The opening pages from 'Flesh Wounds'
By Richard Glover
According to my mother, I was the first artificial insemination baby in Australia. The claim is not as unlikely as it sounds; the dates work out. She wasn’t talking about IVF or test tubes, just about sperm and a turkey baster. Old style. So her story made some sense. It was her reason for needing help that was strange. She and my father were having trouble conceiving, which is not surprising when you consider she’d never slept with him. Not once. They’d been married twelve years and still the marriage was unconsummated. And even in 1958, it was hard to get pregnant without having sex.
They were living in Papua New Guinea where medical facilities were scarce, so they came down to Sydney to see an infertility specialist. My father gave his sperm and my mother submitted to the procedure. And, according to my mother, it worked. She was both pregnant and a virgin. So, at this point, you may wish to call me Jesus.
My father had a different story, but only slightly different. Yes, my mother refused to sleep with him, and yes, they’d booked into an Australian hospital to see if artificial insemination could be the answer. In my father’s version, though, the procedure didn’t work. They went back to New Guinea, and she was forced to finally have sex with him, just the once, in order to have me. I don’t know which story is right. Either way, I find it hard to think of myself as a love child.
A few years later, we moved from Papua New Guinea - first to Sydney and then to Canberra. During that time I never felt like the favourite, which is hard when you are an only child. My mother was distant, both from me and my father. She would tell anyone who listened about the unusual circumstances of my birth, as if it made both her and me a little bit posh: a child produced without recourse to rutting. Her tone was the one you use when your child has won a competition.
Some years on, having finished school, I travelled overseas, hoping to meet my English grandparents. By then my parents had split up – my mother moving to a country town far away. I rang her to request contact details for her side of the family. There was a disapproving sigh on her end of the phone. She wasn’t in a position to put me in contact with her family. Frankly she refused. When I asked her why, she told me a story I’d heard growing up, without ever really taking it in. It was a story that explained everything: her rapid but loveless marriage to my father, their rapid escape to New Guinea, and the way I’d never had any contact with my maternal grandparents.
As she explained it, she was a child from an upper class family. Her father had always been busy with affairs of state, working with Sir Winston Churchill both before and during the war. And she – like me – had been an only child. Not properly loved, not properly wanted, and sent away to boarding at just seven years of age. She understood, to some extent, the actions of her parents. They were from that class of people for whom it was customary to send small children to boarding school. But part of her could never forgive, could never forget. It was in the rush to escape the posh boarding school that she met my father, in his smart WWII naval uniform, and then onwards to what she saw as a disastrous marriage. She didn’t want me fraternising with the people who had caused all this misery.
Fair enough. So, I went to England, 19 years old, armed with the name of my father’s sister: Auntie Audrey, a school teacher in Bristol. I met her daughters, my three cousins, the first relatives I’d ever encountered. After a few days, my Aunt asked whether I was planning a trip to see my mother’s family, and I said: “no Auntie” before rapidly repeating the convoluted tale: my mother’s neglectful upper class family, the posh boarding school, handsome navy captain, loveless marriage, turkey baster, sperm, me.
“So Auntie, as you can see, it’s not really possible for me to go and see them.”
All I said, however, was: “Yes, I’d love to see the pictures.”
My aunt went upstairs. I could hear her rummaging around in her bedroom, opening drawers and cupboards. She came down holding a tiny black and white photograph. “Here’s a photo of your mother’s family”, she said, handing it over. I stared at the small image, transfixed but confused. There were five people in the photo – my mother, her two sisters and their parents. I could recognise my mother. And the others looked like her: they were clearly a family. They were also clearly northern working class. Actually, they were northern working class as rendered by Monty Python. The father virtually had a hanky on his head.
My mother, my aunt explained, grew up in cramped two-up two-down terrace house in Lancashire, left school at 14 and was working as a hairdresser’s apprentice when she met my father, who was only a smidge higher on the social hierarchy. Her dad – my grandfather – had worked in a cotton mill; her sisters ran a small boarding house. The stories about “working for Sir Winston”, life in the boarding school, the posh accent, even her status as an only child: all of it was an invention.
I know the obvious thing to say is that this left me gutted. That I sat there sobbing, reflecting on the fact that all my young life had been a lie. Or that, in response to this revelation, I reassessed my relationship to social class, deciding to celebrate my true proletarian British background by henceforth dressing in a cloth cap and shoving a ferret down my trousers.
The reality was that I hardly noticed what my aunt was saying. At 19, on my first trip outside Australia, I didn’t really care about the identity of my mother’s parents, nor about whether my mother was a poshie or a non-poshie. It all seemed rather arcane, nowhere near as interesting as the fact that my cousins were about to take me horse-riding at a farm down the road.
This lack of interest will, I know, sound weird to anyone who comes from a vaguely functional family. How can you not care about your parents and their antecedents? Maybe there are others, though, who think it sounds normal. Caring about your parents can hinge on whether they cared about you. My mother had, in all the important ways, disappeared from my life by the time I was 15 and, even in the years she was present, had been disconnected, self-interested, otherwise engaged. I’d always considered myself self-raising, like flour.
It was only years later that other questions began to press themselves forward. Can you really be self-raising, like flour? Or is that just a glib way to pretend bad parenting doesn’t hurt? Is it possible to be a good parent yourself, if your own parents were not what you ordered? And is the personality of the ill-parented person, both the good parts and the bad, really nothing but scar tissue, grown around this elemental hurt?
My attitude at 19 – “I’m just not that interested” – may have been healthy, in a self-protective, let’s-get-on-with-things way, but it was an attitude that became difficult to maintain as the years went by. And so, more than three decades on, I decided to discover where I came from.
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