Strong drink and steel teeth

Having trouble with the folks over the holiday? You should meet Harry Pearson's family

It was Boxing Day and Uncle Alf was talking. Alf had a guttural Teesside accent. His voice was so deep it sounded as if it was playing at the wrong speed. Barry White was a castrato by comparison. Uncle Alf spoke very loudly, as if trying to make himself heard above the noise of heavy machinery. When he started talking the windows rattled and the tea tray shuddered. Often by the time he'd finished an anecdote the milk in the jug had turned to butter. Uncle Alf was frequently attacked in pubs and social clubs. The motivation behind the assaults baffled him. It was less of a mystery to the rest of us.

We were in the front room of my great-granny's house in Marske. The front room was bakingly hot. My great-granny came from a generation to whom heat equalled luxury. A coal fire crackled in the grate, an electric radiator hummed. The house was more thoroughly sealed than a pharaoh's tomb. An ambient temperature sufficient to wilt a cactus was considered a bit parky by my great-grandmother.

There are 15 of us in this tiny room. Older women sit in armchairs, younger women on dining chairs, small children on the arms of the chairs and the laps of aunties, men line the walls. I am 12 or 12 and stand between my father's feet, his hands on my shoulders. My father has positioned himself by the front door with its promise of fresh air and escape.

From his niche between a bookcase and a cabinet filled with holiday souvenirs, Uncle Alf says, "Now here's a thing," and members of the family who wear glasses remove them, knowing from bitter experience that vibrating spectacles can chafe-up nasty blisters in the nose and ears.

"I was in the top house the other day," Alf continues, "minding my own business, like. And I've just finished saying to our lass that these bloody strikers at British Steel want to get themselves back to work instead of lounging round sinking ale all day like a pack of lazy swines, when suddenly a stool comes flying across the bar and hits us on the shoulder." He pulls a grim face, "Luckily it had clipped the back of our lass's head on the way through and that had taken the sting out of it, otherwise it might have done me real damage. Aye, totally out of the blue. Can you believe that?" And we all shake our heads, not in agreement, as he thinks, but in amazement at Alf's startling lack of self-awareness.

Uncle Alf shrugs at the strangeness of humankind and yells, "All I can say is, it's come to a pretty pass, when a bloke can't go out for a quiet drink without some hooligan hurling furniture at him."

"And is your lass all right?" someone ventures.

Alf fixes the questioner with a look that suggests this kind of enquiry is the stupidest thing he has ever heard in his life, "Of course she is," he bellows, "Our lass? She's tough as teak."

And deaf as a post.

My great-grandmother sits in a wing-backed chair, nodding. She is a tiny woman, white-haired and much admired. She is dignified and softly spoken. Unless the church bells ring. At the first peel she leaps to her feet, shaking her fist and shouting, "Damn them bloody Wesleyans!"

The bells are actually the responsibility of the Church of England across the street; chapel-goers don't ring bells, but nobody likes to contradict my great-grandmother on this point. She was born a Roman Catholic and gave up her religion to marry a Methodist ironstone miner. He had fathered five children and then suddenly, and with that lack of consideration for his wife for which Northern men are infamous, he died. In later years, the loss of her religion had made my great-granny bitter. I'm not sure if she thought she was destined for hell, but the warmth of her house suggested she was preparing for it.

After her husband died great-granny worked as a cook and a caretaker and took in washing. She and her children were always smart, her house was immaculate. "There are two types of working class," my great-grandmother would opine, "respectable working class and rough working class. We are respectable working class." She didn't say who was rough working class. Because her son-in-law, my grandfather, was in the room and she wanted to spare his feelings.

My grandfather leaned with his back against the wall over by the door to the scullery. He stood in the same place every time he went to great- grandmother's house. There was an oval stain where he rested his head and his Brylcreem had soaked into the wallpaper.

My grandfather believed in disciplined hair. Any wayward locks were ruthlessly dealt with. He went to a barber called Jack Hyde.

"What can I do for you today," Hyde would say.

"Cut it till it bleeds," he would reply.

My grandfather was fastidious about all aspects of his appearance. To watch him putting on a trench coat - the tucks beneath the belt arranged equidistantly, each fold of matching size, the flare calibrated to a microscopic tolerance - was to witness a major feat of precision engineering; when he said he was going to shave you did not expect to see him for at least an hour; polishing a pair of shoes was the work of a morning.

Sometimes when paddling with him in the sea at Redcar or Whitby I would catch him looking down. Passers-by might suspect he had spotted something interesting in the water, but I knew he was actually checking to see that his trouser legs were evenly rolled.

The bottoms of my grandfather's trousers were subject to particular attention. It was not uncommon for him to buy a pair and ask the tailor to turn them up a quarter of an inch. As a youngster my grandfather's idol had been his cousin, Gilbert, a trooper in the 17th Lancers. On summer days Gilbert swam in the river Tees at Yarm. A ladies' man, he kept his bowler hat on while in the water, so that he could tip it to any women out strolling along the bank.

My grandfather was rough working class because he came from a broken home. When he was a teenager his father ran away with another woman. Having little appetite for travel he didn't run far. Just around the corner to the next street, in fact. On the day of the departure, my grandfather came home to find his brothers, Joe and George, sitting on the front step with faces like fiddles. "Dad's buggered off," Joe said.

"Well, that's nothing to cry about," my grandad, who didn't have a high regard for his father, replied.

"I'm not bothered about him going," Joe said. "It's just that he took the three-piece suite with him and now we've nowt to sit on."

They remedied the situation later that night: waiting until their father went out with his new girlfriend, then breaking into his house and stealing back the furniture. "You should have seen us," my grandfather would say. "Our Joe with a settee on his head and me and George with an armchair each, walking down Garnel Street by gaslight like a herd of giant tortoises."

My grandfather's mother was a painter at Linthorpe Pottery. When the brothers were children, at the onset of winter she would smear their chests with goose grease and sew them into their vests. She cut them loose when the hawthorn blossomed. I can imagine the smell that must have erupted as the stitches were unpicked, although I try very hard not to.

Uncle George was my granddad's younger brother. When his teeth fell out he made his own dentures from steel plate. Once when he was walking along the beach at Saltburn a wind had blown up and George got sand in his mouth. Walking up the high street he saw a horse trough, so he took his dentures out and gave them a rinse in it to get rid of the grit. While swilling them about the steel teeth slipped from his fingers and sank

George rolled his sleeves up and stuck his hands in the water to retrieve them. At which point the parish priest walked by. Seeing Uncle George on his knees and up to his elbows in the horse trough, he stopped. "Are you all right, George?" he asked. "Yes, thank you, Father," George said, "I'm just looking for my teeth."

My grandfather tells this story now. My grandmother and her three sisters laugh. The sisters live together. They are dog lovers. They have a nervous mongrel terrier named Scrap. Once the doctor had come to visit one of them who was sick. The sisters were often sick. Illness was their hobby. It was diverse, fascinating and cheap. This day the Doctor left his new homburg on the stand in the hall. When he came back he found Scrap had pulled it down and ripped it to shreds. The doctor was angry, the sisters were horrified. "Fancy," they said. "An educated man like him leaving his hat where a dog could get it."

The sisters' laughter is drowned by a strange, gurgling cackle which sounds like the noise our Hoover makes when it sucks up one of my toys by accident. The source is two elderly and wild-looking women whose relationship to our family is so tenuous and labyrinthine that only a creature of higher intelligence (ie Auntie Nora) could possibly unravel it. They came from one of the ironstone mining villages of east Cleveland - isolated communities on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. Weird places. The nearest thing in Britain to the hillbilly towns of the Appalachians.

Years later I would work in a pub in nearby Guisborough. The pub had a function room and a dance on Saturday nights. One week the regular band couldn't play so the owner hired a piano player who'd been recommended to him by the window cleaner.

The piano player had greasy hair and a dinner-jacket so baggy it looked as if it had been designed to be worn over a rucksack. Febrile menace flickered in his eyes. He played well enough, at first, plinking and plonking merrily through "The Saint Bernard Waltz" and "The Dashing White Sergeant". Then an ageing teddy boy's moll with hair the texture of candy floss requested some rock'n'roll. The pianist launched into "Great Balls Of Fire". By the time he reached the second chorus he was on his feet pounding the keys with his fists and baying and yelping like a foxhound. I'm not sure how they calmed him down - in my mind I have an image of the manager and a fleet of waitresses hosing his crotch with soda siphons - but 25 years later the memory of it still sends a shiver down my spine.

The howling pianist came from east Cleveland.

The east Cleveland relations' mother smoked a clay pipe. They dressed in dark clothes and had powerful religious beliefs based on a mixture of Nonconformism, spiritualism and strong drink. Once the phone rang at home and when my mother answered it, one of the older of the east Cleveland women said, "Did you know Bobby Garbutt was dead?"

My mother said she didn't, which was hardly surprising as she hadn't the faintest idea who Bobby Garbutt was. "Well," the woman said, "to be honest I only found out myself this morning. When I woke up he was standing at the end of the bed asking why I hadn't been at his funeral."

Afterwards my mother had to have a whisky to calm her nerves. Coming into my great-granny's house today, she had seen them and with forced enthusiasm cried, "Oh! I didn't know you two were here!" And behind me I heard my grandfather mutter, "I thought the pair of broomsticks parked outside might have alerted you."

Now the younger of the east Cleveland relations is talking about the home-made cold tea wine she has brought. They have made it in a tin bath in an outhouse. At the mention of drink my father decides it is time to leave. He has been to enough of these things before to know how it will end. Alcohol will prise open old wounds and there will be rows and tears, followed by reconciliation and sentimental songs. The evening will climax when my grandmother, fortified by cold tea wine, and egged on by her sisters, does her party piece; tucking her skirt into her knickers and turning somersaults, while singing "Swanee River".

We gather up our coats. I kiss my great-granny, my grandmother, my aunts, and lastly and reluctantly, the women from east Cleveland, whose skins scuff like suede brushes. We say goodbye. As we leave I can hear Uncle Tommy saying, "Some Saturdays we'd have had 15 pints by the time we got to the dance hall. They wouldn't let you in if you were drunk. We ate mints and stood close together to stop ourselves swaying. Some nights I've got in that dance, gone straight in the gents, locked myself in a cubicle and sat there for the rest of the evening, clutching the edge of the toilet with my knuckles going white, just to stop the room spinning." I hear his wistful chuckle. "Hey, great days, great days," he says and then the door closes.

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