Our Annie's Funeral
A monologue wherein biographer David Bret recalls his grandmother’s funeral on 4 February 1972, as seen through the eyes of his much-loved Aunty Kate, who had a peculiar way of looking at the world. It was one of the saddest days of his life, yet upon reflection and when recalled by Kate, it is so unintentionally hilarious.
David Bret recalls:
I was very young when my maternal grandparents died, along with William, my paternal grandfather, so I never really knew them. Annie Phillips—O.B.'s mother—I adored. Grandmother Spurr affected the most wonderful impression of the music-hall comedian Nat Jackley, but because she was inordinately kind to Mother and me, O.B. hated her. He even tried to stop me going to her funeral. That's how he got his nickname, O.B. —Old Bastard. Uncle Bill said he should have been called O.C. I only worked out what he had me ant by that much later. Sunday afternoons at Grandmother’s house were events in themselves. Her living-room connected to the
dining-room via two large double doors, which were flung open so that her table could be extended—at fifteen feet, the biggest I had ever seen. No one was excused from attending, only O.B.—nobody wanted him there. All the aunties and uncles and their spouses and offspring turned up religiously, armed with baskets and dishes. That table creaked under the strain of holding every goody you could possibly imagine! Afterwards, we all spilled out into the garden, or on to the green just up the road—or if the weather was inclement, which it never seemed to be, there were be parlour games, and not a television in sight. Every now and then, Grandmother invited the entire family for Sunday lunch and one day she sent me to the Co-operative butchers, opposite her home, to pick up her weekend order. “You’d better ask him to throw in four pounds of cat-muck sausages,” she said.She meant chipolatas, one of the words the family considered ridiculous—in as much as drivers were nevercalled chauffeurs and vol-au-vents were regarded as Yorkshire puddings with tops on. And there was no way that I would be making such a request of the Co -opbutcher! I asked for four pounds of sausages.“What kind doyou want?” he barked. “Thick ones—or cat-muck?” I first became aware of Barbara while at Grandmother’s. In those days, aside from the Light Programme (later Radio Two), the only stations worth listening to were France-Inter and French Radio-Luxembourg. The latter I couldn’t get on my set at home, so I used to go to Grandmother’s if there was anything specialbeing broadcast. I was twiddling around with the knobs in December 1969 when I located another station, and this remarkable voice poured into the room and Grandmother’s mouth gaped open.“Now that’s very nice,” she said. “I don’t know what she’s singing about, but she sounds lovely!” Barbara’s so-called En Liberté Sur Europe 1, which saw her sitting at the studio piano and accompanying herself to whatever songs came into her head—six of them were from the Piaf repertoire—remained elusive for many years, until released on a boxed set. Each time I listen to it, I think fondly about the darling little old lady who loved it so much.
Grandmother Spurr's funeral was unintentionally the most hilarious event of her life—or should I say death. It took
place on 4 February 1972, not a good day for this would have been Mother's birthday, and I was still getting over the shock of losing her, the year before. The whole clan was there, with Uncle Bill ruling the roost as he usually did on such occasions—sitting
in the front room, his wheelchair parked between the coffin and the front door, whi ch meant that anyone who entered the house had to be vetted by him. He had insisted that the lid be left off the coffin—mindless of the fact that Grandmother did not
look good—whoever had prepared her body for burial had done a rushed job, for her mouth had been left lopsided, and one eye was still wide open. My three aunts—Joan, Doreen and Margery—were terrified of going near her. No problem for Bill,
who got two of his brothers to manhandle them into the room, one at a time, and force them to lean inside the coffin and kiss their mother goodbye, causing Joan and Doreen to flake out. There then followed an argument over the service. Grandmother
had wanted a Salvation Army woman called Ada Rogers to sing "The Old Rugged Cross" at the church. Ada had performed this at the Old Folks' Christmas Party, therefore Joan had suggested she do so again—until overruled by Bill, who argued that there was
no point in wasting a tenner on Ada when Grandmother wouldn't be able to hear her, and when nobody else wanted to. They were rowing about this when the hearse pulled up in front of the house. Two minutes later, two undertakers’ assistants screwed down
the lid of Grandmother's coffin, and they had actually got
her into the hearse when Freda—Bill's wife—made the shock announcement that she had found a set of dentures in a glass on the kitchen window-sill. I had never heard Bill swear before, but he let rip now as they were trying to get his wheelchair down the steps and into the street. "I don't care what anybody says. I'm the eldest in this family, and what I say goes. I am not having my mother going to her grave without her fucking teeth!" To say that pandemonium ensued may be putting it mildly. Everyone piled back into the house, including the undertaker’s assistants, who were instructed to place the coffin on the floor, remove the lid and, while the females were sobbing, find out if my grandmother really had any teeth in—or if the ones Freda had found in the kitchen were just a spare set. Attempts were made to prise her mouth open, but failed. Doreen fainted again. Then Aunty Kate came to the rescue, fetching a large metal spoon from the kitchen drawer, the one which Grandmother had used when making her Yorkshire puddings. Using the handle, and not without breaking her jaw, they managed to get her mouth open, and one of the sweetest old ladies I had ever known and who certainly deserved more respect than her family afforded her that day, was discovered to still be in possession of her teeth. The ones in the kitchen had indeed been a spare set she had kept “for emergencies”! Many years after this event, I wrote a monologue, Our Annie’s Funeral, which recalled the occasion through the
eyes of Kate. I’m sure that Grandmother would have seen the funny side!
[From My Own Story: The Uncensored Memoirs of the Celebrity Biographer, DbBooks ©2015, David Bret]