My grandmother’s front door had panels of stained glass in a multicoloured grid design, so a child could gaze through and turn the inner lobby shades of pink, green, blue or yellow – dark for her mahogany hall table, light for the walls, overlaying already patterned floor tiles with new moods and stories.
In Gran’s cold bathroom, the terrifying wall mounted “Ascot” heater gasped as though about to explode. For all that, the water never trickled in warmly enough to dissolve the bath salts she kept in pretty pastel coloured layers in a glass jar on the tub (no shower). We slept under blankets, and paisley patterned eiderdowns (no duvet). There was a mangle to dry her hand washed clothes and bellows for the coal fire (no heating). Seagulls squawked close to the rattling single glazed sash windows with sills deep enough for a child to play on behind the curtains. She needed thick curtains, for the high ceilinged rooms were huge and freezing at the edges: we were always either too near the fire (come away, you’ll get scorched) or too far from it (come closer, you’ll catch a chill).
The house loomed vast against the sky, and drained my grandparents’ resources. My grandfather had started life as a factory foreman and must have had some kind of buy to let mortgage, moving away from London to the cleaner air and cheaper property in St Leonards-on-Sea. The basement flat was let to a family, with a separate front and garden door. That didn’t stop us going down the internal stairs at whim on unannounced visits (I wonder now how the family felt about that). After my grandfather died in 1967, the upper floor was also let as bedsits, to ancient ladies who struggled up to their rooms by walking past my grandmothers’ bedroom and lounge doors (Oh, how I would like a hall way just for me.) A spry retired headmistress (?), her name easily remembered as she was Miss Toft in the Loft, rented the whole attic floor. To get there she too went through the hall and up carpeted stairs (more paisley, and ferns in brass pots). Our summer holiday job was to fill in the threadbare patches from little pots of red and black poster paint because your eyes are sharper than mine, dear. No paint on the stair rods, please. Stair rods! When did I last see those?
Waiting in the wings is a novel in which I hope to use such details. Meanwhile I’m drawn to searching for similar plunderings by better authors. Children’s literature is full of grandparents’ houses. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered hers even though she moved away at five years old and never saw it again. “The floor was made from wide, thick slabs that Grandpa had hewed from the logs with his axe….smoothed all over, and scrubbed clean and white and the big bed under the window was soft with feathers.” L M Boston’s wonderful Children of Green Knowe series is set in Grandmother Oldknow’s house, where the architecture of the house itself enables her grandchildren to have adventures with their ghostly ancestors. And the beautiful domestic detail of Shirley Hughes’ illustrations for Alfie and Grandma would embrace anyone in need of a cosy home, whatever their generation.
But there were surprisingly few grandparents’ houses in the fiction for adults on my shelves. Of course, outside the Western world many grandparents don’t have separate homes. From Europe I found Proust‘s blend of domestic detail with memory and emotion. This begins at his great aunt’s home, imagining himself “lying, face to the wall, in a big bed with a canopy…back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its bowl of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling.” Elsewhere you have to hunt for ghosts through clues in the narrative: surely Galsworthy, writing in 1906, was calling on memory for his description of old Jolyon the patriarch’s house: “The door of the dining room was open, the gas turned low; a spirit-urn hissed on a tea tray, and close to it a cynical looking cat had fallen asleep on the dining table.” For a direct if malicious approach I was pleased to find Great Granny Webster still in print, though Caroline Blackwood appreciated her ancient relation’s entrance in Hove less than I did my grandmother’s thirty miles east: “… a huge forbidding black front door, which had a hideous stained glass covered porch full of potted plants that had to be watered day and night”. Anyone struggling with writing settings could take lessons from this short novel from 1977.
More recently, Anne Enright’s The Green Road casts spells in economical Irish prose garnished with select detail: “Hanna loved the little house at Boolavaun: four rooms, a porch full of geraniums, a mountain out the back, and, out the front, a sky full of weather… and not much Hanna was allowed to touch. A cabinet in the good room held a selection of china. Other surfaces were set with geraniums in various stages of bloom and decline; there was a whole shelf of amputees on a back sill, their truncated stems bulbous to the tips.” Enright leaves us to fill the little-used “good room” with our imaginations, while the geraniums take centre stage. Diana Athill, herself now over one hundred, has a chapter on her grandparents’ garden in Alive Alive Oh! “After breakfast Gramps would tuck The Times under his arm and proceed in a stately way to the privy… and if you noticed him going past a window you must pretend you hadn’t.” As so often reading Rachel Cusk I stopped half way through Aftermath with a shock of recognition: “In the gas-smelling kitchen, rain at the windows, my grandmother buttered the cut face of the cottage loaf before she sliced it.”
These sights, so out of date already, still exist in easy living memory (Cusk is at the beginning of her 50s and I’m nearing the end). Memories from childhood have a dream like quality which, if bottled, would make a fortune for some writing consultancy. (Proust’s got closest so far.) Memoir is currently a trendy genre – hardly a week goes by when I’m not invited on some memoir writing course. I wonder if the demand is so high now because planning laws have relaxed and we are so busy obliterating our past? In these days of gutting old houses, stripping every internal feature to turn them into open plan white cubes, we must nurture our memories. Despite more ways than ever of recording our thoughts, the record itself is more fragile (think email as opposed to letters, thousands of photos forgotten on a hard drive rather than a few curated in an album). If you still have the chance, talk to your grandparents now, photograph their homes, record their thoughts and their daily routines. The pickings are rich, and moving. I’ve found it a homage and a privilege to write about my mother, my father, and now at least one aspect of one set of grandparents. I hope this encourages others to do the same. (Oh, and if you know someone who lives in the house above, do get in touch.)
©Jessica Norrie 2018