Grandmothers talking to Nell Dunn 
Chatto, 202 pp., £10.99, September 1991, 0 7011 3578 6Show More
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Grandmothers, says Nell Dunn, ‘make a strong and Vivid extension of a child’s world’, but they do this at very different ages, from about thirty-five to the limit of the mortal span.

A grandmother may start out as tougher and handier than the young mother herself. Her role is likely to change distressingly. ‘I didn’t like it when she got really old,’ says one of the book’s contributors, ‘because she used to dribble when she was eating her dinner ... I used to tell her about what was going on. In the end she fell in the fire and got burnt, and we had to put her in a home.’ This old woman, too, must have had a story to tell if there had been anyone to listen to it, and the last years of life, as the oral historian Paul Thompson has pointed out, are ‘a time of reflection and exceptional candour’. But Nell Dunn is concentrating on the very earliest stage, her own stage, of grandmotherliness.

When her son’s son, Cato, was born, she was, ‘adrift, speechless, uneasy with myself’. Whatever she felt for him at first seemed not to be love – that only came gradually three months later – or even pride. ‘In a way, I’m furious – I want to be twenty again.’ She could more or less remember how to care for a baby, but she needed to put her emotions in context by sharing her experiences, by tapping in, as she puts it, to the everyday women’s Mafia which deals in advice and the priceless commodity of reassurance.

Nell Dunn has always specialised in listening to women talking. To do this successfully means a delicate sense of time and place, and she is an artist in both. The material of her play Steaming came to her among the regular customers at the old Stepney Green Steam Baths, long since done away with. For this book she has relied on a series of conversations with friends and friends of friends, sometimes ‘just one long afternoon drifting through to evening and opening a bottle of wine and talking of other things’. There were 14 of them in all – 14 middle-aged, active, mostly hard-working grandmothers. ‘All grannies are people,’ says one of them. ‘Being a granny is just a situation they’ve got themselves into.’ Chrissie, whose husband was in prison when she was 19, has two cleaning jobs, one of which starts at six o’clock in the morning. Joan worked on the Thames riverboats until her daughter offered to pay for her to come out to Antigua and look after little Sunny, who is no angel. Apart from Chrissie and Joan, most of these women have something to do with the arts and the media. One used to be a publisher, one used to be married to a film director, one gives her grandchild a new book every time they meet, three are painters (and one of these dances and meditates as well), one is concerned with social problems and music, one works in the Glastonbury Information Office, one is Diana Melly.

This gives a certain bias to this deeply sympathetic book. We are listening to creative grannies. Creativity is hard, possibly on the nerves, but certainly on the conscience. They feel a responsibility to their own talent – ‘I thought, but I’m a painter, I can’t go bundling off’ to babysit ‘once a week and lose a whole day’s painting’ – and, at the same time, the duty to pass on the gifts they have, and even those they haven’t. Ursula sings and composes, but thinks: ‘I’m no good with my hands and I miss that. I’ve got a friend who is terribly good with her hands and she’s always making things, and all her grandchildren from an early age made things ... I find that a great lack.’

Becoming a grandmother means a multiple change of relationship. You are now the wife of a grandfather (although in this book men play a very subdued part and are usually absent, dead, divorced or out late). It makes a very great difference whether the baby’s mother is your daughter or your daughter-in-law. In either ease, however, you are shifted back a generation. Nell Dunn’s method has been to start by asking her 13 friends about their own grandmothers. This is interesting, although there is not much sense of loving continuity, since most of the grannies seem to have needed a tolerance which can only be given in retrospect. Some felt no obligation at all to be kind. The most alarming of these, a medium, Madame Voyez, who foretold the sinking of the Titanic, was ‘crabby and critical’. Nell Dunn herself, when she went to stay with her grandmother, ‘slept with her in the double bed with the giant coronet embroidered on the white satin bedhead ... If I moved I woke her up, so I had to lie very still.’ There was affection between the two of them, but nothing to be learned. When Cato was born she felt she wanted to know him much better from the beginning, and in a totally different way. It would be a genuine friendship between individuals, ‘a private matter between me and him’.

In spite of the pale blue cover which her publishers have given her, and the printer’s flowers scattered through the text, Nell Dunn remains a realist. There is a kind of purity and determination about all her books, no matter how relaxed they seem. She reaches the truth, but not in the easiest way. In Grandmothers she admits to herself that her new position in the family is a comedown. ‘What I found hard in becoming a grandmother was that I was much lower down the power scale. It was a humbling experience.’ She could be useful, but not essential, and there was sadness in that. Another drawback, she discovers, is ‘the servitude of boredom’. Taking charge of a toddler means passages of absolute tedium. Nell Dunn and Cato have times when they are like a couple who have been married too long and find themselves alone at a seaside boarding-house with nothing to do. At the other extreme, Jackie (married to a writer) finds the grandchild’s visits a walking disaster area, or rather ‘a volcano which erupts into the house’.

More formidable still is the problem of co-grandmothership. If women really constitute a Mafia, the Other Granny belongs to the rival consorteria. Chrissie, when her grand-daughter comes back from a visit, treats it as a return from hostile territory. ‘Then I asked Debbie straight out: “What did she give you for dinner, then?” Well, Debbie says she gave them a proper dinner: two boiled potatoes, two roast, a spoonful of peas and a bit of meat and gravy. I said, “Well, where’s their Yorkshire? Where’s their carrots?” ’ But this book turns out to be a record of human happiness – specifically human, since we are the only living creatures who recognise our children’s children.

Interspersed all the way through with the other stories are reports on life with Cato. He learns to manage the stairs, throws his dinner on the floor, and puts coal in the dogs’ drinking water. Nell Dunn, committed to looking after him once a fortnight, comes to see that with these unextraordinary failures and successes she is returning to ‘the thick of life’ again. It’s not the repetition of an old experience, but the chance of entering a new one. And Cato loves her extravagantly. ‘Perhaps, when my grandson is a young man and I am an eccentric old women with wild hair and an unsteady gait, I shall be less interesting to him,’ she thinks, ‘so why not make hay while the sunshines?’

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