Around the corner from my parent’s house was a small cottage. Built in the early nineteenth century, of Surrey flint, it stood at right angles to the street. It was the survivor of a rural past, when this meandering road of semi-detached houses had once been a country lane and this cottage was home to a labourer and his family.
The windows and doors needed painting. I would guess that it had no bathroom, and made do with an outside privy. There were still many houses in the 1950s which had no indoor sanitation – which made these semis of the suburbs so attractive with their tiled lavatories and bathrooms directly over the kitchen, drains and plumbing shared and minimised, an economy of design.
It was lived in by a person of ambiguous gender. She had facial warts and facial hair and was not so much large as lumpy. She wore man’s shoes and trousers and a woman’s coat, a baggy plaid Utility number if I remember correctly. I have no doubt in earlier times that a creature such as she would have been branded as a witch. In more recent times, perhaps she may have had to make a living in a fair ground as the bearded lady. Roll up, roll up.
In this neighbourhood of local government clerks, policemen and secondary modern teachers, she stood out. It was too socially insecure to welcome strangeness. How long she had lived there, no one knew. What she had done for a living was obscure. As far as I am aware, no one ever spoke to her. Perhaps she had lived in that cottage all her life, as had her parents and grandparents before her, had watched as the fields and hedgerows were chewed and swallowed by development. That’s progress, isn’t it?
Perhaps she was a newcomer, like her neighbours around her. Where had she come from? Had she been driven out of a small community, and settled for the anonymity of the city? Where was her hinterland, her back-story? Was she even British?
My elder brother met her once at the bus-stop. He was three or four years old, perhaps five. He was standing with my mother as the woman approached. He stared at her, then said, Hello, ugly face.
He was told off, apologies made. What was the woman thinking? Did she see a spoilt brat of a boy with no manners? Did she smart and hurt? Could she share her feelings? She lived alone. Was her world heartless? She lived before there was a social awareness of gender issues and racial tolerance.
I do sometimes think about her. Her image is vivid in my memory, this he-she woman, as we children unkindly called her in that south London suburb in the 1950s.
(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.
There are pictures of me as a young child in my parents’ house. My mother moved there in 1941 after her Walworth home had been damaged in the London blitz. My parents had married in 1940 and, with my father away in the war, my mother continued to live in her mother’s house, in a street coloured ‘pink’ – Fairly comfortable: good ordinary earnings – in Booth’s Map Descriptive of London Poverty of 1898-9. My maternal grandfather was a printer. Although he died in 1926, his trade union provided well for his widow. She continued to rent the whole house, and brought up six children there, along with two grandchildren. They had a lodger, Uncle Jack, my grandmother’s brother. My family, on both sides, can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century in London. South of the river, Bermondsey and Shad Thames, Borough and Walworth. My father’s street was dark blue in Booth’s memorable map. Very poor, casual. Chronic want. My paternal grandfather was a docker on London’s corn wharves and died early, of pneumonocosis. My social, and political, DNA is rooted in the skilled working class of the inner city.
After the bombing, my mother and grandmother sought refuge in the suburbs. My mother refused to let my grandmother bring her furniture, claiming it was too large. ‘Can’t be much of a house,’ was my grandmother’s verdict. But my mother was paying the rent, and this was her first home as a married woman. She was calling the shots.
I look at pictures of the house now and what strikes me about my childhood home was how new it was. When I was born, in 1947, it was ten years old, if that, part of the straggling ‘ribbon’ developments of outer London which the inter-war London County Council hoped would be one solution to the chronic overcrowding of the inner city. But you had to be affluent to afford the rent, and the commute. London’s overcrowding was, by contrast, among the poorest: the unskilled and semi-skilled, for whom these private developments were unaffordable, and would do little to help. It needed state involvement to solve the slums and the post-war housing crisis, but that’s another story. My mother was a primary school teacher, and could afford the rent.
When I lived there, the pebbledash was fresh, the gardens full of builder’s rubble, the hedges rudimentary. A few years earlier, it had been countryside, farms and lanes and woodland. There was still woodland of sorts, scrubby remains of land gone to seed. There were no shrubs or trees in the gardens, no lawns or borders. The woodwork was painted dark green or brown, the pebbledash a dull, sandy beige. Black and white photographs compound its gloom.
Everyone else in that road were newcomers, too. What could that have been like, moving to a neighbourhood of strangers? Where had those other people come from? The men home from war had to find work, learn to live with wives whom they hadn’t seen for years, or had never lived with, children they’d not met. What went through their minds? What secrets and horrors did they suppress, what dreams did they embrace? Where were the tension points in those quintessentially and very new suburban lives, those uprooted, rootless families?
My parents never moved from that house. They couldn’t believe their luck.
ED: How do you account for our continued appetite for stories from World War Two and stories of survival?
MC: Wars generate extremes–heroism and cowardice, generosity and selfishness, death and survival, and so on. Those extremes fascinate, but they raise fundamental issues. We all ponder, at some time, how we would behave faced with unimaginable danger or hardship and those thoughts touch our moral core: would we kill/betray/connive for our survival or those of our loved ones? How far would we go? Stories of war – of other peoples’ heroism or brutality – allow us to make those decisions vicariously and let us off the hook for the time being.
War could so easily happen in Europe again, if we are not careful.
ED: Are you working on another novel? If so, what are its themes?
MC: My next novel is set in the Channel Islands under the German occupation and in it I am exploring themes of betrayal and survival in the war, and their reckoning after the war. But I am also trying to invert – or subvert – some of the usual stereotypes, and tell the story through two very different characters and perspectives. Watch this space…