Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 08 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

International Women’s Day: giving voice to my Nana

The most striking part of being on social media during International Women’s Day has been seeing the amount of whining from men. ‘Why isn’t there an international men’s day’ has become a trope and I’ve just seen a man moaning that he feels the day is a symbol of misandry. Quite why they feel that these views are uniquely significant and need to he shared with the world as a matter of burning urgency is never explained. I’m a man. Today isn’t my day and my views don’t matter. But here is my tribute to my Nana.

Getting older is a process of realising that your grandparents were people before you were even born. I was lucky that this process was begun while they were still alive, but unlucky that it was still in train when they died. What they showed to me was glimpses of a life I could only see second hand, of parties, dances, holidays and a time not only before I was born, but before even my parents were born. Life in this world was there for the living, not to be reflected back on from an armchair. Seeing my Nana, deep in a coma, in the weeks before she died and in so doing broke my heart into a million pieces, it was impossible to reconcile the two things: exuberant life and death existed in the same physical space.

What brings her to mind today is that I’ve been discussing her with my mum and dad, and new information emerged from between the stories that have become distorted and comedic with repeated tellings. The thing that emerged most strongly was a life lived in a welter of misery, only relieved briefly by a few years of joy and then ended, cruelly, by MS when she should have been living a happy retirement. Her story, spliced with what I learned today, is below and I should warn anyone with experience of domestic violence and related issues that it does contain triggers.

My Nana was born in 1920 and had the artistic talent that should have won her a place at art school had she not been born working class in the East Midlands. Today, she’d go to university, but back then, she went to work. Anecdotally, it always baffles me that people say you need two wages nowadays to support a family. In mine, the women have always worked and the only way to keep the family afloat was to earn two wages. To insist otherwise betrays the speaker’s background, I think, but that’s by the by.

She sang with a dance band, did ballet and, from the sounds of things, was an incorrigible flirt who had some ardent male admirers. Then the war came, and made her simultaneously more and less free. At some point, she met my granddad and, for reasons none of us is entirely sure of, married him. My great grandma told him to give her a baby and, I quote, ‘clip her wings,’ a statement which now seems monstrous in its cloying hatred, but in 1943 my dad was born. There then followed a period which even I remember her referring to as the happiest of he life.

With her husband away in the RAF, she lived in a rented house with her new baby, who she loved more than all the world, and was surrounded by her parents and her extended family who were there to help out. From information I can piece together, it sounds like her wings were not fully clipped, either, for with so many ready baby-sitters on hand, there were still dances and there were still flirtations, although I doubt whether many were serious. I do remember, though, my Nana giving me an RAF sweetheart brooch and saying that it belonged to a man who had died in the war, perhaps by walking into a propeller, but now, it seems, we’ll never know.

One story I do remember is my Nana, with a laugh, saying that she had worked in home defence. I later heard that she wanted to join the Land Army but that her mum had stopped her because they were all supposedly promiscuous, but that doesn’t seem likely to be an epithet that would have deterred my Nana. Either way, she always said that she had ‘a despatch rider under her,’ which may just be a slightly unfortunate choice of words, but it seems likely that she had an affair with him and, for understandable reasons, I desperately want to believe that my dad is the product of this, rather than my granddad. Then again, I’ve always been a hopeless romantic.

The war ended and my granddad came home to what, I imagine, was a changed world. When he saw his son for the first time in years, his son ran inside crying ‘it’s that man again,’ which sounds funny but said something fairly troubling about the relationship. For my granddad, I think that returning to somewhere he’d never lived and finding a new child there who instinctively distrusted him must have been hard, but it doesn’t make a convincing apologia for what happened next.

And what happened next is that my uncle was born, eight years after my dad. He instantly became a golden child for whom nothing was too much and my dad suffered accordingly in comparison. As he proudly carried his new baby brother up the garden steps, my grandad fell into step with him and said that if he told my grandma he’s replaced the old kitchen range with a new fireplace, he’d knock his head off his shoulders. It set the template for what was to come.

There was a campaign of savage beatings meted out to my dad whenever my Nana was out of the house with the new baby, and they found themselves alone together. He would be thrashed from pillar to post with what must have felt like sickening regularity over a number of years. To do this to an adult would be offensive, but to do it to your own child, to do it to my own lovely, beautiful and damaged dad, seems verminous. It carried on for a long time, well into my dad’s teenage years, until he had enough and went for my granddad with a knife and, I think, intent to do him harm.

If anyone had been beating me, I’d have stabbed him in his sleep, but whatever the preamble, my granddad took flight to next door and said that his own son had gone for him with a knife. How this played out, I don’t know, but I have a sick feeling that it was cast as the story of an ungrateful and delinquent son who had gone for his father on an arbitrary teenage whim. The beatings stopped, but by then, the damage had been done. Today, my dad told me for the first time that he remembers getting between my Nana, cowed in the corner of the kitchen, and my granddad, to protect his mum, close enough to be able to smell my granddad’s sweat. Perhaps other, more private beatings happened behind closed doors. I hope not, but I also know that my granddad was easily roused to violence and I think I know the answer.

We talked about this today, in part, but my mum also let slip that, as she got to know my Nana, she began to confide in her and one of the things she confided was that they had not been intimate for over two years. Hearing that your grandparents had sex is fairly difficult, even if I am the indirect result, but hearing that your Nana was wounded in such an intimate way and physically rejected brings in a whole new level of hurt confusion. There was talk of my granddad having an affair, taking his new car to impress a woman that he worked with, which made my Nana’s weight balloon and led to the bizarre decision to dye her hair black. More seriously, she made a suicide attempt, trying to gas herself in the oven, only to be rescued by a neighbour.

There was talk of affairs on her side as well, talk of drives in the country in which my dad was told he could play with the car while my Nana and a male companion disappeared into the woodland, but I can’t find it in my heart to think less of her or even to think that what she did was wrong. The marriage was clearly an unhappy one and, for all that I loved my granddad with a fierce, child’s passion and for all that, in spite of everything, I love him still, it was clearly pushing them both to find happiness in other ways. Whatever happiness it was must have been fleeting, because they were still married when she died, but there we go.

And when she died, it was in a small, sad way. She was diagnosed with MS just after I was born and I remember her taking tablets from small, black and white pill boxes she described as ‘my little bit of comfort.’ What she can’t have known was that the painkiller she took by the lorry load was also wearing away at the lining of her gut. Over time, she developed an ulcer so that, when the young doctor who took over from her old-school GP told her to flush the cocktail of medication she was taking down the toilet, the damage was already done. The ulcer ruptured, she bled heavily and went into a coma from which she never recovered. As the doctors tried to reduce her dependency on the machines that were breathing for her, she went into cardiac arrest and died.

Love is stronger than death. In fact, it makes a mockery of it. I love my Nana today just as much as I did when she was alive. She taught me what it meant to live a life of compassion, even though she had been shown very little of it, and what it meant to give people second chances and to have faith in them that will survive a million disappointments and heartaches. Her love was there for me in what, to me, were my most unlovable years, but were probably, if we’re being generous, a time when I was finding out who I was. When I followed behind the hearse in the funeral car, it seemed that there was suddenly less love for me in the world, and that feeling persists.

I want this blog to be anonymous, because I write about mental health, faith and politics, which can all make employers take fright, but since I know that she hated her surname, possibly because of what it came to represent, I can restore her maiden name. She was Jessie Marsland, and she was the greatest person I knew.

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