Category Archives: the past

Where you come from

I’ve worked out the problem with getting older. For a while, I thought it was the difficulty that wrinkles presented. Could I be a feminist and realistically contemplate getting a jab of Botox? Did I still have the right to enter the changing rooms of Topshop? But this year, it’s all become so very clear. The problem with getting older is that people suddenly start dying more often. Great people.

This past weekend, my grandmother passed away. She was our family matriarch. She was also hilarious; much of that hilarity, it dawns on me now, more intentional than I had previously supposed. It’s a kind of disenfranchised grief, in a way, losing the elderly. People are keen to pass off the death of those who enjoyed a long and relatively healthy life. It’s as if you are meant to carry on regardless. If I once hear the old rejoinder ‘She had a good innings,’ I will not be responsible for my actions. The fact that someone is old or has ‘lived their life’ changes the selfishness of the bereaved not a jot. We want those we love to be with us forever. We fool ourselves until they are not there that they always will be. We want them to protect us. And this world is so replete with a lack of acceptance that their entire acceptance of us is worth more than any kind of success you can achieve in this world. I wish I’d noticed that earlier.

My grandmother did not have a grand life. Not in the way I used to think was grand. She went into service as a girl – yes, the world was really like that, and not so very long ago. She went on to become one of the best landladies in Wales. She loved the man in her life until he left her a widow in her 60s. She loved her daughter. In my father she found the son she never had. She adored her grandchildren. She worshipped her many brothers and sisters. But, of course, as we go through life, we recognise more keenly that great lives can often be small and small lives can often be very great indeed.

My grandmother’s time in service led to a curious situation in which she was the only one of our clan ever to have lived in a stately home – Blenheim Palace, no less. She was evacuated there during the war, along with the upper-class girls who were schooled there and whose lives she made comfortable. ‘They were lovely and so good to me,’ she said, much to my class-conscious teen fury. We went back there in the 1980s, and she lovingly went through every room, remarking how little it had changed. Yes, she went back – as if it was yesterday, recalling her many duties with no hint of self-pity, but, instead, pride. She could explain more about the place than the guidebook we bought. It is with amusement now that I note that, during her period there, the yanks had also landed in the grounds and set up their camp. Nan viewed the era as a golden one in her life.

She married my grandfather, after he somehow managed to charm her, despite his enduring mischief – they met when, behind her in the queue, he exposed her ration fraud to a shopkeeper. They entered the pub trade and she became landlady of The Greyhound (a pub I re-imagined as The King’s Head in a poem of mine). Neil Kinnock was a young radical, supping regularly. They both thought him a mouthy and disrespectful fake and later keenly pointed this out every time he appeared on the news, roundly mocked by commentators, in the 80s. My grandfather sacked Tom Jones and his then band (Tommy Scott and the Senators) from their appearances at the pub, thus freeing up the Welsh Pelvis’s schedule, and allowing a bit of rock and roll history to happen. ‘Tom Jones can’t sing,’ they both insisted. Many great people passed through their hours there.

But she was special to me because she was such a committed personality. Intractable in her beliefs, always exhibiting outward strength in times of great despair, unwavering in her devotion and loyalty to family and all that that meant and obligated one to. She was the perfect, textbook Welsh woman. Her support of me was enormous. She took great pride in my achievements, especially when I received my degree. And she could be quite uniquely ingenious in her magpie hunts around Swansea, once turning up a vintage issue of Poetry Wales she discovered in some car boot sale or other, just as I was starting to write my own poetry. ‘It’s perfect,’ I told her. And it was. But not every discovery was quite so successful. The whole family found themselves regularly gifted with eccentric objects, most pretty useless – and she converted her living room, after my grandfather’s passing, into a cave of bizarre delights. ‘It’s like santa’s bloody grotto in here,’ my brother once dryly observed. She laughed. She was impossible to offend and unconcerned with conformity.

There was no one quite like her. It’s such a sad thing to lose someone who knew you and loved you your whole life. It’s almost like a part of who you were then has been taken with them.

But here she is as a young girl, in a photo weathered through the time travel. She was remarkably pretty. And her good looks lasted her entire life. She was always very pleased about that. She was incredibly and amusingly vain. Perhaps her only flaw. Along with her bingo habit. And we loved her for it, and for everything. 

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Filed under family, the past, wales

Today

Back from Spain, where there was gloriously nothing to do – except to swim in the Med, read, let Sangria warmly rise to the head in a lovely tapas bar and play cards on the terrace. All this while the waves rushed and retreated. I think I am coming to understand the true purpose of holidays more and more as time passes.

So, safely returned, if somewhat depressed.

And then, at about 4am on Sunday morning: sirens. Around the corner from us, the local boyz were tearing up the neighbourhood. Some even apparently brought along shopping trolleys, clearly wedded to Baden-Powell’s dictum: Be Prepared! Chief in their sights: JD Sports and our local, remarkably enlightened HMV, which does a good line in more specialist fayre (I once even discovered not one but two copies of the Director’s Cut of Reds) and has a wonderful staff straight out of Kevin Smith central casting (and I mean that in the best sense). The boyz apparently went for the trainers first and the XBoxes second. That makes sense. They also managed to cover most of the high road in coat hangers and mannequins from H&M and further attenuate the fortunes of local independent shopkeepers on their way home. Your intrepid reporter, it must be said, did not get out of bed as witness, but, instead, refreshed on Twitter from safely under the duvet. The future of all news reporting. The next morning, I awoke with the strangest dream fresh in the mind: it was 1980-something and I was in love with Mickey Rourke and the country was in tur–… Well, there’s no place like home. And sometimes, home is, indeed, so sad.
 
In other news, I am delighted to be joining Parthian Books as an Associate Editor. I’ve long admired Parthian’s style and substance; as discoverer of some of the finest fresh talent around, Parthian has published authors who have gone on to major wins and shortlistings for some of the biggest prizes, including Wales Book of the Year, the Betty Trask, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and The Orange Futures Prize. Great to be a part of a visionary indie that fuses the contemporary line with tradition (in the shape of the Library of Wales series) and the homegrown with the international (as a notable source of quality fiction in translation). I’ll be working on a number of projects for the publisher, including a new poetry series. More details on the Parthian website and this blog at the end of the month.

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Filed under the future, the past, unrest

What happens to the past

Technology. Double-edged. As someone who works from home, it’s true that I find Facebook, for example, indispensable. It connects me; it makes me feel part of a community, now that I’m far from the watercooler moments of office life, the beautiful communal suffering of the morning-long meeting, the quips around the kettle. It has its downsides, too. Facebook means that you can never quite run from the past. Vexations to the spirit you’ve long since wisely dispensed with In Real Life linger there, reminding you of Bad Things, like being angry. Being angry with the past. I spied, recently, by accident, a friend that I’d parted ways with some time ago. There they were, their reckless happiness beaming out. They had wronged me – terribly, irrevocably, without apology. But there they were, happy and living their life! The noive! And then there’s the shock of one particular friend suggestion: the boy who took me to Rain Man in 1988, whose reaction to my sensitively conveyed decision not to take our non-relationship any further resulted in some choice malicious slander that went on for years and years. I didn’t think much of the film, either. Is he still the person he was then? I take no chances – with his psychic stability or his taste in cinema. Block! And yet, there he is: on the block, on ice. He’s still there. Life goes on – or does it?

But, once upon a time, we did want to go back, we really did – even as we were in the moment. Affordable home filmmaking. A revolution of the 70s that has preserved us as we were, as we will always somehow be. My old schoolfriend Rich posted this wonderful video of his fifth birthday. I can be spotted in the opening frames, the chubby little girl sitting on the sofa to the left, wearing a fetching maxi party dress, staring off into the middle distance and then spontaneously jumping, as was my wont. I can subsequently be identified as one of the first in line for the scram. Life was so simple then: behold on the table, a plate of Pink Wafers!

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Filed under childhood, Facebook, the past