digital collage created on my iphone
I will not wish you riches
Or the glow of greatness
But that where so e're you go,
Some weary heart may gladden at your smile
Some weary life know sunshine
For a while
The above little poem used to hang in a frame, by the door that led into the kitchen of my nan and grandad's house in the Black Country town of Smethwick. Nan was a Smethwick woman, born and bred, but the statement in her father's newspaper obituary, that he was "from an old Smethwick family" was part of the fiction that dear nan liked to present to the world: one of established respectability and belonging. Nan's father, George Neal, had grown up in rural Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, migrating to Aston in Birmingham at the end if the nineteenth century, to work on the trams. Nan's mother, Elizabeth Handy, was widowed- George's second wife and, by all accounts, as large-hearted as she was large-framed. She capably raised her husband's three infants as her own and bore him a further ten. Nan was deeply loved by her parents and although an iron-willed grandmother for whom "no" meant "no", she was firmly against the physical punishment of children,saying: "life'll give them enough knocks as it is." As I sit in my bed, recovering from flu, I recall that several of my grandmother's siblings perished in the 1918 Flu pandemic. These tragedies effected the family deeply but their motto was "there's always someone worse off than yourself" and Nan would remind me of this, whenever I began to feel sorry for myself during the tempestuous teenage years that I spent living with her and Grandad.
My great grandfather was a Special Policeman and an active member of the "Sally Army": a Salvationist. My great grandmother was the daughter of a Romany Gypsy who had married a Gorgi and become a house-dweller. Family friends remembered Nan's parents as as "the sweetest, kindest people you could ever wish to meet": one recalling how, as a child, he and his friends had taken flight from a policeman, during a game of "kick the can" in the street. The boys ran down a narrow "entry" that ran between the Victorian, red-bricked terraced houses of Trafalger Road, Smethwick, into the back yard of my great grandparents' house, through the kitchen, the parlour, and then, the hallowed front room, where Nan's family were seated, having dinner together. By all accounts, the Neals smiled serenely as the children ran past them, persued by the policeman, my great grandfather cheerily commenting "hallo there!" as the noisy group disappeared out of the front door.
If Nan knew that she was the granddaughter of a Gypsy, she certainly never let on: it wouldn't have fitted the image of respectable, middle-class shop keeper that she cultivated. Following her bankruptsy, my grandparents moved to a house that was in need of renovations that never happened, due too lack of funds, but everyone remembers how "your grannie always liked everything to be just-so" and as the little image posted above began to evolve on my iPhone, I was guided by memories of the front room in her home: everything immaculately dusted and polished; starched anti-maccassers on the backs of the chairs, lace on the dining table and hanging inside the draughty, rattling, sash windows: filtering smelly, grey Smethwick light, transforming windowsill vases of plastic flowers into something fragile and magical. Never since my childhood have I seen flowers like those in my Nan's house. Were there really giant blue plastic Poppies and Dephiniums, pink and amber Daliahs? Or did I merely dream them? No, they were real, because I can remember Nan taking them from their vases to decorate Easter bonnets for my sister and I to wear for a fancy dress contest at school and somewhere, I have a slide that my father took that day.
These memories never cease to break my heart. Lovely, complicated, infuriating Nan: you didn't approve of me being an artist, you thought I had the brains to do a job that would provide the money for a far more comfortable lifestyle. If you were around now, you'd be telling me to buck myself up, get out of bed, mop the floors and do the Hoovering. Oh Nan, how I miss you!