Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Victoria Park life

When we visit Victoria Park in Hackney it takes me back to its namesake in Cardiff. It's more than the name. They look alike, as do, I imagine, most of the country's Victoria Parks. Victorian park designers - or, at least, designers of Victoria Parks - appear to have followed the same template: two-parts savannah-like parkland combined with one-part gardens around a water feature.

Developers of houses fronting Victoria Parks also appear to have adhered more closely to a period than a vernacular. Red-brick terraces with apologetic crenellations and multiple modest peaks; reticently and domestically gothic. My maternal grandparents, Nan and Pop as we called them, lived in one of these houses - one of the ones looking out onto the Cardiff edition, Victoria Park in Canton.

Looking back, I wonder how they afforded to live there, being a working class couple (he was working as a drayman, for Whitbread I think). I'm sure they worked and saved hard and I suspect the neighbourhood was going through a shabby period when they bought. Two other accommodations would also have helped. My great-grandmother - Nan's mother - lived in the front room on the ground floor and they also let some of the upstairs rooms.

We children called my great-grandmother Nanny-in-the-Cupboard: in our early years we literally believed she lived in a cupboard rather than the front room, a theory made more plausible as we weren't allowed past the door. On our arrival, we'd walk down the hallway when a side door would open and she'd stick her head out, usually making some comment that might be generously described as cheeky. She was a small woman, barely 5' tall, whose blonde curls were usually tightly packed into a hair net. She always wore light pink lipstick striped across her lips like warpaint.

Her challenging comment would usually be addressed to my Dad who she often dismissed as a 'Welsh bugger', despite her being Welsh herself (her name was Gwen Thomas). However, she was a Cardiffian, the only true city dwellers in the Principality. They have a distinctive accent - an inherently cheeky, nasal twang not dissimilar to the city accents of the West Midlands - and the dismissive, mocking attitude to the inhabitants of the rural hinterland typical of the traditional urbanite. She treated my Dad as something of an aboriginal, warning her daughter that the man her grand-daughter was marrying had 'a touch of the tar-brush' about him.

She was a game old girl, who went down the pub well into her nineties, smoking, drinking, playing the piano as well as skittling.  She obviously had quite an appetite for life, something she shared with her first husband, my great-grandfather, the son of recently-immigrated Lithuanian Jews.  He'd done well for himself, learning to ride whilst with a British cavalry regiment in Egypt during the Great War (where he contracted the malaria that killed him in his late-thirties) and running a car showroom on London's Portland Street that was sufficiently successful to allow him to continue his riding on Rotten Row in London's Hyde Park.

I've seen a photo of him: he had a handsome aquiline face, with a twinkling but self-contained expression, as if something that should have been disclosed wasn't. However, this may just be a consequence of my seeing him through the filter of his indiscretions. His appetite for life got the better of him in a way that put himself on the wrong side of the law. He was a convicted bigamist: Nanny-in-the-Cupboard and her three children were run in tandem with another wife and family and with at least one mistress.

However, his charm seemed capable of compensating for his transgressions. Apparently, at his trial - at Marylebone Magistrates Court, I believe - his two wives and his current girlfriend (potentially wife number three?) took a practical view of proceedings and befriended each other, sharing a bench at the front of the visitors' gallery when they weren't testifying. The judge in his summing-up looked over at the three petite blonde women sitting together and remarked that while he abhorred my great-grandfather's morals he couldn't find fault with his taste. This didn't, however, save him from going down for a stretch.

As I've mentioned, the other way Nan and Pop managed to defray the cost of a largish house was to let out rooms. My brother and I would often be put to bed in a vacant one. Two things stick in my memory: bright orange, clinging nylon sheets (it was the 1970s) and the readymade plastic signs screwed onto the wall admonishing 'No Soliciting'.

At the time, I had no idea what this might mean and never really got a satisfactory answer from my parents - I recall something about not being allowed to sell things from the rooms, which made me think of travelling salesmen opening their suitcases for favoured private clients. Being precocious I knew the word 'solicitor' and so suspected some arcane legal significance.

I now wonder what precipitated the signs being put up, what sort of people stayed as guests and what effect the prohibition might have had on them. It may well be that the area was more down-at-heel than I remember it.

The mysteries of the house, the fun of the park over the road with its towering slide and boating lake, as well as the odd big city treat - such as a Chinese take-away of chicken chop suey half-and-half with pork balls and radioactively pink sweet and sour sauce, or my brother and me being bought matching new gear from the Peacocks around the corner as if we were twins - all made for exciting stays in Victoria Park for a couple of country mice like my brother and me.


worm said...

A great read, especially the bigamy bit! Families are endlessly faceted, aren't they? Looking back into one's family is like looking at one of those mandelbrot fractal pictures

Barendina Smedley said...

No one could make this stuff up - what writer of fiction would have strong enough nerves to have created from nothing that sixth paragraph of yours? - nor could many, I feel certain, capture the magnificent randomness of the recent past with such clarity, intelligence and wholly unsentimental affection.

Your 'memoir' posts, whatever the excuse, are never less than brilliant. (this, for instance, not only explained something that had never made sense about an old university friend of mine, but actually does make me go all weepy every time I read it - which takes some doing!) Anyway, this is marvellous stuff. Please keep it coming.

Martin said...

Great stuff Gareth- and I thought my family were weird! Funnily enough my grandfather was a Cornish car dealer who would often drive up to town and source cars from Portland Street. So who knows they might have known each other.

Brit said...

Fantastic stuff. Can I nick your family for my book?

There are great Victoria Parks in both of my home cities, Portsmouth and Bristol. We have a lot to thank the Victorians for.

zmkc said...

What Barendina said

Gaw said...

Worm: I hope my family isn't fractal down the generations. I'd like to think a line has been drawn!

Barendina: That's really encouraging praise, thanks!

Martin: I did enjoy your stories about your uncle. The car trade does tend to attract a certain type...

Brit: Sure as long as I get a hat-tip. There's plenty to share around. I can't imagine being able to sequester dozens of acres of prime development land for an area of park nowadays.

z: What I said to Barendina. (I'm enjoying your writing very much too).