Thursday, March 03, 2016


Needing something to get me back into blogging mode again, I thought I'd try doing a throwback Thursday, one of those alliterative tags people sometimes use as prompts, based on some article from bygone times. So I rummaged in the box of old photos and other sentimentalia and came up with this one, which I've always found quite interesting, and I'll set myself an hour after dinner to write something about it.

These are my maternal grandparents, Ellen and David Cutmore, with Dorren the dog. Unusually the photo has a date on it, 1950, perhaps in my mother's hand. Granny was the only grandparent I knew and can remember. Granddad died when I was a baby, I think, but we never met because my mother and her mother were in a period of estrangement at the time, sometimes known in the family as the Nine Years War. I've a vague idea what it was about, but it's not important. My father and my eldest brother, who were among the Blessed Peacemakers but not pushy about it, kept lines of communication open, so my birth and Granddad's death did not go unreported. Mostly the place of this episode in my awareness is as part of a body of evidence of the Cutmores' aptitude to fall out and have long feuds, silences and estrangements. This fact is a sad one of course, but it also reassures me somewhat, in a carrion comfort sort of way, that my own shortcomings as a daughter were perhaps neither peculiar to me nor entirely one-sided.

Something that strikes me is how old Granny looks here; she would have been only just over sixty, less than ten years older than I am now, much younger than many of my friends and family with whom I feel no difference of style or outlook. She died twenty years later at just over eighty, but here she looks exactly as I remember her at the end of her life.  Her look was always archetypal Old Lady, as you see her here - Lyle stockings, little hard shoes with buttons on, high-neck blouses, felted wool coats and jackets, hats of the kind I used to love to try on in British Home Stores. But I suppose it was a kind of echo of the style of her youth, before and around the First World War. I wonder if, in the eyes of children and young people, I am heading towards, or even trapped in, some similar atrophied recreation of how I dressed and styled myself when I was young? Probably. Yet one still occasionally sees old ladies who dress like Granny did, so they must adopt it as their age advances. 

 Yet Grandad is in a timeless, casual open-neck shirt; it looks quite a warm day, a picnic perhaps. 

They both came originally from East Anglia, from Norwich. Granddad's parents were bakers, they were well regarded small business folk, fair haired, solid. He was a racing cyclist, a very popular figure. Granny said, with a mixture of pride and jealousy, I think, that there were times when the whole stand of spectators around the race track resounded with the chant of 'Davey, Davey, Davey!'; there were cabinets full of silverware and other treasures he had won, some of which we still have. He earned the local fame of being the first cyclist to cycle up Gasworks Hill in Norwich without stopping, still no mean feat. Later he sold bicycles. He was a gregarious man, a man's man, clubbable: cycling clubs, angling clubs, the Freemasons, often a source of worry, bitterness, jealousy for Gran. My mum was, frankly, quite hard in her judgements, yet she rarely spoke harshly about her father, though she didn't idolise him either, and had her reasons to feel bitter and short changed too. On rare occasions when, as an adult, she was able to spend relaxed time alone with him, he was, she said, good company. For a man of his time and class, there was much of the bon vivant about him; outgoing, fond of company, enjoying the finding, catching, preparing and eating of fish and seafood: salmon fishing in Scotland, deep sea fishing off Brighton, prospecting for cockles in bare feet, my eldest sister a toddler on his shoulders, on some sandy stretch off the east coast. In a compliment to my fondness for unusual food and foraging, my mum once said he and I would have got on well. Though when I rather sentimentally expressed a wish to have known him, my sister looked a bit doubtful; he was, she said, rather grumpy and not very friendly towards his grandchildren, accusing them of peeing in inappropriate places when it was really the dog. In the photo he does look somewhat dour, with a set of the mouth that bespeaks perennial impatience, disappointment even, but then you can't always tell from photos.

Granny's background was perhaps rather less happy. She was born out of wedlock, though her parents married shortly after. Mum said she remembered her weeping when the law was changed, some time in the 1920s, to legitimise children whose parents married after their birth. Her father often resented her as being responsible for trapping him into a marriage he didn't wish for. Cruel, that. At these times her called her Rachel as an insult, because she looked quite Jewish. But when he lied about his age and enlisted to fight - and die - in the War, he visited her before he left. My mum was a baby, and he emptied his pocket of change and put it in her hand, which with a baby's reflex, curled round it. 'She'll be all right,' he said.

Ellen was quite a beautiful woman in her youth and liked to dress up; she looked not unlike my sister Alison. Somewhere I may have a photo of her in her heyday, if so I'll post it another time. 

The Jewish strain came from Dutch immigrants to East Anglia some time in the 19th century, no one was quite sure when. It was clear to see in my uncle Jack, the youngest of my mother's generation, who was presumably the one taking the photo.  He was able to procure good meals from Kosher eateries in times of rationing with no questions asked. I was watching Danny Finkelstein on telly today and thinking how much like Jack he is. The Viking traders and Saxon yeomen of my father's and grandfather's genes had altogether subsumed it, however, by the time of my generation. 

Dorren (I assume it was spelled that way, it rhymed with sporren) was a cairn terrier of lively temper but quite good repute. He starred in a photograph taken by uncle Jack which won a prize, called 'A Game of Patience', in which Granddad was playing the card game (solitaire, I think in American English) and Dorren is waiting at the end of the table with his lead in his mouth.

These stories are as I remember hearing them. They may not be the true ones.


Zhoen said...

Echoes of my own kin. Not reliably good results with assumed scripts for life, forced marriages for the hormonal young who lose control they don't have anyway. Damage done that is difficult to impossible to heal. Unacknowledged injustices. Secrets.

I always question the word grudge, implies unjustified hurts, when they may well be real harm, or honest dislikes.

Maybe the clothes are in part how middle aged bodies change, and what no longer looks good. That, and the issue of what is respectable and expected?

I think you, in your vibrant knits will always be classic and unique.

Avus said...

Like Zhoen there are some echos of my family's background - secrets and fallings out, etc.

The car stirred memories. It seems to be the extended version of the pre-war Austin 7. In one like this my uncle and aunt used to take me for days out down to Tankerton, Kent with picnics on the grass bank overlooking the sea front.

the polish chick said...

i'm amazed at how much you know of them all. i think my knowledge stops at my grandparents, now all dead.

the old lady outfit reminds me that quite often we put a person in a category based on just the quickest glance. ellen may well have looked far younger if dressed in something more au courant - my mom is 65 and looks fabulous! i think, too, of the women i've seen around town here - very blonde, very thin and dressed in short dresses. you expect youth (and from a distance get it) but when you see their faces, all the plastic surgery in the world can't hide the fact that they are likely ellen's age.

as for you looking dated and atrophied? i think not - our cultural expectations have shifted and loosened so much that there no longer is an appropriate uniform for each age group. i think you rock your own look - hardly a grandma style!

Nimble said...

I love to look at black and white photos. So clear and both familiar and foreign at the same time. I have a crummy memory and am sorry for whatever family histories I've already lost track of.

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

Z - Yes, there was a lot of it about. Life was too hard and too narrow for people to be able to afford much warmth and kindness. Tough for everyone, girls and women especially but not exclusively. Her clothes were kind of nice, in some ways, carefully chosen, good fabrics, well cut, she always had a style, her figure was trim and neat right to the end I think. I always think I dress quite young, but then perhaps it's more that I dress in the way I did when I was young. I've been amused talking with our grandchildren, it's fairly clear that though their mother and I aren't exactly seen as old ladies yet they obviously find us a bit quaint and unfashionable. Actually, when I was twenty-something I rather liked quite a lot of grannyish things, just to be different. I think I must have an early hipster!

Avus - thanks for the tip on the car, I was just talking about it on the phone to my brother. He tended to think Austin 7. Cars were always quite important to the Cutmore menfolk too, two of his other grandsons were mechanics and kept uncle Jack's Morris Traveller on the road for many years, well into the 1980s I think.

PC - I suppose my folks were quite big on family stories, and we're quite a large family so you talk about these things quite a bit and keep them going, compare recall etc. My mum was quite into genealogical stuff, I'm not really, find it a bit of a bizarre modern craze, perhaps because it was always there. I've got quite a good memory for that kind of information in spite of myself, I think. As you say, things have shifted, fragmented. I could very easily be a granny by now, my friends and family in their 60s and 70s are very youthful. We seem to have been granted an extra lease. Like my gran, my parents both died in their early eighties, which at the time, twenty years or so ago, seemed a reasonable old age. It no longer does. As I said to Z though, I'm aware the kids find us fairly quaint and frumpy though!

Nimble - This photo is in very good condition. Uncle Jack was a professional photographer,and his pictures were technically always good quality. He wasn't very good at it as a job though, because for weddings, portraits etc, you have to have people skills and a kind of warmth and creative gift which is about finding and drawing out beauty from all kinds of people, which he didn't have. Funny old bugger he was. I've got quite a good memory for the family stories and stuff. Odd really, I don't value them enormously or anything.

christopher said...

Wow. English and Dutch, with Jewish in the background... That's my mother's side. After the war, when I was little, she let her mother keep me while she dashed off to England and Holland to catch hold of relatives, to be sure they were all right or not. Most of the Dutch Jews in the family ended in German camps but there was a strain of the family who had become Christian way back.

My grandmother was Milly Dunton and you couldn't be more English. She could sing opera. My grandfather was Hartog Noordwal, who went to the Dutch Military Academy and lost his hearing in a swimming accident. Then he came to the US as an engineer, participating to some extent in the Alaska gold rush but ending as a retired drafter in the Los Angeles area of California. They met in the states and he gave Milly her first three of six kids. My mother was the youngest of those three.

On my father's side... well that's Scotch or maybe English and Irish. I know considerably less of their story except that my grandmother came from what we sometimes call the deep south. My birth surname was Teague, a variant of Tadhg which is the Irish Celtic and sometimes comes up Tighe as well. Teague is the Anglicized form. That's a signal, I think.

Rouchswalwe said...

Your last line rang my bell ... were the stories I heard true? I tend to believe my mother's stories, for she spent time in my great-grandmama's village over the summers of her youth. That's a wonderful photo, dear Lucy!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I love all this, Lucy, the evocative photo and your unique way of telling its story and its ramifications, not a word or feeling out of place, and by this I mean nothing which isn't absolutely in your own voice.
I like the sound of your Grandad and the way he is cradling Dorren the Dog. And Granny dresses like an old lady, yes, but she has a somewhat mischievous smile and looks as if the right person could have persuaded her to ditch the jacket and hat, kick off the sensible shoes and dance!

Jeff said...

What secrets our parents and grandparents kept! I don't blame them for hiding things from us; sometimes I think the secrecy of those ancient conflicts provided some form of comfort or solace we may someday come to understand.

People did look older younger then, too, didn't they? I'm not entirely sure why. Clothing? Diet? Overall health? Makes me wonder how I look now to my friends' small children...

Roderick Robinson said...

Below, a fine example of multum in parvo; a skill I'm always in search of. You'd be astonished - well, perhaps not - how rare it is.

"My father and my eldest brother, who were among the Blessed Peacemakers but not pushy about it, kept lines of communication open, so my birth and Granddad's death did not go unreported."

And that surname! Perhaps an exaggerated gift for a novelist; saying rather too much about those who must wear it over the pages.

And ah, the defining list, beginning with lyle stockings. Is it OK if I pretend to myself that Grannie never existed other than in a novel and that I may "review" her as such? I mean no one in real life is lucky enough to be able to call on a racing cyclist as background.

I read on and it's fact after telling fact: for in this context "clubbable" and "short-changed" become facts, nourished as they are by the dense compost of the long paragraph.

You end with a couple of short sentences which may be construed as apology. No need. You've left us an entity which pleases. And that too is a rarity. The comments show I'm not alone in this.

I pray for more bad weather that forces you indoors.

Lucy said...

And again thanks.

Christopher - you've some stories! I enjoyed your vignettes.

R - I tend to think I've a reasonably accurate memory, but don't we all? And everything changes with repeated telling, like Chinese whispers. My siblings and I still recap sometimes, but I'm pretty sure there are gaps and odd cut- and copy-and-pastings I and others have made to fill them.

Natalie - I think they had their moments, in some ways were less dour than their chidren's - my mother's - generation. My sister has a memory of Grandad giving Dorren a bath, when the latter became a growling fury, turning round and round in his held collar like a corkscrew in the soapy water!

Jeff - yes, that rings true, and is a poignant way of putting it. Things treasured up in one's heart are something of one's own, even if they're bitter and sad. We do seem to have been given a bit of extra lease of life and youthfulness, for the reasons you say, though that also means when death sneaks up and picks someone off early it is perhaps more shocking and harder to deal with? I think we still seem quainter and older to kids than we like to know though!

Robbie - the Cutmore name was always considered rather a source of pride; it was a rare one, there were known to be very few left in the Old World, and it was on the way out in my generation - of the three Cutmore uncles I had only one had children and his sons only girls, this before keeping the matronymic was usual or respectable. Also there was the inculcation that rather unhappy women (or perhaps even quite happy ones?) often visit on their children that one's maternal heritage is necessarily superior to the paternal one - we were typical Masters when we fell below the ideal or displayed disagreeable qualities, but 'Cutmore' always had a glow of nostalgia about it. Yet I still do feel it's a pretty name, more so than my unmarried or even my present one. As you say, a good one for a writer! I'd never thought of that before.

The old lady clothing is still to be seen; there's a tiny, very old English lady who lives near here who dresses very much like that; an odd case, she came over some years ago with her not very nice, by all accounts, domineering husband, who then died. She had hardly any French, not many friends but insisted she had nothing to go back for and stayed on. I saw her recently in the pharmacy, surrounded and supported by kindly younger French women, speaking careful and correct French, looking dignified and strange like a beautifully intact fossil. I forbear to introduce myself or learn anything more about her for fear of spoiling things.

Anne said...

I have been thinking this over for a couple of days, especially the part about how we dress when we become old ladies. Like you, I think I dress youthfully, but as you say, it may be that I dress the way I always did. I do think my 20 something granddaughters dress rather oddly.

Catalyst said...

How could I, as an unrepentant Anglophile, have missed this post until now. I read it with intense interest, Lucy, and it sounds so much like that England, that wonderful England, that I read so much of in my youth. (From my grandparents library, I believe.) It is fascinating to me that the peoples of that island have gone through so much with such rigor and bravery and yet have some of the same failings that the rest of us have.

Lucy said...

Anne - yes, I think that about some of the youngsters, so that must mean I look odd to them. I think everyone's clothes have become more practical and comfortable. I understand that hipster-types rather like quaint, retro, grannyish clothes, as indeed I sometimes did when I was of student age, just to be different.

Cat - I'm not sure the British, though they made a virtue of stoicism, have really endured so much more than anyone else, most of human history life has been unthinkably hard for more or less everyone. I've been reading Marilynne Robinson, and watching 'Once upon a Time in the West' lately, and thinking how incredibly tough the last couple of centuries was for Americans too. The UK also hasn't been invaded and occupied by a foreign power, and has just about avoided revolution, for a very long time, which to some extent means push never came to shove either. But still, those times do now seem like something from a storybook, don't they?

Unknown said...

Interesting reading about your grandfather David Cutmore. I'm the archivist at Norwich Amateur Bicycle Club, your grandfather's old club. We have several photos of him at race meetings around 1910, as a young man.

If you have any further photos or other artefacts from that time, I'd love to see them! Thanks.

Nancy (