Surviving Prejudice


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My Autobiography
By Tony Penn, B.A., M.M.C

ISBN: 978-1-84991-408-6
Published: 2013 (Revised Second Edition)
Pages: 183
Key Themes: Humour, sexual fantasy, resilience, suffering, fear and hope


After a hilarious account of the author’s formative years, life as a psychology student was abruptly halted by a traumatic road accident in 1972, incurring brain damage, vision disturbance, short-term memory dysfunction, pain from lacerated legs as well as obsessive-compulsive hand washing. Regaining the ability to read and write, after two more hospitals and a home (1974) for what used to be termed ‘the mentally handicapped’, at which he was shown patience by an understanding Staff, he was discharged for rehabilitation in 1980. He met inspirational Joan Collins, O.B.E., whose daughter’s life she saved; forceful Raine Countess Spencer and husband Lord ‘Johnny’ Spencer whom she nursed to partial recovery in time for him to escort Princess Diana down the aisle to wed Prince Charles; as well as supportive Ken Clarke, Q.C., M.P. Not forgetting Dame Anna Neagle, who after a long stage and film career rescued her husband from bankruptcy and battled Parkinson’s disease.

Through such fictitious characters as Uri Bugarov, hit man of the K.G.B., and Olga Smirnova, singer/dancer/spy/seductress, all loosely based on friends in the book, therapeutic humour/fantasy stories mock the pressures from unforgiving reality. Complementary to Joan Collins’ moving book Katy: A Fight For Life, ‘Surviving Prejudice’ is written showing the self-help that can be achieved through creative writing. Congratulated by Joan Collins, he became a B.A. in Psychology and History with the Open University; as well as a M.M.C. (Member of the Magic Circle). Both his mother and stepmother had died while he was in hospital. Although he and his parents had met only twice a year, he was reunited with his father; who with Tony’s adoptive father and a woman friend, one of his tutors, were guests at his graduation in 1992. After various jobs including freelance journalism, he took early retirement to further his interests in writing and magic. He shows what can be achieved despite having a disability.

About the Author

Christened Anthony John Cowper, an only child, he was educated at Cheltenham College. Labelled as ‘shy,’ he learned techniques such as humour for independence. His mother died while he was in his second hospital. He and his father having nothing to say to each other, he needed self-reliance. This proved necessary when his father was accepted by a woman friend, provided Anthony ‘got better.’ Deciding against suicide, he found valium, occupational therapy and the passage of Time ineffective against his fears. Fearing brain surgery, he nearly incurred it through impaired communication skills. Taken off medication, regaining trust in his memory through mental drill, he wrote poetry, as had his grandfather, and listened to Liza Minelli on an LP of ‘Cabaret’. In his final hospital, after workshop, bar and clerical work he regularly wrote for its magazine.

Four years later, he was allowed to discharge himself to live with his adoptive father then came six pressured years with the Open University to gain a B.A. followed by a name change to Tony Penn and finally productive paid employment.

Book Extract

Chapter 1: ‘English Not Spoken Here’

My father’s family was comprised of West Yorkshire folk, Ben Cowper being an 18th century innkeeper. My paternal Great-Grandfather was William Henry Cowper, a bearded paterfamilias. In 1888 in his fifties he was a Mechanic and Commercial Manager at the Framfellgate Coal and Coke Company, Limited. His firm worked one of the finest coal estates in the county of Durham. Associated with many other local institutions, he was also a Freemason and all-round sportsman.

His son, my Grandpa Walter Taylor Cowper, solicitor in Stoke Newington, London, married Georgina ‘Georgia’ Parke in 1904. In morning coat he looked every inch the clever lawyer, although he stopped wearing a top hat at the time of the General Strike, knowing that a ‘topper’ would be knocked off, eventually remaining bareheaded.

Grandpa and Grandma had retired to The Mount, a Georgian house in West Burton, Wensleydale, in the North Riding of Yorkshire when we visited them for the first time in the early 1950’s. Seated at the kitchen table, I was terrified by the angry voice of Grandma telling Grandpa off. He had forgotten to introduce himself to me. Walking towards me in his plus fours, he addressed me in his Yorkshire voice as he leaned over the table in his shirt-sleeves: ‘Hello, I’m your Grandpa.’ We shook hands.

Grandma had a wash day. I was forbidden to touch the Edwardian mangle for fear of crushing my fingers in it. Visits to the greenhouse with Grandpa were a huge treat. I relished running under the potting tables as he watered the plants, before taking my hand as we went back to the house.

To my sorrow I knew him only a few years before the post came one morning. My mother read the letter as I stood by her in the hall.

Quietly she told me: ‘Grandpa’s dead.’

Grandma Cowper, with a Yorkshire accent like him, scared me stiff on her occasional visits for which my father drove up to Yorkshire to collect her, stayed overnight, then drove her all the way back as there was no nearby railway station.

I would lie awake until she arrived. ‘Goodnight, Grandma!’ A look from her was enough as she was escorted to the room she would share with Grannie.

Next day, she was amused by my Ellison’s practical joke, which involved lifting her dining plate by means of a plastic diaphragm under the cloth. She even shared the joke, encouraging it to rise as much as it could. Grannie Toby, my maternal grandmother, warned me: ‘Don’t annoy Grandma with that.’ Grandma, clearly enjoying my efforts, silently objected to the interference by ‘Mrs. Toby’ as she called her as a fellow Victorian.

They disliked each other. Grannie was too outspoken for the tastes of Grandma. Perhaps Grannie was starting to regret this when out of earshot of Grandma she suggested to me that I kiss her sister-in-law.

I did the deed; Grandma rolled her eyes in embarrassment.

Perhaps Grandma had heard the words from the Gertie Millar song:

He says, ‘Mary Ellen, I’m soft in‘t head
I’m just about thinking it’s time we were wed’
And he makes such a noise when he gives her a kiss
But they are like that up in Yorkshire.’

My ‘Grannie,’ Mabel Elizabeth Godwin Toby had no problems about being kissed, being ‘the girl with the laughing eyes.’ Initially pursued by a Dick Cank, she had family roots at Broadway in the Cotswolds, with a sister Marion ‘Manna’ Toby who would become Matron at Rugby School where her portrait was painted, and another, Ivy, who became Music Mistress at Abingdon. My Grannie was the prettiest of them even when she grew older. Perhaps that is why her two sisters disliked her. Everyone knew Ivy as ‘Anne’ after an ancestor. She rejected the name ‘Ivy’ due to a well-known music hall song, performed at the Oxford Music Hall in Oxford Street, London by Miss Marie Kendall, where the chorus ends: ‘Just like the ivy I’ll cling to you.’ Fed-up with the song, especially when Kendall sings it in Say It With Flowers (1934), robustly ‘Anne’ declared, ‘I’m not going to cling to anyone. I’m a modern woman.’ She combined maternal instincts with musical interest and inherited talent to go into teaching. Through visits to Oxford, she and her sister ‘Manna’ probably knew Dorothy L. Sayers, copywriter and crime writer of ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ fame.

My Grannie married the older Ernest Toby who was a chiropodist, minor composer and friend of Elgar whose feet he is said to have attended, his practice being at 12 College Street, Worcester, near the Cathedral. He played tunes on flower pots that were hung on strings, becoming Poet Laureate of Abingdon Bowling Club.

Although appalled by the sloppy Americanism of Ragtime as in Ain’t Ya Gwan T’ Say ‘How do? recorded in August 1908 by Miss Victoria Monks, whose greatest hit was Won’t you come home Bill Baily, he took his Mabel to hear Grete Millar sing Moonstruck in Our Miss Gibbs in 1909 at the new Gaiety Theatre in Leicester Square, as well as the Alhambra Music Hall to watch the variety acts, including Marie Lloyd singing As I Take My Morning Promenade which she recorded in 1912; as well as Gus Ellen with Wait ‘Til the Work Comes Round, his retort to the Cockney fear of unemployment. He took part in that year’s first Royal Command Performance. Marie Lloyd was not invited. Her lifestyle was considered unsuitable.

2 reviews for Surviving Prejudice

  1. Will Kettle (verified owner)

    This inspiring story about Surviving Prejudice tells of Tony –
    who after a difficult childhood suffered a near-fatal road accident causing head injuries and brain damage. In an amusing and anecdotal way
    it tells of his fight to regain independence and achieve a degree then
    cope with people’s assumptions about brain damage.
    Helped by many people including Ken Clarke,
    he was inspired by international movie star Joan Collins.
    This story of achievement against overwhelming odds
    deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

    James Taylor BA Honours, Cert Ed, MIMS
    Secretary, Huntington’s Disease Association
    West Midlands Branch.

  2. Will Kettle (verified owner)

    Tony has the ability to take the readers on a journey and
    then take them out again. There is humour and resilience
    in this book. What shines through is that resilience of Tony
    in difficult situations and his commitment to projects and
    learning. This book is a good read.

    Anthony Spencer, musician and composer

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