Illustration by Josie Moir
My Granny was born Sheila Christine Yallop on the 20th of December 1944, in a small village in Norfolk (“our family’s been here since the doomsday book”). No one has ever called her Sheila, though; she has always been Christine, just as her brother John Richard Yallop has never been anything but Richard. She and I sat down in early April, and I asked her a series of questions about her life, which, honestly, I felt like I already knew quite a lot about.
However, it quickly became clear that whilst absorbing someone anecdotally over the course of your childhood allows you to accumulate a series of snapshots, you by no means have the full picture. Some periods and people are pretty well-maintained – stock characters eternalised in stories you could recite off by heart – but you cannot construct a life out of this. That said, over the course of our conversation, I felt like I got to know my grandmother a lot better.
She described her childhood as “transient” – meaning not that she moved, but that others did: police officers would do four-year stints in the village then passed through, children came from other villages to go to school, the world was small, and its inhabitants sometimes fleeting. As for many children, school was the central cog of her youth. She was extremely bright and “could just about do anything they ever showed me”. It made me proud to hear my Granny talk like that, to credit her childhood self with the praise she deserves.
She was, and still is, extremely aware of the unjustness of the 11+ system, and the way in which it forced an unbridgeable chasm between children from so young that only widens as time goes on. She shook her head as she talked about this, about how to tell 10- or 11- year olds that “you’ve failed, and you will now be in a second stream system” is incredibly cruel. Jealous that she had made it to the grammar school (and a year young, at that), one of my Granny’s primary school friends walked past her at a bus stop and kicked her, hard. And whilst this girl has been characterised as something of a villain as far as our family is concerned, my Granny seeks to defend her – to say that she shouldn’t have been violent, but that her anger was more than fair, simply misdirected.
Avoiding the secondary modern was a leg-up for my Granny, but she still didn’t get the education she would have wanted. The grammar school didn’t offer her the option to do all sciences, and going into medicine would have been impossible. In order to study maths and physics at A-Level, she had to have private lessons with the slightly temperamental headmaster seeing as there was no teacher specifically equipped to provide that for her. Instead of getting married at 16 or 17 like many of her contemporaries, she studied physics at Liverpool, one of four women in a cohort of 90. Even amongst the women on her course, however, she felt different – she always “liked what men did better than what women did”, and when her course-mate Janet started dating a PhD student and stated that “all I want to do is wash his socks”, my Granny could not identify with that domestic instinct at all.
Something that we talked about that really stuck with me was my Granny’s description of a moment of realisation that she had as a child, when she first understood that her brother was a boy, and she was not, and that because of this there were things that he could do, and she could not. Throughout her life, she has been acutely aware of how things would have been different had she been a man. She would have liked to learn to fly, she told me, but as a woman, she wasn’t allowed: “it’s about leisure: boys could be thick, and learn to fly at the RAF. I just couldn’t. It’s about all of the things that you don’t get to do.” In her adult life, her career was the third most important thing in the household, after first the children and second my Grandad’s career. She doesn’t talk about this bitterly, or with any sense that it should have been different, because, at her core, she is a pragmatist: she wouldn’t have made as much money as her husband, so it would have made no sense for her career to be prioritised. Still, I don’t think that that feeling of unfairness goes away.
Her understanding of the way in which her gender had impeded her dreams gave her the fierce conviction that she only ever wanted boys, and for many years, she had them. She had two sons, and the older of the two had three sons, meaning that until 2003 when I came along, she had entirely male offspring. (On my Grandad’s line it had been even longer; I was the first Davis girl to be born in 80 years, the last of which being a great aunt of mine whom I never met). Of course, it wasn’t out of any belief in male superiority that caused this thinking, it was born of the knowledge that her life was limited because she was a woman, and that she couldn’t see this changing any time soon. We talked about the way in which narratives have shifted over the course of her life, but how the progress seems slow: “I honestly, truthfully believe it’s going to be a hell of a long time before all things are equal”, she said, talking about how the women of the generation after her “got talked into believing [they] can have it all. They have had a lot, but they still haven’t had it all. When there were decisions to be made, they didn’t come first.”.
Only very recently has my Granny started talking about the fact that my Grandad, to whom she has been married for 54 years, was not her first husband. In 1966, after leaving university and coming home to Norfolk to teach, she married an American soldier. She did this not because she loved him, but because she was frustrated with her life and wanted a change.
“If I’d been a man, I would have just changed jobs, but being a woman, I got married.”
However, when her new husband was stationed in the Philippines and moved out there, with the plan that she would finish her term’s teaching and then join him, she stayed at home. She ignored the situation and never went, figuring that eventually he would “get fed up” and divorce her. She and my Grandad met at work and got together, and by the time my uncle was 8 months old, the American soldier had divorced her and she had married my Grandad. When she was pregnant with my uncle, abortion, of course, was not legal – but whilst she didn’t particularly engage with the situation and didn’t get any medical checks, she never considered getting rid of the baby either. Despite them not being married, she was pretty confident that my Grandad wouldn’t leave her, though equally assured of her own ability to “manage [her] life on my own”.
Moving away from her village provided some distance from criticism and, in fact, for the first few years of her children’s lives, the family was living in California and then Milan for my Grandad’s work. All of this has been kept deliberately secret for a lot of years – as children, when my sisters and I wanted to see my grandparents’ wedding photos, we were told it had been a small wedding and that people didn’t take so many pictures back then. Of course, nowadays, having children before being married is extremely common and pretty unremarkable. For my Granny, though, it is not something she wanted to share with us until she felt she had to – when her oldest son was turning 50 and my other grandparents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the same year, and she anticipated questions. I am so glad that she eventually did feel able and willing to share.
I love my Granny so much. Despite her being nervous about having girls, she has been the most incredibly doting and generous grandmother, looking after me and my sisters every Tuesday after school, indulging in the games that we would spend hours setting up just to actually play them for 20 minutes, making us laugh and making us feel grown up and, most importantly, so so loved. Even though I never felt like I didn’t know her, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to ask questions and get answers, even when the answers weren’t easy. When I grow up, I would like to be a lot like her.