Granny Was a Buffer Girl

“You’ll find someone else by then,” he said quietly, not looking at me, and then he drove his pedals down and rode off, head down into the wind.

“I‘ll write, Steve. I’ll see you soon,” I shouted.

I was a snake, shedding its skin; a glistening, fleshy thing; a jewel in dark grass. I shuddered, thrilled, scared.

“You tell your secrets, ands I’ll tell mine, said Granny Dorothy. “I’ll tell you something that Albert doesn’t know, even. My best secret."

Mum did catch my eye then, and her look promised me that I wouldn’t be going home without sharing all its secrets, all its love stories, and all its ghost stories too.

When I wrote Granny Was a Buffer Girl I was living in Sheffield, one of the great industrial cities of the north of England. Its international renown was based on the steel industry and on the manufacture of cutlery. When I first came to Sheffield in the 1960s there was much evidence of that industry, and to go past the blazing steel works at night was a thrilling journey. The huge decline of the steel industry will leave Sheffield stunned and bereft of its heart and motivation for many years. The steel works became sad and decaying monuments to the past, as much a part of the history of the city as were the evidences of old mills and ‘Little Mester’ workplaces that I explored along the Rivelin Valley in my early days here.

It was during this decline, in 1985, that I came across the painting in the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. The title of the painting was ‘Sheffield Buffer Girls’ by Sir William Rothenstein and it showed two ordinary young women in their work clothes. It did not give their names. In the way that portraits do, the eyes of the young women seemed to look straight at me and to be speaking to me. I said, aloud, ‘I don’t know what a buffer girl is’, and a girl standing next to me said ‘My granny was a buffer girl’. For weeks afterwards the faces of those young women in the painting continued to stare out at me and to haunt me, and when Dave Sheasby, a producer for Schools Radio, invited me to write a local series for Radio Sheffield I decided to go back to that painting and to try to understand what they were telling me. There they were, two young women about eighteen or so, trapped forever in the frame of the canvas, and yet they were real women. In my series I tried to breathe life into those young women, to allow them to step out of the canvas and to become real people, living and working women of Sheffield.

Granny Was a Buffer Girl display at Seven StoriesLater, I decided to develop those five radio stories into a novel. It tells the story of three generations of a Sheffield family, seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jess, who is about to leave home. They all tell Jess the stories of the special things that happened to them when they were her age.

I’m sometimes asked whether the character Danny, Jess’s brother, is based on anyone I know. To some extent he is, though he was not related to me. I knew of a family who had a son who died at Danny’s age, and I watched the web of protection that they formed around him, and around themselves.

The story of Bridie and Jack, however, is based on my family history. Like Bridie, my mother Peggy was the daughter of a poor Catholic family, and like Jack, my father Walter was the son of Protestants. They married in secret, in the same way as in the chapter, and in real life the truth wasn’t discovered for six weeks. However, this would be much too unlikely to have in a book, so I reduced it to a weekend!

Great-uncle Gilbert is based on my Uncle George, but I didn’t even realise that until my sister pointed it out! It often happens to writers that fact and fiction confuse themselves.

My favourite character in the book is Lucy Cragwell, because I think in a way she represents all of us. I think there’s a time when we all look into the mirror and wish we were somebody else. But she has strong qualities that shine through at the end of the chapter. I tried to show her first as Mike and the other boys would see her, and then as she really is, deep inside herself. I wanted you to understand her too.

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