Laurie Lee’s classic novel about growing up in Gloucestershire soon after the First World War, Cider with Rosie, was a set book in English when I was in the fourth form – year ten for the spring chickens amongst you. When think of that book I first remember the ending and the implicit first sexual encounter with Rosie in amongst the hay. Hey, I’m a bloke. But next I remember the chapter called Grannies in the Wainscot. This is how Wikipedia summaries it:
[There were] two old women who were the Lees’ neighbours, Granny Trill and Granny Wallon, who were permanently at war with each other. Granny Wallon or ‘Er-Down-Under spends her days gathering the fruits of the surrounding countryside and turning them into wines that slowly ferment over a year in their bottles. Granny Trill or ‘Er-Up-Atop spends her days combing her hair and reading her almanacs. As a young girl she had lived with her father, a woodsman, and she still seeks comfort in the forest. The two old women arrange everything so that they never meet, shopping on different days, using different paths down the bank to their homes, and continuously rapping on their floors and ceilings. One day Granny Trill is taken ill and quickly fades away. She is soon followed by Granny Wallon, who loses her will to live.
These were my grandmothers. In attitude and approach at least, if not in name and pursuits. It might have taken me until the mid 1960s, aged about ten, to recognize the tension but as soon as I did all sorts of small slights began to be apparent.
My Grandparents got a raw deal with nicknames I think. They were Gran and Nana. Nana especially. Drippy name that but it suited my father’s mother. She had several problems which she would list at length and which were never explained to the young me: rheumatics, vapours, digistives (certainly not the biscuit) and, ubiquitous to all old people I encountered as a child, a terror of ‘bowels’. She regularly took something called ‘Complan’ in her later years but whether this was to free her up or shut her down was never, happily explained to me. All I now remember about it is it smelt much liked the grey paste Dad use to fill in holes in the exhaust pipe on our Ford Cortina (you bound the hole with chicken wire, smeared it with this gunk and let it set). I suppose that alone tells its own story.
She wore her hair in a sort of helmet, pinned down against an unexpected wind and did a lot of sitting. Most of the food she served to the Archaeologist and me, when we visited her house was beige: oddly soggy white fish, milk puddings that shimmered when cars passed, mashed potatoes which contained smooth almond-shaped lumps that defied mastication.
The house she lived in had a deserted feel, each room suggesting it hadn’t been opened for a while when you went in. Indeed each room had its own aroma: the kitchen mixed tangy bleach with burnt toast; the bathroom a background drainy smell with lavender; the sitting room – her parlour – wood smoke and oil of wintergreen – Nana would dab this and other oils on her wrists and massage them while we sat and played endless games of cards, or Helma, or snakes and ladders.
We loved those afternoons and evenings with her if my parents went out for dinner. Leisurely paced, no homework, the TV on in the background. I was even allowed to watch Top of the Pops (the Archaeologist hated it and my parents wouldn’t countenance it at home but Nana let us each chose something so long as she watched her beloved Coronation Street – the only soap operas we were allowed at home, in our aspirational middle class house were on the radio – Mrs Dale’s Diary and the Archers – or a series on the TV – the Newcomers or something like Z-cars, Softly Softly or similar).
Nana didn’t do discipline. She merely shut her eyes and sighed if the Archaeologist and I fought and let us get on with it. Her garden was a treasure trove of overgrown banks, fallen trees and glory of glories an Anderson Shelter – this was an air-raid shelter my grandfather and father dug out in 1938/39 in anticipation of the blitzkrieg expected as and when Britain went to war.
We took a while, from memory, bashing our way up her garden, eventually finding there was a back entrance onto a lane. We were so excited when we told Mum and Dad who laughed at us – and in Mum’s case worried about ‘what we had been up to’. We were about 7 and 8 and knew better than to tell her in case it might fall within a proscribed list of activities (the contents of which we were not privileged to know but would be cited if we fell into the trap of saying too much). We also knew to tell her something. ‘Nothing’ was a hopeless answer, immediately arousing suspicion. Far better a version of the truth. ‘A caterpillar’s nest’ or a ‘really interesting tree’. Here the Archaeologist’s early skills at terminological inexactitudes (in Parliament you cannot call another MP a liar but you can accuse them of using TAs – apparently first used by Winston Churchill in the 1906 General Election) paid dividends.
Nana didn’t like loud noises, excitement or rush. She was patient, kind and methodical. I think she felt let down by circumstance. In the 1920s my grandfather ran his own successful tailoring business in Brixworth in Northamptonshire, in the East Midlands. He tailored for the hunt and was a respected man. The depression saw for his business. Cash is king and those who owed him money were owed in turn. He was bankrupt and faced ruin and humiliation. So they, my grandparents and my father, left all they knew and moved to Caterham, on the edge of the North Downs in Surrey. My grandfather started working for Montagu Burton in London, the 50 shilling tailor, making ready to wear suits. It was a severe come down and a mix of illness, probably the residue of shell shock from his time in the trenches in the First World War and the severe dent to his pride mean he had to stop; instead he became a teacher, teaching men to be tailors. During the Second World War a lot of men, invalided out of the Forces came through his technical college in Croydon, learning a trade that gave them a future. But I don’t think Nana ever really recovered from that sense of loss, that loss of place, of dignity. The gay woman seen below was no more.
If Nana was fading, albeit slowly, accepting the role of old lady with, if not grace, then resignation, Gran was the antithesis. There was no question of her Going Gentle into That Good Night. Gran was a force of nature. She lived in a tall five storied Georgian house on the sea front at Herne bay in Kent. When the wind blew from the arctic and the shutters rattled fit to bust, you had no difficulty believing in banshees and spectres and ghosts and ghouls. Her front door had two lobbies that for most of the year had to be opened and closed in the correct sequence or the wind made it very difficult to open or shut the inner or outer door, depending where you were in the process of coming or going.
Staying with Gran was a treat. Each easter Mum would take us off to Gran’s and leave us for a fortnight. We two boys would walk along the sea front as the storms battered the shore, letting waves crash against the seawall and soak us. We would watch dull-witted seagulls try to beat their way out to sea only to turn, forlorn and let the gales send them inland like feathered ICBMs. We spent hours in the library where the Archaeologist taught me how to love reading and choose a book. We played by the boating lake until, one never to be forgotten afternoon I fell in. We would take the money Gran gave us to go and pick up her sherry refills from the off licence and keep the change for chocolate. No one questioned giving two pints of sherry to two small boys with cherubic faces and a skill at inspired mischief.
We would test the flexibility of the swings, trying to go as high as we dared – he always out dared me but that was ok. And we explored the rock pools and soft sand when the tide went out with no one interfering with our dangerous play. What can I saw? We survived. Most of the time, if Gran wasn’t at home she was off playing her beloved bowls.
There were some areas where staying at Gran’s wasn’t fun. I was terrified of the thunderous toilet flush and refused for many years to be in the same room when it released its flood water. The top floors were occupied by tenants and strictly out-of-bounds. If the tenants appeared at any point we were under strict instructions to hide quickly. If they caught us playing on the stairs they would inevitably complain and Gran would feel duty bound to chastise us in some way. The only time she really go cross however was went we bombed the mean male tenant with rubber bricks, about the size of Duplo and red-brick coloured. I’ve looked them up – they’re called Minibrix and there’s even a fan website. What do you know. The Archaeologist managed a direct hit and we took our punishment like men.
Those stairs were two small boys’ dream. They had a bannister that was smooth and polished and went from top to bottom; four floors, four flights and the dare was to go from top to bottom without getting or falling off. The notion that we might fall the wrong side never occurred to either of us or Gran who let us get on with it. I can still call to mind the exhilaration of my first full flight. And the shuddering end as I crashed into the newel post at the bottom. By then the Archaeologist had perfected the roll-free, falling off the stairs and crashing to a halt on the shaggy, stinky mat on the hall floor rather than have your arse split in two. As it were.
Of course, these two grand dames aged. In Gran’s case, because we were used to her fierce independence, her solo travelling across Europe (as a small boy I remember the talk of her coach trips – I imagined some sort of horse drawn carriage rather than a functional charabanc), the impact of Time’s Winged Arrow hit hardest. In 1980 living as I was in London – my family home was in rural Hampshire, the Textiliste and I caught the train to visit Gran. Mum hadn’t seen her for several months and I think she had missed her weekly phone call from the call box at the end of the road. We found a shrunken visibly fading old lady in place of the five foot two dynamo we were expecting. We made her some food, and stayed all day. Having company perked her up greatly but this wasnt the Gran I knew. I went out and called Mum and told her what I had found.
Mum and Gran were very close; when my grandfather fell ill in the late 30s my mother left school at 12 to nurse him while Gran went out to work. She brought up her two young brothers too. They kept the family afloat and that team work, forged in circumstances neither asked for or expected brought them together in ways unlike a lot of mother-daughter relationships.
There was no question; Gran was to sell up and go to live with my parents in Hampshire. Both the Archaeologist and I had recently left home and there was space. No thought was given to the new burden. Gran moved in in about 1981. It restored her to health and vigour and she lived for another seven or eight years, meeting her eldest great grandson before she died.
By contrast my father and his mother in law had a curiously combative relationship with a lot of admiration mixed in on both sides. But the sniping was pretty constant and often amusing.
Meanwhile Nana was still in Caterham, in a sheltered flat and pretty content. Then she got to hear about the arrival of Gran. Within months she too was ensconced in the family home. Nana took the upstairs back bedroom, that had been mine and which I assumed I’d use on visits, while Gran had the Archaeologist’s old room. On visits we were now sleeping bags on the sitting room floor or in my father’s study amongst the butterflies and moths and the stench of naphthalene that was the preservative du jour.
A cold war had suddenly become very hot. You see, Gran came from a reasonably well to do family of bakers and grocers while my maternal grandfather’s family were rich enough their oldest boy, my great-uncle Bernard set up a flying school before the first word war.
Rental income formed a reasonably significant part of the family income in the 1930s but my grandfather’s untimely demise in 1940, war damage and some poor decisions meant all that was left by the time I knew my gran was the house on the north Kent coast. And in 1981 that sold with two long-term sitting tenants for eighteen thousand pounds (I know – I did the work – as dad would say about my legal skills ‘why keep a dog and bark yourself’ when he wanted free advice). Not a great deal of cash but more than Nana ever had. That nest egg, Gran’s energy, her sparky relationship with my father which for all its flammability was a better and more wholesome one that he had with his own mother – all this poured fuel on an already smouldering set of embers.
And as battle was joined they embraced certain classic tactics
Befriend the power
My mother was the power; at home for sure. For gran it was easy, as I say. For Nana, she had work to do and she set about it with a constant stream of poetical flattery, emphasising how difficult it was for her, Nana, to do much but how constantly grateful to Mum she was. How leaving her dinner tray at the top of the stairs was an achievement because of her increasing funny turns – she would ask rhetorical questions about her ailments, one of which was how she wished she didn’t have so many funny turns so she could come downstairs more. The Archaeologist, in a feistier mood than was his wont – he was like Mum with a placid temperament – suggested that given the amount of whiskey, Stone’s Ginger Wine and Sherry she got through ‘taking more water with it’ might help. For a while after that I became favoured Grandson, not necessarily a title to which either of us aspired. And if you think that cruel on an old lady well read on.
Play to your strengths
Nana was a natural invalid; she could scent a sympathetic audience at a mile. If guests appeared, so did she, calling for high-backed chairs and pillows and rugs and a footstool so she could ‘just sit and listen’. If asked why she took such risks leaving the sanctuary of her room the natural martyr in her descended, beatifying her tired smile. ‘One must keep up appearances – they (my parents) do so much for me, it is the least I can do to help them entertain’. Inevitably a guest would ask how she was. ‘I can’t complain’ opened the monologue to be followed by a litany of imagined ills. It was a source of disappointment that the doctor who treated my mother’s many real problems (rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, a lot of pain) would refuse to find any tangible basis for her self-imposed invalid status – clearly he had to be incompetent. Indeed every test she had, she passed until one day she simply did not wake up. She was 92.
Gran ‘couldn’t be doing with all that nonsense’. If she was in pain she refused to say. At 89 she broke her hip in a fall. It took two weeks before she gave into the pain and asked to see a doctor. When she went into Bournemouth hospital and was asked if she was allergic to penicillin she said she had no idea never having taken medicine. So far as she knew she had never been in hospital for herself. Gran was determined to be ‘useful’. Once she was restored to health – and that was a matter of weeks after she arrived – she fizzed and buzzed, insisting on doing all the washing up, a lot of the washing – my mother’s first washing machine appeared towards the end of the 1980s – and hoovering.
She and my father clashed often, neither giving much ground. They were both stubborn and they both knew the unspoken reason was my father’s inability to do something about his own mother, whose contribution to the house was zero, increasing the burden on my far from well mother. However, when Nana died in 1983 the release of tension was felt in London. Dad and Gran formed an unlikely partnership she selling his spare vegetables at the roadside and making enough to pay for all his seeds and then a new greenhouse. They would still argue – she never passed up a sale and if that meant there were no vegetables for us that night, so be it.
She died in 1989 and an era ended. How did my parents survive living with warring grannies, I’ll never know. Sometime around about when I married the Textiliste in 1984 mum told me that under no circumstances would she ever live with either the Archaeologist or me. She would not be that burden; Dad never made a similar promise. In many ways, looking back now, it is a shame I never enjoyed that privilege. The Textiliste may have thought differently of course! Fortunately for our marriage, I suppose, it never became a topic for discussion.