Nothing makes me feel older than looking at these three photos does. They seem to be illustrations from a history book, but they’re not. I can reach out and touch them, because every one of them features my mother.
This is her christening. And here are people I never met: her father Charles, the curate, who died long before I was even thought of. Her mother Annie, from whom she became estranged. Annie’s mother and father Arthur and Elizabeth Pickard, long long dead. Her sister Blanche and brother-in-law Jack who took themselves off to live and work in Swansea, so I never met them either: though my mother inherited almost all that Blanche had when she died in 1964.
News of my mother’s birth would have travelled by word-of-mouth or by letter. I communicate with friends in four continents in an instant, by the click of a mouse or a quick call on Facetime.
When my children were small in the 1980s, we went to an exhibition featuring the future – a fax machine. We got very over-excited sending drawings to one another down the phone line. Who uses fax machines now? They’re nearly as dead as the fountain pen. But even the telephone barely existed for most people when my mother was born. She lived to see her grandchildren use word processors, computers and mobile phones – but she was happier with what she knew.
I guess this photo was taken during World War One. Over the last few weeks our attention has been so taken up by the horrors of trench warfare that it’s hard to imagine that in a small northern coal-mining town, life would have gone on much as usual. Clergymen and miners were all exempt from conscription. Though my mother remembers food difficulties. It was her job to run to the shop and get a supply of golden syrup, and then to sit fishing the flies before it could be used in cooking.
I have little grandchildren of the same kind of age as my mother and her little brother Arthur in this photo (and for those of you who’ve been asking, Zoë is doing well thanks. She should now be just under a fortnight old, but she’s three months old instead).
Theirs is a world of babygrows, disposable nappies, easy-care T-shirts and jumpers and the constant background whirr of the washing machine. My mother remembered the dampness and drudgery of Monday and its all-day washing as the worst day of the week.
How could life have been so very – well – Edwardian? Those floor-length clothes for my grandmother in the previous photo! That sailor suit for Arthur and a mob-cap for my mother! Imagine getting Arthur and Betty along to the photographer’s studio in their Sunday-best, clean, tidy and with immaculate shoes. These days, family portraits are all about getting out into the countryside with tousled hair then running barefoot through the heather.
I find it unsettling to look at the images.
I feel strangely unconnected, as though my mother is from some strange unknowable place with which I have no relationship: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.