Today’s Make Waspis Smile moment
When I was a kid, every Wednesday evening – Dad had the night off to see his mates – Great Aunt Lizzie came over to our house for a natter and the bringing of food parcels.
Lizzie (both her and Pop were difficult individuals who met as little as possible) was the head waitress at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. On a Wednesday, she brought cobs (bread rolls), salads and Moonraker butter slabs left uneaten by the Hotel’s ritzy guests in an old leather shopping bag that had experienced the Blitz, and won. There’d be ham, too. Wednesday evenings were spent at the table, a coal fire pulsating away in the background, as our Ferguson 18″ posh telly gave forth with the likes of sport commentator Peter Dimmock, Double Your Money with Hughie Green, and the BBC News at 9 pm.
At the front of our corner house (a bit posh, larger garden) there was a small rockery. Lizzie didn’t create the rockery, but over a decade she supplied the stone…hawked all the way from her back garden in Cheetham Hill in the inevitable, all-knowing and immortal leather shopping bag.
She had a thing about hawking things about, Lizzie: on one of the worst raid nights of 1941 – when the Luftwaffe was about its task of fire-bombing the Trafford Park docks – she carried two Ming vases bought off the back of a lorry all the way back to her home in Smedley Lane…a distance of some four miles. One ARP warden tried to push her into his shelter, but she fought him off with her gamp and carried on. I sometimes think that, had Hitler invaded, the likes of Lizzie would’ve convinced Adolf that it really wasn’t worth the trouble. The weather was enough to put Julius Caesar off: by the 1940s, curmudgeonly women were performing that role.
Great Aunt Lizzie had that terrifying ignorance of her generation. She never, ever pulled plugs out of sockets: she was convinced that the electricity would escape, and one day deliver the most horrendous consumption bill of all time. She would see black people on the telly, and wonder aloud “Why are niggers allowed to be on there?” The television itself was “that magic lantern thing”. People suffering mental problems were to be avoided, as madness was contagious. Jews were “swanky”, drove vulgar cars with whitewall tyres, and used the horn far too often.
She distrusted foreigners – especially the French – and yet had that First World War familiarity with phrases like ‘san ferry-ann’ and ‘parly-vu’. There would, she averred, Always Be An England, so why go anywhere else? I mean for one thing, they didn’t speak English and so one had to shout at them. All the time. Life was too short and difficult without adding to the burden.
And yet….and yet. She was a truly remarkable woman. Born in 1888 and a mill-girl from the age of 14, she met a rather handsome young man called Francis Mellor during the August Bank Holiday of 1912. They were married in 1915, and shortly afterwards Francis left for the trenches.
Great Uncle Frank was more than just dashing: his family was rich – on the outer rings of the de Trafford family, no less. As a child he went to private tuition in a coach and four. Pronounced a ‘dunce’, his only love was the turning of wood to make cabinets. But a life ‘in trade’ was no future for a trainee aristocrat. He was a chap, at one and the same time, out of his time, out of his class and – his parents thought – out of his mind.
This perception was confirmed when Francis announced his intention to marry Lizzie. They cut him off without a penny; but a small inheritance already banked allowed the purchase of 50, Smedley Lane as the marital home. After the Great War, he founded a cabinet-making company; by the time of his premature death from kidney cancer in 1954, he’d provided a living for ten workers, my Mum and her three sisters. Therein lies another tale for another time.
Lizzie, meanwhile, was determined to scale the North Face of class demography in order not to ‘let down’ her husband. She borrowed money to open a grocery store that became an immediate success, and then – suddenly lumbered with her brother’s four daughters – took an evening job as a Midland Hotel waitress to help keep up the appearance of solid middle-class respectability.
Great Aunt Lizzie lived on until 1965. I remember her well (although not particularly fondly) but one memory of Frank involves a Saturday morning in Smedley Lane. I was sitting on his knee, and asked him – in that unguarded way little kids have – why his left thumb was missing. (It had been cut off in one of his cabinet-making misadventures).
“I lost it in an accident,” he told me.
“And you never found it again?” I apparently asked. (Mum was the source of this story)
He smiled and asked if I could help him find it. It seems we hunted all over the house for the missing digit for the next few hours.
Social mobility did exist in the immediate post Edwardian era….as of course it always has. But after the War, a OneNation Labour Party ensured that it would be easier for the talented kids of poor parents to get on. In turn, a OneNation Conservative Party preserved the system created by Attlee.
The Shower in control at Westminster today seem determined to reverse that forever. I don’t just mean the Tories: both major Parties delight in maintaining Class War, Age War, Money War, Property War, Ideology War and Brexit War.
I’ve no idea what Lizzie would’ve made of it all. But I suspect that – before too long – she would’ve uttered one of her favourite aphorisms: “Fine words are all well and good, but they don’t put butter on the parsnips”.