The Origins of an Author

Or ... Did we really have to go through all that for me to become a writer?

Ken Preston

29 October 2023

The author as a little boy standing with his grandmother Doris

I’ve always been different. Or at least, I’ve always felt different. Growing up in the 1970s in a working class town in Lancashire, I should have been into football, and scrapping, and getting up to all sorts of mischief. But no, I was the quiet one who preferred sitting at home writing stories and drawing comic books, while my peers beat each other up on the rec. My father could be found in one of the local pubs when he wasn’t at work, and my mother was chained to the stove and the sink.

So from an early age, I was a solitary reader, writer, and artist. Not a lot has changed in the decades since. I’m not so solitary any longer, but the rest is still the same.

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I think about the past often. Much of it informs my work, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. In the first of her BBC Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel talked about her own past in relation to her work:

My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. My own family history is meagre. An audience member once said to me, “I come from a long line of nobodies.” I agreed: me too. I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother – but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the 19th century to form my sense of who I am, at this point in the 21st: even nobodies can do this.

I became fascinated with my own past when I came to the surprising realisation one day that much of my writing shared a common theme: absent fathers. Jim Kerrigan, in The Devil and Edward Teach, is a Victorian orphan; Daniel’s father in Project Wormhole is emotionally distant; even Joe Coffin’s father physically abused him until Joe got big enough he could fight back, and wound up killing him. And the list goes on.

What did this mean? Was I writing my own father into all of my stories? Even though he was always around, sort of, until the cigarettes took him from us?


‘It's not the cough that carries you off – it's the coffin they carries you off in!’ This was a well-known saying when I was a child, coined by George Formby Senior.


To make sense of this, (and to help myself battle a crippling bout of depression I was undergoing at the time) I had to go back in history, to the beginning of the 20th century.

Walter Taylor Preston was born on the 27th April 1900, to a mother whose husband, Thomas Preston, had died ten years before. Mary Elizabeth Preston had never remarried and ran a lodging house in Waterfoot with her children, Fred, Lizzie, Agnes, John and Ellen.

An old photograph of Waterfoot village centre.

Waterfoot village centre, 1905

An old photograph of a tram entering Waterfoot

Car No. 12 entering (or leaving) Waterfoot in 1910

In the 1901 census, a John Taylor is registered as lodging at Mary’s house along with his children. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that he was Walter’s father, given that Walter’s middle name was Taylor.

Walter married Doris Ridley when he was twenty-two years old, and they had six children; Harry, Brian, Derek, Norman, Mary and Barbara. Mary died in 1933, aged seven.

Harry and Mary standing on the beach and holding hands.

Harry and Mary

Mary's Death Certificate. October 21st 1933

Norman Preston was my father.

Norman Preston in a school class photograph

Norman, 2nd row from the back in the middle. If you look closely you can see his face is twisted, a permanent reminder of his brush with polio, the disease that killed his sister.

I am sure the seeds of the problems that would dog my family, and still do, had been sown long before, but this is as far as I have been able to go back, so it will have to do for the moment.

Illegitimate children, scandalous affairs, homelessness, burglary, mental health problems, prostitution, drug addiction, physical and mental abuse, suicide, murder, and a machete attack.

Yes, my family history has got pretty much everything.

At least now we know why I am a writer.

Let’s go back to Walter, my grandfather, for a moment. Being raised an illegitimate child in the earliest years of the 20th century must have been tough on Walter. I should imagine he was stigmatised for that, even though it was no fault of his. Still, he made a success of himself, rising through the ranks in the British Navy, and becoming a Post Office manager after his discharge.

I know much less about his wife, Doris. But from what my Aunt Barbara has told me of her childhood, I’m reasonably certain that Doris suffered with mental health issues. Back then she would have been labelled an eccentric. Today she would be on a range of drugs and possibly sectioned in a hospital.

The author as a little boy standing with his grandmother Doris

Here I am (aren't I cute?) with Doris, my grandmother.

Whatever issues Walter and Doris had to deal with, they passed them on down, like the dutiful parents they were, to their children.

History repeats itself.

Walter was born illegitimate.

So was I.

Except, my mother’s husband was still alive. In fact, she was still married to him, and they had two daughters.

After a swift divorce and an even swifter marriage at the local register office with some random stranger acting as witness, my parents were then free to register my birth. I was born in September and registered in April. The registrar understandably got confused and you can see the mistake on my birth certificate.

The author's birth certificate with crossed out and altered date of birth.

My parents had married out of a sense of duty, and moved in with my mother’s parents into a tiny terraced house in a tiny town called Waterfoot, where Walter had spent his formative years.

The tiny terraced house where the author lived his first few months.

A Google Street View of the house I lived in for my first few months, with my parents and my mother's parents. I'm guessing it was a squeeze!

My mother’s mother was a physically large and domineering woman who used to beat her children, and her husband when he tried to protect them. Imagine then, my short-tempered, domineering maternal grandmother and my equally short-tempered father, cooped up in a tiny house with two more adults and a crying, unwanted baby. I can only imagine the yelling, the recriminations, the hostility that formed the environment I lived in for the first few months of my life.

And what a relief for everyone it must have been when my parents managed to find a council house to rent and moved out. But even there, at Number Two, Lea Bank, the arguments bloomed, like the ice that crawled over the inside of our windows during the harsh winter months. Jack Frost has been to visit, my mother used to say.

Norman Preston was trapped now, married to a woman he had only intended having a fling with, and father to a child he hadn’t wanted.

How different it had all been.

My father had followed his father into the navy. But not out of a sense of loyalty or family tradition. Joining the navy was an act of rebellion on Norman’s part, and an escape from a father who had abandoned him, and a mother who had taught him how to shoplift, and then escalated that to breaking and entering.

By the time I was born, Norman and Walter had not spoken for several years. My birth and a coincidental sighting of me being pushed along the seafront in Lytham, St Annes, brought them back together. My parents had taken me out for a walk along the seafront when Walter drove by and spotted us. He pulled up, jumped out of his car, and son and father were reunited.


For my British readers of a certain age, Walter and his new wife (he had divorced Doris by this point) lived around the corner from Val Doonican.


Let me take you back for a moment, back to the Preston family’s encounter with polio which killed Mary.

I said Walter abandoned my father, and it’s at this point that it happened. But he didn’t just abandon Norman, he abandoned almost the entire family. Harry, the eldest son, would have been in the army by now. (His girlfriend, home alone one winter’s evening, had an epileptic fit and collapsed head first into the coal fire and burnt to death. Tragedy struck every corner of the Preston family.) Both Norman and Mary already had polio. That left Brian, Derek and Barbara.

Walter moved out of the house, taking Derek (his favourite child, apparently) with him and leaving Doris to look after the remaining children.

I still struggle to imagine the emotional damage that must have wreaked. Not just on the children, but Doris too.

My knowledge of the chronology is muddy here. Did Walter return once the disease had left? When their eldest daughter had died?

If he did return, he left once more.

Permanently.

Walter had a decent job and, from what I can gather he moved into a nice house.

Doris, on the other hand, was left to feed her family on a pittance. Hence, the children were schooled in shoplifting and, ultimately, breaking and entering.

They did it to survive.

I should be angry with Walter. His actions had ramifications that rippled down through the family, through the generations. And yet … I’m not. I find I can’t judge him, not from here, some ninety years later. And wasn’t Walter abandoned by his own father, John Taylor?

The past is another country, as someone once said.

Walter Preston sitting on a bench wearing a hat and with families in the background.

Walter looking rather dapper on a day out.

Doris with her parents and her children.

Doris, with her parents Thomas and Harriet Ridley. I'm not sure which of the children she has with her.

Walter, Mary and Harry at the beach, making a sandcastle.

Walter playing with (I think) Mary and Harry at the beach.

I have snatched memories of my grandfather. An old man, sitting in his armchair, puffing on a pipe, blue fragrant smoke haloed around his head.

I loved the smell of that tobacco.

I can almost, so nearly almost, smell it now.

But I can also understand the anger and betrayal that my father must have felt, left behind as his younger brother was taken to safety by his father.

And poor Mary. Once she had died, she was never spoken of again, almost obliterated from the family history.

So many secrets.

If not for my aunt Barbara, who wrote a lot of her childhood experiences down and told me much of what I know, the Preston family secrets would still be just that.

So, my father, Norman Preston, as soon as he was old enough, he joined the navy. They almost didn’t have him due to the twisted nature of his face, but somehow he managed to keep his brush with polio from the recruitment doctor and he was allowed to enlist. This was just after the war, and he served on an aircraft carrier and travelled the world.

And yes, he had a girl in every port.

A selection of photographs of women that Norman Preston associated with.

Once he left the navy, he returned to Lancashire, and how tame that must have seemed to this young man fresh from a worldwide adventure.

The father I knew worked in a factory during the day and sat in a pub with his mates and drank beer in the evening.

The young man who left the navy liked to have a good time. Charismatic with an easy way with women, he could play the piano and loved to dance. He won dancing competitions!

Another family rift occurred when my father (this was before he met my mother) had an affair with Brian’s wife. Brian was his younger brother. They didn’t speak for years after that.


Brian was married five times. I can remember being at one of the wedding receptions when Derek announced that Brian was obviously addicted to wedding cake. Always ready with a joke was my Uncle Derek. I don’t know which one of Brian’s five wives cheated on him with Norman, but they divorced after the adulterous pair were rumbled. Brian was also, according to family legend, a secret agent. I know he worked for GCHQ at one point and, at various times, he was stationed in Japan and Gibraltar. Apparently, he could decode two Morse Code messages at the same time, one fed into his right ear and the other into his left. Who knows if this is true? So many stories, so many secrets.


Anyway, my father met my mother (already married with two daughters, remember) and I was conceived and the rest you know.

Well, you know some of it.

I’ve always felt like a stranger in my family. I was the sensitive, creative child in a hard-working, hard-drinking, football loving, working class, male dominated extended family.

I read all the time, I wrote stories, I loved drawing, I lived in my own imagination and spent hours on my own playing with my Action Man toys or making my own comic books.

Much of that was down to my creativity.

Some of it was an escape from the constant arguments between my parents.

Theirs had been a marriage of necessity, not love.

And the young buck about town had had his wings clipped.

Norman Preston, I am afraid to say that you were an absent father.

I never knew you.

‘He was a complicated man,’ my aunt Barbara said to me a couple of years before she died, and over twenty-five years after Norman had left us. Killed by all those cigarettes he smoked, aged fifty-eight.

Complicated how? I remember thinking.

And my aunt Barbara said, ‘He was a very short-tempered man, but he was sensitive too.’

It was then I found out about the piano playing and the dancing competitions. About how he had taken evening art classes when I was a teenager. But he’d done it in secret, told no one. And I found out about the affair he had with my Uncle Brian’s wife, and the affair he had with the woman who became my mother. A woman with her own family secrets.

I had thought I was a stranger in my family, but it turns out I was wrong. My father could draw, play the piano, and dance. And I remember now, he would read a lot. He almost kept up with my fearsome rate of devouring books.

My aunt Barbara, she loved writing poetry and family histories.

And my uncle Brian, the five times married ‘secret agent’, he wrote a novel. In complete secrecy. Didn’t even tell his wife.

She found the manuscript after his death, when she was clearing out his belongings.

And then she threw it away.

Dear God, I would have loved to have read that.

So, here I am now, fifty-nine years old and still thinking about my family history. And realising I wasn’t such a stranger in my family after all. Not that different. I just happened to be the one who openly displayed that creative side, while other family members did their best to hide it.

There are more stories, so many more I could tell you, and even more that I don’t know and probably never will. Not many of them are happy stories, although some of them are funny. And the threads of abandonment, betrayal, and depression have weaved their way through the family, causing drug addiction, homelessness, and death.

But I’m here, married and with two boys. And the damage that was done and seemed forever destined to be inflicted upon future generations has stopped with me.

‘You escaped,’ one of my counsellors told me in a therapy session. I’d never looked at it that way before.

I am the dam wall that holds all the water back. I am the barrier that keeps my children from being infected with the family ‘curse’. It’s still wreaking its havoc amongst other members of the Preston family.

But not here.

Not anymore.

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