#11: On Grandads (specifically one of mine)

My grandad (not grandfather, of course, as I’m a working class northerner) on my maternal side, celebrated his 82nd birthday at the tail-end of 2020. I couldn’t be there to congratulate him in person, or even through a window - masked up or otherwise - because of the usual issues relating to travel and separation we’ve all become accustomed to. I soon came to realise that what could help me to feel closer to him, in the most altruistic of ways, was to try and relay some anecdotes about him to myself and to log them down. I think he’s led a rich enough life to re-share some thoughts about him here too.

Despite spending large stretches of his time in Hull - thankfully, or else my atoms, as well as the atoms of countless others, would never have been assembled - he’s a proud cockney: born within earshot of the proverbial Bow Bells in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of WW2 and then hastily evacuated to East Yorkshire, where he stayed throughout his childhood and into adolescence. If you keep in mind that he was born in the Borough of Lambeth then the much mythologised and often disputed territory which envelopes the famous St Mary-le-Bow Church and the offspring of its soundscape appears to be just within the boundaries of (secular) faith for us all.

Perhaps a snappy, winter breeze carried the music of those famous chimes down the Thames and deposited them the few miles south that day, to signal the arrival of one of the last few baby boys who were born before they fell dead silent and the sounds of something far more sinister took over the skies just two years later. Only a meeting between a true campanologist and an adjoining meteorologist would know, but neither of those are on hand to ask.

Now raised to adulthood along with his siblings on the streets and tenfoots of Yorkshire (or 'dragged up' as it would be termed there), the time came for him to begin making the pilgrimage to discover the fruits of his birth city. The transport routes which I myself have become so accustomed to when travelling from home city to capital city - the M1 and the A1 - were not opened until the 1960s and the 1970s respectively. So, was it to be a horse and trap, hitch-hiking or steam train which facilitated his exploration? Whatever the method of movement, I assume that perhaps part of the magnetism of going between his adoptive city and the London pavements he must’ve taken his first steps on, was the similarity between the swill-coloured, swelling currents of the two great estuaries they both curl around: the Humber and the Thames.

Back then, in the middle part of the century, the clattering sound of industry made the two places well worth yo-yoing between for a young, more-than-able tradesman and his rattling bag of tools. This post-war period of prosperity fell just a decade or two prior to Hull being consigned to the scrapheap as ‘Britain’s poorest city’ when the fishing and shipping industries both collapsed. Thankfully, re-births long in the making would re-fire Hull later in his lifetime and before that other births were on the horizon too, for my Grandad Tony.

Children and then a web of grandchildren appeared from the early 60s onwards. In 2019 he was also blessed (in the secular sense, again) with a great granddaughter, the first of her generation in the family. A granddaughter whom he adores and who he appears to have passed down a portion of his own bottomless pit of playful mischievousness to.

There are tangible, as well as abstract, links between myself, the first grandson, and Tony - in both the genetic sense and the paths we’ve wandered down in life. We share physical traits, of that there can be little doubt: although a tad shorter than him in height (surely I would’ve had a fair chance of matching all of his 6 feet had smoking during pregnancy not proved so popular in the 1980s?), people nevertheless comment on the similarities of our two ‘builds.’ One could say that my profile from both the front and the side mimics his with 10% of mass clipped off from all angles. And there is also the nose - an undisputed conk - somewhat bulbous and manly-large. The speculation about further body parts is a discussion for another day - or rather, not at all.

That’s a quick list of shared visual traits which cannot be mistaken. Our hands though, are entirely different: his are the hands of a skilled craftsman, who could call upon his fists to fight a decent bar brawl, be it in the big smoke or the labyrinthine avenues of Hull throughout his youth, and I suspect well into adulthood too. Mine, on the other hand (s), can’t claim to match his own paws on any level. In fact, as I type out these words in tribute to him, my own are almost readying themselves to flap off to the washroom for a good dousing of soap and water. The compulsion to sustain one's own personal hand hygiene, not just in pandemic times, is partly born out of an insecurity regarding my own unsuitability at being able to tackle anything relating to DIY. The tobacco-stained, jaundice-mustard pads and crevices of our forefathers are beginning to be emphatically consigned to the past, as mass manual labour, compulsory smoking in all of its forms and generally digging around in the dirt are being replaced by work meetings, latte lunches, pen pushing and (ghasp!) self-indulgent creative writing.

Back to the Holderness region of Humberside in the present day: the whiff, fish and the estuary have all conspired to anchor grandad to a retirement away from the SW1 postcode he used to revel in: when pensionable age arrived, to a flat of his own he went, and that’s where he lives to this day. Lest we forget, he will never let us, that there were decades when the pull of the capital kept him bouncing regularly between the two cities for work, rest and play. The well trodden train station paths which I now know so well - Kings Cross to Paragon - became his regular pilgrimage for arbitrary occasions and birthdays of kith and kin. Both ways, up and down, but never across. On the odd occasion during these years of adventure, if a regular job or commitment didn’t call him back to one end or the other, he would remain wherever the wind seemed to settle and drop him down for months at a time. By the time I hit my mid-twenties, floating about as I was on a post-graduate, uninspiring zephyr, the pull of the south or to be anywhere but home, captured me too.

When there first came a time during my early years as a migrant, and at long last with a few quid in my pocket and a craving for some West London glamour, I clamored up on a Saturday afternoon Southern Rail train with a return ticket to meet him on his own turf, in the final throes of his London love affair, staying as he was with an old flame near Sloane Square. For the first time in my life, I had the huge pleasure of being able to take him for an afternoon brandy (his drink of choice) - in a local wine bar, chosen because it was within stumbling distance of his digs and also the nearest underground station. An even greater pleasure came when he seemed dissatisfied with the vessel that his sloshing brown tonic had arrived in; I jumped on the chance to take the embarrassment away from him and insisted on calling the waiter back to improve on the slender highball glass he had been presented with. Out came a fresh double measure in the more suitable goblet he had every right to pin his hopes on. London prices require London standards - even for a couple of faking-it bar hoppers, both having to bend their northern inflections to be understood in such highfalutin society.

And so, the most poetic of all commonalities between us was born and there it stays, flourishing to this day. We live and have lived in the space between the place where we just so happened to be born in and the region of the country that most inflamed our imaginations as adults. Those early visits back from south to north that he made, with chatter of Fulham Road or Harrods, may even have embedded themselves in my subconscious as I sat wide-eyed and listened in to all the adult talk as a toddler. A Saturday afternoon jaunt north to Victoria Station will become a regular occurrence once again from my home in Hove soon, and there isn’t a trip to London that goes by when I don’t sit with my wife and sip a drink or two to him.


I realise that this small piece of genetic history may chime exclusively with my own family, and that’s okay with me. Well into 2021 as we now find ourselves, and Tony, who has set all of us on our path in one way or another, is in a rehabilitation, post-stroke period of his long life, often cared for and still very much caring for others. Just as an expensive brandy leaves a film of syrupy liquor sliding down the inside of its glass, as an instant response to each sip, so his own particular vintage leaves us grandchildren and his own children hundreds of memories too - of some kind of decorum, playful mischief and everything else in between, now and forever.

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