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Jack Straw memoirs - part 1: 'My parents' stormy marriage'
My parents’ marriage was a stormy one full of serious arguments that usually kicked off after we children had gone to bed.
From the small bedroom I shared with my brothers at our home in Essex, we’d hear the trading of insults, the pots being smashed down on the draining board and cupboard doors slammed in the kitchen below.
My mother’s brothers didn’t like what was happening. One Friday afternoon I had gone to my Nana’s house for tea and was waiting for my father to pick me and my sister Suzy up, when two of my uncles, Derrick and Don, called in.
When my father arrived on his bicycle, a nasty fight broke out. I was nine years old and watched frightened and horrified from my hiding place in the back garden as my uncles shoved my father against the side of the house.
Don held him as Derrick smashed his fist into my father’s face with a force and anger I had never witnessed before. His mouth started to bleed. Half a tooth fell on to the ground and he began to weep.
All three went into the house. I came out of my hiding place and followed them in.
Don said: ‘You weren’t supposed to see that, John [my family’s name for me; Jack came when I was at school].’ With Dad, Suzy and I trudged home, my father pushing his bicycle. Around lunchtime the following day I smelt gas, lots of it. I went into the kitchen, and found my father slumped over the table.
The oven door was open, the gas taps were on. Back then in the mid-Fifties, gassing was one of the most common methods of suicide, though I knew that most attempting suicide put their head inside the oven, so that their end came quickly.
I turned the taps off and went to get my mother. She was furious. She stormed into the kitchen, and told my father that if he was intending to take his life, not to involve the children.
How we stopped Blackburn being split in two
The Blackburn Labour Party was in a panic over proposals from the Boundary Commission to re-ward the whole borough.
Two men ran the town. Jim Mason, a courageous wartime pilot who’d been given the sinecure of ‘director of photography’ in the town hall, but was the nearest I’d ever met to a political commissar; and Tom Taylor, former leader of the council.
They needed help to draw up alternative boundary proposals. Those on the table, they said, might lead to the parliamentary constituency being split in two. I was despatched to the town.
A billet had been fixed with the Hindle family. Michael, a local solicitor and party member, was to work with me. His wife, Madge, an actress, was better known than Barbara in those days: she played Renee Bradshaw in Coronation Street.
They and their children, Charlotte and Frances, subsequently became close family friends, with Charlotte complaining to this day that at the first meal I had with them I scoffed all the second helpings which had been reserved for her.
Michael and I pored over street maps, electoral registers and population estimates. We drove round every part of the town, and put together our plan, which, better met all the rules than their original, but by happy coincidence would also ensure Labour control of the council.
There was jubilation in the Labour camp, and real anger amongst the local Tories.
They sought the intervention of Charles Fletcher-Cooke, the Conservative MP for the seat of Darwen.
Charles was a rum character. At Cambridge before the war, he’d been a member of the Apostles, the shadowy club to which the double agents Blunt and Burgess had also belonged, and the Communist Party. In 1945 he’d stood as a Labour candidate for East Dorset. He had changed sides a couple of years later, partly, he told me, ‘because I thought I’d have a better chance’.
His career had almost hit the buffers in 1963 when he was a junior minister in the Home Office. An absconder from an approved school for young offenders had been stopped whilst driving a car (an Austin Princess) which was obviously not his.
The explanation he offered – that he had borrowed it from Mr Fletcher-Cooke, with his full permission – turned out to be true, as did the reason why Mr Fletcher-Cooke had been so accommodating.
Fletcher-Cooke resigned as a minister, and narrowly survived a local vote of no confidence.
‘Where are you off to, dear boy, how long will you be staying?’ he once asked me in surprise, seeing me on the train from Euston in late 1979.
‘Blackburn, Charles, I’m the MP,’ I replied. ‘I’m up for the whole weekend – it’s Remembrance Sunday.’ ‘You’re not doing that, dear boy, surely? Let me give you some advice. I used to do that when I was young. But I couldn’t get to every village ceremony – had to explain that I was somewhere else. Now I’m always somewhere else. Cut down on those silly advice surgeries too – otherwise they’ll get used to the idea. Be somewhere else.’ Barbara finally announced her retirement in April 1977 and had encouraged me to put my name forward.
The final selection was in June. I won, on the first ballot. I was mighty relieved.
- © Jack Straw 2012 – Extracted from Last Man Standing, published by Macmillan. Lancashire Telegraph readers can order copies of Last Man Standing by Jack Straw from The Silverdell bookshop, 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, Preston PR4 2AJ (phone 01772 68344 or email email@example.com) and get £4 off the rrp of £20 and free postage.