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KatGransnet (GNHQ) Fri 20-Nov-15 18:35:43

My ungrammatical nan

John Sutherland looks back on how being in the right place at the right time gave him the good education that his grandmother missed out on.

John Sutherland

My ungrammatical nan

Posted on: Fri 20-Nov-15 18:35:43


Lead photo

"She was the second generation in her family to benefit from the 1870 universal education act."

I’m old enough to be a grandparent but sadly never shall be. My only son, God bless him, is gay. I nonetheless think a lot about grandparentage and, more specifically, what an awful grandchild I was.

My gran (I called her Nan) was born in 1896, as I can best work out. 'Decent working class', she was the second generation in her family to benefit from the 1870 Universal Education Act. A 14-year-old school-leaver, she could write (licking the point of the pencil when thinking, painfully, about the next word), read (running her index finger along the sentence, licking it to turn the page), and 'number' (often using her fingers).

She was an excellent seamstress with the treadle sewing machine. She could dash away with the smoothing iron - several of them in line heated on the coal-fired hob. She served roast on Sunday, cold meat on Monday, and mince on Wednesday. Meat, without refrigeration, wouldn't last beyond mid-week. In the outside lav, the toilet paper was neatly quartered Daily Mirror and News of the World. The second made for the better read. But what did 'intimacy occurred' mean?

Sometimes, I have to tell you, I'm glad I don't have grandchildren to sneer at me. Or perhaps they'd be kinder than I was to ungrammatical nan.

Nan was, in short, a Victorian. She could actually remember the great funeral and proudly drank tea from the saucer, because 'the Queen did it' (I was never sure about that). Tea was important in other ways. She was a 'tassologist' and read the leaves. Part of her was medieval: she might have been burned at the stake in earlier times.

My father was killed in the war, before I knew him. My mother - happily liberated from childcare - left me to the care of Nan. A clever boy, I passed the 11+ and was one of the first to benefit from the Butler Education Act.

I went to a grammar school and, among much else, I learned grammar. By the age of 12, I was sneering inwardly, and sometimes cruelly aloud, about Nan's imperfect command of 'proper' English.

I recall, to my eternal shame, seeing her read a novel. She was an avid reader (in late life with a magnifying glass larger than Sherlock's) of tuppenny library romance. The novel was called Dr Chaos. She pronounced it 'Chuss'. I laughed, scornfully. She looked bewildered. I grandly instructed her on the difference between 'lay' and 'lie'. 'Lay down', she'd say. I'd shudder, melodramatically. The memory scorches.

I went on to enjoy a better life than any of my predecessors. I wasn't cleverer, I just happened to be in the right place, historically and geographically, at the right time. Lucky me.

As you grow older, involuntary memory floods back. I hate the cocky little swine I was, in that early 1950s artisan's cottage. Sometimes, I have to tell you, I'm glad I don’t have grandchildren to sneer at me. Or perhaps they’d be kinder than I was to ungrammatical nan. I'll never know.

John Sutherland's How Good is Your Grammar? is published by Short Books at £12.99 and is available from Amazon.

By John Sutherland

Twitter: @ShortBooksUK

Alea Fri 20-Nov-15 18:40:50

I can't think of a single positive thing to say in response to this.
What an academic snob this man turned out to be, how ungrateful and lacking in humanity. And then (presumably) to make money out of writing a book about it.
Words fail me.

Ana Fri 20-Nov-15 18:47:43

I was thinking the same, Alea, that is a rather unpleasant piece of writing. His grandmother was no different to many of ours - she hardly sounds ignorant or completely uneducated. And what's more, I still use my fingers when counting, sometimes!

Not sure whether the book continues the theme or not, it may just be yet another book about grammar, but I certainly won't be reading or buying it.

Bellanonna Fri 20-Nov-15 18:50:58

I read that as his taking the piss out of himself though ?

Ana Fri 20-Nov-15 19:00:13

Expressing regret for his past behaviour, certainly, but in a self-serving way. IMO. And I did cringe at the 'My only son, God bless him, is gay.'

ninathenana Fri 20-Nov-15 19:37:30

If his son's sperm was implanted into a willing female, which is a familiar scenario would he not then be the father ??

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 20-Nov-15 19:45:15

Unpleasant little git. We lived with my granny in a house, and at a time, similar to that. I could never write about my gran like that. I loved her too much. Nasty.

Maggiemaybe Fri 20-Nov-15 20:07:08

But he does say "I hate the cocky little swine I was". I think it's quite brave of him to admit what he was like. Mind you, if I'd ever sneered at my grandmother (and I wouldn't have done, because I adored her, and because she was much more intelligent than I was smile), she'd have knocked me into next week.

Elrel Fri 20-Nov-15 20:47:33

Rest in Peace, Nan! There are kinder ways than 'scornfully' to correct pronounciation.

annodomini Fri 20-Nov-15 21:36:15

According to wiki he is 'a British academic, newspaper columnist and author. He is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.' Remember Lord Northcliffe? Daily Mail supporter of the Brownshirts? Fortunately, having had a good Scots education, I have no need of his grammar book. My grannies would have had a collective fit if I had attempted to correct either of them - a flea in the ear would have been the least of their retribution.

Bennan Sat 21-Nov-15 08:29:11

I thought he sounded very smug! Our generation benefited so much from our education. My parents were hard-working, intelligent and caring and encouraged us to do our best at all times. They did not stay at school beyond fourteen but spent the rest of their lives working hard and being successful in what they did. I was very proud of them once I grew up and was able to see what they had achieved. Each generation should build on what has come before and enable the next to strive for even higher goals - think of what out DGC could achieve in years to come! Just saying!!

nightowl Sat 21-Nov-15 09:30:47

I don't read it like that. I think he's saying he's ashamed of how he felt, and how he spoke to his nan. He's acknowledging that he was lucky to be born when he was - right place, right time. I think quite a few people of our generation might have felt the same. Grammar schools took many of us away from our working class roots and sometimes created a gulf between generations. His words struck a chord with me, and not one I am proud of. I certainly respect everything my parents did to provide me with a better life than they had, but I don't think I always treated them very well when I was young and full of my own self-importance.

KatyK Sat 21-Nov-15 12:54:37

I read it like that too nightowl that he was thoroughly ashamed of himself. I also smiled to myself when he said about cut up newspaper in his nan's outside toilet. I was born in 1949 and we had an outside lav with ripped up newspapers and also a tin bath in front of the fire until the early '60s. My parents weren't Victorians but my father was a drunk so we never had money.

Galen Sat 21-Nov-15 13:38:14

My Nan was born about the same year. She was lovely but a little Victorian in her ways. I remember about 6/12 before my wedding, her telling me off for staying out late until 11pm! I was 22!

moxeyns Mon 23-Nov-15 11:09:23

I liked this piece - I felt that he was poking fun at himself much more than at his Nan, of whom I thought he sounded genuinely fond. And he does say, repeatedly, that he's ashamed of the horrible little twerp he was then.

The article is pushing his book, of course; but if his Nan inspired it, why wouldn't he tell the story?

inishowen Mon 23-Nov-15 11:42:21

I can't believe how nasty some of you are about the author. He's saying he's sorry for the way he was as a child. He understands now that his gran was as smart as he is, but didn't have a good education. Think back, were you perfect as a child?

Lellyb Mon 23-Nov-15 11:53:23

Inishowen, couldn't agree with you more.

On a more general note, I rarely post on this site but I do read a lot of the threads and I'm appalled at the amount of nastiness expressed by the same posters, time and time again. Differences of opinion - fine, but nastiness...not kind, and not necessary.

Stansgran Mon 23-Nov-15 12:40:30

I took it to mean he was ashamed of his behaviour and recognised that he was a priggish little twerp. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,Drink deeply or drink not - he was being obnoxious when he only had a little knowledge..

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 23-Nov-15 12:59:54

I'm just surprised he wanted to trot it all out again. grin

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 23-Nov-15 13:01:52

Who said, "Show me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man"? Wonder if he has actually changed at all.

knspol Mon 23-Nov-15 13:06:20

I agree totally with nightowl. The man was expressing his sense of shame and deep regret at the way he had acted.

Daisyanswerdo Mon 23-Nov-15 13:08:27

John Sutherland has written some books under the general titles Puzzles in 19th-century fiction and Puzzles in classic fiction, such as 'Is Heathcliff a murderer?' and 'Who betrayed Elizabeth Bennet?' and 'Can Jane Eyre be happy?'

I find these fascinating, perceptive and engaging.

baNANAGran3 Mon 23-Nov-15 15:43:08

moxeyns, inishowen, Lellyb - well said. "The memory scorches" shows his repentence for how he treated his Nan.