FEATURE: My Inspiration…by David Littlefair of O’ Messy Life | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Aiming to raise some of the money for a print run of EP Challenger, David Littlefair of O’ Messy Life opened up about a major inspiration on his life and music… 

The final track on Challenger is called For My Widow, and features Natasha Haws on backing vocals, Jenny Nendick on Cello, Rebecca Webb-Mitchell on violin.

While putting this track out I wanted to write a little about Ellen Littlefair, my paternal grandmother. Though she always preferred to be called ‘Nellie’.

Nellie was born Ellen Hearns on 8th December 1929 in Wallsend, one of five sisters. She left school at 15 to work as a factory machinist, churning out tank parts to support the war effort. At one of the many dances she and her sisters attended after the war, she met Ralph Howe Littlefair, a 23 year old man visiting home from National Service duty. The two hit it off, and moved into a succession of council houses, raising their kids first Ralph, then Paul. They lived first in a home infested with beetles and damp, then, as the justice of the post-war government brought habitable housing to millions, they moved to a council house with rooms for the boys. Nellie worked at Liptons shop checkouts and Ralph as a tool setter in a factory in South Shields.

As a child I’d visit her house with my parents on a Sunday afternoon. She’d cook an incredible roast, and we’d listen to her talk for hours on whatever subject; the stroke club, football, family, soaps, food. She would talk and talk and talk, the presence of audience almost incidental. Every now and again someone would manage to grab a moment to interrupt and put a tidbit of their own into the conversation, snatching a word-in-edgeways like two vagabonds jumping aboard a stopped freight train before it road off. 

Her house had a long wall of brown, stringy sofas that could accommodate her whole family down two generations below. We spent afternoons spread out on that furniture, flicking through the papers and reading the comic section while she’d walk a creaky imitation-brass catering trolley down the row of her grandchildren, doling out tea and Kit Kats. The loose front wheel it rode on sometimes would get stuck, jerking the trolley back and forth, moving haltingly, as though imitating her own slight limp. Both were slightly diminished but not at all ruined.

In the times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself I’ve felt embarrassed to not have followed the example Nellie set. When she had a stroke in middle age she lost the the use of one of her arms and was paralysed down one side. From then on the arm would curl around her torso like it were in a permanent sling, and she would walk by putting a good leg forward, then swing the stiffer leg around her body. To have lost so much dexterity so quickly must have been heartbreaking, but if she had ever struggled, her grandchildren were totally oblivious. Ralph had taken care of her from then on; two people whose dedication to one another truly embodied the phrase ‘in sickness and in health’.

I often hear people from what we call The Greatest Generation talked about as though they were refugees in a free-er modern world;  relics from a ‘simpler’ time whose lives were stoic and upstanding but ultimately predictable and simplistic. To some, the most profound struggles, loves and punishments of a life in the early part of the century can be waived away by the limitations that poverty, a traditional family life and predictable career arc impose on life. People without a choice to be anything other than they were by circumstances. They are wrong.

My grandmother left school very young, and worked in a series of manual jobs. She was not an uncomplex caricature and she lived a life as full of loss, achievement, longing and love as any other, but she was remarkable in that she met everything with a smile and with hope and positivity that flowed out of her like crude oil fountaining out of a fresh-struck well.

She loved puzzles and her living room table would sometimes be draped with a half built jigsaw; 1000 piece deconstruction of a rosebush photograph or a Van Gogh.

She kept a giant box of pens and dozens of colouring books. I used to do drawings where Sonic would fight Robotnik. I’d draw the floor. Then i’d draw sonic running at Robotnik. Then I’d draw Robotnik. Then I’d stop. Then I’d draw lines to indicate sonic jumping into Robotnik and I’d draw lines that showed robotnik firing lasers at Sonic, until the finished piece was just red lines and blue lines. Lines turning purple where they’d blur together. Trying to explain everything that was happening or could be happening at once and failing.

This song is in tribute to someone who’s relentless positivity demonstrated how few things are necessary to live a happy life

She loved to read. She would check out new crime thrillers full of grisly murder from the library in Hebburn so regularly that the librarian would wonder aloud to her whether she had plans to bump off her husband, maybe she was searching for inspiration.

As it went, Ralph died of a stroke coming home from a night on the booze at his beloved Legion Working Men’s club, age 72. Death took him suddenly but not cruelly; he had spent the night at his favourite place.

Nellie’s health declined in her late 70s and she spent the last years of her life living in care, which gave her the chance to indulge her favourite hobby of chatting up others. While she was there she would have visits from her family, and sometimes just me, or my girlfriend and I. During those visits she’d tell stories that she’d previously kept to herself – of misbehaving with Florrie Stone in the school choir, arguing with scabs breaking strikes at work, or of waiting outside of school to beat seven shades of shit out of a boy who had been bullying one of her sisters. Sometimes she would say things about her lost husband and their early days together that caused a blush.

Acutely observed pictures of a life I’d never known or really asked about, told with so much gusto and good humour and giggling that hearing them again and again became as fun as tuning in to a favourite album. She had a small room, a black bag containing a rake comb, some other residents as friends and a regular hairdressing appointment to put the red back in her hair, and by her demeanour she brought immense colour to an otherwise tiny world.

Her heart was as powerful as a jet engine, and kept her going in hospital for days following the illness that eventually took her – long enough to catch up with everyone who would have wanted to see her. I remember meeting dozens of family and friends at the wake, learning long buried family secrets. Before she had moved into care she had left a chart that traced our family back several generations. These people suddenly became real, with middle aged sons and daughters that I’d never met – the dividends of a generation who lived six or seven kids to a council house.

This song is in tribute to someone who’s relentless positivity demonstrated how few things are necessary to live a happy life. Her husband had famously committed his body to medical science in order to avoid any expense for his funeral, having seen how his own father’s death had cost his family so much. She and Ralph were not well off people, but her incredible generosity would extend to anyone she met. She would dig deep every Christmas and birthday if it meant the chance to give a gift to her grandchildren. I remember her forcing money into our hands every time we saw her. I remember her being told off by my Dad for giving the paperboy an enormous Christmas tip.

The song was written years ago, but writing it helped me deal with losing her, one of the most painful experiences I’ve known. The vain act of writing a song in tribute, as though somehow five minutes of chords and words could ever settle the debt that holds unconditional love as its principle. A debt that extends and gains interest every time I meet some of the less fortunate people I’ve known or worked to help in my career. People who had never had the privilege of knowing or even been able to take for granted such a thing.

There have been times in my life when I have been ill in the head and each time this happens, I am inevitably drawn out of the present and my mind puts me prematurely into my own old age. ‘I cannot appreciate the present because I will one day be old and it will all be gone’. Thoughts run like this: I am afraid of possessing the assets that time calls in, afraid to be at the end of my life, I am afraid of regrets there is no time left to address, and of being less of myself.

I have found it difficult to imagine being happy in these circumstances, but Nellie Littlefair was one of the happiest people I have ever met. It’s her example I’ve thought of when I’ve needed to tell myself that things don’t need to be so hellish as my malfunctioning mind has tried to tell me it would be.

More than anything else she loved being around other people. I wanted to create an idea in my mind that she and my grandfather could, in an imaginary living room just like the old one and built with a few sung words and a melody, share some time together again. Even if that were impossible and untrue, then I think of how Oscar Wilde said that ‘the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art’, and why not?

I most fondly remember her standing at the end of the path to her house, against the gate, waving at our car when we left at the end of the afternoon. Always two waves. The first wave as we left, then the second wave as the car turned around at the end of the street and we drove past the house again.

I gave her the first wave goodbye in 2012 when she was 82, in a hospital in South Tyneside. This song is the second wave.

You can find out more about the O’ Messy Life Kickstarter here.

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