Memories of a Great Gran

As the “Annus Horribilus” that was 2011 draws to a close it dawned on me that I never wrote anything to celebrate the life of my Grandmother who died in May this year only days after we celebrated her 100th Birthday (Typical she said she didn’t want to be 100 – I think she only hung on because we told her she had to so we could see the telegram from the Queen!). It’s hardly surprising though given that her only son (my Dad obviously) had died in February which had hit her hard.
Birthday Card from the QueenSo I was thinking about the times that we spent at her house in Boldon Colliery when we were young and the things that stick out in my mind about those times. In the 50 years I had the honour of knowing her she only lived in 2 houses and they weren’t more than a few minutes walk apart. It was in the first of these two houses that I spent a lot of time as a child and Ihave very fond memories of that time which I’d like to share.

The thing I used to love most about staying there was that she’d let us sleep in her feather bed. The mattress was stuffed full of the things and it had to be fluffed up each morning but the joy of getting into it was unequaled. You would just sink into the mattress and be enveloped by the soft cosiness of it all. Unfortunately it didn’t last and by the early hours of the morning you were lying on a flat hard lump of a bed but it was worth it and we never passed up the chance to sleep in it.

She never owned her own house and when we were very young the house had a coal fire and an old range in the kitchen. Sadly both were lost in the 60’s as the house was modernised and while the fire in the living room was replaced by a coke fire, that gave my Grandfather no end of problems, the range was lost leaving only a little alcove which was a great place to hide. In the kitchen my Gran had a larder which was where she stored most of her food. She didn’t have a fridge for many years and all she had to keep things cool was a little coolbox. One of the disadvantages of this was that she always used sterilized milk which we all hated!

Even though she didn’t have a fridge until many years after they became a fixture in most peoples houses she did have an electric kettle many many years before any other person I knew! It was a big silver one which sat in one corner of the kitchen on top of her washing machine (which in those days only came out once a week on a Monday!). It had a huge big connector which was almost industrial grade and was a wonder to us who were used to the kettle on the cooker which, if you were lucky, whistled when it was ready!

Just to the left of the aforementioned alcove was the best thing in the kitchen – a cupboard that the door pulled down and became a worktop. My Gran would open it when she wanted to make a cup of tea, putting the cups on the rear side of the door and getting tea (or later teabags) out of the cupboard and putting them into the just warmed teapot before carrying it back to the kettle to be filled. She’d then return to the shelf/door and get out the sugar from the cupboard. There were always several packets of sugar in there, in fact there were aways several packets of most things – my Grandfather was a very organised person and the thought of running out of anything was abhorrent! He worked as a storeman in a local factory and in his spare time helped out in his brother shop down in the “Colliery”.

The other thing that was in the kitchen was the back door. This was the main entry to and from the house and the only time I remember the front door being opened would be if someone who didn’ know my Gran came round to the house. The main memory I have of the front door being open occurred every year on Christmas eve when the carol singers from the local chapel would come round and sing outside. It was always looked forward to and usually signalled that it was time for my brother and I to go to bed – which we didn’t mind because it meant Santa Claus was on his way!

In the days before Supermarkets and long before Asda opened their store in the town a trip to the big shops in Sunderland, Jarrow or South Shields was a long bus ride away so most of the day to day shopping was done locally in shops like the one owned by Grandad’s brother Uncle Norman. In addition to these there were mobile shops that came round. One was a mobile grocery and another a mobile butcher. I remember they used to stop outside and we’d go out with my Gran while she bought what was needed. The back of the van would be open and they’d put out a step and you’d get in the back where you’d be served from behind a counter. They knew all of their customers by name and knew exactly what they liked to buy!

But…..the one street merchant we would always love the arrival of most was Tommy, the Ice Cream man! His chimes would usually be heard around tea time and our ears would suddenly prick up and we’d look hopefully at Gran and Grandad. We’d usually get a ice cream cornet with “monkey’s blood” drizzled over it. If we were really lucky we’d get a 99 with a chocolate flake in it. Grandad was partial to an Ice Cream sandwich which was ice cream between 2 flat waifers and sometimes I’d have that. Often he would come before we’d eaten our dinner and on those occasions Grandad would take out a bowl and get it filled with dollops of ice cream which he’d then put in the pantry until after tea – how it didn’t melt I’ll never know!

Gran worked in the (Co-operative) Store in Sunderland, upstairs in the women’s clothing department, she was in her element as she always liked to be smartly dressed. We’d often pop into see her while she was at work which I loved but there was something that i always found daunting! As she worked up stairs we’d have to go up and see her and despite there being a lift my mum would always make us walk up the stairs. The stairs were wooden and open which meant that you could see right through them and this used to terrify me and I was always glad when we reached the top.

There are two things that I remember about being in the Store – the first was that while visiting my Gran at work my Dad suddenly appeared from behind a rack of clothes with a huge grin on his face and announced that he had passed his driving test! The other was most likely in around 1967 and there was a mobile display at the other end of the floor advertising the new radio station Radio1 – my Gran went off to get the DJ to sign an autograph for us and although at the time I had no idea who he was I would, many years later, discover that it had been Alan “Fluff” Freeman who had signed a bit of an old shoebox for her!

We’d go to my Gran’s by bus and this would take two bus journeys. The first would take us into Sunderland’s bus station from where we would have to walk around to Fawcett Street to catch another bus which took us over the bridge and out along the Newcastle Road (passing the bottom of the street we’d eventually move to) and on to West Boldon. There was a house on the right just before we got off the bus that we’d always look out for as he had filled his garden with wooden models of cartoon characters. Once we got off the bus it was still quite a walk to my Gran’s house and the journey would take us down through some open fields and over the burn.

The burn was a small stream that we crossed by an iron bridge but it was also so much more. It was an adventure playground for us kids and it was there we would play with one of the local kids who was slightly older than us (and apparently I found out later our parents hated!). I remember there was a little path that ran down the side of the bridge which gave us access to the side of the stream. It also allowed us to get under the bridge and hand from the supports. I don’t thing we ever managed to get across the river that way but I seem to recall falling in once so we must have tried. In later years we would be allowed to take the latest in a long line of dogs that my Gran owned (all of which seemed to have names that started with an S) for walks along side the burn but I never got to do any courting down there which my father told me he used to do!

Once on the other side of the burn it was a short walk up the other side and then you entered the estate between two blocks of garages. It was here that my earliest memory takes place – I can remember being pushed through the snow in a pushchair and being intrigued by the tracks left in the snow – I have no idea how old I was at the time. You then turned left and walked down the street and my Gran’s house was on the corner number 3. She used to have this really big garden as she was on the corner and we’d have bonfires on November 5th. I remember we’d go round the neighbour’s houses to see if they had any wood for the bonfire. One year my Grandad gave us his cap to put on the guy and that night we watched as it went up in flames. He then amazed us the next morning by coming down stairs wearing the cap! He’d bought a new one and had given us the old one to burn!

Sadly at some point the council took most of the garden back and built a block of seriously ugly garages on the land. We missed the garden but I think it was better in the long run for my grandparents as it was easier to mange and gave them a nice sheltered back garden. Once while playing Cowboys my Grandad helped us build a fire so we could cook some baked beans – he opened a tin and we heated them up over the fire – however when it came to eating them I lifted the folk to my mouth but just couldn’t put them in – I found the smell repulsive. I’ve never been able to eat baked beans and I’m sure this incident left me with a pathological hatred of the things!

My Gran on the other hand had a pathological hatred of thunderstorms. At the first sign of one she’d clear the stuff out of the cupboard under the stairs and replace it with one of the dining room chairs – she’d then stay in the cupboard until the storm had passed and stopped making her heido (never found out what that meant!). When she got older and moved to a bungalow, after my Grandad died, there wasn’t a cupboard under the stairs so I have no idea what she did. Maybe the fear subsided – if it did her other great hatred did not! She hated onions! Couldn’t bear them and she continued to tell everyone this almost till the day she died! My Dad explained in the eulogy he’d written for her funeral that it was because her father used to like to eat a boiled onion after his shift at the mine and in order to “please her man” her mother would spend most of the day cooking it which filled the house with the smell of onions!

The living room always held happy memories for us as that was wear we spent our Christmas’s. I can still remember the apprehension I would feel standing at the top of the stairs wondering if it was safe to go downstairs, had HE been yet? And coming down into the living room to find the floor strewn with toys and presents. Santa always used to set up the main present so one year we came down to find a Hot Wheels track, another year it was a Subbuteo set complete with floodlights and in the year that I have a picture of my brother and I smiling at the camera, still in our pyjamas, it was an Action Man Space capsule!

There would of course be a stocking and a sack full of presents from relations and neighbours like Mrs Dummer or Daisy from across the road. We’d eat all of the sweets from our stockings and never eat our Christmas dinner, much to my father’s annoyance! There was a long standing joke that whenever we sat down to eat on Boxing day a Police car would pull up outside (my Gran never had a phone in that house) and my Dad would be called away to investigate a murder or sudden death. We’d often end up getting the bus home with one small Christmas prezzie that we could carry and Dad would have to go and pick the rest up later!

The other thing that stood in the living room was Gran’s Cocktail cabinet – not that she was a great drinker (and gave up altogether after my father got her drunk one Christmas at our house years later). The cocktail cabinet was in my Gran’s living room for as long as I can remember and it could even have been as old as me! It’s certainly in the background of the Christmas picture and was there right next to her when she died. It was with great sadness that I had to accept that we couldn’t really give it a home when we were clearing out her house. But why was it so special? Simple really – whenever the door to that cocktail cabinet opened it meant something special was about to be given to you. When I was little it was sweets, as I got older it usually meant the Sherry (or Port) was coming out! or she’d have some money stashed in there ready to give us. The most magical words in the world were “Kevin, open that door for me will you…….”

Grandad, on the other hand, kept his money safely under lock and key in one of those old fashioned money boxes in the bottom of his wardrobe. When we went to visit he would always disappear upstairs into the front bedroom and get out the little black box before returning downstairs with it and handing us some money. It was at the window of the front bedroom that I saw him for the last time – he hadn’t been well and we’d been to visit. As we were leaving we l looked up and he was waving at us. Beth, my eldest daughter, suddenly shouted out “bye bye Great Grandad I won’t see you anymore!” much to our embarrassment – but she was right we didn’t.

Sometimes we’d sleep in the little front bedroom where there was only enough room for a single bed so we would top and tail – me at one end and Garry at the other! I would often lie awake at night listening to the sounds outside, few cars in those days but I remember the sounds of people walking home late at night and the clip clop of high heels as they approached and then receded. On another occasion I was ill and my Gran must have sat up with me most of the night as every time I woke she was there. Gran often made us feel better when we were ill as she would always turn up with a bottle of Lucozade, which was quite expensive in those days!

Sunday night my Grandad would go out and he would always have a shave before he did. He would boil the kettle and fill a big metal mug with water and take it up to the bathroom with him. I must have watched him shaving and think that was where I learned to do it as my father always used an electric razor. When he was ready he would head off to the”Chapel” for the Sunday service, he took us once and I recall it was seriously dull (and we were used to church as we’d be sent off to Sunday School every week) – he belonged to something called the Fellowship which I didn’t understand but he has a badge and they sent him a magazine every month. After the worship she would retire to the Wheatsheaf for a couple of pints.

During the times we spent at Gran’s house we would find things to occupy us. Often we would play with the kid down the road (who our parents hated remember – this may have had something to do with him teaching us things like how to spit!) or just with each other. Objects from Gran’s house were pressed into service in our games. My dad had been in the Boys Brigade and had a bugle and a wooden stick from those days. The stick had a brass end to it and was the sort of things that Sargeant Major’s tuck under their arms while barking orders. Once we watched a film about a hammer thrower and keen to try this out we used my Gran’s dog lead to simulate what we’d been watching. Unfortunately when we let go of it the wind caught it and blew it onto a neighbours roof! We tried to think of a way to get it down but in the end we just pretended that we had no idea where it had gone!!

I could go on for ages, there is so much I haven’t covered. Uncle George and his cine camera (that I now own), the wonderful smell of the bottom kitchen drawer where the shoe polish was kept, the day my Gran tried to smarten us us by plastering our hair with hairspray, going to visit Auntie Aba in her prefab or Auntie Edna in Jarrow or even the infamous visit to the Mill photo studio in East Boldon for the “pandies” photo that Sarah loves so much! However there is one last memory I’ll finish with.

At the top of the stairs was the toilet and seperate bathroom. The toilet was quite small and it was lit by a single lightbulb fixed to the ceiling. The lightbulb was unlike any I had ever seen before and I have no idea how old it was. It was small and not very powerful – about 10 watts I seem to recall but it was just bright enough to illuminate the loo. The thing that makes it stand out is that it was there for as long as my Gran lived there. I remember it being there when I was little and it was still there when she moved out. There’s a part of me that thinks that had she still lived there I would have gone to the loo after her funeral and it would have gone pop!

Mary “Maisie” Potts 13th May 1911 – 29th May 2011


Virgin on the Ridiculous

So it all started about a week ago when we noticed that our internet speed had dropped considerably. At first we thought it was a temporary blip but when the sluggishness continued we decided to contact Virgin Media and report a fault. Sarah phoned them and after about 30 minutes someone finally answered.

When the conversation turned technical Sarah handed the phone over to me but while we were waiting I had been conducting an online speed test which showed our download speed was currently 0.3 Mb/s – well short of the 10 Mb that our line should run at. The “technician” asked me to unplug our Ethernet cable from the modem which I did. He checked 3 times that the cable was unplugged before declaring that we needed an engineer to call. I handed the phone back to Sarah and one was duly booked – for the following Monday!

So we had to put up with slow internet speeds all weekend and were glad when Monday came around. The “engineer” arrived and started to fiddle about. before asking what the problem was! Sarah phoned me and I outlined the issues and what had happened up till that point. He fiddled a bit more and said that the incoming signal was too high and fitted an attenuator. When this didn’t work he then declared that our signal to noise ratio was too high.

A little aside at this point – OUR signal to noise ratio! Like it was something we had control over!

Anyway he decided that the problem lay elsewhere – in what ever the fibre version of the exchange is and as such it wasn’t something that could be sorted that day. So he left promising that he would escalate the issue to the people up the line and assured us that the problem would be gone within 24 hours.

Twenty six hours later I rang Virgin again. After being in a queue for about 20 minutes the call was answered by someone who was obviously in an overseas call centre. I explained the situation to her and she said that “According to her records the issue had been resolved and as far as she could see our modem was working normally” – I assured her it wasn’t because I had just done a speed test which showed our download speed to be 0.03Mb/s. At this point she insisted that she needed to do some tests and pointed me at a website which I had to enter a code into and when I pressed the button an exe file started to download.

Another little aside – if you’re going to make me download a file you should a) warn me and b) explain what the file is going to do.

Anyway 5 minutes later and much discussion went on before the file eventually downloaded – it was just over 1Mb and the download time on it’s own should have been enough to tell any competent person that there was an issue but no. At this point she asked me what I could see on my screen – I asked why this was relevant as she hadn’t asked me to do anything with the file I had downloaded and what was on my screen wasn’t going to help her diagnose the issue. She started to get really stroppy with me – At one point I had to say to her “Look I am the customer so why don’t you just shut up and let me finish what I am trying to say to you”. After a while I got really annoyed with her and I then asked to speak to a supervisor. She agreed.

The “technician” really had a very poor command of the English language which was illustrated a few minutes later when she returned briefly to tell me she was going to cancel the call. I said I’m sorry what do you mean to which she replied she was going to cancel the call through to her supervisor!

I think I must have caught the supervisor in the toilet or at least that’s what it sounded like the line was so bad! I explained what had happened up to that point and he said he would put me through to someone in technical support (well who the hell was I talking to before?) – I then got some awful music on hold to listen to. After a few minutes the music stopped but no one answered. I waited and was just about to hang up thinking the call had dropped when someone finally said hello. At least it sounded like there wasn’t going to be any language issues this time.

In fact he was quite helpful – he said that the work that the “engineer” had mentioned had been done but obviously wasn’t the cause of my problems. He told me he was going to log into my modem and when he did he said that there was a low power level and that we would require another visit from an “engineer” – he told me the earliest he could get someone to me would be Saturday afternoon – another 4 day wait! I said I wasn’t happy with that and he suggested I call back in the morning to see if they could get anyone out to me sooner – so I said I would and I hung up after just about 45 minutes.

The next morning I called again and when the phone was answered I spoke to someone who obviously had a listening problem (another one?) I explained about the previous nights conversation and how I had been told to phone back in the morning to see if they could get anyone out sooner. He replied with but you’ve got a visit booked for Saturday. I pointed out that he obviously hadn’t listened to what I was saying and repeated what I had said. He said he couldn’t get anyone out any sooner so I asked to speak to customer service.

The phone call to customer service went as you would expect – there was lots of sympathy and apology and had the conversation ended there or with an offer to get someone out sooner or some sort of compensation then it would of been fine. However the conversation ended with the lady talking to the technical people to see if they could get someone out sooner and then putting me through because and I quote “they can’t see what is wrong with your modem”.

The lady I spoke to then insisted that we do a whole load of tests and explained to me that Virigin don’t support my Belkin router (I don’t recall asking them to) and she told me the only way she could check my modem was by me disconnecting the router and plugging my computer directly into the modem. I pointed out that two previous tests had been carried out by Virgin without me having to do this and she got stroppy with me and told me that an engineer shouldn’t have even been sent out without this test being performed.

I was reluctant to do so because a) the computer next to the modem wasn’t even turned on and b) I knew it wouldn’t work. The reason I knew it wouldn’t work was that my network is set up to use the router as a DCHP server and it allocates ip addresses  when you power up. If I plugged the network cable directly into the modem the pc wouldn’t have an ip address unless I changed the configuration. Anyway I decided to do as she asked and then see what happened but while the pc was booting the line went dead. I waited to see if she would come back but after a while decided I had been cut off so I hung up and rang back.

When the phone was answered I thought at first I’d got back to the same person as the Scottish accent was very similar. Once again I explained what had happened and that the previous person I had spoken to had said she could see a problem with my modem whereas the person last night said that he could. She looked and told me straight away that she could see 2 reasons why I needed an engineer to come out. She said that my upstream power level was too low and that my modem had failed to connect to the server over 500 times in the previous 10 hours. She was really annoyed that the previous person had messed me about and hadn’t picked up on these indicators. So much so that she said she would e-mail her and tell her where she was going wrong and also said she would go and speak to her manager about the situation! But sadly she couldn’t get anyone out to me any sooner

So on the Saturday despite the fact that I had asked for between 12 & 4 and specified that it not be before 12:30 as i had to pick Sarah up from her OU tutorial the phone rang at about 11:45 and it was the engineer to say he’d be with us shortly! I pointed out that I had to go out and he got quite stroppy with me and the upshot of it was if he didn’t come now he was saying it would have to be rebooked and we’d have to wait another 4 days. So naturally I told him to come and sent Sarah a text to explain.

To give the guy his due, despite the above exchange, he was very very good once he arrived. After a quick run down he looked at the attenuator that the previous guy had put in and said “well that ain’t going to do anything” and very quickly agreed that the modem needed to be replaced. He went to get one. While he was out I suddenly remembered about our broken tv remote that wouldn’t control the TV volume so when he returned I asked him if he could have a look at that as well.

I explained that I knew the code for the TV but that it wouldn’t accept it. In typical Virgin fashion this was ignored and he set about trying all of the codes for our make of TV (there are loads that’s why I wrote the correct one down) while I sat on the sofa rolling my eyes behind him and wishing they’d believe me just once!

Anyway he gave up and we set about replacing the modem. The new one turned out to be a router as well so he suggested that I might want to ditch the netgear one that had been connected to our old modem. The network came up and while he tried to test the TV remote I downloaded one of the files that I’d been testing it with for the previous week or so. Whereas it had been downloading at 250b/s and estimating a download time of 10 hours it now downloaded that speeds in excess of 350kb/s and had finished by the time he had come to the conclusion that the problem was also with the TV remote.

He went off to the van to get a new one and came back and entered the code I’d given him and hey presto it worked. In fact he gave us 2 remotes which will come in very handy when Ben misplaces one. So as it was all working I went off to collect Sarah from college.

So there we have it 12 days, many phonecalls – some lasting in excess of 40 minutes, much pulling out of hair, fustration, a delayed OU assignment and much fustration for the A level and GSCE students and much more finally sorted. I have many questions I would like to ask Virgin Media about their service but frankly I’m not sure I’d get anyone who would understand, care or be able to do anything about it. As far as I can see the company are a national laughing stock who nobody has a good word for and frankly they don’t seem to care. Big business in the 21st century – shocking really!

I think the thing that annoys me most is the assumption by almost all of Virgin’s technical team that the person who is calling them knows nothing about computers or networks and that they have to start from the beginning and work on the assumption that they have to do everything in the most basic fashion. While this may be true for a great majority of their customers there are obviously going to be a number who do know what they are talking about and really resent being talked to as if they are stupid – particularly when the person doing the talking actually knows nothing and is simply following a script on the pc at their end. I also don’t understand how you can get one person who can’t see a fault and then a minute or two later someone else who can – surely they’re all looking at the same data – I’m guessing some of the people don’t know what they’re looking for!