A photograph of my mother shows her as a large, round-faced schoolgirl, full of the confidence I have to associate with her being Victorian. Her hair is tied back with a black bow. She is wearing her school uniform, a full white blouse and a long dark skirt. In a photograph taken forty-five years later, she appears as a lean, severe old thing, bravely looking out from a world of disappointment and frustration. She stands by my father, her hand on the back of his chair. He has to sit: as always, he is ill. It is clear that he is only just holding himself together, but he is in a proper suit, certainly because she has told him he must make the effort. She wears a rather smart tailored dress, made up out of a remnant bought in the sales.
The difference between these photographs is what this memoir has to be about. It seems that it has taken me a lifetime to understand my parents, with astonishments all the way. There is a mysterious process, frightening because there is nothing whatsoever you can do about it, that takes you from fierce adolescence – as if parents and you stood at either side of a battlefield, hands full of weapons – to a place where you can stand where they did, in imagination, any time you want.
Only when I sat down to write this did it occur to me that I could write about my father and hardly mention that dread word ‘class’, but with my mother it is a different matter. She never freed her judgements from thoughts of class, but then she did not see why she should. Class was then a straitjacket, an imperative, a crippler. Only that time, that place, could have produced her: London, Britain, the British Empire. But the Empire was in its last days: a thought she would have dismissed as treacherous, wrong-headed, soft.