I grew up watching my grandmother go up and down flights of stairs all day long when she and Grandpa ran The Old Globe pub in Rogerstone, just outside Newport in South Wales.
Her stamina always amazed me. She carried crates, served behind the bar, and, the thing I remember most, rose at 5am every morning to make fresh Cornish pasties for pub lunches.
On the one occasion I stayed with her, when Grandpa was ill in hospital, we shared the same bed and I recall three things: the false teeth she put in the glass at her bedside before retiring (I was fascinated – I thought only dentists removed teeth); her kneeling on the floor at the side of the bed to say her prayers; and the early morning that was ‘pastie o’clock’. She had barely been in bed five minutes after cleaning up after last orders.
She had always been the same. At 14, she gave up her job as a photographer’s assistant to wash clothes for the huge family of nine. To me, knowing this when I was young, it was a slavish existence. She must have worked eighteen hours a day until she retired when Grandpa died in 1971. Fifty years. That’s well over 350,000 hours. At least.
I lay there one night, on a sleepover when Grandpa was in hospital, listening to the mixer (good old Kenwood) stir the potatoes and onions and, when I finally got out of bed, I marvelled at the rows of golden, ribbed Cornish pasties on their steel trays that Grandma carried down to the bar to put in the ‘snacks’ container that kept them warm on the counter. And at 64, when she retired, she was still bounding up and down those stairs like a youngster.
When we, as a family, visited every weekend (Mum helped out behind the bar), I collected tops from the Courage beer bottles – numerous bright colours (orange, blue, yellow) surrounding a cockerel in the middle – and was ecstatic when Grandma gave me an empty cigar box in which to put my collection of plastic jewellery. I still have the Babycham glass she gave me with Bambi prancing across the front.
On Bank Holidays, Dad would take us to the temporary fair in the field opposite the pub. Dad always won a coconut and, one afternoon, won two goldfish – one for my brother Nigel and one for me. Nigel’s fish, Fred, died, when Mum fed him eight oxygen tablets when he appeared to be struggling to breathe. In the end, I suspect it was the wind that killed him.
My fish, Horace, had an inauspicious start in life when the bag we carried him back in burst, and he spent a good few minutes drunk as we tried to scoop him up from the spilt Guinness on the pub floor. At least he lasted longer than Fred, so it must be true what they say about the benefits of stout.
I remember every Saturday afternoon, when Nigel and I were deposited downstairs, emerging from the terror of the living room where we had to watch Dr Who in the dark (apparently, it saved electricity), to be offered our choice of chocolate from the sweet counter in the bar.
I have thought of Grandma so many times since her death in 1989, a short while after her eldest daughter, Audrey, and a short while before my beloved father in 1990. I recall never hear her once complain, though her life was non-stop work, morning till night, seven days a week. She brought up three daughters, including my mum, Val, the eldest, and the youngest, Barbara, through a war, looked after Grandpa when he was dying of cancer, and dealt with horrendous money problems not of her making, following his death.
When I started out in my late twenties in Fleet Street, writing five TV columns a week “live” (this was in the days before videos and DVDs), living on five hours’ sleep a night for four years, I always had at the forefront of my mind that to survive in life, you had to have a strong work ethic, and nowhere had I witnessed it more powerfully than in my grandmother.
To this day, that work ethic, and her fortitude and spirit are central to what keeps me going when times get tough for me (and I work just as hard now as I did when I started out). She had it tougher; she really did. But she loved her work, loved her family, and, despite the hardship, loved life.
At her funeral, the minister said: ‘Some people live dying; others die living.’ Grandma was the latter. And, thanks to her, I will do that, too.
Hopefully, not for a while yet.