Thursday 6 December 2018



Browsing the racks of birthday and Christmas cards in shops we can see the variations of 'titles' given to grandmothers. I wonder if there are regional differences - is it only in Liverpool that they are called Nin? Though I have yet to see this on a card. None of my friends' grandchildren call them Grandmother; Grandma isn't unusual, although Nan, Nanny, or Nana are more common. Or maybe that's just in the north? I have known a couple of families where children called their grandparents Mother and Father, which always puzzled me. Both my grandfathers died before I was born so the question of what to call them never arose, and there are fewer variations on the card racks, most of them are to 'Grandad' - usually with only one 'd', rather than 'Granddad'.

When I was a child, most of my friends called their grandmothers Gran, or Granny.
I called my dad's mother 'Big Granny' - although she was probably only about 5'2" tall - because my mum's mother was only 4'9" and was therefore 'Little Granny'! My two grandmothers couldn't have been more different and inter-family relationships were never cordial. The two women, linked by the marriage of their son and daughter, never met. Neither attended the wedding, in Little Granny's case probably because it wasn't taking place in a Catholic church. I was told Big Granny didn't know her son was marrying 'a foreigner' and a Catholic at that, until after the register office ceremony when my dad took his new wife home to meet his mother!

Little Granny was a Spanish Catholic and didn't speak English despite living in Liverpool for almost fifty years. Having brought up three children in the city, I can only surmise that her lack of English was a conscious attempt to hang on to her Spanish identity. She died at the age of 71, when I was only ten years old. I have written extensively about her life in Spain and Liverpool in Chasing Shadows but have never put my memories of Big Granny down on paper, so perhaps it's time to redress the balance slightly.

Little Granny

Big Granny was Welsh Chapel and lived to the ripe old age of 92, by which time I was in my early thirties and she was great-grandmother to my three children. She lived in a large, old house at the junction of two cobbled streets in Bootle, Merseyside. The front door opened onto a small, sooty garden, the side door onto a cobbled yard surrounded by a high brick wall, topped with the standard security measure of the time in that area - broken glass set in concrete! At the furthest corner of the yard stood the brick-built lavatory that was, quite literally, to prove the death of my grandmother in her 93rd year.

Big Granny's house was stuffed full of furniture and knick-knacks, the floors hidden beneath rag rugs made from long-forgotten garments, the walls covered with pictures, photographs and framed embroideries. As you entered the long, gloomy hall, with its high ceiling and dark walls, the first door on the left led into the front parlour. The door to this room was kept locked. It was the room where one of my aunts had died, aged 27, after contracting rheumatic fever - reputedly due to sleeping in cold, damp barns during her stint in the Land Army during World War II. Years later, when I was in my early teens and taking piano lessons, Granny would - on very rare occasions - unlock this door and give me permission to play the huge Canadian organ that stood against one wall. I was always left alone in the room, sitting on a high stool, feet barely able to reach to pump the pedals, trying to coax a wheezing tune from its depths. Conscious of the privilege I'd been granted, there was also the niggling awareness that somehow I was invading a hallowed space. I felt like apologising to the smiling woman in the black-edged photograph who looked down on me as I played.

It was the room next door - the kitchen - that was the hub of family life. Of course, the kitchen wasn't strictly a kitchen, despite the black-leaded range, since all the cooking and baking took place in the 'back-kitchen', or scullery.

I was fascinated by these fire-dogs when I was a child.
Known in the family as 'the Dutch boy and girl', they stood
either side of the black-leaded range and
were rescued by a cousin and lovingly
restored before Big Granny's house was demolished.

My most vivid memory of the kitchen on my Sunday visits, is that it was nearly always full of men - Big Granny's sons, my dad amongst them - swapping yarns, smoking, drinking tea and eating home-made fruit loaf. I can still see Granny quite clearly, bustling around the room, cutting more bread, replenishing cups of tea, while joining in the banter - she looked like a story-book grandma, glasses perched on the end of her nose, her ample, 'cottage-loaf' figure topped by a bun of thick grey hair that, when I was a child, was still streaked with auburn.

None of the married sons brought their wives to these Sunday afternoon get-togethers. One son never married and still lived at home - an engagement came to a disappointing end while he was in the army during the war. An unmarried daughter also lived at home and a married daughter who lived next door would pop round - minus her husband - and the two sisters would try to make themselves heard above the general din. Often, someone was playing the piano, there was a piano in the kitchen as well as an organ in the parlour. The air was always thick with smoke, two uncles smoked pipes, the others - and my aunts - smoked cigarettes. With hindsight, it isn't surprising that they all died well before their allotted span, what is surprising is that sadly, Big Granny lived on long enough to see most of her children buried.

So, what was I doing during these visits, apart from my occasional forays into the front parlour? I don't remember my cousins, or my older siblings, being there at the same time as me. Was I the centre of attention then - with fond uncles and aunts patting me on the head, asking how I was doing at school, congratulating me on passing the 11-plus? Well, no. To all intents and purposes I was invisible. The old adage 'children should be seen and not heard' still held good in the 1940s/50s. Big Granny would absent-mindedly pass me a piece of fruit loaf from time to time and when I was leaving put a shilling in my hand and smile, as if a little surprised that I was still there. If I visited without my dad, when none of the uncles were there, the situation hardly changed. I still sat in silence, but in a quiet, dull room, listening to Big Granny's knitting needles clicking and clacking; my aunt wheezing as she lit yet another cigarette, while the tiny bird in the cuckoo clock ticked off each endless quarter-hour as it sprang out of its little door.

There was never a cuddle from Big Granny, even when I was little. Birthdays passed without notice, and sadly I have no idea whether she was fond of me or not. Even when the house was full, I felt more alone in the midst of this large, close-knit family than I ever was in my Spanish grandmother's house. For there, despite the language barrier, I knew I was loved.

It is only recently, having spent years researching my Spanish side of the family, that I have learned more about my Welsh grandmother's life. My father rarely spoke about his childhood and never mentioned his own grandparents. It wouldn't surprise me if I now know more about them than he did, especially my Welsh great-grandmother, who died before he was born. Did he know that she was married three times in three years? Mary was thirty when she married for the first time and she was widowed five months later. Within a couple of months she had remarried but was widowed again after only two years, left with a young son. Less than a year later she was already married to my great-grandfather - a widower with two young sons - and they had a daughter, my grandmother. Two more daughters and a son followed, but by the time my gran was sixteen, her mother had died aged only 49.

 My great-grandmother

I never formed a close bond with Big Granny, I was fond of her, but she always seemed rather 'distant'; uncovering all this information about her family background has led me to think of her more sympathetically. I've yet to research how my great-grandmother died, whether she was ill for a long time, but eventually it must have fallen to my gran to bring up three younger siblings. Her brother was only four when their mother died and was still living with her at the time of the 1911 census, when he was 20 and she was married with three sons aged from four to seven. In all, Big Granny had twelve children, three of whom died in infancy, and by the time the grandchildren came along perhaps she'd had enough of kids!

Her long life came to an abrupt end, she didn't linger with a debilitating illness. It was November, bitterly cold, and the yard, and therefore the route to the outside 'lav' was frozen over. Granny slipped on the ice but picked herself up and didn't tell anyone. It was a couple of days later when a married daughter, who had come to stay because her sister was terminally ill in hospital, noticed that her mother was having difficulty dressing herself. Persuaded into admitting what had happened, the doctor was called and discovered she had a broken collar-bone. For the first time in her long life, Granny was admitted to hospital and 'slipped away' six hours later, just three weeks before her daughter died from lung cancer.

I don't have special Christmas memories of either of my grandmothers. I was never taken on outings or had my photograph taken with them, but perhaps that had more to do with the times we were living in. My own children, born in the 1960s/70s, loved, and were loved by, their grandparents and have many happy memories. Now Christmas 2018 has just passed and over the holiday period we've had fun with our own four lovely grandchildren, who call me 'Nanny'. Although they live a couple of hundred miles away, we spend as much time as possible with them, in our home and theirs, and on holiday. I hope that in years to come, when we're long gone, they will have happy memories of the times we've spent together, that they will know how much they were loved, and how precious they were to us.

That is the best legacy we can leave them.

Image from Pixabay

Friday 14 September 2018

Smithdown Litfest 2017, Prof Phil Scraton: Hillsborough The Truth

The 2018 Smithdown Litfest starts tomorrow - my tickets are booked and I'm looking forward to as interesting and varied programme as last year!

When the very first Smithdown Litfest was announced last year, one name immediately caught my attention. I'd tried to get tickets for a Phil Scraton talk at another event but despite my name being on a waiting list, I was unlucky - in 2017 I was determined I would be in the audience with my husband, Jim.

On the cover of Phil's updated edition of 'Hillsborough: The Truth', Andy Burnham, former MP, now Mayor of Manchester, writes:

"The full truth about Hillsborough would never have been known were it not for Phil Scraton's meticulous efforts over many years - he has done a huge service not just to the Hillsborough families but to this country".

I had a particular reason for wanting to hear Phil Scraton's talk. Along with so many thousands of people, the date April 15th, 1989 is burnt into my memory. Jim, and our youngest son, just 17, had set off for Leppings Lane in high spirits and at 3pm I settled down to see the match on TV with my mother-in-law. We watched the tragic events unfolding in disbelief, not knowing whether our loved ones were safe. No mobile phones in those days. It was very late that night before they arrived home, physically, although not emotionally, unscathed. In the days, months, years, decades, that followed, our anger grew as the lies, slurs, character assassination of football fans - and Liverpool people in general - were perpetuated and spread around the world. Sadly, my mother-in-law died long before the truth that we all knew, was finally brought to light.

The venue for Professor Scraton's talk was the Unitarian Church in Ullet Road, A Grade 1 listed building, and a most magnificent setting. Arriving early, we had time to explore the interior of the church and the cloister leading to the church hall. Whether you have religious beliefs or not, this building merits a visit - stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones, exquisite carvings, paintings, and marble memorials to famous Liverpool families including the Roscoes and Rathbones.

It seemed a particularly appropriate setting for Professor Scraton's talk, since one of Gerald Moira's allegorical paintings on the ceiling of the Library depicts The Triumph of Truth.

With two LFC season ticket holders in the family, the event with Howard Gayle was another not to be missed. This was held at the same venue and Howard was in conversation with R Lund Ansnes. Ms Ansnes is the author of five books on LFC, a journalist and broadcaster, but on this occasion the spotlight was on Liverpool FC's first black footballer and his newly released book, '61 Minutes in Munich', written in conjunction with Simon Hughes. Howard first appeared for Liverpool in October 1980 but was to wear the red shirt only five times, scoring one goal, his last game being in May, 1981. He is best remembered for his appearance in the 2nd leg of the European Cup semi-final at Bayern Munich when he was called from the substitutes bench to replace Kenny Dalglish - suffering from an injured ankle - and "ran the Bayern Munich defenders ragged", eventually being brought off after being repeatedly fouled. He was on the substitutes bench for the final in Paris and received a Cup Winners' Medal.

As well as talking about his footballing career - and the horrific racial abuse he suffered as a black player - Howard spoke about the difficulties of his early life in Toxteth and Norris Green when he was involved in a "world of petty criminality" and the difference football made to his life. His talk was a powerful mix of social history and autobiography, beginning with the history of slavery, through to Howard's own family's roots and ending in Dallas in 1986. The book is dedicated to his family and also begins with a quote from Nelson Mandela in 1995:

"For to be free is
not merely to cast off one's chains,
but to live in a way
that respects and enhances the
freedom of others."

The audience were well looked after by the Reverend Philip Waldron and his team and after both events in the Unitarian Church we were able to speak to Professor Scraton and Howard Gayle, have books signed, mingle with other listeners, exchanging comments on what we'd heard - and enjoy a glass of wine!

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible for me to attend all the events on offer at the 2017 Smithdown Litfest, but I was delighted to be free on the Tuesday afternoon to hear June Francis, Family Saga author, talk about her life and her work. This event took place in the relaxed atmosphere of the Penny Lane Development Centre where again the audience were well looked after, although, it being 2 o'clock in the afternoon, we enjoyed tea or coffee rather than alcohol.

June Francis should have been born in Liverpool, but the local hospital had been bombed and her mother was evacuated to Blackpool for the birth, mother and baby returning to their home in Anfield soon after. June married in 1967 and with her new husband moved to Litherland where three sons were born. (I was interested to hear that she studied for her 'O' Level English Language at night school, as I'd taken 4 'O' levels at night school when my three sons were young, fulfilling a promise I'd made to my English teacher after leaving Grammar School early to start work in a city centre office.)

The driving force that set June on her very successful writing career was the opportunity to use the extra family income to pay school fees. She joined the Crosby Writers' Group and was also encouraged by the wife of the Vicar of her local church. She was in her forties when she took the first step, writing magazine articles. It took a year of submissions before she had one published in My Weekly.

Following her magazine successes, June began submitting to Mills and Boon and after two years of re-writing, her historical romance 'The Bride Price' was published in 1987. More historical novels followed, but June's dream was to write family sagas set in her home town and her success in this genre was soon established. The titles of many of her novels are taken from songs from the era in which they're set: Memories are Made of This; It Had to Be You; and Love Letters in the Sand, titles which immediately set the scene.

Because June's novels are set in the city she knows and loves so well, the settings are realistic and whenever I walk up Mount Pleasant, past the hotels on the left-hand side, I remember 'A Mother's Duty', and the difficulties Kitty faces as a young widow with three sons, trying to run such a hotel.

I always enjoy talks by authors and June Francis's was particularly interesting. It was also good to see authors Lancashire-born Freda Lightfoot - Sunday Times Bestselling Author - and Annie Holland, writer of the delightful 'Stella the Stork' and 'All at Sea' children's books, present in the audience.

After enjoying some of the events at the 2017 Smithdown LitFest, I am very much looking forward to this year's programme. All events are free and many are already fully booked, but there may still be tickets available for:

Saturday 15th September - Crime author Luca Veste, 7.30-9.00pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Wednesday 19th September - Andy Grant, author of 'You'll Never Walk...' 7.30-9pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Saturday 22nd September - Peter Turner, 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool', 7-8.30pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Smithdown's Litfest's patron is crime writer Ashley Dyer and tickets are available from

Saturday 16 June 2018

China's First Emperor and The Terracotta Warriors: The World Museum, Liverpool.

This exhibition, at Liverpool's World Museum, opened on 9th February and will run until 28th October. I visited it on 13th February and in my diary that night I wrote how impressed I'd been with the magnificent display.

There are so many historical facts about Qin Shi Huang's reign chronicled throughout the exhibition that it would be impossible for me to repeat them all here. China's First Emperor was only 13 years old when he came to power in 246BC, by the age of 22 he was in full control of the Government - and at 49 he was dead! It was a short life; filled with seemingly impossible achievements, and great cruelty. This post is a reflection of my journey through the exhibition.

As I visit Liverpool almost weekly, it was easy for me to buy my tickets in advance in the Museum's shop, but for those visiting from further afield booking on line is hassle-free. Because I was booking so early in the season, and because I was free during the week, I had plenty of choice when it came to picking a day and time. I timed my visit for 10.30am on a Tuesday morning. Although the slots are timed for every half hour, once you enter there is no restriction on how long you spend viewing the objects on display, although good manners should prompt you to make room for those coming behind you!

At the time I'd chosen, it took only minutes to be admitted to a small room, where a short film acts as an introduction. Showing wild horses, and battles between Warring States in a land of contrasts, it sets the scene for the exhibition. Like most people, I'd heard of the Terracotta Warriors and seen film and photographs of the site in China's city of Xi'an. I also know people who have travelled to China and seen them 'in situ', so I didn't know quite what to expect. Would we view them from a raised walkway with rows of Warriors lined up below us, a miniature version of the original site? No, that would have been an impossible  undertaking. Walking through the exhibition you soon realise what an achievement it was for Liverpool's World Museum to bring to the city just a sample of the 8,000 life-sized Warriors, discovered 2,200 years after Emperor Qin's death. There may not be a large number of them on display, but they are certainly impressive.

The average height of the Warriors is over 6ft tall - and as they are each standing on a small plinth, they seem rather bigger than life-sized to someone of 5'1"!

Walking through the exhibition, I found it difficult to comprehend the immense power of Emperor Qin, who was after all only a 13-year old boy when he became Emperor. How was he able commandeer a workforce of 700,000, from all corners of the Chinese Empire, who would work for the next 30 years creating a mausoleum guarded by a vast army of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, along with 40,000 bronze weapons, to protect him in the after-life? And it wasn't just soldiers, excavations some 2,200 years after the Emperor's death uncovered a terracotta stable boy buried with real horses - horses were a symbol of power, wealth and status - along with chariots to transport him through his Eternal Kingdom, with terracotta musicians, acrobats, and concubines to keep him amused and occupied.

Interspersed throughout the exhibition are many treasures: a gold, duck-shaped belt buckle; spiritual representations of the seasons in bronze - a black turtle, a red bird, a green dragon, a white tiger. Far too many to list here, although one did stand out for me, resting on the top of a coffin was the sole of a shoe fashioned in jade - believed to protect the dead from evil spirits. Not only valuable treasure has been excavated, there are many examples of household objects, giving us an insight into ordinary life, including roof tiles, a horse-shaped pot and vessels for water and cooking.

It is hard to imagine how a man so occupied with his spiritual and physical well-being in the after-life could behave with such cruelty while he was alive. Was it in order to prove his absolute power that he had writers, philosophers and scholars executed - or was he at heart a frightened man, fearful of being challenged and losing his grip on his vast Kingdom? Ruling over it during his lifetime was not enough, he wanted to be immortal, to be in command of the whole universe even after death. In order to keep the tomb a secret, thousands of officials, servants, warriors and horses were killed,  and craftsmen were buried alive. On his death, those concubines who were childless were buried with him, perhaps to exclude the possibility of a challenge from an heir in the after-life! The sacrifice of human life on such a scale to satisfy the vanity of one man is beyond belief.

The most visually striking part of the exhibition comes towards the end when you enter a room and see seven huge warriors standing, or kneeling, side by side. This is where there may be a 'log-jam' of visitors as cameras and phones click away to capture the amazing image. However, on the day I visited, the guides were very efficient, giving visitors time to take in all the different details of the Warriors, photographing them from various angles, before gently encouraging people to move along.

(I could say that I haven't included a photograph of all seven warriors so that I don't spoil the effect for those who have yet to visit the exhibition; sadly, the truth is that the one I downloaded, taken, as these were, by the friend who came with me - thank you Pauline - has disappeared from my laptop!)

The irony in Qin Shi Huang's story is that it was due to his fear of death that China's First Emperor died at the age of 49 from mercury poisoning, believing that the compound would grant him eternal life.

The Museum's website describes this exhibition as "...spanning almost 1,000 years of Chinese history; from the conflicts and chaos of the Warring States period to the achievements and legacy of the Qin and Han dynasties" and I can thoroughly recommend it. There is so much to see and to absorb that the one and a half hours I spent there passed far too quickly and I'm planning a second visit. I am confident that, by the end of the exhibition, the numbers of visitors, both local and from far afield, will break all attendance records at the Museum.

The exhibition was organised by National Museums Liverpool, United Kingdom, and the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau and Shaanxi History Museum, People's Republic of China.