On Monday evening, I received the kind of phone call everyone must surely receive – yet nobody ever wants to receive – several times in their life. My Grandmother – Laura Hamilton – has passed away at the age of 81.
The sense of shock and disbelief was palpable. Almost exactly twenty four hours earlier, she had dropped me off at Manchester Airport for my regular commute to Brussels. I wish I could say there was a poignance to the last time we saw each other – but there wasn’t. Short of time, I gathered my bags, gave her the briefest of kisses on the cheek and hurried into the terminal. It’s a scene that has played over and over again in my mind.
I had always feared I would be filled with regret when Grandma passed away. I thought I would be racked with guilt at being an “absentee grandson” or troubled by aggressive words uttered at the height of my most difficult teenage years. I don’t feel any of those things, though. Over the past six months I saw Grandma more that any time since I was at primary school.
In many ways, we were like chalk and cheese. Tempers (usually mine) were easily frayed at the height of contentious debates about family matters and mild offence (on both our parts) often taken at political differences.
Nobody could claim Grandma was the easiest person to deal with. But for the fact she was an avowed atheist, you could have been forgiven at times for thinking she was a daughter of the manse. Her austere emotional strength sometimes jarred against my occasional bouts of volatility. Comments genuinely meant to be constructive and practical could sometimes be seen as insensitive.
She considered me rather spoiled – and, in some respects, she was right. While she acknowledged that I worked hard in my own way, her benchmark was always my grandfather’s long hours researching intricate physics concepts in the laboratories of Manchester University for little recognition by wider society and few of the material rewards bestowed on PR men like me.
In her last months, though, I think we finally understood each other.
I learned that her love and pride was at times unspoken (to your face) – but always there (and always expressed to others). I knew, though, beyond all doubt, how proud she was of both me and all her other grandchildren.
It was always a great injustice to her that academia was such an apparently undervalued quantity when pop stars, “con men” and “Tory MPs” (her words, not mine) seemed to have so much influence over society. To her, it was the academics, the writers and the musical scholars that deserved adulation. Perhaps she’s right.
In the last few months, I had grown to accept that my grandmother and I – a Glaswegian Socialist and English Conservative capitalist – had more in common than I once thought.
Throwing about a few words to I’ve heard to describe Grandma in the last few days – “passionate”, “strong-minded”, “loyal”, “confident”, “frustrating”, “blunt” – it’s clear that so many of them also describe my personality.
On Sunday lunchtime, just as we were preparing to head for lunch in Dunham Massey, I walked into the little-used reception room at the front of the house to pick up something I had left in there. I concluded at the age of seven – and never changed my view – that the only purpose of that room was to house Grandma’s grand piano, as well as a collection of wine bottles, foreign nick-nacks and assorted books that hadn’t found a home any of the myriad other bookshelves around the house.
On the bookshelf was a copy of a book from 1963 entitled ‘Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat’. Jokingly, I took a photograph of the book and posted it to Twitter with the comment “perhaps this is where I get my interest from”. Not perhaps; certainly. After all, how many people would have driven from Manchester and dragged their teenage son – my father – around Tito’s Yugoslavia in the mid-70s?
It was Grandma who took me on my first trip to Eastern Europe (to Saint Petersburg in Russia) back in 2002. That trip and the questions it raised in my mind about the lasting scars of dictatorship and the injustice of communism kicked off what has become a lasting fascination for me.
Over lunch on Saturday, I told her about the book I was in the early stages of writing about the modern-day culture and politics of countries on the fringes of the Soviet Union. She listened intently as I told her about my plans to visit Kyrgystan and Tajikistan in June in order to uncover yet another far-flung and mildly dangerous corner of the globe.
There are few things that would have made Grandma prouder than seeing a book in print written by one of her grandchildren. For her, the power of the (well) written word trumped weasel words and snappy soundbites. As a tribute to her, I will make sure I finish that book.
Over the past few days, a number of people have asked me about Grandma’s life.
Born on the prosperous outskirts of Glasgow in the early 1930s, Grandma was as proud a Scot as it was possible to be. While she left Scotland at a relatively young age and never permanently returned, her heart was always there. She didn’t just say she was “from Scotland” but rather she described herself as having “exiled in England for 56 years because your grandfather won’t move to Scotland”. If her will doesn’t contain a specific request for her ashes to be scattered on a lake or hill on the west coast of Scotland, I’ll be astounded.
Grandma was a lady of high culture; steeped in literature, a great lover of classical music and an devotee of art exhibitions. I don’t think I will ever hear a piece of classical music, inhale the musty smell thrown off when flicking through an old Penguin paperback or see a Lowry painting again without thinking of her.
While low-level run-ins with sloppy restauranteurs and intransigent sales assistants were frequent, I know of not an occasion or an incident where Grandma ever demonstrated spite, unkindness or intended insult to anyone. She was strong and tough – but always decent.
She disliked the anonymity and facelessness of big businesses, preferring the personal touch of local butchers and greengrocers – all of whom knew her by name and will be shocked at the loss of one of Cheadle Village’s most well-kent faces.
As a family, it’s very hard to imagine her not being around.
Her house in Cheadle has been a staging post, rallying point and shelter for generations of Hamiltons scattered all around the world – from my grandfather’s mother who was expelled from her home in Mozambique with little more than the clothes she was wearing to grandchildren, nephews and nieces needing a bed for the night. It will feel empty and soulless without her.
For my grandfather – her companion of more than fifty years – Grandma’s loss will be unbearable. Her beloved sister Margaret has lost her rock. My father, Ross and uncle Dougal have lost their mother – and all that entails. Her grandchildren, nephews, nieces and the so many others that loved her have lost someone very special.
Grandma was taken from us suddenly – but that is absolutely she way she would have wanted it. She would have thought of nothing more horrifying than the prospect of being bed-ridden and dependent on others to live, as so many other elderly people are. We can draw solace from that.
Over the past few days, my mind has been filled with images of the times we spent together – visits to Bruntwood Park, wading in the river at the end of her garden, exploring the caves at Alderley Edge, walks with her doting dog Sheeba, summer holidays to Llanbedrog and, more recently, the selfless support she has given to my political ventures.
When people pass away, friends often tell you to “remember the good times you spent together”. I do.
Rest in peace, Grandma – and, wherever you are, I hope you and Rabbie Burns aren’t causing too much trouble!