Nothing in the repertoire of a stand-up comic is more likely to earn my undying contempt than one of those charmless gags at the expense of old people. You know the sort, one of those about smelling of wee or whatever, as memorably satirised in the “Alternative Comedy Night” episode of “Phoenix Nights”.
I have been fortunate enough to have had all four of my grandparents live until my adult years. In a generally charmed life so far, this may have been the greatest stroke of luck of all. Like everybody, I have a small collection of exceptional people that I admire hugely; Muhammed Ali, Joe Strummer and Steve ”Knocker” Norton, to name but a few. But it’s my grandparents and millions like them who are my real heroes. These are the people who gave up their youth to defeat Hitler, Mussolini and General Tojo, for goodness sake. The youth I grew up with failed even to defeat a bunch of casuals from Tranmere, one of whom was on crutches.
Then, rather than sit back to have a few pints and admire what they’d done, this generation got on with building the NHS, the Welfare State and demanding the whole gamut of freedom and equality that made possible the cushy lives of relative affluence that many of us in the succeeding generations are living. They still found time for those few pints as well, of course.
This gave him a lifelong suspicion of rice, recurrent malaria and an outstanding story about having a can of beans shot out of his hand.
Pretty much all of the most important codes for life were learnt from my grandparents. My Grandad Knott was always immaculately turned out and the personification of dignity. He hated crime and dishonesty and was driven by respect for others. One of my earliest memories was of him driving his Avenger the wrong way round an empty roundabout one quiet Sunday afternoon. When we got back to their flat, he put the keys down and told us he would never drive again because he did not want to be a danger to others. He was nothing of the sort but he stuck to that decision for the rest of his days. For all of his old school discipline though, this was a man with the joie-de-vivre to get ticked off by the police for kicking leaves around Headingley and the self-confidence to break the conventions of his time by happily cooking for his working wife.
The lady in question, my Grandma Knott, was a fireball of energy and zest for life. One of my Grandad’s probable motivations for cooking dinner was that it reduced the risk of it being thrown at his head if he came home five minutes late with a whiff of Tetley bitter drowning out the Old Spice. My Gran could spot a slight at a hundred paces and nurse it into a grievance the size of a block of flats. But she had warmth, a sense of joy and a desire to care for others that filled you with love for her. Her spirit was all about never giving up. Even in old age, her flat was earmarked as the place to head for in the event of a nuclear attack, despite it being on the thirteenth floor. This was because its cupboards were always full of food she’d walked to the other end of the city to buy because it was tuppence cheaper than in the shop down the road. Not that this brought her any financial benefit; her delight came in doling out the fruits of her bargain hunting to family members whenever they came round.
My Grandad Norton was the only member of my family before me to have lived overseas for several years. But rather than a nice house up a Swiss hillside, he spent four years in the Burmese jungle fighting the Japanese. This gave him a lifelong suspicion of rice, recurrent malaria and an outstanding story about having a can of beans shot out of his hand. Grandad Norton was the Tommy Cooper of Hull’s Meadowbank Road. He made a collection of half-a-dozen terrible jokes last a lifetime and had honed them into works of comic genius. He could make you laugh just by passing a bottle of cow juice across the front of his face and saying, for the thousandth time, “there you go, pasteurised milk” (past-your-eyes, geddit?). Note to family: I realise opinion is divided on this matter. When he was being serious he had a keen sense of the importance of solidarity amongst the working classes and was a big admirer of those who were willing to stand up against unjust authority, ideally with wit and charm, such as Muhammed Ali.
When we got back to their flat, he put the keys down and told us he would never drive again because he did not want to be a danger to others.
His wife, my Grandma Norton, is everything a grandmother is supposed to be and more. Grey-haired, warm, a little on the cuddly side and an expert baker who operates on the premise that a “growing lad” can never have enough to eat, even when he is forty years old. She used to babysit my younger brother and I on a Saturday night, always conveniently falling asleep in the chair just before our bed time. We used to wake her up and nip up to bed in the interval between “Match of the Day” finishing and our parents coming in from their night out. Often we would squeeze in a re-enactment of Marvin Hagler’s latest brutalising of some hapless middleweight as well. This was my idea of following Grandad Norton’s advice that if trouble broke out we should always pick on a little bloke. All of my grandparents enjoyed a laugh. But Grandma Norton loves one more than most people, often at her own expense and we have always been happy to oblige.
All in all, my grandparents have given me a priceless inheritance. Their dignity, discipline, spirit, solidarity, style, work ethic and sense of humour are not a bad set of qualities to try to live up to. And they imparted them with a lot of laughs and love along the way.
My Grandma Norton’s legs are giving her trouble and she is currently marooned in a nursing home. As the last survivor of that glorious quartet, Beatrice Mary Norton, this one is for you. Thanks for everything.
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