Virginia Barton

26 January 2014: Performance art


26 January 2014




House clearance is not for the faint-hearted. Downsizing is manageable, even pleasurable – dumping all the stuff accumulated at the top of the linen cupboard, for example, or mucking out the back of the garden shed. But clearing in toto is a different matter altogether.

First off is to get the family to take what they want, not much these days when living spaces tend to be on the small side. If the family let you down, there are charities only too willing to take usable furniture, bedding, upholstery, pots and pans, DVD’s and music.

Leftover books are more problematical, and so are pictures. It’s a question of taste, perhaps; what the previous generation or even one’s own admired and loved, the next may loathe. Dealers come and declare there is no call for that kind of old-fashioned stuff, but:

“For fifty quid I’ll get rid of the lot for you”. You suspect he may do quite well out of the deal, but by now are too exhausted to bargain and time is pressing. Take it, you say, feeling guilty.


When we cleared my parents’  house, which had been in the family for several generations, I remember opening the bottom drawer of a large desk. It was literally stuffed with photographs, some so pale you could barely see the image, some quite recent. Worse – virtually none of them had a single clue as to who the people caught on camera were, where the picture had been taken, or even a date! We didn’t count them but there must have been hundreds. We separated the ones we recognised or thought we did and bundled the rest into huge envelopes.

SHAME ON YOU ANCESTORS! Note to self: label all photos NOW, before you forget; especially as so many are now stored virtually, and virtually anything may happen to them.


Was there a studio portrait of Uncle Reggie among the photos in that old drawer?

For at least five generations there has been a powerful gene at work in our family. How otherwise account for Uncle Reggie, a thwarted Music Hall performer; and my Mama and her siblings? And what about our grandchildren? Juvenile actors, dancers, composers, comedians, and instrumentalists?

My sisters and I as children were frequently called upon to “entertain”: with a choice poem perhaps, some piano pieces or a song. After singing a spirited version of “My baby has gorn down the plug ‘ole”, picked up from the cook, all subsequent offerings were censored. From an early age we grew used to our mother’s approach:

Why do you imagine anyone is looking at you? Think of others, not yourself”.

It stood us in good stead. If you have performed to the doctor, vicar, their wives and assorted friends at a family ‘Do’, you can face almost any public.


0523_KingHenryVIII.jpgIn the penultimate year at school, we had a five minute slot every Monday morning. One of us was chosen at random to stand up and speak on the subject of one’s choice. We had these ready of course, tucked in our knickers, just in case we were chosen.

I well remember standing up and talking for five minutes on Divorce. Golly! What can I have said? I don’t think I knew anyone who was divorced except for Kings Henry and Edward VIII. But I remember being plum-full of confidence and earning penalties for running over the time limit.

However, my budding career on the stage where I yearned to be a ballet dancer, came to an abrupt halt at the audition to Ballet School:

Too small, too old, too fat.” These words may well end up on my tombstone.


My mother was a consummate actor, singer, and mimic. She was quite likely to appear at a pompous luncheon from behind a clump of laurel bushes, dressed in full hunting rig complete with whip. With this she would whack savagely at said bushes, muttering oaths and reeling slightly as if one over the odds. We never quite knew when “Lord Crumb” would appear, which made it all the more exciting.

Oh please, please do Lord Crumb!” we would beg, knowing our Headmistress was coming for tea. But of course she wouldn’t.


birthday boy linda


I was reminded of all this at BH’s 85th birthday tea party (That’s him in glorious sugar paste, above).

Thirty friends and twenty members of the family sat down to a “proper” Tea, no less than a menu from the Ritz in Piccadilly, the chef told me. A colossal Cake (with a capital “C”) topped with a flare, was born in by its creator; and balloons, bunting, and spring flowers and familiar friendly faces surrounded the Birthday boy. The son and heir provided incidental music, including the ubiquitous Happy Birthday to You.

To the manner born and handling the ‘mike’ with aplomb, each of the three littlest grand-daughters spoke a few sentences on what their grandfather means to them. The senior son-in-law made an excellent speech with all the key ingredients: apparent spontanaity, wit, substance and brevity. He even managed to work in absent friends in the celestial heavens. (When you are 85 there are bound to be ghosts at family celebrations.)

What the son-in-law said was genuinely off the cuff; later, when I asked for a copy, he said that not a word was written down – not bad for a seven minute speech!

BH replied with great feeling and in only a few words. After all, how long does it take to thank all those who made it such a happy occasion; and if your heart is brimming, you can almost get away with no words at all.


Gin and BH



One of the grandsons, Tadpole, a strapping 18-year-old, produced the cartoon above. It’s part of a much larger pic showing all the immediate members of the family. It now hangs in the kitchen and BH chuckles every time he makes a cup of tea. He complains he’s too jowly, but I’m delighted I have so much tidy hair…







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