Uncle Fred somehow managed to cope with the scorn and occasional abuse hurled at him on every other day of the year for the crime of marrying an unsuitable woman, a social climber and, even worse a Catholic, regarded as several steps below a mere ‘heathen’ and a religious belief never referred to in any other form than ‘Roman Catholic.’ It was water off a duck’s back, he said, proving the point by invariably turning up at my gran’s terraced house in a taxi. Oh, the shame of it, what would the neighbours think?
No buses on Christmas Day and Uncle Fred lived in the rather posh suburb of Wavertree, but there was never much likelihood of Aunty Lily trudging five miles through wind, rain or snow in her high heels – another black mark – so a taxi would be summoned. None of my adult relatives spoke to them for at least an hour after arrival.
Aunty Lily had tried repeatedly to persuade the rest of the family to call her ‘Lilian,’ reasonable as it was her actual name, but as ‘Lilian’ apparently set her apart as someone who thought too much of herself it became the norm to refer to her as ‘Lily’ – ‘Lil’ would have been even better, but that would have completely overwhelmed the poor woman’s sense of grievance.
Names were often a bone of contention. My more distant female relatives had names befitting their place in society: Bertha, Martha, Maud and the like, but two others, on my father’s side, were Aunty Pearl and Aunty Ruby. They hadn’t chosen their names, but were only ever referred to in scornful terms, especially after both of them met and married ‘Yanks’ during the War and moved to America. ‘Yanks’ were just as bad as Roman Catholics and equally derided.
Aunty Pearl, who I never met, had been ‘walking out’ with a ‘respectable’ young man who worked at the salt mines in Cheshire and was always referred to as the young man who made Bisto and hadn’t been called up during the war as his work was regarded as being of national importance. Maybe gravy was essential for keeping up morale. Unfortunately for him, when large numbers of American troops arrived in Liverpool Pearl rapidly switched allegiances, obviously preferring to canoodle with a man who had access to silk stockings rather than the alternative who could only supply gravy browning with which faux seams could be drawn on bare calves.
The Cerebos salt company invented 'Bisto' gravy powder, granules came much later, from a mixture of salt, flavourings and colourings, at its salt factory in Middlewich. It was named "Bisto" because it ‘browns, seasons and thickens in one.’ Hmm!
The Bisto Kids. I was fascinated by them and tried in vain to persuade my sister to join me in offering our services as models for the next advertising campaign. The eagle eyed amongst you will have noted the absence of the Bisto Kids from current labels. What else though? How about the extension of ‘ah’ to ‘aah’ Bisto. A subtle change slipped in at some stage. Did it increase sales or was it an attempt to draw attention away to the heartless culling of that ragged pair of urchins and their quivering noses?
Cerebos didn’t just manufacture Bisto of course; they were the most widely known makers of table salt, using an advertisement that even at a very young age I found incongruous - a picture of boy chasing a chicken and pouring salt over it - but the image and the words beneath it became synonymous with the brand.
The well known advertising slogan certainly brought about a notable disaster one Christmas Day. ‘See how it runs’, called out Uncle Fred, upturning the ‘reserved for Christmas Day’ salt cellar only for the screw top to drop off and the whole contents land on his plate. Not his finest moment. Obviously, I found it hilarious and was sent out to ‘calm down and remember your place.’ The house rules, my grandmother’s rules, clearly stipulated children on Christmas Day - and every other day - were to be tolerated at best, seen but not heard and, crucially, must know their place.
One of my father’s (many) obsessions that came to the fore at Christmas was Coprastasophobia*, also called Coprostasophobia ,the absolute dread of getting constipation - ‘you don’t want to get bunged up’.
*The word’s origins date back to the Classics - Boris Johnson would undoubtedly know this - copra from the Greek, (meaning, er, faeces), sta is Latin (meaning fixed) and phobia is Greek again (meaning fear). The entire problem, in a single word. Yes, we prefer to say ‘constipation’ now, understandably so.
A heavy meal was, apparently, predestined to cause one’s digestive tract to freeze up and becoming ‘bunged up’ or its variant, ‘stopped up.’ My father’s evangelical call to arms urging one and all to seek remedies for this inevitable disaster began during the meal and continued throughout the day. Quite often the diatribe began as soon as the guests arrived. I suspect it was a Pavlovian style response to his being obliged to eat one meal a year at an actual dining table with members of our extended family.
My favourite relative was Uncle Joe. He had spent many years in the Merchant Navy, had been torpedoed and rescued twice during the war and travelled all over the world. I loved his stories, even if with hindsight they were heavily slanted towards the evils of bosses keeping the working man in servitude.
Bessie Braddock, the Labour MP for over 25 years was supposedly a close friend of Uncle Joe and he had a photo of the two of them celebrating yet another General Election victory. It’s true he was on the photo, but only just, tucked away behind a fair few others.
Bessie Braddock was the greatest influence on the city of Liverpool until the Beatles came along and Uncle Joe was her biggest fan. Outside Liverpool she’s probably best known for the reply made to her by Winston Churchill when Bessie observed, ‘Mister Churchill, you are drunk and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.’ The Conservative Prime Minister responded: 'My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.'
Bessie Braddock spearheaded the demolition of the infamous Liverpool slum housing, including the house my grandmother had lived in all her life, and thousands of families were rehoused, packed off to new developments in Skelmersdale, Kirkby and Huyton.
My grandmother had to be dragged away from her house in Scotland Road, always called Scottie Road where everyone knew everyone else and nobody ever locked the doors It was all she’d ever known and she loved it there. I loved it too whenever we went to visit. The streets were filthy, the children I played out with were even worse, but I can only remember the sheer joy of ‘playing out in the backs’ with an unruly mob of rowdy urchins
The ‘new house’ wasn’t even new, it was just a remodelled but still very basic terraced house, but with indoor plumbing and a scrap of back garden where I could play. The ‘Rec’ was at the top of the road. The recreation ground as the Council rather grandly called a patch of weed strewn grass with three garden swings on it, the whole area festooned with signs saying ‘no spitting.’
The Rec was much safer than playing on the railway lines, although I did that too and survived somehow, but the new place wasn’t a patch on Scottie Road. The new kids came from more affluent homes, but were far less adventurous and interesting.
I only remember joining one gang on our many visits and their activities were very tame indeed. The lawless mayhem I’d enjoyed so much in Scottie Road was in very short supply in this new environment.
My best mates at that time were Dan who had scabies and one we all just called Monkey, because he looked like one, whose ability to fart at will ensured his popularity. I wasn’t supposed to play with Dan or another boy whose name I forget as there was a case of TB in the houses they lived in, but of course I did.
My cousins, who I rarely saw other than at Christmas were as much under the eye of the adults as I was on these occasions and ‘larking about’ was forbidden. We sat quietly, wearing our best clothes and tried to make the best of it.
Christmas 2020 was very similar, except the food was (much) better and the chef received well earned compliments. Christmas with just Marigold and I makes for a great Christmas and this lockdown era Christmas has been brilliant.