As I said, yesterday would have been my grandmother’s birthday (and the day before that, my father’s). But the birthdays came in threes in that household, and today would have been that of my grandparents’ housekeeper. Not that ‘housekeeper’ really does her justice. She essentially married my family, and stuck with it for sixty years, the last fifteen of them in retirement in a house on the North-East coast. And her ‘age’ today is easy to calculate: she was born in 1900 (‘like the Queen Mother’, as she would have said). She was called Annie Bowes (although her real name, which she despised, was Nancy, and she was known to us as ‘Bowsie’).
It never occurred to me in childhood, during which the blinkers are kept very firm on either side of the eyes, to wonder why on earth she never struck out and married. That was stupid of me, or perhaps, to be fairer, the typical result of middle-class ignorance. She used to tell the story of how, in 1916, in the middle of World War One, she went to Buenos Aires on a boat. If I had thought about that, I would have realised that she was at one stage from a reasonably prosperous family. And it was only this year, meeting a second cousin, that the whole story clicked into place. The fact was, she could and would have expected to marry when she was a child, and it wasn’t the awful cull of young men in the war that had prevented her.
Her father was the manager of a colliery out in the north-west of Co. Durham, in Stanley. Her mother had died – in childbirth, I think – and her father had re-married and had a second family (indeed her half-sister, Blanche, known as ‘Bam’, worked for my grandmother’s sister, and another sister’s son worked as an accountant in the Greenwell family shipyard, so the connections were pretty strong). But her father had then suffered a major catastrophe. He had decided to branch out, and to start a bus company, and invested in a small number of buses and a garage in Consett. Almost as soon as, or maybe even before it had opened, the buses and their building went up in flames: and her father, who hadn’t insured his new enterprise, lost all his capital in one go. So for Annie Bowes, with her hitherto secure background, and her Argentinian trip (to visit a cousin who was a professional golfer, it transpires), the only option was ‘service’.
It was 1922, and my father had just been born; she was hired as his nanny. In those days, this meant taking on a role not very far removed from that of a surrogate mother. And in time, she graduated to being the focal point of the household. She was an exceptional cook (this must have appealed to my grandfather’s sybaritic nature), and my grandparents relied on her more and more to organise their lives. At some point – not a physical surprise, since she was not quite five feet tall, and no more than five stone in weight (she referred to a spoonful of mince – ‘minced beef’ – as ‘heaps’) – a family tradition grew up that she was carried in ceremoniously to Christmas dinners, holding the Christmas pudding she had made, cooked, and set alight. She graduated from factotum to confidante. Her kitchen was an empire. But equally, the whole business of being ‘in service’ meant that, while my grandfather was alive, she was always, to him, ‘Miss Bowes’, and she herself would have derided any closer intimacy.
It is a strange, forgotten world. A young woman whose father falls on hard times takes her vows, not to a young man, but to a family. And younger members of the family – i.e. me and my siblings – take her presence for granted. Like my grandmother, she doted on my father, who must have become highly accustomed to being doted upon. She was sparkling and giddy, and was addicted to the work for which she had been employed long after my grandparents died – if she came to stay, she was up first, taking control of the house, brooking little interference from my mother. She was the queen-pin.
Here she is with my grandmother, probably on the front at Roker, and probably in about 1948.