Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales: Part 1

My Scottish Grandparents, 1920s

Grandma and Grandad were plastic milk tokens and sealing wax, Valentino and Houdini, foxed mirrors and fairy tales. Their interwar four-in-a-block house in Edinburgh had things we did not possess in our modern sixties’ bungalow – a wireless and a kitchenette, a lobby and a press – and every drawer and cupboard and bookcase held remnants of the last fifty years. I was fascinated by the scraps of rich velvet containing rustling dry lavender, the ornate hat pins in the button tin, the old books with their in-plates commemorating regular attendance of school and Sunday school in the earlier part of the old century. And if those dark and sombre books were opened, the strange and alluring perfume of the past slipped out like a genie from a bottle. Then it was possible to imagine the house spinning back through time until the garish red and yellow carpets were replaced with rugs and linoleum and the ugly electric bar fires spirited away to allow the empty fireplaces to return to the more glamorous task (to my mind) of burning coals.

I don’t possess any specific memory of my grandparents and their house until sometime in the late sixties, when I was around three or four and they were knocking on the door of early old age. The first concrete image I have is of sitting on the sofa with my grandmother’s mother and of using a long-handled brush as an oar in a pretend boat in which we were sailing away. I remember, too, that I had no idea of the purpose of this brush which lived in the bathroom and was presumably a back scrubber; but I loved its transparent turquoise colour, and this was what had possibly put me in mind of boats and the sea.

Four Female Generations in my Grandparents’ Garden, 1964

Perhaps more interesting now is the memory of Great Grandma, who was born in 1874, and who I remember vaguely as small and stout, and often dressed in dark shapeless clothes, her grey hair in a bun. By the 1960s she’d already had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I was possibly nothing to get excited about, although I still retain a feeling of love and safety emanating from her solid frame and the knowledge that she was enjoying being part of my boat fantasy that day.

Although I loved the watery look of the turquoise brush, which looked like something Neptune might possess, I hated the rest of my grandparents’ spartan bathroom with the tiny, frosted glass window set up high in the outside wall, and the cold enamel bath which dominated the narrow space. But to be fair, as an indoor bathroom had been luxurious in 1935, they had possibly not wanted to tempt fate by making it any more appealing than it had to be. This might explain why they both still washed daily in the kitchen, scrubbing their armpits with flannels over the large Belfast sink, bathing only weekly, as if they were still in the wartime business of conserving water.

As a relatively spoilt child of parents who’d benefited from the post-war economic boom, I also could not understand how my grandparents were able to happily share their garden with the family upstairs, and never felt truly comfortable playing outside in this space, watched by the elderly couple from their back windows. However, I did love the fact that I could just jump over the low fence and play with the children next door – and jump over their fence to reach the next set of children, as well as the fact that we could then all play out together in the quiet streets. This was mainly because at that time so few of the neighbours owned cars, but also that there was a large cul-de-sac at the top of the road where we could set up elaborate skipping games. In the quiet neighbourhood in Ayr where I grew up, everyone lived more sedately behind their hedges and fences and there was not the shared feeling of community that I sensed in the suburb of West Edinburgh where my grandparents lived.

My McKay Grandparents in early old age

Today my mother lives a ten-minute walk away in a  ‘posher’ suburb. Yet when I visit her we rarely walk to the house where my grandparents lived for half a century and where my mother grew up and spent all her pre-married life. When we occasionally do go, we always end up noticing what has remained and what has changed in the neighbourhood. Front gardens have been swept away and superseded by utilitarian car parks; the original thirties doors and windows have been replaced with a hotchpotch of modern equivalents ; the shared gardens are now divided into distinct halves by boundary markers.

Whenever I happen to pass my grandparent’s old house, I look for the botch-job tarmacked stones on the front path which used to fascinate me as a child. Just one strange ugly section of lumpen molten tar over rocks, but to me it is a link with the days when I used to strut from the house to the street in my grandmother’s old-fashioned court shoes, or when I used to drag out the old turkey rugs from the lobby press to play on. Laying them over the misshapen path I used to pretend they were magical flying carpets, transporting me back through the years rather than to distant lands, and I could almost see my mother sitting on the outside coal bunker (which by then held only wood scraps) on the day she tore her dress jumping off for a dare.

I knew this story because I’d been told it many times whenever I asked about the naughty things my mother had done when young. I felt sure there must have been much worse, perhaps kept hidden from me, and one day I would find out the truth. But it seems in the naughtiness stakes, my sister and I were the outright winners, not having endured the same kind of strict 1940s upbringing of my mother (despite her being a long-waited for, only child).

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021

 

 

Messy Boxes

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. I am not sure if they have a particularly high success rate, but they persevere in the belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images, which are posted on the web in the hope of reuniting with their descendants, are sad and silent. They are sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too in turn will soon be forgotten about. Many of the photographs come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility that was necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will simply judge them to have been grim and stern. These images can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent in their daily lives.

A further limitation of these photographs is that they mostly only cover a certain time period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, and then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most of us. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

The Photograph Boxes

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I must have been around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that visit, it became a ritual: every time we went to stay with our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the century before I was born? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I hadn’t quite made the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: one of these was of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts (whose Christian names were now our middle names), outside their tenement flat in a cobbled street in Edinburgh’s Dumbiedykes area, around 1920. They are both in grubby pinafores and tackety-boots – in contrast to the smart look of their older neighbourhood friend, with her lace collar and cuffs. 

Ann and Mary Neilson and Friend, Dumbiedykes, Edinburgh c1920

It was hard for us to reconcile these wary-looking little girls with the strong characters they had become, over half a century later. Thus through such photographs, we were able to see our relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and learn about the others who had gone before, but who still touched the lives of those who’d once known them.

In the coming months, I hope to investigate some of the photographs in those messy boxes and discover more about the people they portray, as well as the times in which they lived. In this way I will put together the history of a Scottish family which encompasses much more than just a genealogy. Indeed, I intend its scope to include an investigation into the very nature of photography itself, something that grew out of my interest in discovering more about my London family (see A London Family).

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021