Eminent local historian Oliver Cyriax reveals why there is little chance of the Museum reopening soon.
It’s not every day that she comes to Brackenbury. This was a mercy-mission, from the goodness of her heart. She gives a private wave and I nod imperceptibly as her limousine sweeps away into the winter mist. This was a job well-done: in fraught times.
But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, when Lucinda was still alive.
It’s a rainy November day three years back, and I’m stuck with Brenda (names have been changed) in her narrow kitchenette.
There’s always one house in the street to let a neighbour down: curtains not shutters at the front window, a pendant lampshade in the parlor, an ochre Labrador called plain ‘Podge’ instead of ‘Brioche’, and a jalopy over two-years-old parked outside. Its purpose? – bare transport, to get from one place to another.
These quaint Brackenbury residents may be the salt of the earth. But they’re not much fun – especially when they bang on about their problems. “Whatever”, I tell Sad Brenda as she explains yet again how her husband (“Pete”) preferred her to that “upper class bint” (too dreadful to name). Pete died unexpectedly. Not long afterwards, Brenda had another bad hair day: she found out that three generations back her ancestor Uncle Wilf started the first world war. “Get over it,” I say. “Stuff happens. He was just the ref. Think of your children, buy
yourself a new kitchen.”
Spanish Civil War
About time too – her cowed son Shane is the only boy on the street without Adidas Triplex Samba boots. Brenda can’t seem to understand why no one will play with him, and that starts me thinking. Back at the local office, I read up on how the original Brackenbury Villagers were working-class. Groundbreaking futuristic films, like ‘Space Odyssey 2001’, were yet to come: locals did not expect an Invasion of the Black Granite Worktops. My research confirms that the
true Brackenbury was first out in the 1926 General Strike; and, our fervent signwriters’ co-operative was the toast of the 1952 Trades Union Congress; and, we sent a contingent (Uncle Wilf included) to the Spanish Civil War carrying brown cardboard suitcases tied up with string.
Things can’t have been easy for incomers here. I need to find out who these brave class-warriors were. Where better to start than the Brackenbury Museum? Three floors up on the corner of Glenthorne and Wingate, curator Lucinda Sykes picks her way through the teetering detritus that reaches halfway to the ceiling. “I’m Oxbridge,” says this unusually-shaped lady in a tie-dye tent-dress. I recognize the type: bakes cakes, boils bunnies. “Our highest ambition then was to be social workers,” she trills. “We planned to enrich popular generic values in a non-condescending way.”
Lucinda has little thought for my time. “The locals wouldn’t even give us lodgings to stay,” she chirrups. “We were change-people, but it was ‘no middle-classes here’, bang, doors shut right in our faces. They weren’t appreciative. It was all take, take, take.”
Lucinda talks me through her first meet-the-neighbours survey¹. Fascinating, I say – but let’s get our priorities straight. Everything in this two-room “museum” is poorly stored. Faded timetables from the Brackenbury Light Railway spill out onto ‘History Today’’s diorama of the so-called 1930 ‘Rose Garden Wars’. I reach for a photographic survey of the Viking burial-grounds, under a monograph called ‘Henry VIII: W6’s Royal Laundry’, and dislodge a stack of menus from Dalling Road’s celebrated Skindles roadhouse. I gently venture, “Isn’t it time this material was properly curated?”
But Lucinda pays no attention. She’s angrily thumbing through the Skindles guest-register: “It’s the only place where Gandhi, Einstein and WB Yeats all slept in the same room. But not on the same night.” Hardly their fault, I think, spotting what looks like an early draft of TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’ from his time in Banim Street. It’s hidden under [a] the explorer Orlando Cicely’s cape (he won Brackenbury’s first VC at Sebastopol’s Great Redoubt); [b] the ‘Memoirs of CP Dermot: A Brackenbury PI’ (“divorce surveillance a speciality”); [c] some interesting teaspoons; [d] a scale-model of Graham’s 1960s ashram at the back of Nasmyth and [e] redacted social service reports on the last family to keep an umber bear in Aldensley Road.
The Great Seal of Brackenbury
There’s stuff everywhere, including a rather diverting libretto. Lucinda picks up on my disapproval. “We’re just camping now,” she says, proffering a Battenberg chunk. “Then, it was a golden time, we were changing the world. But the high-ups weren’t with it. Our funding went. Divorce was a no-no”.
Interesting, that old taboo – I’ve come across it before.
In its heyday, Lucinda says, Brackenbury Museum occupied the municipal redbrick (reminiscent of an Assyrian ziggurat) that overlooks Ravenscourt. As I weather her prattle, my insight is confirmed: the Battenberg tastes of rabbit. This mangy walk-up would be a come-down for any ambitious curator. I take a seat, perching on a mound of brown cardboard and bits of string. A jagged football plops onto the carpet.
Which is where things really come off the rails.
“You’re one to talk”, she says accusingly. “It’s outrageous”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“You’ve squashed it.”
I feel like the schoolboy who sat on the milliner’s hat.
“But it’s just an old football,” I say.
“No it’s not”, she says savagely.
As far as Lucinda is concerned, this limp bladder is the bullet-ridden ball from the fragile 1914 Christmas Truce: when things flared up again. “Can’t you see!” she hisses. “This is real cataloguing. Provenance. Original mud. Original military labeling. It’s not a fake. I do things properly.”
I glimpse the script on the dangling label: “Private Wilfred Mandible, 2–1 to us (Hun striker offside).”
Suddenly everything falls into place. “Here”, I say, “let me help clear up the mess. Is there a bin-bag round here?”
Lucinda’s dead now: dropsy, within the year. Some people are too evil to live. Her museum is closed, the rest of its collection in storage. Brenda has paid off her new kitchen, and her son is widely admired as a successful local gang-leader.
But all that’s in the future. In the meantime, as I stroll home with my swag, what else have I got? – an unhappy boy – a family laid low by a puzzling bereavement – and indubitably the most disastrous referee-decision in history.
Plus, global guilt dumped on an impoverished rival in love.
Make no mistake, this was a fiendish plot. Brenda needs a way out, Shane needs proper boots and raised self-esteem. My mind whirs: the off-side rule has probably changed (it has). If so, it wasn’t wicked Uncle Wilfred calling a front-line foul that never happened. Wilfred called a foul that would have happened. These days, Herman was offside by miles. Far from being an intemperate churl who caused a bloodbath, Private Wilfred Mandible stands proud: a percipient umpire years ahead of his time. Family honour can be saved.
And who better to explain the intricacies of the offside rule, and help a child in need with new footer boots during a confidence-boosting visit, than Victoria?
Time to call in some favours. I read her private number off my rolodex and reach for the phone.
With Victoria in the bag, it’s time to put Brenda in the picture. Even a squashed Spanish Civil War suitcase will fetch a tidy sum these days. First we talk kitchens. Then I provide closure: “By the way, I’d like to share my thoughts about that droll accident when Peter died…”
It’s been a day well-spent.
¹ ‘Nature v Nurture in Everyday Britain: One Hundred and Thirty Eight Case Studies’. The overt subject was the environmental impact of housing: Lucinda and her husband knocked on every door in Cardross to ask if they were small because they lived in Cardross, or, lived in Cardross because they were small. Patronising or what? Occupants in one house had a shrunken table for mini ping-pong: the little players leaning forwards bruised each other’s chins. Another had an early but interesting hole in the back garden (right idea, wrong place). A third bred Thames club coxes. ‘Cambridge Sociology Press, 1966, Peter and Lucinda Sykes’.