Granny in the Doorway

Jonathan Raban looks back

We were an inseparable couple, my mother and I. Our address was: The White House, Hempton Green, nr Fakenham, Norfolk. Here we stove in the shells of our breakfast eggs with teaspoons to prevent witches from using them as boats (the eggs came from Mrs Atherton, who helped my mother in the house and kept chickens at her nearby cottage). Here we listened to the News on the wireless twice and sometimes three times a day. My father was a distant rumour. He was away in the war, and my mother believed that she might hear something of him if she listened closely enough to the News. ‘Hush! It’s time for the News’ punctuated our days as reliably as a chiming clock.

First came the pips at one-second intervals, then: ‘This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the News and this is Alvar Lidell reading it’ – a voice like God, from far-off London. My mother frowned as she listened, while I wriggled around to peer inside the set through the ventilation holes in its fibreboard back. The valves glowed and flickered like a miniature city in the darkness, and the whole mysterious apparatus gave off the smell of its own importance: oil, solder, burned dust, electrochemistry at work. It was magnificently incomprehensible. So was the newsreader’s voice, issuing from the front of the wireless, to which my mother attended with a face of studious perplexity.

The squirming child was all skin and bone. I had a wasting disease known as coeliac, or so my mother had been told. Several times a day I would vomit in the lavatory, with my mother cupping my forehead in the palm of her hand. This illness (as an adult I was told that it almost certainly wasn’t coeliac) was worn by me as a sign of great personal distinction. It entitled me to the secret hoard of bananas that were kept in the cool and musty larder off the hall, whose darkness and echoey flagstone floor, a few steps down from ground level, spooked me sufficiently that I never dared to go there alone. The mice, who scurried over the draining boards in the kitchen, made their headquarters in the larder.

In wartime England, nobody had bananas except me. They were specially imported just for my benefit, my mother said. When they arrived, they were firm and green, but quickly ripened to black in the larder, infecting the whole house with the stink of their decomposition. I liked the taste of sweet, putrescent ooze, and it’s hardly surprising that, given such a peculiar diet, I spent much of my time crouched over the toilet bowl, emptying my stomach of these rare luxuries, which, I believed, were flown to Fakenham for me by aeroplane.

My mother was teaching me to read, for I was her chief distraction from the war. When she wasn’t listening to the wireless or writing her daily letters to my father, she and I were playing alphabet cards – sounding out the letters and making words. Cat, mat, hat, sat, rat, fat. Pretty soon, I could mouth the words in the headlines of the Times, which appeared in our letterbox each morning, even when I had no clue of their meaning. This wasn’t precocity on my part but a measure of my mother’s attention to her child and anxiety for her husband, a product of the special circumstances of war.

It was a job for which she was unusually well qualified. My mother had only a smattering of formal education (the Vevey finishing school, from which she graduated at 16, used books primarily as objects to place on students’ heads in deportment lessons) but she was an avid reader of Mrs Gaskell (Cranford), Flora MacDonald (Lark Rise to Candleford) and Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm). At 17, she took a correspondence course from the Regent School of Successful Writing (‘101 Infallible Plot Situations’), and began to send out stories to women’s magazines. Horner’s Weekly responded with an acceptance letter, and soon she was contributing tales of romance in the countryside, each between 10,000 and 15,000 words long, at one guinea a thousand words. Years later, she would belittle the stories, saying they were no good, and the magazine was ‘just for servant girls’. The war and the paper shortage killed it (and most of the servant girls joined the war effort as land girls, working the fields in headscarves and trousers).

What survived of these literary efforts was my mother’s Ford, AUP 595, which lived as a shrouded mystery, under dust sheets and an old blanket, in the wooden garage in our back garden, until the German surrender, when petrol rationing was reintroduced for private motorists. It was a black saloon, with upholstered seats that smelled of leather, and, more faintly, of dog – the last remnants of Sam, a Staffordshire bull terrier, who had died (or was put to death) not long after I was born. In my mother’s many photos of him, Sam appeared to be a genial and frolicsome sort of dog, but he had acquired a nasty reputation as a canine terrorist and I think he had to be put down. Now I sat where he used to sit in the front passenger seat of the car, where I channelled his ghost, woof-woofing my way along the Norfolk lanes.

I loved AUP 595. Not the least of its fascinations were the two half-moon holes in its floor, immediately behind my mother’s feet as she worked the accelerator and the clutch. Through these holes I could watch the gravelled surface of the road as it sped into a vomit-coloured blur, then came into sharp focus again when my mother braked. The movements of the road interested me at least as much as anything I could see through the window. The holes obviously meant that someone with very large feet had owned AUP 595, for which my mother had traded in her ancient Humber and paid £40 in March 1940. I never thought of it as an old car at the time, and I have no memory of it ever breaking down.

When my mother had enough petrol coupons, we’d drive to Granny’s house in Sheringham, a long ride of nearly twenty miles. The narrow, twisting road ran past Little Snoring and on to Holt, where we often stopped to break the journey and look in shop windows. Then, from a wooded ridge, the land below us was rimmed with the mysterious sea. Here my mother switched the engine off and let AUP 595 coast downhill. For a mile or more, there was just the sound of the wind, the rustle of tyres on gravel, the creaking of the chassis, as the car submitted to the gravitational pull of Granny’s house. My mother had enlisted as an ambulance driver early in the war and never missed an opportunity to save petrol. She allowed the car to come almost to a standstill before switching the ignition back on and letting out the clutch, so that it restarted with a series of bone-shaking jerks and a roar. Or it didn’t. When it stalled at the bottom of the hill, my mother would get out and, to ‘save the battery’, effortfully swing the crank handle.

Granny’s house stood several streets short of the sea, up a sloping cul-de-sac. Past the gate, one had to climb a crazy-paving path flanked on either side by a rock garden of lavender and alpine plants. With its small bow-windowed drawing room at the front and whitewashed pebbledash, the house, I see now, was a very modest example of 1930s suburban bijou, but then I thought it grand and magical. Granny in the doorway, looking slightly top-heavy with her bosomy torso balanced on girlishly slender legs, dogs yapping behind her, smelled of eau de cologne and cigarettes. In every room there were open boxes of cork-tipped Craven A’s, the cigarettes nestling, close-packed, in their pillar-box red containers with the black cat logo. To me, Granny’s cigarettes were a sign of extraordinary opulence in the wartime world of shortages and rations.

On these visits, my mother would accept a cigarette when Granny offered, but anyone could see that she was an amateur smoker, breathing in and puffing out between coughs. Granny, though, was a professional: she could convey deep meditation with a drag, dismiss an argument with an exhalation, draw a protective veil of smoke around herself and deliver an oracular remark from behind it, extinguish a conversation and a cigarette in one gesture. She was a study in the rhetoric of smoking. She also had the fascinating knack of blowing smoke rings, for me only, when she was in the mood.

She had just turned fifty. Every expedition to see her was a treat for me, if a rather scary one, for Granny was the first person I knew to maintain a visible disconnect between what she said and how she really felt. Extravagant daily labour went into her appearance – the greying permed hair, the rouge and powder, the scent, the afternoon rests taken in her darkened bedroom, from which she emerged freshly dressed and in a new and unpredictable mood, along with her dogs, a pair of miniature Yorkshire terriers named Timmy and Charles who slept at her feet. Granny was a creature of artifice, and though she was always smiling, one couldn’t trust her smiles because there was often something wicked to be glimpsed behind them.

*

She was a doctor’s daughter, and had married a newly qualified doctor in February 1915. My grandfather, called Hamilton Sandison, Ham for short, had read medicine at Edinburgh University and graduated just in time to catch the beginning of the First World War. He had served – oddly, it now seems to me – in all three armed services, army, navy and air force, between 1914 and 1919. Doctoring at the front had broken him and given him an addiction to the bottle, or so Granny would say, and he had died in a motor accident in Maidenhead in 1923 (‘suicide’ according to Granny). My mother was then four, and my uncle, Peter, was six. Granny took her children to live in Switzerland, in search of ‘mountain air’ to cure my uncle’s incipient tuberculosis. There, she met a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Indian Army named Bertram Price Ellwood, who married her in 1928. Ellwood, 22 years older than Granny, was also, as it turned out (at least in Granny’s version of things), impotent. On my mother’s tenth birthday, in November 1928, the colonel gave her his present in an envelope over the breakfast table; inside was a single sheet of paper inscribed with the words: ‘Man Know Thyself.’

In 1934, when my uncle had either outgrown or been cured of his TB, the family came back to England, where they bought a house in rural Worcestershire. Appropriately enough, the house was called The Gap, and Granny and her colonel bickered inside it until 1941. Uncle Peter left to read engineering at Birmingham University; my mother stayed home writing love stories under the pen name Casey Mundell. When Col. Ellwood and Granny finally separated, Granny got the house, which she quickly managed to sell for £2500, a lot of money in those invasion-haunted days.

When my parents married in 1941, and later bought The White House in Hempton Green, Granny followed them. Like a secret policeman, she kept a discreet distance, but was always on our trail. Wherever we moved, she would set up house nearby, going from Worcestershire to Norfolk, Norfolk to Merseyside, Merseyside to Sussex, then Sussex to Hampshire, where she died. Only when my parents made their last move, to Northamptonshire, did they escape the watchful attention of Granny, their determined shadow. She never learned to drive a car, but always knew her taxi drivers by their first names and kept a Bradshaw’s Railway Guide beside the telephone in the hall.

*

Sheringham in the early summer of 1945 was trying to return to normal life as a fishing village and genteel holiday resort. Along the beach, the rusting coils of barbed wire, wooden stakes and concrete blocks were mostly cleared, and the anti-tank ditches were being filled in. Snipers’ pillboxes and signs warning of unexploded mines remained, and so did the now-fading self-importance that comes to a place taught to think of itself as being on the front line of imminent invasion.

Above the high-tide line, the beach was a broad ridge of hard-to-walk-on pebbles, where a cluster of scruffy boats was drawn up beside the twin huts that said Ladies and Gentlemen (penny in the slot required). The smell of dead crabs and shit-and-disinfectant was powerful. But as the tide went out, it exposed a reach of glistening wet sand and a shallow spur of rock and drying bladderwrack with fascinating pools full of purple and scarlet sea anemones, darting shrimps and scuttling crablets. There were no crowds here, just a few mothers and children, and the occasional uniformed soldier and his girl.

My mother and I usually came to the beach in the afternoons, when Granny was taking her rest and I had been enjoined to silence. I paddled tremulously in the foamy dribble left by the small waves, but loved the rockpools, sticking my forefinger down inside the tentacled anemones and feeling their queer, otherworldly squeeze and suck. In the distance, where the High Street met the beach, a sparse handful of instrumentalists, all elderly, played from a bandstand, their sound carried by the gusty salt-breeze, and for a moment one could catch a scatter of cornets above the rhythmical bass grunting of the tuba. The rockpool held a corner of deep water where tufts of overhanging red seaweed cast the bottom into impenetrable shadow, the lair of what I imagined to be an enormous fish. The more I stared into this deep, the more certain I became that there was life and movement there.

In every passing curiosity and flight of fancy, my mother was my ally, at my side and cheering me on. The word ‘lovely’, spoken in her rather high and breathy voice, always sounded as if it were attached to double or triple exclamation marks. Of course I didn’t notice that the lavish attention she paid to me was intimately connected to her nervous anxiety about what the BBC News might bring next, or that her air of rapt enthusiasm was at least in part a product of the Good Manners curriculum at her finishing school. I just basked in the love and admiration that I took as my due.

Walking back to Granny’s, we spelled our way through the town. Sheringham was rich in words, on road signs, shops, advertising hoardings. Every four-way crossing said Halt (which I confused with Holt, the place), and nearly every shop said open or closed. The High Street was a marvellous jumble of illegible and unpronounceable ciphers mixed in with words I recognised and could say aloud, like tea, fish, Fry’s the cocoa maker, draper. Each day I added new treasures to my word hoard. My memories begin in 1945, the last year of the war, presumably because as I learned to associate verbal symbols with the things they signified, I found I had the means to codify and store them.

Granny would serve high tea – grilled sardines (from a can) on toast, presented as a delicacy but which made me gag; sandwiches of pre-sliced brown bread, with the faintest smear of margarine, and Shippam’s paste; then raspberries picked from the bushes in Granny’s back garden. When the meal was over, I was given permission to get down from the table and play with Charles, my favourite of the two dogs, in whose large eyes, half-curtained by his fine brown hair, I saw receptive sympathy and high intelligence.

It was Craven A time for Granny and my mother, their twin cigarettes supplying the punctuation for grown-up talk. Smoke filled out each pause and gave it substance, visibility and smell. Granny would blow hers through her nostrils, like a horse on an icy morning; my mother, not inhaling, would release it from her lips in a succession of dainty mouthfuls.

‘Oh, I meant my Peter, dear, not yours,’ Granny said, clarifying the distinction between her son, a lieutenant-commander in the navy, and her son-in-law, my father, a major in the Royal Artillery, both equally far from home. I was then far too young to catch the disparaging tone in which Granny would mention my father, but I hear it now. (I was ten years old when she told me confidentially that my father had married my mother ‘for her money’ – an interesting but groundless accusation, and a reminder of Granny’s talent as the chief fabricator of the plots on which my mother strung her stories.)

We drove home through the flat fields of Norfolk. The lanes were imprinted with the muddy spoors of the tractors that were displacing horses on the farms. Here and there one could see a solitary horse towing a plough, but the chief interest of the landscape was its display of toylike red and green machines. Horses, in any case, were everywhere, too familiar to be worth noticing. Most mornings I was woken before six by the irregular clock-clocking of hooves on the road outside my window as the milkman’s float drew level with our front door; the rag-and-bone man had a horse and cart; farm produce, like the toppling loads of hay and beets, travelled through Hempton drawn by horses. The primary smell of the village was of horse dung, intermingled with the farty stink of the Fakenham gas-works whenever there was any east in the wind.

Just up the road from our house there was a small and pokey everything-shop which we visited most days. A hundred yards further on, on the opposite side, were the coiled barbed wire, high chainlink fencing and Nissen huts of the prisoner-of-war camp. After the surrender, Germans awaiting repatriation crowded into the shop, where they would make a fuss of me and teach me scraps of German like ‘bitte’ and ‘guten Morgen’. At Christmastime in 1945 they had me singing: ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.’

A few miles away was an American airbase, from which jeeps full of GIs regularly drove past the house. Americans – so much bigger, pinker and more open-faced than the English or the Germans – swaggered through our world like a motorised plutocracy, burning through their gallons of unrationed petrol and spreading largesse in their wake. One afternoon an open jeep rolled slowly past our dining-room window, the soldiers within scattering PX candy on the street where children, some of my age, dived in the dirt for these treasures. I raced for the front door.

‘No, dear: I can’t let you go out with the village children.’

At that instant, the memory cuts out as abruptly as a film tearing inside a projector. It just goes white. Freud says somewhere that we necessarily edit and suppress our memories of early childhood because we would otherwise have to re-experience the gales of lust and rage that then consumed us. This was evidently one of those moments. I can’t recall any lust or rage, but my mother’s remark about the village children still rankles. It was my first explicit introduction to my parents’ world of anxious class divisions and distinctions. In no uncertain terms, it announced that my lot would be to stand behind a wall of separating glass, on the outside, looking in; a spectator not an actor, forcibly excluded from the enviable society on the street.

My mother made it plain that one should be afraid of the village children, tough and ferocious creatures whose characters had been formed in what she called ‘knocky-down schools’. I would never go, she promised, to a knocky-down school, but to an establishment better designed to nurture tender plants like me. As it turned out, I was sent to a motley collection of schools around the country, some more knocky-down than others: a dame school, a prep school, two state primary schools, a public school, then two state grammar schools. The main conclusion that I drew from this tour of the British educational system was that I was an obtrusively square peg in a succession of round holes. Academically, I learned as little as was conceivably possible for an otherwise bookish child in 14 years of formal schooling. Humanly, I absorbed rather a lot of truths that I wished I could unlearn, but couldn’t. It was, in other words, an averagely conventional education.