John and Winifred met, and had their miscegenated, crossborder romance, because of the war. Without the war, I was always told, I wouldn’t have existed. John’s sister Ellen had been in the forces, had met her husband, Cyril, while serving, and had set up home with him in Braintree, east of London in Essex, the only one of the five surviving Scottish siblings to make a life outside the county of Lanarkshire. Ellen had persuaded John to come to England and live with her, at a time when he was feeling lost, or trapped, at home and wanted to escape from the work in heavy industry that had been expected of him.
He got a job as a postman and met my mum at a dance at the Ilford Palais, in East London. The first time she rode on the back of his moped he roared off, leaving her in a heap on the road. They fell in love. They got engaged. They got married.
It was out of character for my dad, though, this move south. I think it was because he’d had a trauma at work that had thrown him off the settled course he’d fully expected his entire life to take, as people did back then. I think he’d been running away. John had left school at fourteen and started at the Lanarkshire, the great girder makers fifteen miles up the Clyde valley from Glasgow in Motherwell. The Lanarkshire was run by the Colville family before nationalization and Motherwell’s domination by the great steelworks of Ravenscraig.
On one occasion, a huge red-hot girder had somehow slipped from the chains that supported it as it was being swung through the air, on to the next process. My dad, young, quick-witted, keen of reflex, had seen the accident unfolding, seen the girder dashing through the air toward another man and had pushed him out of its path. The girder would have sliced through the man’s legs as if they were nothing more than the air itself. John, in his late teens, was a hero. The man gave him sixpence, which was a lot of money then.
But the incident really shook my father. He didn’t feel like a hero, didn’t feel as though he deserved his sixpence, didn’t feel comfortable with being a shop-floor legend. Instead, he was terrified, haunted by the vision of what he’d almost seen: a writhing stump of a man, maybe hit again as the girder swung back; or the girder maybe hitting others who had instinctively moved toward their workmate to help him, to try to stop the screaming. Or maybe hitting John, so young still, a kid in this primal, dangerous, fearsome place.
It was huge, in Motherwell, a steelworker losing his nerve for any reason, as bad as a man’s being unable to face going to war or developing shell-shock afterwards. No one really understood trauma then. John’s own dad had died when he was young, having packed in coalmining because of emphysema. John knew what life and work were like for a man who had had, and lost, one of the princely jobs of the town.
After being a miner, John’s dad had been a binman [a refuse collector] and a bookies’ runner, which was illegal at the time. He’d nearly gone to prison for it—which would have killed him, Win told me. He’d scraped a living. He’d been brought low. He’d died young and left a widow with five children to look after.
Motherwell’s was a macho, patriarchal culture. Losing your nerve, getting the fears—it was entirely unseemly. John’s act of heroism, or his feelings about it anyway, had given him a sense not of pride but of shame, had shattered his nerve, his fragile identity as a steelman and his place in the pecking order of the town. He admitted as much when I quizzed him about it, on July 28, 1996, the day that they demolished the big edifices of the ’Craig. He’d always been frightened, at the Lanarkshire, from the very first day. He had always hidden his fear and carried on. Because John knew how lucky he was. Being part of the Lanarkshire—that was something.
The world’s finest steel traveled far. Years later, I stood on a steel bridge in Singapore and read the letters forged into the metal: “Lanarkshire Steelworking Co. Ltd.” These girders were something that my community had been part of, that my family had been part of, that I had been part of.
The steel traveled better than John did. He hated the way that in Essex he was never allowed to forget that he was a Scotsman, got called Jock and had to put up with endless jokes about being mean, drinking whisky—which he strongly disliked the taste of—and about generally having heather hanging out of his ears. He was homesick. So he and Win sold up, moved to Scotland and stayed with my Scottish grannie, Elizabeth—Lizzie—while they were looking for their own place. They traveled on my dad’s moped. Their belongings did the four hundred miles in a removal van. And that was how they came to be living in the tenement in Thistle Street.
At first, my dad carried on being a postman. But after I was born, they couldn’t manage on one relatively small wage. So he went back into heavy industry. Not making steel but turning steel at a huge company that made coal-cutting machines, mainly for the South African market. Anderson Boyes. That was where he got the injury to his foot and, as Mum always said, the pitiful compensation.
Yet, in Motherwell, all was not well with my mother, just as all had not been well with my dad in Romford. I understood this at an early age, in dribs and drabs, as Win would say. I was her confidante when I was little, a receptacle not just for her fond memories but also for her resentments, her complaints, her own homesickness, and her feelings of dislocation and fear. She’d given up her job as a clerk in Glasgow when she became pregnant with me, as was traditional for women then. She was hard up. She was lonely. She didn’t fit in.
“On my first day, the girls at work asked me if I wanted a ham sandwich. But when it came it was a horrible, greasy old bacon sandwich, because here they call bacon ham. I ask you! The food up here! They eat whiting. Down our way, whiting’s for the cat. And tuna. They go on about tinned tuna as if it’s salmon. Down our way, tuna’s for the cat, too. People here, they have no idea about food.” Or Win would just say, simply and wearily: “People are very hard here. Very hard.”
As I got older, I began to understand the truth in what Win said. It was hard there. It was hard and it was tough. It was hard just having the Essex accent that you’d picked up from your mum because you had to explain your funny way of talking, your posh accent, and this in turn drew the regular and oddly accusatory question: “Your mum’s ENGLISH?” The Scots hated the English. The oppressors. The killers of the brave-hearted thirteenth-century hero of Scottish independence, William Wallace. The perpetrators of Culloden, the 1746 massacre of Jacobite rebels.
The Scots, it sometimes seemed, hated everything that wasn’t Scotland. This was very true in my hometown. Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places, I was a chimerical beast, an oddity.
“That betting shop? That den of iniquity? How could you take your daughter there?”
John had taken me, up on his shoulders, to a more old-fashioned post office than the usual one, shabbier, with wire grilles instead of glass. It had been interesting, this new place, with an atmosphere I wasn’t used to. It had been interesting to see my dad doing the stuff with paper and pens and clerks that I usually did with my mum. It had been interesting to see him so relaxed and confident as he did this administrative stuff that he didn’t usually do.
Mum’s expression suggested, however, that this was all far too interesting. She rose to anger in seconds, her face red. Dad didn’t even protest. He just dipped his head and looked sheepish.
I didn’t know then that my dad was a connoisseur of horseflesh, a racing man, a gambling man. I didn’t know that this particular thing my dad had done was something that a lot of God-fearing people would consider wrong or sleazy. I just knew she must have him bang to rights. Win would be so sure and so appalled when she started on you over your transgressions that you’d simply assume that her feelings—so powerful—could only be right and appropriate.
I’d had no idea what a betting shop was, or what betting was. Iniquity hadn’t seeped into me. I was being walked around on my daddy’s shoulders, so tall, with such a high-up, panoramic, startling view, seeing Daddy do things. It had been great. The world was much bigger than the tiny bit of it that I got to see with my mother. My dad’s world was bigger than my mum’s. As I grew up, though, I wanted my world to be bigger than Dad’s as well. I wanted, as they say, to have it all. But it caused such friction.
Even when I did things that I thought would please and mollify my parents, things that I thought they wanted very much, it didn’t always work out. On the day of my wedding in 1997, when I was thirty-five, Win had offered to pick up my marriage certificate from the registry office in Motherwell, after the calligraphy that I didn’t even care about had been done. I’d forgotten the whole thing. I called home when I got back from our honeymoon—a fortnight of touring in Scotland, with me the stressed-out, pregnant Boswell. But Win’s silent, terrifying rage pumped out at me from the end of the phone.
“You must spend a lot of time thinking about ways to humiliate us,’ my mother interrupted, as I tried to babble through the dead air about Skye, Orkney, Shetland, etc. She was deploying that tone, cold and deadly, that I dreaded.
“But you’ve surpassed yourself this time. Why is it that you never tire of hurting us? You never miss an opportunity, do you?”
I had no idea what Win was talking about. But gradually, my crime was revealed to me. She and John had gone to pick up the marriage certificate; after his early retirement, they were, apart from golf and the bookies, inseparable. Win had read it, on the spot, and had seen that I’d put my father’s occupation down as “semi-skilled labourer.”
“How do you think that made us feel? Will put his father down as an academic and writer. It makes us look like the poor relations.”
I tried to explain that I hadn’t known what to put, that I’d chosen the occupation from a list on the instructions for how to fill in the form, that I’d remembered Dad, one time when we were getting a new telly from Radio Rentals, giving that as his occupation himself. “Semi-skilled labourer,” he’d said, with charming self-deprecation. “I was trying to think of a fancy way of saying it. But there isn’t one.” I had the memory and I saw the phrase on the list. Anyway, I was proud of him. Proud of how he’d earned his living, as I’d been brought up to be.
“You’re always full of excuses! And lies! Excuses and lies! Why do you never stop lying to us? They understood how we felt at the registry office. They’re doing it all again. Engineer. Retired. That’s what it will say. Your father was an engineer.”
John wasn’t an engineer, though. There’s no doubt that he had the intelligence and the ingenuity to have been one. But he wasn’t. He’d had none of the training, none of the education and had gained none of the qualifications. He did not have a profession. That didn’t stop me from absorbing the sheer strength of my mother’s feeling as a kind of truth.
Dad always sided with Mum when big rows with me blew up. But he’d often get the sharp end of Win’s tongue himself. He would usually appease and mollify. But he had his boundaries, and all of them ring-fenced his passion for sport. He “took his telling,” as they say in Lanarkshire, over going to the betting shop with his daughter. But he carried on going, he carried on betting and he carried on watching the racing on the telly on Saturday afternoons. If he won, we’d know, because he’d go up to the bookies when the races were over and get his cash. Also, he’d have been shouting “C’mon, How Green Was My Valley. C’mon, ya beauty!’ at the telly.
John didn’t have a gambling problem. His thing was outsiders, trying to spot the 300–1 shot that would triumph and win a big purse from a small stake. So he didn’t win that often. However, he’d throw out these rules if we’d had an unexpected expense and do a few safe bets each way. Plus, Win knew that he didn’t spend much on gambling, because he’d hand his wage packet to her each week, unopened, and she’d give him his personal cash for the next seven days. Win came to be more indulgent of Dad’s gambling on the horses than she was about golf. John’s bets got the family out of a hole sometimes.
“Oh, the gas bill after that cold snap!” she’d say. “We’ll have to see how your dad does on the horses.”
Other times, his esoteric fancies did win. And then there would be a little bit of mad money, money you could blow on a treat.
Once, I got home from school and Dad said: “Get in the car. We’re going to Hamilton. I’ll explain on the way.” Win was working part-time at this point, three evenings a week as a wages clerk, so I must have been at secondary school, and my brother David must still have been at primary school. We had to do our errand and get back before it was time for John to go and pick up Mum, he explained. Time was tight. He’d had a win on a midweek race, and he knew precisely how to spend the money.
That week, Win had tried on a gray wool winter coat with a fur collar. It had fitted and suited her perfectly. She looked wonderful in it. But she’d said it was too expensive.
We went back to the shop, John, David, and I. We bought the coat, full of excitement, took it home and laid it out on the couch for Win. When she walked into the living-room we kids were watching the telly like there was nothing unusual happening while Win just stared, then gasped, then picked up her coat and put it on. “You shouldn’t have! You shouldn’t have!” with a radiant face that told us that John had done exactly the right thing.
The one item that my father possessed that might have given a clue to his love of the horses was a silver cigarette case, which had previously belonged to my grandfather. It had a sturdy hinged lid, with an inlaid round centre, into which the shape of the horse’s head has been worked.
But it hadn’t come down from my Scottish grandfather, whose love of racing his son had inherited. It came down from my English grandfather, who had adopted the same indulgent attitude to John and his highly controlled horse-betting habit as my mother had. Dad’s in-laws didn’t bet themselves, or approve of it, but they viewed my dad’s predilection for the horses as special: fascinating and glamorous.
For me, the cigarette case represented a harmony between the two different families I was from: the country people, for whom horses were part of working life; and the industrial people, for whom horses were a vice and a passion. It has rounded corners, so that it feels good in your hand and is comfortable in your pocket. Dad used it briefly but went back to using his Golden Virginia tin—it was what he was used to. The case is David’s now.
John and Win voted for Thatcher in the 1979 and 1983 elections. By 1987, even they had wised up. Hardly surprising, since everyone in our family had by then experienced unemployment and the grind of searching for work except John. But he lived in fear of losing his job as round after round of redundancies hit his firm, too, which had fallen to a three-year hostile takeover.
Win’s own working life had recommenced once I’d started secondary school and was old enough to look after David when we’d both finished school for the day. Aunt Betty had got Win her part-time job as a wages clerk at Smiths Industries, where Betty worked full-time. Smiths had long been a giant of British industry, watchmaker and supplier of aeronautical dials to pretty much every plane on the planet.
At the Tate Modern in London, in 2018, I sat among more of those steel girders from my father’s factory, which still held up the cavernous halls of the former power station, watching the ticking of clocks from my mother’s factory in Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour film The Clock. But by the time Win started at Smiths, in 1974, the company had been hit hard by the decline in British manufacturing.
Win would go in three evenings a week to work on the gigantic new wages computer. Not many other staff were in the building at that time, but Win used to joke about a man she called Cricklewood, who she said had “the glad eye” for her. Maybe, she said, “she’d run off with him.” John tried to be tolerant when she said these things, but he usually only managed to look miserable.
Because the Smiths factory was near my secondary school, and because my social problems had largely gone with me to this new one, I’d go down to the factory at lunchtime to eat with Betty in the works canteen. Going through the bureau years later in my parents’ home, I found a little Smiths watch that had once been mine, one of a couple of surviving timepieces from the days when Win worked there and every surface in our house, including the walls, had a Smiths clock on it. The staff discount was IMMENSE.
Even I, aged twelve, could see that the designs were outdated. I was particularly horrified when Win brought home, with great pride, a tablet-shaped wall clock with a green fake Wedgwood depiction of the Palace of Westminster, with a tiny real clock in the tower. The complaints department, Win admitted, was always very active. The stuff was no longer reliable.
There were many rounds of redundancies here, too—Win going about five years after she’d become full-time in the wages office. She was utterly devastated. No one had ever been made quite as redundant as Win was. There were a number of other jobs over the years, and a number of other redundancies. This was a source of constant anxiety and worry. Win found rejection of any kind unbearably hard.
As for the eventual closure of Smiths, the factory lay empty for a long time before two kids crashed through its high glass roof, their lives saved only by the growbags full of cannabis plants inside. The place, from then on, was known locally as Spliffs Industries. At that time, though, no one knew that once a huge number of people had been left with nothing else to do all day except find ways to forget all about their various predicaments, drugs would become part of the fabric of life.
Back in the 1970s, things had seemed optimistic—despite the strikes, despite even the sugar shortage, which stopped Motherwell from functioning more completely than any strike could. There was little doubt that better times lay ahead, that we were valued, the people of this fortunate country, and that everything would work out fine. Ordinary people did appear to be getting on in life, more than they had in the past. We had cars. We had fridges. We had tellies. We had our own bathrooms.
And we lived in this great country, Scotland, the great River Clyde on our doorstep, just through the woods. I didn’t know then that this land had once been a royal hunting forest, before even the medieval period, in 843. Some of the trees were very old—one of them, an oak, so old that it had spread wider than many of the trees were tall.
As an adult, I learned that this tree was called the Covenanters’ Oak, because a group of John Knox’s followers had met here to hold services in the seventeenth century, when Presbyterian Protestantism was banned in Scotland’s churches. There’s a sign by the tree now, telling people this stuff. There are also wooden stanchions holding up its weary old boughs, offering the ancient tree some life support.
But none of this was there when Motherwell was a place with a future. The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.
This essay is adapted from the author’s memoir, Motherwell, which is posthumously published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.