Header overlay

Mother’s Familiar

Share this

My parents had no interest in books. Having survived the Second World War, they found everything they needed in each other, and in their north London suburban home with doors they could lock, in a location free from falling bombs. For my father, it was ‘real life’ that mattered, so the daily and evening newspapers were sufficient; and my mother, as ever, deferred to him. They possessed between them a couple of telephone directories, an ancient Thorndike dictionary used by my father for his daily crossword, and the Radio Times, which my mother insisted on calling ‘the television book’, and that was it. Or so I thought.

One afternoon in 1960, when I was a short-trousered 10-year-old, I came home from school and rummaged through the bottom shelf of my mother’s kitchen larder, hoping to find some Iced Gems. No luck with the Gems, but in the larder, inside a dusty old pressure-cooker, I found a paperback book in a plain brown-paper wrapper.

I don’t know about yours, but in my childhood home a paperback book hidden inside a plain brown-paper wrapper, inside a dusty old pressure-cooker, inside a larder, meant something parental was definitely up: this book was out-of-bounds.

I opened it immediately. It was called Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was just about to flick through some pages when my mother entered the kitchen. So I quickly slipped it back inside the plain brown-paper wrapper, inside the pressure-cooker, etc., then gathered myself sufficiently to divert her attention by muttering something about the Cold War and the Iced Gems shortage.

That evening, I was en famille watching the BBC News when a film came up showing the inside of a bookshop in central London, and a queue of customers stretching from the till, out through the doors and along the Charing Cross Road. They were buying copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – each copy thoughtfully covered by the bookshop people in a plain brown-p

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

My parents had no interest in books. Having survived the Second World War, they found everything they needed in each other, and in their north London suburban home with doors they could lock, in a location free from falling bombs. For my father, it was ‘real life’ that mattered, so the daily and evening newspapers were sufficient; and my mother, as ever, deferred to him. They possessed between them a couple of telephone directories, an ancient Thorndike dictionary used by my father for his daily crossword, and the Radio Times, which my mother insisted on calling ‘the television book’, and that was it. Or so I thought.

One afternoon in 1960, when I was a short-trousered 10-year-old, I came home from school and rummaged through the bottom shelf of my mother’s kitchen larder, hoping to find some Iced Gems. No luck with the Gems, but in the larder, inside a dusty old pressure-cooker, I found a paperback book in a plain brown-paper wrapper. I don’t know about yours, but in my childhood home a paperback book hidden inside a plain brown-paper wrapper, inside a dusty old pressure-cooker, inside a larder, meant something parental was definitely up: this book was out-of-bounds. I opened it immediately. It was called Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was just about to flick through some pages when my mother entered the kitchen. So I quickly slipped it back inside the plain brown-paper wrapper, inside the pressure-cooker, etc., then gathered myself sufficiently to divert her attention by muttering something about the Cold War and the Iced Gems shortage. That evening, I was en famille watching the BBC News when a film came up showing the inside of a bookshop in central London, and a queue of customers stretching from the till, out through the doors and along the Charing Cross Road. They were buying copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – each copy thoughtfully covered by the bookshop people in a plain brown-paper wrapper identical to the larder edition. As my mother was a dutiful stay-at-home housewife, and my father commuted daily to his work in central London, I assumed the book must be his. I looked across the room to a column of blue-grey pipe smoke and wondered if my father was in there. Mustering an innocent tone, I asked the smoke what the book on television was about. ‘Ask your mother,’ said the smoke. I did. She pursed her lips. While my mother oozed silent disapproval from every pore, Rowley, her elderly familiar, cunningly disguised as a Pekingese asleep on her lap, suddenly looked in my direction and uncovered its one remaining tooth – a glinting canine. I took the hint and backed off. Silence was my parents’ default response to anything connected with, or even remotely alluding to, sex and bodies. Their only apparent interest in these topics was in acquiring the techniques necessary to avoid them. So the moment my parents clammed up was the moment I knew what the book was about. At the time I didn’t know that Penguin Books, the publishers of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, had recently been prosecuted at the Old Bailey under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. You will probably remember that they had attempted to publish an uncensored edition, but it was argued that the book’s explicit depiction of sexual intercourse would deprave and corrupt its readers. However, under the Act, if it could be proved that the book was ‘of literary merit’, Penguin would escape prosecution and the novel could deprave and corrupt its readers with impunity. A whole bunch of literary and intellectual heavyweights came to the book’s defence, including E. M. Forster and Helen Gardner. The trial touched the national Zeitgeist of emerging post-war liberalism and the demise of deference, and for several weeks it became a daily regular in all the mainstream media. Hence, when the book was declared ‘not guilty’, the cameras were there to record the moment of liberation. After the larder discovery, I lay awake for hours buzzing with the excitement of forbidden knowledge and resisting the desire to know more. At around 9.30 p.m. desire won out. I rose from my bed and, on the pretext of needing a glass of milk in order to prevent ‘night starvation’, went down to the kitchen. While my parents were watching television, I slipped the book beneath my dressing-gown, nipped up the stairs and, once safely between the sheets, began to read while tucking into milk and Iced Gems. (They were in the cheese dish.) Coincidentally, and with the help of my father’s Thorndike, I had recently conducted an exhaustive study of sex words and concluded they were four in number, five at a pinch, seven if you allowed hyphens. After an age of concentrated effort I located most of the sex words but also found that they were surrounded by lots of other words which complicated matters to such a degree that whole sections of the novel were completely beyond comprehension. In fact, apart from one or two body parts, I could barely make any sense of it at all. My father had obviously had difficulty too, because he had marked with his crossword pencil all the passages requiring further study. I became very unsettled and took to staring up at the ceiling in a kind of reverie of reassessment. Could it really be that my father had bought a book? Could he, who wore a two-piece suit, cardigan, white shirt and tie every day of his life and never revealed so much as a bare forearm, be interested in bodies? And what about this sex thing? If he was interested in sex, then it was likely that he did whatever it was with my mother, and that was totally unacceptable. They were Mum and Dad and I was the centre of their universe, a place I intended to occupy forever, but now a hinterland of half-guilt, half-innocence. Like L. P. Hartley’s uncomfortable narrator in The Go-Between, I found myself ‘ignorant of the language, yet compelled to listen’. Confused and indignant, I decided to return the book to the larder and never say another word. Like my father I would be silent, and he would be none the wiser. He would be, that is, if it wasn’t for Rowley. Rowley was an aristocratic curmudgeon with a Crufts prizewinning pedigree set out in official Kennel Club documents. They described him as a ‘lion type’ Pekingese, presumably because his appearance resembled the mane of a lion that had suffered a scalping. Detached from its host, this elliptical mass of golden tresses, complete with centre parting, had developed a hidden and inexplicable means of propulsion, enabling him to float about the house in a silent and uncanny manner not dissimilar to a hovercraft. But because the head end was indistinguishable from the non-head end, it was virtually impossible to ascertain if he was in forward gear, or if he was manoeuvring in reverse. At night he slept on his favourite rug at the foot of the stairs, where, until 10 p.m., he permitted everyone free passage up and down the stairs as they wished, but from 10 p.m. until 6.30 the following morning – the time when my mother would rise to use the bathroom – he refused to allow anyone down. Time now, 11.15 p.m. Clutching Lady Chatterley’s Lover under my dressing-gown, I descended on tip-toe to the penultimate stair, focused on the sleeping golden tresses and peered in. I looked for the non-head end and gingerly placed a naked foot beside it. The pain could be likened to an ice-pick inserted behind an ankle tendon, then levered from side to side. He growled, I screamed. He shook his head, I fell to the floor where we kicked up a heck of a racket. The plain brown-paper wrapper flew in one direction, the book in another. I looked up to see both parents looking down. From the top of the stairs their half-awake gaze tried to make sense of the scene, eventually focusing on the book’s front panel, its title apparent to all. Without so much as a change of expression, they went silently back to their room. At 6.29 a.m. I returned to the penultimate stair. At 6.31 a.m. I returned the book to the pressure-cooker. From that day on, my parents and I operated our very own Chatterley ban, and by some strange process of tacit consent, the book was never mentioned again. Several decades later, after my mother’s death, I was clearing out some of her belongings and was surprised to find on her bedside table – in addition to a photographic portrait of Rowley in a cardboard frame bearing the unlikely legend ‘Gone to Heaven’, and some pencils propped up in an old jam-jar – a current library membership card. I was even more surprised to find the cupboard below stuffed full with yellowing paperbacks, mostly from the 1960s: Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook . . . My first thought was that they belonged to my father, but on flicking through the pages I discovered a scattering of pencilled marginalia, underlinings, notes, reminders, comments – all in my mother’s hand. And at the very bottom of the cupboard, beneath all the other books, still in its brown-paper wrapper, was that same old copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The pencilled underlinings and marked passages were just as I remembered them, but more had been added: single exclamation marks, individual words circled, my mother’s impatient half-formed comments on Lawrence’s sexism. The books were hers, and so were the marks, probably made with one of the pencils I have on my desk, propped up in an old jam-jar.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Laurence Scott 2012


About the contributor

Laurence Scott, an occasional poet and teacher, lives in south-west Scotland where he is writing a memoir, Train Passing Through. His poems pop up in various magazines and journals.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.