Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Home is where the aunt is

This blog comes to you courtesy of Virgin Trains (incidentally, am I the only person who often feels a bit sick on a Pendalino but never on any other type of train?).  I'm hurtling back to London after a day trip to Birmingham.

As the train neared Brum a few hours ago, I felt the usual tingle of anticipation and excitement.  I know some feel our second city is a bit of a joke but it's my hometown and I love it dearly.  Actually, far fewer people joke about it these days thanks to its rather thrilling makeover.  The sparkling new Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the reinvention of The Rotunda, our iconic, 60s, cylindrical office block, as luxury city centre apartments (which, unusually, actually are quite luxurious and are bang in the city centre) are just two of many grands projets that have loosened, if not yet entirely shaken off, Birmingham's second city/second rate image. 

When I idly picked up a discarded property supplement on a suburban train in south London three years ago and learnt of The Rotunda's future, I could barely breath with excitement and knew I had to own one of its apartments.  I don't know why I bothered to consult my accountant first because he decreed that I couldn't afford to, and I went ahead and did it anyway.  I queued for six hours from six o'clock on a dark, cold morning (some prospective buyers had camped out for two nights) to secure the last-but-one flat of the kind I wanted, a two-bed, two-bath way up on the 17th floor.

Signing the paperwork was a thrilling moment, and I was so glad I had turned down first £1,000 then £5,000 in cash offered by Asian investors in return for my place in the queue.  Actually, even if I'd wanted to, social pressure would probably have prevented me.  Six hours of nothing to do had caused British reserve to shatter.  My fellow would-be buyers and I had, by this stage, held each other's place during loo trips, fetched coffees and even shared pictures of our children and grandchildren on our phones to pass the time.  Giving up would, I'm fairly certain, have been viewed as terribly bad form.  Would those behind me even have considered that the Asian businessmen had the right to buy my queue position?  A hideous fracas might have broken out: just think how heated Waitrose shoppers become if someone barges in to buy a bag of spinach and a part-baked focaccia rather than a £250,000-plus flat.

What was interesting was that most of my fellow queuers seemed, like me, to be Brummies making a predominantly emotional purchase.  Sure, we wanted to live in a cool flat or to acquire a sound investment but, more than that, we wanted to own a piece of our history.  Little did we know we were buying at the top of the market: I'm currently £60-70,000 down on the deal.  What's more, I can't live in my slice-of-cake-shaped apartment in the sky in the dead centre of my hometown because I can't get a job up there.  Instead, I rent it out: I've spent less than one hour in it in the two years I've owned it!  Yet, to my surprise, none of this depresses me: I'll live there somehow one day and, meanwhile, a small chunk of my roots - if roots can be said to have chunks - belongs to me, and that feels good.

My trip today was occasioned by my Auntie Vera's 97th birthday.  She still lives at home, although these days she sleeps downstairs and needs a rota of carers.  I've seen her sail through a major brain operation, the removal of cataracts on both eyes and the death of two loving husbands and three of her four siblings.  She is stone deaf, diabetic and has had breast cancer, which never seems to get worse, for as long as I can remember.

Despite all this, she is cheerful and glad and grateful to be alive.  If you've survived an urban, working-class childhood in the 1910s and 20s, then Hitler's bombs, I guess such things are small beer.

At 15, she started work as a shop girl, as they were dismissively known in those days.  By the time she retired, she had risen to become one of the chief buyers at Rackham's, Birmingham's top department store (now House of Frazer, and she still gets her staff discount 38 years after clocking off for the final time).

She didn't marry until she was well into her 30s and decided not to have children, preferring her career with its regular trips to the trade shows of London, Paris and Milan.  It's hard for us to appreciate how glamorous her working life would have been considered back then, or how unusual it would have been for a woman to scale such dizzy heights, or the level of social pressure to wed early and produce a brood that she must have withstood.

When she was 80, she started going to keep-fit classes because: "I'm at the age now where you have to start looking after your body."

It's unsurprising that such an independent-thinking achiever never turned a hair when, in the late 1970s, her only nephew announced he was gay.  She tried to convince my parents who, in contrast, all but disowned me, that it was no big deal.  She failed but, God bless her, she gave it her best shot.  She adored my former partner of 16 years, becoming positively flirtatious in his presence, and is delighted that I have now found love again.

Like Birmingham, of which she is immensely proud to be a daughter, my Auntie Vera is honest, warm, indomitable and devoid of airs and graces.

Over tea and cake ("Oo, goo on, Bill, 'ave another piece, you need fattening up!"), I told her I planned to blog about her.  She was pleased but couldn't really grasp the concept.  As I check it for typos, I realise the result reads like a fond obituary, one which, I hope, will prove substantially premature as I intend to be sitting in her back room in 2012, just as I did today, and raising a glass as she tucks into a small slice of suitable-for-diabetics birthday cake to mark her centenary.  She'll be moderately pleased but not overly impressed to receive a card from The Queen and, after her decades in the fashion world, will no doubt have something to say about whatever Her Majesty is wearing in the photograph on the front.

(Photographs courtesy of http://www.rhinocarhire.com/, Rommel Catalan and http://www.property.britishland.com/)

1 comment:

  1. Its good that you are helping your aunt
    and not staying alone, keep helping
    people and they people will help you.
    property to rent london