completely and irreversibly.
My mother was one of those people for whom objective truth is irrelevant. In an argument, or when describing her personal plight, she would present whatever set of statements which she deemed necessary to present her in the most favourable light. In railing and in argument her combination of vehemence and histrionics made her invincible, for she would, as it were, reach out for any verbal weapon within reach and use it ruthlessly, much as a violent man might grab a bottle in a bar, or, as I once saw, a waste basket in the street, and use it to belabour his foe. This, combined with her tireless self concern and self righteousness would wear anyone down, and eventually made her almost completely friendless.
I was taught to believe that from the beginning of the marriage my father had abused her physically and mentally, become an alcoholic, and betrayed her with other women. It was not until after her death that I discovered a great collection of love letters to her from a Canadian airman, letters sent to her at a postal drop and addressed to her under a false name. As a child of course I naturally tended to believe her entirely; there was no-one to argue against her - her sisters dared not, and no-one else was interested. How far the marriage had deteriorated in its first 5 years is impossible to say; I suspect that it was already well on the road to destruction, but when in 1939 war was declared and my father joined the Army, its fate was sealed. He was commissioned into the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, as they had now become, but immediately seconded to the Indian Army.He sailed for India early in 1940. He was to remain there until peace came in 1945. It is unlikely that any marriage could stand so long a separation, especially involving people still in their twenties; in this case it led to an alienation that was impossible to overcome.
I have a few memories of that period before and during the war. The earliest is of leaving home. I was four years old and I remember quite clearly getting up in the middle of the night, making my way downstairs, and going out into the summer’s night. I walked around the house, out of the garden and down the middle of the road in the warm dark. There were few cars in those days, and it was perfectly silent. I can still feel the sharp gravel of the road surface on the soles of my feet. Some way along the road I came to a house with an open front door, from which flooded warm light. A woman was kneeling in the doorway, sweeping the step, and talking to herself. She said, “Now I’ll just finish this off, then I’ll have a cup of cocoa and go to bed.” At this point I apparently shouted out, “No, wait for me, I’m Gerald Laing, let me come too!” and appeared out of the dark, much to the woman’s astonishment. She kindly took me in, made me cozy with pillows and blankets in an armchair by the fire, and gave me a hot drink. I felt thoroughly relaxed and slept there all night. In the morning my parents and my nurse noticed my absence, and alerted the police; and the woman took me back to my parents. Her name was Sally Floyd, and I saw her quite frequently after that. She will always represent to me that warmth, comfort and security that perhaps I lacked in those days - though of course I cannot be sure.
Soon after that my father left. As the day of his departure grew near my mother encouraged me to believe that I would receive from him some sort of going-away present. Why she did this I cannot tell. Obviously at the age of four I was not capable of understanding the enormity of the event, that he would be going so far away, for so long, and in to who knows what danger. Perhaps the talk of the present was to encourage me to appreciate this significance. Perhaps she was trying to force my father into a more paternal style of behaviour than he was capable of. Certainly I think he had never been allowed to show emotion, like most public schoolboys of his generation, and the expression of any overt form of affection was alien and probably abhorrent to him. Anyway, this tactic on her part backfired terribly, because to this day I can remember shyly approaching him from behind as he sat on the sofa in our living room, and asking him for my present. This must have taken him by surprise; for after a moment he reached into his pocket, drew out a naval uniform button, and gave it to me. This is the only memory I have of his departure.
My communication with him for the next five years consisted of sending him a monthly forces airletter; a letter written on an official form, sent to the Army post office, where it was photocopied, reduced in size, and sent to the appropriate address. My missives to him started as drawings, and gradually turned into childish written letters as I began school, and learned to read and write. But my conception of him as an individual remained dim and vague; he was not missed, because he was not known.
A child cannot comprehend the serious nature of total warfare. The map of Europe with flags and pins my mother put up on the wall to show the advances and retreats of the opposing forces, and their fluctuating fortunes, meant little to me. But I have evidence of some received fears and images in a book of Stanley Holloway’s poems which was given to me by my grandmother at Christmas 1942. On the inside cover I drew parachutists wearing swastika armbands and carrying submachine guns. They are landing on our house, and a curious little biplane with German markings is strafing it.
I do remember gas mask drill, and being taught to hide under the stairs for safety during a raid. We also had a curious iron trellis box which could be assembed in the dining room and covered with mattresses to form a shelter from blast and flying glass, though after the first week or so it was banished to the garage. My mother had our white house painted green so that, she believed, it could not be used as a landmark for German bombers.
There were moments of taking cover from stray enemy fighters who were reputed to machine gun civilians from time to time. Sometimes the high and intricate vapour trails and the distant rattle of machine gun fire of a dogfight between fighter aircraft high above our heads brought excitement to our otherwise uniform days; very occasionally, visits were possible to the wreckage of crashed enemy aircraft in remote fields.
But Newcastle seemed to escape much of the devastation which was so remorselessly visited on other industrial cities further south, so our only really terrible experience of a full scale air raid occurred during a (somewhat unnecessarily foolhardy) visit to my mother’s sister in Portsmouth.
This entire visit seems in retrospect to have been fraught with hazard, I have no memory of the journey south, though it must have been long and difficult. These were the days of the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?”. I am sure that ours, strictly speaking, was not, and in any event train timetables were disrupted, the armed forces had priority, and every carriage was chronically over-crowded. Somehow we got to the south coast. I spent the first day on the beach, which was thickly strewn with anti tank defences and heavily guarded. Barbed wire entanglements ran along the esplanade, with occasional small gaps in them for access to the water. It was a particularly hot and cloudless day, and I had no concept of the dangers of sunburn. There were few if any protective creams available at that time, but in any case I spent far too long in the sun. The result was that my back was severely burned and erupted in one large waterfilled blister. I must also have had a mild sunstroke, because in the early evening I collapsed on my bed and lay there stupefied. The sole of one of my sandals had become partially detached, and my mother was able to enter ray room and pull it off without awakening me.
That night there was a heavy raid on Portsmouth. As the sirens went I was awaken and bundled downstairs and into the Anderson shelter in the garden. The night was punctuated by explosions, the whistling of bombs, the crackle of anti aircraft fire. Great flashes of light from explosions penetrated even the depths of the shelter and lit up the apprehensive faces of the adults. With the insouciance of childhood I had not the faintest idea that there was a risk of injury, pain or death in all this noisy drama.
At the all clear we emerged from the shelter and found our way back to the house, which was still standing. In the morning we found that 4 or 5 houses in the street had been reduced to piles of rubble. With some other children I ran .about the neighbourhood collecting pieces of shrapnel, some of which were still warm.
Life in Newcastle continued on quite an even keel, punctuated only by significant dramatic events - the escape of a white mouse in a bus (the pet shop sold them in paper bags); juvenile sexual activities with older and quite voracious girls; a severe beating from my mother for using money intended for a loaf of bread to buy a comic, and lying about it; going first to kindergarden, where, too shy to ask to go to the lavatory, I sat on my picture book and wet it, resulting in being dried in front of the headmistress’s fire and my mother being summoned; an inaccurate version of the Facts of Life being shouted gleefully to me over the garden wall by some rough boys from Fawdon.
These normal childish events took place as they always will, and I was not much affected by my mother’s activities, which involved quite a lot of visitors from the RAF base at the aerodrome (my parents had been enthusiastic members of the Newcastle Aero Club before the war), and regular visits from a Norwegian sea captain called Arne Johansen, known to me as Uncle Arne, who sailed the perilous convoy route across the wild North Sea, and who visited my mother each time he made the voyage safely to the Tyne. He took me on board his ship, somehow managed to find me a bicycle, and taught me to ride it. He also produced one of those hopeless model airplane kits made during the war, with hardly any balsa wood (obviously) and most of the parts made of the roughest cardboard. I doubt if even the most brilliant model maker could have completed the task of assembling one of these kits, much less made it fly. He was a kind, bluff man; I do not know what became of him. My mother’s Canadian lover died in Canada while carrying out research on the icing up of aircraft wings, and so my mother’s plans for emigration to Canada with me, the papers for which I found years later, were never implemented.
At the end of the war travel for the multitude of servicemen returning home was complex, slow, arduous and uncertain. We had only the vaguest idea of when exactly my father might return from India. When he did, he arrived suddenly in the middle of the night and while we had looked forward to this event with excited anticipation it still came as a surprise and I do not think either of us knew what exactly to expect, or what to do when the comparative stranger arrived back in our lives after such a long absence. I was brought downstairs sleepy in my dressing gown; I did not recognise him and had no idea what to say to him, and I do not remember that he was able to help me at this juncture. Again he had come back empty-handed, with that old cliche on his lips - “I am the coming home present.”
It was a tremendous shock to me when it became apparent that the relationship between my parents had turned ugly. I have no idea how it happened; I only remember the particular incident which brought it forcibly to my notice, when one day soon after his return my father rushed into my room, took me by the arm and said “Come and look at your bloody mother”. He pulled me along to the bathroom, where my mother was sitting naked in the bath crying. She had tiny cuts on her wrist. My father pulled her upwards to disclose the fact that she was sitting on a razor blade. Obviously she had done this to hide it from me, after a histrionic attempt at cutting her wrists; but even then at the age of 9, what struck me most was the bathos of the situation; its lack of grace, its awkward stupidity, rather than its violence or sadness.
In spite of this malaise in their relationship it was decided that my mother would return to India with my father at the end of his two months’ leave. They would be away for a full year, and therefore something would have to be done with me.