History, dead and alive

My aunty Nelly,
she had a wooden belly,
And every time she walked,
it wobbled like a jelly.

That’s what I woke up thinking this morning. It’s a skipping rhyme. That’s what my mind does, left to its own devices. I’d been dreaming about life in Lancashire in the 1950s, back when I had several Aunty Nellys; There was Aunty Nelly Bourne my mum’s sister, and Aunty Nelly Simcock my Dad’s sister (married a Simcock), and Aunty Nelly Gannon, who had married my Uncle Hugh, and Aunty Nelly Shufflebottom (true) who wasn’t an Aunty at all but was adopted as one. Oh, and there was Aunty Nelly Grimshaw who … no, I can’t remember where she came into the story, but I do remember her wrap-around pinny, her apologetic hand-wringing mildness, the wide wide reach of her forehead … hang on… she had that forehead. Us Gannons all have huge foreheads. Maybe she was originally a Gannon before she met a Grimshaw…. and then there was Aunty Nelly Arnold. She was made of much sterner stuff than anyone else I have ever known. Really. Formidable woman. She had no children, her husband was long dead, she had little conversation, and we saw her only on a Saturday afternoon when we were coal collecting on the slag heap.

The main workings of the mine stopped at mid-day on Saturday, leaving just a skeleton team to keep the shafts ventilated and drained. That meant that there were no gangs of men on the waste heaps and we could scavange for our families. It sounds like child labour now but it was a raucous game back then – a competition to fill prams and carts and wheelbarrows, and to see who could get the most. Everyone on the slag heap was under the age of 15, apart from Aunty Nelly Arnold. She must have been about 60, I think, and scrambled up the sliding, skittering heap without our speed or agility, but with silent determination and great big feet in great big boots, her elbows jutting out like sails on a boat, keeping her upright when the coal beneath her feet began to slide. We played and whooped and skidded around her, fashioning slides from sheets of iron, but she was single minded.

She didn’t hang around on the lower slopes, either – she was up at the top with the big lads, with the daredevils and the tomboys. We filled our prams and carts with the coal, but she had a sack around her neck, dangling in front of her, until there was no room for another nugget, another pebble. Then she would lower it to the ground, turn her back to it, put the handles around her forehead and walk home, bandy legged, with enough coal to keep her fire going for a couple of days.

She would have carried far far more than this, but you get the idea.

I don’t know what her family name was, but she was called Arnold because she had come to Lancashire from Arnold, near Nottingham, as a young bride, a lace maker, dumped down in a town where there was no call for her skills. It was hard to imagine her huge rough hands – caked in coal dust whenever we saw her – making delicate lace, her broad shoulders bent over a dancing wave of nimble bobbins, delicate white thread weaving into magical patterns. But that’s who she had been and what she had known, once. If she could have known that one day she would be scaling a slag heap for coal waste, would that young woman still have walked down the aisle to say “I do”?

I wonder if there was a deep abiding love in the marriage, maybe that’s why she stayed a widow. I hope she knew love. I hope that’s what kept her going in the long lonely years.

Every week she would ask after our Aunty Nelly Bourne (who we lived with) and every week as we returned home Aunty Nelly would ask after her. As the only Protestant in our family she didn’t go to Mass, and no one had telephones to keep in touch so this small contact was important. I used to think that this exchange and this outing, was the only one she had all week but that must be nonsense – she must have gone to the shop for bread and milk, she must have had neighbours who knew her in those dense terraced streets. Maybe she had a great life – maybe I misunderstood. Maybe she had a hundred friends, long nights of laughter and beer. Maybe she just didn’t have much patience with a crowd of dirty urchins. Maybe the writer in me, even then, imagined a far more tragic life than the one she really led. I hope so. I don’t know what happened to Aunty Nelly Arnold, or any of the other aunties who – for a few years – loomed so large in my life. All dead now, of course.

If we were to meet now… “Look, Aunty Nelly, this is a blog, this is a computer, this is a mobile phone, this is a colour television, outside is my car, that’s a gas fire, this is a washing machine, that’s a toaster, that’s a microwave…. this funny thing here is called Alexa….. and listen, there is no coal in the house, none.” Maybe that’s the bit that would really intrigue her. No coal! No coal when her whole life revolved around coal. Coal kept her warm, heated the water to wash her clothes, cooked her food, coal powered the factories, trains and shipping, coal brought in the weekly wage, coal was everything. Black gold. And coal killed her husband. Now there aren’t even any working mines left. I wonder if she could have begun to understand that. No more slag heaps, because they are all planted out or bulldozed flat. Her world is gone.

The world changes as it turns. I think I may be the last person to remember Aunty Nelly Arnold. And now you know about her. A fragile link to the past, from me to you.

Do you ever think about life when Jesus walked the Earth? I don’t mean his life, I mean the lives of people like you and me, living where we are now. If you didn’t know about children collecting waste coal just 60 years ago, think how much more we don’t know about life a couple of thousand years ago. There’s not a deal we know about the daily round of the British Isles in Christ’s day, and it’s probably the same for most places (this blog reaches 36 countries and I’m sure many will have the same wooolly past). The Romans didn’t start arriving until about 40 years after the Crucifixion, and they came with their advanced government, their legions and engineers, while us natives were still a rabble of warring tribes and small kingdoms, an agricultural iron-age society. Historical fact about our way of life then is sparse, to say the least – for example, the Celts who occupied most of Wales (where I am living now) didn’t have a written language, relying on story telling and rituals to preserve their history. Yet we have such a clear picture of life in the Middle East, the seat of learning and civilisation, we know where Jesus lived, how he spoke, who he met. Who he was and is.

It amazes me that we can be so familiar with the life of Jesus, even listening in to his conversations, and his interactions with a hundred people we will never meet. The rest of us slip away into history, forgotten in a couple of generations, but in the New Testament – quite a short book – we meet with Jesus Christ, man and God, and two thousand years later, in staggeringly different societies, in our own language, we become truly familiar with his world, his life, his teaching. I think that’s just amazing. I have a friend who says, when he talks of the Bible, ‘This is the living word’ and his voice is filled with conviction and passion and delight. He’s right. The living Word is in the living word. Living now. Open the pages of the bible and we meet with God himself. That’s staggering. The world changes, but the Word remains. Accessible, clear, so that we can meet with God. You and me. Isn’t that wonderful? Listen to this piece of Jesus’ life, from Luke 7, imagine this scene, marvel at how much we know about the God who made us:

One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

What could be clearer? Kind, compassionate, egalitarian, patient, wise…. Open the Bible and meet this man. Living history. Like Aunty Nelly Arnold, we will all slip away from this world, and soon be forgotten, but the Word will last for ever.

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