Of Grandmothers and Girlhood
Warm and cold, fat and thin, open and closed...I saw my grandmothers as opposites. Amanda ‘Manda’ Mossop, my paternal grandmother, born 1907, Edwardian and named after both her mother and grandmother. May, just May, Fielding, my maternal grandmother, born 1896, Victorian and named after Princess May of Teck, a royal of the time.
Their differences could be spotted even in their handwriting in birthday cards. When May wrote ‘Nana’ in her spikey italic, it looked more like ‘haha’, which was a family joke as she was not known for her sense of humour. Manda didn’t have May’s controlled penmanship. Her writing was luxuriantly loopy with rough kisses at the end, rather like the signatures of her illiterate grandparents.
As the times and their class dictated, both left school at fourteen. Manda went straight into ‘service’ as a maid, while May, who had an artistic side, dreamt of becoming a milliner. This was scoffed at due to her weak eyesight so instead she went to work at the Co-op in Rochdale, where her creative hands folded sheets of paper into neat little bags to fill with oatmeal.
Again, as the times dictated, both gave up their jobs when they married, Manda to Wilfred or ‘Wiff’, and May to Joseph. Wiff was a small, wiry fellow who looked like Fred Astaire. Manda was no Ginger Rogers though and often compared herself to an-other actor, Fatty Arbuckle. I have inherited her sturdy calves. Despite his slight frame, Wiff cycled eight miles each way in all weathers across arduous terrain to his job at the steel works in Workington and, when I was little, enjoyed drawing detailed diagrams of the smelting furnace for me.
May met Joseph at a tea dance for soldiers convalescing from the traumas of World War I. When he felt recovered, they married and he returned to the job he did before the war, under-manager of a coal mine. They had four children and May became a widow in her fifties with free coal for the rest of her life.
Whitehaven, the West Cumbrian town where my parents grew up, is moulded like a spoon, with the town centre and harbour at the base of the bowl and the bulk of the residential housing on the slopes around. On visits there, I had a sense of drawing the short straw regarding where I slept because, being the youngest, I would spend the night at May’s with my mother. May lived in a drafty, semi-detached house on the fittingly named Hilltop Road, with the smell of the Irish Sea in the back garden. It was one of the highest and therefore most wind-battered roads in Whitehaven. My two sisters, on the other hand, stayed in the guest room of Manda’s two up, two down terraced house on Main Street in the suburb of Hensingham on the other side of town. Fortunately for them, Manda lived opposite Bob’s Fish and Chips and Mary Jordan’s Sweet Shop. They had cuddles against Manda’s ample bosom, whereas I had none against May’s rail thin torso.
The houses of my grandmothers both had popular pebble-dashed exteriors, the purveyors of which claimed it was an extra layer against the northern chill, albeit a flimsy one. Each house also had a parlour, a room that was barely used, set aside for milestone feasts from cradle to grave: christenings, Christmases, birthdays, weddings, funerals. Both of these parlours had eventually become obsolete, their fireplaces sealed off. Wakes for funerals, for instance, were now held in the local pub where soup and sandwiches were served—very necessary after the bitter cold of a Cumbrian graveyard.
When you walked through Manda’s never locked front door, you were in her parlour. No one stopped to sit on the suite upholstered in red poppies on a cream background. Neither did they pay attention to the vase decorated with two canoodling budgerigars, nor the engraved steel tray my grandfather had been presented with on his retirement, both of which were placed on a stout curved sideboard that reminded me of an early wireless. When people dropped in on Manda, which they did a lot, they didn’t loiter in this chilly parlour but strode right through into her snug little sitting room at the back for a cup of tea, and probably some of her homemade shortbread, along with a retelling of the latest scandals, which she gobbled up with cries of ‘She never did!’ and ‘He said what?’ She was ever the astonished listener, rarely the teller of tales.
May’s parlour was behind a closed door off the hallway, rather than being a thoroughfare. It was untouched by human breath and as frigid as the tomb. Nevertheless, boredom often led me into that room while my mother helped her mother with this and that. The furniture in this parlour was bought early in her marriage during the 1920s, but was not the stylish Art Deco variety, just plain, solid and practical. The smart dining room table was left permanently folded against the wall through lack of use. There were two stacks of dining room chairs to serve as a reminder of the once large family gather-ings that had taken place there decades earlier. A couple of the wing-backed armchairs May favoured faced the empty hearth. The glass doors of the bookcase were rarely opened. On the shelf inside it was a long row of mining handbooks with gold embossed writing on the spines. Occasionally, I took one out to leaf through. They were filled with blue-print-like diagrams, very different from the sketches drawn for me by Grandad Wiff.
Tucked in at the end of these mining books was, I supposed, May’s only book apart from those containing recipes. It was called A Young Lady’s Miscellany and was chock-full of cautionary tales concerning young ladies facing dire situations who triumphed when they kept their moral wits about them, such as in ‘The Artful Seducer or A Warning to Young Women’. Who the writers were was unclear as most of it was anonymous. ‘By a Clergyman’ often appeared at the end, or sometimes ‘By a Mournful Husband’, or ‘A father’s advice to his daughter’. Poetry was interspersed, again laden with moral messages and with peculiar titles such as ‘On A Lady’s Muff’, a scathing attack on vanity. Stories of family strife appeared too, such as ‘A Tale of an Indolent Sibling’, which was about a brother who wouldn’t get up for work in the morning so the mother and the sister prepared a tantalising breakfast, and when that didn’t work, battered him out of bed with carpet beaters. Amongst these stories were illustrated pages that proffered practical tips about how to bleach bloomers or darn a stocking. It was a well-thumbed tome and I imagine May was very familiar with everything in it.
With my interest in animals, I liked to rearrange the china birds that were placed across the mantlepiece in May’s parlour. On one occasion, however, a greenfinch fell from my hand and broke into pieces on the tiles below. I was too afraid to tell May. I knew she could be strict about trivial matters. She had once reprimanded me when I fed the birds in the garden with what was, unbeknownst to me, the sacred crusts at either end of a loaf of sliced white bread…‘You cannot throw the crusts to the birds. They keep the bread fresh!’ she’d scolded, wagging a bony index finger, unaware that Britain had entered the age of preservatives. I was determined not to be subjected to the wagging finger again so I tip-toed into the sitting room where my mother was finding her mother a specific button, in a tin full of hundreds of buttons, to match the dress she was finishing off sewing. Nonchalantly, I took the glue from the kitchen drawer and returned to the parlour, repairing the fractured ornament as well as a reasonably dextrous child of eight could. I then attempted to obscure it slightly behind the carriage clock in the middle of the mantelpiece as the glue was making an unsightly yellow seam. The next day, May asked me why I hadn’t told her I’d broken the bird. She wasn’t cross; there was no wagging finger. She must have spotted me with the glue and gone to investigate. Perhaps she realised that I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the mishap and it is possible she even felt sorry for me. After that, I became a little less scared of her.
I was well aware that my sisters would be raiding the cupboard under the stairs for sugary titbits stored in old biscuit tins at Manda’s but at May’s there was a superior class of baked goods which often involved dried fruit and with peculiar names from another age: Dates Cut and Come Again, Sly Cake, York Plum Slice. In the past, May had wrapped these energy rich rations in waxed paper for her husband down the mine. These and other marvels were created in my favourite place in the house, the pantry, a little L-shaped room off the kitchen with a cold marble countertop perfect for rolling out pastry. There was really only enough space for one in there, although on occasion, May permitted a grandchild to help put the ginger sponge cubes onto a plate or mix a Yorkshire pudding batter. Ginger sponge, a rich dark cake baked in a deep square tin, always came out with a chewy, treacly top. It was cut into perfect cubes and, despite being the moistest of cakes, spreading butter on one side of it was the rule. The shelves lining the pantry walls were crammed with canisters labelled in May’s sloping Victorian hand: dark chocolate drops, flaked almonds, or candied peel May made herself, having been brought up in the mill town of Rochdale with the mantra of ‘Waste not, Want not’ in the days when the peel of a rare orange was precious. Being a hungry child with a sweet tooth, I’d frequently have a bit of a graze in these canisters when no one was looking, and would sometimes overdo it to the point of nausea.
May was also an expert in cooked dinners, al-though her early twentieth century cuisine could be on the grisly side. Sometimes, a terrible stench would envelop the kitchen and, on lifting the lid of a saucepan, it was possible to see an entire sheep’s head bubbling within, its eyes fixing you in a steamy glare. Pigs’ heads were also boiled, snout facing the ceiling, as if they were trophies mounted in the pot as they would have been upon the wall.
When May had married at the age of twenty-three, she had stepped into the role of housewife with gusto, as if all her life had been leading up to that moment. From a young age, she and her sisters had been sewing and embroidering items that each of them added to their own ‘bottom drawer’ trousseau. When May’s oldest sister married and went off to live in Australia, much indignation was caused by the photograph she sent home. In this picture, which showed her with her husband in their new dining room, May spotted one of the tablecloths she had made and let fly with her life-long expletive of ‘Oh, my Godfather!’. The sister had helped herself to it from May’s bottom drawer so May never spoke to her again.
Apart from the parlour and the pantry, there were a few other amusements at May’s, such as finding colonies of woodlice under loose bricks in the garden. I would gather these in a zinc bucket and, when I had a goodly number, put my arm in and enjoy the sensation of having their multitudes crawl over me. A strange desire but stranger still was one of my older sister’s habits when, as a toddler, she would collect worms in a blue melamine cup and then eat them, claiming they tasted like spam, one of our staples. This particular sister was notoriously hungry and, as a baby, would begin to weep piteously whenever the spoon started to scrape the bottom of the dish. Another diversion at May’s was the collapsing wooden shack at the back which was inhabited by wild cats. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t allowed inside it to befriend the creatures but I would sneak out saucers of milk and wait at the window. One of them would eventually dart out, low to the ground, and invariably upset the saucer.
May was the most ancient person I’d ever known, even older than my first teacher, the draconian Miss Read. My mother was the last of her four children and she was already in her seventies when I was born. She was always decked out in garb that was otherwise extinct: handmade knee-length dresses of the type worn in the 1930s, with a slightly ornamental bodice, often featuring pearly buttons. The dresses were dark brown or bottle green, never ‘showy’, but immaculately stitched as she was an expert seamstress, despite the poor eyesight that had forced her into her career involving oatmeal. She was always in nylons and sensible shoes with a low heel, plain but sometimes with some subtle adornment like a small buckle or bow. When she took the bus to bingo in the town centre, as she did once a week right into her nineties, she wore a fur hat and a musquash coat. This may seem a little grand for the simplicity of legs eleven and two little ducks but the prize money was considerable and she dressed in readiness for the occasion when she would go onstage to receive her rich winnings before the congregation of envious elders. As almost all old ladies in Britain did up until the 1990s, she kept her grey hair short, curling it herself, but most certainly did not sport one of those ‘common’ coloured rinses. She paid close attention to people’s appearances, ‘What’s her name? The tidy body around the corner’, would be how she identified someone of whose appearance she approved. May certainly didn’t approve of Manda’s fashion choices, however, which were somewhat stuck in the 1960s: form-fitting polyester pinafores with swirling brightly-coloured psychedelic patterns, all damped down with a dull rain mac and a clear plastic head scarf when she went out.
In the sitting room, May’s personal armchair was positioned nearest to the coal fire. On one occasion, trying to get myself warm in her chilly home, I sat in this chair while she was working in the kitchen. She was astonished to see me there upon her return and exclaimed ‘Oh, my Godfather! Would you jump into my grave as fast?’, which made me change my seat with extreme celerity. Owing to her poor eyesight, her armchair was also nearest to the television. She watched it for several hours a day, often becoming furious at the content of those programmes that revealed the dreadful decline in modern day morals. One of her favourite phrases was, ‘They should be put up against a brick wall and shot’. This fate was meted out once to The New Seekers, singers of such subversive hits as ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, due to the girls’ having ‘long loose hair’. She held strong views of an extreme type for reasons I could not fathom. She described Lady Diana, then still a teenager, when she was first being reluctantly strewn across the media as having ‘a sly look about her’.
I dreaded bedtime at May’s and would put off going upstairs as long as possible because it was freezing up there and I didn’t want to leave the fire in the sitting room. I would, therefore, stay up until nearly midnight watching snooker with my mother and May on the black and white television, which was quite a feat when trying to follow the game. Show jumping was another of May’s favourites. Indeed, one of my earliest memories entails the time the show-jumper, Harvey Smith, flicked a V at the judges. In response to this, May shouted out in astonishment, ‘Oh, my Godfather! Did you see what he just did? Why, he did that!’ whereupon she flicked a wide V at my mother, who was so mortified that she tried to put her hand over my eyes. It must have had a profound effect upon me to see this late Victorian, prim and proper lady contorted into a gesture of profanity because it has remained vivid in my memory.
Eventually, I would reach the point when I could stay awake no longer in the stiff-backed armchairs. I would brush my teeth in the bathroom just off the kitchen, which was heated by a spluttering and pungent paraffin stove, brace myself and trudge upstairs into the Arctic Circle above. There were three rooms, May’s, my mother’s old room, now ‘the sewing room’ and Jim’s room. Jim was a strange old uncle, a couple of decades older than my mother who’d never left home and who refrained from socialising. My allocated place of repose was in the corner of May’s room in a nylon sleeping bag on a camp-bed that consisted of a piece of canvas hooked onto a wobbly frame with rusting springs. I had to sleep there with caution as a sudden move could result in the bed jackknifing, trapping me inside it. I didn’t like sleeping on the camp-bed but it was preferable to where my mother slept, in the double bed with May. Part of me blanched at the idea of being so physically close to May and I was convinced she’d have sharp, snaggled toe nails under the sheets.
May’s bedroom was crowded with dark-stained early twentieth century wooden furnishings. In the corner was a solid and plain dressing table on which was propped a sepia photograph of my grandfather, Joseph, who had died suddenly at home of an aneurysm, leaving May a widow at fifty-six. My fourteen-year-old mother was sent out in haste to buy bicarbonate of soda as a cure for his pain. When she returned, he was dead.
Joseph’s eyes were upon me as soon as I entered the room each night but I knew he had been a good person so I wasn’t afraid. As a young man, he’d fought right through the first world war on horse-back and, miraculously, both he and his horse, Billy, had survived. While he was in France, he’d received the news that his first wife, Florence Tickle, had died as a result of her diabetes. Their toddler son was thereafter brought up by Florence’s parents. After the war, though uninjured, Joseph was placed in a convalescent home for soldiers, which hinted at a mental trauma he never spoke about in front of his children. As an under-manager of Haig Pit, he was known for his care for others. He’d once dragged his boss out of a tunnel by his boots when he’d collapsed in front of him, saving him from the deadly blackdamp. When her grandchildren arrived, May made each of them an intricately crafted stuffed toy using fabric from Joseph’s clothes. Perhaps this was because they had hung in the wardrobe untouched for years, but also, perhaps, to give each of us a little piece of the grandfather we’d never known.
The sewing room could have been a plausible place to put up a grandchild but there was a heavy wrought iron Singer sewing machine table in the middle of it, along with bolts of cloth, old suitcases and boxes, which left no room for a camp-bed. This came as a relief since, when it was my mother’s room as a girl, she had often wondered why the crack of dark where the attic hatch met the ceiling sometimes rose slightly and then fell again, as if the old house were breathing. Once or twice, she’d had a dream that a pair of eyes was looking down at her from there.
Inside my sleeping bag, I wore flannel pyjamas, along with a pair of knitted bed-socks with the drawstrings done up at the ankles. Anyone who dared to stay the night at May’s was presented with bed-socks. She could churn out a pair on her knitting needles in a few hours, always in a hotch-potch of colours as they were made of odds and ends of wool. I liked them so much, I’d take the pair back home to Yorkshire and wear them round the house until they got holes and my toes poked through. My feet were reasonably warm but my nose was a chip of ice and the sleeping bag was woefully under-stuffed for the tundra of Hilltop Road. With the sleeping bag cinched around my head and just my mottled nose sticking out, I probably resembled a pig’s head in a saucepan. Whenever I tentatively changed position, the springs creaked and I was never entirely warm. Eventually, I would drift off and the next thing I would be aware of was watery light coming through the curtains and the smell of toast and rum butter wafting up the staircase.
Rum butter was a staple of the Cumbrian miners’ diet and, even with all the coal mines closed, its popularity barely waned. Many Cumbrians, despite their sedentary modern lives, continue to consume this calorific concoction partly out of a regional pride that has often helped lead them to the ultimate sedentary experience of an early grave from arterio-sclerosis. It probably also didn’t help that one of the traditions following christenings was to put a bit of rum butter on the baby’s dummy at the gathering in the parlour, so that it was the first thing most Cumbrians ever ate, myself included. May, however, downed lashings of the stuff yet didn’t put on an ounce and lived a long life.
On one particular morning, my mother had prepared the toast but the moment May took a bite, shemade a face of ghoulish disdain, ‘What’s this?’ she said, her mouth full of the stuff, ‘There’s no butter under the rum butter!’ My mother tried to reason with her, saying that butter would be surplus as rum butter was mainly butter but May would have none of it.
There are many Cumbrian legends surrounding the mysterious origins of rum butter. My favourite is the tale of the smugglers forced to hide with their booty in a cave on the coast of St Bees. The customs and excise men patrolling the cliffs above expected the bodies to float out with the incoming tide but they didn’t realise there was a chamber in the cave that remained above sea level so the smugglers were able to wait it out. No doubt these details were intended to lend some credibility to the tale. In time, the smugglers became peckish. Conveniently, one of them happened to have a pat of butter on him, as one does when out smuggling. They came up with the cunning plan of mixing this into a paste with their smuggled rum and sugar, which turned out to be so pleasing that a new regional confection was born.
Like most people in Whitehaven, May made her own rum butter, poured it into cut glass sugar basins, patted it down and left it to set in the pantry. Hers was dark due to the extra rum she put in. She ate it every day and burned off the calories making the coal fire, swabbing her grate, taking an axe out back to chop kindling, and wringing out clothes until they were virtually dry with her sinewy blue-veined hands. All of these chores were carried out in her smart 1930s dress, nylon tights and court shoes.
In her late eighties, May had her first brush with death. She’d been down in the town centre attending her weekly bingo bonanza in her musquash coat and, as was her custom, returned on the late bus at around 11 pm. It dropped her off at the end of Hilltop Road but walking the rest of the way home, she had fallen into a hole left unmarked by the gas company. When she came to, there was a man looking down at her, sizing her up. ‘Is that you, May?’ he asked. With a shudder, she realised it was Mr. Mirth, the undertaker who was out walking his whippet. She was a little the worse for wear after this mishap and had a spell in the geriatric ward at the West Cumberland Hospital. Despite being one of the older patients, she was still very much in command of her marbles and called for the nurse whenever something outlandish occurred, such as when the lady in the bed next to her began buttering her napkin instead of her toast.
When I was nine, my oldest sister left home and thenceforth rarely accompanied us to Whitehaven. My other sister was thereafter put up with a cousin of her age and I was billetted at Manda’s. I don’t know why the change occured; perhaps I’d grown out of the camp-bed, or maybe it had finally been acknowledged that this was an awfully uncomfor-table way to pass the night, especially now the massive double bed in Manda’s guest room was available.
Like the parlour below it, Manda and Wiff’s guest room saw little use. They were squashed in a low-to-the-ground, sagging double bed in the back bedroom with barely enough room to shuffle around the bed if the toilet beckoned in the night. There was, how-ever, a small square window which looked out onto the tranquil meadow at the back. Perhaps they were partial to the view and the quiet away from the street, which could be noisy. I like to think this but probably it was because they saved the larger room with the best bed for visitors. As there was no room for furniture in their tiny room, they kept their clothes in the front bedroom in the same typically dour, dark, heavy wooden furniture that May and most working class British old people had at the time.
Staying at Manda’s intensified my penchant for fish and chips. I was something of a sickly child, allergic to most foods, but fish and chips was a rare treat I could eat without unfortunate consequences. Directly opposite Manda’s house was Bob’s Fish and Chips, which I would patronize almost nightly when I stayed there, relishing my meal with a bottle of pop, usually Dandelion and Burdock. Bob was a cheerful, diminutive man with a smart moustache and a withered arm, a war wound of the fish and chip industry. Bob’s chip shop had been there for years and when, at an advanced age, he finally retired to focus on canary breeding, fish and chips continued to be sold from the premises but they were never as good. The new owners didn’t scatter your chips with the batter ‘scraps’, for example, which was a particular delight for a child who was perpetually peckish. When Bob died in his nineties, his funeral cortege paused at his old chippy for a final farewell and the new fryers stood outside and doffed their white hats.
I ate my fish and chips in the evening on the fold-out tray table in front of the fire, which was now gas as making a coal fire had become too burdensome for Manda and Wiff. This was a great shame for me as making a coal fire was one of my few talents. Sometimes Wiff would go out for a pint and return with a bag of crisps for me containing a twist of salt and a pickled onion for the vinegar. As the night wore on, there’d be cards, also on the tray table, which was absorbing as no one had ever taught me these old-time pursuits before. Grandad Wiff would sketch a labelled diagram of a furnace for me and, like a human furnace, would delight me with blow-ing cigarette smoke out of his nose. He couldn’t quite manage it when I asked him to blow smoke out of his ears too. I would then pluck his glasses off his face and polish away all the smudges that he said he hadn’t noticed in the slightest before his lenses were cleaned.
There was a lot to look forward to in the daytime, too. The meadow at the back of the house was an overgrown wilderness. Manda and I would go out there to pick blackcurrants, taking care that she didn’t get a ladder in her support tights. Then we’d make an apple and blackcurrant pie, which she’d remove from the oven with a threadbare dishcloth. Her hands were worn smooth and shiny in places, seemingly heatproof. The slices of pie were served drenched in a pool of evaporated milk.
At the end of the meadow was a path that ran alongside an old sandstone wall. Taking the left fork, you came to the post office where Manda would collect the pensions. This was next to an old Weslyan chapel that looked like a miniature castle, which had prompted my sisters to call it The Witch’s House which, in turn prompted me to give it a wide berth. Beyond this was a small library which seemed to cater exclusively to the elderly, where Manda would borrow bodice rippers by the bag full, with titles like Ride the Storm and A Savage Adoration, her reading choices hinting at earthy inclinations. Taking the right fork, you came to Cartgate Mansion, owned by the ironically named Mrs. Halfpenny. Wiff occasionally cleaned windows there and it was a lucky day indeed when he took me along with him. Mrs. Halfpenny, via Wiff, gave me permission to pick a bunch of the purple crocuses dotted about in the lush parkland at the front. I’d caught occasional glimpses of the widowed Mrs. Halfpenny, smiling in her tennis whites as she played matches on her private court.
After the window cleaning, Wiff and I would continue on to his tidy allotment, where he’d gather what was needed for the next few days in Manda’s kitchen. We’d sit on the bench alongside his little shed, eating what he regarded as the best kind of apple, one that was slightly aged with a crinkly skin. Along with the shallots stored in a chicken wire hammock slung from the ceiling, he had a few pin-ups in the shed, including one of Audrey Hepburn. I used to think how they were all unlike Manda, who had been, let us say, well-upholstered since her youth.
When midnight approached, with Manda’s being a smaller, warmer house than May’s, I did not dread going up to bed. After a few games of cards, I’d climb the narrow staircase, just in time to watch the drunks being disgorged from the pub opposite, engaged in staggering, weaving antics that were fascinating to a child. Eventually, they’d all slope off and I’d sink into a deep and undisturbed sleep under a warm, pink eiderdown, to be woken the next morning by Manda’s cheerful, dewlapped face popping into the room to say, ‘Hello beautiful dreamer, come down and have some nice warm toast and rum butter with your nana and grandad’. I didn’t know it yet but soon there would come a time when her kindness would keep me from sinking entirely into the abyss.