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A Shout From The Attic: Ancestry And Antecedents

"I was born in January 1935. I was a chubby baby, some might say fat – some would say fat! My birth weight was ten pounds and my face was so chubby that I couldn’t get my eyes open. My mother, it is told, cried for two whole days at what fate had dropped in her lap...'' Ronnie Bray, writing with Dickensian gusto, launches into his life story.

Look out on Saturdays (and also in our archives) for Ronnie's splendid weekly Letter From America columns.

I was born in Huddersfield of a father who might have been born in Lancashire, and a mother who was born in Staffordshire. It was not a good start, and it got worse.

When my mother was a young girl of tender years, barely over seventeen years, somewhere around the 19th of November 1932, she met an older, smooth talking, youth in Greenhead Park and became pregnant some moments later.

Because of other circumstances, he entertained understandable doubt that he was my sister’s father and used to say so quite loudly in all kinds of company, including ‘open court’ which didn’t go down very well.

I heard it repeated often, usually when I had seen or was going to see my Father. Irené who we called René, was told it my Nan, but it was not kept secret. George would not accept responsibility for the pregnancy, and so did not do “the proper thing” and marry Louie, which was a trouble to her and her mother, Maggie.

According to my father, he decided for reasons that he did not divulge, to “get it over with” and presented himself, appropriately, at the back door of 121 Fitzwilliam Street to discuss marriage with the formidable mother of my mother-to-be. He knocked with the sense of dread with which a man stands on the scaffold blindfolded and noosed ready for the long drop.

Eventually, the door opened revealing the dread form and face of my Nanny-to-be, who, upon seeing him, screamed,

“My baby! My baby! What have you done to my baby?”

She advanced on his cowering person, as he huddled against the top step railings covering his vital parts as best he could from her flailing handbag with which she tried to club him to death. Lodger, Harry Manton, who had come to the door with her, persuaded her to cease the deadly handbagging, thereby saving his life, if not his dignity.

The accused was ushered into the ‘front room’ where Harry Manton took up a position in an easy chair; his leg swinging over the arm in a pose so casual and confidant that George Frederick Bray, my father-to-be, took him to be Mr Harold Bennett, my grandfather-to-be, unaware as yet that Mr Bennett did not qualify for entrance into the holy of holies.

I deduce that the marriage took place sometime in early March of 1934, and I was born in January 1935. I was a chubby baby, some might say fat – some would say fat! My birth weight was ten pounds and my face was so chubby that I couldn’t get my eyes open. My mother, it is told, cried for two whole days at what fate had dropped in her lap. Although I was there, I don’t remember anything about it and so I must be treated as an unreliable witness. When I raised the issue with my mother, she couldn’t remember it either, so she has to be an unreliable witness too. I can’t even remember who told me.

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