1

It’s four in the morning. Later, when I’m an adult, I will meet four in the morning quite often but, for now, it’s new. Horrible and new. It hurts – all over.

My grandparents have, of course, already been awake for at least an hour. They are washed and dressed, my grandmother is eating tea and toasted rounds of milk loaf – a type of bread I only ever see when I am in their house – and my grandfather, having woken me – time to get up – how can it possibly be time to get up? I’ve only just lain down and surely this kind of thing can actually be fatal? – my grandfather is in the kitchen, soft-footed in his slippers, and gathering more tea and more kept-warm-and-already-buttered-and-therefore-soft-and-salt-and-uniquely-my-grandfather’s-kind-of-toast for me. My body accepts both as additional affronts to its systems.

The pair of them look at me while I eat, grinning, and in general not very secretly pleased I have finally joined them in their world of stealing a march on everyone, of afternoon naps and early to bed and then up and ready and off to work before the day can catch them. I try to appear nonchalant and I am, sort of, in a way, enjoying this – I love the smell of my grandfather’s work jacket and his overalls – dark, sharp scents of metals and grease and Swarfega – they are part of the huge, dependable, secretive, funny, gentlemanly, tender and strangely graceful thing which is my grandfather. But today – and every other weekday for the whole of the holidays – I will be working with my grandmother, I will be getting to know my grandmother – my prickly, changeable, wiry grandmother – an occasionally foul-tempered and violent pacifist, an old-style red-flag socialist married to a one-nation Tory, a woman with the loudest laugh in any theatre, a woman who hated crudity but loved a naughty joke and who refused to receive communion for years because she believed she was too full of sin to deserve it. Eventually the vicar had to go round and explain … My grandmother was a whole crowd of tricky people to spend time with.

 
She gave me a peppermint on the bus – no journey of any kind being survivable without sandwiches, or at least a boiled sweet and I was, meanwhile, amazed that there even was a bus and that it was almost full of other people in overalls and anoraks and safety boots and caps, people prepared and equipped to do things – only child of a teacher and a university professor, of two people who had educated themselves away from all of this, I didn’t know about going to work in the dark. I was thirteen, my parents were newly divorced, and I now lived in a different place, a small flat in my hometown on the north-east coast of Scotland. Things were altered but also the same – from the top of our street, I could still see the river with fields beyond – but this, this was Staffordshire, the Black Country – and not just for flying visits at Easter with relatives coming round – this was weeks and weeks of staying with my grandparents, of starting to meet where they lived, where they came from – this was steel mills and forges and car building and fish and chips and potato scollops on a Friday and keeping money in tins under the bed and fabricating and turning and extrusion-moulding and clay pits and subsiding, long-forgotten mines and riveting and welding and canals, this was a heritage of manufacturing that had turned a whole county the colour of coal dust, of soot, of the dirt of making things that Britain needed, that its empire had needed – guns and locks and manacles for the slave trade. Even its air tasted metallic, questionable. It could seem a dark place of injuries and cripplings, of harms. And people still told the story of Queen Victoria passing through in her royal train and just closing her blinds on the Black Country, ignoring it until it went away. They still bore a grudge on behalf of a hard and proud, ingenious and partly crazy place – where chimneys were chimbleys and your throat was your thrapple and if you were a fool you weren’t, you were a wazzick. And heaven help you if my grandmother thought you were a wazzick – because the very least she’d do would be to tell you.

 
It was all, of course, doomed – although I didn’t know about that either. Staffordshire’s industries were ailing even then and it was getting scared, small-minded, fretting over immigration, while the next generations – wherever they came from – lost their accents, spoke all-purpose homogenised Brummy. The words that my grandmother used become peculiar, before being turned out to silence.

But that first morning the quiet, tired-looking people doggedly boarded and left our bus and the rain fell and we drove away from streets and houses, through into haphazard, modern industrial estates and then further, back into somewhere impossible, somewhere in the past. When we climbed down and started to walk there was Staffordshire Blue brick shining all around us, a vaguely iridescent purple on the walls and even underfoot, worn into smooth hollows, and my grandmother led the way through a complex of Victorian alleys and courtyards and small-windowed structures and past hand-painted signs that might have referred to businesses long gone and finally we halted at the nondescript door of a shabby, low building to which she had the key.

She let us in – proprietorial and swift – anxiously disabled the alarm – it always did make her anxious – and then she turned on the lights and there it was – the cabinet maker’s workshop – at our disposal. Stacked wood and racked wood and ageing wood and new wood and old wood, wood organised and categorized in ways I couldn’t comprehend and wounded furniture held in clamps and half-finished new items of various designs and monumental, crouching machines, their bits and blades sleeping, but all of them clearly quite capable of lopping or slicing or gouging or massively sawing a person in two – the detail of their edges, in fact, more plainly worrying when at rest – and above all else there was naturally, overpoweringly, wonderfully, the smell of wood – the dusty-sweet, comforting and homely smell of wood – a solid atmosphere of so much wood, of so many types, that each step inside it would be slightly different – would bring the cheap whip and spring of young pine, or the dry and intelligent complications of restored mahogany, the sharp density of beech, the melancholy heat in oak, and the further tastes and traces of grains and curves and knots and flaws, of flexibilities and qualities and names I didn’t know – it was magnificent. And my grandmother understood it – she was both its mistress and its master. Inside the workshop she became stiller, taller, more assured, a woman it was impossible not to admire.

Not that she was literally still – not at all – she arrived so ludicrously early, because before she could start working, there was work to do – because what is a cabinet maker’s full of? besides wood and the scents of wood? – mess. And what could my grandmother not abide? Mess. And indeed – messing. And, now that you mention it, not that you ever should, people who messed. And on every surface of the workshop, even on the walls and in the air, there was mess – the mess of fine sawdust and medium sawdust and heavy sawdust and wood shavings large and small and straight and curly and wood chips and wood off-cuts and wood splinters and none of it could be borne and so in we set, the two of us, with brooms and shovels and cloths and we cleaned the workshop and I knew, without being told, that I was an incompetent sweeper, that I raised too much dust while trying to remove it, that swoops of exhaustion were making me clumsy, that I was too nervous and tentative when I tried to clean the dozing machines and that I was – by the end of it all – too much of a mess myself. Whatever I did, I ended up wearing it. An artisan, a professional, like my grandmother, knows how to be in dirty places without losing her dignity, knows how to be a credit to her craft.

 

2

And what was her craft? French polishing. And all the allied arts and tricks and mysteries of staining, varnishing, colouring, spraying and lacquering, of hiding faults, revealing beauties, of renewing and creating surfaces. And she was good – she was the real thing – although initially more by accident than choice. Her mother had put her into service and – always awkward, independent – she’d walked out at lunchtime on her first day – her employers had given her potatoes to peel for their lunch and some others for herself – the others being, as she said, not fit for pigs and so she had told them at the time and had then been punished with an apprenticeship to a French polisher – a strange job, a man’s job, one which condemned its practitioners to early deaths – so many toxic fumes and substances, the risk of fire. And – in the days before health and safety, before cheap and effective compressors and guns – French polishers had to take mouthfuls of meths, of thinners, and spray them out through their teeth, this leading to almost inevitable professional intoxication and addiction. But my grandmother survived, she learned, she excelled. She even took on custom jobs – all of the handrails in a Welsh University once – an awful lot of effort but satisfying – or the teak on a fancy boat, or some celebrity who wanted her speakers to match her piano – high-gloss black lacquer over shoddy chipboard and veneer, something both difficult and offensive about the request, and still she fulfilled it, she pulled it off. But what she loved, of course, was proper wood and proper finishes – they were her obsession. She would stalk round other people’s homes, running her big, hard, leathery hands over their sideboards and tables and cupboards, loudly finding fault. The world was full of second-rate rubbish, of bad fakery, of good wood spoiled, of messing.

But not in her workshop – in her own corner within the wider workshop, never there – not in her special room with its broad tables carefully covered in clean sheets from the Financial Times, with the spray guns hung up in good order and the extractor hood ready, caked in years of accumulated vapours that had formed a crust like yellowish, poisonous snow. And here too were her bottles and bottles of special, secret mixtures, polishes and stains, with their sour clever breath and her immaculate cloths and wadding that she would make up into pads for laying on the French polish in delicate coat after coat, smoothing down a suspension of beetles’ wings, insanely temperamental, wonderfully lovely, the heart of her craft.

And on the walls about her, were colour charts of brown and brown and brown, whole panels set out in neat squares of what I could only see as exactly the same shade of brown, but for her they were different, for her they were unmistakeably only themselves and only a wazzick wouldn’t see it. And there were wazzicks on all sides. Like the men who tried to bring in pieces for her that hadn’t been sanded to a frictionless glide. They might set down, say, a table and before they could escape – grown men scurrying like kids – she’d have swiped down one of her paws across its top and let out something between a groan and a scream and then would come the tirade, the blistering, diminishing abuse of all they were and ever could be and, no don’t take it away, she would do it herself and – sure enough – she would take up the glass paper and smooth and smooth until all was well. And this was my grandmother, this man-destroying tyrant, this magnificent perfectionist with untireable arms and unfathomable ways of seeing.

 

*

 

On that initial day – after crunchy bacon sandwiches from the far-away, communal canteen – she had begun to introduce me to her skills: to show me her patience, her delicacy, her confidence. I had only met the woman who couldn’t leave a wrapped present alone, who always had to peek. She was the one who couldn’t sew or knit or even really make a sandwich because of her big, rough hands – my grandfather, a steelworker, cooked and cleaned and petted, his was the gentle touch. And she would panic if he was late home from work by more than a few minutes, would fret over his health, over everyone’s health, would worry herself to prostration over vastly unlikely possibilities. But here she would pour herself into the art, work until she was at least leaning up against perfection. Her hands became clever, deft, would lay down the finest veils of varnish, irreproachably even. And she’d never taken an apprentice, because no one was good enough – not for her recipes, for her discipline, for the glory of what she could do.

But I was her only granddaughter and I truly did love wood and I was taking an interest and while she worked our awkwardness and jangled nerves and silences fell away as she explained things and yet … I was hopeless. Let loose on off-cuts with the spray gun I produced only ugly runs and trails and gummy horror. I was unable to learn. I liked to sand – surely it wouldn’t take a genius to sand – but I couldn’t feel the subtle lines of things – how sharp corners must stay sharp, how horizontals must stay absolute, constant – and, in any case, I got too tired too quickly. And my French polishing … even with the easiest mixture I could feel its hackles rising under my pad, outraged as I slathered it on all wrong – and I would smooth it back with meths, almost wash it away with meths, and try another pass and then all would become just as sticky and dreadful as before and on it would go, never improving – but somehow she didn’t shout at me, didn’t rant, only smiled, because yes it was so very difficult and she would make up another pad and we would try again …

In the end I was consigned to making up the cardboard lattices they sometimes used to pack round items for shipping, or to whittling away at off-cuts. I was company for her – I was the reason that for the whole of that summer no one in the workshop could ever ever swear – on pain of her displeasure – but I was no apprentice.

 
And I was already heading somewhere else – off into books and writing – towards a different craft, one that my grandparents held in a kind of superstitious respect. They suspected it would lead to dark moods and complications and long walks in bad weather – which it did – and eye-strain and spectacles – which it didn’t. Eventually, my grandmother told me that she wouldn’t be telling me her special recipe for polish, because it could only have been for me if I was serious about the work. But she did give me a bottle of her mixture – a dark brown mystery, unstoppered it smelt enjoyably bitter and alert and I did use it, did painstakingly polish a pair of old wooden shuttles – relics of my hometown’s industrial past – and in the end they didn’t look too bad.

And in the end she was proud of what I did – she lived long enough to see that start of my being published, to talk about it endlessly to relatives and strangers. And she could read the story I wrote about her and the potatoes and losing one job and finding another and then my grandfather could show it to people at her funeral, still helpless with her loss, pressing the magazine into the vicar’s hands because this would be the kind of thing a vicar would understand and was proof of her, was something still there.

 
No one explained to me until she was long gone that her first husband, the one I never met, had died soon after their wedding. One day so much in love that they were each other, had the same haircut, wore suits cut from the same cloth and then a corpse beside her, waking to a corpse and what we would now call a nervous breakdown – they’d have to sit her on a chair in the street if the house was empty, so horrified was she by being alone. And a new husband, younger, an athlete, a man who would and did outlive her, but always the dreams of her first love, of Jack Peace, not Joe Price. And always she would tell my grandfather in the morning – I dreamed of Jack – and he would bear it. And the tantrums and the screaming and the rages that blew up from nowhere and then evaporated – he bore it all, while she doted on him in her strange, harsh, passionate way. They were together more than forty years.

I’m the same build as my grandmother, I look much the same as she did at my age. Another unwomanly, angular perfectionist. And maybe she helped to make me self-employed, to keep my own hours and to always own my workplace – not just before everyone else came in. And my house is full of wood, of finishes and waxes and grains. Only one thing in the place is French polished – a table. I did it myself. And thought of her shaking her head at me all the while.

 

Photograph by Jarrod Lombardo

The War Artist
Going Back