Richard Hoyes decides to tell it straight

16th June 2000 at 01:00
I neglected my granny. I hadn't called at her house in Sheffield for years. Then one day at a family reunion I had a chance to make good. I began our "lesson" with arithmetic. "Do you remember when we last met? It was my wedding." She nodded and smiled.

I say "lesson" because it was like trying to cover everything in the syllabus in 50 minutes.

I told her I now had a couple of kids. And a mortgage. I'd moved down south to this place called Farnham in Surrey. She nodded and smiled.

"I remember," I said, "when grandfather retired." He had been a cutlery grinder at Butler's. "You told me to go and meet him," I reminisced, "when he got off the bus from his last day at work."

She nodded and smiled.

"You expected something, didn't you Gran? You thought he'd come home with a leaving present, a canteen of silver cutlery at least. You had this special tea arranged. You'd opened a tin of salmon. 'He might need some help,' you hinted, 'carrying things.' "I met him at the bus stop and he had nothing. 'On holiday for good now, Grandpa?' I said. He grunted. I remember walking with him down the hill and the whole city of Sheffield slipped away in a cloud of smog behind us. He was leaving the world of work behind.

"When we got home there was a right to-do. 'Didn't they give you anything at all?' you said. 'I didn't tell them until three in the afternoon,' he replied. 'I didn't want fuss'."

At this point in our reunion my grandmother looked up. She wasn't nodding or smiling. "I don't know if you're talking to me or not young man," she said very firmly, "but I'm deaf you know."

I was too old to be young. It was a put-down. It was one of those lessons we've all given. What did you learn in school today, Grandma? Not a lot. She died soon after.

Nowadays I cherish the elderly. I don't tell them stories, embellished by metaphor (that hill - ugh! Sheffield slipping away - cliche!). I listen carefully to everything they say in case I never see them again.

Recently I was at a family gathering with my wife's nne uncles and aunts who all went to St Peter's school, Evercreech, Somerset. They reminisced. It was the usual stuff, spoilt somehow by being so familiar. We've heard it all before, haven't we, via books and television? "We took a baked potato in our pockets to warm our hands." Yeah, yeah, Cider with Rosie (they'll be told to "sit here and wait for the present" next, disappointed when they don't get a gift, a Laurie Lee anecdote I've never quite believed in). I nodded and smiled. I heard about Cakey Brown the baker. Mousey Evans the farmer. And I thought, "I've met these picturesque people before in countless local authors' books and wondered how much is embellished." Then, suddenly, a story so good it had to be true.

"Remember Fridays?" they said. Oh yes, they remembered Fridays.

"Miss Revers brought the rubber udder and taught us how to milk. She was French.

"And the boys came down from Batcombe too."

I can see the boys from Batcombe now, streaming down the lovely hills of Somerset, down Creech Hill, down Lusty Hill, eager to be taught by the French mademoiselle how to squeeze the rubber udder. Mademoiselle Reveuse! (French for dreamy.) No wonder Prince Charles is keen on rural studies for GCSE...

No, stop, Richard, you'll mar a good tale with your arch contrivances. Anyway, Lusty Hill is the other side of Evercreech.

Embellishing the poetry of stories with the enchanted hills of Somerset and Sheffield means important truths get missed. Why hadn't my grandfather wanted a fuss the day he retired? Had there been an issue over collecting for people who were leaving? Was he the Butler's grinder who didn't fork out (sorry, couldn't resist that) when somebody left?

The tale, like the perfect lesson, tells itself. It emerges without metaphor or quip. In time I'll learn to tell it straight. And no one will look up and tell me, mid-flow, "I don't know if you're talking to me or not." Wanna bet? Schmuck...

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail:

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