A Sociological Autobiography: 5 – Grandparents

I was at Worthing High School in my early teens when three of my grandparents died. My earliest recollections of both sets go back to Barnet in North London, but by the mid-1950s they had all migrated to Sussex, Ron’s parents to East Preston and Margaret’s to Rustington, then rural villages ten miles east of Worthing. They were chalk and cheese and rarely met. Ron’s mother, Edith, was a busybody matriarch grown used to instructing husband Ernest and her two sons. Quiet and shy, I seemed to irritate her. I think Margaret loathed her, Ernest sometimes coming to her defense when Edith’s digs became too unkind; she would check behind my ears to make sure I had washed properly. Maybe nobody would have been good enough for her sons. If I found ‘nana’ too forbidding to take to her, Ernest was a different matter. His last job in a career disjointed by service in WW1 and the 1930s depression was as a commercial traveler. His dignified taciturnity led to long silences, but he was kind and I remember him fondly. I recollect also skillful games of French cricket in the back garden and Ernest’s good-natured adeptness at trickery and disguise.

Arthur and Caroline Nichols, Margaret’s parents, were cut from different cloth, appropriately so given Arthur’s past career as a wool merchant. If the atmosphere at the East Preston bungelow was austere and its inhabitants hard work, Rustington offered a marked contrast. Arthur may have been religious – he read the Bible cover to cover twice – but it was a personal and unobtrusive devoutness. He lit up company. I recall being driven to the shops in his ancient Lanchester: through his open window he yelled: ‘Get out of the way’, giggling conspiratorially as he did so. A touch of Betjeman. When I laid out my toy soldiers he twitched his foot and leveled them to the floor; but as I protested I grinned. This announces my childhood Saturdays.

Before the High School commanded my presence on rugby pitches there was an established pattern to the Scambler Saturdays; and it is revealing, and Ron was surely complicit. Lunch and early afternoon – via one or other of our ‘do-it-yourself Jowetts – at East Preston, followed by late afternoon and the evening at Rustington. Apart from Arthur’s natural sociability – Caroline was a touch more severe, and the family’s former disciplinarian Margaret confided – there was a TV at Rustington. I will return to the gradual introduction of television into our lives from the mid-1950s later, but my grandparents in Rustington were fairly quick off the mark. And I can still recall the Saturday evening fare. Sometimes Ron and I would settle in front of Grandstand, watching obscure events like car hill climbing (how far up a steep muddy incline could driver and bouncing passenger bully their heavy-duty sports cars?). Arthur loved watching horse racing but it bored me then and bores me now. To be fair, he knew and understood horses, having ridden often as a young man (he only stopped after a fall while riding bareback, which left him with a severe back injury). More rarely Ron would take me through the park to watch Littlehampton FC play.

The evening’s TV kicked off with airline pilot Gary Halliday, for several series locked in combat with the ‘Voice’, a TV villain more potent for being heard but not seen. Juke Box Jury delivered suspect verdicts on new pop songs, and 6-5 Special (‘coming down the line … right on time’) was long a fixture. If the timetable is no longer fixed in my mind, variety shows like Billy Cotton’s Band Show are, and this was Billy Cotton Senior, pioneer aviator, jazz band leader and the BBC executive Billy Cotton Junior’s dad; and indeed the Black and White Minstrel Show (so non-PC now). I guess we typically returned to Colebrook Close about 10pm. I would sing most of the way back, then Ron would more often than not carry me indoors. The period between singing and waking up on Sunday is a blur.

Edith and Arthur went first, in my early years at Worthing High. Ernest was lost without Edith and followed shortly after. They were all in their mid-70s: their passing at that age was to be expected in the 1960s. Rightly or wrongly I was deemed too young to attend their funerals. Caroline did more than soldier on, dying many years later at the age of 97. In her early 90s – she was living with us in post-Colebrook Close times – I asked her if she was looking forward to receiving a telegram from the Queen. ‘Oh I hope not dear’, she replied. The process of ageing brings with it adjustments of perspective, outlook and expectation. The lifecourse has its phases, biological and psychological as well as social. Nonogenarians can tire in ways beyond the ken of teenagers.

So they were all gone long ago? Well, yes and no. And I am a grandfather now. I daresay attributes of my grandparents inform who I have become via the more immediate and compelling persona of my parents. Memories, anecdotes, photographs and ornaments are the ‘stuff’ of my present, and stuff, as anthropologist Daniel Miller has shown, is abidingly important. Norwegian friend Aksel Tjora and I have written of ‘familiarity bonds’ in this context.

I sometimes say to my students: ‘I don’t want to go clubbing, and you probably think I might as well be dead!’ But the bottom line is merely that I am in my 60s. Eccentrically, I relish writing in noisy club-like environments; but I am relieved to be beyond many other demands.

 

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