Tales my grandmother told me, from the Black and Tans to the Blitz
The wartime tales of Michael Russell’s grandmother helped inspire his new thriller
A policeman and a soldier of the Home Guard walk past vehicles wrecked during a German bombing raid near Marble Arch, London. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
The first story I ever remember was told by my grandmother. I was three or four.
In the square of an Irish town a gun battle rages, Black and Tans and the IRA. In a house opposite the church a man is dying. He needs the last rites, but no one will stop the fighting. The priest takes the Blessed Sacrament and walks across the square. The firing is even fiercer. No bullet touches him. A miracle.
As a child, this was a story my grandmother had heard from a cousin who was there, I think. When she was old, she believed she had witnessed it herself.
At four the miracle was less interesting than the battle. My grandmother’s tales of the War of Independence, the IRA, the Black and Tans, pictured Ireland as a dark and violent place, yet a place full of heroism and self-sacrifice. They knocked spots off stories my English friends heard from their grandmothers. But there was a light in all that darkness that she could see. She made me see it too.
And not all the stories were about war.
Sarah Josephine Harvey, Josie, was born in 1898, in Moville, Inishowen. My great-grandfather was a tailor. My great-grandmother was his distant cousin, a Harvey too, which was a tale in itself. It meant they “had the cure” for whooping cough. The family scraped an existence, surviving on seasonal farm work in Scotland. The shame of going to school without shoes was a memory Josie carried even into her final years. But her childhood tales were fond and full of humour as well. No miracles, well, apart from curing whooping cough, and no machine guns.
In her late teens Josie moved to Newry to work. We never really knew what happened to her during the fighting in the 1920s. It was said in the family that the man she was to marry was killed, though whether fighting the British or later the Free State was unclear. That was a story my grandmother never told. Looking back at the tales she did tell, that grew spectacularly in the telling, I find myself believing the one she never told was probably true. That belonged only to her.
Whether that death was why she left Ireland in the late 1920s, I don’t know. She went, like so many, because there wasn’t enough reason to stay. She worked “in service”, in the basement kitchens of big London houses. Her upstairs-downstairs stories were a window into a vanished world, but as I got older, I sensed darker truths. She was young and attractive. Behind mocking tales of the men who inhabited the “upstairs” of those houses, again there were stories not for telling. She left that world, already disappearing by the 1930s, for Camden and London’s biggest Irish community. She survived then, as she did all her life, as a cleaner. Less secure than a servant, but she said it was an escape from captivity.
She married a much younger Englishman – her marriage certificate shows her eight years younger than she was! By the second World War she lived in a couple of rooms in Mornington Crescent, with two children, my uncle and my mother. My grandfather had joined the London Fire Brigade and was, within a year, barely at home, except to sleep during the day. The Blitz was volume two of my grandmother’s stories, with all the familiar elements of good-humoured resilience and nights in Underground stations at Mornington Crescent and Camden Town.
These war stories were funny too, with a cast of characters, English and Irish, from the streets of Camden. They were often about ordinary life in London, but they had a vitality that somehow, oddly, went with the war and was a real thing. But the stories were real too. They could move abruptly from a singsong in a Camden pub to the fire brigade collecting body parts from the rubble to be disposed of without damaging morale. Everyone knew how many people were dying, but it just wasn’t a great thing to show them in how many pieces.
One morning, as Josie emerged from the Underground, the house in Mornington Crescent was gone. All that remained, sitting in the wreckage, was the black cat, who went by a now-unprintable name beginning with N. My grandfather had to stay with the fire brigade, but he moved my grandmother out of London, to a flat in Bournemouth, with my mother and my uncle – and the cat.
Into the 1950s air raid sirens were tested regularly in England. I remember the sound. When we heard it, in my grandmother’s flat, she would open the back door and wait. Within minutes the black cat, very old, would hurtle through the door to hide himself under the table. He had not forgotten Mornington Crescent.
When I began a series of Irish crime novels, set during the second World War and the years beforehand, I had no thought of my grandmother’s stories. But after finishing The City of Shadows, all sorts of things flooded back. I knew this place, its moods, emotions, more than I should. And I knew it because she did.
My grandmother wasn’t really part of the Irish community in England. She went to Mass every Sunday. Her Irish parish priests were hugely important. When my mother left her convent school, Josie got a job cleaning there. She needed that connection. She lived most of her life in England, but never entirely left Ireland. She belonged fully in neither place. On Sundays after Mass, she read about English scandals in the News of the World and about Irish politics in the Sunday Press. On the kitchen mantlepiece were two pictures. One was the Sacred Heart, the other Éamon de Valera. I was never sure which one she revered more.
Ireland was more real to her in her stories. Somehow, I am still telling them.
The City in Flames by Michael Russell is published by Constable at £14.99 on July 4th