George Coulouris Memoirs

Reflections on a middle-class boyhood

written by GC 12/2/89

I left home 65 years ago so it seems to be a good time to decide what I left behind and what I took with me.

First of all I left a very messy life behind. Scrubbing rusty corned beef tins till shiny enough to pass the food inspector, hanging up strands of hemp which seemed abominable and looked like the hair of long drowned blonds.

I played happily together with a set of semi-hooligans who all looked down on me as a greasy Greek suffering cruel jokes such as a tub of water being poured over me because they'd realised I was wearing a nice new suit. I put up with it for the sake of the companionship and above all for the games, cricket on a bare cindery croft where I learnt to bat and bowl, very crudely with a cross bat , but with a good eye for slogging, and a very good bowling action with a natural break back, as it was known in those far off days.

Steve, the man who was supervising the rat auto da fe, was a burly Greek, about thirty years old, whose few English words were mostly about eating and fucking. He did not 'lay' women around, he 'placed' them, so to speak, and most women offered him the hospitality of their doorsteps. Because of my big chest, he was always telling me I could become a heavyweight boxing champion. His exploits with women amused me quite a lot. He told me that once my father had almost caught him with a woman on top of a pile of empty sacks fucking away like mad. My father, a tyrant, would have been furious and jealous probably.

We had a sordid sale of our miserable, worn-out chattels in Salford, amongst them a mangle with two very worn rollers. My father carefully turned the rollers so that they weren't showing the worn parts, then carefully took away the handle. The buyer, probably a poor demobilised soldier, put the handle back on and, looking at the damage, said, ruefully, "The one who did this knew a thing or two, - a fitting comment to end our stay in Salford.

So we joined the middle class. (When I went to Prague with my family some years ago, as the four of us filed into the office of the Actors' Union, "Is this a delegation?" the secretary asked us.) In this case, the answer was 'Yes'. We were a delegation, from the downtrodden working class who had got into the middle class by accident, shoved there by the biggest war the world had ever seen. My father had made enough money out of it to join them. So there we were, four of us, first of all Grandma, straight as a ramrod at the age of seventy six, thinking nothing of walking six miles into Manchester and six back again with the artificial flowers on her bonnet jigging merrily in the wind. Monsieur Dufour used to say, "Les suisses se lavent tout le temps, et ca puent; les italiens ne se lavent jamais, et ca ne puent pas." So it was with Grandma with regard to bathing and I slept in the same bed with her until I was six years old and it took some doing to make me stop. The main thing that happened with Grandma was being born in Knutsford, Cheshire.

Once, during the war, she heard two little boys saying "There are some German spies in that field!" She marched over to them and said, "How dare you?" We're not Germans, we're from Knutsford, Cheshire!" All her life she was trying to bring back memories of her past Knutsford life: the famous Knutsford Maypole Dance; the Glee Club serenading Lord de Tatton with 'Hail! smiling morn that tips the hills with gold; the glories of Tatton Park. She aroused in me a great liking for the place so that night after night in bed, I would say, "Grandma, tell me another story about Knutsford." During the last few years of her life, one day, Dad hired a car to drive her to Knutsford. She had never been back in over fifty years - it was too far in those days. I'll never forget as I sat beside her how she pressed my hand, she was so overcome at seeing all the places she had known as a young girl. The industrial revolution forced her to leave idyllic Knutsford for Macclesfield where she became a silk weaver, marrying and renting a little house with a handloom on the top floor. She had three children, a boy and two girls, my Auntie Polly and my mother.

They settled down to a life of semi-starvation and poverty. My Grandma was a premature Thatcherite, never ceased criticising my grandfather for sitting for hours in the lavatory instead of working away to buy a house or two: it was all that was holding them back from a better life. I never knew my grandfather well. He always took me to the old mens' shelter in the park in Salford. One morning, he went all funny. I rushed home to tell them Grandfather was ill and in a short time he was dead of a stroke.

At fourteen years old, my mother packed a cheap little tin trunk and left to become, like all the other girls of her age, a domestic servant. This gradually made her a strong believer in the virtues of the solid, prosperous middle class - of one family in particular: the Eldridges of Nuneaton whom she revered and who in return taught her the whole art of middle class gentility, some of which she passed on to me. Later on, she became a hotel chambermaid. As she lay in her attic room one night, she woke up to find a rat biting at her left eye. She always had a slight mark from it. I don't know how and when she learned to read but she was mad about Marie Corelli. Once I gave her a copy of Pere Goriot and when I joined her in the kitchen for breakfast, I found her entranced by it.

She knew nothing about culture but was romantic enough to sympathise with my desire to become a second Henry Irving, one of the two or three actors she'd ever heard of. She met my father when working in a hotel and seems to have been transfixed by the sight of a mad Greek head chef rushing around chasing kitchenmaids out of the kitchen, chopper in hand, in a fury over some mistake. She evidently fell for him and he even more for her for he married her, a most unusual thing for him to do.

Now comes the strangest member of the family, my father. Since beginning to write this book, I've changed my opinion of him almost completely. I now realise that, in addition to being bad tempered, he was very generous and good natured. He saved my grandparents from destitution, brought them to Salford and looked after them for the rest of their lives. In the eyes of Salford, my father was a criminal because of his sexual behaviour, chasing women openly, being seen in the street with them and so on. He left behind him a string of illegitimate children. After his death, the grandfather of one of his offspring wrote to me a pathetic letter asking me to take care of his granddaughter 'as a gentleman'. I ignored it. On one occasion in the parlour in New Park Road, in the twilight, my mother told me sadly some of his exploits. He and these women put their wee-wees together and made babies. She knew I had a sister of whom he was very fond. Unless I was a very good boy, he might turn to her. I didn't believe it possible.

His prosperity had led my father to believe himself a business genius. In reality it was caused by luck, the war and subsequent world shortage of goods. He was caught by the sudden slump of 1920 and lost almost all he'd gained, principally aided by a strange-looking Greek called Phillipou who persuaded my father with the aid of a silly old bank manager named Lambert to guarantee him an overdraft of five thousand pounds with which they bought leather goods and sent them to Spain. Shortly afterwards Phillipou followed them and neither he nor the goods were ever seen or heard of again.

From then on, life at 'Eucharist' began to go slowly downhill .In fact we only lived there for five years, two of which my father spent in Greece looking for Phillipou, or so he said. That's when he horrified me by trying to make me into a real Greek businessman speaking fluent Greek, etc. That, too, was a complete failure, so that the poor man must have died a lonely, bitter and disappointed man and I was the straw that broke the camel's back. One night, when I confessed my desire or dream to be an actor, he started pacing up and down till he almost wore out the carpet: "We spend a fortune on his education (not true, the fees were very low), send him to the Grammar School for six years, and now he wants to be an actra (sic), an actra. . . As an alternative, I suggested journalism which meant going to university. Same rigmarole about the cost of education plus, "Now the bloody bishop wants him to waste four years at university. . . what then? How are you going to earn a living? From journalism?" He proved this was impossible by inviting the editor of the Pig Fancier's Gazette or some such trade paper. The pig man told me after a lifetime in journalism he had no money. The case for journalism was closed. So there we were.

There I was stuck in the middle of a piddling little suburb. My only refuge was music, opera, the voice of Chaliapin. I heard my first opera during the war; God knows why, since he was almost completely tone deaf, my father decided to support Sir Thomas Beecham's brave attempt to bring grand opera to Manchester in the middle of the biggest war that was ever seen. So one night, I closed the Blick typewriter on the last of a batch of "Yours of the fifth ult. to hand, contents noted, and I beg to inform you that I can supply you with ten tons of sulphate, 25 shillings a ton f.o.b. Thanking you in anticipation, Yours faithfully, Nicholas Coulouris". Clutching a bunch of such letters I told my father I'd finished and, looking at my watch I saw with horror that we were going to be very late for the opera which was Faust. We locked the shop, rushed across the road and waited in vain for a tram. Finally a huge great monster cranked down the road. My father rushed to the front, spoke to the driver for a few seconds and we began a terrifying ride, full speed ahead, all request stops ignored, frantic passengers swept past in vain and we arrived a bit late. My father said, "That was worth it." "What was?" "The sixpence I tipped him." By now we were in the middle of another awkward moment. My father had given one of the ushers a pound note for a programme and he was hissing at her rather hysterically afraid that she would disappear with his money. By the time it came, we were in the middle of a crowd of stallholders with banged knees, trodden on toes, whose voices were almost reaching the loudness of those on stage. Finally we settled down only to see my father jump up again to shout "bravo!" at the rendering of The Soldiers' Chorus which he easily recognised by the sight of so many military men stamping around and bellowing.

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