Making Grandma’s Goodbye

Grandma's Goodbye image: street scene from Armley, Leeds, UK

Street scene in  Armley, a working-class district of the then heavy-industrial town of Leeds, England, c1966. Note the gas street lamp and shortage of cars. Steam traction was almost gone from Britain’s railways.

The photographer went back in 2003 to the street to see what it looked like. The houses on the left had been gone since the early 70s, and he found that the 1970s buildings had also been demolished. All that there was at the end of the street was an open space with a grey iron security fence around it. The back-to-back houses on the right are still there, and lived in comfortably.

The scene is similar to the part of Rotherham, Yorkshire, in which Grandma and Grandad lived all their lives within the same square half-mile.

photo: Bill Chapman

We all recycle. Often, it can be unintentional. You hear someone’s music and it comes out much later as your own, dredged out of deep memory without deliberate or conscious copying. Many pop music writers have been nailed for this, some of them surely innocent. Looked at one way, it’s an example of an oral tradition. That’s my excuse.

When I was tiny and just starting to look around at the world, my grandmother lived in Rotherham, Yorkshire. She taught at the kindergarten down the road, while my grandfather was a boilermaker at a factory a short walk away. The main local industries were coal mining and steel: coal distant but steelworks at the bottom of Cavendish Road, which you always could smell. They lived in a very settled working-class community. The area was very stable when I was a child: socially coherent and the front door never locked before bedtime, in dramatic contrast with the social disintegration that would follow a generation later following the collapse of the area’s sustaining heavy industries.

Grandma used to recite an endlessly cycling rhyme for me, which had been passed down to her orally. I never saw it written down anywhere.
It’s as endless as was the daily grind in her time.
Round and round.

To go to work
To make some money
To buy some bread
To make us strong
To go to work…

To that curious child of three, this was fascinating.
And accurately reflecting most of the lives of the grown-ups towering over him.

To go to work, granddad would get up for the morning shift and leave the house ten minutes before six, which in deep winter would be in total darkness. Jenkins’ Boiler Works was nine minutes’ walk away through the soot-stained red brick streets of industrial Victorian back-to-back houses, which looked like those in the Leeds picture above and thousands of others through the north of England. Grandma would light him his one cigarette of the day and kiss him on his way: goodbye, my love. They loved each other very much, in that undemonstrative, Northern English style which is often mistaken for absence of affection.

This was an easy lyric to write. I just had to put myself in grandma’s mind, saying goodbye to the love of her life on every cold, dark winter morning. I had the chorus (thank you Grandma), half of the verses and bridges, and a rudimentary tune. Sarah Jane Morris and I finished it off together and she delivered the suitably exuberant vocals. The song is not about drudgery. Like the endless rhyme, it’s about persistence and making the most of what you are given.

I appropriated those traditional words. No apologies.
As a folk poem, they were just begging to become a song chorus.
I hope my Grandma would have approved.
The megamix would have taken some explaining.

– MT March 2006, revised October 2006