At my grandfather’s funeral, I stood up in church and read “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon, which was written in the month he was born (April 1919). I’d forgotten to bring my print-out of the poem, so in a little modern twist, as we drove on the motorway from London to Leicestershire I called a friend in Edinburgh on my mobile and he Googled it and dictated it to me.
Families perpetrate many injustices upon each other – ask anyone – but the one involving my grandfather is worse than many. As global injustices go, this one may be small, but so convoluted and cruel is the story that it’s hard to know where to start.
Granddad was a commercial artist who had ended up sculpting models for shop-window mannequins. His life story was full of regret: he talked most eloquently about his war experiences, his memories of a friend who was court-martialled and shot for falling asleep at his post, and the loss of the family business when the factories were requisitioned for the war effort. Painstakingly, after the war, he rebuilt the business, but then he went into partnership with a cad who betrayed him, and he lost everything again as a result.
Granny died in the 1980s; Granddad lived alone in a beautiful old English village, in a slowly decaying house called Pear Tree Cottage (not just a conceit: there were pear trees in the garden). I spent many happy hours in that garden as a child, polishing a statue of Peter Pan with rose petals. Peter’s hand had been broken off and rather hamfistedly reattached with epoxy and I could never get him, or his reattached limb, clean.
My father was the second of four children. The oldest – let’s call her Ann – went wrong from a young age: she pawned Granny’s jewellery in her teens, asked for (and received) her inheritance in advance in her twenties, dyed her hair blonde, smoked, married badly, divorced, married badly again but this time to money, moved to America, and generally hurt her parents upside down and inside out. How they loved her, though! As teenagers my sister and I were heartily sick of being compared unfavourably by Granny and Granddad to Ann’s children.
By the time of Granddad’s funeral, there was something rotten in the garden: Ann had got very close to Granddad before he died, uncomfortably close, and had taken out an injunction to prevent any of her siblings from entering the house on the grounds that one (J) had been stealing heirlooms (unlikely), one (L) had threatened Granddad with a gun (sadly true), and one (my father) was not to be trusted.
Consequently the wake, such as it was, had to be held in the garden, and fearing that it would be a washout, we had packed the boot with bottles of Cava and plastic cups. Cousin P (Ann’s daughter) brought strawberries and we toasted Granddad on the sunny lawn as if nothing was wrong. Of course there was a nasty aftertaste, and I was astonished to overhear Ann telling the neighbours that she’d organized the “champagne”; but the real bombshell was the news that Granddad, in his will, had left nothing to two of his children (J and L), a small share (some 5%) to my father, and the rest, including the house, to Ann.
My father and his other sister tried and failed to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence. The will was executed by Ann’s lawyers who claimed it was valid and that Granddad knew what he was doing. Old and frail, and hospitalised for some time before he died, he could easily have been persuaded not to trust the other three of his children by the one with the facelift. So righteous and confident was she that she arranged the sale of the house to the next-door neighbours, who had coveted it for years, as we stood in Granddad’s garden in the sunshine with cups of Cava in our hands.