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.

15 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. Nice vignette John and condolences. My own mother passed on 9 years ago at 99 but she comes up all the time in our conversations. She has once already today. She’s the reason I’m not hanging out at the bar of the FCC in Hong Kong, as I was last week: we all felt she needed some family around in her last 4 years.


  2. Thanks for sharing John.

    Now, not only do we remember the official history of Great Britain, recently rewritten by the BBC, Department of Education et al, we now can include your families own history into our own and recognise that it does’t really matter what your background was, we all share common experiences.

    Thankfully, my mother is still with us, afraid I can’t spill any beans till 2053 at least – or my life is toast!!!!

    Though I never knew her, I’ve just filled my glass and I offer a humble toast to your mother and the countless mothers and fathers just like her, who struggled to make our country Great….

    “wha’s like us? Damn few an their awe deid”!!!


  3. When my Dad died in 1980, I was 15 and not yet ‘reached womanhood’. 31+ years later, I listen to my M-in Law spout off about how HER parents would have loved our children, and I still get choked -not all of it constructive!.
    1 day , 1 year, a decade or an eternity, we still need to cherish. Them that made us and nurtured us for good or ill, have made us what we are by being with us or not.Our job now is to take all the bad stuff and learn from/scrap it, and to guide and cherish the next generations.
    That my M-in -Law classes my dad with her own parents is the ‘cross’ I have to bear, but it doesn’t minimise any of our losses,(rather more that she sees herself as my equal who stole her son….and can’t see that ‘my poor old Ma is the same age as she is’…
    So John, a tear for your much remembered Ma, and all those other parents now much missed. It doesn’t get easier, probably more that we learn to cope better. (MY hubby still holds me while I cry, and cries that he missed knowing someone of such import).
    If I’m honest, if my Dad were here now (born 1927) he would say the whole thing resembles a load of ‘boll***s’……bless him, and your ma and da


  4. Straight-as-a-die-zero-crap person, reminds me of somebody. I would imagine she would be very proud of you John, but not the cussing maybe.


  5. What did you feel, John, as you mother left this world?
    Mine died nine days ago and even if I have my own family I feel an organic vacuum, as I had no roots.
    But for once I am happy – she will no longer see the misery of our world, this process of decomposition where we only hope and instinct keep uss plugged.


  6. My Condolences to you, Alien. I think probably everyone feels a lot of mixed up emotions when they lose someone as dear and close as a Mum. I felt very angry when I lost mine, as I felt that I should have been with her, instead of being hundred and odd miles away. I drove up north hoping and praying that I would catch her before she went but all of a sudden I just knew that she had gone. I was about an hour too late. I think of her every day.


  7. Alien

    Please accept my condolences too. I have spent the last seven years dreading a phone call informing me that my Father has died. Seven years ago both of his lungs collapsed, smoking park drive plain all his life, probably didn’t help. He was recovering from that but then picked up MRSA in the hospital. When he got out of hospital he looked like a Japanese POW & stunk of death, everybody thought he was goner, but he soon recovered.

    My then seemingly healthy wife on the other hand, died 18mths later. Since then my Father has had a cancerous thumb & a heart attack due to dancing to Little Richard. My mother who is as strong as an Ox has now forced him to sign a paper to the effect of it being his decision that no-one should ring an ambulance when he has his next heart attack. As to my Mother, I fear that she would not last long once he has gone. They are like Punch & Judy, but inseparable. I feel guilty that I don’t see them more often & will be faraway when I get that inevitable phone call. You never know though, I wouldn’t put it past the cantankerous old bugger to outlast me.


  8. @Alien: My Condolences
    I know the feeling. My mother died last year, and I feel cut off from life as I knew it. Sort of drifting. Your second thought also resonates with me. My mother was way too much of a sweet and caring person to go through the stuff that’s coming our way.


  9. Thank you all, twin souls.

    How astonishing we have same feelings,,, and some identical situations. If this is about death like that I wonder how akin may we feel about so many other issues. This blog, JW, is some kind of a roof over our heads and hearts.
    God bless the living and the gone ones.


  10. I believe the Halfway House changed from being a pub a couple of years ago. The building is still there and now houses an accountancy firm.


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