It took me a while to figure out why I was thinking of Gran today.
I have a day of accrued leave, and took the chance to head down to the doctor and talk about snoring. He was fairly helpful. Loss of tone in the muscles in the palette of the mouth he suggested.
“Something that comes with age?” I asked.
The doctor nodded.
Add that to the list of things no one tells you. Who would have thought that I would need to keep the muscles in my palette in shape? How do you do that, exactly? Maybe I need a rubber chew toy.
On the way home I realised what it was that reminded me of Gran. I often spent a week or so down at her house in Mosgiel during the school holidays when I was a boy. There was a very fixed routine at her house. It’s not right to say that things were regimented, or disciplined, because they weren’t, and both of those words sound horrible, whereas the morning routine at Gran’s is one of my most treasured childhood memories. It was just that we always did the same things, in the same order, as we pottered through the morning and into the afternoon.
One of those things was walking to the shops in the mid-morning after breakfast. There is a special feeling to doing this. The early morning commuter has gone, after their bleary, coughing start over a snatched toast and tea, and the streets have settled down again. Dew is still on the lawns and there is the smell of late breakfast, and the drone of National Radio from someone’s kitchen window. Gran always took her shopping bag trolley with her on our walks, and wore a sensible woolen coat, and sensible square heeled shoes. It was a companionable walk of perhaps fifteen minutes, past the old houses with holly hedges, and the newer places of modern brick and aluminium windows, with neat curbs and roses and garden gnomes.
It was being out today, in the mid-morning, after most people had gone to work, that reminded me of those walks again. It was a nice memory, a little sad too of course.
When I stayed at Gran’s house I slept in the largest of the spare rooms. It was only as I got older that I became aware that this was the house where my mother, her brother, and three younger sisters had grown up, and that the worn soft toys in the crib, and the faded books in the bookcase must have been theirs. It made the house itself melancholic; this sense that there had once been a family of seven in this place, and now there was just my Gran. Sometimes, in the afternoons I suppose, I liked to take the books off the shelf in the spare room and read them. I can only remember what two of them were now. One was a Rupert Annual, and the other was a Just William book. Both, I was told, had belonged to me Uncle Bruce when he was a boy.
I have the Just William book now. In the front of the book it has my uncle’s name, and the date: 3 July 1951. Just William books are jolly good. I think that it’s important to say they are jolly good rather than just good. The jolly gives you a sense of the tone. On the inside leaf it has an example of an illustration from further in, as a kind of teaser I suppose, and the caption reads:
William, clasping an empty acid drop bottle to his bosom, was left to face Mr. Moss.
That kind of thing. Clasping, and acid drops, and bosom, and Mr. Moss. A vanished age in other words. Which, I think, is the second reason I had been thinking about Gran; books from a vanished age.
I went to the library on Tuesday night to look for books about missionaries. I can report that there are a surprising number of books about missionaries in the Wellington Public Library. The highlight though proved to be a book retrieved from stack called The Romance of Missionary Pioneers. The librarian smiled when he handed over the fairly substantial volume,
“It doesn’t look very romantic,” he observed of the cover.
He was right. The cover showed a missionary with – somewhat incongruously – a tiger skin scarf, surrounded by a bevy of generic natives who appeared to be about to cut the poor chap to pieces with their upraised tomahawks. Mind you, the Library of Romance listed on the inside cover tended to suggest that the word romance has shifted in meaning since the 1930s as it listed such intriguing titles as The Romance of Insect Life and The Romance of Submarine Engineering among its many volumes.
Because I am looking into British attitudes to India for my History class, I flicked straight to the story of Canon C.E. Tyndale-Biscoe and the chapter Making Men of the Kashmiri. The Kashmiri it seems were in desperate need of manhood:
Tyndale-Biscoe [was] compelled to admit that the ordinary Kashmiri… is a coward, a man with no self-respect and deceitful to a degree, and they themselves know that this is so and do not resent the charge.
I sense that all the compulsion that Tyndale-Biscoe required to admit this was the presence of another white man.
The following chapter outlines Tyndale-Biscoe’s strategy for
inciting religious hatred making Kashmiri boys into men.
In the Autumn of 1891 Tyndale-Biscoe brought a football to school.
“What is this?” said they.
“A football,” said he.
“What is the use of it?”
“For playing with. It is an excellent game, and will help to make you strong.”
“Shall we gain rupees by playing it?”
“Then we do not wish to play the game. What is it made of?”
“Then we cannot play; we cannot touch it. Take it away, for it is unholy to touch.”
Tyndale-Biscoe’s strategy herewith is, well, breathtaking.
With a blackboard and some chalk he teaches his students the rules of the game. Sensing that there would be “trouble” at the end of the day, he then called the teachers together, gave them batons, and stationed them along the road from the school. At the end of school the students were herded down the road to the playing field.
The whistle was blown, but the ball did not move. Thinking that the boys had not understood the order, Tyndale-Biscoe told them to kick off the ball. He blew again, but with no result. He noticed that the boys were looking at one another… with unmistakable signs of fear and bewilderment.
After the boys explained that they were Brahmans and couldn’t touch the ball, Tyndale-Biscoe told them they had five minutes to kick the ball or the teachers would start to beat them with batons. A wild game ensued until it suddenly ceased amid gasps of horror:
all eyes were turned towards one of the players who was a picture of misery. And no wonder, for this unholy piece of leather had bounded straight into this holy one’s face, had actually kissed his lips.
“Take the fool down to the canal at once and wash him.”
The author ends with this little homily for critics:
Well, we cannot all see alike, and it is just as well that we cannot, otherwise Rome would never have been built and there would not be much progress on this terrestrial sphere.
My Uncle Bruce died while I was in Japan. I didn’t know him that well, and I only really warmed to the idea of him when I found his name written on the inside cover of the Just William book. My Gran died in 2005 while I was on my second placement at Teachers’ Training College. She was a Christian but never said a word about it to me. Or about her childhood, or her time as a mother. I wouldn’t mind talking to them again now. About the books Bruce read as a child and his unrealised dream of being a pilot, and about the quiet interior life of my Gran that began in 1910 among stirring tales of Empire, missionary, and progress, and ended almost a century later when all those words had come to be thoroughly derided.
Each mid-morning walk with my Gran was a gift. Each one a wasted opportunity.