and I’m not going to be there.
I mean, alright. Obviously I knew about this in advance. The logistics and cost of getting from Toronto to Ilfracombe are more than a touch prohibitive after all. So it’s not like it’s a surprise or anything. But it’s still annoying. You see, my mother’s side of the family is really rather small. Now I guess anything will feel small when you have a family like the Hayward Clan, with such huge and meandering pathways to being related to someone that I feel like I’m part of the Khan lineage, whereas my Nan’s family only numbers a few small groups dotted across England (and Germany!) none of whom speak to each other very much.
What I’m getting at is when my Nan’s 80th rocks up what should be a really big family deal is actually going to be a small affair with her and my grandad/mum/stepdad/brother/sister. That’s it. And that’s kinda sad. I should caveat this with the fact that as I understand it, she couldn’t give a damn if she was turning 80 or 180, it’s all the same to her. But it’s not the same to me, and that’s where the problem lies.
I also find it hard to wrap my brain around the concept of someone being eighty. I mean, think about it for a moment if you will: eighty. All the stuff that’s happened in the last eighty years. So I thought, partly as a tribute to my Nan and partly because I feel that this info needs to be written down somewhere before there’s no-one else around to say it, I would outline to you just what eighty years really means – in Nan years. A little ‘This Is Your Life’ thing, but with more swearing. Possibly.
So where do we begin this little sojourn down bad-memory lane? Well it’s worth bearing in mind that most of this diatribe is going to be made up of a variety of anecdotes both her and my Grandad have shared with me over the years, with a little sprinkling of hopeful accuracy provided by my mother on some key details. What I’m saying here is don’t expect an air-tight account guys, because this thing’s leakier than a sexed up war dossier.
So my Nan was born on 15th April, 1932 somewhere vaguely in the area of Dartford. You can tell that 1932 is a long time ago simply by the fact that she would often describe Dartford as “quite nice back then”, which if you ever saw it now you would wonder if this was in fact the same Dartford, or some grand fantasy Dartford crafted out of the hopeful whims of a deranged maniac.
It’s worth considering that it had to have been a nice place at some point, because she didn’t leave the damned town for the next sixty-seven freakin’ years. Just let that settle in your mind for a moment. Those of you who know of present-Dartford, please try not to vomit. We’re being nice here.
My Nan, Betty Ludlow, was born to Edward and Daisy Ludlow who alas had passed away long before I was born so I never got to meet. She never spoke of them all that much, but I always remember the black and white picture of them that she would keep on a cupboard in the dining room. She had two sisters, Jess and Ann, and two brothers, Vic and Bill. Apparently Vic was literally born on Friday 13th, which coloured my Nan’s entire concept of superstition when he was smacked in the head with a cricket ball when he was quite young and paralyzed. Don’t screw with the Fates, kids.
I honestly don’t know much about her very young childhood beyond some vague anecdotes about helping her mum around the house a lot and her dad having something to do with the construction of what has become one of the busiest roadways in England (the A2/M2 roadway that links London with the Port of Dover), built vaguely along the lines of the famous Roman Road Watling Street. The thing that gets in the way of her childhood stories I suspect is a little event that started in September 1939 which we may know as “World War 2”.
Now there are many number of war stories, funnily enough. Though I imagine it wasn’t all that funny at the time. Her education was severely disrupted when the war initially broke out, before being shattered completely. The problem being that the freakin’ Blitz was happening right over her head. She used to say that when the old V2 rockets came over – or Doodlebugs as she knew them – and the ‘buzzing’ ceased everyone would just have to stop and run for cover. There was a shelter in her garden that her dad used to command her into on a frequent basis (“GET DOWN THAT SHELTER!” was apparently his wartime catch-phrase) and she lost some friends to the bombing.
Dartford was actually a major target for the Germans due to the presence of a munitions factory on what was then the outskirts of the town, a factory that her dad actually worked at. And since they had located the factory next to a series of lakes they also lit up like a goddamn Christmas tree whenever the moon was out, so the Lakes had to be camouflaged and as a result the factory was never hit. Dartford was though, a whole heck of a lot.
When the Americans eventually deigned to intervene, finally realizing that a full Nazi Europe might not be the best thing for them, their route to Dover for the Normandy landings took them through Dartford. My Nan tells me that as the procession passed through the town, the tanks and jeeps and so on went right by her house (or near her house). So her mother made a load of cakes, sandwiches and so on and sent her down to hand them out to the troops, which I just think is a wonderfully British image. Army trundling by probably to certain death? Here, have some cakes and tea to make it all better!
Also at some point she was shipped away from the London area when the bombing got too fierce along with thousands of other children, Chronicles Of Narnia Style, except she didn’t find a magical wardrobe to take her to a far-away land. Whatever she did find she won’t talk about, so whatever it was it probably wasn’t all that nice.
Anyway, that’s enough about the war. Obviously we won, which was good, but England was in pieces, which was bad. Rationing was still in full effect, and as far as I’m aware Nan was never really able to return to her education and so wound up going out to work at a very young age. I think she was around fifteen or sixteen when she got her first job at Burroughs, one of the UK’s earliest Pharmaceutical companies. Burroughs eventually became the Wellcome Trust, which is now the UK’s largest non-government source of biomedical research. She put that little fluffy bit of cotton into pill bottles for hours, and hours and hours.
Oh and that phamaceutical company? Wellcome sold it off to their biggest rivals, Glaxo plc. who went on to be GlaxoSmithKline, the fourth largest supplier Pharmaceuticals on the Planet. Remember, eighty years.
So anyway, at some point she met my Grandad, Alan Coombs, at a dance somewhere in Dartford I think. Because with my Nan if you’re not sure, Dartford is probably as good a guess as any. He was doing compulsory national service in the Royal Air Force at the time, based out of Newquay in Cornwall with his own set of stories I may well impart when his 80th rocks up next year, and around the time she progressed to the finance office at Wellcome they got married sometime in 1954. As an interesting sidenote her sister Ann then later married my Grandad’s brother Stan, because there’s nothing like keeping it in the family.
Then there was a lot of moving around and things get hazy. Unfortunately I’d love to tell you this was the point when she moved out of Dartford, but those with a concept of maths will realize that this must be a way off yet. Somewhere down the line she wound up living on Temple Hill in Dartford, which is like saying you lived in 1980s Harlem, New York. What I’m getting at is this was not a good place to be.
She spoke of ‘dodgy Irish families’ that would run riot over the estate and general decrepitude rife across the area. Funnily enough when I found myself living on the exact same estate may years later, I can’t say as it had changed all that much. Although you could swap the ‘dodgy Irish families’ out with ‘everyone’s bloody dodgy’.
Anyway it was whilst she was here that she had her first child, Chris, on 14th July 1957, followed a few years later by my mother Ann on 14th May 1963. At this point I realize I can now never say to my mum that I forgot her birthday because I just wrote it down on my own frakkin’ blog, so…shit. Moving on!
Granddad had a pretty good job working for a big manufacturer in the middle of Dartford called Halls that used to make those huge industrial fridges/freezers that long-haul cargo ships and the like would use. Between that and my Nan’s fluctuating but constant employment (at some point she wound up working as a cleaner at the Downs Secondary School, which became the Leigh City Technology College when I was a kid and is now called something else entirely, but I’m not sure when) the family was fairly well off compared to many in post-war Britain. She tells me that their house was one of the first on the street to have a Television, and just like that episode of Doctor Who (which occasionally isn’t batshit crazy when it’s deciding what did and didn’t happen in the past) everyone would crowd into her house whenever there was a big event, be it the World Cup or the Queen’s Coronation or whatever.
Because of the state of a lot of the post-war buildings in Dartford the council was gradually having to either repair them, or say “soddit”, relocate the residents and blow it all up and start again. If only they’d done that with the entire town. They chose option B when it came to my Nan’s house and they moved to the newly begun Fleet Estate development right on the edge of town to deal with the overflow of Dartford’s rapidly expanding population as it became prime commuter belt land, sometime around 1965. Then she worked as a cleaner at Livingstone Hospital for a bit. I can’t figure out why she moved around to so many different jobs but that’s what I get for not asking the right questions I guess.
Then they moved to Gore Road in 1966, and it will be forever to my annoyance that I don’t have any decent pictures of this place. I have one, which I refuse to display because it was taken after my grandparents moved out and those that moved in destroyed everything that was good about it and HATERAGEBLARGHBLARGH.
It was around this point that England was finally picking itself up and dusting itself off fully after the War. London expanded, and expanded, and expanded, and Dartford found itself to be a surprisingly desirable location. For some reason. My Grandparents remained at Gore Road for thirty-five or so years, and in their time there they watched schools be built (my mother being in some of the first intake in what would become my school several years later), the largest NHS-funded hospital go up right in front of them, one of Europe’s largest shopping centers was built just down the road, and one of the worlds largest orbital roads was built literally five minutes away (Which I used to play chicken on the grass verge of. Because hey, why the hell not?). Also down the road, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met at Dartford train station after having grown up and gone to school together in the town and formed a little known band called the Rolling Stones, one of the most popular and influential rock bands in the world.
As a recap, lets go back over this. When my Nan was first born, the British Empire was still a major force to be reckoned with and Dartford was a small town nestled away somewhere between the border of London and Kent. By the time we reach around the date of say, my birth, The Empire has almost completely fallen and Dartford has gone from tiny town to huge, sprawling blight upon the English landscape. So my Grandparents not only watched as the world and technology in general went bananas after the Second World War, but they also seemed to be in the middle of some pretty big events in English history just by a quirk of Geography. Dartfordian Geography. If that isn’t a sign that Fate has a sense of Irony, I don’t know what is.
To conclude, at some point Chris moved out and [REDACTED] and then my mum moved out after having met my dad and bought a tiny house that [REDACTED]. Then I happened and Nan had to quit another job at a home for helping the elderly to help with looking after me since dad was at sea with the Merchant Navy 90% of the time and then we might as well hit the fast-forward button because most of you should be familiar with the events of the last twenty-seven years or so. Nan did finally escape Dartford and moved to her/our frequent Holiday destination of Devon, where she and my mother et al now live. Regardless of what they all say now it’s an infinitely nicer place to be than bloody Dartford, but then a mouldy armpit is probably a nicer place to be than Dartford.
So this is the end of my vague little History lesson. I’d like to just pull back from the speech for a moment and get any of you who’ve made it this far to stop and think for a moment. What has happened during your life? I don’t mean personally, because spreading personal issues across the internet is what Facebook is for. I mean in a broad, historical sense. We all have different things we latch on to I guess. I for one would sum it up by saying how I’ve watched the computers I’ve spent far too much of my free time on turn from this
since technology has been the fulcrum upon which my life has turned. What would yours be? Step back a Generation, and perhaps you could put it into terms of cars. Around when my mum was born, Formula 1 racing cars would have looked something like this.
Now, of course, they look like bloody space ships.
And this is still just a fraction of the time I’m talking about here. Think of all the technological marvels, and terrors, that have come into creation and faded into obscurity over the last eighty years. All the corner stones of recent History; the Second World War, the Space Race, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Falkland War, the collapse of the British Empire, the rise of Globalization, the Thatcher Years, the eradication of Smallpox, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11…damn I’ve just bounced backwards and forwards across that timespan and these arn’t even a fraction of the important events that have happened over the last eighty years.
And my Nan has been around to see them all. Mostly whilst being sat in Dartford. Well, I guess no-one is perfect. She’s lived her own quiet, relatively uneventful life and given birth to an arse of a son and a brilliant mother, so one out of two isn’t bad. She was also, and I haven’t really mentioned this up to this point, a huge factor in my early years. Due to one thing or another I spent quite a lot of time living with her and I went to school down the road from where she lived. You can blame her somewhat for my ‘posh’ accent – she’s always felt it was important for me to speak ‘properly’ and even now chastises me for certain things – and quite probably some of my other quirks and foibles too. And whilst again for one reason or another we drifted apart a bit as I grew up, my Nan has always and will always occupy a special place in my heart. She is a remarkable, if understated, lady who has seen and been through a lot and is still running around as if she were thirty years younger, and my life is all the better for her input.
I guess what I’ve been trying to say for the last three thousand words or so is, Happy 80th Birthday Nan!