Monday, 3 November 2008

Auntie Floss

I recently had cause to mention a great-aunt of mine who made it to the age of 100, and there was a rustle of desire to hear more. She was always referred to in the family as 'Auntie Floss' - she was actually my mother's aunt and her name was Florence; but the diminutive Floss stuck to her throughout her life.

She was the eldest of four girls born (in 1895) to a Midlands pub landlord. They travelled around much while young, shifting peripatetically according to the brewery's needs, but usually around Birmingham and the Black Country. My grandmother always claimed that as a small girl she was present in the room in their pub in Oldbury when, after hours, a visiting music hall artiste named Jack Judge composed a song on the pub piano that went "It's a long way to Tipperary..."

But I digress. One night in his 42nd year, my great-grandfather went to bed complaining of a headache. Forty-eight hours later he was dead of meningitis. His widow and four young daughters were generously given two days by the brewery to pack up and leave. For a time the family was split up among various lodgings and relatives; Floss as the eldest was most affected since she was the one expected to "take responsibility". It was a trauma that marked her for life; even in her old age and having amassed a considerable fortune (of which more anon) she never felt entirely secure and came over to strangers as a curmudgeonly miser.

All the girls went "into service", as girls of their class often did, working as domestic servants in various houses. Escape for Floss came via the First World War, when she became a "clippy", working as a condictress on buses in Birmingham for the duration. During this period, being an independent and enterprising soul, she learnt to drive (a relatively rare accomplishment for a woman at that time) and subsequently found employment as a chauffeur (chauffeuse?) to a wealthy businessman named John Thomas Hyde Legge, a man personally responsible for electrifying most of South-Western England. He was considerably older than Floss and married, but his wife had been committed to a mental institution some years previously and was never released. As we enter the "Roaring Twenties", I think you can predict the plot twist - Floss slipped seamlessly from driving his Rolls-Royce to becoming his constant companion and mistress. (And to head off Boyo's obvious query, she never said whether she wore the leather chauffering gear in bed).

The 20s and 30s passed by, judging from her photo albums and home movies, in a whirl of society parties, ocean trips and visits to Switzerland, Nice, Monte Carlo and Amalfi. It came as a surprise when, a few years ago, my uncle had the surviving home movies (taken on a baby Pathe 9.5mm cine camera which we still have) transferred to video and found them to feature the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and Charlie Chaplin. And they were just the ones we recognised.

Mr Legge had a gorgeous house named 'Upover' in the Somerset village of Shipham, just outside Bristol. It was a magical place of my mother's childhood, often visited during school holidays. Later it had the same function in my childhood, but more of that later. Mr Legge - a "proper gent" of the old school - had a huge influence on my mother. He taught her to drink and speak French, among other things (a more suspicious age might view these contributions to her education cynically, but she has always spoken highly of him as a civilising, avuncular influence).

At the outbreak of WWII, my mother was evacuated to Shipham to stay with Floss and Mr Legge, it being thought that this would be safer than staying in the West Midlands and facing the blitz. Shipham is not far from Bristol's Filton Airport, then a place of military significance. The powers that be decided that Shipham's contribution to the war effort should be to light a fake flarepath on the fields outside the village in order to lure the Luftwaffe to bomb Shipham rather than Filton. So much for 'evacuation to a safe place'. If she was good, my mother would be allowed to help light the decoy. It says much for either the innacuracy of German bombing or the Luftwaffe's failure to be fooled that no bombs fell on Shipham.

Anyway, some time after the war the first Mrs Legge passed away and Mr Legge finally married Floss before passing away a few years later. My mother married and produced my sister and me, and from before we can remember we were being taken several times a year down to Shipham to stay in the huge, rambling, time-capsule of a house that Upover became. For kids it was an almost perfect place to go on holiday - enormous, untended gardens with delights that were hidden and needed to be unearthed and rooms full of mysterious old-fashioned books, furniture and devices.

Floss's eccentricity by this stage took two memorable forms: stubborn independence and a complete inability to comprehend changing prices. The independence was manifested by her acquisition - well into her 80s - of a flock of sheep to keep her lawn short. I remember seeing her actually pick up a young ram bodily and chuck it over a fence when it dissed her in some way or other. The incomprehension of prices was less admirable. My Uncle Peter still cannot discuss the question of her car without tear coming to his eye. It was a 1930s Rolls-Royce. In the 1960s, the local garage man told her it wasn't worth much and offered her £100 "to take it off her hands". She accepted on the spot, in an act deeply and lastingly regretted by the rest of the family, mercenary lot that we are. Her catchphrase by the 1970s was "I'm not paying that for a [fill in blank]!"

It got to the point where she could no longer look after herself, let alone a huge rambling house. It was sold off for development, the magic gardens of my childhood flattened and covered in a 'development' of boxy little houses. She was moved to the same private nursing home as her younger sister (my grandmother). And there they sat out their final days, tragically failing to recognise each other. So many conversations ran along these lines:
Floss: "How's your mother/nan?" (depending on whether she was adressing my mother or me)
Visitor: She's sitting next to you.
Floss (adamantly): That's not her! That's an old woman!

At length my grandmother passed away and Floss was alone. My last sight of her was her 100th birthday party. She could no longer speak intelligibly by that point, but she obviously registered that something out of the ordinary was happening. The thing she most enjoyed was the champagne, tipped gently to her lips in a plastic cup (for health and safety reasons). It was her last taste of a good life she had enjoyed decades before.

We were curiously unsurprised to get a phone call from the home exactly a week later. She had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Only family came to the funeral, since she'd outlived her social set. I read a lesson for her.


scarlet-blue said...

Ah Gyppo, they're lovely memories. I wish I could write so well about my family.
Yes, I'd like to go out with champagne on my lips.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Touching memories indeed, Gyppo. He sounds a nice bloke, the one with the big house - and who wouldn't fall for a lady chauffeur being the wheel of Rolls! My gran died earlier this year; she was a skilled and dedicated stealer of flannels in her nursing home, but when she couldn't sneak into the other patients rooms so quickly to get them she kind of gave up, and died peacefully.

Gadjo Dilo said...

"behind" the wheel...

Gyppo Byard said...

A chauffeur being the wheel of a Roller is such a chamring image, though.

There's probably a phrase about it in Hamilton's "Malay Made Easy" or "The Pashtu Instructor".

I fear to think what will happen to Boyo if that thought takes root in Mrs Boyo's consciousness, though.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

What a marvellous tale, and what a character was Floss. I love tales of the olden days. I bet you still feel a bit sore about that Roller.

jack said...

Gyppo, you got most memorable moment about your auntie floss. It’s a nice tale too that I ever heard before. I like the way of explaining such tale from you.


No Good Boyo said...

Reminds me of General Jarvis "Neither Know" Nacquere, who had a staff car assembled entirely from the bones of Gujerati sadhus. Live Gujerati sadhus.

Jack, are you one of the Ludlow Drivenwides?