Sue is writing another book, called Blood and Coal, which is a very different type of work from The Dark Nest. It is about her own mining family from 1900 to the present day, and shows how trauma and damage is transmitted from generation to generation.. She shows the lives of her family members, many of whom were not at all respectable, and has each of them take control of the story and criticise the narrator (herself). There is a section called "impossible conversations", where family members who never met talk to each other, or where people say what they were afraid to utter to those they loved or hated.
Here is an extract, the life of Sue's maternal grandfather. The book will be published by IMDMedia in Spring 2024
My maternal grandfather Francis (’Chum’) was his parents’ favourite. Tall and astonishingly handsome, he was the apple of their eye. He had the best potato, the best bed, the last and strongest tea in the pot. His father even saved his nub-ends for him, fashioning then with some effort into fresh “gaspers”. Chum was encouraged to feel that he was destined for great things and could do anything, and this extended to the world of high culture, from which he and all his kin were excluded. He was walking outside the Albert Hall in Nottingham one day, and heard the strains of a classical concert: “that was the day I first knew I had a soul.” He could barely read, but he knew beauty when he heard it, and for the rest of his life he saved up for concert tickets when he could. Perhaps it made him feel vulnerable, because when he came out of the concert hall, his soul could be seen in his face.
With such aspirations and tastes, the pit was bound to seem a come-down. Chum toiled there after the war, but hated it and its accompaniments: the dirty fingernails, the blue scars on the white skin, the hacking cough, the underground pallor. Moreover, miners had a traditional style of courtship and mating, and such rituals were not for him. He wanted a mate who was unusual, he wanted a life that was cosmopolitan, he wanted fitted suits. And so, in the early 1920s, he applied to become a customs officer in Shanghai, paying someone else to fill in the application forms for him, and was appointed as a junior customs clerk. The uniform made him seem brisk. He had never wanted to polish buttons before now. But now he did.
Chum always waxed lyrical about China: “there were ladies in cheongsams, there was this sweet perfume everywhere, and the trains seemed to run right though the streets.” It was like nothing he had dreamed of, and Shanghai’s political and religious system was no more foreign to him than that of home: he had been excluded from official culture there too. The sheer intricacy of the artefacts was fascinating. He bought an ivory ball which contained other separate carved balls inside each other, which could move independently. It made a soothing sound as it lay in his pocket, and he thought that somehow, that was the rattle the world made: impenetrable, autonomous. He could pretend that he owned it. That was the lure of empire: to encourage outsiders to feel that they could get away with anything.
And for awhile he did. His family had taught him that morality was for fools, and there was money to be made in Shanghai. He began to permit a degree of opium smuggling; he turned a blind eye to the secret caches of the white gold hidden in ladies’ pockets, in donkey saddlebags, in hollowed-out bibles. He was found out of course, and dispatched home ignominiously: “I thought to myself, well, China is dead to me.” But for ever after that, he carried the ivory ball in his pocket. Another world. When he got back to Nottingham (he felt as though he had been somehow bundled there), he tried the pit again. But he had developed a taste for luxury and style, and even if it meant the ignominy of going into service, it was worth it. So he left for London, as so many had done before him, and became a butler.
Chum knew nothing of polite society. But he could learn. 1920s upper-class households only functioned well with a hierachy of servants, and there were many opportunities. The ladies’ magazines were full of information about etiquette, the right method of cleaning cutlery, the correct way to lay a grand table. By close observation, Chum realised that it was quite easy to control the servants below him, and to corral them into deference. And (he never told us how) he landed a post with a rich family in Bedford Square: “the house was big and cold, and no-one knew their place. But I did.” He loved female company, and his handsomeness and air of authority made him irresistable: “the posh ladies liked me: but I was more comfortable in bed with my own sort.”
In the Bedford Square house, there was a “tweenie” called Florence. Small, frail and beautiful, her job was to hump coal to the bedroom fireplaces, to carry hot water without spilling it, to do the more menial kitchen tasks. She rarely spoke, and then in a whisper. Chum took her hand. It was red and raw: “I thought to myself, how pretty she was, and how little she knew.” Florence seemed somehow exotic in Chum’s eyes, though not as exotic as the cheongsam ladies. She was alone in the world, with no-one to object to an underage wedding. And so the butler and the tweenie married.
There is no record of how they felt about each other then, although later on they always spoke of each other with implacable hatred. Florence quickly became pregnant, and was ill, and so they decamped to Nottingham to Hannah and Joe’s house. Their daughter Josie was born. There were few butler posts in Nottingham, and Chum had to go down the pit again, to his great chagrin: ” I had to ride back down into the dark to feed them. But I thought to myself, this was for the last time.” The lure of London was strong, and as the 1930s progressed, the servant market altered. Far more workers, both male and female, went into industry, and so there was a shortage of servants, live-in ones particularly. People who were prepared to go into service could pick and choose. Hannah had taught Florence how to cook meanwhile, and so she and Chum searched for posts as cook and butler.
And here was the rub. Florence was of Jewish origin, though she knew nothing of the faith. But Chum had heard about a post in a large Jewish household, and told them that his wife was an accomplished kosher cook. He was untroubled about the lie: Rockley lore was that everything could be managed or evaded. The enormous fib never troubled him, though he always confused Saturdays and Sundays after that.
However, the great house did not permit servants to bring their children with them, and so they deposited Josie with Joe and Hannah, and hardly saw her for years. This perhaps was when Chum’s personality began to harden. He knew it was wrong to abandon Josie - unlike his other misdemeanours, none of which he thought were his fault. He began to think of himself as covered with cicatrices: the blue scars of the pit were overlaid criss-cross by old wounds he could not bear to look at. When he looked back at the 1930s, he did not recall political crises or international events: “I opened a lot of bottles of port and polished a lot of spoons. I could only smell the inside of the house: not the outside.”
However, politics began to impact on him, whether he liked it or not. The rich family had heard about the fate of Jews in Europe, and they decided to emigrate to South Africa. Chum and Florence packed the family’s belongings - the crystal glasses, the riual candles - and returned to Nottingham on the day war broke out. The city was a major target, and it was the first to develop an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) system. Chum saw his chance. He was too old for conscription, but was was fit and well-set-up, and he became one of the few full-time wardens. Again, the best was the uniform: a well-cut overcoat, a jaunty helmet. It conferred power. It was Chum’s task to co-ordinate local defence activity: “it made a change from supervising and lighting fires in the rich house. Now I had to put the fires out.”
There was a sexual bonanza during World War 2. After all, the possibility of being blown up at any moment tends to lessen people’s moral scruples. And Chum, handsome, authoritative, with his powerful torch and stirrup-pump, was wellnigh irresistable to lonely, frightened women. He had tired of Florence: her timidity and fractiousness had begun to pall. Why had he chosen a Jewess anyway? And one who seemed to hate his body? So he embarked on a life of riotous adventure. One of the women seemed more of a keeper, though. Her name was June, and she brought about the end of his marriage.
The roads were dark during the blackout. Florence was out looking for her husband. She heard his cough: loose, phlegmy, a smoker’s hack. “Chum? Is that you?” she called. And as he loomed out of the darkness, she saw that he had a plump young woman on his arm, with bobbypins in her hair and a cigarette dangling from her lips. Chum said: ”you may as well know. June and I are going to get married after the war.” And that was the great chasm, between an imperfect family life on the one hand, and a precarious solitary future on the other. He had passed the Rubicon. After that, Chum felt that the vagabond life, so favoured by his family, had claimed him at last. June came to nothing. Florence applied for a legal separation, since divorce was too expensive. His daughter Josie got married and had a child, but somehow he felt unconcerned about them: they were heavy baggage. Freedom was best.
And after all, he could turn his hand to anything. He had never learned to drive, but nonetheless he applied for a job as a chauffeur. The uniform was the thing again: cap, gaiters, gloves with holes over the knuckles. And as for driving, well, how hard could it be? He practiced a lot with the Daimler on the flat open roads outside the city, and in the end became reasonably proficient. But like all his family, Chum was a wild drinker, and one day when in his cups he tried to drive the Daimler up the steps of the Country Club owned by his employer, whom he called Uncle Willie. Being cool and unfazed was almost a religeon with Uncle: “it’s no good going in theah, Chummy, they’re closed on Mondays.” Leaving the car teetering on the balustrade, Chum thought discretion was the better part of valour, and gave up being a chauffeur. But his former good luck was beginning to desert him, and the risk-taking was no longer paying off. He asked his rich sister Ethel for a job, and she employed him as a gardener. After all, he thought again, how hard could it be? But the family now had few tribal memories of nature or its management, and Chum left a trail of horticultural carnage wherever he went. He killed the precious greenhouse vines, he pruned the roses wrongly, he thought that weeds were just as good as expensive plants. The crisis came when he accidentally poisoned the ponds and killed his sister’s beloved goldfish. Ethel presented him with the little corpses on a d’oiley: “admit it, Chum: you killed my babies!” His rejoinder was that anyone who had fish as children was crazy, especially as they had once run a fish-and-chip shop. That was an unfortunate remark.
By this time, age and ill-health were begining to rear their heads. Once so handsome, his face was seamed with grime, and his body kept producing seven-headed carbuncles from nowhere. He was homeless, so his daughter Josie took him in: but as he had deserted her so long ago, she had few reserves of love for him, and she and her daughter Susan began to hate him. Their little house hummed with loathing. Josie built him up again until he was functional, and then encouraged him to leave. He took a caretaker’s job in a hotel on Ilkley Moor.
There are few fragments or speech acts from that time. Chum perhaps began to feel that the new world was conspiring against those who were poor but still had style. He had rarely thought compassion mattered: but dimly began to think that perhaps he had been wrong. The new job at Ilkley went well enough for awhile: he tapped the beer barrels, served the Yorkshire puddings in the bar on Sundays, swept the floors. He had a room at the top of the hotel, where (as ever) he smoked in bed. One night his bedding caught fire, and he awoke to find his bed in flames. It spread with great rapidity, he escaped onto the roof, and was rescued by firemen. He had a stroke on the roof, and the hotel burned to the ground.
He survived for a while in a nursing home. Josie, whose husband had died, visited him now and then, and the last sentence he uttered to her was “sorry about Freddie. Did you remember to bring me some fags and £20?”
You know, you’ve made me angry. You are my flesh and blood, my grand-daughter, but you’ve made me out to be much worse than I was. None of it was my fault. None of them ever showed me how to love. No-one was ever proud of me. Florence was like a wet week. I tried hard, but she would never open to me. The ladies in Shanghai scented my mind. You never mentioned all the times I went up to Nottingham Castle and looked at the paintings, and tried to see my own life in them. You never mentioned my spats, my white gloves, my gaiters, my gauntlets. You never mentioned how bright my hair was, how I could entertain people with card tricks, how I always folded my clothes up before I went to bed. You’ve used me for your own narrative, to make your own villain. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.