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A Shout From The Attic: Harold Bennett - Granddad Was Banished

…Though Granddad imparted no skills to me, left me no pearls of wisdom, did not share his Werther’s Originals, and never took me anywhere, the times he spent talking to me in the cellar sitting room made the brightest and warmest memories, that stand out like oases of reality in a desolate and denying landscape. …

Ronnie Bray describes the unusual arrangements in the house where he spent his boyhood.

To read Ronnie’s entertaining biography from the beginning click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. And do look out for Ronnie’s wonderful and invariably surprising weekly column Letter From America.

Granddad and I shared the little attic bedroom. Lodgers occupied the big front bedroom on the first floor and the big attic room on the second floor where the steps narrowed for past servants. Going to bed involved the longest walk in the house, because the trip started in the cellar. Sleeping in the attic was perfect training for lighthouse keepers, not only because of the vertical distance, but also because of its isolation.

The furnishings and appointments of the house were basic; the last gasp of Victoriana, offering minimal comfort while serving to remind one of the temporary nature of one’s welcome. I lived there for the thick end of seventeen years without feeling accepted. To feel tolerated was very heaven, but rare.

The front room - Nanny’s sanctum sanctori on the ground floor- had a lush Persian carpet, brocade curtains, and a three-piece suite whose settee converted into a double bed. No one shared its comforts with her. Only once did I sit in a chair in her room that boasted the coveted Pianola, a radio that never played, and a clockwork gramophone that remained permanently silent. To enter the room one stood outside, not a little fearful, knocked at the door and waited for the stentorian command, “Come in!”

Admitted to the Presence, one’s petition was delivered in suitably hushed and reverent tones. It was usually granted. I sometimes think, at the luxury of distance, that Nanny may have been a lot nicer than she appeared. However, no one ever got close enough to find out.

Granddad was banished to the cellar-living room and the attic bedroom. He never entered the Middle Kingdom.

I remember standing at Granddad’s knee, as he sat on a kitchen chair furthest from the crackling coal fire (he knew his place), and asking questions of him. His answers were thoughtful, usually true, and delivered without haste. No one else engaged him in any discussion. As I grew older, I became aware that some of his answers were works of imagination and fiction. It was a game I learned to play to amuse the lights of my life, my sweet grandchildren.

Any love that had ever existed between my grandparents was gone long before I came. The family whisper is that he philandered when Nanny was giving birth to Auntie Nora. If that is so, he remained forever unforgiven.

Although he worked with my stepfather, and walked to and from work with him each day, in the house they did not interact. My grandfather lived a solitary life, much as I did, but for a different reason. Whatever the offence, there was but a single punishment.

What endeared me to Granddad was that he always had time to talk to me. He seemed to know everything. He was a very small, inoffensive man with a propensity to ‘chunter,’ a form of speaking without saying anything. No one can disagree with chunter. Nanny took it to be the desperate attempt of sub-specie to impress his opinion on the gathering.

Nanny squashed his opinion with a savage “Stop your chuntering!” He never could bring himself to stop. It was the last act of defiance available to him. He could not levy economic or moral sanction, since he had neither money on the one hand, or the moral high ground on the other, but his voice, though tactfully muffled, could not be stilled.

His was a lost cause, and all one can do with one of those is ‘chunter.’ In keeping with the standard practice of our family, no one paid him any heed except me. I knew what he was going through.

In my stumbling efforts to fit the demanding profile of a perfect grandparent, if I don’t know the answer to a child’s question, I make something up. Always having the answer, whatever the question does my credit good, and I will probably be dead, buried, and forgotten before I’m rumbled. My grandfather taught me well.

Grandparents should be attractive, generous, and benign dispensers of hugs, kisses and all the trappings of love. In addition, their pockets should be permanently full of irresistible sugary treats. My grandparents had no commitment to those ideals. They were preoccupied with their own heavy burdens and disappointments that kept them from seeing the needs of small fry.

Though Granddad imparted no skills to me, left me no pearls of wisdom, did not share his Werther’s Originals, and never took me anywhere, the times he spent talking to me in the cellar sitting room made the brightest and warmest memories, that stand out like oases of reality in a desolate and denying landscape.

Our conversations were not marathons, but for a few moments, I was somebody. He affirmed my humanity through the medium of simple encounter. Granddad never knew how much his words meant to me, for I had not the words to tell him. It may be that he was using me to maintain his own humanity, and that what I took from the encounters was mere spin-off. I shall never know. But I am inclined to the view that he was moved by simple kindness for a struggling boy, whose circumstances, to some extent, mirrored his own, and for whom he had compassion tinged with no small sorrow.

He died while I was in prison. Grandma had long predeceased him, and he became confused, and deteriorated through self-neglect. Although he was the only adult male with whom I had established any kind of emotional bond, I was refused leave to attend his funeral. He lived lonely and he died lonely. I would have liked to have been present to weep over him.


Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that
thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die…”

No life should be regarded as insignificant, nor any child made to feel so, when simple acts of kindness can soothe hurt souls, and make the unloved feel less so.

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