When my late father Bernard Ward met my mother Mildred Wall on New Year’s Eve 1940, there were many things conspiring against the success of the relationship. Not least of these was the fact that the Luftwaffe was doing its best to reduce Manchester to rubble at the time. After the New Year’s dance, it was raining incendiary bombs, so Mum and Dad had to take shelter in the long-since gone Central Station. My mother was bursting for a pee, but the loos were locked and she was far too shy to mention it to a chap she’d only known for four hours. By the time Mum got home, she must’ve looked like a human Montgolfier balloon.
Rather more of an obstacle than any of this, however, was that while my father was a working class Catholic from Salford, my mother was a middle class Anglican from posh Cheetham Hill. And what Dad didn’t know was that Mum’s mother – Melissa the libertine concert pianist – had brought shame upon the family by running off with an Irish Catholic tenor. Melissa deserted her four children (of whom the youngest, my mother, was just 15 months old at the time) and then became pregnant by the Wicked Mick. Too ashamed to go to a hospital, my grandmother bled to death trying to give birth to the resultant child. After that, not many kind things were said about Irish Catholics in the Wall household.
Melissa’s surviving husband Bert (real name Jack, don’t even go there) died in 1923 from TB, and so my Mum and her three sisters were adopted by Great Aunt Lizzie – Bert’s sister – and her husband the rather upmarket Frank Mellor. Also joining this household at respectably haut-bourgeois 50 Smedley Lane at this time was my great-grandmother Mary Wall. Pay attention, as there will be homework about this later.
To put it mildly, when my Mum brought home a Salford scruff called Bernard (bit of a religious giveaway) a few weeks into 1941, the welcome was less than enthusiastic. Great-uncle Frank – a lovely man – took to my Dad immediately. Lizzie didn’t: she sent Mum away to relatives in Cheshire, with the sole objective of trying to introduce her to somebody naice in posh Hale.
It’s important to know at this point the stuff from which my Great Aunt Lizzie was made. A former penniless mill-girl, Frank fell in love with her following a chance meeting during 1912, and married her against the wishes of his aristocratic family. The family – an outer ring of the planet De Trafford, from which Old Trafford gains its name – disowned Frank. He then started up a cabinet-making business which was hugely successful….and Lizzie did, well, just about everything. She opened a grocery store (also hugely successful) and put her adopted kids to work there while she turned to waitressing at the Midland Hotel. Lizzie made so much money from tips at the Midland – she was the Head Waitress by the time she retired – that when she became infirm in later life, my Dad found £3500 in five-pound notes under her mattress. In 1955, that was life-changing money.
During that same 1941 blitz on Manchester, Lizzie decided one day to buy two large Ming vases. Goering, by contrast, decided to give the City another pasting that very same night. So it was that she carried her vases from Deansgate to Cheetham Hill as the bombs fell everywhere. ARP wardens telling her to get into a shelter were rebuffed with her unshakeable view that no Austrian corporal was going to stop her getting the booty home.
Lizzie had a parrot that said very little beyond “Hitler’s a bugger!” very loudly. As the Mellors were pillars of St Lukes Church, the bird’s cage was covered with blackout cloth whenever the vicar came to call.
Lizzie – always referred to as Lil – took in her mother, the previously mentioned Mary. Although Mary was happily married (but widowed young) the love of her life before that had been a soldier killed in the Boer War. Mary was an anxious depressive – I inherited her genes, lucky me – and she never recovered fully from the trauma of losing her beau. Every year, without fail, on the anniversary of her lover’s death, my great-grandmother would arise as normal, dress up in her best Edwardian finery, and venture out innocently as if desiring nothing beyond the taking of some air. But at the top of Smedley Lane, she would take a bus out of town towards a slightly less salubrious neighbourhood, alight…and enter the nearest public house. There she would proceed to get completely plastered.
For my mother and her sisters, this became an annual ritual. When Mary still hadn’t turned up for dinner by 8pm, somebody would remember the date, and the four Wall sisters – Edna, Phyllis, Myra and Mildred – would be dispatched to every pub in a five mile radius. Usually, one or more of them would discover Mary dancing on the tables of some hostelry somewhere – looking for all the world like one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s can-can girls in full flow.
Mary succumbed to a stroke in August 1940. She never met my Dad, but her son-in-law Frank Mellor’s instinct about Bernard Ward in the end held sway. Much against the wishes of both families, Mum and Dad were married at St Thomas’s Catholic Church without flowers or music (my Mum wouldn’t convert) on October 16th 1942. At the reception, everyone became exceedingly drunk on genuine black-market French Champagne – sourced by my father’s employer Stanley Stewart, and paid for by Frank Mellor. Dad’s brother made a pass at someone’s wife, and got a black eye for his trouble.
The happy couple deacamped to the seaside on a weekend pass grudgingly granted by the RAF, and over the next four years they spent something like fifteen days together. It is a tribute to the fecund Ward genes that my brother Mike was conceived during this period. Pop got back from the Asian campaigns in late 1946, and I appeared in February 1948. It was obvious that Bernard Ward would – at this rate – have a football team by 1960, and so he rejected Catholic doctrine in favour of regular visits to the chemist.
When I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, I was convinced that I was part of the world’s most boring family. But during my late teens, Mum started to open up about the skeletons in the closet. I’m sure every family is like mine, but children must ask enough nosey questions at the right moment if they want to unearth the guilty secrets. It was the tendency to do this that set me on the course of becoming a qualitative consumer researcher.
Families are ghastly things, and yet at one and the same time, ghoulishly fascinating. The trick is to enjoy the gap between the social climbing aspiration and the slapstick reality. It is unfailingly funny.