Sunday, 19 February 2012


Her name was Winifred, always known as Winnie or Win,  She was named for her aunt Winnie, whose full name, confusingly, was Wilhelmina.  She was born in 1926 on Walney Island, off the shipbuilding town of Barrow in Furness.  Her parents were not married when she was born - the banns had been called for their wedding, but aunt Wilhelmina had persuaded her mother to call the wedding off, and her father was not seen again.  The gentle fiction was preserved that Win was the youngest of her grandmother's large brood, not an uncommon situation in the industrial towns of the early 20th century.  Win's mother Margaret left Walney and Barrow for London three years later, having secured a ring on her finger as her means of escape, in the arms of a Scottish carpenter called Jim Griffiths.  Win stayed behind.

Margaret and Jim were my grandparents.  My father, born in London in 1930, was their only child.  Years later Win came to live with them, when she was in her late teens, putting my father's nose for ever out of joint.  But Win never quite got over what she saw as her mother's abandonment of her.  So she never liked her stepfather Jim, this making her possibly the only person in the world who did not.  Jim was a drinker, with a great shock of thick hair and a wicked sense of humour.  My father inherited both (the hair and the humour).  I got just the hair.  I think Win, my aunt, felt that her mother had been taken away from her.  She never discussed this, as far as I knew, as families did not in those days.  She and my father, her half-brother, were never on good terms.  My father died young, in 1975, at one of the regular times when he and Win were not on speaking terms.  So there was a sadness and a kind of emptiness at the heart of my father's family.  I did not understand this when I was a child, but I felt it.  I was in my twenties before I understood it.  My father never mentioned it.  There were a lot of silences in the family.

Win's mother Margaret had escaped Barrow and her background, and was a working woman in London, a GPO telephonist most of her life, and a cinema usherette.  Win herself married the boy who lived next door to Jim and Margaret, and they soon emigrated, to what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia.  Win's husband Ted was a civil servant, who became the curator of one of Africa's most important museums, something his class and background would never have allowed him to do if he had stayed in the UK.  They had no children.  But they had escaped their family and their background, and I think they were happy, living what to me was an impossibly exotic life in Africa, a continent I did not visit until the new century.  Win and Ted came to hold the views you might expect of those living a British colonial life - they moved south as "Africanisation" took hold with the end of the colonial era, and Win at least was a great supporter of Ian Smith in the Rhodesia years.  They were never really to know what became of Zimbabwe later.  They ended their African life in South Africa, where they moved after apartheid ended.  Ted died there, of prostate cancer I believe, and Win moved back to the UK to live with her mother, by then retired and back home on Walney Island, Jim having died at the age of 90.

During their African life Win and Ted came back to visit about every two or three years, for a few weeks at a time.  As time went on my brother and I grew to have fun with them.  Win was always good fun.  We looked forward to their visits.  Because (perhaps) she had no children, Win made us three, her nephew and two nieces, feel special and cherished.  And we laughed.  Always, always, we laughed.

In 1971, with one of the numerous changes in post-colonial Africa, Win and Ted thought they would move back to the UK.  They came, and they stayed a year.  I was seventeen.  My brother sixteen.  We discussed African politics furiously, with the callow certainties of youth.  During that year Win bought a raincoat.  As well you might.  It was (from memory) quite a stylish trenchcoat, belted and buckled.  My brother and I called it her "neocolonialist fascist mac" and she wore that moniker with pride.  They couldn't settle in the UK.  I was told by other family members that Ted had thought there were too many black people in the UK for them to be able to settle.  Go figure.  They had come from Africa.  They went back there, to live the life they had been comfortable living for so very long.

Win's last years were spent in Barrow in Furness, living with her mother, and then alone after her mother was admitted to residential care, and then died in 2002.  She had gone back to her roots.  But her relationship with her mother never settled.  As it never had.

Win died last week, after suffering several strokes.  I had not been in contact with her for nine years, after a complication of my grandmother's will which meant that my mother was done out of some money.  But I liked her.  I always did.  Despite the neocolonialist mac, and the neocolonialist views.

The white Africans, which is what Win and Ted became, are not remembered now.  But perhaps they should be.  Unfashionable as they are.

On Saturday I go back to Barrow, for the first time in nine years, to Win's funeral and to help do what I can to sort out her possessions, and maybe some of my grandmother's, maybe even some memories of my father which are kept there. I'll be in my grandmother's house,  and I'll say goodbye to part of my family, and part of my life.

I'll always, always remember how we laughed, Aunty Win.

Goodbye, Aunty Win.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope it goes as well as it can. Going back is always mixed and houses still hold people years - centuries- later.