For my Pagan friends, Halloween is, as Robin Downie
recently pointed out, a solemn religious festival where the veil between our world and others is particularly thin, so that the dead can revisit the living. I have never been visited by the spirit of the late Mr B, perhaps as he was always happier in a tent or a snow hole than a house. However, as the cook in the Brown establishment, I've sometimes wondered if he might pop into the kitchen, where I suspect he would complain that I've moved all his equipment, and what happened to his Jamie Oliver frying pan?
Several years ago, in a whimsical moment, he and I decided that at Halloween we would invite the spirit of my late mother-in-law, a formidable lady whose scary exterior hid a very kind heart (she had had a surprisingly eventful love life, which I regret she never put into an autobiography, but it might have revealed a few too many family secrets). We lit a candle outside the back door and waited. Andrew was less patient than me and decided he couldn't stay awake to greet mum, so he went off to bed, just before midnight, the hour when magic happens. Shortly after that, I heard the shuffling noise outside the door. I hoped ma-in-law was in a good mood...
When I opened the door, there was a surprised hedgehog, polishing off the remains of the cat's dinner (amongst other eccentricities, our cat has always hated eating indoors). The creature gobbled the rest of the Whiskas and scuttled off. When I reported this to Andrew, he pointed out that as his mum had a rather prickly nature, it probably was her, but I reminded him that she had always been particular about her diet and would never touch what she called 'redundant carbohydrate' (although when she passed away we found she had a secret stash of Mars bars). What is even stranger is that exactly the same visit happened this Halloween, the hedgehog disappearing into the bushes at high speed, like a prim Victorian lady gathering up her skirts. More Mrs Tiggy-Winkle than grande dame Ms Brown!
My late mother would have liked that story – she came from a family from the English New Forest who had more than a smattering of Gypsy DNA, and like the Scottish Highlanders, she could be a bit 'fey'. She could tell fortunes with cards and would get very upset if they were left back to front, or 'boxed' as she called it, as it would surely bring misfortune from the fairies. The fairies would also be very annoyed if you brought hawthorn blossom into the house or if you opened an umbrella indoors (I have decided the fairies will let you off if you open it indoors to dry it out after a rain storm).
More irritating was the fairies' annoyance if you put your knickers on inside out and dared to change them to the right way round. However, all was not lost, as if you managed to put up with the label sticking into your nether regions all day, you would be rewarded by a communication from your lover (like Andrew's mum, mine had a rather complicated love life). There were so many strictures: 'When you stir (soup) with a knife, you stir up strife', 'a whistling woman and a crowing hen augur no good to God or men' (maybe that's why I learned to whistle as a child).
The sad thing is that, despite all these attempts to placate the fairies, my mum developed a nasty form of Multiple Sclerosis and died at the early age of 50. However, my own relationship with the fairy folk has been less fraught as I strongly believe that they have often had a bad press from humans. The Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, who wrote the definitive work about The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
in the 17th century, was popularly believed to have been abducted by fairies because he had exposed their secrets. In reality, I believe he requested political asylum in Fairyland as he would have had problems with the Kirk as one who consorted with the fairy folk. Interesting that for many of us, 'The Other' is held out to be nasty and scary, when like ET, the chances are they are nicer, kinder and wiser than we are.
The servant problem
My maternal great-grandparents were 'in service' to a local toff, the Earl of Heytesbury. Grandpa was head gardener and granny was cook. Family history related that when Edward VII as Prince of Wales stayed with the family, he complimented granny on her blancmange and her reputation was made ever after. I've always thought he must have liked very bland food, as for those who don't remember the 1950s, blancmange was a boring predecessor to yoghurt.
I've been reading a fascinating book called Servants
by Lucy Lethbridge, which looks at the history of being 'in service' through the 20th century. It details examples of horrible snobbery, arrogance and downright cruelty by the aristocratic employers, along with other examples of mutual affection and support (sadly the former outweigh the latter). Yet, for my great grandparents who 'knew their place', it was probably a way of life that suited them – as long as they recognised their social inferiority, they were rewarded with a job for life and a roof over their heads. They would no doubt today be very supercilious about the nouveau riche rock stars and hedge fund managers who have today replaced impoverished landowners as employers of the servant sector, believing that 'the gentry' were more deserving of respect because they had had years of noblesse oblige. In fact, interestingly, I have recently heard exactly similar views expressed in rural Aberdeenshire – some attitudes take more than a generation to change.
Even my hero, John Buchan, was in a funny way spellbound by some of the old Etonian twits he met at Oxford, his family complaining that they had to put up with entertaining these dreadful bores as their ancestors had fought at Bannockburn (even on the losing side!). Still, as the expression goes: 'even Homer sometimes nods', meaning even the brightest and best of us has some little foibles.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant