Phil’s father was killed before he was born and so he was brought up mainly by two women: his mother Audrey, and his grandmother, Elsie. Some of his earliest memories are of being perched up beside the kitchen table while Elsie, a small woman but very strong, kneaded bread or baked scones or warmed kippers – all the while telling him stories about what life was like when she was a girl. She described seeing the first aeroplane wobble through the air over Scarborough castle, and watching the young men march past the house on their way to the ‘Great War’.
Like many women brought up in a strict Victorian household, Elsie was lenient and generous to her grandson. It was from her too that he gained an interest in plant lore and a sense of belonging to a long line of souls stretching into the distant past, to the place where History becomes simply Story.
Phil’s mother was more of a gypsy by temperament. Twenty years old when Phil was born, Audrey was attractive with long red hair and a face that had something of a delicate Japanese cast about it. She loved dancing, and would have relished the opportunity to study music, dance and art. She could play the violin by ear, paint acceptable pictures and would occasionally dance in a way which owed something to ballet and something to the Moulin Rouge.
The reality of her life is, she left school at 14 to begin working in a menial job. This was of course during what used to be called The Great Depression. Audrey remains a prime example of a woman with brains, beauty and talent who, for reasons beyond her control, never achieved the kind of education that would have enabled her to realize her dreams or her potential, and which would have liberated her. In this she is one of many. She did however, fight to obtain those things for her son.
Phil recalls: “We were poor, especially after my mother decided to ‘go it alone’ by moving away from the family home. I realize that now, but it didn’t really matter at the time. There were a lot of other poor people too, all scratching to make a living.
I was six or seven when we moved to a place of our own. As a child one accepts what is. My mother got a job looking after an elderly spinster. Her payment was that we got to live in a two room basement flat with no electricity and an outside bog that froze in the winter. And if you ask me about those times, I would say that I had a happy and very privileged up-bringing. Of course, never having had a father, I have no real idea what I missed. I suspect that my mother would have liked to re-marry, but there was a shortage of eligible men after the war. If I have any regrets, it is that I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I would have liked both. However, I grew up to be very self-reliant – whether inventing games for myself or looking after my mother when she became ill. “
Looking back, Phil recalls that there were two main external influences on him. The first was the North Yorkshire Moors. He and his mother would go picking brambles and wild flowers. “Once we picked nettles and some other herbs. I was told that if you nipped the nettle tightly it couldn’t sting you. Not true. I got stung all over my arms and I can remember my mother picking dock leaves to rub on the stings. ‘Wherever there’s nettles you’ll find dock,’ she said. And why were we picking nettles? To eat of course. I think things must have been a bit tight at the time and so my mother improvised. Sometimes we’d meet a man who’d give my mother a rabbit in a bag. My impression was that I hadn’t to tell anyone about that.”
It was visits such as these that made the Moors seem an enchanted place. Later when Phil had a bike of his own he would cycle up to some private places and there settle down either in the shade of a stone wall or by one of the small streams or one of the tumuli, and just daydream. Once he got a fright when he heard a moaning in the valleys. It was joined by other notes creating a strange and very wild music. After a while he realized that what he was hearing was the wind being funnelled up the different small valley – but it sounded unearthly, especially as the sky was darkening and a storm was on its way.
The other influence was the North Sea. In Phil’s memory that sea is always grey and with the wind gusting from the NE so that the waves come rolling in to land on the shore with a thump. A storm at high tide was an awesome sight with the spray shooting up in the air like rockets when the waves his the marine drive below the ruined castle. When the sea was calm, Phil spend hours messing about in the rock pools. He comments, “My favourite bedtime stories involved creatures that lived in the deep-sea. My mother would make up stories about figure-heads that could talk and mermaids who could perform magic and save ships that were in trouble, and of long dead mariners whose spirits never wanted to leave the deep-sea. Later in life when I wrote a series of stories called Tales from the Borderland, I was able to draw on the memories of those days and one of the stories, I’ll Sing You a Song…. derives directly from a tale my mother told.”
Phil failed the ’11 Plus’, the examination one had to pass if one wanted to go to a grammar school. It was not that he did badly, but he just did not finish enough of the papers. This was a problem all his life while at school – an inability to master exam technique. If he got stuck on a problem he tended to stay with it instead of pushing on to the next question. This is also a characteristic of his approach to writing: if he encounters a problem in a story, he will not move on until he has it solved. He explains: “This is part of the creative process. A problem means you have to adjust something. The solution is there, waiting to be discovered. But if you don’t solve it in the here and now, it remains like a thorn in the skin, and can ultimately lead to other problems. Conversely, when a problem is resolved, the rest of the work moves more easily and is always better, by which I mean deeper in its implications and more revealing.”
Failing the ’11 Plus’ led to sad days at home. He felt that is some ways he had let people down. A re-count was called for and it emerged that in those questions he had answered he had done well. But the result was not changed. He began to trim his hopes and think of a career in electrical engineering. Though Phil did not realize it at the time, his mother had 0ther ideas. She was determined that he would not suffer the same fate that she had – having to leave school before she had a chance to gain a real education. Somehow she found a scholarship that would pay the fees for Phil to attend Scarborough College so long as he could pass the entrance exam. And this time he did. He remembers little about it except one question which was to complete the following statement “Clear as …..” He wrote ‘mud’. He now reckons that the only reason he was accepted was because the marker had a sense of humour – but the story also illustrates a certain unworldliness, or an inability to understand how things are done.
Scarborough College proved to be a good choice for, apart form introducing him to Latin and French, English literature, History and the sciences -all of which he enjoyed, it allowed Phil’s love of theatre to be given full rein. Under directors as inspired as Peter Burton, who taught English and John Lane who taught Art, the school embarked on annual productions of Shakespeare.
Since being a very young boy, Phil had always expressed a desire to become an actor. He can remember creating little theatres under the kitchen table and there performing bits from films he had seen. Later at St Martin’s Primary school Miss Fewster, his form teacher, was enthusiastic about teaching via theatre and staged little plays in which Phil performed anything from animals to trees. Let it also be said that this ambition was one which his mother supported.
Now, at Scarborough College, he was able to take roles as varied as MacDuff, Bollingbroke in Richard II, Antonio in The Tempest and the greatest challenge of all, Hamlet.
Regarding this experience Phil comments, “I was very lucky. These roles drew something from me – a seriousness that I always hoped was there – and helped me grow up. I mean, you can’t say lines like “Turn, Hell Hound. Turn” except with a deep intensity. It is, after all, the crucial moment when you are facing the man who has murdered your wife and children, and when the fight can only be to the death; or “If it be now , ‘t is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” which is another meditation on death… you can’t say these things without being moved, and hence needing to understand. The plays also gave me a freedom I had never consciously known before: a freedom to live in the imagination, which is also what you do when you write books or poems. I became aware of the richness and beauty of the English language. It still thrills me, and I gained an abiding love of Shakespeare. At the same time, on a very basic level, these plays demanded that I settle down and work – not only to bring the roles alive, but to fulfill the trust and the expectation of those who depended on me such as my fellow actors, those who work behind the scenes, and ultimately the audience. In some ways I am still living from this early experience of Shakespeare and I am quite intrigued that little quotations from Shakespeare, albeit sometimes disguised, slip into my written work.”
At this time, coming close to the end of his school career, Phil was also attracted to what he thought might be a contemplative life amid ‘dreaming spires’. He sat for an open scholarship to a Cambridge college but failed to gain admission. But then, more or less in compensation, something rather strange happened.
The theatre director, Stephen Joseph who had established the Theatre in the Round company in Scarborough, saw Phil acting in The Tempest and a couple of days later, Phil received a message from Stephen inviting him to have tea with him. Phil comments, “I accepted of course. But I did not talk about this to other people except my mother. It was a strange meeting. I did not know what to expect. I was very much in awe of Stephen who was one of the most energetic and inspired men I had even met. We sat having tea in his house in Longwestgate St talking about the theatre, and then Stephen said, quite simply, “I saw you acting and I think you have the talent to be a professional actor. If you like, I will write you an introduction to the Central School of Speech and Drama. You’ll have to do an audition of course. But it is a good school.” I can not remember what I said… I mean I expressed gratitude. But what does one say to an offer such as this? That evening I talked things over with my mother and she was pretty definite. ‘DO IT.’ she said.”
So, Phil accepted Stephen Joseph’s offer and, since he was close to leaving school, he set off down to London and auditioned for a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama. It was there that he was told for the first time in his life that he had a Yorkshire accent! “No,” he said, “It’s you what’s got the accent.” Despite this bit of cheek he was accepted. However there was uncertainty whether he could obtain a bursary.… and then something else that was rather strange happened.
To be continued …