When I was 10 years old, living in genteel poverty in Liverpool, I had no doubt who was the most powerful person in the world: It was my Paternal Grandmother. She was the archetypal matriarch. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed-Without-Question! Even by her grownup children, one of whom, my father, who was, of course, the second most powerful person in the world.

Together, these two people ruled my universe. Even the poor have rituals I discovered and one ritual for my family was a visit to Grandmother's house every Sunday afternoon for tea.

Her house was on Latimer Terrace, off Scotland Road, the poorest part of the city but it was separated from those around it by a gleaming brass knocker and a sparkling doorstep, whitened faithfully every Saturday night by my youngest aunt. It was taken for granted that the daughter would take as much pride in the task as would bless Michael himself in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. After all, we were respectable people and doorsteps were emblematic of that respectability.

My grandmother had no soft, cuddly corners where you could snuggle on her lap while she caressed you with endearments. She had no honeyed phrases that could comfort you out of a toothache. What she did have was an indomitable will. A sense of pride in who and what we were that left us in no doubt that we were all persons of not.

Her own children adored her. Her grandchildren were in awe of her authority which was handed down by our parents unquestioningly.

What she said about hair - 'It's a woman's crowning glory' - dictated the length and style of every female in the family.

Mine was long enough to sit on. What she said about films - Bambi was the only one that received unadulterated permission as suitable for respectable children, such as we were -  meant, that we had a very limited access to that art form. Books she naturally censored with as much criticism as she hurled at "those women" whose doorsteps never measured up to her platonic ideal of whiteness.

The censorship of books did not effect me greatly at that time. We owned only two books in our house, both on my grandmother's "Yes-list" but unread by any of us though we would all agree they were "good" ones. They were 'The Queen's Quair' and 'Ivanhoe'. No one quite knew how we had acquired them but we felt that our natural superiority over the neighbors was enhanced by their mere presence.

I didn't notice the censorship until one Sunday afternoon at my grandmother's house.

Waiting for the customary teatime treat of salmon sandwiches and Victoria Sponge cake, bored by the gossip of the adults (as you know, children were supposed to be seen and not heard}, I discovered a book from America. Politely interrupting the conversation, I asked my grandmother if I could read it. “No," she said firmly.

There the matter would have ended and the slow-moving time of a child imprisoned in a well-polished parlour where the loudest sound was always the quarter hour interruptions of subdued adult conversation by the Westminster Chimes of the clock on the sideboard would have wound its way inexorably through the tedium of a dull Sunday. But that day, for some inexplicable reason, my father demurred. "Oh let her read it," he said, "you know she's a very good reader." This was said with just enough pride to make his point, but not enough for me to think that I was in any way extraordinary for the amount and kind of reading that I was doing at that young age.

Strange indeed is the hand of fate! At that precise moment, my doorstep cleaning aunt came in carrying the tea things and overheard the conversation. "Oh, Mam," she said, "Let her read it. It's about a young American girl something like herself."

Amazingly, my grandmother agreed. "Alright," she said. "But," she added, turning to me, "don't read it all at once!"

The oddness of that remark did not register with me. I was immediately ensconced in the nearest wing chair with my feet dangling at least six inches off the Axminster carpet. I didn't even hear the clock chimes. I didn't know that adults were exchanging slightly malicious gossip at both my elbows. I knew only that I was spellbound. I had been transported across the Atlantic Ocean to a strange new place in New York City where a young girl was learning about a life so different from, yet so like my own that I was filled with a wonder that only those addicted to the power of the written work can understand.

My fictional journey was broken by the appearance of the tea trays. That day, I would gladly have sacrificed all the cream cakes and jam tarts in the entire City of Liverpool for a further reading of that book. "Oh, please, may I take it home? PLEASE?" I said in my most adult-cajoling voice, tossing my crowning glory for greater effect. "Indeed you can't," she said. I died. "But," she added, surprisingly, "You may read it next week." I recovered.

Needless to say the following week crept by as slowly as a Mersey Fog. Sunday finally arrived. I barely greeted my relatives as I rushed for that book.

It took me quite a number of Sundays to finish that book but it was one of the most unforgettable journeys that I have ever taken and, since that time, I have travelled many a fictional mile.

I've never known how much psychology my Grandmother ever knew because, of course, it hadn't been invented when she was born. However, I've always known that she inculcated in me that spring an insatiable reading appetite that was whetted by the unbearable suspense of having to wait a whole week before knowing what was going to happen next. Whether she did it deliberately or inadvertently, she made me appreciate both the pleasure and the pain of being so engrossed in a character that real life seemed to cease between episodes of reading.

I LIVED for those Sunday afternoons. I wept when the book ended. Not because the ending itself was such a sad one but because, in my mind, no other book could ever measure up to the one I had just read. Not one!

Life taught me differently, as you well know. Many other books have given me just as much pleasure but none were ever read under such unusual circumstances, under the watchful eye of a remarkable grandmother.

My grandmother died before I could explain to her what psychology was. Nor was I ever able to share with her the wonder of that book.

I like to think that she somehow understood its importance to me. Perhaps she would smile a little slyly, if she were to be told by those who monitor such things that the book I loved was unsuitable reading, 'not quite respectable' for a ten-year-old who was reared knowing the importance of whitening doorsteps. A ten-year-old who was, thanks to my grandmother, from that time one, far more interested in tree-growing in Brooklyn.

As it turned out, reading became my passport out of the grinding poverty that both my grandmother and I were born into. I lead a very different life now.

None of my doorsteps needs whitening and there's no brass knocker on my door. I do have a great library of books, many of which would not meet my grandmother's criteria of suitability.

Yet my Liverpool grandmother's influence is still present in oddly unexpected places. Lace curtains grace my windows and, whenever company is expected for tea, you can be sure that I have scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees. Now, that I am CERTAIN, would meet with the approval of my Grandmother.


(from the Of Time and the City website community)

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This story was added on 17th September 2010

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