I never knew my father’s parents, who died before I was born, and my mother’s father is only a very shadowy figure, since he died when I was five; so the only grandparent I remember is my mother’s mother.
Her name was Mary Anne Midgley, but all her friend called her Polly, and to us she was simply “Nana”: she never even signed letters any other way. Her home was at Keighley in Yorkshire, and I don’t think she ever left there except to see us. She and her husband, Thomas, had a house which they had bought freehold just after the first world war: something which must have been most unusual then. It was a small terraced house, two rooms upstairs and two downstairs, with an attic and cellar, very small yards-cum-gardens at front and rear, and an outside lavatory: being built of stone it was likely to last forever, but is the sort of house nobody wants nowadays. My father explained to her how it would be easy to get a grant for an indoor lavatory, but she always ignored him: I suppose she considered it an unnecessary frivolity. Similarly we had a gas fire installed for her in the front room (the Parlour, to which only the most important of visitors were admitted), but she hardly ever used it, preferring to live in the kitchen and fetch coal for the kitchen fire up from the coal-hole in the cellar. Beyond the coal-hole and the outdoor lavatory ran a little cobbled street, with washing lines strung out across it. I always thought this a self-defeating exercise by the housewives, because on the other side was the railway, and when we visited her, back in the days of steam trains, we contrived to get dirty without even venturing out of the house, so it couldn’t have done the washing much good either.
Apart from us, Nana only had one blood relative: her sister, Aunty Maria, who lived with her husband, Uncle Percy, nearby in Haworth. They were childless, and we were always given to understand that we would eventually be their heirs. But when Aunty Maria died, uncle Percy, who was well over seventy and extremely deaf, promptly remarried. Nana never forgave him for this, and they never spoke again. Thomas Midgley, by contrast, had numerous relatives around Keighley (plus at least one who had mysteriously “gone to the bad” and was never mentioned). They all seemed to be much better off than him. (My father said that Thomas was considered, unjustly, he thought, the stupid one of the family). Most of these Midgleys were in the Yorkshire wool business; a sure sign of which was a tendency to feel people’s lapels and say “You didn’t get that at Burton’s, did you?”. I have a photograph of Thomas and Nana early in their married life, both looking highly respectable. They bought good quality furniture for their house, some of which I still have, along with the piccolo that Thomas played in the town orchestra, and part of his collection of books: the Sherlock Holmes stories, Alexander Dumas, Walter Scott and Thackeray; all with his names stamped inside. It goes almost without saying that they were pillars of the local Labour Party in its early days. Nana said that she had known Philip Snowden, a local man, one of the earliest Labour M.P.s and the first-ever Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that Ramsay MacDonald himself had stayed at their house; but unfortunately by the time I was old enough to be interested in such things, Nana’s memories were getting confused, and my mother believed the MacDonald story was imaginary. Nana was also a lifelong vegetarian, with an interest in fringe medicine, which must have been very unusual for those days. Clearly she and Thomas could be classified as serious-minded working-class intellectuals: a category probably hardly existing amongst young people today.
I remember Nana as seeming very old and deaf, and frail-looking, but fiercely independent and hating being patronised. We used to drive out to see her, arriving around mid-day. “What have you come for?” was often her opening question. “We’ve come to make you lunch!” my mother would announce brightly. “I’ve had mine!” Nana would reply; quite often adding, “Your hair’s a mess!”, or even, “Tha’s getting to be a gurt fat podge!” Because of the wool connexion, I always had to be well-dressed for these visits; otherwise I would be told I looked like a “top o’ the town kid”. This meant nothing to me until my mother explained that in Keighley the top of the town was where the Irish lived, and they were certainly NOT respectable! She could remember a time when the Irish children came barefoot to school, and the babies slept in orange-crates. The need for working-class respectability also led, I was told, to the only doubts Nana had about my father as a prospective son-in-law; namely, “He drinks!” This referred to the fact that he occasionally had a glass of beer at a local pub on Saturday lunchtime, when he finished work. The problem here wasn‘t teetotalism (Nana cooked up some lethal homebrew in her cellar) but the pub: pubs were also most definitely not respectable places.
She had a very strong Yorkshire accent, and naturally identified strongly with her county. Just about the last thing I remember upsetting her was when Brian Close was sacked from the England cricket captaincy. “They’ve only done it ’cos he’s working class and Yorkshire!” she exclaimed. She didn’t actually say “southern MCC pouffs”, but I’m sure that was the gist of what she thought.
She had plenty of friends in and around her street, few of whom I remember meeting. This once created a problem: when we visited her for her 80th birthday, and her neighbours were invited round, my mother was put in charge of handing out the drinks. Nana gave her a bottle of standard sherry, saying “This is for my friends”, and another of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, “And this is for my SPECIAL friends!”, and left my mother to decide for herself which category any visitors might fit into. She compromised by giving everyone Harvey’s until it ran out.
My parents had hoped that when my sister and I left home, Nana would come and live with them. But she always refused to do so, and eventually she died in her own home, which was what she wanted.