My sister

March 16, 2009

Today – March 16th – is eight years to the day since my younger and only sister Clare died, and since she was two years younger, it means, very strangely, that I have had a decade of life which she never saw or knew. I could write down a fairly substantial list of influences on how and who I am, but her death had more impact than anything else. It was as if someone had reached inside me and not only switched a lot off, but also yanked at a series of levers. Within a year, I had left the job I’d been doing for nearly three decades, and started trying to do something else, something I wanted, before I ossified. (Much the same happened to my younger brother, and also to my mother – it almost literally sobered her up, made her more resilient. I only saw her crack once, and that was when we – the four of us, the fourth being her husband – went together to see her body in the hospice. She simply said, ‘I remember the day she was born’. Banalities like this are more moving than anything else.)

Death can make you – me, maybe – very selfish. For quite a while, my attitude to the world was that it had known nothing about suffering; coming to terms with the death of others, of people I hadn’t known at all, became hard. It was wanting to own the death as special, a predictable but unworthy emotion. And viewing her, still and cold, was a particularly strange experience, because it was the metastasis of an eye cancer which did for her, and she had had an eye removed over three years earlier. So when we went to see her, she had one eye – the false eye – open. The illusion of her being able to see was disturbing and memorable in even measure.

She was cremated on a Friday. The only significance of this was that it was the local vicar (not that she was a believer) had Fridays off. So we were allocated an as-it-were locum. He was called Norman. Norman came round to discuss the funeral. ‘How long have we got?’ we asked him (we meant, how much of the service did we own?). He thought a bit, weighing up the thirty minutes, and thought that we (my brother and I) should certainly have, between us, a minute. Unless I am mistaken, everyone else left the room at this point.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘my brother and I have things to say.’ In fact, I had at least twenty minutes already written, although I knew I’d have to cut it. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘people get very upset when they are talking at funerals.’ That remark has stuck. I explained that we were both teachers, and that talking was what we did for a living. He wasn’t reassured at all, but, after what seemed oddly like haggling, we got Norman to take the minute – he introduced the closing song we’d picked, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, while we took most of the rest.

My father used to comment, of funerals, that there was ‘a good gate’ (or otherwise). Clare’s half-hour attracted a very large gate. (Ironically, she had re-trained as a teacher of the visually impaired not long before she lost half of her own sight. She was popular.)

Now I need March 16th to have a gate of one. I have a simple ritual, which is to play a series of songs she liked (suspecting she was dying, she had written out a list to be played at any wake), between one and two in the afternoon: she died about about half-past one. I buy some flowers, tulips probably, because I know nothing about flowers, but have a vague attraction to tulips. Somewhere in the centre of this suite of songs is the Mamas and Papas version of ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, not for the twee title, but because it was a song we both liked, for its contrasts – the soft intro, the swelling and almost raucous chorus. (Really oddly, John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas and Papas, died on pretty much the same day as Clare – two days later, to be precise.)

Every year, I have the same fear, which is that I won’t be able to weep. But I do, and I will.

Dylan Thomas wrote, very gnomically, in his poem ‘refusing to mourn the death of a child, by fire, in the Blitz,’ that ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ I can’t be sure what he meant, but the line makes a lot of sense on its own. I was too young to take in my father’s death (although I was 34): its impact was limited. But after Clare’s death, for me, there will be no other.

Clare, taken by my brother, David

Clare, taken by my brother, David



February 13, 2009

Victor Borge used to have a routine in which he kidded the audience. He announced that it was his grandfather’s (or uncle’s, I forget which) one hundredth birthday. The audience’s members, having lost their concentration through having laughed so hard, indulged themselves in a sentimental fit, and applauded generously. After a fractional pause, Borge carried on, “Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here to see it… how could he be? He died when he was 29.” At which point, the audience resumed their hysteria (Borge is almost forgotten, isn’t he? Yet in his day he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He is probably better remembered for his voice-overs for Heineken lager (‘refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’) than for his classical music spoofs and his phonetic punctuation.

Today (Friday 13 February) is my grandmother’s 114th birthday. Pause, Borge-style. Unfortunately…

She was born in 1895, and died in 1967 – born as Mabel Winifred Catcheside. I was only 14 when she died, of breast cancer, the first of a wave of cancer victims in my family – each from a different source: my father (lungs), my sister (eye), my aunt (stomach), my mother (ovaries), which makes me morbidly wonder where I’m going to catch it, and when. Since she was the only grandmother I knew (my mother’s mother had died two years before I was born), she was the only female family member of that generation I knew at all. Her sister survived well into her nineties, but I met her only once (family feud); and my grandfather’s sister also lived into her nineties, but I never met her at all (family feud). In fact, my mother’s father also had two sisters, and one of them lived into her nineties, and I met each of them only twice each (family feuds, although it was more complex than that). The three  I met only once or twice lived respectively ten, two, and one-and-a-half miles from my parents’ house. It was ridiculous.

My grandmother came from a well-to-do shipbroking family in Newcastle, and her own grandfathers had been successful respectively in the grocery and tailoring trades. I have no idea how she met my grandfather, but she was pretty much part of the Greenwell family before she was 18, and she and my grandfather were inseparable, and had, it seemed to me (and to my mother) very few close friends, being intent on each other’s company. And yet this was surely at odds with her nature, which was outgoing and generous and also highly sentimental. She wept her way through my parents’ wedding in 1951, much to my mother’s annoyance, distraught at the ‘loss’ of her son – who moved into the same road as his parents within three years, and into his father’s office at the ship-repair yard within one year – so he hardly absented himself.

She had plainly been something of a Newcastle society belle – or maybe that was Sunderland, to which she moved shortly before or shortly after her father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1917. And yet, to be honest, there is fantastically little that I can remember about her. I can recall that she drank (as every adult in my orbit seemed to do) a lethal gin concoction – in her case, ‘gin and mixed’, which is a tumbler half-filled with gin, and  the other two quarters filled respectively with sweet and dry vermouth. It would knock me out – especially at lunch-time, which was when I saw her drinking it. She also disliked salt on crisps, and a separate bowl was maintained for her snacking (I think this is where I get my snack habits from). She also used Edwardian slang – ‘ducky’, for instance.

And yet, oddly enough, the most vivid image I have of her is one which I have acquired second-hand. On her last night at home (before her last journey to hospital), she fell out of bed, and could not get back in. She had a live-in housekeeper (who had been living in for 45 years by that point) who could not possibly lift her, and who therefore lay down beside her to keep her company. And what she said was this: ‘I am very worried about Bill. I am sure he will marry a girl one day, and leave her the next.’ At that time, as I say, I was only – and only just, or even not quite – 14. What on earth had I done to suggest this?

It still puts a crease in my forehead.

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919

Mabel Winifred Greenwell (Catcheside) c. 1919


December 31, 2008

What must December 31st have been like two hundred and sixty years ago? Meaningless: it wasn’t the end of anything but December. The year didn’t end till March 24th (and I don’t know if this was marked by any excess). It must have been odd in 1752, when they had two New Year’s Eves, this being the year when they shortened the year by 11 days, and switched the dates of the calendar.

Ends of the year used to mean outbreaks of faux-Scots fever on television, with anyone called Jimmy (Stewart? Shand?) turning into the TV headline act, and with Kenneth McKellar in the mix somewhere. McKellar was a professional Scot, who toured the country and graced the nether regions of the charts with vaguely skirling songs – indeed, he was even the British entrant for the Eurovision Song Contest in the late 1950s, where his bold braw moonlicht voice succeeded in impressing hardly anyone at all. I did actually see him once, about fourth on the bill at the fag end of variety shows. It was 1982. (Top of the bill was Ray Alan and Ray Charles.) There was an odd sense that, just for a day, the Scots knew how to do what the English didn’t: step ye gaily. And drink everyone else under the carpet.

Now we have Jools Holland, and a crowd of pre-recorded celebrities. Is it just me, or does everyone think JH is a hopeless presenter? Everything he puts his hand to turns to schmaltz, except possibly boogie piano, and I am only able to say this because I can’t – much as I would like to – play boogie piano. It may be that there are boogie piano players out there who think he’s not much cop at that, either.

You can see where I’m coming from: fedupness. I find the ends of years profoundly unsettling: another year of under-achievement, even in those years when, as sometimes happens, I have actually achieved something. September is the month I like best, and it feels a long way off. But today, for me, is about tearing up calendars, and feeling time slip away.

My father used to enjoy New Year’s Eve. He used to mkake sure we were awake to watch him step outside the door with some fetishistic objects, which included a lump of coal, and – am I imagining this? – a bag of sugar. And perhaps a bottle. He would solemnly ring the bell, and be let in, and then off we’d go to bed, none the wiser. He was a tall man – over six feet – and one of my abiding images of him is that shadow outside the door. In fact, my father has almost completely passed into shadow now. It may be that New Year’s Eve reminds me a little too much of how little I knew him, which is absurd, because, if he had lived for decades more, I would have known him no better. Unlike my mother, he never adapted to any world other than the one he had constructed around himself. He was immune to small talk. He had passions he didn’t share with children, kind though I suspect he was.

I am beginning to sound like Eeyore, although in the real world, I am more of a Rabbit.


December 28, 2008

I guess we all do it, although I worry that I may be the only one, of course, and that any half-decent psychiatrist would have me into a secure unit the moment he or she found out.

Copycatting. What I mean is the way we adopt phrases and habits from others and bring them into our daily lives – snaffling a bit from someone else until our behaviour is only 90%, if that, original. Of course, there are the national catchphrases in any case, or even words. One of the odder ones is ‘Naff Off’, which probably existed in some pocket of the country in the sixties, but which had a two-stage journey into the British psyche (or am I the only one still saying ‘Naff Off,’ doctor?) It was popularised by Porridge, the Clement/ La Frenais vehicle for Ronnie Barker’s prodigious acting talents (he was also a great writer, but I never warmed to his fondness for sound-effect parodies like Futtock’s End). The writers correctly spotted that, if a sit-com was set in a prison, it would be a bit strange if there was no swearing, and adopted Naff Off as their substitute. Barker’s character, Fletcher, deployed it to great effect, and, not long into the show’s run, it gained a great deal more publicity when – of all people – Princess Anne was reported to have used it, quite possibly of reporters. At this point, coincidentally, everyone joined in.

Catchphrases outlive their sources, like most sayings (who was it who got up one morning and observed ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’, I wonder? He or she must have been pleased with the coinage). So there are still people around, in their thirties, who say ‘I thangew’ for ‘Thanks’, and cannot possibly remember Arthur Askey, and even some who say ‘Don’t mind if I do’, the Colonel Chinstrap riposte from the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again, and no, I haven’t been lying about my age).

But this also happens on a micro basis. For instance, two phrases I know I use are ‘Ariba!’ (roughly, ‘Great’!), and ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ (‘Blow me down’). ‘Ariba!’ opens a track on a very obscure Grace Slick album from the 1970s, called ‘Manhole’. ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ is the lament of (I think) the drummer in The Troggs in a famously recorded session which demonstrated, if proof were needed, that they had a hard job putting together their usual battery of simple-chord-and-drumbeat songs. Reg was (is, honestly) the singer. They were (are, the two survivors) from Andover. The drummer was unable to get the beat straight, and used this particular expletive. And a colleague of mine, and his wife, adopted it. And I ended up adopting it, too.

I had a friend at university (that sounds a bit sad, I had more than one) who said ‘Hilarious’ a lot (and was mocked for it. But that has slipped into my lexicon of phrases. And there was a sketch (Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, the great comic actor who died earlier this year) used in a regular TV fixture in the 50s and 60s, ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, to which every BBC sitcom contributed a ten-minute special, and which is still current in my family, even if the users are now down to me and my brother. The show was called ‘Hugh and I’. The sketch made fun of a deaf character (possibly played by Jack Douglas, who died in the last fortnight, but here I could be wrong) – the grandfather of the house. The sketch (which also involved Wendy Richard) was about playing Christmas word games. Each member of the household said a word, clapped thrice, and the next person said an associated word. Say something disconnected, and you were out. The grandfather (whose deafness seems less funny now that I have to turn the TV up to 21 to hear it) couldn’t grasp the principle. Terry Scott illustrated it by saying that, if one person said ‘Wicker’, the next might say ‘Basket’. At the end of the sketch, the local rector arrived (interestingly, this didn’t seem odd at the time), and the old man said ‘Who’s that?’, Terry Scott replied loudly, ‘VICAR’, at which the old man clapped three times and shouted ‘BASKET’. For the next 40+ years, if anyone ever, anywhere, in any context, used the word ‘Vicar’ in the vicinity of the Greenwell family, the Greenwell present replied ‘Basket’.

That was a long nonsense. I was only going to say that fiction writers can get a lot of good characters going by using family slang and transposing it. Now I’ll close. Have to go up to the village shop. Where I may see the Vicar.



October 19, 2008

Possessions are nine-tenths of the floor-space: certainly in this house. I blame eBay. Since the arrival of eBay (which piggy-backed the proliferation of car boot sales, interestingly so, because car boot sales were originally thought of as a sign of growing destitution in the Thatcher years), this is probably true of more and more houses. Nor is it just eBay: it’s also the effect of there being so many programmes (Bargain Hunt, Cash In The Attic, Flog It) about turning antiques aka junk into money. There are now so many of them, that people are emptying their attics into their houses, then swapping the rubbish for other people’s rubbish. It didn’t happen when the only ‘auction’ programme was Antiques Roadshow, in which the extremely rich came along to find out how much (or, sometimes, to comic shame, how little) their ‘items’ were worth ‘for insurance purposes’.

Well, that’s my excuse. The fact is, and if you work online like me, this is pathetically easy, you can get almost anything you want now, with just a few clicks of the mouse. For instance: I had an abiding memory of a short story called ‘The Purple Cincture’, which was read to me at school. It was about a man who had contracted a disease which caused a band to appear around, in the first instance, a wrist. It went throught a variety of colours. When it got to purple, the hand fell off. And after a while, it went for the ankle. And, eventually, the neck. I found the story in an anthology in a bookshop in Oregon. Result!

The result was less floorspace. The house overflows with criminal records, criminal books, and criminal plunder of one sort or another. eBay is supposed to help you declutter, but actually, it’s about acquisition. My latest foray on to eBay (I have actually stayed away for a few months) was in a bored and frustrated moment, when I couldn’t think of how to finish a line in a poem. I came away with a Carole King record which I didn’t know existed (her first, when she and her co-musicians went under the name of ‘The City’ – very good, too. I’ve always liked King). I also had a look to see if there was anything under the name of Greenwell.

I promise you, this wasn’t to check whether or not there is a thriving second-hand market in my publications – I would settle for a thriving first-hand market. It was one of those odd things: an instinct that, somewhere in the world, there is the box of family history bits and bobs which my great-great-great grandfather gave to his eldest daughter, Mary, and which was in turn, at her death, passed to her brother, William, who was a silversmith in Sunderland’s Holmeside (a street which still exists, and which is named after a family of farmers who used to bring their herds or flocks there in the eighteenth century, or earlier).

William did not outlive Mary very long. When he died in 1914, his second wife Ethel, generally thought of as unstable, and also the sister of William’s daughter May (work that out!), took the box. In it were objects and letters and artefacts which explained where the family had been in the seventeemth century. But Ethel, who really was unstable, and who died in an asylum in 1954, sold off all her possessions – or had them sold off for her – to meet the cost of the various places in which she lodged. So I half-hope that the lost box will magically turn up.

But what eBay threw up was a teapot.

It was in fact a teapot made by the silversmith I’ve just mentioned (there must be a fair number around, it was the kind of thing he sold). On the bottom of the teapot (silver plate) it says ‘W. Greenwell, Sunderland’. Which is my name, and place of birth. How could I resist that? I psyched myself up for the last minute bid – waiting for the last fifteen seconds to see off the other three bidders, who, it transpires, were not sitting glued to the screen in case the ‘You’ve been outbid’ message came up, but off enjoying themselves, or even asleep. All that tension for nothing! But now I have a cleap silver plated teapot to add to my possessions. I have nowhere to put it, but I am glad to own it.

‘What were you bidding on?’ asked my wife. I said it would be a surprise. She greeted its arrival with a desultory sigh, like air escaping from a camping mattress.

Ads & Ends

October 4, 2008
Ian Maxwell and Bill

Ian Maxwell and Bill

Roger McGough reads Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’. It is nice to hear. It’s advertising Waitrose… Next, The Mail on Sunday is giving away The Sound of Music CD tomorrow: oh good, my copy is scratched. And hang on, The Sunday Times is giving away – what?! – Strange Days by The Doors. Strange days…


I know I’m a bit obsessed with family history, but this has been an unusual week. It seems reasonable to have met up with four first cousins (family funeral), but I’ve just spent the afternoon with a second cousin, and, earlier in the week, had email conversations with two third cousins (different branches), one fourth cousin – another fourth cousin phoned me – and also with three fifth cousins.

My second cousin, Ian Maxwell – his father’s father and my mother’s mother were siblings – has news of a step backwards and also forwards in family history. I’ve always been interested in coming forward and meeting the live cousins. But most family historians are working backwards (I am not immune to this, but it’s not my main interest), in which case they usually hit a wall in the eighteenth century, when documents start to be unavailable (unless you are aristocratically well-connected). The Maxwell family – well, a group of its members – has now tried to cross that wall by using DNA testing, and Ian was approached as a male descendant from a known Maxwell through at least six or seven generations, to provide a swab.

The result is in. It seems that the hot match (a slang term used by one family history site) is with a group in a Northern American state. Which seems, apparently, to suggest that one of our Maxwell forebears was sent to the penal colony in what is now the USA, and that one of his descendants somehow managed to get back to Scotland, join the army, go to the West Indies, come back with a mistress and an illegitimate son, and then leave nature to run its course (much of it in an area north of the Tyne from Walker through Wallsend to Tynemouth). As a result: Ian, me and a cast of several hundred others.

Not sure how I feel about these swabs. Possibly a growing sense of insanity. But it has to be said, some of my best friends are distant cousins.