Authors: George Melly
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz
Kane was succeeded by Jenkins, a friendly but silent Welshman and perhaps rather more to the liking of adult passengers, who knew what RAC really stood for and felt less need of continuous distraction. When Gampa was dying he sent for Marjorie, Annie and Jenkins and asked them to ‘look after the Missus’, a request they felt, in the circumstances, unable to refuse. Jenkins continued therefore to drive my grandmother about until the last few months of her life.
Gampa, like my father, died of a perforated ulcer in his sixties. Gangie, like the Griff, lived on well into her eighties. She was a practical-minded woman with nothing sentimental in her character but with a strong imaginative streak. Her childhood was odd. She had been brought up by her grandmother, although from which side of her family I never discovered, in a dark old house called Denham on the Cheshire marshes near the mouth of the Welsh Dee; a bleak landscape criss-crossed by deep and treacherous irrigation ditches, and within sight of those fatal sands where the doomed Mary was sent to call the cattle home. As my grandmother was born in the 1870s, her grandmother must have grown up during the Regency and Gangie, in consequence, used several expressions of a vigour and directness denied to her Victorian contemporaries. Moments of exasperation would be met by a cry of ‘Dash m’wig!’ People who bored her were ‘dull dogs’. Those who annoyed her she would threaten to shake until their noses bled.
She had a varied repertoire of old songs and snatches. Her speciality was a mysterious ballad called ‘Marjorie sat on the bowling green’. She was unaware of its origin. Her grandmother used to recite it to her on stormy winter nights, and afterwards she would be very reluctant to take her candle and go up alone to bed along the creaking corridors of Denham. My father had excited my interest in this poem when I was very young, but Gangie refused to recite it to me until I was about eight, and even then in broad daylight. I didn’t think I’d be frightened. For one thing I found myself imagining Marjorie to be my grandmother’s maid, and for another the only bowling green I had seen was in Sefton Park where, on summer evenings, the old men in their waistcoats frequently accused each other of cheating, angrily demanding that someone ‘fetch the string’ to settle a dispute. The idea of lugubrious heavy-breathing Marjorie in her cap and apron seated on the turf of the Sefton Park bowling-green was an absurd rather than a sinister image.
My grandmother sat me on her footstool, fixed me with her fine dark eyes and began. The ballad was set to a lugubrious chant in the minor key and went like this:
Marjorie sat on the bowling green, the trees grew all around.
’Twas in the middle of the night she heard a frightful sound.
(and here, after a long pause, Gangie gave vent to two long low groans)
‘Is that my father dead, or is it my Uncle John,
Or is it Willie, my long lost love, who from the sea has come?’
(two more groans)
‘It is not your father dead, nor is it your Uncle John,
But it is Willie your long lost love who from the sea has come’
(two further groans)
‘And have you brought me any fine clothes, or any fine things to put on?’
‘No but I’ve brought a long winding sheet to wrap your dead bones in.’
And at this point my grandmother, who had appeared to be in a trance, leapt out of her chair, flung her arms wide, and gave-a sudden piercing scream. I almost fell off the footstool with terror.
The low chant, the repeated groans, the lulling effect of the tune all of course contributed to the shock of the finale, but it’s quite a chilling little piece even on the page. I remembered every word instantly and could hardly wait to get home and recite it to Bill. I did so that very evening in the dark nursery with a candle on the little table between us. It gave him frightful nightmares.
Gangie was fond of acting in general, keen on organising charades and dumb crambo. Her party piece at family gatherings was one of ‘Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures’, drawn from a popular Victorian book of that name, which she performed with my grandfather on a bed improvised from armchairs or a sofa. Mrs Caudle nags her husband non-stop about his shortcomings during the day without allowing him any defence; a role that suited Gampa very well as he remained entirely silent throughout and yet was able to engage the sympathy of the audience. His own speciality was a recitation of ‘The Village Blacksmith’ as performed by a man with an articulated wooden arm and hand which he appeared to manipulate to illustrate the imagery of the poem. I never saw Gangie act in a stage play but my mother, who was not altogether fond of her, said that her idea of acting was running about a great deal and flapping her arms.
My mother’s antipathy towards her was based in part on Gangie’s habit of saying exactly what came into her head but more especially on her insinuation that Tom wasn’t looked after properly. That she should refer to him more often than not as ‘poor dear Thomas’ was a constant irritant. She implied too that ‘poor dear Thomas’ was primarily her son rather than Maud’s husband and that we were her grandchildren rather than Maud’s children. In fact she applied this proprietorial attitude to everything she was connected with. In her later years she became completely hooked on
Mrs Dale’s Diary
and was always furious if interrupted while listening to what she called ‘My Dales’.
She came from an old Cheshire family and told me that her grandfather had fallen in love with her grandmother when he had seen her, from his horse, swinging on a gate. The Courts had once been considerable landowners but most of the estates had been lost by some profligate over the gaming tables, and all that remained was an old manor farm near Nantwich. Gangie’s younger brother Percy, after several years in Canada as an engineer, had returned to manage this, but he was a very unlucky farmer, and Gampa had felt obliged to lend him several fairly substantial sums over the years to help him out. In the large hall of the farm hung a reminder of former prosperity; an enormous picture in very bad repair showing a park with a substantial hall in the background. In the foreground were several men in tall top hats and tight breeches, women in
dresses, children bowling hoops or mounted on hobby horses and a toddler in a donkey cart.
Whatever its financial shortcomings, for us children the farm was a magic domain. There was a large duckpond in front of it, still referred to as ‘the moat’. There was a priest’s hole in the huge chimney. The building, with its exposed beams and yellow-washed walls, stood in gentle rolling country under wide skies. Uncle Percy, who was also known as ‘Pip’, although given to occasional unconvincing explosions of exasperation, was a courteous and charming man, physically remarkably like my father. His wife Isobel was not a beauty – she resembled Flora Robson – but she had startling blue eyes and a fascinating voice like a dove cooing. She had been a suffragette.
While specialising in Friesian cows, it was very much a general farm. There were rather intimidating geese and a few turkeys as well as scratching hens, several pig-sties, and a great bull in a dark dung-scented shed rattling its chain and rolling its baleful eyes. The bull had been awkward to start with until Percy realised it was lonely, and from then on spent several hours a week talking to it. The cows were milked by hand and sometimes, if he spotted us watching from the entrance of the shippon, the farmhand would aim a jet of warm milk at Bill or me with ribald accuracy. He also took us ferreting, although most of the time was spent digging out the mean-faced snake-like albino creatures from deep in the warren and there were few rabbits to show for it.
Sometimes we went down for the day in Gampa’s Armstrong-Siddeley. The ride itself was a great treat as it involved crossing the muddy Mersey on the Runcorn Transporter Bridge, a huge nineteenth-century structure big enough to carry across many cars and lorries on each journey. Sometimes we would stay for a few days, being met at Crewe by Uncle Percy in an old van smelling of meal. We fell asleep in the attics listening to the owls hooting, and were woken by the rooks in the great elms. We helped Aunt Isobel feed the poultry, watched Percy and the hands getting in the hay and visited the animals. Once there was a litter of pigs who had lost their mother and had to be fed by hand. Bill and I discovered a cruel but irresistible trick. If you picked up one of the squealing piglets and squeezed it immediately after it had been fed, it would shoot out a stream of milk at one end and piss at the other. They soon got wise to us and whenever we entered the outhouse would run hysterically under a pot-bellied stove called ‘the cheerio’.
The interior of the farmhouse, while rather run down, was very beautiful in its simplicity. Isobel had a charming faded drawing-room looking on to a walled garden full of cottage flowers. There was a great linen press on the landing and old brass beds. The Courts ate extremely well. On one early visit with Gangie and Gampa we had lunch on a wooden table which stood outside the main door in front of the moat. There was a goose and a very rich chocolate pudding and I was disastrously car-sick on the way back. There was home-made bread and unsalted butter churned in the dairy. Bill and I called this ‘country butter’. We always took some home with us.
They were still there during the fifties. I once took Mick Mulligan to tea when we were playing that evening at the Nantwich Civic Hall. We ate at the same table in front of the house, much intrigued by a sinuous little brown creature leaping and weaving on the other side of the moat. Suddenly there was a loud explosion. Percy had fired both barrels of a shotgun over our heads from his office window. ‘A damn weasel after the water hens,’ he explained mildly as he rejoined us.
When Isobel died, Percy sold the farm and went to live with his son Peter and daughter-in-law Dot in a small house outside Leicester where Peter practised as a vet. I visited him there once. He seemed to have shrunk and looked out of context in that modern setting, but his smile was as warm as ever, his manner as gentle and old-fashioned. The sale of the farm had been sufficient to repay my grandfather’s estate with interest. Dot later wrote to me to say that the new owner had pulled it down and built a new house on the site.
Percy was still active enough to come to Gangie’s funeral. But at the graveside it was noticed he was missing. He had fallen asleep in the back of Peter’s car outside my grandmother’s flat and been forgotten in the confusion of deciding the protocol of the limousines. He was still there and still asleep when they got back from-the cemetery.
Gangie herself would have been amused by this absurd incident. She took a robust view of death due, I suspect, to her unquestioning belief in a personal afterlife. She was a steady church-goer, a keen if garish arranger of altar flowers and heaper-up of vegetable produce at Harvest Festivals, and on Good Fridays spent the three hours of the Passion on her knees in Christ Church, Linnet Lane. Unlike the Mellys, with their Unitarian background, she was drawn towards lace and incense, and keen on entertaining the odd canon.
When Gangie’s sister-in-law Florence Melly died in 1928 my mother, who had been fond of her, arrived at 90 Chatham Street for the post-funeral baked meats wearing a rather tearful expression which she felt appropriate. The first member of the family she encountered was her mother-in-law in high spirits. ‘Come in! Come in!’ cried Gangie. ‘The party’s just getting going.’ Maud was very shocked by this, and brought it up quite frequently over the years as a proof of Gangie’s insensitivity.
A dedicated if apparently rather bossy committee woman, Gangie served for many years on the Ladies’ Committee of the Liverpool Hospital for Women. When I was about seven, the hospital moved into a large new building in ‘bankers’ Georgian’ style, and one morning Gangie took Bill and me over it. On a trolley in an ante-room was a shrouded object. Gangie strode briskly towards it. ‘Look at our corpse!’ she cried, whisking back the sheet. We nearly fainted with horror, but it turned out to be no more than an articulated life-size model on which student nurses practised their splints and bandaging.
When Gampa died so unexpectedly in 1937, Gangie came back that evening from the nursing home with ‘poor dear Thomas’ to Ivanhoe Road, and sat in the nursery looking a little dazed. Bill and I, who had not been told yet, were building a Roman Coliseum out of the wooden building blocks which were kept in my father’s old tuck-box. The point of doing this was in order to push it over when it was finished and my mother, assuming what we were later on to call her ‘church voice’, asked us not to because Gangie was ‘feeling rather upset’. But Gangie would have none of it. ‘Don’t mind at all,’ she said. ‘Push it over. Knock it down!’
Next morning my father told Bill and me; my sister Andrée at five was considered too young to understand. We both howled and sobbed, and I had the sensation, as always at moments of emotion, of watching myself as if on film. Gampa was the first person near to us to die. It seemed dreadful that I would never hear him drink soup again, or whistle through his teeth, or imitate a man with a wooden arm reciting ‘The Village Blacksmith’.
Gampa had filled in the pools almost from their beginnings, but had never won a dividend. When Gangie got back to Dunmail (they had moved there from The Grange some years before) there was an envelope from Littlewoods. Inside was a postal order for half-a-crown.
I suppose they left The Grange because it had become too big, but their choice of Dunmail was curious. It was a substantial, half-timbered semi-detached house built during the twenties and facing Aigburth Boulevard. This was a continuation of Aigburth Road, admittedly more residential and lined with Japanese cherry trees, and with the trams partially concealed behind low hedges but, even so, ill-fitted to Gangie’s mild delusions of grandeur. There was a dark little morning-room on the ground floor the previous owner had hung with hideous embossed leather. Gampa spent most of his day there, coughing over his Turkish cigarettes, snoozing, and reading large leather-bound illustrated volumes with titles like
Through Africa with Rod and Gun.
Otherwise the rooms were arranged very like The Grange except that, because they were far smaller, the furniture looked rather cramped. In the hall was a big dinner-gong suspended from a yoke supported by two elaborately carved Indian deities. When it was time for lunch or dinner Mar-jorie, as had been her custom at The Grange, would strike this several times – with deafening effect in so confined a space.