Auntie Bernadette and the country in the city



(My aunt, c.1934)

I have a photograph taken thirty two years ago of four nuns standing in a circle pointing their toes. In the centre is one of my daughters, then four years old. She had just started ballet and was giving the nuns the benefit of her learning. Good toes, naughty toes.

I’d traveled with her to the convent where my aunt – her great-aunt – a nun, was celebrating her golden jubilee. The invitations had extended to immediate family, and second generation only. But my daughter had cut her face badly the day before and needed spoiling. An exception was made for her.

My aunt, short and wide, her plump, plain face hidden behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses, had been a linen maid before she took her vows. She cleaned her plate with bread, and spoke with the lilts and brogues of everywhere she had lived in her fifty years as a nun: London and Ghent, Sheffield and Sunderland, Hanley and Bristol. Known as Viley to my mother, Sister Bernadette to my father, we called her Auntie Bernadette. She was a Little Sister of the Poor, devoted to the care of the indigent and elderly.

In the days before the welfare state, old age was to be feared. The elderly poor, often infirm, who had no one to provide for them had to fall back on the workhouse. Forbidding institutions, built to deter all but the truly destitute, they separated the healthy men and women and housed them in long, soulless dormitories. The old and sick were put in grim, segregated infirmaries. The Little Sisters of the Poor established their homes as a kinder alternative to the workhouses, in the heartlands of England’s industrial cities. Brick built and Victorian, they, too, separated men and women and housed the inmates in dormitories. But these were welcoming institutions with polished chequered floors, bright sitting rooms for the day, and grounds for exercise and enjoyment.

The nuns produced what they could, and begged for the rest. The convents were in the poorer parts of the city, within sight of the factories or kilns or steel works. The kitchen gardens supplied the home with fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry, pork and bacon. The nuns may have employed gardeners, but in my memory it was the old men who herded the screaming pigs towards the abattoir, they can smell death, they’re clever, pigs. It was they who dug the land and hoed the weeds, who fed the chickens and the farmyard dog, a smelly English sheepdog called Lassie. For a city girl, my country memories were formed in the industrial slums of England.

We visited every summer, staying in the guest quarters. In post-war Britain, with the scars of the Second World War still visible and where disposable income, at least for my parents, was non-existent, a free holiday was a welcome break. We children were fed five meals a day, and given presents, always books. Adventure stories for my brothers, an Enid Blyton story for me. I was an ungrateful recipient. A precocious reader, Enid Blyton’s plots, prose and vocabulary never passed muster. I would read it in two hours. And then I would wander.

The old women, for the most part, sat around the walls of the communal sitting room. Some knitted or crocheted but most were slumped silently in their chairs, dozing and drooling. The women who ventured outside were livelier and welcomed a young visitor to talk to, who thrilled to the tales of the father who bit off the puppy dogs’ tails, of the mother driven to despair by her starving children, of the wife cowed by violence and the husband belittled as a pauper. Grown up stories, from before the war. Shocking. They’d give me sweets, sometimes out of their mouths, hold my hand, tell me I was a good girl. Come away, my aunt would say, these are not suitable people to talk to.

The old men, on the other hand, sat at tables in their communal sitting room. With unshaven, unwashed faces smelling of stale tobacco, they played cards or draughts or dominoes, pulling me onto their laps and teaching me the rules so I could slap down the chips with the best of them. Their stories were of the Great War, heroic tales of valour, never their own, always their friend, before the tears fell and a vein riddled hand wiped them away.

England’s history came to me through the living memories of the frail and elderly whose lives, materially poorer than my own, veined with heartache and tragedy – the baby’s coffins witnessed on the way to school, the humiliation of the workhouse – nevertheless spoke of the human capacity for survival and joy. This was not something you read about in school, bore no relation to the mnemonics of kings and queens that we recited, the flags we waved on Empire Day. This was an altogether different rendition of the past, subversive and threatening. It was the narrative of the poor, the unsuitable.

It stirred my love of history and led me in later years to use a tape recorder as my tool, be part of the movement of history ‘from below’ as it sought to enfranchise, in their own words, those disinherited from their past: women, workers, people of colour. The seeds for this were laid not in the academy, but in my childhood memories of the impoverished industrial classes of England and the rough and tumble of their lives.

When my daughter and I returned in 1984, it had all changed. The grounds had gone, different standards of geriatric care prevailed. My daughter, a town kid too, never learned to love the countryside through the smuts of a city, or have her imagination filled with the memories from a bygone age.

I don’t know what the old men and women do, these days.