An Anti-Hyacinth

There used to be a TV show called Keeping up Appearances starring the great comic actress Patricia Routledge. It was the BBC’s most exported show of all time, so it’s possible that readers in other parts of the world will have seen at least some episodes. Routledge played Hyacinth Bucket – always pronounced Bouquet – a delicious, appalling monster of a woman, a snob and shameless social climber who strikes terror into the heart of the postman, the neighbours and anyone who can’t find an excuse to avoid her ‘executive style’ candle-lit suppers.

Poor Hyacinth is doomed to fail in all her endeavours to be accepted into the ranks of the middle classes, not least on account of her relatives – two hopeless sisters, the layabout husband of one of the sisters and a mad ‘Daddy’ who lives upstairs but is never seen (apart from the occasional receding flash of brown raincoat as he escapes yet again). Daddy has flashbacks to the War and an ill-defined predisposition to cause offence to young ladies. All four have a tendency to show up, go missing or require assistance at inconvenient moments, and infuriate Hyacinth by refusing to modify either their slovenly ways or their Northern working class accents (which Hyacinth tends to revert to when flustered).

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Well, I suppose it’s a bit the same in my family. I no longer visit my sister – well, I don’t seem to get invited but that may be just, you know, the way things happen to have happened. In a way it’s a relief to be amongst the not-invited because I am always conscious, whilst trying to reverse inconspicuously (no attention-drawing grating of gears) and at an awkward angle into a sweeping front drive, of the impression my beat-up little car is making; of how it – and I – are subtly polluting all that mock-Tudor serenity.

Everything about me and my poor little beat-up Skoda starts to feel shabby in such surroundings; our presence amongst one of those artfully-designed cul-de-sac mazes and trimmed-with-the-kitchen-scissors front-lawns an affront to the illusion that England is a safe and orderly place, a tranquil haven for the adequately remunerated and comprehensively insured – no raggedy edges, no dirt, no unexpected explosions from rusty exhaust-pipes.

I always find myself wishing I’d remembered to get outside with a bucket – sorry, bouquet – of hot soapy water, vacuumed the sandwich crumbs from the creases in Her upholstery and wrestled Her passenger seats back up – but I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t have done any of these things even if I had remembered.

So I suppose that makes me the Anti-Hyacinth. The rusting car nestling amongst the weeds in the front garden of Hyacinth’s embarrassing relatives always reminds me of the rusting car several doors down from my house. Its owner has health issues and can no longer drive, but neither can he bring himself to say goodbye to his little ‘mote-mote’ so there it sits on rotting pancake tyres, its go-faster stripes fading year on year, its windows broken. I think I can understand that. Maybe one day, when either the Skoda or I cease to function (simultaneously, I suspect) there will be yet another clapped-out, rusting hulk of a car on a driveway to lower the tone of the neighbourhood and cause estate agents to despair.

I made my almost-daily pilgrimage up the hill to the rusty post-box today, and looked around me. And realised something, which was that for all my past attempts to get away from this place, and for all that I can see that it’s ugly, in its way, I am also attracted to shabbiness and disarray.

On my way to the rusty post-box I had stepped over broken paving-stones and walked past a series of garden walls that have fallen down and just kind of been stacked up again, anyhow. A big dog had rushed out to bark at me, reminding me of the Alsatian that scares Hyacinth Bucket into the hedge every time she passes, to emerge with her hat askew and her dignity in tatters.

The grass verges are mountainous with thistles, nettles, thorns and weeds of every description: things that don’t even have a name but grow like wildfire and to enormous size, flower, seed, die and spring up again simply because they left alone to get on with being themselves. They are just joyous in their wildness.

It occurred to me that this is a kind of pattern with me. I must be the only person in the world who rather enjoys those memento mori paintings, sculptures etc – skulls, rotting fruit and dusty hour-glasses, the sand trickled almost through.  Is there anybody else in the world who feels more at ease where everything is rusty, dusty, weedy, peeling and disintegrating?

And finally it occurred to me that this weirdness of mine isn’t even new. The first article I ever got published, in 1987 – which gives the impression that there have been scads published since – was called In Defence of Sleazy Pubs, and even in that I was analysing why Kentish pubs are so much better when they are sleazy, so much worse than at home; when there are bendy cardboard Babycham ladies on the beer-puddled bar; where there is dark-green flock wallpaper on the walls and the toilets are out the back somewhere, spider-infested and sharing a single lightbulb; where the ceiling is brown with nicotine and old men sit on tall stools at the bar with their old dogs at their feet, playing ‘pokey di’ and telling lies about the size of their carrots or runner beans; repeating the same well-worn jokes year after year.

14 thoughts on “An Anti-Hyacinth

  1. I am one of the families living away from England that would watch the escapades of the Bucket familiy every week. I loved the others, the ones with the broken entry to their council house and the mess in the living room. The bloke who nevery had a shirt to wear so just sat around in his vest. My mum always had a clean place, but East End was East End. and I was not spoilt. By the way we also have a Skoda, but I must say the best car we have ever had. Our Volvo days are long gone.

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    1. Thank you for confirming that the Bucket family are known and loved elsewhere. I know my Canadian sister gets to follow Coronation Street and Rosemary &Thyme on a special TV channel. I believe the chap who sits around in his vest is Onslow. : )

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  2. Haha, we used to watch Keeping Up Appearances regularly! That and The Good Life (much older but plenty of re-runs) have to be two of my favourite sitcoms growing up.

    While I can’t claim to be an Onslow or a Hyacinth (or her suffering husband, Richard!) – and we don’t live in suburbia with neatly trimmed lawns, lol, when you can easily find a Starbucks and shop at Marks & Spencers just after pay day when you’re feeling a bit flush, you have to admit you have it pretty good.

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  3. Husband and I would look forward to a double header every Friday night for years — first with the couple who had a farm next door to a lovely tall Lady, followed or preceded by Fawlty Towers. Next, it was As Time Goes By and Keeping Up Appearances. Since then, there have been so many British dramadies and detective shows I and daughter out in the Midwest enjoy. Earlier in life, she was ever enthralled with Dr. Who and now her grown daughter is. My son insists no one does Sherlock better than Jeremy Brett (I may’ve misspelled), but I certainly gave him food for thought with Benedict Cumberbatch’s version! I have yet to name something “Onslow” but it’s long been my plan! Truth be told, I prefer British shows. We even have the cupcake one! And you know, being fancy is overrated as well as high maintenance — all for show, but for whom??

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    1. It seems to be a day (or rather a 3 o’clock in the morning – why am I even awake?) for strolling down Memory Lane. : ) The one with the farm and the tall Lady sounds like The Good Life. Fawlty Towers was a classic. John Cleese setting about his car with what looked like a small tree for its ‘disobedience’ always made me feel so much better about my own moments of ridiculous melodrama. : ) Benedict Cumberbach, every time! Still trying to recall the cupcake one.

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      1. Yes, The Good Life! And oh, gosh, John Cleese as Basil — one can almost hear his organs seizing up in frustrated outrage! I’d like to have named something Basil (or Manuel), too! I think the cupcake show is fairly new — it’s an actual competition and I think it’s called The British Baking Wars or something similar. The new Sherlock (and Watson) is brilliant!

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      2. Oh, you must mean The Great British Bake-Off? It’s been very popular over here but at the moment there is a huge public uproar going on because Channel 4 have “swiped” it from the BBC (they outbid them) and Mary, Mel and Sue, three of the four presenters, have refused to move with it. But if the series is new to you there will still be quite a few seasons to enjoy before it either changes noticeably or sinks without trace – like the Soggy Bottoms they’re always making jokes about. : )

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    1. I’ve never got round to figuring our Netflix either. It comes under the heading of Things Life Is Too Short To Do (such as Stuffing Mushrooms). Actually, that would make a good subject for a post… But maybe not in the wee small hours of the morning. : )

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  4. What a treat to be reminded on the machinations of Hyacinth. I had forgotten about the dog and the hedge, but can picture it just as you described.Was there a long-suffering postman as well, who had to endure Hyacinth’s endless updates on her never-spotted but always-demanding son? I’m sure I can picture the postman’s pained expression. Taking joy in your surroundings and being able to see the beauty in the unkempt is a good thing. Landscapes manicured to perfection aren’t for everyone 😊.

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      1. That’s right! I recall her terror of having a cup of tea from the fine bone china tea set, or being given a mug in recognition of her clumsiness but still spilling it or making a mess inadvertently. Funny how some stuff sticks in your mind. What was I doing this time last week? No idea. Random detail from an old TV show? Clear as a bell!

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