About the Book

Martin Townsend grew up with a father, Ron, who had suffered from bipolar depression since the early 1950s. At the slightest emotional trigger Ron could turn from a loving and compassionate dad to a dead eyed depressive or a bullying monster. One minute he’d be building his sons a playhouse, the next terrorizing the family. The illness was an unwanted outsider in their family that could spoil the rhythm of ‘normal’ life and leave Ron in a cycle of unending loneliness and confusion.

Yet despite his often erratic behaviour, Ron was a larger than life and much loved character. In The Father I Had, Martin Townsend paints an intimate, tender and often painful portrait of life with his Dad, a man who he loved unconditionally but who would turn on him whenever the illness took hold. In doing so, he also exposes the reality of an illness which is, even now, often swept under the carpet.


About the Book

Title Page



1. Missing

2. Cullington Close

3. Breaking Down

4. Two Secrets

5. Priestmead

6. Nice ’n’ Easy

7. A Good Man

8. Shenley

9. The Match

10. Breathing Out

11. Alan

12. Creosote and Carousels

13. Life of Brian

14. Butlins

15. Grammar School

16. Do You Want Me To?

17. Men in White Coats

18. The Crow

19. The Balloon

20. The Belltower

21. WOLD

22. Some of Us Belong to the Stars

23. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

24. Father MacCullough

25. To Go or to Stay

26. The Cuckoo’s Nest

27. Beaches and Backchat

28. Do It Yourself

29. Not Fade Away

30. Endgames

31. A Hill … and a Road


Picture Section

About the Author



To my family

There is no limit to the number of times

Your father can come to life, and he is as tender as he ever was

And as poor, his overcoat buttoned to the throat,

His face blue from the wind that always blows in the outer darkness

He comes towards you, hesitant,

Unwilling to intrude and yet driven at the point of love

To this encounter.

You may think

That love is all that is left of him, but when he comes

He comes with all his winters and all his wounds.

He stands shivering in the empty street,

Cold and worn like a tramp at the end of a journey

And yet a shape of unquestioning love that you

Uneasy and hesitant of the cold touch of death

Must embrace.

Then, before you can touch him

He is gone, leaving on your fingers

A little more of his weariness

A little more of his love.

Emyr Humphreys, From Father to Son



DAD LEFT THE house early that Saturday morning, his old cane fishing-rods in their canvas bag tied with string to the handlebar of his bike. He had kissed Mum and me goodbye – that familiar cold, rough cheek against mine; the whiff of Silvikrin and Embassy cigarettes – then wheeled his bike out through the back gateway and up the sloping path to the road.

Mum had stayed in the kitchen. I’d dawdled up the path after him, watched as he heaved himself up onto the bike, pushed down heavily on the pedals to get going, then wobbled away slowly up the street. He turned back to glance at me and gave a half-smile, but the eyes, through the thick, plastic frames of his black and cream glasses, were dead.

He had not said a word: not where he was going, not when he’d be back. He was very ‘high’ – not quite as ‘high as a kite’ (the phrase he’d use, with a heart-breaking cheerfulness, when he was so high that no one could reason with him and he was in the grip of a sort of terrible arrogance), but almost. High enough, anyway, that all communications with us had been closed down and he had sunk into a dead silence.

I watched him until he had pedalled to the end of the Close, and swayed, almost in slow motion, round the corner, a feeling of dread in my stomach as he did it. It was like watching one of those little planes at an air-show as it disappears behind the inevitable line of bluey-grey trees and you know that it’s going to crash.

There were only two possible destinations: the three little ponds at Stanmore Common, where I often fished myself, or the ‘boot pond’ at Bentley Priory. Neither was more than a couple of miles away, an easy cycling distance. But I didn’t want him to go anywhere. I never wanted him to go anywhere when he was high. I wanted him to stay at home and sit quietly in a chair, smoking a cigarette or one of his small cigars and getting through it. But it was never like that.

Now it was after 9 p.m. and he still hadn’t come home. The rain lashed our bay windows, forming long, water-mark patterns behind our net curtains. The television was off. Mum sat in the armchair, leaning forward, her hands gripped together between her knees. She was in her nightie and dressing-gown. Her wavy brown hair was neatly styled as ever, but beneath it her face – her pale, open, innocent face with its startling blue eyes – looked careworn. There were big blotches of red in a ‘V’, either side of her neck: worry.

I was furious. Furious with myself for not running round the back that morning, grabbing my little bike – the one he’d salvaged from the ‘tip’ at the end of our street – and begging to go with him. Angry with him for not suggesting it.

How could he be out there on his own in this rain? How could he survive on that old bike, in that black donkey-jacket he always wore, which offered no protection against the wet but just sucked it in, like a blanket? And his shoes! He was wearing those Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls that he always put on when he was high (plimsolls that my mum hated, hated, hated, because their appearance was always the first indicator of the illness coming on).

I had visions of his bike lying somewhere, rain splashing and dripping off the chain and the pedals. And my dad – where? Somewhere, but certainly dead.

I’d never see him again. The tears welled up in my eyes. ‘Oh, Mum.’ It was more a complaining tone than a helpless one, my tears, for the moment, dammed back by frustration: why was he like this? Why couldn’t he be like everyone else’s daddy – working nine to five in a bank, then sitting nicely with us, speaking in a deep, posh voice like our doctor – Dr Hicks – who was the poshest man I knew. Why couldn’t he be steady and reliable like that?

Now there was thunder and lightning. The rain accelerated against the windows, grew thicker, whipped across by the white flashes. It hammered on the black roof of our semicircular bay – the roof that ‘sweated’ in summer, so that when my brother and I climbed up there in our shorts we’d have streaks of tar all over our legs. It hammered too on the little porch over our front door – the one we’d climb to reach the easily openable window of the box-room if we ever forgot our keys.

How I longed to hear the click and scratch of his keys in the front door now. The rain just grew more heavy. This was ridiculous. This was God playing with us. Dad was missing and He not only didn’t care but was determined to make it worse. My mum just said, ‘tch’, and sighed. I couldn’t define, and had never really understood, my mother’s concerns for my father. She had lived with his illness for much longer than I had, of course, and, as I later discovered, thought she understood the cause of it. But my concerns for him, I felt, were more realistic and more serious because I had been out in the world with my dad when he was high. I had seen, first hand, how in that condition he greeted the world, and how the world regarded him.

I had walked around with him – ‘bowled’ around, as he always said – or gone out for a ‘blow’ with him. ‘Just going out for a blow,’ he’d say to my mum, pulling on his coat, the plimsolls flashing on his feet like warnings. ‘You comin’ with me, tiddler?’ It was always me. We never went out as a family when he was high, and my brother – then in bed upstairs, unaware of our crisis – was two years younger than I was: too young to be his walking partner.

My father and I walked for miles. Once, when Dad had breezed away alone, all afternoon, he came in with his plimsolls clogged with blood: he had walked the skin off his feet.

But we didn’t just go walking aimlessly. When he was high he would often be filled with a vast, unreasonable and often terrifying anger at the sedentary life he supposed my mother had got us used to. He would insist, then, that we ‘got out’ to various events. ‘You keep ’em stuck in!’ he’d accuse my mother. ‘In front of that bloody telly! They’ve gotta get out, they’ve gotta … meet people!’

Then he would take my brother and me to the museums – always the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum – or to Hampstead Heath to watch the radio-controlled boats on the ponds. ‘You’ve gotta get in there, talk to people,’ he’d insist – and I would be embarrassed. I was shy, I didn’t want to meet people – well, not complete strangers out of the blue.

‘It’s interesting,’ he’d say, whatever ‘it’ was – a dinosaur in the museum, a boat, temporarily dry-docked at the side of a pond, being tended to with small and mysterious tools by grown men who breathed noisily through their noses. He would attempt to launch into conversations with such people, asking Janet and John questions that made me squirm with embarrassment. ‘What sort of boat is it?’ ‘How does it work?’

And he wouldn’t listen to their answers. Not really listen. Because he was miles away, his eyes glazed, and – if he’d been persuaded to start taking the medication that would eventually slow his racing mind back down again – his lips pursing and re-pursing. It looked like an attitude of concentration but it wasn’t: it was just a side-effect of the drugs.

When he was high he would keep pushing other versions of himself forward to make the contact, do the talking. The real dad would then drop back and look on, uncomprehending: locked in his illness, the dry, sore lips working, working …

It was after 10 p.m. now. I should have been in bed, like any other ten-year-old, leaving my mother to her lone vigil. We probably also should have called the police. But it never occurred to my mother to call them. Her assumption was always that they’d be far too busy with important matters to interest themselves in our problems. Our first instinct, living on a council estate where we knew most of our immediate neighbours, was to knock and ask them for help – or at least for advice. They knew about Dad. They knew about the illness and its consequences.

But it was too late at night to do that. My mum wouldn’t call anybody, even a member of the family, after 9 p.m. ‘They’ll be in bed,’ she’d say. ‘I can’t disturb them this time of night.’ And she’d look at me disapprovingly for even suggesting it.

So we started a half-hearted game of Scrabble in silence, and drank tea, my mum looking up every now and then to sigh at the bay windows, where the rain still knocked, or to frown and sigh at me. Then we heard ‘the gate go’ – the family’s phrase for the lifting of the little latch on our front gate, and the soft crash as it was pushed back against the privet hedge.

My mum stood, and I saw her mouth open and shut. I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking, Here come the two policemen to deliver the bad news (one with his helmet already tucked deferentially under his arm, the other frowning up at the rain as he followed suit). She was thinking of when she was living at home with her mum and dad at Moorhouse Road and Mrs Portsmouth’s son Peter was killed in an explosion at Colchester barracks; how the whole road saw those two coppers arrive … But then we both heard the click-click of Dad’s bike chain on the path and, seconds later, the scrape of his key in the door.


He was soaked to the skin. He was smiling. He held the central stock of his bicycle handlebars as if his bike was a horse. In his right hand, at his side, was some sort of elliptical-shaped tin. I’d seen it on many occasions in the bottom of his wardrobe. It was a strange, drab, military green.

‘Open the back gate, Peg.’

My mum took her coat from the peg in the hall and hurried to the kitchen. I heard her open the back door, the rush and swish of the rain, then the metallic rasp as she shot open the bolt on the gate into the garden. Dad propped his bike against the dark-creosoted back-garden fence. He unscrewed the front light from it – the bright beam picking out slow-motion globules of rain – and then, picking up the green tin box, ushered Mum and me down to our garden pond. I was in my anorak over my pyjamas. I could feel the bottoms of my pyjama trousers clinging coldly to my ankles. Mum had pulled an old coat on over her nightie.

‘Come on, son.’

He knelt by the pond, a blue plastic-moulded model with ‘shelves’ at each end for plants, which he’d salvaged from the local dump. The green tin had flap-openings at each end. He opened one now and shone the bicycle light into the murky water. I peered in and there were three or four fish, six or seven inches long, their dark-grey backs breaking through the muddy surface. He would never have put them in so little water, I thought: some must have slopped out as he carried the tin home, swinging under his handlebar.

‘Rudd,’ he said, and he was so proud. ‘For the pond.’ He pulled back a corner of the netting that we used to thwart the cats, lowered the tin into the water and tipped out the fish gently. We watched them dart down to the bottom.

Dad straightened up and smiled, his hands dangling at his sides. ‘Cup of tea?’ he said to my mum.

We had one map in the house: a map of the London borough of Harrow, where we lived. I would lay it out on the green- and yellow-patterned carpet in our front room and study it for areas of blue – the ponds, lakes, streams and reservoirs, some of which I knew and a few of which, intriguingly, I did not.

Sometimes my dad would join me down on the carpet, poring over those little irregular patches. Water, fish, fishing: the sight, the smell, the feel of ponds, of pondweed, of the thick, black, acrid mud at the edges – there was a deep yearning in both of us for all this: perhaps the deepest yearning we shared.

As he crouched down to look, I’d feel his breath on my neck and the top of my arm, then catch its slightly sour smell, which was always, always, mixed up with that of Silvikrin and the sweet smell of summer sweat underneath that was so much him. Even now, decades later, a single whiff of that hair cream can conjure him up – a genie from a plastic tub.

Ronald Norman Townsend (how I hated the dreary toll of that ‘Norman’ with its echoes of ‘normal’) was just over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, jet-black hair and an almost permanent, inquisitive smile. He had a broad head, slightly tapered towards the top, so that when he was in the army doing his ill-fated national service his mates called him ‘bullet head’. He liked the sobriquet. He liked anything that conferred ‘character’ on himself, and was admiring of anyone else who in any way embodied that quality.

When I spoke to him, he had a way of tipping his head back ever so slightly, then opening his mouth a little, in wonder, as if everything I told him was going to be new and surprising.

Every route we traced, with our fingers, on that map, every route we mapped out for our bikes (because my father never learned to drive, and neither have I), began at a three-quarter-inch oblong towards the middle of the sheet at the left. This oblong – out in a comparatively blank area of the map, bordered by railway lines and adjacent, gloriously in my youthful opinion, to the municipal dump – was Cullington Close, our street.

(Years later, pausing at the top of Stamford Street, near Waterloo station, on my way home from work, I saw that blessed oblong, five or six feet wide, on a ‘Transport for London’ advertising poster promoting the Mayor’s push for more buses in London. I thought it almost miraculous that, of all the squares from the London A to Z Mayor Livingstone could have used, he chose the one with my small, isolated street, and not much else, in it. A place where, ironically, no bus ever visits.)

Cullington Close. It’s still there. Shrunken, somehow, these days – the fate of every place we cherish from our youth – but still best seen from the eastern end, either under a lowering winter sky of watery yellow and heavy grey, or in brilliant sunshine.

It was, and still largely is, a council estate: two parallel rows of grey houses, set back at the eastern end behind an oblong grass verge either side, and, at the far, western end, round a wide circle, inevitably full of vans and trailers and cars on bricks or under ancient tarpaulins. This was what we thought of as the ‘rough’ end, though the families, in truth, were no more or less rough than those at any other point along the road.

Each house had a small front garden, in most cases set behind a low brick wall and privet hedge. Each front door had an identical porch over it and, in summer, when my brother and I sat on top of the porch, picking at the melting black surface and watching the world go by, there were other children, all along the road, doing the same thing. In fact, from our porch we could jump onto the roof of our bay window and then over to the roof of our neighbour’s one too.

At the back, most of the gardens were close on a hundred feet long. Ours, laid almost completely to lawn, was always full of children.

My father, my mother told me, had gone through ‘hell’ to get this house. He and my mum, Margaret – or ‘Peggy’ – had married in 1956 and moved in with Peg’s mother, Winnie. I had been born in 1960, my brother Ian in 1962, and in that same year we had been given the house in Cullington Close. To secure it, Mum had told us, Dad had been forced to move into lodgings for quite a long while and had been very unhappy. It was only one of a few periods of unexplained ‘unhappiness’ to which my brother and I, probably wrongly, later attached some of the blame for our dad’s illness.

Dad had laboriously moved all our stuff from our nan’s house in the side-car of his motorbike. We couldn’t afford a removals van.

The back garden, when we moved in, was just a sea of mud, so Dad and his old man, Albert – or ‘Elb’ – set to work to lay a lawn and build at one end a square of crazy-paving that we wouldn’t have dreamed of calling a ‘patio’.

The garden was the most important thing to our dad. He had inherited Elb’s love of gardening and couldn’t wait to put in flower-beds, plant his favourite rose bushes and – of course – install the pond that he found, one Saturday afternoon, at the dump. He dug the hole for it – involving hours of back-breaking work shovelling through the heavy, yellow clay – then crouched on his haunches watching it slowly fill with water from the garden hose. When he took off his spectacles and swept the sleeve of his jumper across his face I wasn’t sure whether it was sweat or tears he was wiping away.

‘All right, son?’ he said.


Cullington Close

MY DAD LEFT school at fourteen and went to work at a jeweller’s, Caulfields, in Golders Green, north London, as a clock- and watch-repairer. He loved the job and his employers trusted him enough to allow him to carry valuable items to other places in London.

Dad was called up for national service in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and sent to Bielefeld in Germany. When it was over, in 1951, he went to work with one of his uncles in a printing firm, but he ran into problems that had something to do, my mother told me, with the company allowing only fathers and sons to join. He tried his hand repairing electricity meters and got a job at the London Electricity Board – which also, at differing times, employed his father. At around this time he met my mother. She was twenty-one. They lived at either end of the same street in Harrow, and had gone to the same junior school, but had never spoken before.

They met on a bus. My mother was in a back seat, my father at the front. ‘He got off at the stop before me,’ my mother told me years later, ‘and I looked back at him. He told me he knew I was going to do that so he turned round as well. He told his sister, Jean, he wanted to ask me out and she teased him and said I was married.’

In June 1952 Dad went to Mum’s house and asked her to go to a show with him. It was called London Laughs. They were engaged in 1954 on 6 November on Hammersmith Broadway. They had gone out to choose an engagement ring together and my dad, impatient as ever, had handed it to her there and then. They were married on 15 September 1956.

Like most small boys, I adored my mum but only dared to think of her as ‘beautiful’ when she was safely enshrined in an old photograph. There were dozens of black-and-white pictures of her, and the rest of my family, crammed into an old blue biscuit-tin at the bottom of my dad’s wardrobe. In these neat little prints, as a teenager and, later, on holidays and dates with my dad – in pedal-pusher trousers, for instance, with a sweater draped across her shoulders – my mother was, indeed, strikingly good-looking.

Mum had inherited her mother’s fussiness about her hair. Scrupulously styled and brushed back from her forehead, it framed a face that was open, smiling and innocent. Her eyes were of the palest grey-blue and they too seemed impossibly wide open and happy, as if childhood, adolescence and marriage at twenty-five had blended into one continuous happy dream.

A decade on, she cut a more practical and down-to-earth figure. Her face and hair were still very beautiful but she seemed slightly shorter than in those old pictures, and tougher. When she cuddled me, or sat me on her lap, I could see the first few worry-lines on her forehead and round her mouth.

My mother had a wonderful sense of humour and a great ability to laugh at herself, but her nimble wit was tempered by a quickness, a nervousness, in her movements that reflected deep anxieties about my dad. She could have a certain brittleness in her tongue, too – a trait inherited from her mother – and would allow no serious comment or criticism to pass without the sharpest of retorts. She always seemed to be in a hurry and on the verge of forgetting something at the same time, so that she bustled along, slim but strong-shouldered, her big handbag held rigid in the crook of her arm.

Cullington Close, my mother told me, with a hint of self-mocking laughter in her tone, was where the council put the miscreants: ‘problem families’ – I always liked that description – and those who had persistently failed to pay their rent elsewhere.

It all went over my dad’s head. ‘They seem all right, though, don’t they, Peg? None of them seem like bad people, do they?’ He always spoke like this – in rhetorical questions to my mum – but, in truth, he was keen to see the best in people, a characteristic that would get us all into a lot of trouble in the years to come.

Dad was working, at this time, as an electrician’s mate at Edgware General Hospital. It was to be the first of a series of manual jobs in which, to a greater or lesser degree, my dad found himself trapped rather than employed. He always made the best of it – usually going way beyond what was required of him in order to keep the job interesting – but as the years went by it often struck me that the father I spoke to, walked with, played with, deserved something more creative than it was his lot to get.

On Saturdays, when my dad was working a weekend shift at Edgware, my mum would take my brother and me to meet him at the hospital. It was a gloomy place – and, back then, very strict about how people behaved on the wards and in the corridors. We all had to talk in whispers – but I was impressed by the way everyone seemed to know my dad, and by the way he greeted them. Afterwards, on our walk to the bus stop, we would see the big red-and-white drum on top of the nearby Boosey & Hawkes musical instrument factory: a sight that never failed to thrill me. Sometimes, when we were on our own, my dad would take me off into different little paths and lanes around Edgware just to see the drum from different angles: between the chimneys, over a roof, partly obscured by a tree. He did it to amuse me, but it was clear he loved to ‘bowl’ around the streets, peering and pointing into people’s gardens, especially if they had ponds. We knew every pond on all our walks.

In later years, seated in his armchair in our ‘back room’, pursing his lips, chattering through the curling blue smoke from his little cigar, my dad would refer to Edgware Hospital as ‘the best job I ever had’ – and I think it was. Certainly some terrible ones would follow. But it was also the beginning of a problem.

I was too young, back then, to know that my father had already been diagnosed as manic-depressive, so when he began to chatter incessantly about the doctors at Edgware – how he could help them, how they needed his help, how, really, he was a doctor – I took very little notice. As far as I was concerned, this was Dad being his usual sociable self, wanting to give others a bit of a hand.

But my mum could recognize the fearful dichotomy: that the more he – the hospital electrician – claimed to be involved with the doctors, the more he was moving into the ‘high’ phase of his illness. This was the phase that put the greatest pressure on us, his family, not only because, eventually – and sometimes twice annually – he became impossible, literally, to live with, but because his over-arching cheerfulness, his willingness to help, seemed almost a positive thing to people outside the family, including, in some cases, the doctors we were appealing to for help.

All of this, back then, in those early years of the 1960s, my mum had to deal with alone. My brother and I were too young to understand fully, and my father’s parents were of a generation that simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, deal with it, so the weight of responsibility fell, almost palpably, across my mother’s shoulders.

One afternoon, during the summer of the World Cup – 1966 – my dad summoned me into the back garden. He was out on the crazy-paving, making something or other. He had two long planks of wood he had rescued from somewhere – the dump, perhaps, or a skip along the road. He had one of the planks lying across an old padded stool he had also salvaged and, kneeling on one end to steady it, he was sawing away at the other.

‘What are you doing, Dad?’ I could sense my mum pausing in the kitchen behind us, waiting to hear the answer.

‘I’m making something for the hospital. Me and you’ll take it up there.’

I didn’t want to go up there. Whatever it was he was making, I didn’t want to be seen with it. I was six years old by then, I had started school, and I was beginning to recognize the changing atmospheres and temperatures in the house during the year as Dad soared slowly upwards into a high, then came spiralling, slumping down. I was beginning to feel depressed myself by his moods. It was wearying to come home from school not knowing what he might do or say, and I had begun to recognize that there was a thin line, a very thin line, between the outer edges of one of these ‘happy’ highs and an explosion of sudden, ferocious temper.

It was the knowledge of this line, more than anything else, that left me exhausted and frustrated by the attitude of outsiders to him when he was like this. ‘Oh, Ron’s in a good mood,’ they’d say; ‘what a lovely bloke.’ And I’d want to kill them, literally kill them, for their ignorance of what was really going on at number 32.

My dad picked up the shorter of the two pieces of wood and, after carefully positioning it about two-thirds of the way up the longer piece, took up his hammer and began nailing the planks together.

Oh God, I thought, please tell me he isn’t making what I think he’s making – and God was, indeed, the right person to ask.

Dad took up the cross and, slinging it over his shoulder, reached out for my hand. ‘Come on, tiddler.’

I saw my mum’s face through the window. She was staring at me hard, her mouth gaping open, as if there was something I could do. Her mouth closed and she shook her head. But Dad was striding off, tugging me along behind. Through the back gateway, up the path, the cross over his shoulder – Dad and me off on the road to Calvary.

I knew we were going to Edgware Hospital. It didn’t seem odd to be going there – I had realized, by then, that Dad had grown obsessed with the place, with the way they ‘helped people’. As ever, when he was high, it was to the concept of universal goodness he was drawn. But it seemed odd, to me, to be going to a hospital on such a sweltering day. As we walked up to Belmont Circle, about a mile away, to catch the bus, Dad chattered in short bursts, then fell silent, his mouth working, working. He was trying to buy me a bike but he had only thirty shillings. He’d shown me the one-pound note and the ten-shilling note in a plastic zip-up purse. It was to replace the little Raleigh Pavemaster he’d pulled off the dump about a year ago, its punctured tyres hanging limp from the buckled rims. He’d ‘done it up’ for me and it had served for a while. But now he had his eye on something better. Dad never had much money but he liked spending it – especially on my brother and me.

‘We’ll see if we can get a racer, eh? Get a racer,’ he said, half to himself.

I watched the other people on the 183 bus. Dad had propped the cross next to our seats, but no one seemed to be taking much notice. Dad couldn’t have cared less anyway – he was in a world of his own.

At Edgware Hospital, Dad was master of the situation. He stuck his head in at the little lodge by the gate, where an affable old watchman sat and read the paper, occasionally putting it down and nipping out to lift the red-and-white metal barrier for a visiting car.

‘I’m popping by to put something up for ’em,’ Dad said. This was always the case when he was high – the strange and unusual things he did were always at someone else’s bidding.

We walked up the wide drive, then turned off to the tennis courts. Dad lifted the cross up high and began tying it, with string, to the plastic mesh boundary fence. I had a headache from the bus ride, the sun and, now, the anxiety: I didn’t want Dad to be ‘caught’, to be humiliated.

He had just finished hanging the cross and we were both tilting our heads to admire it, when a youngish doctor, good-looking, with jet-black hair like my dad’s, came over from the gate. He wore a white coat and was carrying books of some sort. He was accompanied by a small woman in a coat too heavy for the day, who looked like his mother. They both smiled warily.

‘Hello, Ron – what you up to?’ He glanced at me.

‘Putting this up for the chief. The chief wanted it up. When people are playing, they can see it.’

The doctor was smiling and nodding. The woman was looking at the cross.

‘I brought the tiddler with me, if that’s OK,’ Dad added, touching my head. He obviously thought my presence on hospital property was more serious than hanging an enormous cross in their tennis courts.

The doctor and the woman both smiled at me. ‘OK, good,’ he said. ‘You gonna pop by next week?’

‘What for?’ My dad was immediately on the alert.

‘Have a chat.’

Dad worked his lips and nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll have a chat with you.’

On the way back home, Dad was silent. He was out of his trance now and was merely distracted, his lips working, working. He kept smiling at me: ‘All right, tiddler?’

He knew he was going to be sectioned.

My dad went away a few days later. I didn’t know where they had sent him. My mum was a bit tearful the first evening he was gone, shaking her head and wiping her red-rimmed eyes with the back of her hand. I didn’t fully comprehend, until a few years later, the powerful combination of relief and sorrow that always shuddered through my mum when Dad was eventually taken into hospital. She would weep openly, at the same time wiping her streaming eyes and running nose and protesting: ‘I’m not crying, I’m fine,’ as if willing her sense of relief to be the more dominant emotion.

I would kneel on the floor in front of her, my hands in her lap, begging her not to cry. ‘He’ll be all right, Mum. He really will.’

How many times would I end up saying that over the years?

Life went on. On the kitchen shelf, the little transistor radio in its leather case, splattered with paint from the time Dad had painted the ceiling, played ‘Penny Lane’. With its busy barbers and rushing firemen and general air of wistfulness, the song lodged in my head as a tale of the life led by people with dads who didn’t get ill and have to keep going away. I sat on the kitchen floor making crude Thunderbird models with my Lego.

When he came back, about two weeks later, Dad went straight to bed and stayed there. Venturing into my mum and dad’s bedroom, which smelled of his sweat and hair cream, all I could see was his black hair on the pillow, all sticking up. I slipped onto the bed and cuddled his shape under the eiderdown.

A day or so afterwards, late in the morning, he was sitting in his underpants and vest on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, just staring at the floor. His knee jumped up and down, the heel of his foot tapping out an incessant thumpety-thump beat on the carpet. This, I found out a few years later, was a side-effect of the drugs he’d been given. The jerking had worked his balls out from the side of his pants and I was fascinated by them.

He looked up. ‘All right, tiddler?’ His eyes were dark-rimmed and red from crying, but at least the light was back in them. He had returned to the world, at the very least.

I went to put an arm round his shoulder.

‘I’m getting up in a minute,’ he breathed. ‘I’ll come downstairs and watch the telly.’

As soon as the drugs and his willpower and the passing of time had got him – this time – through the depression, he was out and about. He played football with me in the garden. He chalked a wicket on the back wall of the house and we played cricket with a tennis ball. The weekends became exciting again.

The weight lifted off my mother’s shoulders almost visibly. The tightly wound, determined woman in a raincoat hurrying up to whatever hospital he was in became bright and girlish again. She would sit, arms folded, at our kitchen table and quietly fill in the crossword in her paper, while Dad moved around, inspecting the garden, oiling his bike, catching up with the world once more.

One afternoon, wheeling his bike through nearby Kenton Park, Dad spotted a brand-new park bench. That evening, after dark, he took our old green-and-white Silver Cross pram and strolled back over there with it, returning about a half-hour later, puffing and sweating, with the bench slung across the chassis. It was amazing that the springs held up.

Mum appeared to be angry with him, but the anger did not seem entirely genuine: it had a watchful edge to it. She was trying to work out whether this was a straightforward theft or an indicator that he was becoming high again.

‘Look, Peg …’ and he was spreading his arms, pleading and laughing, and winking at me, ‘the kids’ll just smash it up if you leave it over there. They break up every bench along the path.’

He painted it white ‘in case anyone comes round’.

‘Edna’, who, according to the brass plaque screwed to the back of it, ‘always loved this spot’, was now going to have to get used to a different view.

Dad was popular in Cullington Close, especially with the wilder teenagers. He had organized some of them into a rudimentary youth football team, and there were matches against other groups of lads. They were always arranged at the last minute and, always, it seemed to me, teetered on the edge of becoming mass punch-ups.

As with many streets on council estates, Cullington Close revolved round the activities – nefarious or otherwise – of one or two key families, and it was the scions of these clans that Dad paraded, in a raggle-taggle of long hair, shared fags and mismatching socks and shirts, to whatever pitch in whatever local park he had managed to book.

He would drag me along from time to time to watch, but I shook my head and looked away if he asked me to play. On his side he seemed oblivious to the fact that I was only seven – a good eight to ten years younger than any of the other players. For my part I was too shy, and in a quiet way didn’t like being criticized or told what to do.

I’d stand, hopping from foot to foot to keep warm, on the touch-line, embarrassed even that my catalogue-bought parka was blue and not the green that you were supposed to have. Nothing about me was ‘laddish’ or dangerous at all – not like the boys he had in the team. I felt over-educated and ‘girly’, even at my young age, compared with these tearaways.

None of the boys themselves seemed bothered that I wasn’t playing: it was only my dad who cared and his degree of caring would increase as his mood cranked up yet again to a ‘high’. His obsession with the fact that I and, to a lesser extent, my brother ‘didn’t get out enough’ had turned into a preoccupation with trying to get us to be sporty, and each time he grew ill this preoccupation would become more and more uncomfortable for me.

One of the groups of teenagers in Dad’s team lived a few doors away from us. They were four brothers, the Browns, ranging in age from twelve to twenty. In the evenings all but the eldest, Steven, would sit on the wall outside their house, smoking and playing kerb-ball. They were the sort of boys who could look after themselves and who got into occasional fights, but they didn’t make trouble or go looking for it.

The youngest boy, Roger, was a big favourite of my dad’s. He had sandy hair, an honest face and a great sense of humour.

One evening I was hanging around, chatting to the Browns, when Roger spotted an old man who had just entered the street at the far end. This was Mr Saville.

Mr Saville was a small, pale, painfully thin man, always very well dressed. Above his over-large collar and tie reared a white, wrinkled throat that I could never quite avoid staring at. It seemed paper-thin, like the stretched neck of a turkey, and his voice, which was a reedy gurgle, seemed to be produced right down there, in that tight fold of collar, and never to attain any volume or power as a result.

Mr Saville was always moaning at the Browns when their ball bounced near his car. He had a terminally ill wife and guarded her peace and quiet, and his own peace of mind, rapaciously.

‘Mr Saville,’ muttered Roger to the others and, as the old man approached on the other side of the street, he began humming the theme from Steptoe & Son.

I was utterly horrified and deeply impressed at one and the same time. Here was I, so well-behaved that I disgusted myself, right at the epicentre of trouble. Unable to stop myself, I burst into laughter.

Mr Saville stopped in his tracks. ‘Oi!’

The Browns melted away, over the wall, into their house – gone. But I just stood there, my mouth dry, the blood rushing in my ears. Mr Saville came over. He leant down to me. I could smell, for some reason, Spam – and the Spam smell combined with the twitching turkey-neck made me imagine Mr Saville, somehow, as old, dying meat. He put his hand on my shoulder.

‘I know you didn’t mean it,’ he said. ‘But you mustn’t hang around with those boys, because they’ll get you into trouble – all right?’ He had very fair eyelashes, like the feathers of a chick, and cloudy little eyes.

I just nodded. I was frozen. What if my mum and dad were looking out of the window?

He straightened up and walked away, checking his old, lime-green Cortina as he passed it. I walked home, so stiff-legged I felt as if I was learning to walk all over again.


Breaking Down

AT EASTER 1968 I found myself in Edgware Hospital as a patient. I had been practising at school for a spring concert, kneeling for long periods on a hard wooden stage. Perhaps it was a splinter, perhaps it was just the pressure on the joint, but one morning I woke up to find I was unable to bend my left knee. There was a hot pain under the kneecap and, as it started to swell up, a tiny pimple of yellow appeared.

Our family GP was on holiday and the locum could not be convinced to visit. I limped up the road to the bus stop, clinging on to my mum, feeling more hot and faint with every step.

I felt sick in the surgery, the walls beginning to dance a bit in my vision. When the doctor eventually saw me, he called an ambulance. He was shaking his head and muttering. My temperature was just over 105°.

I felt like I knew Edgware Hospital and I couldn’t wait to see Dad. As soon as we arrived, my mum found him buried away down in the little subterranean workshop he and the other electricians used.

He turned up in his brown overalls, looking more worried than I’d ever seen him. ‘You all right, son? Is there anything you need?’ He sat down at the side of the bed and held my wrist.

Dad seemed to know everyone who passed by or came up. A doctor, a chubby-faced fellow with receding curly hair, told me I had an abscess under my left kneecap that had filled with pus. Next day I would have an operation to drain it.

I was in hospital for three weeks. There was a record in the charts that I liked called ‘Rainbow Valley’ by The Love Affair – and the day after my operation my dad brought me the sheet music for it. He’d bought it from Mr Clipp’s, the TV and record shop where my mum did some cleaning. ‘Now you can sing along when it comes on the radio,’ Dad explained. I opened the four-page song sheet on my chest and read the first few words:

I’m heading home again

’Cos it seems I don’t fit in

I looked up at my dad and he leant down and kissed me.

‘Love you, son.’

He disappeared to talk to somebody and my mum came over.

‘He’s very excitable at the moment,’ she said.

I noticed her neck was red and her mouth was tensed the way it always was when Dad was starting to get high again.

‘It’ll be all right,’ she said. She sighed. ‘It’s just what we always have to put up with, isn’t it?’

Within weeks, Dad was high again. The process always followed the same pattern. Some event or other – a problem in the family, a disaster out in the world somewhere, or perhaps simply the impact that a film or stage play had on him – would cause my dad to stop taking his tablets.

These tablets were a cause of continual resentment to my dad. They triggered side-effects that he found embarrassing: the involuntary pulling and pursing of his mouth, and, when he was sitting down, the staccato drumming of one or other of his feet on the floor. But they maintained, as far as they could, his mental equilibrium.

When he was provoked to stop taking them, he would first of all become irritated and critical of those around him, with my mum and me bearing the brunt. Then he would begin his pacing – up and down, up and down the carpeted floor of our front room – all the while clenching and unclenching his fists.

He was adept at hiding his tablets away, so we would not always be aware he had come off them. But as the years went on, and we all became more familiar with the warning signs, my mum would squirrel away stocks of his tablets so that she could crush up his daily dose in his cup of tea. Sometimes it worked, but at other times he stopped drinking tea altogether; then, after the initial pacing had finished, he’d begin to slip away from us completely. Tea would go cold, untouched, in front of him. He’d sit for hours, staring into space, occasionally snapping back to ask me or my brother, not unkindly, what we were doing or what we’d been up to that day. We could tell him anything, because he never really heard a single word. He’d nod – ‘Sure, sure’ – and carry on smoking and staring, a look of beatific peace on his face.

Then he would begin doing odd things: playing the same record again and again all night, with the windows of the house wide open so that everyone could hear. He was obsessed with Frank Sinatra and that obsession would turn into a fixation on one or two songs: once it was ‘Love and Marriage’; another time ‘I Will Drink the Wine’. From Sinatra, at various times, he moved on to Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Topol, Johnny Mathis … He would write letters to the artistes, or scribble messages of encouragement all over their record sleeves, telling them where they were going wrong and suggesting they come to him for help.

At these times we always faced the same problem: how to convince first Dad’s GP, then various doctors, that Dad was ill enough to be taken into hospital and forced back onto his medication. If we were lucky, he would do something silly – like putting the cross up at Edgware – so that the doctor would have no alternative but to take him in.

The whole process of trying to get Dad sectioned was painful and wearying – not least because my mum and I would be racked by guilt at how terrible it was for my dad. We knew that he came off the tablets because they made him twitch and thump and feel humiliated. We knew that he avoided, at all costs, being put back on them because the required initial dose of lithium plunged him into the blackest of black depressions. Knowing all this, the temptation was to let him be – but then our lives would be utterly miserable and his just a blank, a trance.

Dad went back into hospital that summer of 1968 and when he came out the depression seemed endless.

At Christmas, he tried to go back to work. It was bitterly cold and the short days of semi-darkness closed in on him. One afternoon, feeling particularly down, he got permission to leave work early. By the time he reached home, he was in tears.

My mum sat him down at the dinner table, he still in his works donkey-jacket and scarf, and Dad told his story. He’d been walking out past the hospital gatehouse when he noticed a water hydrant that had burst and begun to freeze as it spurted up, fountain-like, from the road. As he glanced at it, he’d seen in the ice the figure of a veiled woman, about three feet high. The water was still running from the top of the sculpted ice, so that it appeared to Dad that the figure was crying.

‘I looked away,’ he said, ‘and when I looked back I couldn’t see the woman any more. I walked round and round it, but she had gone.’ He put his thumb and forefinger up to his eyes. ‘Oh, Peg, I feel so low. I feel so low.’ And he wept.

My mum put her arm round him as the sobs shuddered through his big shoulders. She looked up at me and rolled her eyes.

Her response seemed inappropriate, then, considering the profundity of the experience my father had just claimed to have had. But my mum could not always afford the luxury of sentiment, and as I got older I came to see this eye-rolling as a defensive gesture. I would feel, over the years – and with varying degrees of shame – embarrassment, irritation and anger both at my dad’s illness and what I perceived, in my young mind, to be his willingness to succumb to it. But Mum never stopped supporting him. The roll of the eyes was for her own benefit: ‘Here I go again,’ she seemed to say; ‘what toll will it take on me this time?’ For the truth was that Dad’s illness was unpredictable: it could go, as we grew used to saying, ‘either way’.

It could strike so hard and so deep that his true character was simply erased for weeks on end. He would rail against going into hospital and ‘blame’ my mother bitterly when he was eventually admitted. Or it could simply deal Dad a sort of glancing blow. He would become high but not so deranged that he wouldn’t co-operate in getting well.

My mother never knew which course it would take and this uncertainty, more than anything, aged her. It made her fretful and often frightened. There were times, when Dad was becoming ill, that my mum would be dry-mouthed and shaking with apprehension.

The depression that followed the ‘fountain’ incident lasted for weeks. When Dad finally emerged from it he was filled with renewed vigour to make a ‘man’ of me. I was enrolled into the local Cub Scouts, whose weekly ritual would make me dread Tuesdays more than any other day. Each time we had to turn up with a diary, a pencil, a piece of string and a shilling ‘subscription’. The ‘Akela’ was very strict and accepted no excuses for forgetting any of these items, so that it was not unusual, while we waited for her arrival in the hall, to see boys ripping lengths of thread from the old mats that were stored in a heap in one corner. These were the ones who had forgotten their string. I gave up on the cubs after a month. I told Mum but I didn’t dare tell Dad. I polished my lace-ups, put on my uniform and left the house every Tuesday on my bike. Then I cycled round the streets for two hours.

That year Dad took me to my first ‘proper’ football match – Watford v Queen’s Park Rangers. I didn’t really want to go all the way to Watford – a place that was off the corner of my map of ‘Harrow & District’. I didn’t want to mix with real football fans. I’d seen pictures of them scowling and fighting in the Sunday Mirror