How well do we really know our parents?
I first met my friend N in 1990, when we were part of a crew of wholefood freaks and eco evangelisers hired by the then distributor of Ecover to tour the UK, educating the public about the dangers of phosphates in laundry products.
It was a wonderful job and thanks to the many miles we travelled, I got to know N quite well.
Brought up by conventional middle-class parents in south west London, he had clearly been a misfit in his family from the start. The relationship between the sensitive boy and his straight-laced parents grew so difficult he dropped out of school and left home while still a teenager.
For a while, N lived in squats and was immersed in the druggy counterculture of the time. Extended travels in India followed, then work on organic farms in the Pyrénées and Cornwall. By the time I met him his hippy ideals had matured into a well-informed commitment to organic agriculture and green politics. He had taken up education again and was on a journey that would see him get a PhD in Environmental Policy a decade later.
After the road tour we all went our separate ways. When I met up with N again, years later, his mother had died and he was helping his elderly father settle into a new flat and come to terms with widowhood.
Their relationship hadn’t improved. N’s father failed to show any interest in his son’s life or appreciation for his support. The two seemed to have nothing in common apart from a surname. For N, the lack of mutual sympathy was a source of pain and resentment which lasted through the long years of his father’s decline.
When his father eventually died, N was surprised to find among his effects a stash of 1940s-era glamour photographs. And even more astonished that two of the models strongly resembled his parents.
The photos were taken at the Bertram Park Studio in Dover Street, Piccadilly. Bertram Park and his wife Yvonne Gregory were leading portrait photographers of their day, who shot actors and royalty from across Europe and beyond.
They also specialised in photos of the female nude, and published books with titles like ‘Curves and Contrasts’, ‘Sun bathers’ and ‘The Beauty of the Female Form’.
N knew that his mother had worked as a receptionist at a photographer’s studio. The discovery that she – and his father – may also have modelled at a leading glamour studio – threw into doubt his memories of the puritan pair.
The photos are shadowy and the faces averted. I don’t know if N really thinks the people in the photos are his parents or just hopes that they might be.
If it is a fantasy, it’s a consoling one. Thinking of his parents as active celebrants of beauty and sexuality heals the wounds left by a lifetime of feeling rejected by them.
Talking about this with N made me think that we don’t really know our parents.
That is, we only know the bits of them that they choose to show us (and, if we’re lucky, we get the occasional fascinating glimpse from other people who knew them before we did). It’s cheering to think they may have secrets we’d never dream of.