The fashion of the last few years has been to broadcast everything on Facebook, to recycle everything, to claim compensation for every slip trip and fall and to "make do and mend". I suspect that the austerity messages and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" merchandise is a discrete ploy by the government to make us all feel happy that we're being royally shafted but I'm a natural born cynic of the highest order and that's by the by. I was thinking today about a person in my past who'd have loved all this and who'd have fitted in perfectly with the fads of 2012, my late maternal grandmother who I shall call Mabel.
Mabel was born in the late 1920s in a small mining village in Nottinghamshire in and was one of five children. She grew up in poverty and would regale my bored teenage ears with tales of large beds crammed with children vying for space, eating berries and having to huddle together for warmth. Very dull for a teenager in the 1980s who thought affluence was a given right and who was unhappy that his parents had bought him a cheap Sanyo cassette player instead of a Sony Walkman.
I remember her as a broad woman in a 1960s frock, a dress which was largely triangular and stopped mid thigh. These often highly patterned numbers were her uniform until her death. This outfit was finished off with court shoes, a pair of thick orange tights and a massive handbag. She wore a small amount of rouge on her cheeks, a little pale lipstick and a dusting of face powder. She bathed once a week and never washed her hair. That was a job for the hairdresser and an occasion prime for imparting gossip under a huge hooded hairdryer. She bleached her dentures nightly and the gum part was pure sparkling white.
Mabel loved children and found them charming and a joy to be with. Except for one child: namely me. When my brother had been born my mum had continued to work and Mabel helped a lot with child care. My brother was everything she approved of, a docile grateful child who would sit quietly, do as he was told and accept what he was given graciously. I came along three years later and upset the apple cart. My mum gave up work and took up Valium and Mabel had no part in my rearing. We failed to bond for many years.
Mabel believed in making do and wearing clothes till they fell off you. I believed in buying the best you could afford or badgering your parents and sulking until they bought it for you. From age five onwards I was spurning hand me downs and demanding fashionable new clothes and was clad in junior tweed suits, lurid shirts with matching ties and a slinky black corduroy suit which I thought made me look rather fetching about town. I still didn't manage to avoid my mum's evil knitting machine and its satanic 1970s creations but I did avoid Mabel's offerings.
She liked to organise things (buffets, seating arrangements, lives etc.) and to fundraise was a favourite activity. She liked nothing better than manning a jumble sale stall or tombola to raise money for some poor crippled Catholic woman to go to Lourdes or to buy a new frock for the priest. Her house became jumble central. The neighbourhood women would bring their old clothes, books and assorted junk to her house and it covered every surface. Her little council house had piles of dated clothing with dubious odours, strange records from bands no one ever listened to and piles of obscure books. I liked the books.
The clothes were another matter. I'd dread going round and her looming over me with armfuls of unfashionable clothing which she'd carefully sifted out for me. Naturally Mabel's jumble collecting had its benefits for her: she got the pick of the crop. My sullen refusals and face pulling would earn me a reproach of: "You think you're better than you are, my boy! Mark my words; you'll have a hard knock coming one day." She was right on both counts.
She hoarded things with the misapprehension that they'd come in useful one day. They rarely did. She also believed everything she accrued was worth something. The items never were. Notably, we found a small collection of soft pornographic magazines in my granddad's drawer after his death. My parents tried to discretely spirit them away but Mabel intercepted them and was having none of it. "Someone might want them, pass them here, I'll ask Flo at number 5 if her husband fancies them."
Mabel believed in over eating and maintained an imposing figure and a magnificent bosom. To not clear a plate was like spitting in her face. I was the pickiest eater, bordering on anorexia and easily revolted by her cooking. This went down badly. Most people were revolted by her cooking, if I'm honest. Her speciality was mince pies. She cooked them all year round and poor green faced ladies would remark on their merits whilst frantically trying to wash them down with gallons of tea. She made mince pies with a half teaspoon of mincemeat and thick dry pastry. You risked a colonic obstruction as they slowly moved through your bowels and severe dehydration as they sucked every bit of moisture from your body. She kept a large brown speckled pan of meat fat in the kitchen which was topped up frequently and never emptied. I dread to think what was lurking at the bottom. She had a vehement belief that if you put something in the fridge it stayed fresh forever. The fridge contained everything including biscuits, cakes and sweets and long out of date meat with a strange silvery sheen to it. She always had a lot of sweets and biscuits which I loved and she was very generous with them. She had a few speciality dishes which were pretty grim. The boiled sausage was a particular terror. She liked a dish you could leave be. If she fried a piece of chicken she would throw it in lard in a pan and leave it cooking unattended. She'd then pluck it off the stove top and serve it half raw and half black. She was never experienced any gastric problems. Her guests did.
She would walk to Bird's cake shop every day at teatime and get the stale cakes they were giving away and would always go to the fishmongers twice a week for fish scraps for the cat, which at that time was fictional. We ate these, naturally. She called my mother's cooking "foreign muck" but did stoop to a lasagne once and proclaimed it not half bad and then ate it often, calling it "lagney". She kept a well stocked poverty cupboard in case of war or unemployment and was never without 15 tins of peaches and John West salmon in her pantry. The tins never got used but sat there hoping for Armageddon or at least a strike at Rolls Royce (where my granddad worked). When she was due out of hospital one time in the late 1990s we had a big clear out in order to accommodate her wheelchair. We found tins which went out of date in the 1970s.
It's odd that she feared poverty as she was a relatively wealthy woman. I suppose old habits die hard. In the early 1980s my granddad won £25,000 on "Spot the Ball". This was an odd competition whereby you had a photo of a footballing scene and the ball was blanked out. You had to guess where the ball was and mark little crosses on the paper with the nearest guess winning the jackpot. My grandparents were at first delirious then puzzled as to what to do next. They bought their council house (which they got for a very small amount as they'd rented it for 40 years by that time) and went for a weekend in Blackpool. The rest went in the bank and stayed there. My granddad died not long after and she viewed the money as a terrible responsibility. She was always generous to us though and would periodically pull out one of her many formidable handbags from its secret location and give us a hundred pounds apiece. She liked to keep about £2,000 in the house for emergencies. She was later burgled twice and mugged once and lost a lot of cash. We did persuade her in the late 1990s to have some double glazing and a new fire but she had no truck with central heating. It made her hair dry out and go kinky.
Blackpool was a favourite place of hers and she'd been once before when she managed to extract a free holiday from the bus company. She was involved in a minor bus crash in the 1950s and cannily claimed an emotionally traumatised daughter. This was before emotional trauma was invented. It got her a free week away and she went on, over the years, to claim a handful more times for various trips on dodgy paving slaps. If she were alive today then the Claims Direct number would be stored in her phone.
Mabel was a great gossip and knew everything about everyone in the neighbourhood. She was known locally as "News of the World" and would often be found at the front gate whispering about illicit affairs and nefarious practices. This was heaven to my ears and I eavesdropped with finesse. Occasionally this backfired on her and on one notable occasion a neighbour put an air rifle through her letter box and threatened to kill her. Some people are so touchy when accused of adultery! Her coven of friends would congregate at the gate and after my granddad died there was never a spare seat on the sofa as they were finally allowed over the threshold and a procession of Madge's, Doris's and Freda's were propped up among the jumble sipping sweet tea and choking on dry mince pies.
One creature who never crossed the threshold was Sooty. Sooty appeared on the back doorstep in the late 1970s and Mabel fed him. He never left the back porch until he died in the 1980s. She fed him dutifully twice a day and the fish scraps were finally put to their proper use. If he tried to cross the threshold there was shout of "Get out you maggot!" and a brush was swung at him. I spent many hours sitting with Sooty in the long grass of the garden, a pair of ungrateful outcasts.
You wouldn't, perhaps, call a cat Sooty nowadays as it could be seen as a racist term for a black man. Mabel, like all her generation, had a few choice words she used to call ethnic minorities. On one notable occasion I was visiting her in hospital and she was in a vast dormitory of a ward. She told me in full detail about the ladies in her vicinity in what she perceived as a whisper but was actually a bellow.
"See her across there? She's had it all out, shits in a bag now. Her in the corner with the sour face: three kids and can't keep a man. No wonder she looks so fed up."
A ward round approached with a clutch of junior doctors racing after the consultant.
"Oh I say! It's like the Tower of Babel here. Look at them lot. There's a nigger, a chink and a paki. They've got them all!" I was a little embarrassed but she meant no harm. I was more embarrassed by the fact that she liked to sit on the bed with her skirt hitched up and the largest pair of bloomers ever seen on show to the world.
In the 1950s a black woman arrived in her neighbourhood and Mabel was the first one round to find out what that was all about. She arrived with a plate of mince pies as a welcome gift and was horribly disappointed to discover no mud on the walls or grass on the floor but a plain hair cord carpet and a nice flock paper. I'd love to know what a Jamaican lady made of the famous mince pies.
Mabel wasn't a great reader, didn't smoke or drink and liked to go to bingo or crochet things for entertainment. She made chicks at Easter and Santas at Christmas. They were always a little bit off in the faces. She struggled with faces and they had a touch of the Picasso about them. She sold these and raised a lot of money for the Catholic Church which was odd, as she wasn't a Catholic. My granddad was Catholic. She wasn't a churchgoer but found it a handy cause and liked the jollity of the Irish. In later years she raised money for amputees and was commended often for her efforts.
Mabel had a bit of trouble with words and often made up her own and was never deterred by being corrected. Here follows a short glossary of terms with their translations.
- Michael Wave: a microwave. She thought a man called Mr Wave invented it
- Ruftitarian: A Rastafarian
- Dobermobile: a Doberman hound. Presumabaly a mix of Doberman and Dormobile
- Denims: Debenham's department store
As I grew to adulthood we forgot the past and my picky childhood ways and entered a truce. My brother, although a docile child was inattentive and not much help to her as an adult. Like any heterosexual boy, listening to his gran spouting off about Hilda's useless son was a trial. The gay grandson found it fascinating and provided an eager listening ear. She learnt not to offer me food and that offering books was fine but clothes were always going to be refused. She'd occasionally still mutter "Picky!" under her breath but we understood each other. She was very proud of my career as a nurse and easily accepted the fact that I was gay. Her experience of human nature made her mellow into an understanding woman who'd heard it all before. When my mum told her I was gay, she spoke about it once to me.
"Your granddad wasn't much for that kind of thing but it don't bother me."
The last ten years of her life were troubled by illness and she developed painful legs and gangrene, needing to have first one leg, then the other amputated. She took to it well and insisted she would never leave her house for a care home. She became a dab hand at sliding across from wheelchair to bed unaided using a slippery board and is the only woman I've ever met who could wee into a female urinal: an item she called "the shoe" (it looked a little like a white plastic clog). She loved to berate the home helps and carers and would deliberately wash herself before they came or cook her own meals before they get the chance to help. This was partly so she could playfully reproach them, partly so they'd have time for a gossip and a mince pie. She was liberal with her pills too and once offered me a hefty dose of morphine for a mild headache. I refused it and whisked the unused pills (she was saving them up in case they were useful) back to the chemists.
"She's the one who don't wash her hands. Have a sniff when she comes in, stinks of cigarettes!" She'd holler at me as the poor home help was scrubbing away a few from us.
She loved the limb centre and the amputee support groups and was very proud of her stumps. She'd get them out to show everyone what a lovely job the surgeon had made.
Her final fortnight of life was spent on the hospital ward I managed. She'd started a course of antibiotics and became jaundiced and needed a new a bed on the liver ward to investigate and sort her swollen liver out. I agreed with the doctors that she needed to be on my ward and devised a plan whereby she would be kept in a side room and I'd work on the other side of the ward and not look after her. I still pitied the poor nurses as having your boss's grandmother as a patient is a trying thing. She loved being on my ward and felt like the Queen Mother, sitting astride her bed with her dress hitched up, pants on show, showing the nurses her stumps. She loved one of the night time care assistants who was a very dark skinned black lady. One of the women nicknamed her nanny no legs which I loved but didn't dare tell her, although I suspect she'd have tittered.
"She's a tonic, that girl. Works like a black. When she comes in at night she's completely invisible bar her eyes and teeth!" I winced a little.
Sadly, it turned out not to be the antibiotics affecting her liver and she was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder and died two weeks later aged 88. She took the news she had cancer well and decided to fight it, like my dad had his bowel cancer. He was in remission at the time but would die three years later when it recurred. I was on duty the morning before she died and sat with her after my shift till midnight so my parents could go home and rest. My mum was her only child. She wasn't a tactile person and hated being kissed. She'd visibly wince if she had to make physical contact with someone. We always had that in common, at least. Even in death she winced and pulled away if the nurses tried to hold her hand and me and my mum knew to sit sentry like by the bed and not try to touch her. She'd been comatose for days and shocked me by waking up and grabbing my arm and shouting to me as if I was my mother.
"Mary! I want to go home. Take me home now. I'm scared." She looked bewildered and stricken and babbled away, pleading.
I pretended I was my mum. It placated her. She looked at me with affection as I told her I was sending my dad round to get the car and she settled back to sleep and didn't wake again. I was very sad to lose her.
The clash of generations can be hard to reconcile and Mabel grew up in poverty with no welfare state to help her. There were no ethnic minorities about. She spent her twenties coping with a war and all its hardships and the loneliness of being a woman with a baby whose husband is away fighting. I grew up in the booming 80s, a more affluent and diverse time. We both had strong personalities and it took till my teens for us to find common ground. I like to think that were she alive today she'd be a more adventurous cook and an avid Facebook fan. With one arm tucked under her bosom she'd be tapping away at her laptop, delighting at the antics of Ada from down the street and marvelling that Joan had been on another foreign holiday with her gammy hip and I'd be listening avidly and putting in my "two-pennorth".