Saturday, 15 August 2009
I've had a birthday while doing battle with the SF virus and it set me thinking about my childhood. Then I read a post on another blog about antecedents and inevitably I began going back through my own family history, digging through boxes of letters and birth certificates, war medals, ration cards and old receipts. My family were hoarders! I'm lucky to have photos of my ancestors and to know quite a lot about their lives. This black and white photograph is of my mother's side of the family, outside a tiny terraced house in North Shields. Several of the younger children in the photo were still alive when I was a child, which makes it more precious.
I grew up first on a croft in the wild border lands between England and Scotland and then on a hill farm in a remote area of the Lake District.
One side of the family was Irish - cattle drovers and horse dealers - the others came from sea faring Italian and Scottish kin, who had settled in a north eastern sea port. Neither side had any money. But what they did have was a love of story telling. My earliest memories are of eavesdropping on grown-up conversations round the fireside, long after I was supposed to be in bed, and hearing them talk about ancestors who went across the sea on sailing ships to bring back cargos of bananas and marry exotic women; of others who drove herds of cattle from Ireland to London; or despaired over errant children, disinherited their offspring and fought bitterly over religion. These were stories they'd learned from their own grandparents. I was aware, even at nine or ten, that I was listening to an unbroken memory line going back two hundred years - stories passing like heirlooms from one generation to another. The tellers seemed to know exactly what great-great-great grandmother Bridie had said to her daughter Frances Theresa when she came home with a baby she wasn’t supposed to have - fathered by a footman at the house where she was in service. The fine rooms, the uniforms, the very porcelain crockery she washed in a lead lined sink were all there in the story, leaping like a hologram in the firelight before my eyes. The account of my great-great uncle Edward who had stood preaching the gospel of temperance outside his father’s pub on a Tyneside quay, was pure Catherine Cookson.
Not surprising that I was addicted to books from the time I could walk - as the photo proves. Fortunately I no longer have the pouter-pigeon tummy!