A life – part three
My grandmother was my favourite person. Whereas I had always felt responsible for my baby brother and younger sister, when she came to look after us when my mother left, I felt I could hand over the burden.
When she moved in to pick up the reins, she brought all her Victorian past with her. Up went the heavy, red velvet curtains in the bay window in the front room where my sister and I had watched the big girls playing on their roller skates across the road, peering through the brown sticky paper, taped across the windows in diamond shapes, to stop the glass shattering in a bombing raid.
I loved the texture and the colour and richness of the velvet. I loved the shiny brass rods with the rings that clanked when the curtains were pulled, and the big brass knobs at each end. I loved the aspidistra in its brass pot standing on its tall, spindly, three -legged table. On the other hand, I hated the Staffordshire figures which were her great pride. I thought them ugly and clumsy – and still do, for that matter, though I did like her Meissen angels.
Upstairs in the bedrooms, our little utility divans were replaced with deep feather mattresses into which we sank in blissful security. The dark mahogany and rosewood wardrobes and dressing tables filled my senses with deep satisfaction. The sheen, the grain, and their generous size were comforting and solid in a world which in my experience had been bleak and insecure, able to be blown away by a bomb in the red sky of night.
I remember the pleasure of sitting at the oak dining table as I dreamily chewed my bread and jam, and gazing at her knick-knacks on the oak sideboard the other side of the room – deep, blue Wedgwood biscuit barrel for chocolate biscuits, silver- bound oak biscuit barrel for plain Vienna biscuits, and the silver stag standing at bay on a writing tray which held all her letters and bills. Brass candle sticks stood each side of the biscuit barrels. The tall, wooden, barley-sugar twisted ones on the kitchen mantelpiece over the coal range now stand on my dining table.
She boiled the kettle for afternoon tea in winter on a little cast-iron stand which hooked onto the side of the grate in the dining room fire. And there was the bliss of making toast over that fire with a long brass toasting fork. It tended to taste of flames and soot, but was warm and crisp and a great treat. The thick red and blue patterned turkey rug in front of that fire was my favourite place. Kneeling with my elbows on the rug I would bury myself in a book while I was supposed to be watching the butter soften by the fireside.
Deep in my book and oblivious to butter, duty or anything else, I would be discovered crouched by the saucer of swimming, melted, precious, rationed butter. But if I was reading I was excused. No-one ever got into trouble for reading in her house. Until the day she died she was encouraging her great-grandchildren to read, as she had always encouraged me.
Not that I needed it. I longed passionately to be able to read grownup books. My mother had already taught me to read when I finally started school at five and a half, having stayed home to keep my sister company until she was old enough to start school with me. I was forever bored as the class limped along the wall friezes which said things like ‘A for apple, ‘B’ for bat’. The teacher didn’t know I could read, and it never occurred to me to tell her. I was so shy I rarely spoke at all. I read every textbook as soon as they gave it to us, a habit I took into secondary school, so I already knew all the answers in class.
Books for children were scarce, presumably because few were printed during the war. So, when my grandmother arrived with her box loads of books, it seemed like treasure. The children’s books were my father’s First World War and Edwardian boys’ books, the plots mostly centred on some pious crisis of conscience, but which I read nonetheless. I was particularly fond of my grandmother’s bound volumes of Victorian ladies’ journals, rows of red leather binding and gold tooling, with pictures as well as stories inside.
They tended to be about Evangelical but highborn young men who possessed crisp, fair curls, and wore boaters and striped blazers, and often went punting, and they also featured swooning young women, often orphaned, but in truth, of noble blood!! I learned a lot about mourning from these tomes, and the fact that ladies wore lots of black crepe – whatever that was – and black jet jewellery for such occasions. Not that I had the faintest idea what mourning was, except that it made people cry.
My grandmother also pressed on me her books from her Victorian childhood. ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ was the most memorably painful, about a family living and dying in various stages of starvation and violence in the East End of London (my brother and I laughed years later that we were probably the last two people in the world to read this grim novel). There were The Wide Wide World’, ‘The Lamplighter’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’, all tales about orphans. I wept buckets over them. When I had surfaced from these agonies, there was’ A Crown of Thorns’, a suitable tale for a seven -year -old about Dutch Protestants being buried alive by the Spanish Inquisition during the time of Elizabeth 1.
I baulked at ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. My grandmother’s big volume with the original illustrations, with Christian stuck in the Slough of Despond, and the depravities of Vanity Fair and all the rest, depressed me more than any of her other books which included ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’…
Editions of Mallory and tales of Arthur, Merlin and Morgan Ie Fay in Arts and Crafts bindings, and Pre-Raphaelite illustrations with art nouveau drawings educated my eye as well as my mind. I laboriously read Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in one of the original editions – which my grandmother collected – another large leather-bound tome with engravings protected by tissue paper, like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress ‘and Foxe’s ‘Martyrs.’ I still remember the terrible shock when Crusoe and I found Man Friday’s footsteps on the beach!
And I read Swift’s account of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, and later found the children’s watered-down version pallid and boring. My favourite book then is still one of my favourites, ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’. When I re- read it as an adult, I recognised many of the ethical imperatives in the novel as having influenced my thinking ever since, while ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ introduced me to the concept of slavery and abolition.
Later when I unguardedly revealed to my recently returned father and his new wife that I enjoyed ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’ and they laughed themselves silly over its Victorian sentiment, I feared the rest of my reading was also material for mockery, and buried its existence in the back of my mind. And since my new parents did not want to be bored with tales of our past, I never discussed these books, and much else, so was never able to put them in context.
Even the green and gold Tate and Lyle golden syrup tin which sat on the table at breakfast to use instead of rationed sugar, was worth reading and squinting at as I spooned the treacle over my porridge…’ out of the strength cometh forth sweetness’ it proclaimed. My grandmother was very pleased with me for taking her injunctions about reading so literally, and boasted to her friends about it. So whenever I was due for a present they dug into their shelves for a book suitable for a seven- year- old bookworm, with the result that I had more copies of Aesop’s fables than any other child in history, I would imagine.
She introduced me to gardening. She gave us a small plot of our own, and we went to the news-agent where they sold seeds as well as sweets, newspapers and bread, and chose the seeds we wanted to grow. I loved the name Love-in-a-mist, and since they were also blue, my favourite colour, I took several packets. Every day for the next three weeks I rushed outside in the morning to peer at my little plot of earth until the glorious dawn when I detected a faint green haze – the first sign of the green mist through which the blue flowers were going to emerge.
Like many gardeners, my grandmother couldn’t resist breaking off twigs and cuttings wherever she was, if the opportunity presented itself with dignity. But once her scruples were nearly undone by a hidden fern we passed regularly when we all walked down to the beach with my brother in his push chair. Every time my grandmother passed this wire fence with the little fern nestling there, unloved, and unseen by the people whose garden it was, she fantasised about bringing a trowel one day, and leaning over to dig it up. Finally, she couldn’t trust herself any more, and to my great relief removed herself from temptation, by going the long way round.
She was deeply religious and never missed a Sunday at the Salvation Army, which she had joined in its early days when she was a girl at the turn of the century. She told me tales of marching through the squalor of the East End being pelted with tomatoes, and trying to give the ‘War Cry ‘ to drunks outside pubs. Because the rest of the family disapproved of her ties to the Salvation Army, she sent us to a church Sunday School near us, and made sure we were as regular as she was. Consequently, I became immersed in religion. She and I were never ones to skim over a thing lightly, so I read more Bibles and Bible stories than most children of my generation.
She was obviously a highly intelligent woman who had been frustrated for most of her life – clever, feisty, quick-tempered and even in her eighties – a rebel. She could add a column of figures faster than anyone else, and her memory was phenomenal. I inherited the memory, somewhat watered down, but not the ability with figures. While her elder sister Lizzie, who was famous for being bossy, trained as a nurse, became matron of a hospital in Leeds, and shockingly for those times, lived happily with a married man, Mabel, my grandmother, married young, and unhappily. With her religious beliefs, it was a great shame to her that she was divorced.
Her memories of her late Victorian childhood fascinated me and stretched my imagination. Most important of all her stories was not her grandfather captaining the first paddle steamer up the Thames and receiving the Freedom of London when he stepped ashore, but her description of the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up.
She and her sister Jessica were in their bedroom and the windows blew out, the dressing table mirror was shattered, and the sky was red and filled with flames.’We threw ourselves down on the floor and prayed’, she said ‘We thought the end of the world had come’.
Not having the faintest idea what Woolwich Arsenal was, I was instead riveted by the phrase ‘the end of the world’. The possibility had never occurred to me, and it teased my mind with the same horror as the Victorian bogeyman she threatened to call on, who apparently had a similar facility for descending chimneys as Father Christmas.
She taught me to knit and sew and do French knitting, and embroider dozens of stitches I’d forgotten till leafing through an old Mrs Beaton cook book recently – daisy stitch, herringbone stitch, blanket stitch, chain stitch, back stitch, buttonhole stitch, cross stitch. She told me the names of flowers and saints and cousins I’d never seen, the stories of dead great uncles, of people who lived in our street – like the woman detective who went to meet the SS Montrose when it docked – to arrest the famous murderer, Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. She gave me a wealth of information and taught me prayers and proverbs and family history. Her love for me and mine for her was one of the rocks at the base of my life.
I never really knew my grandfather, her husband, and met him only a few times. He had loved another woman for seven years before my grandmother finally gave in, and they settled for divorce. The other woman’s husband was so incensed that he threw acid in her face, disfiguring her for life. My one memory of her as a four- year- old was a gentle woman with a pink blob for a face, which I had to kiss. My grandfather loved her till the day she died, some years before he did.
And since he had willed their house to her, thinking she would outlast him by years, she unwittingly made him homeless when a distant nephew inherited the house from her and turned the old man out.
To be continued.
Food for threadbare gourmets
It’s too hot to cook a meal at midday, so we’re having salady wraps instead. He has wholemeal and I have spinach, and I spread them with either mayonnaise or Caesar salad dressing. Torn crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves are spread over this, and then chopped ham, grated cheese and green peppers for him are arranged, and the whole thing rolled up and held in place with tooth-picks. I have hard- boiled egg moistened with a little vinaigrette dressing, and then chopped tomato, and grated carrot along with the lettuce and tooth-picks… filling and refreshing on a hot day. We’ll have chicken tomorrow, pastrami for him and an assortment of vegetables including cucumber, avocadoes and thinly sliced red onion…
Food for thought
When we re-examine what we really want, we realize that everything that happens in our lives – every misfortune, every slight, every loss, and also every joy, every surprise, every happy accident – is a teacher, and life is a giant classroom. Arianna Huffington