A morning of five generations

While making toast with Alexander, my three-year-old grandson, I hear on the radio that Ken Dodd, the comedian, has died at 90. Suddenly five generations are connected.

They are connected because I remember going with my grandmother to see Ken Dodd at the Palladium. I was perhaps 10, it was 1962. I called my grandmother Nana, and I loved her. She was Irish, warm, and gentle with red hair. I can remember the smell of her, a mixture of face powder and Kensitas cigarettes.

I had a much closer relationship with her than any of my other three grandparents, all of whom I knew. Nana’s husband, Jim, wasn’t much interested in children. Usually he wore a dressing gown, but sometimes he exchanged it for a loud check suit. He’d been a comedian, a song-and-dance-man, a fast bowler, a bookie, and an embezzler. My father’s father, Major Bill Smith, had been in the Indian army and was stern and Victorian. He always wore a suit and shouted at people with long hair. His wife, Ethel, was worn out, fat, and slow–very gentle but very distant. She died before I could ever know her properly.

It was just Nana and I who went to see Ken Dodd. Nobody else. My memory is that we were so high in the gallery that I had to look down between my knees to see Ken Dodd. I can still remember one of the jokes he cracked: some people came in late, and he shouted “That’s the team from British Rail, just arriving.”

Nana, born in 1904, had danced in the music halls, and that’s where she met Jim. They may even have had a double act. Jim led her a merry dance as a husband, probably both beating her and being unfaithful. I’m not sure, but he certainly beat my mother, who sometimes thinks he’s still alive and can’t forgive him. When I look at the photo of Nana from the 1920s I see how beautiful she was. I just remember her as old, although she would have been 58 when we went to see Ken Dodd, eight years younger than I am now.


Ken Dodd was described on the radio as the last of the music hall comedians, following on from Arthur Askey (who lives in the flats where my brother Brian lives), and Max Wall, whom I saw perform at the Greenwich Theatre in the 70s. Ken Dodd was famous for his stamina and his love of being on stage, giving five-hour shows well into his 80s. My brother, a comedian, has performed with him.

What will Alexander remember of me in 56 years’ time? Will he remember how this morning we made breakfast together, had a porridge-eating race, drew pictures (the picture shows his drawing, “No Spiders,” done his morning), did the washing up (with him making a mess), and sang? The answer is that he won’t, although I hope that we will have time together when he’s older and will be able to remember me.

Is my relationship with Alexander different in some fundamental way different from my relationship with my grandmother? On reflection I think not. Love is stretching across five generations.



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