Finding Bridie

Finding Bridie

Being a girl from Swindon means that going to London is a big deal. I mean, you never know when you’ll make it back there. Even now, with Manchester on my doorstep and semi-regular London flits becoming part and parcel of having a book deal, I still feel the need to justify my presence with meaningful activity. This time, though, it wasn’t museums or exhibitions or galleries I was after. This time, I was going to find my grandmother.

Bridie in the Sixties

Not literally, because she died in the mid-nineties. Part of her story, though, was played out in Kensington. My plan was to walk across Hyde Park and find where it had happened. It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.

As a teenager, my social life was completely bound up in the Swindon Young Musicians, where I played second, and then first, flute in the Youth Concert Band. If you look closely at the photo you can probably see one of the first boys I ever kissed, and a few more I had major crushes on. (Don’t look at it for too long, though. As my daughter commented when she first saw it, the Eighties were cruel.) Every year we made a trip to the Albert Hall to take part in the National Windband Competition and I still remember, in between all the flirting and snogging and hopeless crushes, looking past Prince Albert on his plinth and wondering where exactly my grandmother had lived.

Swindon Concert Band

Bridie was Irish which, in our small Wiltshire village, made her stand out. The Wanborough of the 1970s wasn’t a hotspot of ethnic diversity. It’s not exactly a melting pot now, but when I was in Upper Juniors and Andrea Cleworth moved down from Manchester, it was like she was from another planet. Bridie was my mum’s mum and lived next door to us. I took her for granted, as you do: her accent, the boiled ham and mashed cabbage, her endless supply of sisters around the world. I loved it when they visited, with assorted grandchildren of their own. They’d talk and laugh and smoke, and make sherry trifle with whiskey and slip fifty pence coins into my hand when they left. By this time, she’d lived in England for over forty years, absorbed and accepted and, as far as I was concerned, just part of the background of my life.

The one thing I knew for definite about Bridie’s London years was that, having arrived as a teenager in the early Thirties, she had somehow ended up working for Julie Lasdun, the pianist mother of Sir Denys Lasdun, known for hosting the musical elite of the day. One of my favourite family stories has always been that the first black person my grandmother ever met was Paul Robeson. In a family largely untouched by glamour, this was our dusting of fame, even if I wasn’t really sure who Paul Robeson was. There’s a bit in Cider with Rosie when Laurie Lee recounts his mother’s encounter with an Indian prince, a shimmering highpoint in her memory. I came across the passage just recently, and realised how much the two stories were entangled in my memory. It’s too late to check, now, or to ask about the other people Bridie might have met, to press for more stories. I think that’s ok, though. It leaves me free to plunder and create, uninhibited by fact.

Paul Robeson, whom Bridie met at Palace Gate Mansions

Some months earlier on another London trip, I’d made a more impromptu attempt to find her, but a search of Google on my phone to find Sir Denys’ birthplace had ended up with me taking photos of the wrong house entirely. This time I was better prepared. I’d done that family tree thing and paid a visit to Ancestry.com.

Seeing the record of Bridie’s death was more moving than I had expected. I’d watched her slip into the labyrinth of Alzheimer’s more than a decade before the black and white date on the screen, and in that long-drawn-out period of grieving I’d lost the grandmother of my childhood even before she died. The one I could slip round to when I was in trouble at home, the one who read me The Flopsy Bunnies over and over. Who bought me Refreshers when I was home from school with a cold, and who came down the stairs waving a poker when my cousins were staying and we had a secret midnight feast. Her marriage record turned out to be unexpected as well when I counted up the months to my mum’s date of birth. Who was at that wedding at Kensington Registry Office? She had sisters living in London by then, surely they would have been there, but what about her new husband’s family? Did gossip follow her to her new home? Did she care? Did they?

Photo - Bridget and Rowley

The Census records for the time are unavailable, destroyed by fire during the war. She’s there on the Electoral Roll, though, arriving at No. 4, Palace Gate Mansions sometime between 1930 and 1934. It’s only a tiny amount of information, just the names of the residents, but it opens a window. A household of women: Julie Lasdun, her career as a pianist truncated by arthritis; Golda Abrahams, who had come from Australia to join the musical milieu that was her daughter’s London home; Elsie Gunter, the cook who took Bridie down to her home village, the source of my mother’s middle name, the one who indirectly set off the chain of events that would ultimately include my birth. And Bridie, the beautiful Irish girl with auburn hair, who lost no time in absorbing the stylish looks of those she saw around her.

I walk through the Hyde Park of 2014 and visualise what it would have been like in the Thirties. Nannies in uniform and men wearing trilbys. The surrounding roads lined with black, upright cars, the gardens still bordered with their iron railings. I’m seeing it through the filter of an Agatha Christie, I realise, with Bridie slipping out to rendezvous with a young man, confiding her worries about an overheard fragment of conversation before deciding, fatally, not to pass it on to the detective. That was wrong, though. The Bridie I remember liked a bit of intrigue, but she was a survivor. She’d be the maid that Poirot tracked down in a distant village, unaware of the importance of the information she holds.

Palace Gate Mansions, where Bridie was in service

Beyond the park gates is Kensington Road. The pavement here is crowded with files of foreign language students, but Palace Gate itself is quiet. No. 4 has got one of those white, moulded facades, with tall windows and a first floor balustrade. British History Online refers to its ‘attractive if slightly overfenestrated street façade (with) rather a Continental air.’ Today, there’s a bicycle locked to the railings and red geraniums on the windowsill. I stand on the far side of the road and take a picture. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do, now that I’m here. I conjure up one last image, of Bridie leaving for the next stage of her life. Did she go out in style, a taxi waiting at the kerb? Or did she and her new husband walk to the Tube, her suitcase in his hand? I don’t think she missed London. I prefer to think she didn’t, anyway.

Where I turn back onto the main road, the pavement runs under the scaffolding of some building work. I stop for a moment to check my directions, and there’s a five pound note on the ground next to my foot. Bridie was never sentimental and rarely stood still, but she was always hospitable. As I bend to pick the note up, I hear her voice in my ear. ‘Mary, Mother of God, will you get a move on? And get yourself a cup of tea, now.’

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