Thursday, 26 May 2011

Factory Flowers

And the heart that is soonest awake to the flowers
is always the first to be touch'd by the thorns.
Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852)

I SOMETIMES JOKE that when I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning I find my grandfather looking out at me. Of course, I have two grandfathers somewhere behind the looking glass, two parents, my grandmothers and great-grandparents, all around in my lifetime. It might be more accurate to say that I look like one of my grandmothers, perhaps my mother’s mother. Bleary-eyed, as I get ready to brush my teeth and shave, I do not get into too detailed an examination of the fine (or not so fine) structure of my face; indeed, I cannot, for I do not have my glasses on.

Like both of my parents, and all of my grandparents, I discovered I required glasses to read (and, in my case, also to see distances) clearly when I was a young adult. Over the thirty years since my first eye-test and prescribed spectacles, my eyesight has worsened steadily. The vision correction has been complicated because I take some rather strong medications, and take different medications appropriate to the cycle my illness is in. Six months after an eye test resulting in new lenses, with different substances in my system, I might be straining to make out figures in a fog.

My mother, Mavis Lancaster Eldridge, wore glasses from earliest childhood. Born arse-first, in a clumsy delivery back in 1926, my mother suffered what we would call brain damage. In those days, it was just not mentioned. In fact, I did not know the circumstances of my mother’s birth until her mother told me shortly before dying at the age of 104. My mother, who had suffered with mental and emotional illnesses, and eyesight so damaged that reading was well nigh impossible for her (I never in my lifetime saw my mother read a book, or anything smaller than a newspaper headline), died young, my grandmother outliving her by over a dozen years.

My mother only took her glasses off as she got into bed. She suffered grand mal epileptic attacks and even then, one did not remove her glasses. One day, during the last week of her life spent in a cancer hospice, I arrived to spend the afternoon with my mother (she was quite lucid until the day before she passed away) and found that the hospice staff had propped her up (and belted her into) a recliner chair. My mother looked comfortable, but she was not wearing her glasses. Only when I spoke her name did she realise who it was taking a seat next to her. She did not know where her glasses had gone and was quite bothered. I went looking for the hospice manager. They had left Mother’s glasses off because she was not using them. They meant to read or watch the television, I assumed. I was rather angry and pointed out that there were other things to see, shadows to comprehend, the light coming through the shutters, the visitors. I found Mother’s glasses, put them on her, and that was not a problem again. My mother’s glasses had become part of her. I took them off on 28 September 1992, at 3.03pm, when she died. To close her eyes. The glasses went in a case, Mother went out in another. She was wearing them when she was buried.

My mother’s mother, Elsie Proctor Lancaster, who lived beyond her centennial, wore glasses all the years I knew her. As did my grandfather, William Lancaster, who died in his 70s, though he only wore his when reading. They were both avid readers, and spectacles’ cases were usually lying around their home. As very young children, we would ask to try one of their pairs on, and realise just what happens to one’s eyesight as the years pass. My grandmother, like her daughter, had a run-in with nursing staff in her last days. I was spending afternoons at my grandmother’s bedside in a care facility and found her without her glasses on, and without her hearing aid in. I had been taking some responsibility for the hearing aid, changing the batteries and fiddling with the volume. I had difficulty getting my grandmother to understand who I was, as she was literally in a fog of sound and vision. I raised hell with the nursing staff.

My mother’s parents were both sent off to work in a cotton mill in Harle Syke, Lancashire, just outside Burnley, at the age of eleven. That was a hundred years ago. The Queen Street Mill is now a museum, and it houses the last steam-powered looms in the world. If you saw the film “The King’s Speech”, you saw that mill. The King addressed his northern, working-class subjects there, at least in the Hollywood version.

The mills in Harle Syke (eventually eleven weaving firms with seven mills) were built in the years following 1850, when some men from Haggate built the first one. Haggate and Harle Syke blend into one another, the larger area is Briercliffe. The last mill, Queen Street, closed in 1982. Water came from nearby streams and coal to power the looms was mined in the Burnley area even after the middle of the 20th Century. There were no public houses in Harle Syke (my great-grandfather, Harry Lancaster, would catch a ride on a wagon, or walk, to a nearby town to do his weekend drinking). There was, and still is, a Church of England chapel in Harle Syke; my grandfather’s brother, James Arthur Lancaster, killed in the last days of the Great War, aged 24, is noted on the war memorial in the churchyard. His body, which we located recently, is in the Pas de Calais in a very nicely maintained cemetery.

I visited the Queen Street Mill some fifty years ago, as a boy, while staying with my grandfather and his sister, Maud Lancaster Roberts, in the house in Harle Syke that my great-grandparents had lived in. I slept in my great-grandfather’s bed. He had been alive when I was born, and for a few years after that, and would have had photographs of his first great-grandson. I eventually inherited a number of old pictures of my great-grandparents taken from 1900 until about the time my great-grandfather died in January of 1952.

In 1900, my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Geldard Lancaster, was expecting her third child, the one that would turn out to be my grandfather. Apparently, the childbirth experience had not been a particularly good one for Elizabeth and she had decided that this time she would not survive it. To mark her impending doom, Elizabeth had Harry, and the children, James Arthur and Maud, dress in their very darkest, gloomiest clothing and they went off to a photographer’s studio for a family portrait. Elizabeth was swathed in black cloth, the pregnant figure not being suitable to display, and the occasion being such a sad one. Harry was wearing a dark suit and looked very handsome in a working-class way. The children had only wide, white collars to indicate there was any hope for them.

Elizabeth survived the photograph, and my grandfather’s birth, but did not manage the winter of 1942, dying that December. Like many, indeed most, members of my family, Elizabeth did not reach the age of 70.

Harry Lancaster, my great-grandfather, actually reached 77. Both of his parents, my great-grandparents, John Lancaster and Ann Driver Lancaster, died in their early thirties, their young children subsequently being fostered by the Driver family. The Drivers’ own children worked on the family farm, the Lancaster lads were sent to work in the mill.

I had never been in a factory until my grandfather walked me over to the Queen Street Mill to see his sister, my great-auntie, Maud at work. It happens that Maud and her father had raised my mother’s brother, Jack Lancaster, through the Second World War years. As Jack left the UK after the War, he had been a teenager, and apparently had the same wavy blond hair and grey-blue eyes that I had fifteen years later when I turned up. Several people working in the mill cooed: “It’s Jackie, come back!” (In a marked Lancashire accent, of course.) There was soon a group around us, and people, who seemed very old to young me, pressed coins into my hands. Not pennies and sixpences, but florins and half-crowns. As I was off to the seaside for a fortnight, this loot was much appreciated.

My mother’s family, for the most part, are buried under the surface of the old Haggate cemetery, now grown wild. The collapsing Haggate Chapel has been pulled down. As a child I tended my great-grandparents’ grave. My Auntie Maud died at the age of 62, almost my present age, as we do. She went into her parents’ grave, the one we had weeded together.

All that said, I should mention my father’s family. I do look like Dennis Eldridge’s son, if not so tall and thin. I have wavy, blond hair from my grandfather, Henry Charles Eldridge, on that side too. However, there are a good many on the Eldridge side with dark, almost black hair, olive complexions and dark eyes. I have a paler version of my father’s nose to identify me. I can see my father’s looks, which I recall seeing when I was younger in my grandfather Eldridge, and grandmother, Charlotte Crow Eldridge, in my Eldridge cousins, and in their children. My father’s family could be generally described as better looking than my mother’s.

My father’s parents were not sent off to work in a mill when still children. However, the boys, some of them, did join the military, especially the Royal Navy, when still in short trousers. Happens that my father dropped out (as we might say) and became a naval cadet in his early teens, though he never made much of that as a career and was washed ashore in Bermuda during the last War where he unhappily married my mother, there with her father who worked for the NAAFI.

In addition, the family scattered to Australia, the USA, and Canada. Some returned, in the next generation, to the UK. One of my parents’ grandchildren lives in Mainland China, and his wife is expecting a child who will be, as we say, of mixed race. We have red hair, now and then, in my mother’s mother’s family. My nephew has that ginger hair; no telling how that will blend with the Asian genes.

We have a fair number of artists, actors, musicians and writers on both sides of my family. My cousins’ children have inherited those gifts. Fortunately, the youngsters are able to have educational opportunities and can develop their natural talents. Some members of the family made a great deal of money, some lost a lot. We have punk rockers and members of the Peerage in the family tree.

As for me, I tend to scribble things down. I also study and compile my family history. I live in a world of Post-It Notes, remembering, noticing, seeing and hearing.

I have poor eyesight and wear bifocals. Moreover, not generally known (I have not mentioned it in any Christmas card inserts yet) I am quite deaf. My hearing aids are being replaced in a month’s time and I am hoping that I will be better able to hold my own in conversation. I am not deaf, as my grandparents were, because of the dreadful noise in the mills that they were exposed to as very young children. I played a great deal of loud music, and found I sought louder and louder music as my hearing declined, compounding the damage. (You have been warned!)

I think it was my grandfather, William Lancaster, looking out at me from my mirror earlier today. In addition, his father’s moustache seemed like a true reflection. The words roll forth from generation to generation, and I reach out for all that I can.

1 comment:

sarah corbett morgan said...

Hi, Ross. "The words roll forth from generation to generation, and I reach out for all that I can." Oh, yes.

I see all those relatives of yours are keeping you busy. I do love this one with your..what..great granny taking a photo before the fateful birth. Why do you suppose she felt she would not survive it, unless she knew she was sick, too sick to endure much. And, it turned out she died fairly soon afterwards. Interesting.

My great grandmother was fond of saying as she gazed at herself in the mirror, "Oh, I see you are wearing your mask this morning."

And, how is the weather in fair Northumbria? Are the lambs on the ground and flowers up and the sky alight long into the night? I imagine you are enjoying long leisurely walks with Mr. Cailean, basking in the warmth.