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Chapter One: Roots
The family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.
- Edmund Leach
In the 1940s, Malcolm Lowry wrote a story about a childhood incident which throws light on his relationship with his father and his emergence as a young rebel. The schoolboy narrator sometimes rides with his father in his chauffeur-driven Minerva from their home at Caldy, on the Wirral, to Birkenhead, where the father takes the ferry en route to his office across the Mersey in Liverpool. On the way they invariably overtake a neighbour, a lawyer, who chooses to walk the seven miles from the village to the ferry. The lawyer always smiles and raises his stick in salute as the limousine sweeps past, but the boy's father studiously ignores him. When the lad enquires why, he is told sternly that the man is a drunkard, without self-discipline. But, the boy protests, isn't getting up at five in the morning to walk seven miles to the ferry self-discipline? They didn't do that. The father does not answer; to him anyone who drinks is beyond the pale. The boy's heart goes out to the man as it turns against his hard-hearted father. `He did not know,' he says, `that secretly I had decided that I would be a drunkard when I grew up.'(1)
Whether something like this event took place is not clear, but, since his fiction is so deeply rooted in autobiography, it would seem the seeds of discontent were planted early in Lowry's life. He was the youngest of four sons bom to Arthur Osborne Lowry, cotton broker, and Evelyn Boden Lowry, with fourteen years between him and his oldest brother, and was treated as the baby of the family from the outset, which both set him apart and provoked his naturally bad temper.
Lowry is an old Scottish name, for fox; it also means a crafty person. The sixteenth-century Scottish poet John Dunbar's reference to a fox as `an lusty reid haird lowry' is an apt description of Clarence Malcolm of that ilk. The coppery brown hair together with the narrow intensely blue eyes, and mischievous, slightly buck-toothed smile, gave him a foxy look lie was keen to cultivate. `A fox', he wrote ill his school magazine, `is in animal who in his spare time foxes'.(2) The Lowry family makes no claim to noble ancestry, cultivates no family tree, sports no escutcheons.(3) Like many families on the rise, Arthur Lowry's family regarded its history as a tabula rasa. It had no past, just a future. But in search of a writerly identity, Malcolm created a fictional past to give meaning to his present, inventing a family history, part British, part Scandinavian, which, through his rather shadowy maternal grandparents, was just conceivably plausible. His own parents, however, were substantial enough. Arthur Osborne Lowry was born in 1870, the son of a jobbing builder, at 14 Admiral Street, a three-bedroom terrace house in the respectable lower middle-class district of Toxteth Park in Liverpool - `that terrible city whose main street is the ocean,' Lowry wrote.(4) Evelyn Boden Lowry was born nearby, at 113 Handel Street, the daughter of a master mariner. `That terrible city' and the sea which provided its raison d'etre, were to supply Lowry with two enduring and related visions - that of the lunatic city inside which he was to feel trapped and was to suffer, and that of the pathway to the sea and the ocean voyage, the risk-laden escape route from lunacy into uncertainty.
Arthur was one of the survivors of a family of thirteen, a dark-haired, slightly built boy with a serious demeanour. His parents were from Carlisle, where parish records attest to the presence of Lowrys as far back as the 1690s. There is no recorded memory of his father Edward, nor of his mother Georgina, whose family name was Bradburn. They were, however, strict Methodists, both pious and censorious. Edward brought the fervour of a convert to his Wesleyanism, a powerful commitment shared by his elder brother Richard William, whose son, Richard junior, became a minister on the Liverpool circuit. Richard William and Edward joined together in 1875 to form the firm of E.&R W. Lowry, joiners, builders and estate agents, at 32 Admiral Street. The Lowry brothers each fathered large families, and for each of them family life revolved around home, the nearby St John's Methodist Chapel in Belvidere Road where the Reverend Richard was the resident minister, and the Admiral Hall Mission for Sailors established at 32 Admiral Street in 1894.
When Edward died that year, Arthur's family moved in with Richard who became paterfamilias of the new joint family. The heavy atmosphere phere of moral rectitude must have been suffocating for an intelligent boy like Arthur. It certainly left its mark on him, despite his later efforts to break away. The mould into which he was compressed left him incapable of expressing overt emotions. He grew up to believe that open displays of feeling were signs of weakness, and weakness in turn was a sin. That, at least, is the impression he gave his children. The ghosts of these gloomy, puritanical Lowrys cast a long dark shadow over Malcolm's life, and he made early efforts to exorcize them with a lethal pen. In Ultramarine, his first novel, he buries them all, `knocked for a row of milk bottles in the cemetery at Oslo,' the victims of congenital syphilis. They never reappear in any of his subsequent writing. `The gods', he wrote, `hugged my forebears to death.' Later in the novel he admits that he had killed them off that way only in his imagination and for pleasure. However, a sense of religious foreboding lived on in his life, and a deep sense of guilt about the damage a sinful life could do to the genius with which he was entrusted.
His mother's family, however, were spared his homicidal malice. Although they were more penurious than the Lowrys, they were seemingly more colourful and venial. Evelyn's father, John Boden, was born at Northwich in Cheshire in 1839, son of a lighterman. Her mother, Betsy Potter, was born four years later in Liverpool. John was lost at sea in 1884, leaving Betsy with four young children to bring up in penny-pinching poverty. Evelyn, it seems, set out early to `improve' herself and to distance herself from her family as much as possible. She transformed her father into a legendary figure, a romantic sea captain who came to play an important role in the fictional ancestry of her mythogenic son, Malcolm. Evelyn told her children that `Captain Lyon' Boden was given his first command in his early twenties and disappeared at sea, along with his ship, the four-masted schooner, the Scottish Isles, returning from India. In Ultramarine we get our first glimpse of the legendary `Captain' Boden when Lowry's autobiographical hero Dana Hilliot recalls being bathed one evening by his mother.
Gazing at the picture of my grandfather in the old nursery, I noticed for the first time how infinitely blue his eyes were, and slightly obscene; watery, as though he had never wiped the salt spray from them. `Why are you so dirty, Dana? My father was always so clean, so spruce. He had a master's certificate before he was twenty-three. When he came ashore he always came in a cab, and wore a top hat. He always wore a deerskin cap . . . He was an angel from heaven. He was bringing me a cockatoo.'(5)
That `slightly obscene' look Lowdry placed in the old Captain's watery blue eyes was clearly a mark of affection bestowed on a much-loved creation. In his story `Through the Panama' he is a swashbuckling memory `recalled by Old Hands in Liverpool' for his pugnacity and seamanship, and in the posthumously published Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid he is spun into a dramatic yarn worthy of a Conrad novel.
My grandfather was a skipper in sail, he was wrecked, and drowned in the Bay of Bengal. Actually, his ship was blown up. He had a rather heroic death . . . It became quite a legend. They were in the doldrums. The crew had cholera.(6)
He told his second wife that it was at the valiant Captain's request that a British gunboat blew the stricken vessel and all on board, himself included, out of the water. The tale, as told, must have resonated with conviction, and no doubt its gradual elaboration owed something to having been told and retold over innumerable bar-room tables.
Sadly for Lowry's story, the prosaic record blows Captain Boden and the Scottish Isles out of the water more effectively than any gunboat. The ship on which John Boden disappeared on 26 April 1884, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, was the Quebec-owned Vice Reine, and the 45-year-old master mariner was serving not as its captain but as first mate.(7) The facts, however, were less important to Lowdry than a myth he could build upon, and here he had a far more romantic ancestor than any supplied by the gloomy and pedestrian Lowdrys, who were so unimaginative and sanctimonious.
After three years at the Liverpool Institute, Arthur left school at fifteen to become an office boy with a shipping company, and must have found the spirit of enterprises which infused Victorian commercial life highly congenial. Liverpool in the mid-1880s was Britain's busiest seaport, a city of opportunities for bright industrious young men like Arthur. Steamship companies such as the White Star, Blue Star and Blue Funnel lines, trading to the Americas, west Africa and the Far East, were extending their fleets. The Mersey was the gateway into which poured the raw material of the old and new British Empires and out through which streamed the products of the factories of the North and Midlands. Arthur was well equipped to succeed in a dog-eat-dog world of wheeling and dealing. He had a natural talent for mathematics, a shrewd commercial brain and a deep-rooted work ethic. By nineteen he had advanced to the position of accountant with the cotton broking firm of A.J. Buston&Co, and by twenty-one he was the company's cashier with a junior partnership.
By the time he was twenty-two he was in a position to consider marriage. At the Belvidere Road Chapel he had met Evelyn Boden whose sister Mary had become engaged to his older brother William. Evelyn was four years younger than Arthur, a small, blue-eyed, extremely pretty blonde, though so proud and aloof that the other members of her family nicknamed her the Duchess. Her mother had settled somewhat stoically into widowhood and her two brothers, Jack and Charlie, had followed their father to sea. Evelyn, however, considered them altogether too uncouth for her liking - her mother kept a corner shop and Charlie came to run a coalyard. Her sights were set on higher things. She had taken up elocution lessons and had cultivated a preposterous upper-class accent. Now she was about to be rescued by Arthur, a young man with prospects.
They were married on 5 June 1894, by the Reverend Richard Lowry at Belvidere Road and moved into a small rented terrace house in nearby Cairns Street. Within six months, Arthur had carried his young wife away from the overcrowded streets of Toxteth Park and the sordid thoroughfares of workaday Liverpool across the Mersey to the more sedate residential district of Wallasey on the north-west to of the Wirral Peninsula in neighbouring Cheshire. Not only was this a distinct move up the social scale, but it put the wide river estuary between them and their families. The impecunious Bodens and the censorious Lowrys could be gradually ignored and eventually all but forgotten. Now Arthur travelled dally to the Liverpool Cotton Exchange aboard the Birkenhead Ferry in the company of other commuting businessmen. At 5 Churchill Grove, in the old village of Liscard, on 9 May 1895, the Lowrys' first child, Stuart Osborne, was born.
Over the next fifteen years this flight from origins continued. Every four or five years the Lowrys moved house, and after each move there was another addition to the family. The moves charted the steady rise in Arthur's position and fortunes. Their second child, Wilfrid Malbon, was born at a three-storey semi-detached house in tree-lined Sandrock Road in July 1900, and Arthur Russell arrived in September 1905, at the more elegant `Warren Crest', on the distinctly superior North Drive, overlooking the Municipal Golf Course and the sea. The only set-back to Arthur's advancement was an attack of pneumonia at the end of 1901, so severe that he barely survived. This experience changed him both as a man and as a father. While he was ill, to ease pressure on Evelyn, Stuart was farmed out to the Boderns in Toxteth Park, where, much to her displeasure. he became quite attached to his sailor uncles, Jack and Charlie. Evelyn must in any case have been annoyed to have to depend on a family she now felt was beneath her, and from then on a procession of nursemailds was engaged to take Wilfrid and the other children off her hands until they were sent away to school.
Arthur's illness and its debilitating after-effects threatened to terminate his career with Bustons, where he was still employed in an essentially clerical role. But characteristically he took this reversal as a challenge; the sedentary cashier became a physical fitness enthusiast. He became a keen member of the Liverpool Swimming Club and was awarded a silver medal by the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society for saving a woman from drowning in the Mersey on 15 June 1902. Determined to build up his physique, he enrolled on a mail-order course in muscular development offered by the American strongman Eugene Sandow. Evidently he was a star pupil. He swam and exercised daily and within three years had won the Sandow Medal as England's Best Developed Man of 1904.(8) He proudly wore the gilt medallion on his watch-chain for the rest of his life. His passion for physical culture was passed on to his sons, and with Malcolm it persisted into middle age. But, still in his early thirties, Arthur was not only reincarnated as an athlete but transformed as a parent. He had set out to play the liberal, easy-going father, but by degrees was converted into an autocrat. Evelyn was proving to be an unwilling and ineffectual mother, and Stuart was becoming a rebel. There were complaints from his school and when, barely ten years old, he got into a scrape with the police, Arthur began to take a tough line with all of his sons. He was, by this time, third in seniority at Bustons, with only A.J., its founder, and one other, his cousin Fred, above him. That year he travelled abroad on company business for the first time, on this occasion to Germany, and in the following years he was to handle most of Buston's overseas interests.
Evelyn found his absences stressful. Not only was she finding motherhood distasteful but her new social status made her increasingly uncomfortable. `Self-improvement' through elocution and marriage had not equipped her with the appropriate social graces, and she was ill at ease in company and unable to entertain. In these circumstances, Malcolm was not exactly a welcome baby. He told John Davenport that he was a mistake - unplanned and unwanted. `Thrown together by a cotton broker in less than 5 minutes. 5 seconds perhaps,' says his alter ego in `Through the Panama'.(9) Arthur told him later that during her pregnancy his mother had `concentrated her thoughts on beautiful things so that her dear boy might have beautiful thoughts.'(10) But at thirty-four, and with an evident dislike of small children, the news that she was again pregnant could hardly have been a cause of much joy to Evelyn.
The summer of 1909, the summer of Malcolm's birth, was hot and sultry. His birthplace, New Brighton, swarmed with holidaymakers. On the day of his birth, 28 July, the newspapers were filled with images of Empire. The Asquith Government was to lay down four new dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy; the newly created Union of South Africa had been toasted by a gathering of Imperial Premiers at London's Guildhall; and cheering crowds were greeting the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar at Cowes for the yachting. But it was in the air rather than at sea that history was being made. On 25 July, an unknown Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, had become the first to fly the English Channel, giving rise to invasion scares in the jingo press.
On Thursday 29 July, the births column in the Liverpool Echo announced: `LOWRY - July 28th, at Warren Crest, North-drive, New Brighton, to Mr and Mrs Arthur Lowry, a son.' Much the same notice appeared in the Post and Mercury the following day. Clarence Malcolm Lowry, as he was soon baptized, was a Wednesday child with much woe to come. He was born, his mother told him years later, at midnight,(11) and Arthur, was no doubt proud and delighted to be a father, even if perhaps an unintended one at thirty-nine. Had he been at all superstitious, he might have noted something portentous in the fact that on that day, according to the Echo, the Liverpool cotton market fluctuated nervously.
Lowry liked to recall that he was born close to Rock Ferry where Nathaniel Hawthome lived as US Consul in Liverpool, the city where Herman Melville had announced to Hawthorne his determination to be annihilated.
Lowry claimed one literary fink for himself - that he was named Clarence after Shakespeare's duke who died head-down in a malmsey butt. In fact the name came from a friend of Stuart's. Mercifully it was soon dropped. Evelyn Lowry hinted frequently that Malcolm's entrance into the world had been an awkward one. Six years after it she had a hysterectomy, and thereafter would often sigh dramatically and say, `I've never been the same since Mawlcolm was born,' a remark which became a catchphrase with the younger boys, to be uttered with a suitably histrionic sigh whenever anything went wrong, like a bad shot at golf, or a failed kick-start on the motorbike. Both Malcolm and Russell recalled their mother as cold, uncaring and self-centred, and Arthur had to blackmail them into showing her affection. In return for some minor favour he would say, `Give your mother a nice warm kiss, then.' This, too, became a joke with the two younger boys who, as they grew older, became apt mimics of their humourless parents.
Malcolm and Russell, like Stuart and Wilfrid before them, were quickly handed over to nursemaids, and their contact with their mother was minimal. Whether or not Evelyn did, as Arthur maintained, breastfeed Malcolm, Russell remembered them being fed on a milk-substitute called Mellin's Food. And, he recalled, she never ever bathed them at bedtime. As a result, like many little boys of their class, the two youngest became deeply attached to their nanny, Miss Bell, known affectionately as `Bey'.
In the summer of 1910 the family spent a holiday on the Isle of Man, for which Malcolm came to hold a special affection, and Manx figures crop up occasionally in his novels and stories. On their return, Wilfrid was sent to Caldicott School in Hitchin, the prep school for The Leys, the Methodist public school in Cambridge to which Stuart had been sent the year before.
Meantime, Arthur had met, probably on his daily trips across the Mersey to his office at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange, a German property developer, David Benno Rappart. Rappart was the architect of an ambitious scheme to build an estate for affluent gentry and the nouveau riche at Caldy on the north east coast of the Wirral peninsula, just south of Hoylake. Caldy was a tiny, isolated hamlet - little more than a church, a village green and a manor house. Rappart's Caldy Manor Estate planned a series of detached houses in the grand style, each to be built on at least an acre of land, with a cluster of small separate houses for servants, and use of a nine-hole golf course designed by golf champion James Braid. The seaward prospect from Caldy was magnificent - the broad sweep of the Dee Estuary with the Welsh mountains beyond. From the golf clubhouse on a clear day the snow-capped peak of Mount Snowdon was visible. To the north lay Liverpool Bay, Hilbre Island, and the strange coastline around Hoylake and Leasowe, with its ancient sunken forest and lonely lighthouse. It was an idyllic spot, the perfect place to which to escape from the sordid industrial seaport where Arthur spent his working days. He bought a parcel of land, hired a builder, and on 6 September 1911, Russell's sixth birthday, the family moved into the new house, Inglewood, an eight-roomed mock-Tudor mansion set in two acres of land. It cost Arthur 3,500[pounds]. He was now a man of substance and most certainly on the way up.
The move was not exactly to Evelyn's taste. The house needed servants, and having to manage them only heightened her sense of social anxiety. Arthur bought her a copy of Mrs Beeton's cookbook, departed immediately on business for Russia, and left her to get on with it. But it was not only Inglewood that worried her; she also found the local social scene intimidating. The new neighbours included two bankers, an insurance chief, and a shipowner who travelled to work in a horsedrawn carriage driven by a coachman in white-topped boots. Evelyn, seemingly overawed by this show of style, retired to her bedroom for most of the day and forbade entertainment at Inglewood. If Arthur needed to entertain business friends he was to do so at the Cotton Exchange. In fact, Evelyn was to live almost entirely isolated from Caldy society for almost forty years, even preferring to shop by phone. She was unwell for a long time following Malcolm's birth and this reticence may have been caused by medical problems and the early onset of menopause. But if she found the role of hostess too painful, Arthur was ready to indulge her in order to maintain the fiction of a happy marriage. Protected from reality by his stern devotion, she was both spoiled and caged. Her family life was largely a performance, and from her children's point of view it was a performance without truth or affection.
Three servants were hired in addition to Miss Bell: Mary, the cook, and Minnie, the housemaid, lived in; George Cooke, the gardener, an old Caldy inhabitant, lived out. Cooke was an old-fashioned countryman (memorable for having had all his teeth extracted by the village blacksmith) who taught the Lowry boys a great deal about rural life. However, the servants and the running of the house soon caused loud quarrels between Evelyn and Arthur. Writing from London en route to Russia shortly after moving into Inglewood, Arthur complained sadly, `You do sometimes knock down all my castles.'
By 1912, he had acquired a car and hired a chauffeur by the hour to drive him to and from the Birkenhead ferry. His career was at its apogee. He was a prominent and respected member of his profession, with a fine new house, a pretty if rather awkward wife, a young family of healthy good-looking sons of whom he was enormously proud, a car, servants, and excellent prospects. Perhaps to mollify her, he bought Evelyn a full concert-sized Bechstein for the lounge, and around this the family would congregate to sing, mostly hymns from the Methodist Hymnal. Although he had escaped the excessive piety of his own family, Arthur still insisted on regular church-going, and each Sunday marched his family five miles to the nearest Methodist chapel in West Kirby. As a baby, Malcolm went with Miss Bell to the Caldy parish church, and by the time he was old enough to walk, to an Anglican church Arthur had switched to because it was nearer than the Methodist one.
Trauma struck when the nanny, thinking to better herself, took a job as a stewardess on a cruise liner, and departed suddenly in April 1912, when Malcolm was three months short of his third birthday. When she left, the two youngest wept inconsolably. However, she did not enjoy the experience on the liner possibly disturbed by the Titanic disaster that month) and on the occasion of his third birthday, 28 July, she wrote Malcolm a sweet letter from Wallasey on SS Teutonic notepaper, saying how the sea had not suited her and how sad she grew thinking of her `dear little baby with a brown face and blue eyes' who sang `Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' to her. The letter was opportune because her replacement had been a disaster.
The stand-in nursemaid was the youthful but short-tempered Miss Long, whom Malcolm and Russell disliked on sight, probably for no other reason than that she was not Miss Bell. One day, while the two boys were being walked by Miss Long over Caldy Hill - a stretch of wild grass, gorse and bramble bushes overlooking the Dee Estuary - Russell wandered off, leaving the nanny wheeling Malcolm along in his pushchair. Suddenly he heard loud screams and went running back to find Miss Long and Malcolm emerging from behind bushes, Malcolm in floods of tears and Miss Long in a furious temper. What occurred in the undergrowth will never be known, but Malcolm was later to milk the incident for all it was worth, claiming at various times that he had been beaten on the genitals with a bramble branch, sexually abused, and held upside down over the cliff's edge. The same nanny was also said to have suspended him head-down over a rain barrel. What probably happened was that he had a temper tantrum, and Miss Long, unable to cope with a fractious three-year-old, lost control and belaboured him with whatever lay to hand, perhaps a dead branch lying along the path. In the event, the hapless girl was quickly dismissed, and Miss Bell returned to much rejoicing from the two young Lowrys. But Miss Long had provided Malcolm with a memory trace from which he came to build a sad tale of cruelty and suffering. Not only was she a sadist, but his parents, by allowing this to happen, had neglected him disgracefully.
The return of the much-loved `Bey' brought happier times. Then, at five, Russell was sent to a local prep school, leaving Malcolm with `Bey' to himself during the day. He was generally spoiled both by her and the other servants. Mary, German and fierce, was thought to have come to England for love, only to have been jilted. Sarah soon replaced Minnie, but both women had a soft spot for young Malcolm. He claimed later that they gave him wine to make him sleep as a child, but what happened was that once, aged four, he strayed into the larder and helped himself to some of Minnie's home-brewed wine, making himself so ill he was put to bed, where he passed out. The children saw Evelyn only during meals, except dinner, when she and Arthur ate alone. When they were reluctant to eat, she would reproach them with her poverty-stricken childhood. `Ooh, lovely porridge! I never had anything like this when I was a girl!' Her early deprivation was real enough and no doubt played a large part in the making of her character. Russell remembered her as snobbish, small-minded and mean, with few redeeming qualities. It was she, he believed, who was the main cause of the trouble which slowly began to brew inside the family.
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