Uncle Clarence

Alan Bennett

Once we have located the cemetery the grave itself is not hard to find, one of a row of headstones just inside the gate and backing onto a railway. Flanders in April and it is, not inappropriately, raining, clogging our shoes the famous mud. The stone gives the date of his death, 21 October 1917, but not his age. He was 20.

He was always 20 all through my childhood because of the photograph on the piano at my grandmother’s house in Leeds. He was her only son. He sits in his uniform and puttees in Mr Lonnergan’s studio down Woodsley Road, Lonnergan’s a classy place that did you a good likeness. Less classy but still doing a good likeness, Mr Lonnergan takes pictures of my brother and me in 1944 in the closing stages of the next war. An artier study this, two boys aged 12 and nine emerge from a shadowy background to look unsmiling at Mr Lonnergan under his cloth. My brother is in his Morley Grammar School blazer, his hand resting unself-consciously on my grey flannelled shoulder. In his picture Uncle Clarence is on embarkation leave from the King’s Royal Rifles. In 1944 we too are going away, though not to certain death, only ‘down South’ to fulfil a dream of my father’s. He has answered an advert in the Meat Trades Journal and having worked for 25 years for the Co-op is now going to manage a family butcher’s in Guildford. Uncle Clarence never comes back but we are back within the year, his photograph still standing on its lace doily, and now ours has been put beside it.

The piano itself does not belong to Grandma. She gives it house room at 7 Gilpin Place for her sister-in-law, Aunt Eveline. Aunt Eveline has never married and has beautiful hand-writing. Her name is on all the music in the piano stool, and in her time she accompanied the silent films at the Electric Cinema, Bradford. Come the talkies, she turns housekeeper and now looks after a Mr Watson, sometime chairman of the Bradford Dyers’ Association, who is a widower with a fancy woman, whom Aunt Eveline dislikes because she has dyed hair and is not Aunt Eveline. On Sundays there are musical evenings in the front room at Gilpin Place. The children are warned to keep back as a shovelful of burning coals from the kitchen range is carried smoking through the house to light the fire in the sitting-room before we sit down to high tea in the kitchen. After tea, the sitting-room still smelling of smoke, Aunt Eveline arranges herself on the piano stool and with my father on the violin (‘Now then, Walter, what shall we give them?’) kicks off with a selection from Glamorous Night. Then, having played themselves in, they accompany Uncle George, my father’s brother, in some songs. Uncle George is a bricklayer and has a fine voice and a face as red as his bricks. He sings ‘Bless this house’ and ‘Where’er you walk’ and sometimes Grandma has a little cry. These occasions go on until about 1950 when Grandma dies.

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