Wednesday, July 06, 2011


Most of us have items of clothing that we only wear indoors. I have an Andrew Marr t-shirt which always cheers me up, but I wouldn't wear it in public. I'm always suspicious of people who sport attention-seeking 'comedy' t-shirts.

I also have old Waterstone's t-shirts that I use for doing the decorating. One of them is a very unflattering bright red XL top that says "Can I help you find the perfect present?". We had to wear them one Christmas - the idea was that they would make the staff easy to identify and seem more approachable.

I wasn't convinced. When I go into shops, I identify staff as the people standing behind the till or the ones who aren't wearing coats.

And since when did retail companies have the right to regard their staff as advertising space?

The t-shirts were very annoying. When I popped out to buy sandwiches at M&S, I'd forget I had the t-shirt on and wonder why strangers kept accosting me with questions about books.

Yesterday, I had to paint a flat and found an old t-shirt that said "Ask me about the Waterstone's card". After putting on the first coat of emulsion, I drove home and popped into the corner shop to buy some wine. Raj, the owner, looked at my chest and said "Just back from work then?"

Outside the shop, a neighbour looked me up and down and said "You're early today". I suddenly realised that, as far as my neighbours were concerned, I still work at Waterstone's. Perhaps I should talk to people more.

I had been decorating the flat for my mother. On Friday, she will leave the Teddington house that she has lived in for 48 years and move into a block of sheltered accommodation flats for the elderly, less than a mile from where I live. It will be a huge wrench, I know, but at 81 my mother is finding living alone in a three-bedroom house increasingly hard.

I've been trying to persuade her to sell the house for years. Aside from the fact that it has no central heating and needs a huge amount of work done, my mother's house is also too far from the shops or local doctor, so every outing requires a bus journey. Until recently this wasn't a problem, but a near-brush with death last October made my mother realise how vulnerable she is.

On Sunday I went to say goodbye to the house that I called home for more than half of my life.

It is part of a long road of Victorian, semi-detached redbrick houses, in a sleepy, dull London suburb that is now incredibly popular with house buyers. Teddington may not be very exciting, but the combination of the River Thames, a wealth of parks and some good transport links to central London have made it desirable for those people who find other parts of the metropolis a little too 'urban'.

In spite of the popularity of Teddington, I thought that my mother would struggle to sell the house, as in 1981 my parents decided to rip out the period sash windows and pebbledash the walls (I think I once pompously accused them of "architectural vandalism"). To my surprise, she found a buyer within 10 days. If ever anyone needed proof that selling houses was all about location, here was a prime example.

My mother has left her electric fire for the new owners, as she won't need it in her flat. I had to bite my tongue. I know that the new owners will completely gut the house, extend it and add period touches that were probably never there in the first place. They certainly won't want a naff electric fire.

Somehow I don't think they'll want this carpet either:

My parents bought it in 1963. The carpet is still in good condition after nearly half a century. Apparently the firm that made it went into receivership, as their products were too well made and retailers didn't want to sell carpets that never wore out. The top left-hand corner used to be covered by a rug.

During my final visit I decided to take photos of mundane objects, like the carpet, that hadn't changed since I was a child. The items included a barometer that never worked, some candlelabra light fittings, two 1970s lampshades and this clock, which chimes every quarter of an hour:

When I was sent away to a sanitorium as a child, I was only allowed to see my parents once a month, so telephone calls were very important. I remember the almost unbearable feeling of homesickness that swept over me when I heard this clock chime in the background.

(Later, I became less fond of the clock. When I brought girlfriends home after the pubs had closed, I realised what a passion killer the Westminster chimes were).

After taking the photos, we had our last lunch in the house: fillet steak with new potatoes and peas. As a special concession to my middle-class sensibilities, my mother didn't call it dinner and only boiled the peas for three minutes instead of the usual ten. Otherwise, everything was the same as it had always been: the table, the chairs and the cutlery, which had been bought with petrol-station coupons some time in the 1970s.

In two days time it would all be gone.

There was one thing left to do. My mother picked up her stick and put her other arm in mine. Together, we slowly walked to the local cemetery where my father is buried. "I don't think he's really here" my mother said, meaning "This might be the last time I visit my husband's grave".

We stood in front of the grave and I suppose it should have been a very emotional moment, but in the distance someone was holding an outdoor event and all we could hear was a man delivering a very bad performance of David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel'.

I looked at the words on the gravestone: "He was a good man and did good things" - inspired by the final sentence of 'The Woodlanders'. I hope that Dad would have approved.

I have finished painting the flat, but tomorrow is going to be a day of flatpack hell, where I will have to work out whether Part A is the short screw or the slightly longer one, followed by the realisation that Part C is in fact Part E. I'm dreading it.

But hopefully, when my mother walks through the door on Friday afternoon and sees a warm, welcoming, comfortable home, she will feel relief rather than regret.


Gardener in the Distance said...

A real time capsule this, Steerforth...and a privelege to be given a glimpse into it. When are you writing your first book, I wonder - you tell a story so well.

Anne said...

Steerforth, this made me weep. Brilliant post.

Pirata Jenny said...

You made me homesick, even if I am Spaniard grown in Madrid. Homesickness reveals itself in those small, local, minuscule features you describe. My homesickness while reading your post reveals maybe more about your ability to transmit. Thanks. Keep watching both behind ... and ahead.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Gardener - I'd love to write a book, but I think it takes a particular type of talent and I'm not sure if I fit the bill. Perhaps blogging is an outlet for people who feel compelled to write, but don't have a book inside them.

If I do manage to write a book, it will be largely thanks to the generosity and encouragement of people like yourself, who gave me the confidence to continue writing. Thank you.

Anne - When I wrote the last post I almost deleted it because I couldn't see what point it had for anyone else. I was tired and just needed to ramble about what was in my head, so it's very gratifying indeed that you were touched by it. I should trust my gut feeling in future and ignore the doubts.

Pirata Jenny - Gracias por el comentario. Por favor, perdona mi mal español. Estoy muy contento de leer un pirata español en mi blog!

I'm very glad that what seemed to be a provincial post had a relevance far beyond the confines of Teddington. Good to hear from you.

Katherine said...

A friend recommended your blog some time ago and today was my first chance to visit. I live in Teddington, and thought when I read your last comment that I should leave this note to say how moved I was to read your post and that I hope your mother has many happy years in her new home.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Katherine - it's good to hear from someone from Teddington.

I may have described Teddington as a "sleepy, dull London suburb..." but I also have very fond memories of Teddington Lock, Bushy Park and the quiet residential roads, where it felt as if London was a hundred miles away (only the roar of jet engines heading towards Heathrow shattered the illusion).

I've visited many London suburbs and after years of taking Teddington for granted, gradually realised how lucky I was.

Ever been to Sidcup?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure she will be happy in her new home, Steerforth. Change is never easy, but with your help, I'm sure your mother's transition to the new flat will go as painlessly as possible.

You are to be commended for working so hard. As Anne said, a brilliant post.

Good luck on Friday -- and every day thereafter.

Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Thank you Chickadee. I hope you're right. My mother's neighbours seem to view me as a villain, forcing her to leave the home that she loves - a view that she says is ridiculous, but the fact that she's telling me implies some ambivalence.

PearlFog said...

Oh dear, you got me crying with this one too. Thank you for sharing all this, I found it very moving and you write with great thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

My dad finds himself in a similar situation with his mum I think and if he had any idea how to 'work the internet', as he'd say, I'd recommend your blog to him. My grandmother is 94 and there is a big gap between them in terms of class and aspiration, but it's touching to see how they still work at their relationship after fifty-seven years.

My grandma loves working class romance novels too (especially ones set in Govan, she's very specific in her book demands) and I told my dad the story of your mum's method of racing through books by only reading the dialogue, which got a big laugh. Rather mischievously, he got her a book of Alan Spence short stories among her birthday presents. I don't think she was quite so keen on his presentation of life in the east end of Glasgow although I think it was rather closer to how my dad remembers it.

The things around her house remind me of your mum's too, although they have a slightly more Catholic flavour. She's so funny, she's been Catholic her whole life and has 'the girl' (who's 72) visit her every Sunday to take communion but every now and then she'll lean over to us and say, 'you know, it's all just a wee bit far-fetched isn't it?' in a slightly Father Dougal like way. She had a very devout neighbour who kept bringing her Pope memoribilia which she felt obliged to display everywhere, inlcuding a Pope calendar believe it or not. I think Grandma was a little relieved when she finally died.

Anyway, I'll stop rambling on but thank you again for the wonderful post. I do hope your mum keeps well and manages the move OK. Will be thinking of you both on Friday.

Steerforth said...

Thank you PearlFog. I hope that now that she no longer has to worry about buses and being cold, my mother will also reach 94. I don't think she'll wither, because she's still living independently and my sons will keep her on her toes.

It's interesting how specific your grandmother's requirements are. Ideally, my mother wants stories set either in London or Wales, but at a pinch othet parts of Britain will do. She won't read American books - I don't know why - but would consider stories set in Australia or New Zealand.

I can certainly empathise with your dad. It's strange when your parents come from a different social class and have different values. I have to bite my tongue a lot.

But in the end, as Larkin said, all that matters is love.

pinkyandnobrain said...

Hi Steerforth, thank you for writing and sharing this. I am really glad you didn't delete the post. I completely understanding needing to write/ramble about what is in your head and it is absolutely clear why you might have a tangle of thoughts and feelings about the move.

Bless you for caring enough about you mother's long term well being to persuade and help her do something that is difficult for both of you and has even resulted in you attracting the ire of her neighbours. I hope your day of hell with the flatpack is not too hellish (I think this is today so good luck, but I could be wrong with the dates).

Again, thanks for sharing. It is a privilege to have a sense of how much your childhood home, the care of your mother and your memories of the place mean to you.

Martin H. said...

Reading this, brought a lump to my throat, too. We did all this for my dear grandmother. Circumstances dictated that she had to leave the village where she'd lived for nearly 70 years. We said goodbye to the family home, and even when the deed had been done, I was still having sleepless nights, trying to devise a way we could save her the anguish of moving. Every good wish to your mum in her new abode.

Richmonde said...

@anne me too, very moving tale of moving. Keep one of those things!

Anonymous said...

Moving indeed, Steerforth. Good son, for taking the time and trouble to make a happy future for your mum. Good luck to both of you... AnnaC

Mrs Jones said...

We are currently undergoing the exact same thing with my husband's mother. She is hopefully moving into a nursing home within her small Welsh town within the next month. She is now practically immobile and it takes her an hour to get from the front room to the kitchen, so it's time. When the home was suggested last year, I decided then to start making a photographic record of the house she'd lived in for over 50 years, the house where she'd brought up her children. I am doing this for my husband, for something for him to look back on when the house is gone. It is packed with his memories, so I'm photographing every wall, every cabinet, every floor, every view. Things that have not been repositioned for decades, which will be gone before too long. This house holds no particular memories for me, but then it's not mine, I don't have a childhood home as such, but I wish I'd got photographs of the last house we'd all lived in as a family before my parents divorced in the late 70s. But I don't, so I'm doing this for him.

I would write about this on my own blog but I've been made to feel (not by my husband, I hasten to add) that posts about his family (even affectionate ones) are not within my purview. So I'm mentioning it here.


I hope you never actually delete any of your posts before publishing, it would be a crime. You are a writer, and have more than one book in you. This post managed to make me smile with the t-shirt stories; (my father was fond of advertising 'The Leather Leaders' by wearing the t-shirt which came free with our new sofa, I used to cringe when I saw it) it was also moving, interesting and exceptionally easy to read (like all good books).
Your mother has done remarkably well to stay in her home this long. it suggests she is very strong and independent. Sometimes a little distraction such as the 'Rebel Rebel' moment provide just the thing to take the edge off potentially painful poignancy.
Good luck with the flat-pack assembly, if you lived nearer I'd send my brother's friend over, he's a whizz (though, his company is less than enthralling).
In some ways, it's good that you were clearing the family home whilst your mum is alive... your flashbacks tinged with less sadness.
When you write your first book, please invite your loyal fans to the launch?

acornmoon said...

I have just read this with a lump in my throat, having been througha similar experience with my own mum. Like yours she sold her house very quickly and has settled into a new shelteered flat near my home. Saying goodbye to a house I called home for so many years was a terrible wrench, saying goodbye to the garden was even worse as that was my father's domain.

I wish you and you mum all the very best, she is fortuante to have a son who cares.

on site said...

as you are wrestling with furniture systems and cardboard boxes, you must be thinking of the powerful response to this post. It really was magical.

The question of whether or not you might write a book is off the topic of moving, but I've thought a lot about it with your blog.

I don't think 'the death of the book' is going to be about whether it is on paper or on an iPad, but rather it is a parallel discussion to the death of the concept album in favour of never-ending downloaded singles. It doesn't matter how they come, it is all listening and reading.

A sustained narrative is one thing. A memoir is another. A blog, another yet. Your posts are not necessarily about breaking news, rather they are a journal, but not written for posterity as Derek's were, or for working out problems, as Derek's were, but a generally humourous, un-sentimental running commentary on the times as they happen. The five minutes it takes to read a blog entry and have a think about it is a 5-minute part of the rhythm of the day. Reading a book for half an hour over lunch is a 30-minute part of that rhythm. The blog entry has its own span of attention, both in the writing and the reading.

One can be trivial in the odd blog entry in a way that would squander the pages and production of a printed book. One can be really personal in a blog entry and then let off the hook with the next post. In a book, the really personal is so dicey as it has to be sustained over 200 pages.

Blogs are perhaps a new literary form. The worry is that there is no paper copy, and that is why people hope for a book. They don't trust the ephemerality of the web.

My three websites I check every morning are Persephone Posts for the beautiful images, TopFoto for what happened 50 years ago on the day, and yours, for which I thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a poignant remark, about how it's sad when we and our parents have different viewpoints on things. My father never went to university but was determined that I do so. I came back with a degree in mathematics -- and a whole new set of political ideals which were far more liberal than my father's. I think he was a bit shocked at how much those four years changed me. We did muddle through, though we never really did see eye to eye on the way the world runs. It was just one of those things which were better left undiscussed.
Thanks, Steerforth. Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Thank you for the lovely comments, which I read after a hard day of flatpack hell (I have the blisters to prove it).

Pinky - I don't know which part of town you live in, but I'm sure you'll know the flats opposite the roundabout to Tesco. They were recommended by another blogger - The Poet Laura-eate, whose aunt lived there for many years. They're lovely flats. I'm putting my name down for 2044.

Martin - I can understand the sleepless nights. I wrestled with my conscience, but we're not resonsible for people getting too old to live independently. The important thing is to find a solution that allows people to retain as much dignity and independence as possible.

Thank you AnnaC.

Mrs Jones - I'm glad that you're capturing the minutiae of Mr Jones's family home before someone moves in and rips it apart. It's the mundane things that we normally ignore, like light switches, door handles and light fittings, that are most evocative.

Lucewoman - Even if I never write a book, I'll have a launch party for the book that never was and invite all of my favourite bloggers. Only a few weeks ago, I met a blogger (The Poet Laura-eate) for a drink - she was on holiday in Sussex - and we had a lovely time. I generally find that bloggers are reassuringly similar to their onlone personas.

Acornmoon - I hope that your mother's not missing her home too much. My mum admitted that she'd resisted leaving her house for so many years because she knew that the next place would probably be the last. In an ideal world we'd all die in our family homes, but our bodies fail us, children move away and short distances become trans-Antarctic expeditions.

Thank you on site, I'm very flattered that my blog is one of three you read daily - I wish that I could add new content more often to justify your visits.

I found your comments about blohgging very interesting. Yes, I think it's a new form of writing and I think the best bloggers understand that. Ideally, a blog post shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes to read and no paragraph should be longer than four sentences.

I can't read blogs where the writer has written long, dense passages of prose, oblivious to the fact that the reader is viewing it on a garish, backlit screen, in a multi-channel internet environment. Less is defintely more.

Sometimes I look at what I've written and wonder how on earth I could turn these half-formed, subjective musings into a coherent narrative.

Luckily, I don't need to worry about the ephemerality of the web, as the British Library is archiving this blog; so even if the lights go out, the words will endure.

Richmonde - the Westminster chimes are coming to the new flat, but the pink carpet will, I imagine, be in a skip by this time next week.

Chickadee - I completely misquoted Philip Larkin, but never mind. Yes, when you're young, four years are long enough to make you a stranger to your parents. From their point of view, you've mixed with odd people and become difficult, but from your perspective, you've simply found the path to becoming the person you were meant to be. My dad was a lovely man, but he treated my ideas with contempt and I am determined not to do the same things to my sons.

Jim Murdoch said...

When my father died the first thing my mother had us do was replace the hall carpet. It was clearly bought from the same supplier and I recall my father boasting when he bought it that it was virtually indestructible and he was right. I don’t know when he bought it precisely but it lasted easily twenty-five years although my guess would be more like thirty. My mum also had that clock too.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What a lovely posting. And how nice of her to only boil the peas for 3 minutes in your honour!

Hope all has gone well with the move and three-dimensionalising the flat packs. Perhaps you could do her a montage of pictures of her old home and life when you get your breath back to help her feel at home and keep the good memories alive. Though I am sure she will be happy again and will come to enjoy this new chapter in her life as she settles in. Who could fail to love Lewes?

Yes, 1960s carpets were amazing quality (my parents still have the 50 year old green swirly stair carpet already there when they moved in!). And in the days where no one had even heard of reducing carbon footprints. Alas, as you say, these carpets also reduced sales by lasting longer than many home owners who bought them, garish as they are to modern taste.

Burgess Horne said...

Thank you for a lovely post. All the best to your mother - I hope she is happy in her new home, and that the carpets are to her taste.

Anonymous said...

Steerforth, I can't imagine you treating your sons' ideas with contempt. Being aware of the problem is half the battle, and I'm sure your sons will always be grateful to have had you for a father.
Have a good weekend,
Canadian Chickadee

christinelaennec said...

What a lovely post, and what a good son you are! I hope your blisters are better, and that the move has gone as smoothly as can be. I will never forget that clock!

amson said...

A beautifully moving post. Good luck and I hope that it all goes well with the move.

Steerforth said...

My mother is now in her new flat and seems very happy. She has no regrets about leaving and yesterday evening, as I was driving her home, she said "I feel as if this is my town now."

The flat's lovely - she has a view of sheep grazing on the South Downs and a car park below, where she can twitch her curtains and spy on people.

At the moment I'm seeing her every day until she settles in and makes friends.

So far so good, although she hates the shops, which are far too middle class for her tastes. She got excited when I said that Aldi would be opening soon.

Shelley said...

Alas, in these days of multinational corporations and the wealthy trying to strip union rights, I think it's a harder case to win, but I totally agree with you about employees not being forced to wear silly t-shirts.

Little Nell said...

I’ve been on my travels and so I’m only just catching up with blogs. ‘Moving’ is the word for this post, in more ways than one. I can only agree with so many of the other comments. I will add that my own parents went into what is called ‘managed accommodation’ about five years ago at the age of eighty-five. My dad was still driving then and they were reasonably active. He is now quite frail and almost immobile. Had they stayed in their old home life would have been impossible; they made the move at just the right time. They have made new friends and most important of all, help is at hand when needed. I wish your Mum every happiness in her new home, and many happy memories of her old one.

Michelle Trusttum said...

Steerforth - you are a fine writer and an astute, perceptive observer. But, until today, I had not expected to be side-swiped by your blog; moved to tears.

I am so pleased you over-rode your internal critic and let this post be.

It is an exceptionally hard thing to do - to move a parent out of the family home forever, to process and pack up the home that helped shape us; where nothing is just an object, but associated with memories, judgement, guilt, love....

I am so pleased to read your mother is adjusting. How are you?

Ms Baroque said...

Oh my God. You've made two actual tears run down my face - in the office! You are SUCH a good writer...

Steerforth said...

Thank you for your kind words. So far that thread of the story seems to have had a happy ending - my mother loves her new home.

Michelle - I've been following your blog and I'm so sorry that your family are having to go through this. These days, 71 is a young age. I'm sure that a lot of people around the world will be thinking of you.

gaskella said...

Better late than never (been on hols with poor internet access). Your post really moved me too - I hope your mother is settling in, and enjoying being close to you and yours.

Every time I drive to Croydon to do some work on my late mother's house which is finally going up for sale this month, I pass the house on the edge of Purley I became a teenager in, and it never fails to provoke memories. The rest of my family are all still in the Croydon area though, so I won't be completely losing touch with it once the house is sold - but boy has it changed since I grew up there. I'm glad of my happy memories, as you are of Teddington. Many thanks for them.

Kid said...

My family moved into a house when I was 13 years old and moved out 11years later when I was 24. Over 4 years later we returned to our previous house and we've now been back here for 24 years. Sometimes you CAN go home again.