Authors: Cherie Blair
Copyright © 2008 by Cherie Blair
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Permission to quote from
In My Liverpool Home
by Peter McGovern © 1961 Spin Publications is gratefully acknowledged.
To my mother, Gale, and my grandmother Vera
My memory is not infallible, and this is not a history book. It is simply one woman’s attempt to recollect her life — a memoir of someone who, for a period of time, had a walk-on part in history.
kay, guys, that’s it. Let’s do the business.”
The time had finally come: our good-byes had all been said, tears wiped away. At a nod from Tony, the custodian opened the famous front door with a little mock bow, and the six of us trooped out into the June sunshine to face the cameras: Euan, Nicky, Kathryn, Leo, Tony, and me, all of us dressed in what my grandma would have called our Sunday best, exiting that historic building to “do the business” for the last time. I smiled, older and wiser than on the occasion of that first press call in Downing Street on that bright May morning ten years earlier, when we hadn’t even seen inside our new home and anything seemed possible.
Although I hadn’t wanted Tony to step down, I accepted that now was the right time to go. With a renewed sense of purpose, I kissed each of the children and saw them back into Number 10, where Jackie, our nanny, was waiting. She would take them to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house an hour outside London, for our last family weekend there. Tony and I had first to go up to the constituency in Sedgefield. He had decided to make a clean break and needed to resign his seat as soon as possible so that a by-election could be held before the summer recess.
All that remained was for the Right Honourable Tony Blair, member of Parliament for Sedgefield, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, officially to deliver his resignation to the Queen. As protocol decrees, while he was ushered into the waiting car by the door nearest the pavement — the principal seat, as it’s called — I walked round to the other side behind the driver, closer to the waiting photographers shouting my name. With the renewed frenzy of snapping came the sarcasm: “Miss it, will you? . . . We’ll miss you!”
The sunlight glinted on their long lenses, and I thought, not for the first time, how threatening they were, how like weapons. I’d just said good-bye to all these people we loved and who loved us, and I thought,
Actually, I am going to miss all of them, but not you lot, no.
So that’s what came out. I couldn’t help myself. “Bye. I won’t miss you!” I said and laughed.
“You can’t resist it, can you?” Tony said through clenched teeth as the door closed behind me. “For God’s sake, you’re supposed to be dignified; you’re supposed to be gracious.”
As the car swung out into Whitehall, I heard a helicopter overhead, and suddenly I was filled with a sense of déjà vu. I remembered coming out of our house in Richmond Crescent, our home in north London, in 1997, self-conscious in that red suit bought especially for the occasion. I heard a voice shouting, “Hey, Mum!” and looked up to see Kathryn and Lucy, her cousin, waving down to us from the top floor. I also saw the silhouette of a helicopter against the blue sky and wondered what it was doing there, not realizing that it was filming us. All our neighbors were out on the street to see us off, and all the way down to the Euston Road and on to Buckingham Palace, the pavements were lined with people waving and cheering. And overlaying it all was the sound of the helicopter, pounding the air above our heads, the dark shadow that followed us all the way along the route.
Sitting in the back of the Daimler ten years later, Tony stone-faced beside me, I sighed. He could hardly be surprised by my outburst. It wasn’t the first time he’d witnessed such a response, and it was unlikely to be the last. He even calls me his “bolshie Scouser” — slang for a belligerent Liverpudlian. Liverpudlians may be a tough, touchy, and belligerent lot, but they have other qualities, too. They are risk takers, fiercely loyal and proud, and they look after their own. They have to: Scousers have always been outsiders, hence the humor. There’s an old Liverpool saying: “If you can’t change it, take pride in it.”
As for the press and its relentless campaign to paint me as a grasping, scheming embarrassment, I knew, for all my faults, it was simply using me as a way at getting at my husband. I had been born into a hard world and raised by strong women, and I had learned to cope. The paradox was that in my work as a barrister — the English term for a trial lawyer — or a judge I spoke on behalf of other people and was used to being heard. Yet in this other life as the Prime Minister’s wife, my voice had virtually been silenced. As we drove down the Mall, I realized with a sudden surge of spirit that those constraints were no longer there. I had traveled a long way and learned so much. The time had come, I decided, to speak for myself.
he 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 shot-firer — 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.