Philobiblon: Burke's old lady

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Burke's old lady

I couldn't resist sharing a little more Thomas Burke, for the following character sketch reminds me very much of my grandmother, not for reasons of class, for she clung resolutely to all possible signs of middle-class respectability, but for the narrow horizons and the determination to see the best in even the most apparently awful circumstances ...

I also know exactly the spot on Wanstead flats that he is talking about, although there are no trams there now. I used to walk Beanie there sometimes - in fact it is where she had her last country walk, and it hasn't changed much - although it does smell rather nice when the gorse is in flower.

Granny Simpson was just such another, but in a softer key. She never stood up to life. She accepted, without complaint and without appreciation ; and she is now in "the house."

But her afternoon out is a Great Adventure, and sometimes she may be seen down our street. Her whole life has been bounded by narrow streets, lowering roofs and cramped rooms.

Her horizon, physically, was the other side of the street; mentally, to-morrow. She dared not look farther. From childhood her life has been without distance or " views." She was born in Hoxton, and lived and slaved in Hoxton, fighting always for the present. Even her rent was collected daily, for her landlord knew how hazardous was to-morrow. Her life was without much sorrow or much joy ; just a dreary struggle. No man had chosen her ; no romance, which she called " nonsense," had come to her.

Single she had lived and toiled. She had little to give in the way of friendship, and therefore received none, for she wanted that vital something that inspires interest and feeling. When she could no longer hold a needle, she knew that it was The House.

Neighbours commiserated her descent and her miserable sentence, but she saw it otherwise. She was beaten, but, though she lost her spirit, she did not lose her trust in the essential goodness of things.

" 'Tain't so bad, when you look at it prop'ly. We all got to sink our pride sometimes. 'Tany rate, it'll be me first real rest. I shan't 'ave no more worry about anything."

She is a bit of a character in the district, and on her afternoon out receives many greetings. Old age and open misfortune have given her a more definite character and loosened her early reserve. People smile upon her now, though before she could not command a nod.

One outing is much like another. It proceeds something like this. She potters from the gates of The House, in its evil-grey uniform, and peers up and down the street. The sun shows a pallid face through the smoke, and falls on littered streets, ragged roofs, unkempt doorways, and greasy shops. Its rays beat up the accumulated odours of cellar and alley-way, and, to most noses, the air is bitter.
But Granny sniffs it, and approves. " Lovely day again. I always 'ave the luck. I always 'ave King's weather!"

A dockman, passing, stops. " 'Ullo, Gran. Your day orf again ? I wish I was you. 'Ere!— that'll get you a drop o' something." A few coins pass.

" Well, I never. Now, if that ain't kind. Real kind. Well, well. . . . There's a lot o' good in the world, if you only knew it.

Fourpence! Now with that I could 'ave a nice tram ride. And yet a little drop o' something'd be nice, too. It'd 'ave to be beer, though."

She pads away, debating the matter—tram ride or a little drop o' something. Then a young girl, dressed in the flashy cast-offs of the second- hand, observes her.

"Cheero, Ma ! Orf on the loose again ? 'Ere—I done a good bit o' business last night. 'Ere's something to spend at the Church Bazaar —that'll get you a glass or two."


"Well now, dearie, if that ain't kind. You've got a 'eart, you 'ave."

Granny marches on, with firmer step now. "A nice ride and a drop o' something. Well, well . . . God is good, bless 'Is 'eart, if we only knew."

Then, except on the occasions when the casual benefits of good hearts have failed her. Granny follows her regular programme. She boards an East-bound tram-car, with much mighty back-chat to the conductor, and takes a ticket for Wanstead Flats; and on the journey looks keenly about her, seeing everything and enjoying everything.

There isn't much doing that escapes her. At the Flats she leaves the car, and stands for some moments, looking upon the " view." She looks upon an open space of
withered grass and tired, bald turf. The turf is usually littered with oddments of paper. Behind the broken bushes the tram-cars clatter, and the horizon offers ash-heaps and factories sending smoke across the brown grass.

The stunted trees give it an air of desolation. Granny stands and sniffs and sniffs. “Different air out here altogether. Country air, life. And what a fine view. Well, God is good, bless ‘Is ‘eart, letting me get out ‘ere. And, if I was a real lady, I’d come and sit out ‘ere every day!”
(pp. 143-6)

(On mothers see also my post on Rachel Speght's poem.)

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