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More Bloody Reminiscence. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
More Bloody Reminiscence.

The Way We Lived Then

When one reaches my age, Christmases become times of reminiscence as well as of celebration, and I have found myself in the month since, thinking of days past.  Thinking, not to put too fine a point on it, of architecture, and furnishings, and manners, and styles: of the little, sharp things that remind one of family who have died.


Rather early on Christmas Eve, my utterly mad godmother stopped by.  In her widowhood, she has been living mostly in the uttermost West, with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren (her daughter, my parents’s goddaughter, being a judge, and the son-in-law in question being a rather senior – and public ­– schoolmaster).  But, it being Christmas, she stopped by, because That Is What One Does, and she Brought Something, Because, Well, That Is What One Does.  In fact, she brought ham.  No: let me be precise.  She brought a ham.  A full ham, from the Best Butcher, traditionally homecured in the most arcane regional fashion, from a Rare Breed.  Now, as it happens, I had had a quarter-ham, which is more than sufficient – one from the Best Butcher, traditionally homecured in the most arcane regional fashion, from a Rare Breed – delivered on the 22d.  I am even now up to my hams in ham.  I yet have almost 5/16ths of a pig on hand, duly cured.  I am sentenced to be ham-damned by gammon.  I can now rename the place ––––––– Porcorum, as it were.  I shall be giving away ham for weeks, even now.  (That said, anyone who imagines that I also gave away the excess Christmas cake, with the jam and the marzipan and the Royal Icing, or donated any surfeit of mince pie, is barking.)


And, funnily enough, this caused me to reflect.


My godmother enjoys her daughter’s vibrant anecdotes of Bench and Bar, but she still cannot quite fathom why it is that her daughter, who knew from the time she could walk that she would be, so soon as she reached the age of majority, one of the richest young ladies in our part of the world, has chosen to, Well, Really, Darling, Spend Her Days Dealing With, Well, Criminals.  (My father was wont to point out that this would have been equally the case had she done nothing with her life save live on her income and deal with Our Set, or, alternately, had she entered the political arena.  My father’s cynicism was never particularly well-hidden.)  The fact is, of course, that my parents’s goddaughter chose to rebel in a curiously conventional fashion, by making something else of herself than yet another gentlewoman obsessed with horses and herbaceous borders.


And yet, at Christmas and through the first of each new year, as we ensconce ourselves in a womb-like retreat from wintry winds, we all of us revert to what we were in our childhoods, we fall instinctually and with fatal ease into the patterns to which our parents sought to tailor us.  People show up unannounced at your bloody gate bearing hams, because That Is What One Does.  And no matter what we do or how we try to reinvent ourselves (fond delusion!), we are what and who we are. 


I don’t know, for example, how old I was, but I certainly was no longer Quite Small, when I first realised that people lived in houses with plain and uninteresting ceilings: ceilings that were not barrel-vaulted or hammer-beamed or oak-beamed or fretted with chaste and intricate plasterwork.  I don’t know, equally, how old I was, but I certainly was no longer Quite Small, when I first realised that people lived in houses that did not have actual paintings on the walls (or indeed, in the case of portraits, let in to the panelling).  I do know that, also by way of example, I sat up rather in my seat when I first saw the first Potter film, and all the Hogwarts portraits (‘damn me, that’s the Sargent canvas of old Ribblesdale!  Bless my soul’).  I certainly don’t know how old I was, but I certainly was no longer Quite Small, when I first realised that people lived in houses that didn’t have rooms with antlers and such (wait for it) small deer in them.


And yet we certainly didn’t consider ourselves at all grand, in my family.  Not even my formidable grandmother so considered us, although I imagine it is primarily her, Anglo-Scots, side of the family who are responsible for my having grown up in houses that did have interesting ceilings and antlers and trophies and All That (not to mention bits of tartan, which even managed to cover my grandfather’s favourite chair, to his longsuffering annoyance).  And I find, in considering this, that my tastes, which are primarily Augustan and Georgian, have been formed and informed equally by what of their tastes and tropes I have accepted, and what of these I have rejected.  (For example, if I never see another ancestor painted by Raeburn, it will be too soon.  I don’t really care for hundred-weight gilt scrollwork picture frames.  There is such a thing as too much Grinling Gibbons, and there is such a thing as too damned much Robert Adam.  And, frankly – two of the damned things, depicting some jollification outside a wine bar as experienced by plump burghers and an evidently incompetent piper, hang in the corridor outside the room in which I am typing these words – frankly, no matter how old and distinguished they be, no matter how artfully woven, no matter if the cartoon for them was by Rubens himself – not that these were – Flemish or Flanders tapestries always seem to my eye to portray grotesquely deformed little Belgians whom one wouldn’t wish to meet in a lane.  No, really, one sees the squat little buggers and wishes for an El Greco to stretch them into some semblance of human height and shape.)


I am thankful that we in my family did not, during the atrocious days of appalling Victorian excess, buy rubbish rather than land and livestock with what mun they had to hand.  My beloved Aunt Agatha, for one, had one of those damned secular pipe-organs in her place, and I still shudder to recall it.  My mother, who really was a musical sort of person, wouldn’t have dreamt of having such a monstrosity in the house, and as her husband and his parents and his grandparents were all resolutely non-musical, she never had to suffer the indignity.  Equally, I am grateful beyond measure that our place possessed a highly atypical library: one that was used, that was useful, that was vast, and that was intelligently collected, in which all the books had merit, each was there for use, and none had been bought by the yard as a sort of calf-leather backdrop.


If I am, as I assuredly am, a conservative as well as a Conservative, and one of my particular stamp, it is because, I suspect, I learnt early on the virtues of benign neglect.  A Philistine disinterest in fad and fashion on the part of my forebears resulted in our not being loaded down with rubbish, and in my having been left artefacts that are, if fewer in number than they might have been in families that bought paintings and books in bulk and indiscriminately, at least choice. 


Take – again – my grandparents.  In a family that is, in the main, deep-rooted in the Southwest, and certainly predominantly Southern, and proud of these regional labels to boot, we have odd, occasional tendencies cropping up in various generations, to look eastwards and even to the North.  Not very far to the East and North, if you discount the atavistic Scots yearnings (‘Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides’), but, even so….


As I’ve noted, for all her affection for the pine-odorous woods and the raven’s hoarse croak and the reek of whisky, that occasionally prompted my grandmother to drag us off to the North and East amongst the clans’s fastnesses, she was in fact born near Overton, and her idea of a weekend’s romp to get away from too-familiar scenes was a return to that native place.  She, like most of her acquaintance in the region, regarded the hounds as making finer music than ever could any symphony, and she certainly was not to be distracted from the fact that there was, notoriously, water there, and notable fish in the water, and, well, suffice it to say that the boot or the back of the shooting brake or the estate car was packed accordingly, and God help them who couldn’t cast to her or my grandfather’s stern standards.


My grandfather, by contrast, held that, if one must go eastwards of our sway – and he rather preferred the West – then, damn it, we should go to our place near – well, let’s say it was somewhere North and East of Pennington and Mount Pleasant, shall we.  (He had a way of rolling the names, ‘Pennington’ and ‘Mount Pleasant’, on his tongue that made it clear he was savouring them, and with reason: even though it added somewhat to the length of our travel, he knew of reasons to stop there.  Marshes full of birdlife.  Pubs.  Recondite restaurants.  Butchers.  Woodlands crafts.  All this was the prelude to his grand forest fugue.)  He had no interest whatever in sailing or the salt, salt sea.  He understood and to an extent shared his wife’s interest in rod and creel, and in hunting, hounds, and horses.  But what moved his soul, and dictated his preference as to these weekend jaunts out of our country and eastwards, was the call of the wood, of the Forest and its ancient greenwood.  It was a particular point of pride for him that he owned land with right of pasture abutting the National Park proper, and that he and his tenants there had common rights.  Ponies and cattle, pigs and donkeys, were important to him, as much as the deer in the greenwood, and it gladdened his heart to see his own cattle grazing there, and to attend on occasion the ancient Court – he took a highly informed and passionate interest in timber production issues, and, besides, he liked the look of the place, its mellow brick trimmed with white, its chaste pediments and ancient lawn.  He had a particular affinity for oaks, and there was that in his character that befitted him for their august and mossy company.


My grandparents’s house, as I have said, was rather a formal one.  I remember most particularly that it was a quiet one, in which, it seemed, one could always, when small, hear a clock ticking inexorably, loud in the stillness, from an adjoining room, and where the depth of the various ‘brave Turkey carpets’ – actually, Axminster, mostly – was matched only by their firmness of fibre.  Just so, jaunts with my grandparents, near or far, followed an inevitable, a ritual pattern.  The same hampers and the same picnic fare, the same places, the same small hamlets and treasured secrets of small and defiantly traditional shops (‘Good God, boy, if all the world finds out about this place, it won’t be worth stopping at, and then where will get mutton hams cured in the old way?’).  The same activities, the same solitudes.  I suppose some children – certainly, children today – would have been bored.   I never was.


Looking back upon it all now, I see a pattern, repeated and elaborated, a fugal theme and exposition, counterpoint, a pattern the same in parvo as it was, writ large.


I don’t mean to suggest that these adventures afield with my grandparents were free of excitement.  I have written before that my grandfather found excitement in bull sales and fat-stock shows, and it is only those raised in today’s urban and deracinated world who will not realise the potential for excitement and positive danger provided by bulls, boars, and bellwethers.  And certainly, trips with my grandparents were by no means necessarily placid.  Both had a Victorian-Edwardian regard for the picturesque, and each was remarkably pig-headed, refusing to take counsel of any reasonable cautions.  I have, I think, mentioned that, during the Crash, my grandfather kept buying land, and that amongst these mad forays was the purchase of a rather large and undeveloped amount of land in remote and all but inaccessible Yell.  Given his, and my grandmother’s, resolute determination to appreciate choice views, and their joint dedication to finding the most hidden hamlets and braving the most rutted tracks, it ought surely to come as no surprise to anyone that I spent many a youthful moment of terror wondering if the whole boiling, rather than just one or two tyres, was going to come off of a cliff-face road or plunge into a scenic gorge.  And of course the further we were from civilisation, the riskier were our ventures.  My grandparents took moderate amusements immoderately and dangerous ones with positive relish.


I return, then, to the model of their place, as symbol.  Inside, all was still, orderly, even solemn.  Immediately outside, all was manicured and brushed.  Then one came to the profusions and effusions of the gardens, then to the luxuriance of the kitchen garden and the fruiting trees and the nut trees, then to the paddock and then on, ever outwards, to stock, hay and cornlands, the home farm, and then the all but wilderness country.  In perfect mimesis, our travels reflected this, the nearest to home being Augustan, the furthest the wildest and most Romantic, and always from the periphery the maze wound back to the centre.  Always there was a rhythm, a supremely confident sureness, a great order, like the seasons of the Church, beneath it all, the assurance that the same hamper would bring forth the same cold ham and the same Eton mess, the chicken and the summer pudding, the asparagus and the new potatoes and the cherries, the game pie and Scotch eggs and plums in their season.  Always the birds would take wing or the trout would rise in their times appointed, even as each day brought a new challenge (and a new hatch and a different fly) to point the underlying sameness and sureness of the majestic seasonal round, its details ever varying, its fundamentals timeless and unchanging.  And always at the heart of things was stillness and quiet, where a man could think and hear himself think, and read and eat and drink and dream.  My entire mental model of the world and of man’s place in it was moulded by this, and is, and was, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.  


If I am an Augustan with occasional Arcadian impulses, I have come by it honestly enough.  This is my inheritance, and I am well content with it.

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16 comments or Leave a comment
alexia75 From: alexia75 Date: January 29th, 2006 05:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's posts like this that make me wonder if I toured your family homes as a child...

Also, does this mean that I am one day to come into an inheritance that consists of a love of three-piece suites and suburbia? Heavens preserve us. :)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 29th, 2006 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Good Lord...

... We're not all that grand, you know, really.
alexia75 From: alexia75 Date: January 29th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Good Lord...

Grandness is all relative, I suppose. I can't lay claim to any gilt-framed portraits or whatever. And I did tour an awful lot of houses. :)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 29th, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)


You're certainly always welcome in mine.
alexia75 From: alexia75 Date: January 29th, 2006 11:43 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well.

Hee. Thanks, and the same to you, though I'm not sure if a house chockful of students really has any appeal. :D
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: January 29th, 2006 10:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am currently still suffering from an excess of Christmas pudding. Would be most willing to share if one lived ever so slightly closer.

Next year, I think I'll make one large pudding and a series of mini ones to eat throughout the year. (Getting more and more brandified as the months pass and I 'feed' them).

Coming from a large family, I seem quite unable to make small quantities of anything. However, this does mean the freezer is generally well stocked with pre-made meals for The Hubby if he is yearning for something I'm not in the mood for making. (Please note, cooking is all about a passion for the creation process, and not about producing the same boring meat and 3 veg night after night).

Your reminiscences are making me think of Christmas past, when my aunts and uncles would bring out the whiskey and get tipsy. The accordion and guitars would come out, and the aunts would be doing the jig in the sitting room. My mother would look on in Vast Protestant Distaste. If you recall Lady Catherine de Burgh off the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice, my mother has perfected that same expression of general disdain. However, whilst Lady C seemed to gift that expression to everyone she considered benbeath her (nigh on everyone), The Mother Creature tends to bestow is solely on those of the Roman Catholic faith.
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: January 29th, 2006 10:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Mother Creature tends to bestow is solely on those of the Roman Catholic faith.
Whereas I'm increasingly taking after my father in his lax CoE religious tendencies and general antigasim towards most faiths, my mother is becoming more Catholic as she gets older. Cleaning for Jesus which previously only happened in the runup to Christmas has now extended to New Year and is revived at Easter. :)
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: January 29th, 2006 10:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does she alphabetise tins of food in the cupboards, or has she not yet reached those dizzy heights?

When The Mother Creature comes to visit, she even checks to make certain my light bulbs are clean. In self defense, I bought an entire new set of lightbulbs which I put in place just before she arrives, and then replace with the old ones when she leaves (hopefully only after abut 2 nights. Any more and I've been driven to the gates of bedlam and beyond).

Was your mother always RC? I've always found that people who convert to a religion, embrace it with far more fervour than those born and bred to it. Most of my aunts wear their RC religion like a comfortable coat, but one aunt who converted is so religious it practically hurts.

(Apologies to Wemyss for conversing on his LJ)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 29th, 2006 11:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not at All. It's Fascinating.

Like a good dinnertable conversation.
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: January 29th, 2006 11:17 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not at All. It's Fascinating.

Ah, but you see, even Acceptable Conversation is divided my religion.

Whilst dining with my Protestant relatives, we conversed seriously about Sheep and Farming and The State of The Dairy Industry. Religion, politics and any other subjects which might make the assions arise and the blood boil were not considered fit for the dining table. (I did notice, however, the blood did seem to boil should The Dairy Industry be in delcine).

At the Catholic dinnertable, most anything could be discussed as long as it was not blasphemous. And so it was discussed, at high volume.

But my favourite ever clash of the religions came one Christmas when we were playing Trivial pursuit en masse (we played in teams of six or so persons). My mother's team was asked 'Does Pope John Paul II smoke?'. Mother dearest was apparently not paying attention and responded, 'Who?'
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: January 29th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not at All. It's Fascinating.

Eek, look at those errors in typing. The shame.
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: January 29th, 2006 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
She checks your lightbulbs?? That's going above and beyond, I feel. But no alphabetising of the tinned food. Although she keeps threatening to go through the cupboards above my bed and give them a good clear out.

My mum has always been RC which has led to me and my sister being a hotchpotch of CoE and RE whilst growing up. We were both baptised into the CoE I belive as per my dad's side of the family wishes. we then ended up going to a RC primary school complete with nuns as teachers and being packed off to Mass every Thursday afternoon. I remember that you could count the number of students who didn't go up during Comunian on two hands. When we returened to England, we went to the CoE as and when we pitched up to church. Mainly through my auntie's influence. Now my mum is the only one who goes to church on a semi regular basis and she goes to the Catholic church, where she prays for the souls of heathens like me :)
alliekiwi From: alliekiwi Date: January 29th, 2006 11:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
We divided the children by His and Hers - my older sister was christened presbyterian, I was the RC offering. And we won't go into the part-jewish thing. The guilt, oh the guilt - catholics don't have sole owership of that.

You must have felt very self-conscious not going up for communion. I always find it rather strange that non-cahtolics might send their children to an RC school. Do they really want their children to grow up feeling out of step with their peers?

A nice gift for your mother might be a set of labels for the cupboards so she can organise them. I swear she'll spend many a happy hour putting things Right. (ours are actually left-over labels froma meet the teacher evening, and say 'Hello, my name is... brown sugar' Hello, my name is long grained rice' etc).
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: January 29th, 2006 11:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't remember feeling self conscious. Most of the schools where we were living were religious, so it didn't occur to me at the time that you could go to a school that wasn't religious. And it was just A Fact of Life that some people went up and others didn't.

The guilt, oh the guilt - catholics don't have sole owership of that.
*is amused* I'm thinking I'm getting there. Catholic on my mum's side and honourary Jew through one of my best friend. Guilt all round. I swear if I ever have kids, I'm going to let them choose their own religion when they're old enough to know better.
themolesmother From: themolesmother Date: January 30th, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

I read this with a wry smile ...

... as I was born to an inheritance of plain and uninteresting ceilings, and now here I am the owner of someone else's intricate plasterwork. The room in which I'm writing this is an absolute riot of the stuff, which is why I bagged it for our living room when we first moved in. It most certainly would have had portraits, too but these were of course long gone by the time we arrived.

You are so right about the patterns of childhood, though. There we were in our borrowed mansion in the heart of semi-rural France having a thoroughly English Christmas with all the trappings our respective childhood memories demanded - pudding, crackers, sherry, and Carols from Kings.

I may be living in France but part of me will always remain in England and I enjoy your reminiscences a lot.


wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 30th, 2006 10:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Ah, M'Dear.

Always a joy to hear from you, and so kindly, at that.

There will always be, &c, even in your corner of a foreign whatsit and All That.
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