Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Happy Birthday?

Today, my paternal grandfather would have been 107 years old. Grandad would have hated it. He hated being old at all - he hated being 70 (remember the days when 70 was old?). When he was ill with bronchitis (no one ever named, if they even knew it, the lung cancer that actually killed him) he would rise from his bed only if he could lean on a rather dashing silver-handled Japanese ebony cane. I have that cane now. It is incredibly strong, and even though it tapers to a small point, it can carry a lot of weight. It's so elegant that you don't notice if the person leaning on it actually needs it. He was a cunning old cove.

I remember Grandad as someone who was always telling jokes, drinking tea, eating my Nan's spaghetti with a knife and fork, making things at his carpentry bench, surprising us. When I was collecting coins, as sad lonely boys do, one Boxing Day (that was our Christmas wider-family celebration, the day itself was just the four of us, although we lived only half a mile away) he rustled a small silver thing out of his pocket and asked me what I thought it was. I told him it was a Queen Anne sixpence from 1711, and had probably been clipped at some point (they used to do that to take the little clippings to sell the silver on, whilst fobbing the original coin off at its face value). He decided this was a sufficiently clever answer that he gave me the coin back after I returned it to him. He said he'd found it in the scrap (my family were scrap metal merchants). All nonsense, of course, he'd been up to Seaby's (the coin dealers) in London and bought it - it was my Christmas present. For my sister, who was much closer to both grandparents, he made a dollshouse, with electric lighting, and a Jaguar in the garage. He was that sort of man.

The last time we spoke was on their 47th wedding anniversary, three days before he died, in 1981. We were at the table - my Nan of course was catering. You might ask why others weren't doing the cooking, but Nan really wouldn't have liked that. And she was a cooking wizard. They were talking about the day, back in 1934, when they were permitted only a side altar at the church of the Holy Ghost and Saint Stephen in Hammersmith, because no one knew whether Grandad was baptised. My Nan was born of Italian Catholic immigrant stock, so she was kosher. But about him, they knew nothing, so they got second best. Forty-seven years later it still rankled. He said that day "it doesn't matter", but it clearly did. And it mattered to my Nan too, that he should have been baptised. All her grandchildren were, although by no means all of her great-grandchildren in her lifetime, and she wasn't so happy about that.

When I got religion at university a few years later - and how I wish I could have shown Grandad around Oxford, because though he would not have said anything soppy, I know he would have been as pleased as punch - I discovered that there is a Saint Alexander (died in 313 in Alexandria, in Egypt) whose feast day is the same as Grandad's birthday. Nan found that quite encouraging, that perhaps a religious name had been chosen for him, because he was born on the saint's day. All nonsense of course, he was named after his mother's brother Alexander Patterson, and he in turn was named after their mother's father, Alexander Bonner, who murdered his wife in a drunken brawl. But we didn't know all that then. I doubt anyone knew it by then. Families are very good at forgetting what it pleases them not to remember.

Grandad was the 9th child (8th surviving) of 12. Only one of the eight before him had died; two of the three after died as babies. He was born in the workhouse in Minster on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. History doesn't record what happened to the seven other children while their mother was in the workhouse giving him life, but we do know it only happened because his father was out at sea, or drunk, or gambling, in another port. I clearly remember Grandad describing the time his father came back from sea - he was a fisherman, and later a fishmonger (a skill Grandad inherited, the last of five generations, although my late father was pretty handy with a fish, too), and in between quite often a dock labourer - and spun gold sovereigns, at least two, maybe three, across the table. But there were no gold sovereigns for Polly Patterson, Grandad's mother, on Sunday the 3rd of May 1908. And heaven knows how she was treated in the workhouse - which was the only place the poor could go for medical care in those days. She was far from her own Great Yarmouth family in Norfolk, and her husband's family were near, but clearly useless.

She chose his name - as she did for Uncle Matt and Aunt Alice ("Dolly") and Uncle Bill and Auntie Nellie, and Amy, one of the babies who died - from her own family.

And not long ago, I discovered that she also had him Christened - on the 22nd of May, probably in the church of S. Mary in Minster. I wish I could have told my Nan this (she died in 2009, aged 95). Her confirmation middle name was Mary, and she was married as Annunziata Mary. They could have had the high altar for their wedding after all.

Of course, as he said nearly 34 years ago "it doesn't matter". But it did. Polly died, having given birth to twelve children, and aged just 37, when Grandad was not yet six. His sister Rose was six months old. The family scattered and crumbled, and never really worked as a family again. He later made a life for himself, with considerable help from his wife's family (which always did, and still does, work as a family) and his own children, but on the back of his own quick wits and indomitable courage. Speaking to a friend who survived a horrific childhood, she observed "when you've lived in the abyss, you're never really scared of anything again".

Two last vignettes of this complex man I am proud to descend from. At a New Year's Eve party a woman arrived on crutches. Not because she'd had an accident, but because she was permanently disabled. Grandad made a point, without making a point, of dancing with her. He wanted no one to be left out of the party.

And one time, in the days of IRA attacks on London and elsewhere, my sister and I were playing draughts by the window of their front room, on a table he had made himself, and he sidled up and said "there was an Irishman out there the other day, trying to blow up a bus". "No?!" "Yes, but he couldn't get his mouth round the exhaust pipe."

I doubt that the day of his birth was a happy one, but I, and many others of us, are very happy that he was born. He did matter. So, Happy Birthday, Grandad.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015

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