Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Two Family Photographs with Hats
Someone asked if we were happy back in, what was it, 1951? I certainly wasn't unhappy. I suspect my parents were as happy as one could be in a poor totalitarian state. If this is indeed c. 1951 then my father is thirty-three or -four and, for the first time in his life, enjoying his work in the Ministry of Building after years of lowly manual work, forced labour and near extinction. My mother, not in the picture because she is taking it, is twenty-six, six years out of concentration camp, working as a photographer, albeit restricted because she is registered as a class alien and under surveillance, as was my father, as was everyone, but class aliens more than most. My father had lost his father, my mother had lost everyone. If this is 1951, my brother is not yet born. We do not even dream of a car, a TV, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner or any mod com except a radio with very restricted reception. Dad walks to work. We have a flat on the edge of the 7th district opposite the Liszt Music Academy which stands in a square that is still barren. The city is still partially in ruins, but I suspect this might have been the happiest period of their lives. So, surely the answer must be yes, we were happy and our lives were OK.
This is mid-sixties, say 1965, in north west London and we are all dressed up to go for our Sunday meal, probably at Schmidt's in Charlotte Street which was our favourite proper restaurant. On alternate Sundays we ate out at an Italian cafe, served by a beautiful young Italian woman called Filomena, with whom I was probably shyly and morosely in love. I am about fifteen, going on sixteen in the picture. If this is 1965 my father is forty-eight, my mother forty. Ask me that question about happiness again. I am not happy, nor do I look happy in the photo. Why would I be at that age? Who is? I vaguely remember that we had exchanged a few cross words before leaving and had stopped by a car, probably our car, a Morris or an Austin, probably a company car, to allow someone I can't now remember, who might have arranged to come to Schmidt's with us, to take this photo. We're too smart for the Italian cafe. My mother insists on smartness. Are they happy, my mother and father? It's not a bad life, surely. My father has given up a potentially exciting if dangerous career back home for a steady job in England. My mother has no real hope of being a press photographer now. Too ill, she might still be working as a retoucher in Oxford Street, but might already be working from home. This isn't our last family house in London, it's probably the penultimate one, in Kingsbury. My brother and I are at school, of which more another time.
The question of happiness
The way such a question is posed always leads to confusion. We start by considering our conditions and trying to work out whether we were moving up or down, were stable or unstable, well or ill, fulfilled or not fulfilled, and balancing these things up leaves us flummoxed. Was there more happiness than unhappiness? I would not say my school days were happy or fulfilled. My brother's were troubled and very difficult. My father was at least keeping the ship afloat. My mother was probably the least happy of us all. What does that add up to?
Consciousness of happiness does not take into account all the factors that might make us so. What is certain is that things might have been a great deal worse but we didn't spend time thanking our lucky stars for that. No, we are transient beings in transient times. There we are standing by a car on a foggy winter day, well wrapped up, presenting a face. My parents put their backs into the moment and try to make it work. I love my mother's outfit in the second picture. I love my father's hat and coat. I love his hat and his expression in the first. The curious little figure that is me stands beside him looking frightened. What is there not to be frightened of? I wear my hat the way my mother has arranged it. Cute! she might be thinking. And I have to admit it does look cute. Cue the conditions for happiness.