My Granny’s Life in Television
By Malcolm Sharps
Looking back on his childhood in the 50s and later, Malcolm Sharps remembers the defeats and triumph in his uneasy relationship with his grandmother.
My grandmother was one of those women that the term ‘old lady’ already comfortably fitted long before her midyears were out. She was still in her fifties when my childhood impressions of her were formed, but I only ever knew her in decline. I don’t claim I was any John Stuart Mill in my tender years. I displayed no propensity for learning Greek or mastering the geometry of Euclid; and I showed no early signs of an artistic talent of any kind; so I was no Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, either. I was bright, no more. But my grandmother, granny, was then one of the most stupid people I ever got to meet. She could have come twenty-fifth in a class of twenty-four. And in the seventy years or so since that time, she has still had very few competitors. It is a sobering thing for a child of six to realize he understands the world better than some of his elders do, it leads him to become contradictory, sarcastic and cynically judgmental. These are not endearing qualities in the young, I know. So, this is largely a confessional on my part. I loved my granny, but because of this early perception I don’t think I fully respected her, and thereby stemmed all of our troubles together; it was the cause of her great failure to ever trust in me and perhaps it was also the cause of my one great triumph with her which saved her life.
Seen from outside the family, my granny was rather a sweet old thing and didn’t have a malicious thought in her head. In fact, it often seemed that she didn’t have any thoughts at all; perhaps that was a saving grace. If she had no intellectual or academic baggage to unpack, she had no bizarre pseudo-scientific notions either; that, for instance, our lives were controlled by forces from the stars and planets, determined by the accidental configurations of heavenly bodies as viewed from planet earth. Astrology and the like all seemed such fanciful nonsense to her. My grandmother was a vanilla plain traditionalist and the one thing she firmly believed in was the existence of God. She was Welsh Church of England, not “Chapel”, and was a believer all her life but was never dictatorial or prescriptive about her beliefs. Of course, God existed, there was the world, there was all the proof you needed; she no more doubted it than she doubted the existence of the number eighty-six bus. I kept my own doubts mostly to myself.
My grandmother had interests and enthusiasms rather than ideas and theories. You could group all of my granny’s interests under one heading, ‘spectacle’. The grandest spectacle of all for her was the royal one: she followed faithfully the social events in the lives of the country’s leading aristocratic family and the official engagements of Her Majesty, the Queen, head of that family and of the country. Since the arrival of a magic box which had only come into the house when I was five years old, my granny had a privileged position which allowed her to witness all of their pageantry and ceremony – the trouping of the colour, the changing of the Guard, the Queen’s Official Birthday parade and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo – without leaving her armchair.
Because of the coincidence of their years, their similar physical stature and even the accidental likeness found in the fine bone structure of their faces, granny identified most strongly with the Queen Mother, one of the most vacuous figures in the history of queens and mothers. A smiling cipher living quietly through her long widowhood at the British taxpayers’ expense, asking little more of the Sovereign Grant than it allow her to breed Arab bloodstock and watch them winning at Epsom, Sandown and Royal Ascot. Granny lapped it up; not that she was a true, heart-felt Royalist, the word has too much deep commitment and too much appreciation of history and tradition attached it: my granny was not an adherent to their rightful, historical cause or any other cause, but a fan of royalty, viewing them affectionately like the familiar cast of a long-running TV series.
As well as royalty, my granny adored ballroom and Scottish dancing, figure skating and show jumping, and she had curious ambitions for me in those directions. “Wouldn’t you like to go ball-room dancing, Malcolm?” “Wouldn’t you like to go Scottish dancing?“ ”Wouldn’t you like to go ice skating” “Wouldn’t you like to go horse jumping?” She would ask about each for the third or fourth time that month. I would answer firmly every time: “No, no, no, no!” Granny’s look of pity in response showed me I had no idea what wonders I was missing. But it was my loss. What on earth did this fantasy of horse jumping mean to a city boy like me? We lived in the wide grey band that circles the Liverpool city centre, in a redbrick house in one of the terraced rows marching rank upon rank towards unseen leafy suburbs and never seeming to quite get there; we were far from horses, far from green fields, far from the way of life of people who take up equestrian pursuits; we were living without advantages, but accepting it without protest: we were urban, we were proletarian and we were poor.
If my granny made one of her suggestions to me which I inevitably turned down, a few weeks later it would make a return. I would be asked again why I didn’t want to do Scottish dancing, why I didn’t want to watch the pairs figure skating from Interlaken, along with why I wouldn’t wear gloves in cold weather and why I wouldn’t eat lamb’s brain and testicles. Why the repetition? I’m asking. Did she genuinely forget previously asking me? Did she forget my reply? Did she honestly see a prospect of convincing me? I’m forced to conclude, though not effective, it was an exercise in control. I didn’t agree with her and at some level of perceptivity she saw I never would, and the repetition was a combination of protest and punishment. Neither is rare in families. But my grandmother took it to extremes. She battered me with what I should know was good for me and didn’t, she battered me because I wasn’t turning into the kind of young person she envisaged, though all of it was based on a poor ignorant woman’s fantasy of how the good life was lived, things she had never enjoyed herself, and I responded in the way you might imagine of a spirited and independent-minded young person with clearly defined ideas about what I did and didn’t like. As a result, everyone lost, everyone was disappointed; I, my grandmother, the whole family, including casual, but not so passive, witnesses, were periodically poisoned by our disputes. But it did not deter my grandmother, who had an infinite capacity for absorbing battery herself.
I had my own fantasies. At twelve I was into Aztecs, Incas, Mayans and Egyptians, things my grandmother neither cared for nor knew anything about. I remember when the student teacher came to teach us about Aztecs, a one-off lesson the regular Master judged wouldn’t interfere with the rest of the yearly syllabus, I knew more about the Aztec island capital of Teonochtitlan, and its situation in the evocatively named Lake of the Moon, than he did. As for my granny, as a girl, she’d travelled 15 miles across the Welsh border from her own country to live in England. What interest to her was a further even more remote foreign land, an exotic, mystical one with locals in plumed costumes and luridly painted bodies, at that? But I was never asked if I wanted to see the lost city of Machu Picchu or the Great Pyramid of Giza, instead I was teased with ambitions of a culture I thought of as much more moribund than these ancient civilizations.
I must have been five or even younger when I realised that my grandmother understood nothing about anything in the world. By six I was already trying to educate her, but she was practically unteachable. Ignorance seemed to give her a firmer, more certain hold on reality than any solid knowledge could. Though my grandmother was utterly mezmerised by television, throughout her whole life she had no understanding of what television actually was. I can only imagine she had the idea that it was like someone’s home movie broadcast to the nation. Her favourite programme on television was Doctor Finlay’s Casebook and she was convinced that the camera was taken up every week to a little village in the Highlands called Tannochbrae and the movie maker was privileged to be allowed into the village surgery. There he encountered wise, old, canny and cautious Doctor Cameron and his partner, a younger, more idealistic and impetuous Dr Finlay. Scenes were shot of their daily battles against the gripes and distresses of a Scottish rural community and these were generously broadcast and shared in the moment free to the whole world.
What the box of pictures produced was certainly magic to my grandmother, its appearance in our home revitalized her fading years. But less reassuringly, my grandmother believed in the reality of television more strongly than she did the round of her own very restricted and repetitious life. She had no concept whatever of any of the skills involved in programme making and broadcasting, of sound recording or cutting or set construction, things which make the process of film making more wonderful and triumphant than just photographing reality; she was unaware of the involvement of writers working on scripts, actors learning lines and directors shaping the overall artistic impression, and she fought with an iron will against any attempt at trying to tell her.
“Such clever doctors.” My grandmother used to sigh as the credits rolled over Tanachbrae’s bonny hills every Saturday evening.
“No, they’re actors, granny, not real doctors.” The seven year old Malcolm explained without success.
“Yes, but they have to study medicine otherwise they couldn’t do their job, could they.” Insisted my grandmother, determined not to be persuaded one inch.
“No,” I said, “they read lines. Everything is written down for them. They don’t have to know anything.”
My grandmother thought she knew a thing or two herself about the world. She could see the inadequacy of my explanation, the foolishness of this awful grandson who always thought he knew everything and could be convinced of nothing. She looked through me, as she often used to, in a way that suggested she wasn’t to be so easily taken in, she had a trumping argument still.
“Well, then, how is it all their patients get better?”
I don’t come from a very analytical family so the story of my grandmother’s early days has never been articulated to me fully. She was from a Welsh family living on the rural edge of a small town in North Wales, just on the English border in the days when compulsory Welsh wasn’t yet taught in the schools. Consequently, granny pronounced her own area names just like the ‘sais’ English foreigners did. At the age of fourteen she went into service in England. I think she was allowed such freedom because, coming from a God-fearing family like the Richardsons, a Church of England vicar in Chester was thought to be a low-risk employer.
My grandmother became a servant not through poverty but in order to escape something in her background, apparently, but it isn’t clear what. A confining lifestyle, maybe. A limited number of opportunities for finding a husband amongst the thinly scattered Dais and Talfryns and Ifors of her small principality home. In fact, the family she came from to work as a servant was richer by far than the poor servant of God who employed her and when she received parcels of fresh meat from her father, a butcher on Wrexham market, she shared it with the vicar. It was a typical selfless action.
My granny had been seriously ill once before during my lifetime. When she was very weak after a fall, she was terrified we would put her bed in a downstairs room. Not sleeping in her own room was seen as a sign, the first step in a downward progression that would shortly take her to the ambulance that would then take her on to another room, white and antiseptic smelling, which she would never leave alive. The determination of the family, not always a united one, was my determination too: we wouldn’t let those doctors take our granny away. It was a time when I became casual about physicality with my granny; lifting her up from the chair, righting her with my arms stretched fully around her and pressing her large butt to get her up the stairs at night. Perhaps this is the only serious thing she ever really trusted me in, that I wouldn’t let her fall back and come crashing down the stairs. I was half granny’s size, yet I felt confident in my hold on her, which seemed to gain power from unknown sources; I also felt confident that I was doing what needed to be done, and I would do it well because it must be done that way. I was still a child in so many respects, but after my father’s early death, I had to be the man.
The second time my granny was ill her condition seemed so much worse than the first. She’d fallen over and her thigh was fractured in a place that meant a slow and difficult mend, or it might mean no mend at all. My mother trusted me with the message the doctor had conveyed to her in a code of unstated words and understated phrases. The meaning was clear: this was probably the end.
I was used to disagreeing with my grandmother in most other things. Why on earth should I let the God she believed in and I knew didn’t exist get the better of me by allowing her to die? I wanted to punch the air. Determination again, hot and furious like an anger, took command of me. Looking back, I imagine that my anger stemmed from the terrible realisation that I hadn’t expressed love directly to her often enough and it might be too late now. I immediately went up to her room. I paid her the courtesy of knocking, but there were no niceties to be dropped between us, no formalities to be skipped. I had seen her half-naked often enough during the first illness. If I wasn’t hampered by the restrictions of an over-sensitive respect for my granny, I was not inhibited by redundant sentiment either.
“Come on. You’ve had a long enough rest. Too much rest isn’t good for you.”
“But I’m too weak. I can’t get up.”
Her skin was so pale and taut, it lent her refined features a kind of martyred fragility. Her voice likewise sounded weak emanating resignation, the wish only to be left to find her own personal peace. I felt my resolve soften for an instant but I wasn’t in the mood for being persuaded by any of that picturesque deathbed stuff.
“Then we’ll have to get you moving in bed.”
What I meant by this I soon made clear to my grandmother as I pulled the covers from her legs. I didn’t pause to seek permission, or at least, I didn’t pause as I explained my actions. She saw she wasn’t being offered a choice. Her legs were revealed bare and discoloured with black and yellow bruises but nothing went beyond what modesty in my presence required.
“Now I want you to lift each of your legs in turn.”
Fortunately, I found I had infinitely greater patience dealing with granny’s physical resistance to me than dealing with her personal one. I never got exasperated or angry with her. And she was the perfect passive patient so rarely found in the actual world. She allowed me to command her like a drill sergeant. She was able to lift her good leg a few inches unaided and the damaged one I lifted for her haltingly, sensing the places where pain blocked the way of easy movement. Together, we exercised first the good leg, then the damaged one. And the same over again. And the same over again many times. And over and over again on many more days without pausing until we lost count and it scarcely entered my mind that my granny hadn’t faded away and gone to meet the God whose existence we disagreed on; but she was generally getting physically better every day, more lively, more talkative. My mother thanked me for what I had done for them. I can’t recall that my grandmother did in specific terms. But I really didn’t want her thanks. It would have infringed the casual informality of our relationship which made it so special. It was enough that she was able to walk again.
Hell is frequently made up of the conjunction of contingent factors. As time went on my grandmother got progressively deafer and family rows got progressively more frequent, more irrationally caused and more intolerantly sustained. As in most cases of deafness, my granny’s lower notes went missing first, and I as the tenor voiced adult male often vanished completely from her sound picture. Rows happened over my grandmother’s head on a regular basis between my wicked ogre of an aunt and myself, a cycle as regular as (and perhaps dependant on) a menstrual one. But one thing my grandmother was always sure of in these family rows she could only hear one side of, I was unfailingly in the wrong. Families are not very just courts of law. I took this as my fate; my punishment for loving her without sufficient respect, for stubbornly resisting her world of empty pageantry and spectacle, worse, for starkly declaring its irrelevance to me.
My family structure was already cracked deeply, but with my mother’s death from a heart attack, the mortar holding the bricks of the family loosely together crumbled and it fell apart, or rather broke into two factions, I forming – perhaps what I’d been all along – a faction of one. Some twelve years after our leg exercise sessions restored her to life, my grandmother was becoming incapable of caring for herself again, she required all-day attention. I could be of limited help. For a long time I had not been living in the family home, but in any case, granny had the better option of going to live with her son, my detested uncle H., a true son of my grandmother who hated all educated people but knew only one personally to express that hatred towards: me. The transfer to the new home thus meant no visits by me to my grandmother, as violence between me and my uncle, though never perpetrated, was always a threat.
I and my grandmother both felt awkward with phone and letter contact and soon there was no contact at all between us. When she passed away in barely a year after the move, I turned down the opportunity to attend her funeral. Funerals are really for the living and not the dead. The one person I wanted to see in the family would not be there, and it would have felt like a betrayal to speak of her with family members I had never loved nor respected.
I had come on the scene late and only knew my grandmother already in decline. In the unseen parts of her life she had had a terrible struggle against exhausting toil and poverty looking after four children when my grandfather died in a horrendous shipyard accident crushed by the quayside docking ropes. The stresses of those times brought on a mental collapse that perhaps explains the escapist tendencies I observed later. In retirement, television took over her life; she lived out a fantasy she had never remotely approached in reality.
At 14, her education had stopped; at 14, also, she faced a foreign country alone. In the new land, she remained an uneducated bumpkin, never able nor wanting to learn, but she also remained the girl who selflessly shared what food she had with the poor Anglican vicar. She was a sweet woman and didn’t have a malevolent thought in her head. She loved pageantry and ritual, the parades of Guards outside the Palace replaced her church-going of the past. Partly as a result of this, I was inoculated against these things and became an anti-Royalist supporter of a republic for life. In fact, I became an inversion of my grandmother in most other things. I hated equestrian sports, I hated watching figure skating, and would rather remain on firm, untreacherous ground than put on a pair of skates. I hated dancing of all kinds so much that it wasn’t until the middle of my life that I saw how much I was missing out and came in to enjoy the party. If I was resolutely against her enthusiasms as wildly inappropriate for me, I realize my grandmother, in spite of her personal trials, didn’t express many negative attitudes to life.
I was a disappointment to my granny, I believe; I didn’t live up to the conditions of her television fantasies; my cynicism and sarcasm disturbed the dreams she had of good and noble aristocrats presiding over adoring, faithful subjects in dignity and pomp; and my struggle to keep her alive did not compare with the scripted struggles of idealistic, impetuous Doctor Finlay in fictitious Tannochbrae. Though I also succeeded in restoring my patient to health, my granny, as stubborn and unyielding as in any of our arguments together, withheld her trust in me to the last.