Valedictory for a suffragette

In case you wondered where I was two weeks ago, I had slipped back into England (they still let me in, under cover of darkness) to attend Great Aunt Jocasta’s funeral. I shall not try to explain how I managed until recently to have a relative who qualified as “great”, even at my already elevated age; it’s a complex story of cousins that I’d rather not weary you with. But at 101 years and duly telegrammed by Her Majesty, Jocasta had been for nearly two-and-a-half decades the bright red tail-light of her generation.

Much influenced by her elder cousin Sylvia, she was considered a “firebrand” in the thirties for espousing “militant pacifism” and for using direct action tactics to promote women’s issues, even if her finest hour in that cause actually involved trashing a Cornish MP’s greenhouse and paying a very stiff fine. She later followed Sylvia’s lead in condemning Italian actions in Ethiopia and even “fought” (though in what capacity no one is sure) in the Spanish civil war, where she claimed to have stolen the ribbon from Earnest Hemingway’s typewriter as a punishment for “being boorish”. She was an Aldermaston marcher and continued to proudly wear a CND button on her Sunday coat right up until the 1980’s when, alongside the anarchist “A”, it became a badge of the punk generation. “I quite fail to see the connection between nuclear disarmament and forcing nappy pins through your eyebrows”, she said, when asked by the vicar why she no longer wore it. This village parson, who had never seen a London punk, laboured for years under the misapprehension that Jocasta had lost her marbles before someone finally explained the odd reference to him.

My own memories of Great Aunt Jocasta were equally adventurous. She taught me to “Indian track” and to recognize the trails of badgers and foxes. Perhaps because I was never myself a Scout, Jocasta (who had taken tea with Millie Baden-Powell as a senior Girl Guide) became my ideal “Akela” as I wormed along a hedgerow on my tummy (“You’re breathing like the 9:15 to Paddington, Edwin, they’ll hear you down in Somerset”) or built an “almost-invisible” tree-house. She would let me “assume camouflage” (twigs in my hair and a bit of burnt cork would do the trick) and “forage” for food, even in her own house and garden. She would never dream of punishing me for raiding her raspberries, although Timms, her “stayed-on-after-the-war” German gardener, was of another opinion. But Jocasta believed that everyone should hone their survival instincts. She herself was a compulsive hoarder – of winter clothing, rubber bands, clothes pegs, jam, vinegar, mustard, corned beef, marmite, porridge oats … and almost any kind of book, review or pamphlet. For those who have lived through several major conflicts, barbarism is always at the gate, if not already inside it.

Although Aunt Jocasta was well-read and educated, she preferred a good detective story or even a children’s adventure to most of what we would call “literature”. Her all-time favourite character was Pip from Great Expectations, followed closely by Oswald Bastable of ‘Treasure Seeker’ fame. “Show me a finer book than ‘The Railway Children’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Midnight Folk’, ‘Stig of the Dump’ or ‘Minnow on the Say’ and I’ll bake you a cake”, Jocasta would say to anyone who asked why children’s literature so predominated in her bedside collection. We all knew better than to risk the cake!

A little later, Jocasta also taught gawky, ten-year-old me to improve my cricket, a sport at which she had excelled at a time when it was considered impossible for her sex to even understand the game, let alone play it. My less-than-average aptitude for batting was balanced by bowling a deadly, though rather erratic, fast spin, which Great Aunt Jocasta called “Edwin’s googly”. By the time I was thirteen, this talent was sufficiently developed to get me into the Junior Colts team at school, but sadly no further, as my more-luck-than-judgement capacity with a bat became obvious to all. However, there were other fields to conquer: “A young man should know how to row and how to punt”, said Jocasta, and by punting she meant Cambridge and “the Backs”, not Cardiff Arms Park and a Rugby ball. Thus it came about that I would spend my half-term holidays learning to correctly feather an oar when steering a skiff across Hyde Park Lake, how to “hand” someone in and out of a rowing boat gracefully, and how not to get hopelessly stuck in the mud like a stranded gondolier while other pole-wielding gallants glided their cargos of precious undergraduate maidens effortlessly down the Cam.

If Great Aunt Jocasta was a hard-driving*, rather reckless fairy godmother to me, she was the world to my uncle Haviland, who thought his favourite aunt incorporated all the values he would look for in a wife, and sadly never quite find in a single package. Apart from the skills I have already mentioned, to which he was likewise introduced as a boy, but by a much younger and even more dangerous Jocasta, Haviland’s love of the secret life comes from learning to decode tiny messages written on theatre ticket stubs and suchlike that Aunt Jocasta would leave pinned to the kitchen door frame. Without deciphering these the boy would never be able to find his best shoes, his Christmas or birthday present, his Easter egg or, most famously, the all-important gold ring that Jocasta had concealed when things were already running dangerously late for Sir Daniel Crispin’s wedding (father of Amanda “Mandy” Crispin, see “The Marriage of the Arnolfini’s, Parts 1 & 2”) and Haviland was a very nervous Best Man.

At the funeral and thereafter, these and many other tales were told. But they all stopped short of the full story. Was it tact or a sense of unease that prevented anyone from mentioning the last dark decade as Jocasta’s mind began to more than merely wander while her all-too-healthy heart ticked inexorably on? The scenes of paranoia, the midnight “escapes” from her own house, where she insisted the KGB – why them and not MI6, nobody knows – were holding her prisoner, her setting fire to her own library and nearly burning the house down, the day she attacked poor Timms – himself a very old man and barely able to wield a spade – with a fruit knife: all these ghastly events and many others slid away down a dark passage into mildness and mumblings, blank stares, gentle rocking and the utter incomprehension of a lonely soul, cut off by a relentless disease from all consciousness of her own history, her present state or even her own kind.

September the 11th 2001 marked the beginning of the end. Timms had come over from the cottage to check on her, as he always did every evening. Jocasta was in front of the TV watching the eternal re-runs of those awful minutes and hours in New York. Timms was not even aware of what had happened, he had been out in the garden all afternoon and would only learn about the attack the next morning from the radio, so he didn’t find it particularly strange when Jocasta turned to him with a smile and said: “At last they’ve demolished those horrid blocks, Timmy; my God, what an ugly pair of slabs they were. But why must Americans always make such a spectacle of everything?”

Edwin Drood

* In her Sunbeam Alpine with the top down: “Yes, Edwin, I know it’s a ladies’ car, but that, lest it should have otherwise escaped your notice, is exactly what I am!”

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