Pride, prejudice and old lace by Trevor Plumbly
Much of my early education outside the classroom came from the afternoon teas where Aunt Phyllis presided over her genteel kangaroo court. Maiden aunts, as a social force, drifted into extinction around the1950s; mine was formidable and possessed of three major traits: an endless store of borrowed quotes, the capacity to consume more gin than a music hall tart and the ability to terrify me. The table was her high court bench and, during tea, dialogue was pretty much restricted to, ‘Sit up please’ and ‘Chew your food properly child.’ Once the tea things were cleared, adults were allowed some conversational leeway but boundaries were set, ‘One does not discuss one’s health or finances in polite conversation.’
I’ve often thought she never married because Churchill was already taken; she adored the man, ‘A Bulldog! British and best!’ she often declared, before tapping the table to indicate that no further comment was needed. She was as well informed as the BBC Home Service and The Times would allow, but often given to bursts of pure intolerance. On the tabloid press, ‘God knows why they let them cut down trees for paper to print that muck on.’ As was the norm with the faded middle class at the time, she was a refined bigot, too polite to be openly racist, but quite capable of slipping the knife in from the high ground over Earl Grey Tea and Garibaldi biscuits. She rarely used ‘foreigner’, preferring instead ‘they’, reserving ‘we’ and the collective ‘one’ for those clearly identifiable as being of English stock.
‘Let’s face it’
Was never used to broaden debate, it was her way of stating that her grasp of things was the only one worth considering; today’s PC necessity for meaningful discussion and transparency would have been lost on the old girl. Another classic was, ‘A great deal of this so-called progress is cooked up by those incapable of coping with the present.’ That philosophy extended to anything prefixed ‘modern’. Music got off fairly lightly with, ‘It rather makes one envy the deaf.’ Contemporary art really copped it: on a visit to the Tate Gallery, ‘Ghastly foreign muck and they talk such tosh about it! I seriously think that stuff they smoke has destroyed any talent they might have had to begin with.’
She had a filing system approach to life: the good stuff was kept up front and the tricky bits buried at the back, presumably in the hope it would stay there, ‘What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over’ covered that concept. It’s funny really, some people fade out of memory as you grow older, but characters always provide flashbacks. For someone so obviously well read, she was incredibly insular; hers was a world rapidly running out of cultural currency. Drama died with Laurence Olivier, art with the Pre-Raphaelites and humour with Noel Coward; women could write, but not with much success after the Bronte sisters died.
We live in a blameless age and even the likes of Putin and Trump have their apologists, I wonder how the old bird would have handled the 21st Century? Perhaps she might have said of cell-phones, ‘Toys for people with little value for productive conversation’, of Joe Biden, ‘He seems a nice man but perhaps the church might have been a better option for him’, of Bob Dylan, ‘If he’s got a message, it seems terribly confused’, of Boris Johnson, ‘As much use to Britain as Neville Chamberlain was’, of Salvador Dali, ‘I honestly feel the moustache will be more memorable than his artistic efforts’, of The Beatles, ‘At least they look clean!’ All of which would be concluded with, ‘In my opinion, of course’, as if anyone else’s mattered. Today’s PC crowd’s fixation with ‘meaningful narrative’ would have made as much sense to her as communism. Staunch monarchist, refined bigot and gloriously opinionated, but totally unforgettable; like the man said, ‘They don’t make them like that anymore!’