This blog is dedicated to my Grandad, so I’d like you to meet him.
He was a proper, old-fashioned grandad: slightly egg-shaped, with braces and a flat cap, two smart beige coats (one for winter, one for summer), and shoes polished to a squeak. His diet consisted mainly of things fried in lard and dished up with Grandma’s chewy mashed potato, supplemented with lurid little cakes wrapped in marzipan, jam tarts, Bourbon biscuits, mint humbugs, treacle sponge with lumpen custard, Cadbury’s Bournville chocolate… Unsurprisingly, I never met my Grandad’s real teeth: both he and Grandma sported full sets of dentures whose constant grinding and clacking seemed to convey annoyance at their confinement within those particular oral cavities. Like every old person I knew, Grandad also drank cup after cup of tea, which he never could sup without slurping. That was the only trait of his that I found vexing.
His pensioner’s life was tethered to routines as predictable as the tides, with Grandma as the sturdy little vessel that kept him afloat and a wing-backed fireside chair as his anchor. In their chilly 1930s house, with its sombre brown furniture, nicotine-addled ceilings and windows that frowned over the street from a pebble-dashed face, the silence was punctured only by the ponderous tick-tock of the clock, the clunk-burp of the toilet chain pull and the sudden bellow of deaf Mrs Whatshername’s television next door. To five-year-old me, the only extraordinary feature of this most ordinary setting was Grandad’s luminescent jar of lime marmalade on the breakfast table. I was baffled and enthralled in equal measure by its thrillingly sour taste and extra-terrestrial glow.
Grandad was a doggedly determined reader of large-print detective novels from the library, an endless procession marching through in their plastic covers, each new arrival heralded by the satisfying scent of ink stamp. A familiar and comforting sight was Grandad obscured behind the latest edition of the local Star newspaper or its sports offshoot, The Green ‘Un. On Saturday mornings, I would accompany him to the paper shop to buy this venerated, mint-hued wonder. As soon as we got home, he would hand me a biro to mark neat little crosses on the grainy “Spot the Ball” photo. We pored over the task like scholars, analysing the angle of the player’s foot, the direction of his gaze, the likely ball trajectory. Week after week, I was confident our efforts would earn us the prize money. Week after week, they didn’t.
Millhouses Park was our favourite destination. We would walk there hand-in-hand, through narrow snickets smelling of moss, damp leaves and dog wee, the sound of our footsteps ricocheting off looming brick walls, my head on a level with Grandad’s coat-pockets. At the park, he would settle onto a painted wooden bench, hands folded over the hummock of his belly, while I blundered around the boating lake in a plastic pedalo. Most of the gaudy colours of the park have faded to pastel on my mind’s canvas, but the bobbing pedalos remain so garish that the memory almost makes me queasy. Other things I recall as if I were there only last Tuesday are the shudderingly cold water in the 1920s paddling pools, feet recoiling from gritty deposits on chipped tiles, and the wind that rampaged like a vandal through the otherwise pristine municipal orderliness.
I think, if I went back there now, it might crack my heart open along the hairline fracture left by my Grandad’s passing.
Most admirably of all, my Grandad was a terrific sport, the most wonderfully good-humoured loser you could ever meet. Nothing made him chuckle like losing at a board game; the more his game unravelled, the more his shoulders shook with laughter. He invariably let me cheat when we played Animal Happy Families, feigning amazement at the best cards I had secretly dealt to myself, and would stir me to helpless, furious giggles by insisting on calling the cow “Mrs Bull” and the bull “Mr Cow.”
My Grandma could be as despotic as she was diminutive, and there was just one occasion when I witnessed him challenge her sharp-tongued governance over him: that was the day when, in a glorious act of rebellion, Grandad voted Labour. Grandma, whom I also loved dearly but whose opinions were a toxic stew of received idiocy and wilful ignorance , was especially outraged because the candidate was “a foreigner.” It was the first time I had ever heard Grandad shout at her, thundering that he had nothing at all against a man because of his skin colour. Words cannot express how proud of him I was at that moment.
Occasionally, I see souvenirs of him in my son: when he is chewing, his mouth moves the same way Grandad’s did. They also share the same smile. My son’s face is lit from within by a joy that looks oddly familiar, and there is more than a trace of Grandad in the creases of his eyes when he laughs.
As a child, what I knew about Grandad was barely enough to write a couple of sentences. He used to run the family haulage yard and, though he was known to all as Leslie, his first name was actually Horace. I also knew he was useless at DIY, an alarmingly dreadful driver, was devoted to his bowling club and that Grandma doted on him, albeit with a certain bitterness.
I now realise, of course, that it was the unknowns that told the full story. In hindsight, I can see the melancholy ghosting his frame. His youth was not always a happy one. His father remarried a woman who resented and ostracised the almost-adult Horace, and he ended up with two new brothers who were young enough to be his sons. I’m told that he always felt less-than, and shunned, which explains why my Grandma’s hatred of his step-mother burned hot enough to solder metal.
I wish I had asked him questions, but he died when I was fourteen and it never occurred to me that there were questions to ask. He was just my Grandad.
To all who knew him, Horace Leslie Swift was a thoroughly decent, gentle, self-contained man, whose shoes were always clean and who was a proper good sport. That’s no bad way to be remembered, is it? For Grandad, it really was about the game, not the winning of it. Except, legend has it, on the football terraces, when he deposited his mild manner at the turnstiles and unleashed a fortnight’s-worth of expletives whenever a goal or a refereeing decision displeased him.
By superficial standards, his may not have been an exceptional life. Yet a life humbly lived, doing no harm, and making people laugh along the way is its own quiet miracle. In the over-exposed modern age, we are so preoccupied with the limelight, with our audience, with being seen, when we should be more concerned with how we make the people around us feel. I can condense my memories of Grandad into a little over a thousand words, but what really matters is the emotion that prompted me to write them. I felt safe, happy, and loved with my Grandad, and a child needs nothing more.
I wish I’d said thank you, Grandad, but you left us long before I had the wisdom to appreciate what you gave me.