Memoir

A life in books

From Suez to Salford: a literary love story

NOVEMBER 1952: BERNARD Marks has just arrived in northern Egypt from Salford, in the north of England, to begin two years of National Service in the Suez Canal Zone. Faced with a rising tide of Egyptian nationalism, Britain – its empire still largely intact – is determined to retain control of the strategic waterway linking Europe to the oilfields of the Middle East. Sixty thousand British and colonial troops are stationed in the Canal Zone, their camps and trucks coming under periodic attack. In Cairo, Gamal Abdel Nasser is consolidating power. The Suez Crisis is four years off.

Two years out of medical school, Lieutenant (later Captain) BE Marks is a regimental medical officer attached to a Pioneer Corps company from Mauritius and Rodrigues, based in the garrison town of Moascar. The furthest the lean, handsome twenty-six-year-old from a working-class Jewish family has previously travelled is the south of France. Although Egypt offers much novelty – the desert, the camels, the heat, the exotically garbed locals – he’s restless. The work is humdrum, his fellow officers are ‘a lot of clots’, and he’s mostly confined to camp, seventy kilometres south of the Mediterranean port of Port Said. ‘My salvation is the [garrison] library, which keeps me supplied with reading material and mitigates my boredom,’ he writes to Joan Beach, back in Salford, near Manchester.

The couple (my parents) met through a friend shortly before Dad was conscripted. He was keen; she was cooler. On one of their outings, Mum wore an emerald-green scarf. In an early letter, Dad urges her to marry him, extolling her ‘physical attractiveness, intelligence, good taste’, and conjuring up the vision of a trip together to Paris, a city with which he’s besotted. ‘I wish I could put my love into verse that is worthy of it and of you,’ he sighs, before yielding to WB Yeats:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths…
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As he acclimatises to army life – sharing a tent with soup-plate-sized spiders, learning to drive on desert roads, attending booze-soaked cocktail parties at the colonel’s residence – Joan is embarking on a pharmacy career. She is twenty-two, a sociable if serious-minded young woman who enjoys the cinema, tennis and dancing. With her coal-black curls, shining eyes and sculpted figure, she’s rarely short of male company. Dad is thrilled to receive her letters – one on notepaper scented with Chanel. Among her news: she’s had her ears pierced and taken up bridge.

They correspond regularly. We have only his letters, not hers. Dad’s bold, loopy script spills across ten, sometimes twelve pages. A Francophile, he peppers his writing with snippets of French. In February 1954, he reports that he’s been ‘doing a lot of indiscriminate reading’. The ‘new’ Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (‘quite good but not as good as its predecessors’). The second volume of Churchill’s war memoirs. The Journals of André Gide. Two Colette novellas, Gigi and The Cat. August John’s autobiography, Chiaroscuro (‘He had a wonderful life, full of paintings and people. And what people. All the literary and artistic greats of his time’).

At night, Dad hears the rattle of small arms fire on the camp perimeter. Armed guards ride shotgun on his ambulances; Land Rovers are fitted with overhead hooks to snare the neck-high wires stretched across roads by hostile Egyptians. Even the brief drive to the library, situated in Moascar’s jacaranda-lined ‘Mall’, at times requires a driver packing a submachine gun. Dad’s own pistol, he claims, was never loaded. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to hit anything,’ he told us years later. (Four hundred and fifty British soldiers were killed in the Canal Zone between 1951–56.)

After a year in Moascar, and tours of duty in the garrison hospital, Dad is transferred to a mobile medical unit attached to the 3rd Guards Brigade, patching up battlefield injuries. As his discharge date approaches, he’s still smitten by the girl in the emerald-green scarf. Reluctantly winding up one letter because he has to complete some paperwork, in triplicate, he exclaims: ‘The only thing I know worth writing in triplicate is I love you, I love you, I love you.’ Mum, it’s clear, is still undecided. But when Dad is demobbed in August 1954 and steps off the train at Manchester’s London Road (now Piccadilly) station, waiting for him on the platform are his father, a friend with a car – and Mum. They get engaged four days later, marry on Boxing Day and honeymoon in Paris.

 

IN MY CHILDHOOD memories, my parents are reading. Dad is sitting in a low, brown leather armchair in our home in Jewish north Manchester; Mum is reclining on a lounger in our sun-filled back garden. There are books everywhere: overflowing out of shelves, piling up on dressers. The various cars (including a sporty but temperamental Triumph) in which we crisscross Europe on family holidays, towing a caravan, are awash with paperbacks. One summer, Dad sprints through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s epic novel In Search of Lost Time.

Home from Egypt, Dad becomes a GP in Salford, which is poised to undergo wholesale clearance of its Victorian slums. The National Health Service is just a few years old, and for a young doctor the work is punishingly hard. In those Victorian terraces he encounters staggering numbers of children with asthma and bronchitis, which inspires a lifelong interest in respiratory disease – he runs a weekly clinic at a children’s hospital for twenty-five years. He hustles, successfully, for a new, purpose-built health centre for Salford, and in 1975 is appointed senior lecturer in general practice at the University of Manchester, his alma mater. Two days a week he practises in multicultural Rusholme, where predominantly South Asian migrants have established the aromatic restaurants of ‘Curry Mile’; his patients include some Pakistani women living in fear of ‘honour killings’, and African-Caribbean men with inordinately high rates of schizophrenia – Dad’s other chief interest is mental illness.

Dad grew up in a house without books. His grandparents, mostly from present-day Poland, settled in Salford in the 1880s following a wave of emigration triggered by anti-Jewish pogroms. In England, Manchester was one of the port cities where Jews fleeing Eastern Europe put down roots, anglicised their names and set themselves up in the garment trade. Dad’s father, Martin, a tailor who had survived the Flanders trenches, had four unmarried sisters whom Dad was taken to visit on Sunday afternoons; he whiled away the hours immersed in their modest book collection. He also haunted the public library close to his home. ‘I read the whole of GK Chesterton,’ he told us, ‘and I remember working my way through the Ws – PG Wodehouse, Hugh Walpole, HG Wells.’ In December 1940, when Dad was fourteen, the Luftwaffe – on its way to blitz the Trafford Park industrial area – dropped a bomb on his beloved library. ‘I saw it go up in a great flash of light from my bedroom window. Fortunately, a lot of the books were salvaged and they set up the library again in an old school.’

At Salford Grammar School, he and his friends pronounce themselves communists. For a lark, they send a telegram to Joseph Stalin: ‘We, the workers of Salford Grammar, write to express our solidarity with the workers of the Soviet Union in their heroic struggle against Hitler.’ Stalin replies – telegramming his thanks to an unamused headmaster. Dad rebels in sixth-form biology classes, demanding to know why evolution isn’t taught, and gets thrown out of synagogue for talking during Sabbath services. He persuades his parents to buy the left-wing Sunday newspaper The Observer and joins the Labour Party, but quits ‘in indignation’ after Ernest Bevin, the postwar Labour foreign secretary, turns away ships transporting Holocaust survivors to British-Mandated Palestine.

Accepted to study medicine at Manchester, Dad is awarded (in recognition of his school exam results) a bursary of £90 a year, which affords him the luxury of foreign travel. In 1947, aged nineteen, he takes the boat-train to Paris.

‘England still had rationing and the streets were gloomy. Paris was a city of light,’ he relates. ‘A surgeon friend took me out and introduced me to champagne. And the bookshops were a revelation. Galignani on Rue de Rivoli had these wonderful American editions. I bought Orwell, Proust, Hemingway’s short stories.’ Wandering around the Louvre and buying prints from the wooden stalls overlooking the River Seine, Dad also begins a lasting love affair with art.

Mum’s grandparents emigrated, she thinks, from what is now Lithuania; her maternal grandfather was a pedlar. She is brought up around the corner from Dad; as a young man, he sees her out walking the family dog. Her father, Harry, who fought in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) with the regular army during the Great War, works for the Post Office; her mother, Sophie, sings with a local operatic society. Her parents speak Yiddish between themselves, and play classical music on a wind-up gramophone. In 1939, clutching a gasmask and a pillowcase of belongings, nine-year-old Mum is evacuated to the Lake District for four years. Housed in the servants’ quarters of a large house in Coniston, she is taught to crochet and darn, and, as she recalls, consumes ‘suitcases of books’.

While she is academically bright, Harry doesn’t approve of careers for girls – relatively few women of Mum’s era make it to university. Fortunately, her three maternal uncles step in to support her studies; she later repays the kindness, caring for the two Manchester-based uncles in their old age. (In his youth, one uncle told her, before homes had electricity, he used to steal out at night and read by the light of shop windows.)

Pharmacy was a pragmatic choice that Mum subsequently rued, wishing she’d been able to study languages. As an adult, she learnt Spanish, Italian and German, and accumulated dictionaries and phrasebooks for the many European countries we visited. Re-reading a stack of old letters she sent me, I’m struck by the facility with which she writes, and by her effervescence, warmth and humour. Her hairdresser has given her ‘the lawnmower treatment’; the gears in my brother’s car, which she’s borrowed, are ‘like stirring soup’. She recounts triumphant tales of unearthing bargains in clothes stores and bookshops; Mum never got over wartime austerity and ‘having to fight for everything’, including an education. My two elder brothers and I did not have a lavish upbringing. We inherited our parents’ passion for books, and underwent the Jewish rite of passage (bar and bat mitzvah). When I got my first job with a Fleet Street newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, Dad loyally switched from The Guardian (formerly The Manchester Guardian), although the Telegraph’s diet of right-wing politics, sex scandals and royal stories must have given him indigestion.

 

HE AND MUM are gregarious, hosting lively dinners and parties. They go out to plays and exhibitions, and to see jazz, opera and classical music, including the Manchester-domiciled Hallé Orchestra. Above all, they travel: visiting friends and relatives in London, catching shows at the Edinburgh Festival, caravanning and hiking all over the British Isles. Later, Dad’s university role takes them to the US and Sri Lanka, and, after retiring in the early ’90s, they spend winters touring southern Europe in a camper van, bicycles bolted to the side. In their photos, Dad is sitting on a balcony in Greece, by a quayside in Portugal, atop a sand dune in Florida, nearly always looking up from a book. ‘Life full of marvellous experiences,’ he scrawls on a postcard from Colombo.

These peregrinations – often back to France, still their favourite destination – continue well into their eighties. At home, they help to found a local branch of the U3A (University of the Third Age) in the Cheshire village to which they have moved, with Dad as inaugural chairman. Although my parents’ world has shrunk, they remain fit and active, and enjoy socialising with family and friends. At my parties in London, Dad works the room in his understated way, glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, animated by conversations about literature and history and politics.

 

MAY 2018: ON the geriatric ward of sprawling Wythenshawe Hospital, in southern Manchester, I overhear two doctors discussing ‘the guy in bed eleven’. ‘Have you seen the book he’s reading?’ one asks. They’re talking about Dad, who is midway through a six-hundred-page biography of Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour prime minister. A few days ago, Dad fractured his pelvis, falling on concrete paving in his back garden as he rushed to answer the phone. He’s in a lot of pain and we fret that he won’t walk again.

Underweight, in orange hospital pyjamas, he cuts a doleful figure. Four months ago, Mum died, taking everyone by surprise. While Dad had been slowing down, treading more cautiously, increasingly forgetful, it had seemed that Mum would never lose her boundless energy. Then, during 2017, she started getting breathless, was diagnosed with heart failure, went into Wythenshawe and died six weeks later, aged eighty-seven, without – or so it felt to us – explanation or goodbyes.

Now Dad is alone and crushed by the loss of his wife of sixty-three years. ‘She was my life,’ he tells us, plaintively, repeatedly. His dementia, previously mild, has accelerated. At times he doesn’t recognise his home of thirty years. He goes to bed during the day, gets up and dressed in the night. He feels vulnerable, anxious, distressed. He struggles, frustrated, to articulate his thoughts. Not a physically demonstrative man – we always joked about his awkward, bony hugs – he likes to hold my hand tightly these days. Sometimes he appears so frail and fragile, I’m afraid he’ll blow away in the breeze, or stumble over a speck of grit on the footpath. Worryingly, he says he’s finding it difficult to concentrate on reading.

Miraculously, he recovers from his fall and, back home, resumes his daily short walks – ‘It’s my way of fending off old age,’ he declares. (He’s ninety-two.) He spends his days ensconced on his cream sofa, a quiet island in an ocean of reading material. He devours The Guardian, scans the medical journals and, when the latest New York Review of Books or London Review of Books drops on the doormat, feigns horror at the number of juicy-looking articles awaiting his perusal. Despite his stiff joints, he is constantly up and down, consulting his bookshelves, searching for something that’s popped into his head or impelled to re-read some particular passage. He handles his books reverently, carefully rearranges them. He’s become fixated on certain writers: Samuel Pepys, Proust, the British historian Tony Judt. He’s perpetually mislaying his reading glasses.

Next to him is the TV remote control; he watches the lunchtime and evening BBC news religiously, and impatiently awaits The Andrew Marr Show, the political interview program presented by the veteran British journalist on Sunday mornings. A Liberal Democrat these days, Dad is dismayed by Brexit, loathes Trump, and is scathing about British prime minister-in-waiting Boris Johnson. He tried to vote in the recent European elections, but tore up his error-strewn postal ballot, angry and upset.

Visitors lighten his mood. They include the rabbi who conducted Mum’s funeral service, Reuven Silverman. Humane and erudite, Silverman heads the liberal Reform synagogue to which my parents have belonged their whole married lives, despite long since abandoning any practice of Judaism. (Dad calls himself a ‘Jewish atheist’.) During one of Silverman’s visits, he lends him Oliver Sacks’s Gratitude (Knopf, 2015), which the neurologist wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

 

MAY 2019: DAD is back in Wythenshawe Hospital, with a chest infection that is proving impervious to antibiotics. In an impossibly cruel twist, he’s on the very ward, F4, where Mum died seventeen months ago. It’s hard, really hard, retracing those same long corridors, passing through those same automatic swing doors, pausing to use that same wall-mounted hand sanitiser. Thankfully, Dad doesn’t appear to register his surroundings – although when he shouts out in the night ‘Where’s Joan? Where’s my wife?’, it feels like a peculiar kind of hell.

During his first few days in hospital, he got out of bed, sat in his armchair, read. He was engrossed in Judt’s Ill Fares the Land (Penguin, 2010), and had taken to quoting the Oliver Goldsmith poem that inspired the book’s title (‘Ill fares the land…/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay’). He displayed flashes of his acerbic humour. But now he’s not getting out of bed anymore. He is drowsy, uninterested in eating. His kind, weary-looking consultant – the same consultant who cared for Mum – warns us he may be ‘approaching end of life’. We had the same conversation with her about Mum. On the morning of 29 May, Dad slips away, gently, peacefully, we three children at his bedside.

At Dad’s funeral, Silverman recalls his ‘ever-inquiring intellect’, and expresses regret at not getting to know him sooner: ‘I can only compare my experience to that of an astronomer viewing a star or a planet in the galaxy, and being awed by it, and seeing just a glimmer of the power and energy that were there a long time before.’ He reads an excerpt from Gratitude: ‘There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled…’ At the consecration of Dad’s gravestone three months later – he is buried with Mum under a tall, sheltering turkey oak – Silverman notes that there’s a Hebrew expression for cemetery, beit chayim, which means ‘house of life’. ‘That might seem odd,’ he adds, ‘but if you look at these stones, they remind me of the front covers of books. Because behind all of these names and dates is a whole life.’

Before flying back to Australia, I go through my parents’ house, room by room, picking up their things, so redolent of them. I’m farewelling their home – and them. In Dad’s study, I take his books off the shelves, one by one. Old reviews, brown and brittle, fall out. I marvel afresh at Dad’s infinite thirst for knowledge, his quest to understand, the depth and breadth of his interests. As well as fiction, poetry, history, memoirs, biographies, political diaries and literary letters, there are volumes devoted to wine and cinema, birdlife and travel, philosophy and art, Judaism and medicine. Some of the dustier hardbacks are inscribed ‘Bernard Marks 1947’, from that first, unforgettable trip to Paris.

Dad’s books are him; they are his life.

When I leave, there’s still a Dad-shaped indentation in the cream sofa.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review