Thursday, 25 April 2013


Grandfather's hand
If my dad's father were alive, he would 102 tomorrow. Born three years before the First World War and taking part in the Second as a Radio Operator in the Signal Corp with The Royal Sussex regiment. He died before I thought to ask about his experiences, and if I had I imagine he would have remained stolid. Outwardly unemotional and impassive; that's just the type of man he was. Silent on events he'd undergone; feelings weren't shared, they were private. He was steadfast and dependable in his dealings with family. Quietly firm and practical in equal measures. His generation wasn't demonstrative, but there was gentleness; in his own way he cared. Like father, like son, these traits infiltrate and are passed on. The stiff, upper lip; the British reserve.
My grandfather wasn't the cuddly type, but his heart was warm. He wasn't one for many words, his actions said it all. I think he liked being useful. Most of my memories centre around his willingness to collect me after school, water our plants and walk our dog. With both my parents in full-time work he was instrumental. A proper gent always dressed in a tweed jacket and matching trilby hat with a fondness for tobacco. A lean and upright man with leathery skin and yellow tinted fingers. I still remember the smell of his tweed and the haze of smoke that lingered permanently about him. His voice had a crackling quality, similar to a wireless, with his native Bermondsey accent creeping in, which he put to good use telling me occasionally to “Shut up!” Nothing was allowed to disturb the snooker or cricket. But he was also kind and playful – dressing in a plastic fireman's helmet while I splashed in our paddling pool.
We weren't aware of his illness until the final stages; another matter he kept to himself. I'm sure I must have visited him in hospital, but I don't recall being told he had passed. One day he was there and the next he wasn't. His funeral was the first I ever attended and if my recollection serves me right I was scared. A little girl in a velvet dress, not really sure what was happening and who all these people were. Why were they dressed in sober dark colours? Why were they coming back to our house? My dad's side of the family were more than ten years older than my mum's, which meant there was a generational gap, a marked difference in manner. After this notable event, I retained a fear of death; that my grandfather might appear in his house. He didn't but I continually spooked myself.
102 is a grand age which he couldn't hope to aspire to, but if he had been without terminal cancer would he have wanted to? To have lived through ten decades? I don't think it's a question you yourself consider. If the will is there, you carry on. Some people have a zest for life, a stubborn determination to live; others intent is not so strong, which makes me think we have to get rid of this 'old' attitude. Ageing changes your appearance, but it's not limiting, and those that have the good fortune to remain free of ailments have more energy than I myself profess to have. My only regret is that I didn't have more time with him; that I didn't get the chance to appreciate him better. What would have I done with the extra time? I would have tried questioning him, but I already know that this plan would have been futile. I've been left with the impression that to understand him I'd have had to admire him like an oil painting: attend to his body language in different circumstances, and in contrasting lights closely observe his features.
Age does not form or alter your character; whatever age you confess to own, you are continually learning, and other people's experiences are valuable. Youth does not hold the answer to everything but then neither does wisdom.