My mother was born 100 years ago last week. Born in a farmhouse in County Cork in southern Ireland at a time when there was much distress. Ireland was fighting for its independence from the British Empire and war came to the countryside as well as the city.
Her mother had a farm that she had inherited from her dead husband. The widow married again, and out of that second marriage came my mother and her younger brother; what you might call the poor part of the family, who as teenagers moved to London and joined the labouring classes there.
My mother arrived aged 18 to become a barmaid in a pub in Notting Hill’s Portobello Road, at a time when it was one of the worst slums in the UK. And I was born there, the third of her children, when she was 26.
Some years ago in my book The Necessity of Poverty I described my parents as investors in WD & HO Wills, a Bristol-based tobacco and cigarette company. The Wills family, like all good industrialists, did wonders to the town they made their fortune in, subsidising the creation of Bristol University.
In a very snidey manner I asked, “How many cigarettes does it take to build a university library?” The point made is that money laundering, like conscience laundering, has a long provenance. My parents, both users of the Wills-created smoking materials, were investors in the sense that they helped make Wills wealthy so they could do nice things for university students.
All these questions got thrown up recently when the Colston statue was thrown into the River Avon as a symbol of the monies that made Bristol great being tainted in the murderous blood of the slave trade.
My mother lived to 52, my father 65, spending their last 10 years kept afloat by an increasingly sophisticated NHS intent on righting the diseases thrown up by poverty, poor food, hard work and the palliatives taken to endure poverty.
My mother is buried near the railway lines that could have taken her back to her native Ireland, but alas she never visited, except for funerals of her dear ones. On the day of her funeral the nearby Coca-Cola bottling plant did not heed the burial ceremony, or the tears of her sons and husband. They kept on bottling, and it was a salutary lesson to me that that’s life as it is.
In between her hard but idyllic life in Ireland and her passing, Eileen Mary Bird (née Dunne) had a tough old life. Cleaning through the night, bus conducting, and bringing up her six boys on a poor wage.
When I was 69 I found out that the man I took for my father was in fact not so. I was transfixed by this, imagining my mother home in Ireland the spring before I was born meeting a fellow Irish fella and breaking her marriage vows with him. Did he ever write, or try and come over to meet us? Did she ever tell him that she had a little John Anthony who was possibly the dead spit of him?
I have done nothing to trace the source of my beginnings, and will not do so. What interests me more is: where did humanity go so wrong that it separated us into the comfortable and the discomfited, the wealthy and the poor? The educated and the dis-educated.
My mother was in fact on her way to America, according to what she told me. She was only going to stop for a short while in London with her sister; and then take the boat across to Chicago, via New York. Or go to another bunch of family in Boston. The war got in the way.
Happy birthday, mother. I’m glad you stayed this side of the pond
If she had done so her children’s children may well have ended up being Trump supporters in the recent election. For the vast chasms that separate America seem to be around education and social position gained through work.
Did your family do well out of the 1990s, when the destruction of much of the work that had given many Americans their prosperity occurred? Did you survive the exportation of jobs to China that built the Chinese economy into the dominant force it is today? That may well influence the way you vote.
A Chinese economy that was built up, one can imagine, by Wall Street investors who wanted better returns on their stock; and therefore demanded the ending of stateside employment for the millions – it was just not profitable enough for them.
No, I can imagine my mother putting down her working-class roots in Boston or Chicago and growing a blue-collar labouring family, like she did. And these were many of the people who were destroyed when work went overseas.
One hundred years after the birth of my mother I ask myself why it took an irrational, loud, unstable property speculator to be seen as the champion of people, driven into his reactionary camp by the destruction of their once-admired US prosperity?
You reap what you sow. The dragon’s teeth sown by those who helped America to lose its prosperity created Trump. Now that America is back in charge.
What shocks have the new overlords got for those that were left behind by offshoring America for dividends? Will they try and include them in the largesse so that they don’t rally again and produce another moral and distasteful disturbance? I bet they don’t. My money is on more emphasis on those who have, and not the have nots.
But dressed up in the appearance of progressive progress. They are good at that.
Happy birthday, mother. I’m glad you stayed this side of the pond.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.
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