Farewell to my last link with a long-gone era
When I finish these words I'm off to the funeral of my last great aunt. No big deal in the general scheme of things, you might think – but for me it is a profoundly important occasion that marks the end of a very, very long era.
I write about the subject here because it must be one that touches just about every family.
When great-aunt Nessie passed away it ended my clan's involvement with the 900-year-long period which you could – in the Westcountry at least – name as the Age When Nothing Really Ever Happened.
That's the way I see it. And that's the way I see them – by which I mean Nessie and her many sisters and one brother and the vast dead army of millions who occupied these islands after the Normans invaded and altered everything, and before the Industrial Revolution evolved to change everything.
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All my life until now the great-aunts were there to remind me of an older, altogether different, England. They were "chapel-people" who lived their entire existences deep in the more rural parts of this peninsula.
Their lives were somewhat brittle and Victorian, but my goodness they were good folk. Old-fashioned and salt of the earth.
There will, of course, still be people out there, perhaps even reading these words, who are contemporaries of my great-aunts – but Nessie was the youngest of them and, as she died in her mid-90s, there can't be too many of her ilk left.
I am talking about the Westcountry generations for whom the advent of the Industrial Revolution was a long time coming – people born during or just after the First World War who were already too old to be changed by the great social upheavals later wrought by the Second World War.
For rural Westcountry folk, things may have altered slightly with the earlier coming of railways, but not much. International trade conflicts may have troubled folk in corridors of power, but the arguments would not have been discussed at the village pump.
My great-aunts and their oldest sister, my granny, would have been far more concerned about the Quantock whortleberry crop than the Wall Street Crash.
Yes, the Great War ravaged every rural community. But back at home, little would have changed in centuries.
Many Westcountry people will have elderly relatives about whom, more-or-less, the same could be said. My point is that they were the last of their kind. The next generation were babes of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath – and for them everything was to start changing at a very fast rate indeed.
My mum – eldest daughter of the eldest sister – grew up in a West Somerset village amid these stalwart women, but she is a person of the modern world. By the 1960s she was wearing a bikini on the local beach and going home to make a curry – goodness knows what the great-aunts thought.
As a boy I would be taken to tea parties where their mother – my great-grandmother – ruled the ancient roost in dark Victorian clothes. I can dimly recall long Sunday afternoons more like something from Downton Abbey than EastEnders.
Apart from their Somerset accents, my granny and her sisters would do a thing you don't hear any more, which was to acquiesce during a discussion by uttering "yes" on an intake of breath, so that it sounded like a barely audible wheeze.
And they were quite camp, in a curious, lovely, rustic kind of way. Being chapel people, they were easily shocked and would often exclaim: "Oh my dear, I never did!" in a sort of Frankie Howerd way.
How I wish I'd sought and enjoyed their company more – how I yearn to have recorded their voices and listened to their antediluvian tales.
Now it is too late. Going to the funeral I feel like a man crossing an ocean in a small boat, aiming for a place where a vast island once loomed. When he was young the man went there a lot, but the last time he looked the island had gone save for a single rock.
Now that has gone too.
But the man rows on, labouring under the weight of a great sack on his back. It is filled with rocks he once took from the vanished world.
The man is sighing: "Oh my dear – I never did."
And the weary ocean breeze seems to reply: "And now you never will."