Lilac Time

lilac-flower-2Night falls early here, so indoor things I would do in the daytime when in France I now leave until after dark….jam making, or, as last night, making spiced vinegar and peeling and salting onions for pickling.
And, just as when in the kitchen in France, I listen to BBC radio.

The iPlayer is a godsend, despite its new format which drives me up the wall as I want to know what the Book at Bedtime is before undertaking two processes to get to it only to find it is codswallop.
I shall never understand why people let IT specialists tinker with something that works well to turn it into a means of frustration to the user.

Despite the desperately unfunny comedies and the plodding trendy dramas there is much gold still to be mined on BBC radio and I turned up a little nugget last night which not only gave me pleasure in itself, but which turned back the years to when I was a child visiting my mother’s mother.

The programme was one called ‘My Kind of Country’, broadcast in 1968 by John Arlott, talking about his native county of Hampshire.

A brief description of the career of John Arlott would read: clerk in a mental institution, policeman, poet, wine lover and cricket commentator, but that list gives nothing of the reality of the man – a deeply liberal man in every sense of the word with a poet’s economy and exactitude of style and a warrior’s heart for a worthy cause.

His voice is unique…a southern English accent such as you no longer hear among the blare of the north and midlands favoured by broadcasters who think that only something north of Watford can tick the box marked ‘regional’.
If you are quick you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer…if not, here is a link to him talking about how he became a cricket commentator.

Just listening to him brought me into the world he was describing….peeling off the layers of the outliers of the county to come to what he considered its heart…then he recounted an interview with a shepherd who gave a rendering of that old song ‘Buttercup Joe’ and instantly I was back in the past, in a garden in Surrey, while another old boy sang the very same song.

My mother’s mother came from an Oxfordshire farming family…but there had been a tremendous bust up when she married her Australian husband and they had upped sticks and settled in Surrey in a quiet house on the outskirts of a town that was then half country.
By the time I knew that house it was well within the purlieus of the town – the only ‘country’ aspect remaining being the stables of the Co-op milk delivery horses some distance away.
I was taken to visit when we moved from Scotland to England and was usually, with my cousins, banished to the garden while the mother and daughters got down to gossip.
It was a garden divided between grass and flowers and a huge veg plot…but in spring, when it was warm enough to sit out, we used to gather round the creosoted cable bobbin that served as both table and chair in the shade of the lilacs, purple, mauve and white, behind the rabbit hutches.

The purple and mauve lilacs graced the house with their scent, but the white were never taken indoors. Bad luck.
My father thought it was by way of regarding them like the white hawthorn that you would pick when you went maying…but which should never cross the threshold…white was the colour of death…and was the colour of the mourning clothes worn by the queens of France.
There was also – as he pointed out when I was older – the sexual connotations of plucking the flower, the relief after the sexual drought…listen to Morley’s madrigal ‘Now is the Month of Maying’…where playing at ‘barley break’ means a sex romp. Eat your heart out ‘The Sun’.

But all this was hidden from us as we drank our R. White’s lemonade…
Goes off pop.
A penny on the bottle when you take it to the shop.

One of my mother’s sisters was married to a director of R.White – but I don’t remember any cut price bottles of dandelion and burdock or cream soda darkening our doorsteps.

So, engaged in cousinly wrangling, we were surprised to hear the creak of the hinges of the back gate, followed by the appearance of a total stranger.
An elderly man in a brown suit, the jacket buttoned high as in photographs from the Edwardian period, a face well tanned by the weather and the whole crowned by a brown bowler, or, as we used to call it, a billycock hat.
He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, but soon recovered himself.

I’d forgotten the gals was visiting.

The ‘gals’ being our mothers.

I’d just slipped out for a bit…you know how it is..’

Fascinated, we nodded as he seated himself on the bobbin. We knew how it was when the coven got together.

Yer grandad is still in the Rose and Crown…

We nodded again: this was par for the course.

But I thought I’d just take a few bottles home; the rounds was getting heavy.

We might not be too sure about rounds and heavy but the sense of unwelcome financial burden was clear to us.

He produced a bottle and crown cork opener and took possession of a glass, throwing the remains of the lemonade on the ground.

This, he said, is brown ale…take a sip.

We did. It was not what we were accustomed to…but we weren’t going to miss out.

He took a draught.

Now. I suppose you’ll be wondering who I am.

We nodded.

Well! I’m a cousin of your grandmother Ellen and I’m the dirty dish in the family!
But you don’t want to know about all thaat.

We did. Oh, how we did, but the rules of our upbringing forbade us to ask what a grown up said we should not know.

So while we’re out here and they’re in there – jerk of the head – I’ll sing you a song or two to pass the time.

He sang us Buttercup Joe…then The Fly be on the Turmut….

And was well launched on the next, which started promisingly with

Be I Berkshire,
Be I buggery,
I comes up from Wareham
Where the gals wears calico drawers
And we knows how to tear ’em

At which point the female posse emerged and put a stop to it all…I don’t know what happened to the old boy but we children were pushed inside and fed seed cake.

On the bus going home I asked my mother about our visitor..

She told me that his own parents had fallen on hard times and had farmed the children out to various relatives.
He had gone to her mother who was a superb plain cook, but, thanks to his circumstances, he was not used to cooked food but rather to the stale cakes sold off by the baker….
So every home cooked meal from roast to shepherd’s pie via pig’s fry on Saturday was greeted with a cry of

I doan’t waant none of thaat…..

Brown ale might have been the answer…..


46 thoughts on “Lilac Time”

  1. Oh, Helen! What a treat! So much I’d heard, so much I knew and all the more I’d learn.
    No, absolutely where I got that last from, but it seems to fit! I suppose there must be similar taboos in modern families, but most kids today seem a lot more au fait with the wider world.

  2. What a lovely post Helen. I love to listen to the radio at night too ~ great company and great stories as you tell.

  3. Wonderful evocative piece, this Helen. I was right with you there in the garden. I’d love to read more about your childhood. I went to the song, which I didn’t know – it’s charming. I found some lyrics but none quite to match the words on the record. I don’t know if the latter were expurgated.I love Radio 4 but agree with you about those unfunny comedies. Some are gems, but some of them, well, seriously, who finds them funny? I suppose some people really must. One of the mysteries of life.

    1. From what Arlott said on the programme I should think that the lyrics were well bowdlerised…but I don’t remember it being smutty when it was sung to us either.

      I don’t often think back to my childhood…but things like that song will bring things up to the surface sometimes.

      I do wonder about BBC programming – I have a suspicion that they have target audiences and tailor the programmes to fit…pity their targeting model is so lousy.

  4. Radio Times on t’internet does give a bit of info re Radio 4 and 4 Extra on the listings. Has proved quite helpful to catch some good stuff and avoid what I don’t like.

  5. What a wonderful post, I loved every second of it and felt like I was sitting in the garden with you. Think I will read it again and enjoy it as much the second time around 🙂 Thanks. Keep well you two Diane

  6. A lovely reminisce. I too remember when children were sent away from the company of a gathering of adults. I had no idea my mother was pregnant with my sister, eleven years younger than I. I had no idea my mother’s side of the family, my grandmother included, did not like my father’s origins (Irish!). Even in my twenties, married, with children, I was excluded from the decisions made by the older generation. In my forties there was an accident involving my brother. The police turned to me to understand the situation, not my parents, who were also there. I felt the mantle had passed.
    All that said, I am appalled at the ease with which my grandchildren insinuate themselves into the conversations of adults. Both my daughters tolerate and encourage the behavior. I often send them away. it’s not their business!.

    1. It was a period when it was felt that little pitchers had large ears and the pitchers were accordingly kept at a distance.

      I too dislike the ever present child, asking damnfool questions about things it has not the experience to understand – and being encouraged by its parents!

  7. Yet again I am struck by what an interesting life you have been blessed with and we are blessed by your ability to remember and recount it so evocatively.

    1. Everyone’s life is interesting….I enjoy reading about your experiences when younger too, so well told.

      Are we interested in recollections because they come from a different era or society, I wonder?

      An interesting life…yes, in the Chinese sense I often feel!

  8. I have always loved lilacs…their scent is so soothing and pleasant. Last year the summer was so humid that many lilacs sadly dried out. I missed their fragrance for the rest of the summer as a result.

  9. Modern technology can do so much not only to bring back memories but to help make new ones too. I have just been watching parts of a programme from Karneval Shows of the 60s and 70s, when I still spent a lot of time in Germany. In spite of not being much into organised jollifications I found myself singing along to the very old fashioned and rather repetitive songs of the time.

    It’ll be a long time yet before my lilacs bloom; I never knew that bringing white flowers into the house is bad luck. Perhaps I’d better remember that. Nowadays I indulge in superstitions although I am not serious about them.

    1. Something unexpected will start off a chain of memories…your mention of the Karneval Shows brought back for me memories of going with a German friend to her group’s get together of – mostly – ex German POWs and German women who married British soldiers post war.
      A group with a singer, making everyone laugh with their take off on Wir Fahren Gegen Engeland…’mit grauen hahren, gegen Engleland’….and, because you might leave the army but the army never leaves you, the marching songs and then songs popular in the thirties…
      Clearly it was a nostalgic evening….but just as you enjoyed singing along to your memories, so did they.

      Superstitions are interesting, aren’t they? My father’s mother would not have a window open at night …the night air is bad for you…
      My father thought that that was because of the underlying superstition about the creatures of the night…the fairies emerging from their hills….which generations of Calvinism had not suppressed.

  10. I didn’t have the lilac garden in my childhood, but we ewwed and ahhed as children over them and the iris in our walks. Such special moments of wonder and delight …. always and always happy to read your posts because they always evoke such emotions and thoughts for the day. Write on!

  11. What an interesting family you have collected!
    I’d like to know what the ‘gals’ said to him after you went indoors.

    1. Thanks for the link, I’ll give that a try.

      I’ve never been into genealogy…I like to know how the people I like in the family are getting on but that’s about it….there were boring relatives aplenty…. but delving back into the past doesn’t appeal that much.

      I remember harmless souls like Uncle Andra and his termagant wife who could divide THE breakfast egg into as many as were present at the breakfast table…the bowler hatted Uncle Ronald so staid on his regular commuter run in the week and a jazz fiend at the weekends…my father’s terrifying mother who confined Sunday reading to the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…the Awful Contretemps at the Funeral when the Orange Lodge from Greenock turned out for the funeral of their dear departed brother, Uncle James only to find that he was actually R.C…..
      But it’s only occasionally that something will jog my memory.

      As to what ‘the gals’ might have had to say to him, my mother’s mother had a sharp tongue when roused and if she’d heard any part of his last little ditty he might well have been rendered dittyless…

  12. What a lovely post and one that brings back lots of similar memories for me too. And my grandfather used to sing Buttercup Joe. As I was reading this post I could hear his voice in my head…thankyou for a wonderful trip down memory lane xx

    1. I hadn’t heard that for years until hearing it on the Arlott programme, and, like you, I could then hear it in my head as sung long ago.
      Amazing what comes back to us!

      1. How strange. I posted that comment earlier today but it came up as an error so I tried again…maybe that one also went through but you might have deleted it? Anyway Blogger problems once again, and it seems IE is the problem so am having to use Google Chrome (which I hate) to avoid problems with posting comments. (Haha I’m sure you really didn’t want to know all that, but this is really a test post)

        1. These things are sent to try us and succeed very well!
          I’m having problems posting on Blogger from time to time…I know I’ve commented, but it disappears into the ether.
          After Higher Authority used my little laptop having messed up his PC I can no longer get Google Chrome….I don’t know what he does to computers but whatever it is he does it thoroughly!

  13. è tutto così affascinante in questo post…profuma di cose antiche, come la pianta di lillà e la bellissima ballata
    lieta notte

    It’s all so fascinating in this post … it smells like old things, as the plant of LILACS and beautiful ballad
    Thank you
    happy night

  14. il lillà è una bellissima pianta antica, qui in Italia fiorisce a maggio e allieta i bordi delle strade di campagna come arbusto spontaneo, sta molto bene con la bella scrittura che ho ammirato, molto facino anche nella bella ballata.
    Abbi una dolce notte
    the LILACS is a beautiful ancient plant, here in Italy it blooms in May and gladdens the roadsides of campaign as spontaneous, shrub is very well with the beautiful writing that I admired, much charm in beautiful ballad.
    Have a sweet night

  15. What a brilliant post, what wonderful memories. I hope you will forgive my presumption, but I sneaked into your garden and shared some of your enviable childhood. 🙂

    1. You would have been very welcome to share the cable bobbin and the lemonade….even the brown ale!

      It wasn’t all sunshine….but it’s nice when the sunnier things come back to mind.

  16. Helen, you sum up brilliantly that period of childhood back then when children should be seen & not heard. I too remember ‘banishment’ to the garden with cousins whilst the women gossiped indoors but I don’t remember being at all unhappy about it. Glorious times! And yes, that aching curiosity when, as a child, you met a ‘character’. You really, really wanted to ask questions but just didn’t dare! Oh the delight when they uttered ‘naughty words’ & said things that you just knew your mother would disapprove of! Dandelion & Burdock…I can taste it even now.
    As for the BBC iPlayer, we couldn’t agree more. They keep changing things around & not for the better. Just leave it alone because we know our way round it. If it ain’t broke…
    We are listening for the second time through to ‘Round the Horn’. With regards to childhood again, it went completely over my head when a small child. I could not see what my parents were laughing at and I found it tedious and boring. Now, David & I are rolling around the kitchen, guffawing & marvelling at the audacity of the thing & loving every minute of it. Timeless! ‘Thanks for the memory…’!!

    1. Yes, I didn’t see why my parents were laughing so much at round the Horne either, but jolly well do now – however did they get away with it!

      I can’t think when I last tasted dandelion and burdock…though both grew in plenty in my last garden in France….

  17. Good read Helen. Bowling from the gasworks end with Arlott to Doctor Codswallop and back by train to breakfast time all in one trip. I must say being so very English too that I really miss Radio 4 afternoon theater and the book prog.Not being so offay with PC I sat up and pinned the old ears well back as I heard one say you have BBC in France? Well! did they not move the blasted skyhook thing ,you know the star that brings the signal to the set? Now we suffer with Latvian TV and BBC World. Must say we have no rates here to pay so the old pension spreads a bit thicker on the homemade bread but British TV is a thing I miss dally. To keep the brain in shape in this recycled youth I keep British Peking bantam hens and in summer garden all day. Built the house from an old barn in a large field now landscaped with Englishness stamped in, even waterfalls obey the scene. Like your blog as it is ginger beer and jam scones on a summer lawn with the whites of cricket and leather on willow. It is the flapping of the union jack in a gentle breeze as is it pickles and cheese to the mind. Overhead I hear spitfires roaring home and Mrs Miniver watching the skiies.tells me even the venerable Bead must be homesick too at times.

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