Monday, January 17, 2011

The Aunts at Alton

Planning a short trip with some of my students later in the year to the UK, to Hampshire; they want to see Jane Austen's house and visit a typical English tea room.  The town of Alton was always handed down in family memory as the place where my father's aunts lived.  My father's father came from Somerset, as I think I've mentioned before, but there was another branch in Hampshire. These may well be confused and mixed up received memories from different sources, that's how it goes with these things.

The Aunts at Alton

1940, just married, our parents found
petrol enough out of the ration
to take Dad's Austin Seven down
from Hertfordshire to Hampshire,
to see the Aunts at Alton.

Their number and identities are blurred,
- and who's there left to ask now? -
I think though, there was Kate,
and Tilly, and a perhaps a third,
Lucy, my namesake sooner than a saint of light,
or Wordsworth's shrinking violet girl.

Kate, they said, eschewed a skirt,
wore trousers like a man, was quite a sight
to see out on the tractor, and smoked,
even, perhaps, a pipe, she'd light
from rolled-up paper spills out of a jar
up on the mantelpiece, something
to keep your fingers busy by the fire.

'Father', who'd mostly lost his teeth and wits,
sat in the background, fed on slops, which
fifty years on still made my mother shudder.
Indeed, there wasn't that much food around
for anyone to chew on, but she did recall
a good round cheese, and relish
made from grated beetroot and horseradish.

It was December - the photographs show Mum
in a coat we knew was blue, its collar velvet,
which Aunty Joan made from a remnant,
she was good at that - the farmhouse rooms were cold,
the water in the jug and basin on the chest of drawers
still colder, and Dad too shy to ask for any hot.

A wartime honeymoon, of sorts then: food,
and petrol, warmth and comfort, rationed
and in short supply.  And though the names and tales
were handed down like heirloom curios, I never could be sure
if it were quite a happy memory or not.


Barrett Bonden said...

Happier than the honeymoon of my maternal grandparents who were accompanied by my grandpa's best (male) friend. Leading my granny to say, on more than one occasion: "I reckon nowt to honeymoons."

My paternal grandpa, a retired Baptist minister, had had a stroke and was reduced to non-chewy food. This caused my mat. grandpa to say he was being fed on "pobs", bread in warm milk, which even at this distance in time causes me, a profound lactophobe, to retch.

I take it there's a literary/automobilistic link-up in the misspelling of the make of car involved - the car Blessed Jane would have bought had she lived into the twentieth century. A minor matter since I'm blown away by your ability to turn all this into a narrative without for a single second letting go of the poetry. Reaching a climax with "names and tales were handed down like heirloom curios" - a phenomenon so irritating to me, the retired journalist, as these well-polished and never-varying slivers of info are uttered yet again. "Did no one ask any damn questions in those days?" I rage, knowing, of course, that they didn't.

herhimnbryn said...

You will have to meet up with Bee from Bee Drunken. She volunteers at Jane Austen's house!

Dick said...

What a rich little memoir, Lucy. Many resonances with my family set-up.

I know Alton well. I lived near Farnham for nearly 20 years prior to moving to - coincidentally - Hertfordshire. Bon voyage et bonne visite - and, yes, you should link up with Bee.

Lucy said...

Thank you.

BB - I kept saying 'you must not type Austen for Austin' over and over which was a sure way to make certain I would do just that! Now corrected, thanks. Regarding the non-askign of questions, I too was guilty of such incuriosity at the time, or if I did ask, I've now forgotten the answers. I have one cousin I'm still in touch with who may know some of the answers. Snail mail is calling...

HHB and Dick - Yes, I know, though it's actually Chawton House, the JA library, where she volunteers, but it is very close by. We are already in touch about it and I hope to get a personal tour from her very self, as well as sharing a cuppa!

Avus said...

I wish you and your students a good day with Jane at her home. Followed up, perhaps, with a visit to Winchester Cathedral, her burial place. Nice tea shops in Winchester, too!

Plutarch said...

Your aunts prompted memories of my aunts, who like yours, lived in what seemed to me then, and still does, to be a sort of aunt house. It's a poignant poem connecting aunts to many un-aunt like things. I like the observation ..." I never could be sure if it were quite a happy memory or not." It seems to sum up something of a general nature about those curious birds (that at least is how I see it). P G Wodehouse, too, was curiously ambivalent about aunts.

The Crow said...

I've enjoyed this memory you've shared, Lucy. Made me feel as if I'd met them at some point in my life.

Lucas said...

The poetry which comes towards us from the past is always fascinating. This poem is an excellent example, which I like because of the way I can picture so clearly the physical objects in which the people (aunts) lived and worked. I especially like "...the coat we knew was blue", conjures up those old-yet-real photos to perfection.

Bee said...

Lucy -- Actually I DO work at Jane Austen's House (as opposed to Chawton House, just down the road).
I'm very much looking forward to meeting you (your sister, and the others) and will cross my fingers for a sunny day.

But the main thing is this poem, which just RESONATES for me. I admire the writing in it, too -- particularly the assonance, (which if sometimes more pleasing than rhyme), and the last three lines, and all of the vivid imagery.

"Who's left to ask now" is the saddest thought. Last spring, my mother and I looked at a box of old photographs (recently unearthed from a stash of belongings of my grandmother, who's been dead for ten years). My mother, the oldest living member of that clan, was trying to recall names from a generation that had been distant, even when she was a child. All of those 19th century family members, unnamed and unknown, and there is no one alive who can say that they knew those faces.

This poem also captures the atmosphere of a world that probably seemed unchanging for such a long time -- and yet it has thoroughly vanished now. Not that anyone misses that slop jar much . . .