- To the falling London rain
Louis MacNeice was a fire watcher during the Second World War. He sat on top of buildings across central London and surveyed the landscape, waiting to report on blazes growing out of control. MacNeice smoked his pipe, watching the shimmering rooftops and the glare of the Blitzkrieg. My nan’s old estate lay to his east, my childhood home resided to his west.
My nan was raised in Fulham, but she used to tell people she was from Chelsea, the same way folks from Peckham sometimes say they are from East Dulwich. My nan admired the grander aspects of London—flash cars, fancy houses, bright-light boutiques—but she never experienced much of that world. She put on a posh accent, mimicking perfect pronunciation, but she would let her vocal mask slip during impulsive moments. Out would pour West End cockney. She sounded like Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, in a state of perpetual transition.
My nan gave birth to her first son during the Blitz, the throb of sirens ringing as she went into labor. It was long and painful, apparently. I imagine she was pretty cockney that night.
My nan was not my biological nan. She took over from her sister, who was unable to look after my mum for several reasons, including dependency issues following the suicide of the man she loved. The man stuck his head inside an oven and gassed himself. The man may or may not have been my mum’s biological dad. My mum never bothered finding out.
My nan and my mum lived on Goldsborough Housing Estate in Lambeth. My mum depicts life on the estate with the romance of the city’s great proletarian novel, Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me. It was a romp, apparently, complete with spivs and wideboys, cockneys and the shabby gentility.
Each morning my mum woke up to greet the coal man, whom she describes in the form of caricature: cheeky and cantankerous, reminiscent of Bert, the Match Man, in P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins. The coal man would walk into the flat, empty sacks into the burner, wink at my mum, and pinch her cheeks with sooty hands. [End Page 114]
From her bedroom window, my mum would watch boys play football, pat tennis balls against brick walls, and indulge in acts of petty troublemaking. She would walk to school through alleyways in the early mornings wearing a gas mask to protect her little lungs from the smog. On weekends, she would stroll along the Thames to Southwark and stop by Borough Market to grab lunch before meeting my nan after work. My nan would take my mum home, cook tea, and sing songs she learnt during the war: “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” and “The Lambeth Walk.”
“The Lambeth Walk” comes from the 1937 West End musical Me and My Girl. The Londonist magazine, usually an authority on such matters, describes the Lambeth Walk as an exaggerated swagger, accompanied by arm swinging and elements of slapstick. My nan’s performances always made my mum laugh.
The two of them lived on Goldsborough with a bloke my mum dubs the Old Man. It’s a name I often heard throughout my childhood, always amid whispers. Talk of the Old Man, it seemed, was not for the ears of children. He was, I later found out, a nasty piece of work: con-man, gambler, often drunk, sometimes violent. He would turn up pissed all hours of the night, my mum says. She would lie in the back room, pillows covering her ears, attempting to catch some sleep.
My nan decided to leave London, to move away from the city and the Old Man. My mum had no choice. They moved to Swansea, near the coalfields in South Wales, a town one local drunkard called Dylan Thomas described as the “Graveyard of Ambition.”
My nan and my mum left London from Paddington Station with one suitcase between them.
It was the much-vaunted era of prefabs, those sturdy properties built with purpose. My mum remembers the first days in Swansea, missing...