Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, shares her life from her childhood on into the courtship with and marriage to one of the most influential men in British politics.
Read an excerpt of Cherie Blair's autobiography below and check out "Good Morning America's" Library by clicking here.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
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 thought 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 theatre, 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 attempt 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 label, 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 husbandand- 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 actors 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 System 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 schillings 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 greatgrandfather, 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 grayhaired, 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 greatgrandmother's father turned out to be a famous smuggler who ran a protection racket on the side.
In contrast to the Irish branch of the family, George Booth, my grandfather, was never a great talker, though it didn't help that he was absent more often than he was at home. By the time I was living in Ferndale Road, this translated into ten days on shore for every six weeks away at sea. He was then the chief steward's writer on the MV Auriel, which sailed from Liverpool to Nigeria, and his tales of the sights and sounds of Lagos brought Africa vividly to life. He only truly came into his own when playing the piano, which he did at every opportunity.
My father claims that he'd had to turn down a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was a boy and that later he had been offered a job with a famous bandleader. It may be true, but Grandad never mentioned it to me. He was much more than just a pub pianist, however. The piano stool was full of sheet music that he'd bought in New York on his sailings with Cunard, and it's thanks to him that I can still sing most of the show songs of the 1950s and 1960s (though whether this is a good thing is another matter).
My grandfather was a gentle and sensitive man, with the most beautiful, but tiny, copperplate handwriting. He hadn't been my grandmother's first choice for a husband. Grandma would tell me how she'd married him on the rebound after the love of her life — a Protestant — refused to convert. It was only then that piano-playing George made his move. He was a friend of her brother's, and it turned out he'd been nursing this secret passion for years. Although the proposed marriage was frowned on by both families, time was running out for the twenty-nine-year-old Vera, who probably realized that the love of a good man was worth any amount of family tut-tutting.
Love her he clearly did, though whenever he tried to kiss her in front of us, she'd push him away with a fond "Don't be so daft." Only years later did it emerge that he wasn't a Catholic either. On paper, yes: he had converted — my grandmother would never have married him otherwise — but religion was nothing to him. He hardly ever went to church, but as he was away so much, it didn't seem that strange, and the family had plenty of priests to smooth its way into heaven. (I can still remember the mystique that surrounded my cousin Paul — Father Paul to be precise — when he visited from the seminary and how Grandma would insist that we girls keep our distance, to avoid corrupting him with our presence!)
My own relationship with the Catholic Church, though very important to me, has never been entirely conventional. It began with my baptism. Even though my parents had registered my birth in Bury, to a Catholic like my grandma, an unbaptized child was tantamount to a mortal sin. Luckily she knew that her cousin Father Bernard Harvey would quickly rectify the situation, and within hours of my arrival in Ferndale Road, she had been to see him.
"So what would the little one's name be then, Vera?"
"What was that?"
"Is that it?"
"Now, Vera, I don't have to tell you, of all people, that the Holy Church . . ."
He didn't. This was 1954, ten years before the Second Vatican Council. Services were still in Latin. Nuns were still fully veiled in habits that reached down to the ground. And Vera Booth knew only too well that a Catholic child could be baptized only with the name of a Catholic saint. Although there are more than seven thousand of them, no amount of scanning unusual saints' names (and there are many) would have revealed a Saint Cherie.
A compromise was eventually reached, and I was baptized Theresa Cara: Theresa being a bona fide saint, and Cara being Latin for Cherie, which was probably Father Bernard's attempt at keeping the peace. At the same time, my grandma opened a savings account for me in the name of T. C. Booth, which I used right up until 1997.
My mother, needless to say, had no voice in these decisions. Although she came from a religious background herself — her father was in the Salvation Army, and she'd gone to Sunday school as a child — she claims that she was quite happy for me to be baptized a Catholic, having no strong feelings one way or the other. There may have been another reason for her acquiescence, however. Locking horns with one of the most formidable women on the planet was not something anyone would do voluntarily — particularly if they were now living under the same roof. Nobody messed with Vera Booth.
People who lived through the depression have never entirely forgotten it. Make do and mend wasn't some green-friendly exercise for my grandmother; it was the result of years of draconian economy. For the decade preceding the war, my grandad had virtually no work. Trade between England and America was at a standstill — no ships, empty docks, work only for those who knew somebody who knew somebody else. In those circumstances the women became the breadwinners. My grandma did anything she could, cleaning the houses of the well-to-do who lived in nearby Blundellsands — only a short distance away geographically but light-years from Crosby in terms of money and horizons. Her world was divided between the rich and the poor — and the Booths were definitely the poor. Before she married, she had worked in a draper's in Blundellsands, and she would tell the story of how one day a young woman came in with a new baby. My grandma could never resist a baby, and after chucking him under the chin, she asked what he was called.
"Anthony" came the answer, pronounced with a soft "th," rather than a "t."
"Oh," she said. "I love that name. If I have a little boy, I think I'll call him Anthony."
She said she would never forget the expression on the woman's face — a "people like you don't have Anthonys like my Anthony" expression.
My grandma remained class-conscious all her life and continued to believe that there was one law for the rich and one law for the poor. When my dad was about ten, he came down with scarlet fever and, as happened in those days, was sent to an isolation hospital, where his mother could only look at him through a window. When he was eventually allowed home, he asked her why she had never been to visit his bedside. "Because it wasn't allowed," she said. Then he told her how the boy in the next bed had had regular visits from his parents: a boy who came from Blundellsands. I don't know how long my dad was in there, weeks certainly, if not months, and it undoubtedly affected him. I also think it affected my grandmother's attitude toward him, as she felt so guilty that she had simply accepted what she'd been told and hadn't insisted on seeing him.
When I was growing up, my source of stories about my father's early life was my grandmother, because by the time I was old enough to savor and enjoy them, he had disappeared from our lives. He was born in 1931 and named, of course, after that superior baby in Blundellsands. Then came my auntie Audrey in 1935, and finally my uncle Bob, who was born during the first Luftwaffe bombing raid on Liverpool in May 1940.
With the outbreak of the war, everything changed. For a start, suddenly the docks were alive again. The merchant navy was desperate for men to work the Atlantic convoys, and so that's what Grandad did. Dangerous though it was — more merchant seamen died than members of the Royal Navy — it was work, and it was patriotic. In fact, it was no safer to stay in Liverpool, where the docks were a prime target of the Luftwaffe. The attacks reached their peak in May 1941 with a week long blitz, when 4,000 people were killed, 10,000 homes were destroyed, and 70,000 people were made homeless.
War or no war, my dad was growing up. In 1943 he got a scholarship to St. Mary's College, a Catholic grammar school run by the Christian Brothers, about half a mile along the Liverpool Road into Crosby proper. He was clearly destined for great things. St. Mary's boys were famous for going into the church and higher education. An academic future was not to be his, however. Shortly after my grandad returned from the war in 1946, he was hit by a crane and plunged eighty feet into the hold of a ship, breaking his pelvis. He was lucky not to have been killed. His pay was stopped immediately, and he was off work for nearly two years. Through the union he was eventually awarded compensation, but as soon as he was fit enough to go back, Cunard's response was to lay him off.
In the days following the accident, my grandma did everything she could to find a job herself, but nothing would pay enough. The Booth family now had five mouths to feed, including a seven-yearold (Bob) and a twelve-year-old (Audrey), and no money to do it with. Eventually my grandma had to accept the inevitable, and my father left St. Mary's. At fifteen he began working on the Cunard transatlantic route.
I remained with my grandparents for about two years following my arrival as a babe in arms, my parents coming and going as work allowed. At one point they did a summer season in Blackpool, close enough for them to come down to see me on weekends (which meant Sunday to Monday). Sometimes my mother stayed with me in Crosby, but usually not, and I certainly never traveled with them. I was left with my grandma, my mum now says, because she wanted me to have continuity, "a steady place," though I suspect she already knew that to keep my dad, she'd have to stick to him like glue. And of course she wanted to be with him: he was witty and handsome, and she was in her early twenties and in love.
By late 1956 my father found the beginnings of fame, if not of fortune, with the play No Time for Sergeants, based on a best-selling novel. The play ran for eighteen months in the West End, and by the time my sister Lyndsey was born, he and Gale (as my mother is always called) were living in a settled way in a large Victorian house in Stoke Newington, north London. When Lyndsey was about three months old, my grandparents took me down to meet her.
On arrival, my grandma went straight to the nearest Catholic church and arranged to have the baby baptized the following day. The only Catholic my mother knew, another actress, was roped in to be Lyndsey's godmother. This duty done, my grandparents left, at which point I discovered the hideous truth: I wasn't going with them. According to my mother, my grandma's last words to me as she and Grandad left the house were, "You're going to live with your mother now. You'll probably never see me again."
I was inconsolable: kicking and screaming and generally expressing my anger and distress in the only way I could. The woman I called "Mama" had gone for good. What it must have been like for my poor mother, I can scarcely imagine, overcome as she was, no doubt, with guilt and remorse, and possibly even jealousy. As for my grandmother, traumatic as it was, she had clearly fueled my dependence on her and so exacerbated my sense of abandonment. Later, when we were all happily (from my perspective) back in Crosby, she would repeatedly tell me how she could never listen to "I Could Have Danced All Night," the Julie Andrews classic from My Fair Lady, without crying, because it had been playing on the radio when her "baby" had been taken from her.
I stayed in Stoke Newington long enough for photographs to be taken, including one of the toddler Cherie looking bemused, her baby sister propped up in her carriage beside her. The photo is of poor quality, but the general impression is not a happy one, and I think that was probably an accurate reflection of the circumstances.
It couldn't have helped that my parents were living in what was essentially a student house with rented rooms and no real structured family life. My dad would come home from the theater late at night, and inevitably I'd be woken up. I have a vague memory of the sporadic presence of another flamboyant actor couple, blessed with an equally cavalier attitude toward children and their needs. Apart from my mother — whom at this juncture I barely knew — the most stable presence in the house was my auntie Diane. Not a real aunt but my mum's friend, Diane lived in the basement with another girl, both of whom were studying design at the North London Poly, as it was then known. To make ends meet, my mum spent hours packing sherbet fountains — an English concoction of sherbet powder and licorice sticks — during the day. In later years I could never bring myself to eat them; the smell alone was enough to bring back twinges of anxiety.
Christmas passed. (The only Christmas I ever missed having with my grandma until she died.) Then spring. I imagine they'd been hoping I'd settle down, but I didn't. For the previous two years I had been the apple of my grandma's eye, and now I was just one of two little girls competing for affection. There is no doubt that, for all my grandmother's iron will, I had been horribly spoiled. Shortly before Christmas my dad's show closed, and having no means of paying the rent in Stoke Newington, our little family returned to Ferndale Road. Even now I can remember the joy of finding myself once again sharing my grandma's bed.
It is only once I returned to Ferndale Road that my own memories really begin, starting with the smells: my grandad's Senior Service cigarettes; the condensed milk he used to sweeten his tea; coal burning in the grate. In addition to the various humans in the house, we once had a cat and always had dogs — Alsatians, all called Sheba; Quin, a poodle — plus sundry white mice and tortoises. (In those days nobody connected the pets with my frequent asthma attacks.) There are fragments of other memories: A circular ashtray where the cigarette stubs disappeared when you pushed down the plunger. Linoleum that curled up at the edges. The gas meter behind the front door which we fed with shillings. (As a treat, I'd drop them in, and Grandad would turn the knob.) Except when Grandad was at home, I slept in my grandma's bed, while Lyndsey slept in our mum's. In fact, they slept in the same saggy double bed right up until Lyndsey left home.
For a long time I had an ambivalent relationship with my grandad. Of course I loved him, but whenever he came back from sea, I'd be ousted from my place, obliged to sleep on a camp bed in my mother's room. My resentment was always short-lived. Who could resist someone who played all your favorite songs? The first Sunday he was back on shore, our front room would be filled with aunts, uncles, and cousins for a sing-along. Grandad would always start with "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," dedicated to Lyndsey and me. Then one tune would flow into another, and we'd all join in, with people asking for their favorites, Broadway musicals mainly: My Fair Lady, South Pacific, West Side Story, and, best of all, The Sound of Music. There was a time when I knew every single word.
Grandad was not without vices. The first was horses: he was always trying different "systems," but he never seemed to win. The second was smoking: cigarettes were cheap at sea, and he would get through forty untipped Senior Services a day. He coughed his guts out the last few years before he died. As a result, I have never touched a cigarette in my life. His third vice was drinking: not alcohol, but very strong tea sweetened with lashings of condensed milk, which also came in handy for sticking tiles on the wall in the bathroom whenever they fell off, a regular occurrence.
For the next eighteen months, my father worked in various theaters around the north, based with us but in reality visiting only on weekends. The only time he actually lived with us was when he did a season at Liverpool Playhouse, but when that came to an end, he headed back to London. Realistically it was the only place he could forge a career. Once he'd found somewhere to live, he told my mum, we'd join him. It never happened. It was during this time that he first played opposite Pat Phoenix, then an unknown actress called Patricia Dean, who would later become an important person in his life — and in mine.
School was naturally St. Edmund's Catholic Primary, where my father, Auntie Audrey and Uncle Bob had all gone before me. The school was attached to St. Edmund's Church, where Father Bernard Harvey, my grandma's cousin — the one who had baptized me — was the parish priest.
I suppose that for the first day or two, I must have been taken to school, but from then on I would go on my own and later took Lyndsey with me. Hand in hand we would walk or skip down St. John's Road, past Ronnie the cobbler, who had been at school with my dad and who always said hello. Farther along there was the pawnbroker's on the corner, with the window made entirely of black glass that came down to the pavement. If you pressed your nose to the glass and raised an arm and a leg, you looked as if you were flying.
Then we'd continue up over the railway. If a train was coming, we would stand on the footbridge and shriek as the steam billowed round us, lifting our skirts and warming our bare legs in winter. On the far side lay Little Scandinavia, a shortcut to school. The streets here were still cobbled, making the game of never stepping on the cracks far more challenging than on the hopscotch pavements of Ferndale Road. In the middle of this labyrinth, the rag-and-bone man kept his horse. In Crosby we had had miles and miles of dunes you could even see the sea from my classroom window — but this was the nearest we got to the country. So whenever the old man...