My dad found his own father an engaging subject for photographic portraits. “Pop” was now in his 80s. His face has the craggy patina of age without appearing careworn. His still quite full head of hair and very thick moustache hark back to the Edwardian tonsorial fashions of his youth. I can still remember the harsh texture of that bristly thing against my girlish face! His expression is very merry, which is fair reflection of his character, even though he is not smiling – for many years, he had enjoyed the benefit of neither teeth nor dentures, but his gums were hard enough to tackle almost any food.
It’s a lop-sided countenance: Some time before the First World War, working with a threshing machine, a belt flew off and took his right eye straight out. Still, that disability meant that the opportunity for military service was denied to him, and he survived the war to beget his younger children, the last of whom was my father, born in 1925.
Pop began widowhood with his family around him. Uncle Bill never married, and continued to live with Pop on the smallholding at Keepers Cottage. Uncle George was in Stonnall Village, Aunty Nellie with her family at Weeford, us in Aldridge, and Aunt Mary just a field away at Owletts Hall Farm. There was the companionship of the Jack Russell terrier Suki, who had arrived as a puppy very shortly after his loss of my grandmother. Suki had notoriety as a sneaky “nibber”, but she and I were best friends. And there was as much pleasure for Grandad as ever in growing things.
Filling the table with homegrown produce had been a necessity for our family as for many others, but I now realise that Grandad’s level of enthusiasm and expertise in horticulture was unusual. The sheer variety of fruit and vegetables he grew was remarkable: A paraffin heater in the greenhouse enabled him to cultivate cucumbers and grapes, and ensure a long season of tomato cropping. His cauliflowers, (something I have always found very difficult to succeed with) were a picture. I can see them now: creamy curds facing outwards towards Footherly Lane, on top of the wall at Keepers Cottage, beside containers of cut flowers, for sale to locals and passers by.
Later in the 1960s, after 30 industrious years of farming at Owletts, my aunt and uncle had been able to purchase an ancient stone farmhouse on a Welsh hillside. Uncle Alfred soon populated the sloping pastureland with the “Owletts Herd” of sturdy short-legged Welsh Black Cattle, and one Jersey cow for their domestic dairy needs. Diminutive Welsh Mountain sheep called from the top of the foel, whilst hens and Muscovy ducks also wandered around the little yard. Aunty Mary’s “retirement” was equally active. Extra accommodation afforded by a quaint tin-clad “chalet” and a large caravan was put to use in a thriving bed-and breakfast business, and meant that we, their fortunate relatives in the Midlands, had somewhere to stay on the beautiful Lleyn Peninsula. So although it must have been a loss to Pop when his eldest and, I think, favourite child moved away from Staffordshire, there remained the opportunity to visit her, and in between, keep up a busy flow of correspondence. Some of Pop’s letters to Mary have been passed on to me by my cousin Rosalind, and offer a valuable insight into his life at Keepers Cottage in the years approaching his death in 1975.
Grandad learned his rather beautiful copperplate handwriting at the school next to Stonnall Church, where he paid, he told us, a ha’penny a week to attend. Amongst the news of hatches, matches and despatches, and reports about success or otherwise on the “Pools”, both Suki and the glass eye feature in the letters:
“Suki nibbed two men last week” (whether that was a high or low weekly tally, I don’t know!)
“Suki is getting better tempered now but won’t have anything to do with Bill of a morning”
“….had pulled my glass eye out and put it in my handkerchief in my pocket…felt Suki pull my handkerchief out….my eye fell out, she grabed old [sic] of it and that is the last I’ve seen of it” (!)
But the dominant refrain is of horticultural chat and advice to his daughter, who, like almost the whole damned tribe of us, was an obsessively keen gardener:
“ ….had our first lettuce yesterday…tomatoes in flowers…the sparrows have eaten my first row of peas…”
“…..have got the largest part of the garden planted….lost all my sweet peas ….seed cost me 30 shillings…but got plenty of asters and the chrysanths are doing fine..”
“I have had a good season with my chrysanths, ….been selling them at 15 pence a dozen…but now they have lost their brightness as the rain is making them look dull…..”
“the shoots are very tender….they will need some water….pinch the centers out when they are about six inches high”
I have been inspired to grow my Chrysanthemums in rows this year, and have enjoyed a really productive cutting patch since August. They are only spray varieties, of course, not the gorgeous single, incurved blooms which my grandad produced, and which are reminiscent of Dahlias, that other stalwart of the working man’s garden. My husband’s childhood memories of life in a Yorkshire mining village in the 40’s and 50’s are also coloured with rows of gaudy blooms in his own father’s garden, and those of many neighbours. It is interesting to note that the “masculine” flowers: chrysanths, dahlias, auriculas, and sweet peas, are those that lend themselves to selective breeding, to the creation of novel or exaggerated colours or forms. In that element of challenge, and, perhaps, competition, lies the “gendered” behaviour. Dr Lisa Taylor’s book, “A Taste For Gardening: Classed and Gendered Practices” speaks of this kind of of floristry as
“a form of masculine cultural capital which could be traded for economic capital at the local level”
She certainly seems to be describing the valuable contributions made to the household budget by the sales of garden produce over the wall in Footherly.
More than the generous proportions of a Yorkshire miner’s garden, my Grandad had whole acres which he and Uncle Bill could cultivate until their health began to fail. He was rich! He lived in a picturesque, rural environment of fields woods and streams, abundant with wildlife, which was more charming than the rapidly urbanising village of Aldridge, I thought. The Tilly lamps at night and the big iron pump in the kitchen made my grandad’s house special and superior to ours. The earth closet I avoided. I appreciated the 20th century plumbing at 155, Bosty Lane. (Although I was yet to acknowledge the luxury of my mother’s spotless housekeeping!)
And then this awful aside in a letter to Mary: “I sent to the National Assistance to see if they could help me buy a pair of boots and some underclothing they have sent me 10 pounds the man who called said I should have been having som [sic] every year….if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
I gaze back at the textural interest of the frayed pullover in one of the photographs of Grandad: And a very painful memory rises up from somewhere: My 13 year old self volunteering to darn his pullover for him as a bit of a novelty for me, and taking away the pullover and being distracted from that repair by a million more interesting pastimes. And my grandad asking could he please have his pullover back, whether I had mended it or not?