In the first of a vivid two-part memoir, local actor and playwright John Bartlett takes us on a journey around his grandparents’ home in Emsworth – a magical place of treasures, secrets and surprises.
When I was nineteen, my drama school teachers made me read Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658), which examines what a number of ancient objects tell us about the habits and customs of Roman times. Despite the endorsements of Browne’s text from literary giants, at the time the necessity of my writing about it escaped me. Maybe now that my hair is almost grey I should give the work another go to see what all the fuss was about. In homage to Browne, then, this work is my own personal Urn Burial written from memory about my grandparents’ home in Emsworth.
Enough was enough; a stick of bombs had fallen close by and demolished some houses a few doors along in Cottage Grove, Southsea. The family upped sticks and moved out of Portsmouth to semi-rural Emsworth, a quaint little town with a harbour, a large millpond and, at the time, an assortment of odd antiquated shops. For most children including me, their grandparents’ house is a magical place and their nana and grandpa magical. Mine lived in a large detached house in Westbourne Avenue, Emsworth. Some time later the Post Office re-numbered all of the houses in the street and a sign reading ‘nothing to be done’, but with the change of number the spell on my grandparents’ home was partially broken and some of the magic had been lost forever.
Visiting the house today and peering up the drive at its painted white porch extending to and including the bay window, my mind wells up with happy memories of visiting distant relations, aunts and uncles, old summer friends and the adventures we had. It’s strange to glance back after all these years; a different time, a different life, a different world. Nana and Grandpa’s, once so important to my existence, seems so distant now, almost like looking through a telescope the wrong way round.
Memories, memories – what triggers a memory? An old photograph transporting you back in an instant to those halcyon days of perpetual summer and childhood innocence or maybe a particular smell that melts away the years. My grandparents’ house was full of wonderful and not unpleasantly pungent odours. Each room had its own individual scent and character. The hall was my “home”, and I felt about it the way Moley does about Mole Hall in The Wind in the Willows. A clock chimed comfortingly throughout the day and somehow grew much louder during the night. The pendulum was always swinging, ticking away the minutes, hours and the years and thereby little by little marking off the lives of all within.
To the left of the stained glass front door, a solid, reassuring hat stand stood at the foot of the stairs. The very same stairs that my long awaited cousin, Timothy and I at the age of seven or eight, were to roll from top to bottom punching and kicking each other, just minutes after renewing our family friendship – but that’s another story. On either side of the front door were two stained glass windows, the old black Bakelite telephone on the sill of one of them. Once so common and now expensive and highly prized, these old phones grace many a trendy apartment these days. In my grandmother’s day, in an effort to keep the telephone bill down, you had to stand to make or receive a call.
Many years before, during the end of and just after World War II, the house had rung with the youthful babble of five young adults. The phone was in constant use with various suitors vying for the attentions of one of the four sisters or indeed my much-loved piano-playing uncle Roy. My great grandmother was alive then and she did not understand the mysterious workings of the telephone. She distrusted the instrument intently, claiming it ‘was the work of the devil’. If the ‘phone rang and she picked it up before any one of the expectant Jezebels of the household, she would swiftly take up the handset and loudly proclaim ‘They’re all out!’ Then, just as abruptly, she would slam the handset down, much to the consternation of my uncle or any one of his four sisters all of whom were waiting for the call from the possibly potential love of their lives. Alternatively, depending upon the caller, ‘Tell him I’m out!’ was an option.
At night all of the doors off the hall were ceremoniously locked by my grandfather, and much to my consternation. I have always been an early riser, particularly so in Westbourne Avenue because the bedroom window was east-facing and caught the full force of the sun’s rays first thing in the morning. As soon as I was awake, I would creep downstairs and try all of the doors thinking that Grandpa might have forgotten his nightly ritual, which of course he never did. So there was nothing for it but to return upstairs and lie awake until the household was up and about. I still wonder now why I didn’t have the foresight to read a book or otherwise occupy myself during the inevitable morning wait.
To the right of the front door was the warm and cosy lounge. It was a large room with two big brown arm chairs and a settee ranged around the coal fire that constantly and reassuringly flickered in the hearth, somehow reassuring me that all was right with the world. I spent many happy hours in front of that fire, painting tiny Airfix figures of the American Civil War. Nana would often bring in a door-stop sandwich consisting of thick freshly cut white bread, cheese and tomato, the taste of which has never been surpassed.
The room was filled with all sorts of knick-knacks and treasures. On one wall was a glass cabinet full of small china cups and saucers, various miniature glasses and a host of other objects. In the bureau, next to the bay window, was a particular saucy item only to be viewed with great trepidation when all was quiet and nobody about. Wrapped in old yellowing newspaper was an exquisite semi-naked porcelain female figure; she was very white, with delicate little hands and a pretty face with pink cheeks. However, somewhat incongruously, her rubber breasts were inverted. This was easily rectified by applying a light squeeze to her rubber legs and, with a pop, her little tiny breasts were restored to reveal her true fairy-like proportions.
The bureau contained many of my grandmother’s memories and treasures, which I would secretly peruse when the opportunity arose. I was fixated by ships and the Royal Navy, presumably because of my father, who had served as a sailor. The Portsmouth Evening News, as it was called then, often had pictures of the various naval ships that frequently visited the city. As a boy, the newspaper was always eagerly awaited and, as soon as Grandpa had finished with it, I would cut out the pictures and stick them in my scrapbook. So eager was I to increase my growing collection, I took it upon myself to render down the images from Nana’s bureau of her precious family cuttings. In my haste to add ever more images to my scrapbook, I had unwittingly destroyed the written memories of weddings and other family events. When my youthful misdemeanour was discovered, my lovely Nana was less than pleased. I had never seen her so cross, but she soon forgave me.
The room had a television set in one corner. I can still picture Grandpa making his two index fingers dance in the air to the tune of the popular Dr Finlay’s Casebook. In the other corner, next to Nana, was a large rectangular radio. Its case was made of a dark wood with a decorative pierced patterned wooden grill. Though Grandpa was an avid fan of the The Archers, all that attracted me about it was the gravel-voiced, sometimes barely understandable, Walter Gabriel, who I found mildly amusing.
When listening to the The Archers, Grandpa would insist on absolute silence from the the rest of the family; almost impossible for a small boy, as even whispering was forbidden. Later in the evening Grandpa would put a handkerchief or paper over his jowly, reddened face and, soon after, his great frame would be rising and falling with sonorous snoring.
The bay window opposite the fireplace looked out over the front garden and its tall privet hedge, neatly cut lawn and tidy flowerbeds. Tall, heavy, chocolate-brown velvet curtains hung from the bay window. They were attached to a substantial mahogany pole with large wooden rings, which to a young boy were ideal for swinging on. The pole must have been very securely fixed to the wall as, fortunately. it never came away. I was not a naughty child as such, but could be economical with the truth when the need arose. I found this to be a useful trait and one in which a perilous situation could often be rescued to circumvent the mysterious and unfathomable adult psyche. In short, holding back the whole story is not a lie in itself but helps to alleviate any blame coming one’s way.
Hanging on the wall was a medium sized oil painting, which I believe Nana had found in a junk shop. It had an ornate frame and depicted a river, large oak trees, fields running up to the river front with meadows beyond; in the middle distance there was the hint of a small country town. Floating in the river were what must have been large lily pads, but to my juvenile eye always looked exactly like crocodiles. What exactly crocodiles were doing in an English river was always a puzzle and I would often shudder at the immensity of the prospect.
There was another large room in the house with an enormous carved table covered by a weighty cloth. The table was often piled with discarded objets d’art and mountains of old magazines and papers. At the end nearest the door was a cleared area in which Grandpa could do his accounts. Amongst the papers and pens was a long cylindrical piece of polished ebony. This, I was reliably informed by Grandpa, was a ruler, but such a ruler I had never seen before. To my young mind the ruler was intriguing to say the least; how could you possibly draw a straight line with a cylindrical ruler? The whole concept seemed quite ludicrous; rulers should be flat with a straight edge, or so I thought. I can remember frequently puzzling over this and thinking that whoever thought of such a thing must have been off his head.
Grandpa didn’t seem to use this room a great deal, except during one Christmas when the whole family descended on it. Beds were at a premium and I remember sleeping in a camp bed on the landing one night and in the bath on another. Overall, the room was dark and had a melancholy, unused atmosphere. I rarely entered at all, it being Grandpa’s preserve when he wanted some peace or he had work to do. In the rectangular bay window stood a heavy roll top bureau or desk in which Grandpa kept all his private papers. At one time he had been quite a wealthy man, carving out a business as a travelling salesman dealing in cycle and minor car parts, all of which he loaded up in his car and toured round garages in the local area. This was all rather an old-fashioned way of doing business which was eventually superseded by a more efficient modern approach. Grandpa carried on regardless, selling less and less, until finally the garage and shop owners felt sorry for him and would simply buy a card of brake blocks or something out of respect to times gone by.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.