I never knew my grandparents. My father was so much older than my mother that his parents had little chance of featuring even in my earliest life; and my mother’s mother died so young, followed immediately by her father, that they too were known to me only through the somewhat unreliable mechanism of family recollection.
And so surrogates naturally came to fill the abhorrent vacuum left by circumstance. There was, for example, a great-aunt of whom I saw a lot, but it fell chiefly to two of my godparents, an unmarried brother and sister in their mid-40s, to adore me in my childhood and assist in my growing up, especially after my father also died, when I was just eight, and my mother only thirty.
It was this overwhelmingly faithful pair who came to all my birthday parties, admiring me in my fine Andy Pandy suit, joining in the pass-the-parcel and ring-a-ring-o’-roses, and all of that sweet ritual. It was my godfather who, ready to burst with pride, took cine films of me as a cathedral chorister, walking in procession through the close at Durham, one of a long crocodile of boys timelessly robed in purple-tasselled mortar-board and long black cloak.
My godparents themselves were far from timeless, but belonged to the grainy years between the wars. Their names, Ronald and Marjorie (or Ronnie and Madge as they were always called) rooted them firmly in the technological, economic and social norms of a century ago. Their class and way of life were equally beyond negotiation.
The first and third children of a coal miner, they lived pretty much all their lives in the same council house in the grand-sounding village of Witton Gilbert, a few miles north of Durham city. Their middle brother was the one who got away, a full five miles to the next village, Langley Park, where he kept the petrol station and mended the wonderful old cars that smelt of leather and could be polished to a bright sheen. Later, in 1988, this village would provide half the name of an album by the pop group ‘Prefab Sprout’. But that, as they say, is another story.
Ronnie and Madge were pillars of the church (in a good way), and my father had asked Ron to be his churchwarden before I was born. It was therefore on Madge’s knee (when not my mother’s) that I sat to have stories whispered into my ear during services and it was to their house that I went each week for a Sunday breakfast of sausage sandwiches and toast and marmalade. It was here that I discovered the life-giving properties of fire. In all weathers, a huge coal fire would burn in their living room. But this was no mere ornament: it heated the water and was bordered by an oven and a selection of hobs. It was here that all the meals were prepared: thus the living room was called ‘the kitchen’, while the kitchen was ‘the back kitchen’. (The room for best was known, simply and mysteriously as ‘the room’.) It was in a tin bath in front of this kitchen fire that the family classically enjoyed a periodic soak, and it was on these same coals of fire that my bread, harpooned by an extendable trident, was perfectly and patiently toasted, ready for the slab of butter that would melt into the toast as it was kept warm for the young master (for so I was treated) on the glowing hearth.
It was principally through food that my relationship with Auntie Madge was formed. Although, as the girl of the family, it had been made clear, I think, that her role in life was to leave school early, to remain unmarried, and to look after the menfolk, she nonetheless had a part-time job as the cook at my village school, and so it was from her hands that I first received the staples of our national cuisine, the pies and puddings, the spotted dick, the jam-pink rice.
She was by nature a feeder, one of that generation of women who, after the privations of war, killed off the men Hitler’s bullets had missed, with a surfeit of huge and honest lardy meals delivered punctually and without complaint three times each day. As I grew older, and my mother worked nights at the hospital to help cover the school fees, it was Auntie Madge who stayed with me, preparing a second supper for my return from school at nine o’clock.
The morning was likewise a culinary and calorific assault course: leaving the house without having heard the sizzle of the frying pan was not encouraged. During the holidays the cupboard doors continued to swing open. As my mother slept, I would go to Auntie Madge for lunch, a not inconsiderable plateful, consumed while watching the staples of 1970s and ’80s ITV, Crossroads, Crown Court, Farmhouse Kitchen.
Finally, when I left for university having supposedly attained maturity and independence, her final act of love was to make a fruit cake (or ‘spice cake’, as she called it) which travelled with me and kept me going as, for the first day or two, I was too shy to leave my room and look for the refectory.
All of this was a long time ago. She would have been 98 a couple of weeks ago, and it must be nearly a decade since I sang her funeral mass. But those we have loved, responding to their love, never leave us irrevocably. Our senses are always on standby, receptive to any little sacramental reminders that restore the presence of the now absent. This is never more clearly the case than when we spend time with those who have also known and loved them. So, at my mother’s and stepfather’s now for a few days’ holiday, Auntie Madge is frequently brought to mind, perhaps by a slice of ‘spice’ or a ham and pease pudding sandwich (southern readers, please Google).
Words and phrases she might have used also kindle happy reminiscence. Her language only occasionally revealed vestiges of ‘pitmatic’, but this dialect of the miners was never embraced. Nothing was ever said, but I suspect it had been discouraged as something not quite reputable, not something for a clean-living, churchgoing, working-class Tory family to be mired in.
What her speech did have in abundance was a homely and rustic quality derived from the still entirely rural village, and from her occasional experiences as a young kitchen maid on the bigger farms. Work, for example, would resume after a lull with the admonition that lazing round ‘won’t get the bairn a new frock,’ while anything placed precariously on a high shelf was said to have ‘a sly look’, an almost Shakespearean observation. She also retained a few words and phrases that were unlikely throwbacks to the schoolroom. Telling a tale would often involve a deal of ‘surmising’, while I, if I grew boisterous, was told not to be so ‘rampageous’. It’s advice I rather wish I’d taken.
I’m not sure why I have troubled to write these things down. I suppose part of it is the desire that my words should be a tiny memorial to someone who had no children of her own, though she did have a number of great-nieces and -nephews whom she greatly loved. I think I write chiefly in consequence of my own growing older and becoming able to understand the fundamental thing about my godmother, which is that she loved to be at home, and was wrested from it only once, by World War II.
Up to now, I have always derived pleasure and a sense of achievement, even a sense of self, by travelling as often and as widely as possible. But now, in the impending excitement of a final new beginning, I want to understand myself as a descendant of the grandparents I never knew, and prepare a secure hearth and home for our children now, and for the grandchildren I long to meet. These words I set down in gratitude and hope. In the end, they are the only offering I can make.