Iris Bryant would have been 89 today.
I try to imagine what it would be like to still have her with me. These days, it’s not unheard of for a woman to live to that age, and to be sound in mind, if not always in body. She’d have loved to have seen her grandchildren grow up and she’d have been desperately proud of both of them. She’d have been proud of me too. She was one of the first people I allowed to read one of my unpublished books and I was very nervous about it. Mum was a voracious reader who haunted the public library and was on first name terms with all the staff there. She was also honest. She handed me back the manuscript of A Respectable Woman with a casual air, as if it didn’t mean much to her.
“If I’d got that from the library, I’d be looking for more books by that author,” she said, in matter of fact tones. “Better get writing some more.”
It was one of the best tributes I ever had as a writer.
Mum was born in 1931 in an old weavers’ cottage in Bessy Street in Bethnal Green, East London. Her parents, Herbert and Hilda Taylor had seven children, although the youngest, Joyce, survived only a few days after birth. My Mum used to tell us that she could remember them using a dressing table drawer as a crib for the baby. The family later moved to a small terraced house in Hartley Street, close by.
My Uncle Herbie was the eldest, followed by Hilda, Violet, Jimmy, Mum and then Ronnie. The family was poor, in a way that it’s hard for us to imagine now, but fiercely respectable. There were iron-clad rules about cleanliness and tidiness and if you wore white socks they had to BE white. My Nan washed down her front steps every morning until she no longer had her own front step, net curtains were bleached and windows were cleaned even when there wasn’t much to eat. I never knew my grandfather, but I’m told he ruled the family with a rod of iron, and for all the humorous stories told about him, I’ve always suspected that all of them felt a sense of freedom along with their sadness when he died in 1946 when my Mum was just fifteen.
Wartime came, bringing the Blitz to the East End and the family separated. Herbie went into the army, Hilda joined the ambulance service and the youngest four were evacuated to Norfolk. It wasn’t a good experience, and as an adult, my Mum spoke very little of her time there. We never knew why they were brought home, right back into the middle of the bombing, but it was clearly bad. For a time they remained at home. Vi was old enough to leave school and start work, and the youngest three attended the local school, dodging air raid wardens on their way home and collecting shrapnel from bomb sites. They were still in London in June 1943 when the tragedy of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster took the life of one of their cousins and they could remember the falling of the first V1 flying bombs.
At some point, probably in 1944, they were evacuated again to a farm near Tamworth. This second experience was very different to the first. Mr and Mrs Wiggins were an older, childless couple, who probably chose the Taylors because the two boys could help on the farm, but they were very kind, if old-fashioned, and took good care of the children, inviting my Nan to visit and sending farm produce home to her when they could. My Mum was very attached to them and remained in touch after the war. I can remember the excitement of visits to the Wiggins farm as a small child.
After the war it was back to London and a short time back at school before Mum left at 14. She was already something of a rebel, and rejected well-paid jobs in local factories to travel up to the West End to work in an office. Her father was furious, believing that it was her duty to contribute as much as she could to the family budget, but Mum was determined. She was clearly bright, although it was many years later while sorting out some old family papers, that she discovered that she had been offered a scholarship to carry on with her education at the local girls grammar school. The headmistress of her school wrote a very eloquent letter begging her parents to let her go, and assuring them that the scholarship covered all expenses, even the uniform. Mum had never known about this, and I think it was a shock even after all those years, with both her parents dead, to find out that they’d refused it on her behalf without even telling her about it.
Mum did well at work, taking every opportunity she could to learn new skills. War ended in Europe and then Japan and Mum accompanied her elder sisters to the celebrations proudly wearing home made blouses sewn from parachute silk. Hilda and Vi married and soon afterwards, Hilda emigrated to Australia with her new husband.
Life changed in 1946 when my grandfather, who had been ill for many years with chest problems, probably an industrial illness, contracted pneumonia and died. My grandmother was ill in hospital with the same thing, and with elder sisters married and moved on, Mum was on her own with the two younger boys until her eldest brother arrived, rushed home on compassionate leave from the army. With her father gone, there were suddenly new freedoms for my Mum and she made the most of them. At the age of seventeen, she surprised everybody by announcing that she had signed up to join the Women’s Land Army.
Mum had very happy memories of her Land Army days near Cambridge and we loved her stories when we were children. The women’s land army finally received a veterans’ badge and acknowledgement for their service in 2007. I can’t tell you what Mum said about that, but she was actually very proud of it. I still have the badge she wore at the time. Mum’s stories made even the worst tasks sound like a laugh and talked fondly of dances at the local American and Canadian air bases. She had several boyfriends during those years, light-hearted romances with a Canadian pilot and an Irishman from an army base, called Paddy, but then towards the end of her time there, she met Kurt, a former German POW who had chosen to remain in the area after the war, working on a farm. Kurt was different, it was serious, and for a time I think she genuinely thought she might marry him, but the prospect of him possibly wanting to move back to Germany one day made her hesitate.
She was still undecided when she left the Land Army, and went up to Cambridge at weekends to visit Kurt, hitching lifts on Army lorries to save the train fare in a way that would terrify us today. Perhaps she would have taken the risk eventually, but in 1950, working as a telephonist in a City office, she was asked to be bridesmaid at a close friend’s wedding. The best man was the best friend of the groom, a young builder’s apprentice by the name of George Bryant and my Mum had been dodging him for months, knowing that Violet and Bobby were trying to set up a date. She later found out he had been doing the same thing, as he was still recovering from a broken romance. They couldn’t avoid the wedding though, they met, and my mother’s life suddenly became a lot more complicated.
It took several months for her to decide. Unusually, she was completely honest with both Kurt and my Dad, and she continued to go up to Cambridge at some weekends. Others were spent getting to know my Dad. They were both broke, so dates often consisted of long walks along the Embankment. Dad was from South London, not far from the Elephant and Castle, and wasn’t seen as a very good prospect by my Mum’s family. He was very quiet, very shy and came from the wrong side of the river, with no education. Her brothers, all as confident and full of it as she was, used to tease him unmercifully. Dad put up with it, got used to it, and won my Nan over very quickly by offering to decorate her house in his spare time. He was very good at it, ignored Jimmy and Ronnie’s tormenting and quietly waited.
At some point, he must have decided that it was decision making time. I’ve never known how that was worked out, but Mum went up to Cambridge to talk to Kurt and promised my Dad that she’d give him a definite answer on the Sunday evening when she got back. The ensuing story is a family legend, with something farcical about it which could never happen in these days of mobile phones and messaging. Mum’s train was delayed and she missed their rendezvous which led Dad to think she’d decided to marry Kurt. He went home, miserable, but then decided he still wanted to speak to her so went back out and got the underground to her house. She, meanwhile, got the underground to his house, only to find he wasn’t there. In their mutual upset, it took two more cross London train journeys before they finally managed to meet up. They were married in 1952 on Christmas Day.
Theirs was a traditional life. They lived in rented flats and houses all their lives, worked hard, saved their money and raised two daughters. Both worked their way to better jobs, my Dad spending a lot of his working life working for the Post Office and then British Telecom, my Mum doing a variety of office jobs, then staying home with the children until I went to secondary school when she took a job in a bank. There was nothing remarkable about Mum’s life, and yet in her own way, she remained quietly different.
Mum was fiercely independent to the end of her days. Although her education was severely cut short, both by the war and by her parents poverty and limited viewpoint, she was self-taught. Like my Dad, she was a reader, good at arithmetic and passionate about history. My childhood never took me on foreign holidays but I grew to know the winding back streets of London in a way that few of my schoolmates did. We walked for miles every weekend, fed pigeons in Trafalgar Square, went to every royal event, saw the Changing of the Guard regularly and got locked in the park after the firework display for the Royal Wedding, my sister and I having to hoist Mum and Auntie Vi over the fence to get out.
She supported me through school days, very hands off unless I asked for help with a problem, but willing to step in if necessary. She valued independence and would probably seem almost neglectful in these days of helicopter parenting, but she was always there, rock solid, if I needed her. She supported me through university, through working life, through marriage and children. She adored her grandchildren and was very hands on, a favourite playmate, even though my choice of late motherhood meant that she was not as active as she would have liked.
In later life, she had a variety of health problems and wasn’t always patient about it when they got in the way of real life. She and my Dad enjoyed retirement, took up sequence dancing, got more adventurous about holidays and finally got a dog. We talked sometimes about them moving to the island after we came to live here. Dad seriously considered it, he loved the countryside and being by the sea. My Mum loved them too and visited three or four times a year, but she refused to consider a move. Mum was a Londoner, and a city girl. As with her ventures into rural life as a girl, she enjoyed the outdoors, but her roots were in London, in the East End, and along the banks of the Thames where she’d done her courting and fallen in love.
When they finally moved to the island it was too late. Dad had cancer and died only a couple of months after he got here and Mum, by then, was already showing signs of dementia. She’d smoked all her life, long after Dad gave up, calmly asserting that it was her one vice and she knew the risks. We gave up arguing about it, we knew how stubborn she could be. Vascular dementia was the legacy of that vice, a series of small strokes over the years, which gradually took her away, until she no longer knew who I was.
Even in the home, with declining faculties, she was something of a legend. She found a friend who clearly reminded her of my Dad, and they managed to make themselves the centre of the day room, passing acerbic comments on whatever was going on around them. She was funny to the end, reminding me heartbreakingly of the mother I adored with the occasional sharp comment. She outlived my Dad by six years and was buried beside him on a quiet hillside in Braddan, a long way from her home town. Mum wouldn’t have given a damn about that, it was the living she was interested in.
At her funeral, the weather was appalling, and my sister and I were wholly unsuitably dressed for it, tottering over to the graveside in heeled shoes and our smart funeral outfits. The wind howled, the rain came down, and our flimsy umbrellas were instantly wrecked. The vicar, clearly Manx, was well-prepared with a big solid umbrella, and there was something slightly smug about him as he stood reciting the final words of the funeral as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There was a sudden huge gust of wind which caught his umbrella just the wrong way, and took him off his feet, knocking his glasses off and nearly sending him into the muddy open grave.
Suddenly she was there with me, laughing. I looked at my sister and I knew she was hearing it too. We stood there on that rain lashed hillside, holding each other up laughing, as we’d once had to hold Mum up, hiding behind the car at a family funeral when her much-loathed posh hat blew straight off her head and into a puddle before she even made it into the church. We cried laughing that day, despite our grief, and we did it again at Mum’s funeral, knowing that she’d never really leave us.
Happy Birthday to Iris Bryant, nee Taylor, an East End girl to the end of her days. I’ll go up in a bit and put daffodils on the grave, they were your favourite flower and both your grand daughter and I love them just as much. You’re laughing somewhere at me doing that, telling me not to be daft, to take the flowers home and enjoy them myself. I’ll get some for me as well. I always do on this day.
You were a remarkable woman in an unremarkable life, and I will never stop missing you.