A class act by Trevor Plumbly

In reduced circumstances

I only met Aunt Phyllis a few times, but she was one of those characters who continue to tap you on the shoulder throughout life. I was never quite sure of her place in what could euphemistically be described as my ‘family’ circle.

Three maiden aunts by Stanley R. Lench (1934-2000)

I never knew if she was an actual ‘aunt’ or some sort of straggler who became attached before my time. The main consensus (whispered, of course), was that she had ‘a past’. At the time I assumed everybody had one of those and it wasn’t until a few years later that I realised the old girl must have been a bit of a ‘goer’ in her time. I was taken to meet her when I was around 14 in her basement flat in Maida Vale and the first things that struck me were her cut glass accent and rigid code of manners. Looking back, there was an Englishness about her that owed itself to the world of PG Wodehouse and Noel Coward.

Polite company

She was a tiny, bird-like woman who, rather than indulge in chit-chat, treated my visits like a boot camp for middle-class correctness. ‘You’ did not exist for her, all admonitions kicked off with ‘one’. Some were quite basic, ‘One does not lean over one’s food’, or, ‘One asks, “May I be excused?” not, “Can I go to the toilet?”’. There were lots of other things one didn’t do, most of which didn’t apply to me, but I was force-fed them anyway. One apparently didn’t discuss finance over the dining table or medical matters in mixed company. I wasn’t quite sure of any relevance these had since I didn’t have any money or health problems but maybe the old girl planted them for future use. Along with my mother she had an encyclopaedic store of clichés, which she bought into play to halt or divert a conversation; thus, the likes of, ‘There but for fortune’ or ‘Handsome is as handsome does’, could be flicked in, rather like a trump card to win a trick.

The Bronte Sisters left to right Anne, Emily, Charlotte

Literally speaking

She was also, like my mother, well read, but far more restricted, her taste beginning in England in the late 18th Century and ending abruptly early in the 20th. A committed Anglophile, the works of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and their American counterparts were condemned as ‘foreign’, therefore unworthy of serious thought. The contribution of female authors ended with the demise of the Bronte Sisters. She constantly urged me to read; ‘Words are wealth’ she’d say, stuffing yet another cliché into an already cluttered teenage brain. It’s funny really, I think of her so rarely these days: what sparked this blog was finding myself announcing to my grandson, ‘Reading is the cheapest form of education.’ I  don’t think she would have enjoyed today’s world, the preference for PC soft pedalling would not have appealed, Donald Trump would have been dismissed as ‘a vulgar little man’ and Theresa May crowned as ‘a gal with a bit of British backbone’. She was opinionated, bigoted, colourful and a total delight. She often said of Winston Churchill, ‘They don’t make them like that anymore’: she could well have been describing herself.

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