Nana Petra (1933-2012)

Saturday, 3 March 2012

For as long as I can remember, at least as far back as 1990, my grandmother had been telling me she was dying. I think she secretly got a kick out of it. Like the rest of the family, she was an attention-seeker, and it must have been hard for her, after a colourful life as a model and artist’s muse in Chelsea in the 50s, to grow old in a small house in Kent, with occasional visits from friends who reminded her of her old life.

Perhaps that’s why she liked the internet so much. She spent practically all day online in her last few years. We got her an iPad so she could read the papers in bed and she used to spend hours and hours on the Daily Mail website, emailing me gossip about X Factor contestants and “those awful people on The Only Way Is Essex” and telling me who she was writing an angry letter to that week. Towards the end, it was invariably David Cameron, for not being tough enough on benefit scroungers. I had to resist the temptation to point out how much her capacious kitchen cupboards full of opiates, blood-thinners and painkillers were costing the taxpayer.

Everyone says this about their own relatives, but Nana Petra was truly a one-off. Her friends spoke of her with the sort of affection and hushed reverence reserved for larger than life personalities. Chief among the topics of conversation when she was mentioned at garden parties was her modest house in east Kent, which was decked out with lavish tapestries, lace, marble, Parian ware figurines and lush fabrics. Except for the occasional colour refresh (“This isn’t burgundy, this is bordeaux, and I asked for burgundy”), the interior did not change in thirty years. Things were exactly – in some cases, to the millimetre – where she wanted them, and she saw no reason to fix what was not broken.

Nana had spooky levels of intuition about people, which made her a fearsome adversary. Her annual feuds with my mother were spectacular – as, on occasion, was her language when my mother’s name came up. Needless to say, it was she who emerged victorious from the skirmishes, dusting off her velvet cuffs and muttering “uppity cow” under her breath. (This was to become a favourite expression of mine.) As a child, I remember Nana sweeping magisterially through the house in layers of silk and brocade, archly passing judgment on the issues of the day.

But she was a deeply tender woman, too, who loved unquestioningly and unconditionally, and enjoyed expressing her affection through matriarchy. I can’t imagine what trouble I must have put her through in my late teens, when I lived with her after finding it impossible to co-exist with either of my then-separated parents. She was there, looking on with mild astonishment but never disapproval, when I dressed up as Cleopatra and rolled myself up in her carpet, drunkenly sobbing and yelling “Where’s my Rex Harrison?” (I was 19.)

We had one of those relationships in which an old-fashioned look was all it took to shut me up if I was putting my foot in it, or banging on too long. Sometimes it didn’t even get to that: her little finger would twitch slightly when she was irritated. That meant it was time to change the subject. For those three years when she put me up in her top bedroom – “as long as you don’t bring home anyone I wouldn’t approve of, Milo” – we cuddled, we laughed and we had a good bitch about some of the neighbours, whom she considered dull – a cardinal sin in her view.

As I grew older, and started working, I saw less of her. But, if anything, we got closer. When I got my first job in London and spent all my money in the first two weeks of the month partying (not for the first time), she was there to bail me out, albeit with a few choice words about personal responsibility. “This is the last time, Milo,” was to become a constant refrain in her weekly Sunday emails to me.

In 2010, she began obsessively checking my online activity to see what I was up to, who I was with, whether I was spending too much money “living it up” and whether I was being nice to people. She hated it when I picked on someone, whatever the reason, and if I got into a catfight I could rely on a sternly-worded email arriving within the hour. If she had been any less extraordinary a woman, I’d have found it oppressive. But it was wonderful. In twenty-eight years, my grandmother never let me down, and her watchful and loving eye was never far away.

Last October, I set her up with her own Twitter account. I thought it might be a fun way for her to feel involved in my life. People thought it was me behind the account, particularly when she almost admitted to an affair with Jimmy Savile (later calling him an “ugly bastard” and demanding that I apologise), but no. It was all her. She loved it, especially meeting the friends she’d heard so much about and being able to natter with them about clothes and her favourite television shows.

Around the same time, she began to explore the internet properly, looking up the websites of her favourite galleries and museums all over Europe. She adored this easy access to libraries and exhibitions, which fed her love of beautiful things and reminded her of her travels in earlier, healthier years, when she was a social butterfly on a grand scale.

That was the great theme of her life: an insatiable curiosity about other people. She was fascinated, among other things, by what drove murderers to kill, reading hundreds of books on the subject with grim titles like What Makes A Serial Killer Tick and Touched By the Devil: Inside the Mind of the Australian Psychopath. Equally, she loved holding forth on what possessed people to participate in reality television (one of her secret pleasures). That’s why she loved being surrounded by friends: it was a constant stream of new material for her.

She effortlessly drew people to her because everyone wanted to hear her stories, listen to her opinions and, perhaps, be rewarded with a compliment for their manners or their dress sense. She’d say things like, “Nice to see his wife has fixed that awful hair,” and somehow manage not only to further ingratiate herself with the woman concerned but to become an object of admiration for the husband. Though she never married (“I didn’t date below a Major, and finding people in the upper ranks wasn’t easy”), she was deeply and profoundly loved by a long line of friends who lived and died by her observations and aperçus.

Above all else, Nana enjoyed keeping an eye on things. Not just because she enjoyed a good snoop – though she certainly did – but because she was a woman for whom duty and care were the pre-eminent virtues. Without her, I would not have developed much of a sense of right and wrong. “You can be a catty little queen at times,” she’d say. “But your heart’s in the right place.” If she was right, it was thanks to her own instinctive sense of morality and her uncanny ability to suss people out.

She was by far the first person to twig that I was gay. My mother was awful about it, my father was surprisingly understanding, but Nana showed just the right amount of acceptance and concern. “It’s not a happy life,” she would say. “But if you stay safe and away from drugs, you’ll be alright.” Dad and I always laughed at that. “Just look at your bloody cupboards,” he’d say. “You’re the biggest junkie I know!” She’d allow herself a smirk at this, now and again, in between puffs of the Nebuliser.

They put her on morphine towards the end. She’d have liked that, I think. She always said it gave her lovely dreams.


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