When I was a little girl and still wore dungarees unironically, my grandmother would sit me on her lap with a toffee apple or caramel plum and tell me stories about how the world works.
She was the oldest woman in the world, so she said, and as such she had been around for the origin of a lot of stuff: she watched them smash the world’s largest Rosé Champagne bottle on the rump of the Titanic, overheard Churchill practising his “fight them on the beaches” speech, and watched from a crowd as Viggo Mortensen was crowned King of Stage and Screen.
There were few things she hadn’t seen, less that she hadn’t heard about, and nothing that she didn’t understand. Resplendent in a towelling dressing gown she bought from M&S back when Mr Marks and Mr Spencer were her very dear friends, she would sit in a leather armchair surrounded by her grandchildren, with me, her youngest, perched on her lap. Someone would ask why things were this way or what made things work and she would purse her lips and consider for a few seconds before beginning, “Wee-ee-ell,” and setting us to rights.
“How,” asked my brother one day, “do they get the people inside the televisions?”
“Wee-ee-ell,” she said, “they get sucked up into the aerials and that means they have to be very slim. They go on a slimming diet of just spiders and cobwebs for three weeks. Then when they get inside the telly they eat only lemon cake and bacon rind so they look normal. That’s how they fit inside.”
“How do they get out again?”
“That’s easy. They can just step out of the screen into their own front room.”
My cousin had a question: “What makes trams go?”
“Wee-ee-ell,” she said, “you see those wires that go over the tram?”
“Yes,” said my cousin.
“A little creature called a pertrambulator lives in the top of the tram and he pulls on the wires to make it move about. That’s why we call it a tram.”
“One thing couldn’t pull a whole tram,” said another cousin, scornfully. “Especially not with all those people inside.”
Our grandmother nodded sagely. “The pertrambulator is 60% muscle and 39% arms. That’s why it’s so foolish; it’s only got a tiny head.” She sighed, “Poor thing.”
“How do the buses know what number they are?”
“Wee-ee-ell, they don’t, not really. Every morning a little boy not much older than you paints the number on with special glowing paint. That’s why they same bus can be a different number on different days.”
“Can I paint the numbers on one day?”
“You can try, but nowadays they like the little boys to have very long legs. Health and safety, you see. In my days even the littlest of little boys used to scamper up and down ladders the size of your house, but ladders aren’t allowed anymore. If you don’t have legs long enough to reach the sign by yourself, you don’t really have a chance.”
And so on. I learnt everything I know, or, more specifically, everything I don’t know, about the world from listening to the things she told us. She covered every topic, from the crisis in the Middle East to the cowboys in the Wild West; from geology to astrology to geometry to astronomy. We travelled the world on her explanations. We tackled the complex and the mundane; the spicy and the bland.