Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The perfect birthday present I can never have: life in the past

In my experience, the people who live longest are those who relentlessly focus on living in the present and thinking about the future.

The only one of my grandparents I ever met was born in 1881. Her parents had taken her to North America as a child, and they crossed the continent by wagon train before deciding it wasn’t a patch on South Shields and coming home again.

Being keenly interested in history from an early age, I tried every way I knew to persuade her to talk about her experiences, but all to no avail. One sample conversation went:

“Grandma, do you remember going to see King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra when they came to Newcastle?”

“Yes. But - eeh! Have you seen the price of Daz these days?”

Always dressed in shabby black and bearing a striking resemblance to the granny in Giles’s cartoons, she lived in an upstairs Tyneside flat in a West End street that has long since disappeared to slum clearance.

Hers must have been one of the last dwellings in the toon still to have gas lighting. Because, with characteristic Hann optimism, she had dismissed her landlord’s offer to install “the electric” at the end of the war because she wasn’t planning to live long enough to make it worth the bother.

She died in 1973. Ironically after a stroke caused by repeatedly running up and down stairs to let in a thoroughly bemused man from the gas board.

Not too long before that she survived being run down on a zebra crossing on her way home from a whist drive. The General Hospital set her broken arm in plaster and tried to tackle her obesity with a crash diet. When denied the ice cream served to everyone else on the ward I am reliably informed that her cries of “I’m 90 years old, for God’s sake! What difference does it make?” could be heard on the other side of Westgate Road.

I started thinking about my grandmother because I entered my own 60th year yesterday, and I wondered whether I could identify the secret of how she came to be the only one of my ancestors to make old bones.

Her total lack of interest in the past creates a bit of a challenge because I feel an ever-increasing desire to go back and live in the Newcastle of the late 1950s or early 1960s. That fondly remembered time when Harold Macmillan was in office, a young and beautiful Queen was on the throne, and we had never had it so good.

When trolleybuses sailed along the main roads, electric trains clattered to the coast and steam locomotives shuttled up and down the East Coast main line, where the shunting of coal wagons at Little Benton sidings made a noise hard to distinguish from thunder.

At home, a good fire of Shilbottle coal warmed the one room we could afford to heat, and a small black and white television with a dodgy vertical hold commanded our attention from the corner. A selection of Dinky cars and a Hornby Dublo 3-rail train set provided fine indoor entertainment for the young, while a bicycle was squeezed alongside the Ford Consul in the garage for outdoor excursions. Yes, to savour all that again would be true bliss.

Mrs Hann, bless her, spent weeks Googling “1950s experiences” for my birthday present, but sadly drew a blank.

A blank, to be completely fair, apart from this

I naturally gloss over such less attractive features of the period as blunt hypodermic needles, evil-tasting medicines, the Windscale fire of 1957 or the Cuban missile crisis that nearly blew us all to kingdom come.

I am sure that my grandmother would never have made the schoolgirl error of taking up mental residence in the 1890s. But other shared features give me more encouragement. There is obviously our tendency to stoutness, for a start.

Plus the key fact that she was, if I’m honest, a notably self-centred individual that nobody much liked. On that analogy, I should be a shoo-in for whatever they may send instead of telegrams from Buckingham Palace in 41 years’ time. Just so long as I steer well clear of whist drives and British Gas.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1 comment:

CC said...

HAPPY (belated) BIRTHDAY, Keith.
Hope the day was more enjoyable than you've indicated.

Enjoyed your description of Grandma, especially her reaction to being denied ice cream at 90.

Having just lost our dear Mother, my sibs and I have also been reminiscing in the last few days.