Thursday, 11 April 2013

Photographs and Memories

On April 11th 1925, 88 years ago today, in the back garden of a house in the East End of London, a group of people assemble for a wedding photograph. The marriage in question is that of my maternal Nan and Grandfather, who sit arm in arm at the centre of the image. To Nan's left is my Grandfather's sister Maud, who, a little over 35 years later, would be known to me as Aunt Maud. At the other end of the same row, holding what looks like a small dog, is Maud's sister Marie. Towards the right end of the back row, standing alone, is Nan's sister Beat and in front of her, wearing a dark top and holding a baby in white is her other sister Carrie. The baby is Henry.

My Grandfather died in 1956, four years before I was born, and Nan, Aunt Maud, Marie, Carrie, Beat and Henry were the only people from this photograph that I would get to know, albeit briefly in some cases, when I came along. I have many photos of family get-togethers from the 1960's and into the beginning of the 1970's and gradually Beat, Carrie, Marie and Henry disappear from them. I don't remember any sadness or funerals at the time, though no doubt I was spared any such upset at my young age. It's a strange thing that, when you're very young, older people sometimes slip away almost without you noticing - they just don't come around anymore. You only remember that they were ever there at all, many years later when you see a familiar face in a photograph.

Beat, Carrie and Nan circa 1967

In 1974 Nan and Aunt Maud came to live with me and my parents, an often fraught arrangement in a small family home. By this time they were both in their late 70's, Nan was struggling to walk while Aunt Maud had been virtually blind since the 1950's. They were very loving though, and I have fond memories of much laughter in the house, they could be real characters and each had their individual idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Nan, for instance, would pepper her conversations with peculiar old proverbial phrases of dubious context, often leaving me scratching my head in confusion. The most baffling (and most regularly used) of these was, 'If you can't fight, wear a big hat', the derivation (and intended meaning) of which is still something of a mystery to me. Occasionally though, her arcane phrases would verge on the poetic. For example, after getting out of bed earlier than usual in the morning, she would claim that she had been up 'before the streets were aired', a lovely image which stayed with me in later life, popping into my head on many a frosty morning as I scraped the ice from my windscreen at 5.30am.

Additionally, there were also a number of bona fide homegrown 'Nanisms', her own little quirky ways of saying things, some of which affectionately remained in my family's vocabulary long after Nan died in 1976. These included pyjamas, which she always referred to as a 'pyjam suit' and, as a consequence of Nan's failure to get to grips with decimalisation in 1971, a 50p coin is, was, and shall forever be known as, a silver ten-bob note.

Marie and Aunt Maud circa 1969

Aunt Maud died in 1982, still sneaking outside for the odd crafty ciggy until the end. She was a tiny lady and as I soared through the 6ft barrier in the late 1970's, she would look me up and down and declare in her soft cockney tones, 'I reckon I'm growing downwards!'

It's remarkable to think back and realise that Nan, Aunt Maud, Marie, Beat and Carrie were all born in the 19th Century and that, at the time of my birth, Nan's wedding photograph was only 35 years old, although it may as well have been 135 years to my young eyes. 1978 is now 35 years ago, but it feels like a fraction of that. Where does all the time go?

'Time goes, you say? 
 Ah no! Alas, 
Time stays, 
We go.' 
(Austin Dobson)


C said...

I love this.

Fabulous photos, especially that 1920s one which is so evocative. It's so obvious that people are essentially just the same, no matter what the era, nothing really changes except superficial style.
The quirky little phrases are lovely - I've also known that one "if you can't fight, wear a big hat" which I always think of as referring to adopting a posturing peacock-like approach to things, all about looking big rather than actually being able to act big (?)
It would be great to research or compile a book of such sayings, to find out if there are regional links etc...
Fabulous memories, thanks for sharing.

Kolley Kibber said...

Great stuff. Was part of your family of Welsh origin? I've only ever met one 'Beat', and she was an amazing little Welsh lady, now also sadly long-gone.

It's great that you have your own living memories of these people. We're lucky to be of a generation that learned to treasure photographs.

The Swede said...

C. That's a good interpretation of 'big hat', which makes a lot of sense. I'm still not sure why Nan said it so often though! I was sure that Nan's many phrases had died with her, but when I was going through my own Mum's things after she died in 2010, I found a sheet of paper on which Mum had written as many of them as she could remember, so I might share a few more in the future - after doing a little research, as you suggest.

KK. Mum did a fair bit of research into family history in the 1990's, but didn't find any Welsh links to my knowledge. I made encouraging noises when she talked about her findings, but wasn't really interested in such ancient history at the time. Now, of course, I bitterly regret not taking more notice and asking questions when I had the chance.

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