MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.
My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.
While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.
By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.
Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.
Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England. It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.
After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.
It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.
The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.
My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.
My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.
My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now. When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.