What do I know …

When I was seven or eight years old I was not allowed out in the street to play with the other kids.  I remember some nights staring from my bedroom window wondering why I was different.

My grandfather, Fred,  would occasionally make the long trip north from Andover to Manchester, just to escape Mrs Kipper. One glorious evening he had words with Peg, my mother, and I was finally allowed my escape – I can still remember the sense of elation as I ran down drive the drive to join the others. From then on I was the same.

Ironically, Fred had a reputation for iron discipline but, even if this were true, times were different.  My mother was just sixteen as war broke out and there were army camps nearby; Fred knew all about the military. Growing up a teenage boy in semi-urban Cheshire was a world away from Andover in the 1930s but the inherited rules were the same.  When I needed Fred the most he was already gone – the Carnival King died in 1966.

This photograph captures his spirit best – Mayor Carcetti thinks he is taking centre stage but the real star is my grandfather, wearing the Carnival Queen’s crown and smiling like an errant schoolboy.

Andover Carnival ...

I had thought to write that May, his wife, is not present – she is at home stoking the fires of her resentment. But, enlarged and repaired, I now realise that she is sat to the left of him in the photograph, smiling widely – just shows what I know:

Carnival King ...

Florence May

Florence May was my maternal grandmother, the bright young girl who eventually metamorphosed into the dreaded Mrs Kipper.  Around the turn of the 19th century, her older brother, my great-uncle Charlie, worked in service at 62 Montague [sic] Square , London (number 34 was once leased by Ringo Starr).  From the days when a postcard was the equivalent of an SMS text message, these are some of May’s words written around the time of the Longparish school photograph:

Dear Charlie – I thought you would like a postcard instead of a letter because you can put it in your album.  Barton played against Wherwell.  Wherwell got two goals and Barton never got one. Mr Atkins and two more chaps that played for Wherwell nearly got up to fighting. Longparish played against Laverstock.  Longparish got one and Laverstoke got five.
With love from your loving sister May xxxxxxxx

Longparish postcard

Another card sent around the same time:

My Dear Brother Charlie thank you ever so much for the chocolates and bannas [sic] you sent me they are so  nice and beautiful. I got them quite safe and sound the other morning. I am so pleased with them that I do not know how to thank you for them. I will write a letter on Sunday so you must expect one on Monday morning. I think I must close now hoping you are quite well with love from your ever loving sister May. I have got a lot of news to tell you on Sunday.

Florence May is stood to the far left of this raggedy bunch and highlighted top right and bottom left.  ‘Look stern for the camera’ seems to be the order of the day for most of them – maybe it was consequence of long exposure times but I can’t see why a smile would be so difficult to hold – at least one of them proves me right 🙂

Florence May Taylor

(click on the image to enlarge)

For Emily

What I dream I had, dressed in organdy
Clothed in crinoline, of smoky Burgundy
Softer than the rain
For Emily, whenever I may find her – Paul Simon 1966

Well, not quite……..

My mother, Peggy,  hated this photograph with a passion – “please don’t show it to anyone, I look dreadful“; ever the dutiful son, here it is on the Internet for all the world to see.  My mother is the young girl on the left, her mother May is in the middle and my great maternal grandmother Emily is on the right; she appears to be modelling herself on Queen Mary (Mary of Teck).

I have not published this just to be contrary; it is simply my favourite picture of my mum.  It shows an unsophisticated young girl lacking in confidence, eyes averted from the camera, very unsure of herself.  Cold hands are joined as if in prayer; please Lord, get me out of here.  This is a side of her character I never knew.

The real stars, of course, are the hats.  May’s is unusually modest but Emily’s Edwardian ensemble could win prizes.  I am guessing my mother is twelve or thirteen which dates the picture, taken on the seafront at Bournemouth, to about 1936; strange to think that within six years she would be married and starting her own family in the middle of a war.

Three GenerationsThis is the real point of the post; I can no longer convince myself that my mother’s identification of Emily from an earlier post (picture on left below) is really her.  Not only has there been a remarkable physical transformation in the space of fifteen years but her fashion sense seems to have gone into reverse, adopting a style which even the little boy on the seafront seems to find alarming.  And then there is Emily at May’s wedding – the picture on the right – first class millinery evidence.  Sadly, as my mother began to fade, she became an increasingly unreliable witness to her own history.


Secret Gardens

That’s me at the weddings
That’s me at the graves
Dressed like the people
Who once looked so grown-up and brave
Secret Gardens – Judy Collins

My grandparents’ house is still there but it isn’t the same.  The small sloping front garden sat above the main road held back by a tall flint wall.  Opposite, high trees hid the ex-servicemen’s home which still housed the traumatised from the Great War.  The traffic passed by below as if in a railway cutting.  This was a busy artery in and out of town and the main route south from an army camp a few miles up the road; heavy camouflaged vehicles announced their arrival in advance, the whining sound of oversized deep treaded tyres on the tarmac, louder than the engines that propelled them.

The house was a narrow two up, two down, semi-detached whose inside proportions made it feel more like a mid-terrace.  The front door led into a narrow hallway with the parlour off to the right; this, the best room and the front door were reserved for respectable visitors and thus never used.

At the end of the short hallway was the ‘every-day room’, a warm nest with a continuously burning coal fire, even in the height of summer.  Between the front and back rooms, steep narrow stairs climbed across the house between two identical bedrooms; both had brass beds and mattresses shaped with the imprints of their occupants, as though they had fallen to sleep from a great height, as though sad Evelyn McHale slept here.  In the corner of each room was a cupboard, full of cardboard boxes – May’s hat collection.

Out the backdoor was a lean-to greenhouse permanently engulfed with tomato plants – we only ever visited in summer.  If it were not for the greenhouse, the ‘privy’ would have been outdoors and a good deal colder than it already was.  In the back garden, a large green metal water butt collected rain from the lean-to greenhouse and a central concrete path stretched the full length of the garden, given over entirely to vegetables.

In this garden, one cold January morning in 1966, my grandfather collapsed and died.  May died two years later and a few years after that, the busy road in the cutting outside their house was severed by a new motorway a few miles up the hill.  Go there now and the road, like Fred and May, has fallen silent.

May and my sister PatThis picture contains some of the evidence.  May, in one of her obligatory hats, is holding my recently arrived sister; this is the summer of 1944.  In the background, the lean-to greenhouse is overwhelmed with tomato plants and the iron water butt is propped up against the wall on the left.  When I finally put in an appearance ‘many’ years later, nothing had changed, not even Mrs Kipper (May).

A wedding in the family

This wedding photograph was taken on 21st October 1921 at Longparish, near Andover, Hampshire.  The bride is Florence May and the groom Frederick Earnest, my maternal grandparents.  The leaves on the ground confirm this is an autumnal event whilst the general lack of smiles reflects the solemnness of the occasion; it was not a happy union.

The original picture is badly faded but increasing the contrast has resurrected the disappearing faces from a distant past although they remain, for the most part, resolutely glum.  I confess I am having some difficulty in identifying the participants at the wake, even May doesn’t look herself but there is no mistaking Fred who retrospectively, would undoubtedly wish he had been elsewhere.

The WeddingI am certain that the man standing second to the left from Fred is his father, Benjamin Buscall Deaves (all forenames) and the lady seated to the right of May is Emily, her mother whose headgear is completely out of step with the times and the other guests.  She was still resolutely wearing such hats in the late thirties as other photographs prove.

This photograph brought to mind another such event I witnessed in northern Tuscany a few years back.  A modern occasion, the bride is not an exhibitionist; she was forced to lift her dress to see her high heels lest they skewered themselves between the boardwalk cracks.  I once entered this in a photo competition sponsored by a car company – it was entitled Alfa Male.

Appearances can be deceptive – the assumption is that the bride could not be happier on this, her great day.  This was her summoning her new husband a few minutes later.

Like Fred and May, I am certain they lived happily ever after.

Tale of the unexpected

I know something of my maternal grandmother’s life, Florence May, but nothing of her brothers Albert, Charles and Frederick.  Albert and Frederick were never mentioned but whenever Charlie came up there was always much heaving of bosoms and silent mouthing.  I saw him but once; a Chaplinesque figure appeared at my grandparent’s backdoor, there was a brief conversation and he went.  He was not invited in.

Last week I was clearing out some drawers and came across a stack of postcards I had altogether forgotten.  There are about sixty, all dating from before the Great War and the majority are addressed to Charlie; it is his postcard collection.  Most messages are shorter than a tweet and convey little about the sender or recipient; in a cramped space and a scrawling hand the majority can be summarised as Thanks for the postcard, hope you are well, I am fine, weather is awful, write again soon.  This one is from May, postmarked Micheldever Station 12:15PM April 28th 1907:

May to Charlie

Dear B send us a postcard and let us know what train you are coming by so we can come and meet you at the station I hope you got may letter quite safely With love from your ever loving sister May xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

On a similar card sent five years later, the multitude of kisses on the bottom have altogether disappeared.

The cards are addressed to Charlie at three different addresses:
62 Montague Square, London;
Newton House, Nairn Scotland;
31 Phillimore Gardens, South Kensington, London.

And then there is this one from the unknown ‘Mabel’, which in one small c/o explains a life:

Dear Charles
I am away for my holidays in Norfolk. This is the waterfall belonging to the lake on the gentlemans estate where I am staying. We often go fishing. I hope you are having a nice time
Love from Mabel
Stradsett Hall Gardens
Nt Downham Mkt

A quick search on Google revealed that Charlie, in a real life version of Downton Abbey, must have worked below stairs for Sir Robert Finlay (11 July 1842–9 March 1929), a British lawyer, doctor and politician who became Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.  The 62 Montague Square address is where Charlie first worked before following Sir Robert and his family to Phillimore GardensNewton House is the summer residence and Sir Robert’s constituency.

David Thomson (1914 -1988) was a writer and BBC radio producer and by fortunate coincidence I read his autobiography last year – Nairn in Darkness and Light.  Given the title of the book, I took it down from the shelf and scanned the first few pages for any possible references to Newton House.  Then the penny dropped, David’s mother was a Finlay, so when he writes The Great Panjandrum was my name for our great-uncle Robert, whom I feared and loved, he is writing of Sir Robert Finlay.  When he writes of life below stairs he is writing of a world very familiar to Charlie:

…the crowd of ladies’ maids, housemaids, tablemaids, kitchen and scullery maids, were always marched out by Mrs Waddell before breakfast began.  The butlers, valets and under-butlers, the gardener, the under-gardener and lesser outdoor men marched after them to breakfast in the servants’ hall which, though darkly lit in the basement, was a more homely room to us and as spacious as the dining room in which we had breakfast after prayers.  We spent every summer holiday at Newton from babyhood until 1929 when Uncle Robert died.

Twenty or thirty people waiting for prayers stood by the walls and windows underneath the huge portraits of relatives and guests of the past, waiting for Uncle Robert.  No one dared to touch a morsel before prayers.  When he was ushered in by Gulliver, ‘that English butler’, he stood for a moment near the door, glancing around the room to make sure, I suppose, that none of us was missing, said, ‘Good morning’ in a loud clear voice, walked over to the lectern and stood before it in silence, his back to the windows, until all the servants had quietly filed into the room and assembled near the great sideboard.

After prayers and the departure of the servants, we remained standing by the walls until Uncle Robert had reached his place at the end of the table, where he stood his hands resting on the back of his chair, until we had reached ours.  We remained standing while he said grace, a lengthy grace in Latin, perfectly enunciated.

A vanished world, Charlie’s world.


I passed my driving test a long long time ago and in all the years since, I have stuck rigidly to four wheels on road and track, but things have changed.  I have a history of compulsive, serial ‘investment’ in fast cars but I have belatedly realised the possibilities of acquiring even quicker exotic machinery at a fraction of the cost; the road to complete ruin can be delayed by taking to two wheels.  After a one hour introductory motorcycle session I returned to complete the full eight hour Compulsory Basic Training and now I can be let loose on the Queen’s Highway – Toad like, I have my sights set on the far horizon and the freedom of the Open Road.  I blame my maternal grandfather Fred, it is in the blood.

This is an almost unique picture from our family history because it shows Fred and May posing together.  There is a ring on Fred’s third finger left hand, so I guess this was taken after their wedding but before my mother was born, which places them roughly in the year 1922. It is conceivable that my mother, born in 1923, has already started her journey into life; it is certain that I am directly connected to this picture by a string of entirely random and unpredictable events.

Perhaps a Sunday morning, they have all thought about the day and dressed for the occasion.  Fred is standing on the far right looking unusually dapper with tie and evidently fashionable, too short trousers.  A cigarette in hand but not May’s hand in his, she is inclining towards her slightly mad brother Charlie.  May’s mother, the lovely Emily, stands next to Charlie and her father, William, sits nervously upright in the side car.  Flat capped and woollen gloved against the bare trees and cold winter light, another of May’s brothers sits astride the motorcycle, either Albert or Frederick.  It is reasonable to assume that the absent brother is taking the picture, the slightly low angle being a symptom of the view camera where the image is inspected for focus on a ground glass screen from above.  It could be the same camera that Fred was holding in the picture at the Sphinx (see earlier post – July 23rd 2012), considerately brought along for the day; he is still trying to impress the in-laws. There they stand, forever trapped in time, carrying memories and experiences up to this Sunday morning, blissfully unaware of personal and world events which will shape their future and their ends.

There is no family story about how Fred and May met so allow me to make some wild assumptions.  Fred had a passion for any motorised vehicle and was known to compete in motorcycle trials, so is the bike the connection?  Did Fred know the brothers before he met May, was he ultimately entrapped by a faulty carburettor or a dodgy clutch – can you pop over at the weekend and have a look Fred?  Was this how May got her man and eventually conceived her only child, my mother.  She did well; eligible men were in short supply in the bleak years following the Great War.  Did she stop with that one child, mission accomplished.  I can almost hear her words: “We will have no more of that nonsense Fred“.

Perhaps that is it, I owe my existence to a motorcycle and my motorised obsessions to Fred, who with the Territorial Army, then the Royal Flying Corps, travelled the world with a passion for machines.  He drove cars, lorries, buses, ambulances, fire engines, no doubt took to the air in the RFC even as a mechanic and of course he rode motorcycles.

Brian Fagan writing in Beyond the Blue Horizon finds his best explanation for compulsive voyages of discovery in the old Viking term aefintyrrestless curiosity.  A simple short word it seems to explain everything about Fred and my own erratic journey through life, including my latest diversion, climbing on a motorcycle.

I would welcome any suggestions regarding the make and model of the motorbike and sidecar in the picture.

Mrs Kipper

As a very young boy, Mrs Kipper was the name I gave to my maternal grandmother, Florence May.  I do not remember its origins but whereas my grandfather was a kaleidoscope of reassuring smells, Brylcreem, Three Nuns tobacco and probably alcohol, Florence May emitted an earthier odour.  I would have taken my mother’s propaganda as gospel; they were permanently at war.

Born in 1896, Florence was five years younger than Fred who she married in 1921.  Everyone who loved her called her Florence so I never heard her called anything other than May.  I remember her as a small plump old lady with a deeply lined face, a blue hat permanently anchored to her head and slightly bandy legs which gave her an unstable sideways waddle rather than a walk; she trod a very uncertain path.  At my first memories she would have been under sixty.

Florence never received a good press in the family.  Always labelled as mean and ill-tempered, now I wonder if somehow cause and effect became inverted.  She died in 1968 and my sister remembers that in her last days she lay on her death bed refusing to open her eyes to the family, determined to continue her uncertain path quite alone, to the end.

Three things I remember about her; she was partial to a bottle of Mackeson stout which Fred would bring home fresh from the pub every evening, she spoke with a broad Hampshire accent and she could never remember people’s names – everyone was referred to as ‘old wotsizname’, such that if more than one such person occurred in a sentence, all meaning was lost.

And this is the saddest part; Florence May was once a very pretty young girl with a kind face and a bright future.  Assuming she is eighteen or under, this picture pre-dates the Great War.  What ever followed, it seems certain that those closest to her could have been kinder.