My maternal grandfather Thomas Clubbs, known to me as Granda, died forty years ago today, at the age of 81. Born in July 1899 he was always just unimaginably old, though I’m now the age he was when I was born in 1960.
I saw him a few weeks before he died. I was in my second year at university and he was ill, so sometime in March or April I took the train from Cambridge to Newcastle, found my way to his nursing home and spent my last time with my last grandparent.
He was in a nursing home because, after the death of his second wife Beattie, he had been unable to look after himself properly, as a man of a generation that did not cook or do domestic things. When I visited him he had developed severe ulcers and gone blind — I didn’t know at the the time what had caused them, but I now suspect untreated cellulitis. I remember sitting with him in the day room, and being shocked that a man I’d always seen as vigorous and energetic was so ill and frail.
He had lived all his life in Hebburn, on the south bank of the Tyne, but the nursing home, if my memory is correct, was off Hadrian Road in Jarrow and is now demolished. Although that’s based on a forty year old memory of walking from either a bus or a very new Metro station up a side road, and knowing that it was near where my cousin Elsie lives, and visiting Elsie years later when my mum had moved to Calf Close Lane, south of the A194 that runs beside Hadrian Road… and all this is supposition prompted by clues from high-resolution satellite imagery and a desire for some other kind of resolution.
I don’t remember the details of the trip north. I don’t know where I was staying — probably with my mum’s sister, Thelma, because my mum was still living in Corby and didn’t move to Jarrow until my sister went to university later that year. I do remember going to see Elsie and her mum, my matriarchal Aunt Violet, during the trip. Even though I hadn’t been to Jarrow for years, I’d been spotted on the street by a family member and was quickly tracked down
Thomas Clubbs was the only grandparent I really knew. Both of my dad’s parents had died, quite close together, in the year before I was born. My mum’s mum — Margaret, Nana — died in 1965 of the Parkinson’s Disease that had afflicted her throughout the time I was alive. I remember her, but can never be sure if I’m just animating photos in my memory like a neural network with a task to perform.
And in fact I hardly knew him at all. We saw each other during our family summer holidays when we returned to Tyneside, and I recall that when I was about ten he took me to Durham for the day, just the two of us. It was the first time I’d been to Durham Cathedral, and he told me about Bede and Jarrow. He grew chrysanthemums, and tobacco, and there was always drying tobacco in the house. He smoked a pipe and I can recall the smell of his living room even now.
We played dominoes, and upstairs there was a bookshelf with Biggles and Just William books which I could take down and read during our visits — they must have been bought for my uncle, Tommy. He would walk I n the evening to the Kelly pub for a pint. I have two slight indentations on my right knee from the time I fell over in the street and got gravel embedded beneath the skin and he removed it for me, during one of his visits to see us in Corby.
My mum always said that he was bright but never got any chances in life, as one son among eight in a working class Hebburn family. I know he was a foreman at Jarrow Metal Industries, but as I was writing this, I realised that I know very little of his life. And so I did what we all do, and Googled him — well, I searched for “Thomas Clubbs” +Hebburn.
And there it was — a single hit: his war record. You can read it here https://www.southtyneside.gov.uk/article/52831?link=Hebburn
As a teenager he joined up, and fought in Flanders. He was in the Machine Gun Corps. He was given two medals, and demobbed in 1919. In 1939 he was living at 5 Falkland Avenue, Hebburn as a Electrical Fitter with his wife Margaret, the address I remember visiting throughout my childhood. But I know little else about his life.
As I was getting ready to leave, he took my hand and told me that he had had enough, that he didn’t want to live if he was blind and couldn’t get around, that he was going to stop now. A few weeks later he died. I think he just decided to, that he knew there was no way back to the life he had lived and which he valued so much.