Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Let bygones be Byzance: a tale of two house clearances, featuring a guest post - and a surprise spot of rapping! - by my (late) mother

Travel poster by Harry Riley
A few months ago, Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumery kindly sent me a partial bottle of Rochas Byzance, remembering my nostalgic association of the scent with my mother, albeit for reasons upon which all bona fide perfumistas would frown. The full story may be found here, on the remote offchance that there are still any readers who have managed to escape my repeated references to it(!). Now hopefully Liz won't mind my mentioning that she recently celebrated her 47th birthday, while my mother would have turned 97 in May. The 50 year difference in their ages I find oddly portentous, I don't know why, and despite the immense cultural changes that have occurred between 1920 and 1970 I feel sure they would have got on famously, not least through a shared love of food - and drink (which in my book is A Good Thing ;) ).  And like Liz, my mother was a free spirit, and managed to turn the heads of locals in Halkidiki on a solo cycling holiday at the age of 76.

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 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 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.)


Tara said...

Wow, V. What a thoroughly engrossing and touching tale.

It was lovely getting to hear your mother through the transcript and can definitely see parallels with your own writing.
How awful that she had to witness that grisly meeting. I was quite put out by Aunt Ina's response but we later learn she was clearly not the maternal type.

Love that this was aired on Women's Hour. I hope I can listen to the tape next time I visit.

I also admire how she was quite the solivagant (recently learned that word!) at the age of 76. What a lady Peggy was.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Thanks for sharing the word 'solivagant', which was a new one on me. I am going to try to use it now whenever I can. ;) Mother's holiday - she had one more after it in Rhodes - was all the more striking, as she had cancer at the time.

I agree that Ina's initial response was a little offhand, but she did sound warm in her letters at least, years after the station incident. Not good with children, clearly. Yes, I have the broadcast on CD now, so you can certainly hear it!

Tara said...

Oh you have it on CD now! Brilliant. Look forward to hearing your mother's radio voice :)

Very happy to have gifted you a new word!

Vanessa said...

Always up for new acquisitions, though some I keep forgetting, like the meanings of baneful and fugacious.

You can just about make out the posh tone in her voice in the song too, but it is nowhere near as clear as on the CD. ;)

Undina said...

Loved the story though I immediately had the urge to start cleaning up whatever I might have in my kitchen drawers :)
You should upload the recording to YouTube - and that way it'll stay in the digital universe forever.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Oh brilliant, well I am glad the post had that effect on you. Decluttering is always a good idea when it strikes. ;)

And that's a very good idea about the recording, if I can figure out how to do that.

Odiferess said...

Oh so many emotions conjured by that post Vanessa!
I remember clearing my great Aunty Mabel's house with my Dad and coming home with some lovely mid century homewares and an ancient top loading washing machine (I was a launderette user at the time). It was very odd to salvage some meagre possessions from a women who I knew so well, even stranger to throw away her collection of out of date tins of food. All I could thing about at the time was the stiff corsets that she wore and how odd her chest felt when she gave you a cuddle.
My Mum's neighbour recently passed away and her daughter offloaded so much stuff to my mum, much of which she didn't want but felt obliged to take. Her neighbour had several bottles of Sainsbury's orange and pomegranate ironing water. You are not supposed to put this fluid into modern irons so my mum was stuck with it, unable to throw it away knowing that they belonged to someone who recently was alive and loved. I took it a couple of weeks ago and passed it on to my chap who is the only person I know who enjoys ironing shirts. How bizarre to imagine that the household nonsense in your kitchen cupboard would end up with a stranger in Yorkshire?
It's a funny old business. I wonder who will own my tomato feed and packets of basmati when I run out of life?

Undina said...

If you have a CD drive in your computer, put the CD in there, look at it in the file explorer and see, in which format it's recorded. Then you'll be able to either copy that file "as is" and upload to YouTube if it takes that format or convert it into the acceptable format with one of the free tools that you can download.
If you do not have a CD drive, play the CD on your CD player and record the sound using your phone. Then download it from your phone to your computer - and follow the same steps as described above.

Tutorial for creating a slide-show with the sound for YouTube:

If you'll need more help, I'm here :)

Pats said...

Aww - a very touching post Vanessa - made all the more emotional as my mum's pet name was 'Nellie' and she had a good friend called 'Ina'. When mum passed on i only had a short time to go through all her bits and pieces (long story which i wont go into....) but its emotional and funny the things which are found. I laughed at the money in various places (taped under a table), stuck in the linings of curtains etc. [not much i might add] and old bottles of perfume i found (mostly ones i had given mum after she had declared 'what's that lovely smell'). So many old memories are brought to the fore.
- I too, like Ms Odiferess, wonder who will go through my things when i pass on, and what will they do with my bottles and decants (and other unmentionables). What might they think of me??? x

Vanessa said...

That would be really nice to do. I had a go, but got hopelessly stuck on the converting of the CD to an MP3. I wasn't able to see what format the CD was in, but I am pretty sure it wasn't that! I couldn't even find my file explorer, hehe, despite extensive googling to ascertain what that was. This tech stuff is all a bit alien to me, I am afraid. I have yet to try plan B of recording it, mind. Though if I recorded the CD on my work tape recorder (VG quality) that might leave me with a WAV file, which would still fox me.

Vanessa said...

Hi Odiferess,

Nice to hear from you and I loved your story about Great Aunty Mabel. They had the best names in those days, didn't they? I think it's brilliant that your BF is giving the ironing water that belonged to your mum's neighbour a new lease of life. I am all for recycling as much as possible. I have an antique silver locket I bought on eBay, that I never take off, pretty much. It came from an estate sale in San Diego, and only cost me £12 plus postage. I often wonder who used to own it...

I do worry who will go through my stuff after I am gone. Will try to remove all the embarrassing things in advance, but that's assuming I have notice of the event!

Vanessa said...

Hi Pats,

Thanks for stopping by, and what a coincidence about your mum's pet name and her friend Ina! You are so right that the experience of clearing out a loved one's effects is both upsetting and funny in places. Those are some cunning locations to hide money, for example. My Ina doesn't seem to have been quite as inventive as your late mum. I did once find a maturing bond of my dad's quite literally down the back of the sofa - from Royal Sun Alliance. I initially thought it was just another bit of junk mail or letter (he never threw any post away!!) but blow me if it didn't turn out to be worth £3000 - so well worth getting my hand a bit wedged in the upholstery to retrieve it.

Re your perfume collection, you know my SIL's word for it I am sure: SABLE - Stash Above and Beyond Life Expectancy. ;)

Anonymous said...

I haven't stopped thinking about that 15 year-old since reading this yesterday, wondering what she did after that meeting and feeling for her. Your mother was an amazing person and came through a traumatic period with strength and independence of spirit. I think you are not unlike her in many ways!

Thank you for sharing this with us, and for also nudging me into thinking, like Undina, that perhaps I should start clearing the vast amounts of "stuff" that I possess! Although I suspect I won't get very far.

Vanessa said...

Hi Jillie,

The child allocation incident is quite shocking, I agree. Mother did end up being sent to another aunt who didn't really want her, and consigned her to the attic which had no electric light. She was not allowed to mix with her cousins either, and may even have had different food, though my recall is hazy. After a year, she struck out on her own, never to look back.

I hope I may have inspired (even fleetingly!) one or two people - myself included - to carry out some weeding and decluttering of our effects...this side of the great unknown!

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. That is awful, like a Frances Hodgson Burnett story. She was even more amazing than I realised.

Haven't started my pruning yet, but it is very much uppermost in my mind.


Jack said...

This is really a tragic and also a remarkable story. It really touched my heart and all of my emotions are just in a twist reading this. That's really sweet to share.

Vanessa said...

Thank you!

Vanessa said...

Ooh, scurries to google plots of Frances Hodgson Burnett...

Uppermost pruning thoughts are a good start!