My great-grandmother was called Mary Mountain. She gave birth to something of a libertine called Melissa. She in turn produced my mum, Mildred. That side of the family were obviously a bit OCD about the letter M. Even my mother – who hated the name Mildred – chose to change it to Mickey.
Mary survived until 1942, when – like Elvis Presley – she died on the toilet. Thus did she miss the great Allied Victory three years later. But on the whole, this was very probably a good thing. In the last year of her life, Mary discovered the records of Frank Sinatra, singing at the time with the wonderful Axel Stordhal orchestra. At the time, Sinatra had a following known as the Bobbysoxers – pubescent girls not as yet allowed to wear nylon stockings. He was referred to by her generation as A Crooner. Worse still, the girls screamed at him.
Apparently (so my mother told me) Mary Mountain saw this as the final curtain for civilisation. So like I say, it’s probably a very good thing she didn’t survive to see the emergence of the man from Graceland. But the irony is, Mary herself was something of a not-quite-all-there character. It seems that, prior to her marriage – from which I am descended – she had a lover in the armed forces. This bloke (to whom she’d been engaged) fell in battle during one of the many and varied sporadic wars Britain fought in order to retain order in the Empire during the mid Victorian era.
My mum’s sister Edna – still with us at the age of 95 – once told me that the conflict took place in Africa; beyond that fact, everything else is shrouded in mystery.The one solid fact I retain about Mary is that she had a parrot which was fond of saying, “Hitler’s a bugger”. The bird usually chose to announce that assertion whenever the vicar of St Lukes came to call.
Anyway, Mary never forgot the date she heard the news of her beau’s demise. Every year on that day, great granny would rise from her bed, bathe, don her very best outfit – including Derby-Day style hat – and venture forth to promenade among the haute bourgeoise classes of an England still able to sing that it would always be. During the day, however, her company would become increasingly downmarket. This had a lot to do with her mission which was, on this one day in 365, to get comprehensively out of her head.
My mother was the ultimate straight-as-a-die-zero-crap person, but her account of being sent out to help find granny Mountain was always a joy. As the best-behaved of all her sisters, mum was usually the one sent out to try and discover the pub in which Grandma Mary was most likely to be dancing on the tables. On one occasion this was the Halfway House Hotel on the way towards Cheetham Hill in Manchester (it was there in my adolescence, and for all I know may be still be) which is a good three miles from Mary’s residence at 50 Smedley Lane.
Mary Mountain would be dragged past St Luke’s church (now demolished), brought back home – to the amusement of the neighbours, and the horror of my great Aunt Lizzie – and put to bed singing What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur – a ribald song from the Edwardian era. (It was the theme tune to the closing title of the TV series Upstairs Downstairs.)
Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. She was – like most of her generation – a complex tectonic being within whom hangover Victorian inhibitions and a love of English eccentricity were fighting a never-ending, tense battle for supremacy. I miss her most days. But above all, Britain is missing her sort. People able to laugh at tragedy, draw the line at bad behaviour, and still emerge – after having been buried several metres in crap – somehow triumphant.