In Laurie Lee’s classic novel about growing up in Gloucestershire soon after the First World War, Cider with Rosie, he includes two characters – Granny Trill and Granny Wallon. These two formidable old women war with each other and do all they can to avoid each other despite living, one above the other in a small cottage. Finally one dies and shortly after the other fades away having nothing to live for, the fight having been won. That was my two grandmothers.
It took me until I was about ten to realise there were tensions between the two – rarely did they visit at the same time except at Christmas.
My father’s mother was Nana. Drippy name but it suited her. She had several problems which she would list at length and which were never explained to the young me: rheumatics, vapours, digestives (certainly not the biscuit, not the French after dinner drink) and, ubiquitous to all old people I encountered as a child, a terror of the ‘bowels’. She regularly took something called ‘Complan’ 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).
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 but knew better than to tell Dad (because he’d tell Mum) or Mum (because she would worry about ‘what we had been up to’ and add it to her list of proscribed 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 eventually meant he had to stop even this. 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.
By the time we knew her, Nana was already fading, albeit slowly, accepting the role of old lady with, if not grace, then resignation. Indeed she would probably have faded away completely if not for my other Grandmother’s change of fortunes.