|Travel poster by Harry Riley|
The trigger for this post was the recent sudden death of an old work associate and neighbour, who lived round the corner from the house I used to share with Mr Bonkers. This lady's only blood relative, a cousin in the South of England, rang me up the other day to ask if I was coming to the funeral, and mentioned in passing that at some point he would need to come up again to sort his cousin's house out. I told him I knew just what that was like, having done two 'long distance' house clearances myself for each of my parents (who didn't live together in later life). As I am local, I offered to help this chap out on the ground, should he need it when the time comes.
And that got me thinking about a remarkable house clearance that my mother carried out, which led to her writing a feature about the experience that was aired on Woman's Hour in 1968. Her voice on the tape is so cut glass as to be hilarious - almost as royal-sounding as the Queen! I am sorry you can't press a button on here to fully appreciate her plummy tones. I have no recall of my mother ever talking like that, I might add - and I was nine at the time, so was old enough to notice such things - maybe she was putting on her poshest voice specially for the BBC. ;)
So here is the transcript of her broadcast instead - Mother's 'guest post' if you will.
"Do it! You should just see the muddle. But two days were all that I could spare away from the family. So in spite of the warnings, off I went on the plane to Exeter, to sort out the effects left by Aunt Ina. The last time I had seen my aunt was over thirty years earlier. On that occasion I was fifteen years old, suddenly orphaned by my mother's death. At a grisly meeting I sat mute while Aunt Ina and three of my uncles discussed the question: 'What shall we do with Peggy?'. I think what increased the grisliness of the meeting was that it took place in the refreshment room of Victoria Station. Almost as bad as being found in a handbag on a platform for the Brighton line. But the line was immaterial, and so was the refreshment room, except that it was there that my aunt said that she could neither have me to live with her nor contribute to my upkeep - and that was the last I saw of her.
As it happened we got on well together at the meeting, and though we corresponded at intervals, I have never seen her again. Now she had made me her residual legatee and I had to sort out the residue. And although I had been warned, when I was actually in my aunt's house I was taken aback by the task that confronted me, for it seemed that my aunt was eccentric in that she could never throw anything away. Drawers and cupboards were full to overflowing. I could hardly walk around the sitting room. The solicitor said: 'When I went to see your aunt, she'd be sitting at the table, and she'd simply push with both hands until all the things on it would mount into a hill at the back, and then she'd have a space on which to write.'
It was strange getting to know my aunt after she was dead, but one can't go through a person's possessions without having a pretty complete portrait of the person who possessed them. No one could live in such confusion without having a total disregard for housewifely pursuits. The drawers revealed such things as empty cigarette cartons, half empty boxes of forgotten sweets, Christmas cards from way back. There were also papers on how to win on football pools and how to develop a system of betting on horses. Which is odd, for the second thing I discovered about my aunt was that she was quite detached about money. In every drawer I emptied there was money: half crowns, sixpences, even farthings. All with that odd feeling to the touch that long unused coins have. There were pound notes in old purses - or just left in the pages of an old notebook. There were coins in the kitchen drawers and pound notes in the pockets of her coats. But the crowning discovery was a roll of eight five pound notes lying behind her bed. It's odd how money found in these circumstances doesn't feel quite real, just paper. I suppose because it's in a sort of limbo, neither earned nor given.
I had a bonfire going for two days steadily, burning letters, old clothes, magazines, newspapers and photographs. Ah, those photographs...my aunt had obviously been a keen photographer and there were thousands of photographs: groups of happily smiling people who meant nothing to me. There were some of my mother and father that I'd not seen before and I was glad to have these. But I felt sad as I saw those records of her happy days going up in flames. There's no point in keeping meaningless snaps. And yet I felt ruthless in destroying a tangible past. And ruthless I had to be to clear out this mess in two days. But there were moments when I had to pause, when I dug up real bits of treasure - to me at any rate. I began to see the reason for the lack of domesticity as I found evidence of the adventurous life my aunt had led in her youth.
A small black book, closely written, I discovered to be the log book of a small boat in which she and two men - one her first husband - tried to circumnavigate Africa in the days before journeys in small boats were commonplace. And then a yellowing sheet from a Sunday Herald published in 1925, in which she describes life among the Rif in Spanish Morocco, where apparently she was the only white woman. Exciting enough, I thought, until I came across another from The Times of that year which told how a beautiful English woman known as 'Lovely Nellie' had been held hostage, as her husband and another man had been caught gun running.
How I wish then she was there to tell me of the adventures only partially revealed by these tantalising snippets! She obviously made friends easily judging by her foreign correspondence, and she was popular with the local people, although she was reserved and did not speak of herself much. She had an inventive mind, and I came across draft inventions she planned to have patented. What else did I discover about my aunt? She loved earrings and brooches and makeup. She collected stamps and cigarette cards, pens and boxes of matches. It wasn't until four o'clock on the second day that I finally cleared the space in her bedroom and gathered together the things I wanted sent to me in Northern Ireland. Things I knew she wanted me to have: a Japanese rosewood chair that belonged to my grandmother, some Japanese vases, and some slices of family history which I shall enjoy piecing together. I felt then that I'd come through a long, dark tunnel. It had been a chastening experience in several ways. Chiefly I'm thinking of all the lumber one accumulates over the years - that someone might have to do this for me. In a modified way, it's true, but do I really need all the stuff that's in my attic? And are all the letters in my desk really worth keeping?
But chastening and exhausting though this experience was, it had its rewarding side, and I felt I could close my two days in Devon by making an announcement: 'Gained posthumously, an aunt'."
I can picture some of the treasures from Great Aunt Ina's house - little lacquered tables and sets of drawers, all manner of jewellery, a ceremonial sword and a scimitar, one or both of which are now in my brother's loft. And I 'inherited' a lifesize toy cat with white fur. At least I hope it was a toy - it was worryingly realistic, I do remember that...If I still had it, I could make it stand sentry at the back door, to scare Tootsie away. ;)
Now I have just looked up Ina in our family tree and found out some other interesting titbits about her. She got married to her first husband, a shipper and ship builder, in 1922, when she was 22 and he was 54! One of the witnesses was named as F C Voysey, eerily close to C F Voysey, but surely that would be too much of a coincidence, even though he was living nearby at the time...
|Source: Wikimedia Commons (SpudGun67)|
Also, Ina and her first husband lived at 118, Long Acre, in Covent Garden, a hop and a skip away from Bloom! Where it seems Dame Margot Fonteyn also lived, but not at the same time, and doubtless not in the same flat. ;) Then Husband No 1 died in February 1930, and Ina was married again by June of that year! Husband No 2 was only 48, and she was 31. Ina clearly liked older men, though at least they are getting progressively younger with each union.
What else has come to light? Ina was one of only three female members of the Royal Southampton Yacht Club in 1927. (Mother donated Ina's copy of the Rule Book from that year to the club in 1985, prompting the reply below from the club's secretary, which probably isn't legible, I know.) To be a member as a woman in those days you had to own your own yacht, and Ina's was a 50-foot long wooden sailing yacht called Silver Crescent, built in 1886. The secretary adds that out of 800 club members, there are 80 women now, so it sounds like even back in the '80s, the glass hull was well on its way to being broken.
And I have to smile reading the broadcast back, because it was me of course that got the gig of sorting out Mother's effects after her death. I immediately rehomed Ferraby, the plush duck, and Pinky, the towelling pig. The latter had been sitting in her wing back chair ever since she was hurriedly taken into hospital, waiting patiently for her return.
|Pinky's new chair in Stafford|
Then Mother's paperwork was contained in a single concertina file, and fortuitously her bank account had just enough left in it to cover her funeral. The only part of the house where she had exhibited 'Aunt Ina-like behaviours' was in the kitchen...the drawers were crammed full of old corks and buttons and safety pins and pennies and broken pottery and oozing tubes of Savlon - and much more in that vein - while the pantry was a treasure trove of pre-1982 spices. This being...ahem...1999. But it was a privilege to tie up the loose ends of my mother's life, and I didn't begrudge the triage of a single odd or end. Disposing of someone else's belongings is a weighty responsibility, characterised by a myriad of quick fire decisions that require a judicious blend of empathy and - as Mother herself says - ruthlessness.
And what about the bottle of Byzance I had given mother so thoughtlessly three years previously? Not a trace. I did, however, find this bottle of Opium in her sponge bag, that has morphed 18 years later into a rich and treacly concoction, while smelling by no means 'off' to my nose. I have dated it to the early 90s, which sounds plausible. I don't know how Mother came by it - a gift from a friend, her bridge partner, an impulse purchase in Boots, like me with the Rochas - who knows? It's well over half empty though, suggesting she did rather like it.
And this story would not be complete without a mention of Liz's rescue hen, Peggy, whom she kindly named after my mother. I knitted Peggy a jumper when she first arrived at Papillon Animal Sanctuary, to keep her warm until her threadbare plumage grew back. And I am pleased to note that Peggy the chicken also likes a tipple. ;)
In a bizarre turn of events, ex-Mr Bonkers turned my mother posthumously into a co-rapper in this song, along with Birmingham-based rapper, Tijhs Jordan. She really gets a groove on, and if you listen very closely, you may just be able to hear her repeat the phrase 'a small black book', interspersed with Tijhs's own take on Ina's travelling exploits. I'd say he is 'riffing' off them, but that might be a pun - and an 'f' - too far. Oh, and actually, you can get an idea of her plummy voice in the song!
Link to the track ('Hope/The River') here (and further background on it here - it is a partly original (very original!!), partly cover / tribute piece).
The last artefact I came across relating to my great aunt was this copy of a letter sent to my mother in April, 1959, in which Ina hopes that her 'forthcoming event' goes smoothly. Why, that would be my own arrival, a month later!
And although there is mention of Ina liking makeup and jewellery, of perfume there is nary a word. With her smoking habit (maybe she even had an actual habit - and cap - like Rachael Potts' husband Tony?!), and love of betting - not to mention her swashbuckling seafaring persona - I could see Ina in Tabac Blond, Habanita or Cuir de Russie, perfumes all squarely dating from the time she was...er...busily dating - and getting hitched!
Finally, here is a photo of Mother's old house in Swindon, which is currently on the market, I see. It was my house first in fact, before I sold it to her when I moved to Stafford. Those are the very shelves I put up in 1986! (I may have had some help.)