Friday, 24 February 2017

A Constant Approach To Matrimony

My Constant cousins all seemed to be getting married from 1953 onwards and once my services were even required as a bridesmaid which should have been exciting and perhaps would have been a few years previously when playing Weddings was a popular game between the under twelves of York Road, Buckingham Road and Tooley Street. In those days the most testing aspect of that particular game was persuading a Real Live Boy to play. Colin Bardoe could always be relied upon but was generally demanding about what the bride wore and his twin, Alan was never all that keen in the first place. I remember we were all most impressed when Kathleen McCarthy whose parents ran The Queen’s Head on the Hill and were thought to be well off, was bridesmaid at a family wedding and had her hair permed for the occasion. She consented to answer a lot of questions and told us that the dress she was to wear was pale blue velvet with a sweetheart neckline. Colin was very positive with regard to this description.

When my older cousin Margery got married to Jock who was very handsome and drove a red sports car, the dress I was to wear was disappointing to say the least. A cast off from yet another wedding from her father’s side of the family, slightly grubby acquamarine imitation satin and rather too small for me. Aunt Madge said I was piling on the pounds but we all knew that as a fourteen year old I shouldn’t be trying to force myself into a dress more suitable for someone of eleven. Margery wondered if we could let it out and my mother said she would try which horrified me. As I have said before, she was enthusiastic but had no talent for dressmaking.

The wedding was fairly uneventful except that I managed to get very drunk on gin and had to be almost carried back to the house in Iron Mill Lane and put to bed with instant coffee. A year or two later the happy couple decided they were not meant for each other after all and parted in what seemed to be an amicable fashion. This Simply Wasn’t Done in the mid fifties particularly in Roman Catholic families and so of course not only did the neighbours gossip but the immediate family gossiped even more in hushed and horrified whispers. Because ours was a family where intimate matters were not openly discussed at all lies and fabrications were thus piled onto secrets. I was more recently surprised to find that in certain corners of the family this is still happening today when we tend to live within a far less surreptitious, cloak and dagger environment. My mother and Old Nan both blamed the man Margery worked for, known simply as The Boss at that time, because at Easter and Whitsun he whisked her off to Paris to help him take care of urgent jobs that simply couldn’t wait until after the Bank Holiday. Old Nan said everybody knew exactly what kind of jobs they would be and not only my mother agreed, but several other aunts also. Those who knew more details added that it was his poor wife they felt sorry for. Margery’s own mother, Aunt Madge was tight lipped and held her head firmly in the air humming We’ll Gather Lilacs.

My cousin Pat was married in a great hurry at about the same time though she was only just sixteen and we all pretended not to know that she was, as Old Nan put it, In The Pudding Club. One of my older male cousins described this as Being Up The Duff which none of us really understood at that time but then he was in the Merchant Navy and came out with a lot of odd statements. The only bridesmaid she had was Little Violet who did not get a great many treats and was highly excited in a pink crochet dress generously made by one of the aunts. Less than two months later Pat gave birth to baby Sharon causing all the aunts to forget their previous censure and disapproval and vie with each other for turns holding the newborn. Pat, despite all predictions of doom and gloom for her possible future, remained married and had several more children.

When Cousin June walked up the aisle a great deal was expected of the arrangements for the Do afterwards. June had issued various appeals on the invitations to the guests concerning such matters as not wearing what she described as Dangly Ear Rings or colours that were too bright. My mother said that if any more demands were made then she wouldn’t go at all but we all knew she didn’t mean it. June’s wedding differed from those we were accustomed to in that there was no Sit Down Wedding Breakfast but a great many cocktail sausages and cheese on sticks instead, and only beer and wine to drink. A live band played subdued music and nobody was allowed to dance the Conger Eel. Many of the guests were disappointed but shortly after the event the newly weds disappeared to South Africa and were not seen again for many years. Aunt Maud then read excerpts to us from June’s letters home, especially bits that said she had a Girl coming in each week to do the ironing and the heavy work. The aunts whispered among themselves that it was a Black Girl that was being referred to because Over There the Whites were not allowed to do any real work. Old Nan said she’d be buggered if she’d want one anyway and as for herself she had always been capable of doing her own ironing. Everyone knew that she didn’t know one end of an iron from the other but of course nobody said that in her hearing.

When mutterings were made about whether I would be Next I said nothing having very recently discarded my first boyfriend Barrie of the Flint House in Springhead Road. Aunt Madge observed in rather acerbic tones that I would have to get myself a Young Man first and one of the others tut tutted that I was No Longer Courting. My mother said not for the first time that it was unlikely I would do any better than Him Who I Dumped and I was a fool but then I always had been apparently. Later when the visiting relatives had gone back to Crayford she remarked in a clearly aggravated tone that she could have done without Madge’s opinions considering what became of the marriage of her Margery and Jock who very soon was known as That Poor Sod Jock. It rapidly became clear over the next few weeks that Margery was now living at The Boss’s new flat in Old Bexley and that his wife and children had refused to leave the house. Aunt Martha said you could hardly blame them and still referred to him as The Boss even though he had now become Ron. This state of affairs caused even greater consternation within the family who despite their more than humble origins were generally unified in turning a staunchly upright and moral front to the world in general. To her credit, with the ongoing support of her steadfastly loyal parents, Margery ignored the wagging tongues and continued to regularly pay visits to the family even when she seemed to be strangely gaining a great deal of weight and had swapped dirndl skirts and high heels for stretchy Swiss knit suits and sensible flat shoes. Nobody openly discussed her Condition and when she visited with baby Nigel a couple of months later my mother rather inappropriately queried if she would perhaps consider going back to Poor Jock now if he would allow her to take her baby with her. Margery said definitely not and added that she was considering moving away from Crayford altogether.

When the old Vicarage by St Botolph’s Church on The Hill was demolished and a number of smart and modern houses built in its place, the little enclave was called Vicarage Drive. My mother had observed the annihilation of the Vicarage with some regret but when Margery burst through the front door of 28 York Road one afternoon to say that she and Ron had just bought one of the Vicarage Drive homes there was rejoicing over the teacups and I was informed of this exciting development with all due haste. When I innocently enquired if that meant they were now actually married my mother reverted back several years and said Layos For Meddlers which I thought yet another inappropriate response considering I was now grown up. Whether or when they finally entered the state of matrimony is still unknown because it is not something anyone ever spoke of, particularly when Ron proceeded to shed his original persona as a Bit Of A Wide Boy and become a successful businessman. He and Margery certainly stayed together for a long time and had three children, each one born in Vicarage Drive and each greatly loved by my mother who did the family babysitting with her usual enthusiasm.


  1. My mother, Eileen, was born in the front first-floor room at the Queen's Head on 10 February 1925. Her parents, Herbert and Elsie Denby, owned the pub. My Great Aunt Bell (or possibly my Great-Grandmother, the story varies) was sweeping out the sawdust in the public bar with the pet cockatoo on her shoulder and somehow managed to catch it a smart blow on the back of the head with the end of the broom-handle, killing it stone dead. It was subsequently stuffed and continued its residence behind the bar!
    My mother told how as a child she was, against strict instructions, swinging her long-handled bag round and round out the back of the pub when it sailed away and plunged into the pit. There were many 'I told you so-s'.
    When the pub became a Thai restaurant we took her there for her 85th birthday and the proprietor took us upstairs to see the room where she was born (and where she and her elder sister, Iris, were nursed through scarlet fever, with a blanket with its lower edge residing in a trough of disinfectant acting as the door to the improvised isolation ward). The pub is now an Indian restaurant and this February on her 92nd birthday we sadly concluded that it would be her last visit there as her dementia is now so advanced she no longer has any idea where she is.

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