Monday, February 21, 2011
In Praise of Real People
Despite living through nine whole decades of change, Mum actually resides in about 1956.
She’d still be using half-crowns if they’d accept them at the post office and her idea of recycling is to keep absolutely everything in case it comes in handy again. She likes her milk in glass bottles, refuses to use a food processor, won’t forgive the French for boycotting us during mad cow disease and berates the television for putting background music on art documentaries.
“Just let the paintings speak, and stop covering them with all that terrible noise”, she moans, adding: “These young producers today know nothing about art”. For a quiet life, you either accept what she says, or swiftly change the subject.
It was her 90th birthday this week. Jo and I threw her a surprise party, complete with magician. She arrived in a beautiful silk outfit, looking decades younger than her years, expecting to be taken out for pizza with her grandchildren, only to be greeted by half her village shouting “Surprise”. She was astonished that so many people liked her: in truth, she is universally admired, and deserves to be.
Mum’s a marvel. She helped develop aero engines for fighter planes in the war and, in the 1950s, when few women went to work at all, became general manager of a large food manufacturer. After moving to Tyneside she devoted her time to the public good, teaching disabled people and war veterans how to build and craft new lives, then later ran a national charity for teachers of the disabled. Through it all, she managed to bring up me.
She still loves to teach children craftwork, and paints excellent portraits. She is more deserving of an OBE than anyone I know; yet she’d be the first to admit that her worldly experience doesn’t equip her for 21st century technology. More than a year ago I gave her a smart new laptop, but techno-fear prevents her getting beyond the ‘on’ switch. “Oh, please show me again, dear”, she wails, convinced that if she presses one wrong button she’d fuse all the lights.
I think this rejection of the modern age has contributed to her longevity: she does everything for herself, and her brain is razor sharp. She grows her own vegetables, and can do mental arithmetic faster than I could at school, certainly quicker than I can use a calculator. She still drives herself to town and can spot a bargain at a thousand paces. She is, in short, a nonagenarian phenomenon.
She stubbornly refuses to use an ATM, believing you should always deal with a real person. The other week she was in town with my cousin and saw a big “Lloyds Bank” sign above one of those cashpoint-only facilities. She strode up to it and started pushing at the wall around the machines. “I can’t find the door”, she said, and then started to berate the machines themselves. “You’re supposed to be a bank: where are your people?” she shouted into a slot, then started bashing the wall with her walking stick until my cousin led her away for a calming cup of coffee.
She would like Tanzania: apparently they have real people inside their ATMs. On holiday there last month, my eldest son popped his card into a machine, which welcomed him to the facility, politely asked for his pin, and then made all the right whirring noises. Except that no money came out of the slot. After a few seconds he heard a deep voice calling from inside the machine: “I am sorry, Sir, I have run out of cash. I will promptly put the money back in your account.” Yeah, right.
“Silly boy,” said Mum, when he told his Granny the story. “I told you not to trust those stupid machines.” She was right, of course. Mum always is.