The next post will be on or before Saturday 1st December


My Aunty Josie was born 13 days after the end of WW1, on the 24th November 1918, hence turned her century yesterday in a care home in West Cumbria, where she has been for the last 5 years. Before that aged 94, she was living alone in an upstairs flat in no nonsense downtown Workington and every Tuesday night businesslike dragging her 2 dustbins down for the Wednesday 7am collection. Redoubtable isn’t the word for it. Up until she was 90, as a retired confectioner she was baking a minimum of 20 Christmas cakes for her numerous friends, kids in their sixties, seventies and eighties who visited her at least once a week as their most charismatic and without a doubt most generous acquaintance. Forget about the costly ingredients, but her winter electricity bill was astronomical, for Christmas loaves as she called them, have to sit in the oven smirking away at low temperature, refusing to bite the bullet and actually bake, for endless hours. One year she also wrote and posted, she told me, 117 Christmas cards and got back 112 and she spoke with a measured possibly limited charity of the 5 anomalous defaulters. Charity and charisma are indeed appropriate words in her case, as she has always been a devout Evangelical Christian whose sole reading material for decades has been her Daily Bread scripture pamphlets.

The great thing about stereotypes is they are nearly always way off the mark. Believe it or not you cannot even stereotype Evangelical Christians, for her husband Ted who died aged 86 in 2003 was also one, and yet as a former collier, he was also an uninhibited comic who was not afraid to mix his words. At the age of 17 when I was at a family party with my girlfriend, I interrupted one of Ted’s zestful anecdotes to ask him what ‘humping’ meant, as for some incredible reason and even with Lawrence Durrell’s steamy Alexandrian Quartet under my belt, I had never heard the word in its colloquial context. He stared at me a second or two and then at my girlfriend, and then said he would whisper it later in my ear outside, whereupon my parents and even Josie burst into hectic if wholly innocent laughter. On reflection that word ‘humping’ was first applied by farmers to their simple animals and to copulating sheep in particular, so perhaps its pastoral origins made it less disturbing than the Anglo- Saxon gerund. Less controversially, at the same party Ted urged me to offer Aunty Joan’s adored but yappy little poodle Judy a handful of silverskin pickled onions to shut it up, and then in the same breath surveying the dinner table, he whispered to me with great originality re my Uncle Tommy’s daunting new hairstyle. Tommy, a lorry driver from the back end of remotest rural East Cumbria, born somewhere around 1930, had become inordinately fond of gel and quiffs as he entered his mid-20s in rock and roll 1955, and now in his late 50s, was suddenly returning to his glamorous youthful image. This evening he had really outdone himself, for his gel was so copious it shone under the electric light like some new moon of Saturn, and the luxurious quiff he had imposed upon it, constituted a gable end at the front at least 3 inches long and 4 inches wide. He looked, in short, exactly like one of the Leningrad Cowboys, the mad retro rock band as envisaged by the remarkable Finnish film director Aki Kaurismaki. Ted passed his incisive judgement on Tommy’s startling tonsure in the broadest Cumbrian dialect.

Marraboy Tommy leuks like ee’s hed a bad flate!” (Boyo Tommy looks like he’s had a bad fright!)

Ted died in bed in the middle of the night in August 2003 with Josie lying there next to him as she had done for the last 60 years. The horror she felt both at the proximity of his corpse and when in raw sorrow she realised he was never going to wake up again, meant that she told the story of his fatal heart attack every time she met anyone from that day onwards. Her other obsessive story came a few years later, when she had to go into hospital herself, and when a young male nurse one day had given her a bed bath. It had all happened so quickly and she had been so dumbstruck she had not had a chance to protest, but she assured her patient audience she had never felt so mortally embarrassed in her life. No amount of urging her that it was his job and was certainly not embarrassing to him made any difference to her tragic blow by blow account of how it had happened and what a post-traumatic example of a muck sweat it had put her in.

Josie was not in fact my aunty, but my mother’s cousin and she was also adopted, a fact which she never spoke of to anyone other than possibly Ted. Her adoptive mother was my Aunty Ginnie who was in her late 80s in the early 1960s and who had the mildest and kindest nature of anyone I have ever met. She lived with Josie and Ted and had numerous furrows of loose and shrunken skin, countless freckles that seemingly marbled her face, and a surprisingly deep voice, even though she swore she had never smoked. Josie was still a confectioner then, and if she was out shopping Ginnie was always there in the back kitchen where a huge old black range baked the bread and cakes and where her hands and skirt were perennially coated in ghostly flour. Aunty Ginnie was another lifelong chapelgoer, and in Josie’s childhood was disturbingly literal in her notion of Christian charity. She took in waifs and strays including a startling character called Uncle Sam who only had one leg and was an alcoholic and he stayed with her for the best part of 10 years. I fictionalised some of this in my 2001 novel John Dory as I also did the deviant behaviour of Josie the reckless child who loved to play awful tricks on her guileless mother. Once simpering sweetly, she brought into the kitchen a present of a pound of lard, bought at the butcher’s with her last few pence of pocket money, so she cooed to beaming Ginnie. It was tightly wrapped in an unusually grubby issue of the West Cumberland Times and Star and when her mother gushed her gratitude and opened it up, she beheld instead a long dead rat, and she screamed enough terror to bring the house down.

Josie and Ted had no children, and after leaving the pit he got a cushy and well-paid job as a security officer in a factory that employed half of West Cumbria. With the income from the busy confectioner’s they had money to burn, and Ted could think of no one better to spoil than Josie, who possibly because she was adopted and had no child to spoil, became the pampered child herself. The spoiling took the form of driving to the county seat of Carlisle of a Saturday where she would shop for expensive clothes in the one or two exclusive stores, not to speak of lush accessories like umpteen designer shoes, handbags, cosmetic sets and more. Back home she would fill the 3 huge wardrobes in the 3 bedrooms with her glorious suits and skirts and boots, and she accumulated so many she was a West Cumbrian Imelda Marcos of whom assuredly she had never heard and never would (once in a party game I asked her the capital of Spain and she frowned then giggled and said she hadn’t a clue). The morality tale that ensued (an Evangelical who accumulated countless worldly goods) was that she never wore 95% of her trophies but simply accumulated them to show off to folk like my Aunty Joan and my mother, both of whom had husbands who made half of what Ted made, and one of whom, my mother, had four children to look after. Now and again, in a fit of largesse she would offer a dress or a jacket or a blouse to my mother who at first would modestly and repeatedly no no, but then as Josie pressed her, and as the item on display was so undeniably beautiful would reluctantly accept.

And then Josie’s piece de resistance. She and I left my mother to dress in front of the bedroom mirror and went through to the sitting room, where Josie usually laid 2 Wagon Wheels and a huge glass of dandelion and burdock on me as we waited for the imminent fashion show…

My mother who could never afford designer clothes, walked through shyly in a sumptuous pale blue suit which had cost Josie 50 guineas in 1964, meaning five times my Dad’s wage at the shoe factory. Even to me aged 13 who had no idea of women’s (or men’s for that matter) fashion, she looked brilliantly lustrously attractive. I was about to say something sincerely complimentary through a mouthful of wet Wagon Wheel, when Josie got to it first. Josie, as I said, had never heard of Imelda Marcos nor knew the capital of Spain, nor of course had she heard of Litotes or Negative Hyperbole if that is the accurate rhetorical trope she came out with by way of cousinly laudation.

The more homely name for it is… Damning with Faint Praise…

“Oh,” said the middle-aged woman who would live to be a 100, to the middle-aged woman who would live to be only 74. And then added:

“Don’t worry, lass. You don’t look daft in it. You needn’t worry yourself. You don’t look soft…”

And with that I could see my mother doubting not just herself, but of course everything else in this wholly unpredictable world…


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