John Sutherland

My grandmother was born, I think, in 1890. She was among the first in her family to benefit from Forster’s 1870 Universal Education Act, just as I, two generations later, was the first to benefit from Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Her own grandmother probably belonged to that semi-literate mass of women who could read fluently, but not write or ‘figure’. Historically, reading has been something that mothers from all but the very lowest classes taught their children, even their daughters. Since writing and numbering were marketable skills, they were taught at school and, for most of the 19th century, were the exclusive property of men. In her late twenties my mother became (thanks to the Pitman School) a shorthand typist. Sewing, knitting (without bothering to look down) and silently obeying male voices (‘taking dictation’) were perfect preparation for the girl typist. Exit Bob Cratchit with his goosequill, enter Miss Jones with her 100 wpm. As it happened, my mother didn’t teach me to read, because I was evacuated from London during my early childhood. Later on, she taught me five-finger touch-typing, for which I am every day grateful.

My grandmother wrote painfully, her lips working harder than her hand, often licking the tip of the pencil (disastrous if it was an ‘indelible’). She was infinitely more dextrous with a needle or the treadle-driven sewing-machine which, like the massive mangle, had come to her, in 1909, as a wedding present. Her script was an imperfect copperplate. There was no connection between the way she spoke (or, I suspect, thought) and the way she wrote. The only letter I ever had from her – a one-page note during my National Service – was probably a replica of what she dimly recalled writing to her husband while he was at the Front in the First World War and was assembled from working-class epistolary Lego: ‘Hoping this finds you as it leaves me’ etc.

My grandfather committed suicide in 1957. A dour, uncommunicative man, reputedly with a violent temper in early life, his last recorded words were: ‘Everyone drives cars nowadays.’ He drowned himself in a millpond where, when he was young, a friend had gone under. He had often warned me of the dangers of Bourne millrun: its treacherous currents and strangling weeds. Not throwing himself under the wheels of the ubiquitous car was, presumably, a criticism of the way things had turned out.

He left no note and some mysterious relics in two locked trunks: Edwardian dandy suits; £1200 in antique banknotes; the title deeds to two houses in Farnborough. Legend had it that he was illegitimate: the son of some (probably) Jewish philanderer who left the woman he otherwise betrayed well provided for. He lost an eye in the First World War: not in combat, but from a snowball – friendly fire of a kind. His only recorded interest was angling, preferably for eels which were later boiled or pickled for the table. As a child I often went fishing with him. The Essex rivers and ponds were still teeming with eels and perch (useless for anything). Now those waters are ‘preserved’ for London angling clubs and stocked with fish (trout, grayling, carp) as alien as the sportsmen who ruthlessly scoop them out from banks where Constable once walked.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in