Grandmother’s footsteps

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).

Grans house Pevensey Road
My grandparents’ house in the late 1960s (?). Seaside weather took a toll on the roof and brickwork.

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.)

Gran and papa
My grandparents on holiday in 1939. My grandmother wrote in the album: “We were recalled from Cornwall because war seemed imminent. War came and life has never been the same.”

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

29939363

To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

Cusk 9
Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

building close up
When you share a wall with a building site

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)

builders everywhere 2
Builders, builders everywhere

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017