Variations on a Serenade to Teesborough
Links that bind FW Lister, my dad and me
by Sarah McCartney

Published: Monday, February 8th, 2010

I last saw my dad on platform four of Newcastle Central Station as my train left for King’s Cross. There he was, wrapped up in his tweed hat and coat, woollen scarf, leather gloves, smart shoes, shirt and tie as always, towering above my mum, who was also bundled up against the north wind.

He had tears in his eyes as he always did when I left. As the time came for me to set off for London he would think of more and more stuff to talk about: football, books, places we’d visited when I was a kid, piano music, plays, anything so he didn’t have to thinking about our being 275 miles apart once again. My mum would already be thinking about what to cook for dinner. He looked old and tired as he smiled and waved.

“I always wonder if it will be the last time I see them,” I said to Nick.

The last time we spoke, we argued. He called just after we’d got back from holiday. Like most dads he usually left the ‘phone calls to my mum. This time he gave me one of his lectures. They came once every couple of years; he would store up everything he thought I was doing wrong, every mistake I’d made, all my faults, my failures and it would all flood out in one terrible, unstoppable drenching. He used to think it was for my own good. I don’t remember the details, only that this one was about money. What did I think I was doing, going away on expensive holidays while I was remortgaging my flat to pay credit card bills? We both got cross. He calmed down when I yelled, “I’m only angry because I know you’re right!” Then we were able to talk more reasonably about other things. I remember promising him that I would never have a mortgage more than 50% of my property value. You need to know that my dad was a building society manager for 20 years. Saving was very important to him. Keeping his bank accounts accurate to the last penny occupied much of his retirement. Making sure that my mum would be “comfortable” if he died and that my sister and I wouldn’t get into too much of a financial scrape were the things which worried him most in his last years.

We also had a chat about a book he’d given me for Christmas, The Wind That Blows.
“I bet you’ve not even opened it, have you?” he said.
“I have! I’ve read 30 pages!” I protested. True, but I had struggled with the first chunk of FW Lister’s novel, the part about life on a naval destroyer in wartime. Three weeks later my dad died in his sleep. It took me another three years before I could pick up the book and start again.

I began to understand my dad a bit better when I started to read his books. I borrowed his copy of The L-Shaped Room. It helped me to see things his way. The progressive 1950s take on sex-before-marriage, illegitimate children, how children “turned” homosexual, inter-religious unions, immigration, communism, a complete set of modern moral values. All there in a novel. It was better than a film because there was no screen to separate me from the action. Reading it, I was right there, in an L-shaped room with them. I could begin to see that my parents’ views had been very modern once; without that book I’m not sure I would have made the connection.

Three days after my dad died my mum collapsed; a few minutes later she rejoined us but had left most of her memory behind. In the first series of 24, Jack Bauer’s wife Teri lost her memory from shock. People criticised the story as unrealistic. We know better. What was unrealistic was the speed at which Teri got hers back. Post traumatic amnesia. The mind chooses not to remember.

My mother would not be left alone for a moment. She was frantic each time she remembered where she was but nothing else. Each time we reminded her what had happened she was desolate; each time she forgot again a fog closed around her. It was shift work: me, Ruthie, her sister Viv, bailed out by friends and neighbours. The humour was black. We had no time to think or talk about my dad. Sometimes we’d have silence, a five minute break, then the little voice would pipe up, “Where’s Alan?” and we’d start all over again.

She was also electing not to sleep in case she never woke up again. Fair enough, understandable under the circumstances. When she finally nodded off we would catch up with our own sleep or find something to distract us. I chose books.

My dad had given me a copy of The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. What a marvellous book: stuffed with gung-ho bright young things and low, thuggish criminal types and amateur sleuth Professor Gervase Fen who drove his unreliable, Italian two-seater recklessly around Oxford. Penguin had reissued a stack of its early crime novels and my dad was keen to share his rediscovered passion for Crispin and Marjory Allingham.

I found four green Penguins on his bookshelf, took them and dunked myself in “cosy crime”. My mum had her way of escaping reality. I’d found one in Albert Campion and his assistant, Lugg. This way the connection with my dad didn’t have to be over. We could still share common experiences. Three years later, after I had read the entire works of Allingham and Crispin, I picked up The Wind That Blows.

FW Lister wrote four novels. The first, These Four Shall Die, is set in Roman Britain at Hadrian’s Wall. I haven’t read it yet. The next two are set in the 1930s in County Durham (Shadow over Spennylam) and Teesside (Portrait of a Man); if you want to know the way people lives and thought between the wars, during fascism, after the Russian Revolution, before the nuclear world, read them.

The Wind That Blows, published in 1948, tells the tale of Joe Smith, his wartime experiences at sea and the shore leave he’s been longing for in Middlesbrough (or rather Teesborough) after a harrowing survival and long recovery from a torpedo attack.

I’d always assumed that I had a lot in common with my dad. We were working class from the North East; we liked mostly the same things: films, theatre, playing music, Middlesbrough FC, going out shopping, hunting flea markets and junk stalls for treasure. He had been searching bookstalls for years looking for The Wind That Blows and was tickled pink to get his piano player’s hands on two copies at his favourite second hand bookshop, Barter Books in Alnwick, £3.60 each. My mum was convinced that the dust jacket illustrator also worked for Vogue in the 1950s. My dad recollected being very impressed when he read it at the time; he didn’t say much about it, except that he’d been hunting it down for years. He wanted me to read it for myself, come back and report. Reading it, and realising that I’d never lived anywhere which resembled that world, light dawned that we’d led very different lives. I discovered that I wasn’t proper working class at all. That was a bit distressing.

One thing I should explain. My dad had two completely separate lives in the 1940s. The first was at home with his mam, dad and Great Aunt. Granddad was a crane driver at the ICI and Grandma worked in shops until she married. Granddad came back from WW1 and had no job, like so many of them, but they married all the same and lived with Aunt Henrietta until he got work. At home my dad listened to the radio, played billiards, read the Beano and supported the Labour Party. He had a scholarship to Middlesbrough Grammar School.
War broke out and half the school was evacuated to the Teesdale countryside, dished out amongst local families and educated in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. He was moved to avoid the bombs aimed at Middlesbrough’s docks, one of which lands in Joe’s street in The Wind That Blows. Oddly, my dad’s best friend John was moved from Tyneside to Saltburn (Lister’s Saltscar, where Joe spends all his money on the glamorous but faithless Inez) which got more hits than his home town of Gateshead.)

My dad found himself in a huge, elegant house in a picturesque village, the guest of Dr. Hawthorne, his second wife and his grown up daughter, Mamie. He had his own L-shaped room. Here he listened to the radio, played the piano and endless games of village green cricket, read the Observer and supported the Liberal party. Mamie taught him to play on their Steinway in the library. By the time he left, he was composing his own music, some of which I have safely stored in my piano stool.

As the threat fizzled to an end in England, he went back to the family’s terrace house in Stockton-on-Tees. He kept up his piano playing and qualified to be a teacher while working at the town hall then the Middlesbrough branch of the Halifax Building Society. There can’t have been many other crane drivers whose sixteen year old lads were writing Ballades, Serenatas and Fantasias in G. He was dragged off to the Navy for his National Service. Here he learned not to volunteer for anything, that many officers were posh but thick as two short planks, and that aeroplanes were dangerous. He never set foot on a ship. His friend John, who had signed up for the Army hoping to do very little and stay near home, was posted to Yokohama.

My dad had seen genuine middle class life first hand as a welcome guest, but it wasn’t really his to join. The Hawthornes showed him Edmund Crispin, but if he wanted to read about home there was FW Lister.

Reading these novels is not a comfy ride. It’s also nigh on impossible to read all three. AbeBooks have The Wind That Blows; my copy of Shadow Over Spennylam cost me £46. Portrait of a Man finally got me through the doors of Humanities 1 at the British Library. They fetched it from Boston Spa and I established myself at seat 2777.

At the reception desk the chap looked at my card. Ominously he returned with two books. They were all about Irish horticulture.
“These are not my books.”
“Sarah McCarthy?”
“Sarah McCartney!”
He chuckled and came back with a faded aquamarine hardback. I don’t mind not owning it as long as I know I can visit.

Portrait of a Man is set in Inglehow (That’s Marske by the Sea where my Auntie Pamela lived). The Man is a headmaster, Will Hackett. There’s always a wise older man in FW’s books. One of the few things I do know about him is that he trained as a teacher at St. John’s in York and was headmaster of a Teesside village school. In The Wind That Blows it’s the headmaster who tries to get Joe to see sense; in Shadow Over Spennylam it’s the Methodist minister, then the football coach and finally the Church of England vicar with the sound advice and wise words. (But we never listen until it’s too late, do we?)

In Shadow Over Spennylam we meet Tom Coulson, one of four brothers in a working class family. Tom is a fitter at a steelworks about to lay off half its workforce. As this is F.W. Lister, you know that Tom or his dad will be drawing dole pretty soon. Everything goes wrong that can, with the occasional gleam of sunshine through the clouds. After chucking his characters down a pit, F.W. leaves them enough rope to clamber out if they’re tough enough.

He must have had a terrifying mother-in-law. Joe Smith has Mary Woodham’s middle class mother to deal with and Tom has the formidable Mrs Lowton, mother of chaste, religious Jenny, followed by Mavis’s ma, the slovenly Mrs Evans. For each of his well-to-do heroines there is her opposite number: Inez, the sophisticated wild child who will hang around with any man with a car and a full wallet, and Mavis, common as muck, done up like a film star, looking for a quick ticket out of her miserable home. Perhaps things will turn out reasonably in the end but you can be certain it will all get very complicated along the way. These books are full of characters, places and difficult situations which my dad’s and granddad’s friends and families lived though. They are fascinating, painfully compulsive. People never said what they meant and emotions were inappropriate at the tea table.

You hope that when Tom Coulson plays for Spennylam Star, observed by the Aston Villa scout with the papers in his pocket, he will score a blinder and get signed up there and then. Yes, he scores a blinder, but this is FW Lister and he’s writing about life without hope in a town without a future. We are not reading Sunshine Over Spennylam. The chapter in which that football match unfolds has more suspense than any blockbusting bestseller. This could have happened to any of us. He writes about tragedies which happen in everyone’s life, but blimey, he really does pack them in! He takes a whole street’s disasters and gives them all to one family. He lets us see them coming, but there is no way to steer round them.

For northern lads, FW Lister must have been like reading their own secret diaries. Had anyone written a novel set in Middlesbrough before this? Why are they out of print and forgotten? Maybe it’s because the bravery, virtue and honest toil in these tales are loaded down with undiluted hypocrisy, drunkenness, injustice, violence, betrayal, sex, unemployment and poverty. There’s also a lot about God and religion, more than current taste decrees.

In his twenties my dad was on the lookout for someone like Mary Woodham, elegant, good looking, well brought up, demure. When he saw my mum for the first time, he knew he’d found her. Now that I’ve read The Wind That Blows, I understand his dislike of overly made-up women, public displays of affection and common behaviour. He’d met too many like Inez. My mum wasn’t always demure. I see now why the engagement was almost ended when, dressed in her smart grey coat and Danish silver, she attracted his attention with a piercing whistle which brought central Middlesbrough to a halt.

I think FW Lister probably married a lovely girl like Mary too, learned to live with the disdainful mother-in-law, her snobbery and self-righteousness, got on well with her long-suffering dad and was a great headmaster – but I don’t know. Everything I know about him comes from the dust jacket of The Wind That Blows, first edition 1948.

What else is there?



FW Lister, Portrait of a man, 1933, Frederick Muller Ltd
FW Lister, Shadow over Spennylam, A Tale of the Depressed Areas, 1938, Frederick Muller Ltd
FW Lister, The Wind That Blows, 1948, Frederick Muller Ltd


  1. Rachel Jones says:

    It was lovely to read your review of F.W.Lister’s books. F.W. Lister, Bill to his family, was my Grandpa. He was an incredible man. He was born in County Durham in 1907 but lived most of his life in and around Teesside until moving abroad when he became a chaplin in his late 60s, before returning to Harrogate. During his lifetime as well as writing 4 book he was a teacher at St Hilda’s in Middlesbrough, in the navy during the Second World War and an Anglican chaplin , living in, amongst other places, Sweden, Holland and Malta. He was a natural storyteller and was proud of Teesside and its people. Even after he had moved away he always loved the area and was a lifelong Middlesbrough FC supporter. He died shortly after his 90th birthday.

    It was lovely to read how much you enjoy his books, and the effort you have gone to to obtain them ( my family have had similar problems but they do occasionally turn up in second hand book shops.) It is lovely that they remind you of your Dad and bring back such happy memories for you.

    It is nice to know that Grandpa’s books aren’t forgotten. Let’s hope that they get republished again one day so more people can read and enjoy them.

  2. Rachel Jones says:

    With regard to marrying a lovely girl he married a beautiful woman from County Durham, Cathy, and they were married for 67 years.There wasn’t a disdainful mother in law, I’m afraid, but my Grandpa was a great headmaster. Someone has just written to us saying he was taught by him in 1938 and he still remembers everything he taught him. Not bad, eh?