Speaking for MyselfMy Life from Liverpool to Downing Street
Little, BrownCopyright © 2008 Cherie Blair
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-316-03145-5
The story starts in the early 1950s, when two young actors meet on tour in the provinces. As happens in such stories, they fall in love and are soon in the family way. When a daughter is born, they are overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time. Sadly, the strain of living in shabby digs, short of money and work, and with a small baby in tow, proves too much. Thus, when their baby is six weeks old, they leave her in the care of the father's parents in Liverpool and go off to the big city to seek their fortune. The year was 1954, the baby was me, and I never grew tired of hearing how my parents met, of their respective childhoods, and, of course, of how I got my unusual name.
My father, Tony Booth, fell into acting largely by accident. While doing his national service, he conducted a prolonged flirtation with a colonel's wife. As she was heavily into amateur dramatics, he decided that this was the way in. And so the stage was set for the rest of his life. Although he regularly complained that the theater was dominated by gay men, this state of affairs presented him with plenty of opportunities in terms of the ladies. My mum took her profession a good deal more seriously. One year younger than my father, Joyce Smith had been born and brought up in Ilkeston, a mining village west of Nottingham.
Her mother, born Hannah Meer, remains something of an enigma. Beyond her unusual maiden name and the fact that she was a local beauty with lustrous blue-black hair, I know nothing about her. My mum's father, however, was an extraordinary man, totally self-educated. Jack Smith first went down the pit at the age of fourteen as an ordinary miner, but he was soon promoted to shotfirer - first into the mine at the beginning of a shift, armed solely with a miner's lamp. His job was to test for gas. By the end of his career, Jack had made mine manager.
From time to time we would go over to Ilkeston to visit my grandfather, who was still living in the house where my mother had grown up. I remember being terrified of the huge blue scar on his face. If you had an accident down in the pit, he later explained, the wound could never be adequately cleaned of coal dust, which turned the scar tissue blue. Another thing that intrigued me was the huge amount of water he used to wash himself. He no longer worked underground by then, so he had no need to douse himself in this excessive manner, but old habits die hard. The bathroom where Hannah would have scrubbed his back was still downstairs, and the toilet paper was still squares of newspaper on a hook. Grandad Jack had always wanted to be a doctor, but for the eldest of eleven children, this was impossible. The nearest he got to it was joining the St. John's Ambulance Brigade and becoming involved with pit rescue. Later he gave lessons in first aid, using my reluctant mother as a guinea pig. He was a man of prodigious energy, active in the Labour Party and Salvation Army. He also wrote poetry and toward the end of his life obtained a degree from the Open University, Britain's state-run distance-learning university for mature students. He worked until he was eighty, becoming a night watchman after he retired from the mines. As if that wasn't enough, he was also a soccer referee and ran sports clubs for young people. My mother would be obliged to join in, though she always hated these activities. What she enjoyed more was the youth club that he ran during World War II. He was a considerable musician - there wasn't a brass instrument he couldn't play - and having trained the boys and girls in the club, he would visit old people's homes and hospitals and put on little shows. My mum played the piano, flute, and violin.
Mum had an unusual education for the time, attending one of the first Rudolf Steiner schools, Michael House. Everything about it was avant-garde. She began school in 1936, at the age of three and a half. Music and movement, known as Eurythmy, was central to Steiner's ethos. Michael House even boasted its own theater, and from the beginning, my mum was involved in school plays. But then tragedy struck. Shortly after the war ended, the grandmother I never met died at the age of forty-two. Although Hannah was a local girl, the Meer family wasn't close, and no help was forthcoming from her sisters after her death. So on top of going to school, fourteen-year-old Joyce now had the house, her ten-year-old brother, and her father to look after. Before leaving home early in the morning, my grandfather would ensure that the fire was lit, but that was the extent of his involvement in household chores. It fell to my mother to do everything else: shopping, cooking, washing, ironing, and cleaning, not to mention scrubbing her father's back when he got home from the pit. Being a clever girl, she planned to stay in school until she was eighteen and do her "Matric," the exams that were then the passport to university and beyond. But after a year of attempting to marry schooling and housekeeping, she was asked to leave Michael House.
Meanwhile she had met a woman called Beryl John, whose career on the stage had been cut short by illness but who ran an amateur dramatic society and gave private lessons. How my grandfather could pay for these lessons, I have no idea, but he did. All went well until, out of the blue, he announced he was marrying a woman named Mabel, whom my mother had never met and knew nothing about beyond her name. Not unreasonably, perhaps, my mum took complete umbrage at this interloper, and the day her father married, she packed her suitcase and left. She never lived under their roof again.
Encouraged by my auntie Beryl (as I later called her), Mum applied to and was accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, better known as RADA, as prestigious then as it is now. Her father paid the tuition not because he thought it was a sensible thing to do, she believes, but out of guilt.
At the end of her first year at RADA, she jumped at a summer job with the Earl Armstrong Repertory Company. Run by a husband-and-wife team, the company was based in Yorkshire. After one week of rehearsals, the company set out for Wales, and the newly named Gale Howard (Beryl John had planned to use Gay Howard for her own thwarted career) was soon playing romantic leads opposite
Tony Booth, a young actor from Liverpool with no training but charisma to burn. It proved a real baptism of fire. At one time, my mum recalls, the troupe had thirty shows under their belts and still had to do everything themselves: sew costumes, sell tickets, make and paint the scenery, and change the sets. Performing was just the icing on the cake. If a larger cast was called for, there would be any number of keen amateurs, wherever they went, at no cost. September arrived all too quickly, and a new term at RADA was beckoning. Drama schools are all very well, but as any professional actor will tell you, there is nothing like the real thing, and Gale Howard never went back. More Welsh towns followed, and in one of them - possibly in Rhayader - I was conceived. Next to the only local theater was a café the company used to frequent, run by the mother and grandmother of an eight-year-old girl so taken with the theater that every night she would climb out of her bedroom window on the ground floor and persuade somebody at the stage door to let her in. After the show Tony and Gale - at twenty-one and twenty, barely more than kids themselves - would escort the little imp home, with no one any the wiser. That Christmas found them back in Rhayader, where the run comprised three pantomimes and one Christmas play. The name of the play is now lost, but the cast included two dogs called Schmozzle and Kerfuffle. In the pantomimes my mother played Cinderella, the princess in The Princess and the Swineherd, and one of the babes in The Babes in the Wood. The other babe was played by the ecstatic café owner's daughter, achieving her dream of appearing onstage, albeit with no lines. By the end of the season my parents knew that my mother was pregnant, and when the Armstrongs refused to increase their wages, they had no option but to head back to London. The café owner's daughter was devastated that she was about to lose her newfound friends. Mum promised that she would never forget her, and if their baby turned out to be a girl, she said, they would name it after her. And they did: Cherie.
Tony Booth and Gale Howard were married in Marylebone Registry Office in London, a decent six months before I was born. In the end it was all a bit of a rush: a job had come up at Castleford Rep, and they were due to start rehearsals the next day. Their witnesses were the brother of the landlady my mother had had when she was a student at RADA and the registrar's assistant, a Mr. Christmas.
Afterward the landlady's brother took the newlyweds to the top floor of Lyons Corner House, then a landmark restaurant, cheerful but cheap, on the corner of Piccadilly Circus. There, to the strains of a string quartet, they celebrated with tea and cakes in preparation for the four-hour train journey to Yorkshire. They were still in the north the following autumn, my father now with the Frank H. Fortescue Famous Players. According to my birth certificate, Cherie Booth was born on September 23, 1954, in Fairfield Hospital, in the town of Bury, Lancashire - an event my father announced from the stage that evening to a rather bemused audience. His request for two weeks off to help with the new arrival was turned down, so in true Tony Booth fashion, he gave his employer the finger. With no work forthcoming and rent still needing to be paid, the young couple tucked their daughter into a basket padded with nappies and smelling of greasepaint, and boarded the train for Liverpool.
Crosby lies at the northern end of Liverpool, the Catholic end, where thousands, if not millions, of Irish families disembarked from ships that brought them from their homeland, convinced they wouldn't be staying longer than a few weeks - months at the worst - until they'd be sailing across the Atlantic toward a new life in America. For some the dream came true, but for many it didn't. Instead of Manhattan's skyline, they had to make do with the Liver Building and the cranes and derricks of the Liverpool docks. Crosby itself had aspirations. My paternal grandparents, Vera and George Booth, lived in a terraced house in Waterloo, the poorer part of Crosby. Upstairs were two and a half bedrooms (the half was a boxroom above the front door with barely enough room for a single bed); downstairs were a front room (the parlor), a back room (the sitting room), and the kitchen and scullery. It was fully plumbed, if basic. It was by no means a house to be ashamed of; indeed they owned it - an uncommon occurrence in those parts.
Working-class people such as my grandparents rarely owned houses in those days. At the end of our road was a park with swings and a roundabout. This marked the demarcation line between Waterloo (terraced) and Great Crosby (semidetached). Our street, Ferndale
Road, was the last of a grid of other "dales" - Thorndale, Oakdale, and so on - that all abutted St. John's Road. This bustling shopping street, with its butcher, pawnbroker, grocers, barbers, and secondhand shops, seemed to me then to be the center of the universe. Like all the other houses in our street, Number 15 had a bay window, a small garden at the front, and a slightly larger garden at the rear, made smaller by the presence of an air-raid shelter left over from the war. Unlike the other yellow-brick houses in Ferndale Road, ours was painted cream and green, from the time when, so legend has it, my great-grandfather decided to show where his political allegiances lay - the green a nod to his Irish nationalism - in as ostentatious a manner as possible.
With the largest Catholic population in England, Liverpool has always been a highly politicized city. It prided itself on having no industry - that was left to lesser places like Manchester - no idle boast when the industrial north was shrouded in smoke and washing hung out only when the wind was blowing in the right direction. First and last, Liverpool was a port, and Merseyside (for the river Mersey, which ran through the city) was thus built on transient labor. Unemployment was the baseline. You helped your neighbor out today because God help you tomorrow. In the years before the Labour Party's general election victory in 1945 and the coming of the National Health Service and the British welfare state, Liverpool's communities survived through networks of voluntary effort, and that habit never died. Lending a hand to those in trouble was not an option in our house; it was simply what you did, even if in doing so you went a few shillings short yourself. Fifteen Ferndale Road was a very Catholic household. My grandmother, born Vera Thompson, was an Irish matriarch of the old school, though Liverpool-born and with a rich Scouse accent. She had two brothers, Edgar and William, and by the time I arrived, Uncle Bill was the proud owner of three small grocer's shops, an empire started by selling tea off a bike with a box strapped on the back. Vera's mother - my great-grandma Matilda, known as Tilly, the youngest of seventeen - came over with her family from County Mayo (or Cork, depending on whom you believe) on their way to America. But like so many others, the McNamaras got no farther than the Liverpool docks. At some point she met my great-grandfather, and that was that.
Her husband Robert Thompson's roots have been the subject of much family debate. The version my grandma told was that he was from Yorkshire, a young man from a family called Tankard. After deserting in the First World War, the hightailed it to Ireland, where he changed his name to Thompson to escape detection. Another version is that he was simply another Irish immigrant who failed to get a passage to the promised land.
What is not in dispute is that he was a fiery character with a talent for drinking, going to horse races, and losing money. He was also a radical. He had been a local leader of the nationwide general strike that crippled the country for nine days in 1926. From then on, he earned his money as a barber, sitting on an orange box outside the dock gates, shaving sailors and cutting their hair when they returned from months at sea with money in their pockets and an urge to spend it. (Not everyone was willing to part with his cash, and my great-grandma would tell stories of how he'd end up accepting the strangest things in lieu, including a parrot that lived with them for years and a monkey she wouldn't let inside the front door.) Eventually he opened his own barber's shop on the corner of Denmark Street in the area known as Little Scandinavia, whose narrow, cobbled streets - back-to-back houses with outside toilets - were to become my route to primary school.
Sadly, I never met him. Robert Thompson died in 1946, and my dad, who adored his grandfather, said the streets of Waterloo were lined with mourners from Ferndale Road as far as St. Edmund's Church when his coffin passed by.
On her husband's death, Matilda moved in with her daughter.
The little bedroom above the front door became her private domain. She remained there until she died, when I was seven. She was the only person in the household who had a room to herself, and yet in the years she lived with us, I don't remember ever seeing her lift a finger to help, although occasionally you might catch sight of her flicking a feather duster to show she was willing. Her major preoccupation was watching the comings and goings in the street below from behind her lace curtains. She was tiny, like a bird, and gray-haired, but with a hint of the fiery redhead she had once been. Her legendary temper, however, was still firmly in place. Nevertheless, she was remarkably tolerant when, dressed in my nurse's uniform, I would "inject" her arm with a plastic syringe, and she was always a good source of a sixpence.
From the perspective of an imaginative young girl, my grandfather's ancestors had led far less exciting lives. They were resolutely English, with no unresolved mysteries - or so I thought then. My great-grandmother's family ran a small fishing fleet out of Formby, about thirty miles north of Liverpool up the Lancashire coast, while my great-grandfather's family were hill farmers from Westmorland, the English Lake District, just south of the border with Scotland. Nothing in our family is that straightforward, however, and after my grandad's death I discovered that in the First World War, his father - my great-grandfather Booth - had been a pacifist and had gone to prison for it. He later served as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches in Flanders, where he was severely gassed. My great-grandmother's father turned out to be a famous smuggler who ran a protection racket on the side. (Continues...)