My ever so ghastly granny! by her novelist granddaughter ANGELA HUTH
My ever so ghastly granny! She was obsessed with money, horrible to her children and treated everyone she met with contempt… but, says her novelist granddaughter ANGELA HUTH, she was also a very British eccentric!
- Isabella Nickols, Huth’s maternal grandmother, was said to be ‘not a likeable character’
- Born in 1874, she was very good-looking, with auburn hair, deeply ambitious and had found a rich Scottish husband
- Huth’s Not the Whole Story: A Memoir by Angela Huth based on recollections of well-remembered time
A striking portrait of Isabella Nickols, author Angela Huth’s grandmother
One day, my grandmother went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and came upon a magnificent collection of glasses, plates, bowls, decanters and jugs — dozens of pieces of that elaborate, hand-cut glass that slightly pricks your fingers.
Each piece was engraved with a VR: it had been made to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. ‘I’ll take all that,’ said Granny.
When her offer to buy the glass was turned down, she was undaunted. As a determined woman who nearly always got her way, she somehow managed to persuade the museum to let her have the set copied.
The only difference from the original was that her initials replaced the Queen’s.
When she died, she left this eccentric purchase to me. Many years later, when I lived in London, the flamboyant American pianist Liberace happened to come to dinner.
I did my best to make him feel at home, putting a candelabra with lighted candles on the grand piano.
He arrived in a dazzling suit. On one lapel was pinned a diamond octave with a scale of diamond and sapphire notes.
The open piano he ignored, but when he entered the dining room, he gasped as his eyes skittered over the twinkling glass.
‘I’ll take the lot,’ he said, with a huge wave of his shiny pink hand, unknowingly echoing my grandmother.
‘Oh no, you won’t,’ I said, like the man in the museum. Ever since then, Granny’s collection has been known as the Liberace glass.
Isabella Nickols — my maternal grandmother — was not a likeable character: the most materialistic woman I have ever met; haughty, imperious, interested in very little except buying ever more things.
Born in 1874, she had once been very good-looking, with auburn hair and wide-set eyes. She was also deeply ambitious and, in no time, had found a rich Scottish husband.
Huth said her grandmother Nickols was ‘not a likeable character; materialistic, haughty, imperious, interested in little except buying more things’
They had a son, James, who, even as a schoolboy at Eton, was a drinker. One day, he was relieving himself in the Thames when a gust of wind caught his coat, casting him in. He drowned. There was also a daughter, Jenny, who lived with my grandmother for the rest of her life, the epitome of a sad ‘old maid’. She was a tragic creature.
Her only joys in life were music and cats. She was not often free to go to a concert and was not allowed a cat. Nor had she inherited her mother’s looks or sparkle, though when she was in her 20s, she found a man she wanted to marry. ‘Never,’ said my grandmother, when she learnt who the suitor was. ‘I’d rather you put your head in a gas oven.’
Aunt Jenny acted upon this advice almost immediately. She was pulled from the oven unconscious, but not quite dead.
From that day, she suffered from a slowness, a kind of incomprehension about everything, except how to play the piano or to stroke a rare cat. Her place, she grimly realised, was to be my grandmother’s constant companion for life, a job it would be hard to beat for horror. Her downturned, watery eyes hid goodness knows what depths of unhappiness, but she had neither the energy nor the competence to escape.
The most pathetic thing about her was her desperate need for declarations of love. Every time she came to visit us, she would ask my sister and me the same question: ‘Do you love your aunt?’
‘Yes,’ we would chorus with the sneering voices of 11 and 13-year-olds who can’t be bothered to disguise their contempt. But the answer never failed to please her.
Her father, the rich Scotsman, had died during her childhood and Granny subsequently married my grandfather, a Yorkshire landowner, by whom she had a daughter.
That was my mother, Bridget, — and she was educated abroad, so that Granny could lead her own life unencumbered by the presence of a young child.
My own memories of my grandmother are of a small, solidly built woman, her hair dyed an unsubtle red. Long before her time, she had indulged in facelifts, which meant her eyes tilted at an uneasy slant and the bottom of her face appeared larger than it should.
Every day, she wore bright red lipstick and a jacket of ‘the finest’ mink. She was as proud of her deportment as she was of the jacket, and it was extraordinary: ramrod back, shoulders down and walking like a guardsman, perhaps to give an illusion of height.
A crocodile handbag and crocodile shoes were part of her uniform and always three rows of pearls — oh, those pearls. The story was that the centre one was the most valuable pearl in the world, though where this judgment came from, I never discovered.
It had been stolen in the middle of the 19th century, but found in a matchbox in a gutter in the City in 1914. My grandfather bought it for some astronomical price and then went on to find dozens of pedigree companions to make a magnificent necklace.
My grandmother wore it every day, but it was a hazard. It would always have to be covered by a scarf if she was out, lest some robber pounced on her.
Pictured is Nickols’ granddaughters Angela and Trish with their mother Bridget and father Harold Huth
For a long time, Granny and Aunt Jenny lived at The Ritz, while hunting for the perfect place to live in London.
Some of the worst nightmare occasions for my sister Trish and me were lunches with the two of them in The Ritz restaurant. There, Granny ate the same thing every day: Irish stew and rice pudding.
Although these simple dishes had never caused her any reason to complain, her suspicion of what the chef might put in them never left her. She would beckon a waiter, hand him a chunk of lamb on a fork and insist he try it.
Rather than face a scene, the waiter would oblige and invariably declare it was fine.
Granny would be happy until the rice pudding arrived, when the same procedure was repeated.
Trish and I could see a group of waiters in the corner arguing about which one should go and do her bidding. We were scarlet and sick with embarrassment.
Occasionally, she felt like a change of location: lunch at Claridge’s. That was even worse than The Ritz because the waiters were less accustomed to her peculiar ways.
Granny was better known at the Bank of England, where, for some reason, she was the only woman in the country to have a private account. To keep it afloat, she was obliged to make sure the balance never dropped below £10,000.
She had a ritual way of achieving this, which involved first visiting her High Street bank — and one day, she invited me to accompany her on a topping-up procedure. I would be interested, she boomed, to see the inside of the bank.
We walked, very slowly, to the Regent Street branch of the Westminster Bank. In charge was a charming, old-fashioned bank manager, Mr Perry, grey curls blurring his pink, bald head, in striped trousers and a black jacket.
On this particular afternoon, after acting out a rapturous greeting, he led us into his office.
I cannot recall precisely the delay while Granny wrote a cheque to be delivered to the City, but she accused Mr Perry of being too slow in checking her current account.
Suddenly, she picked up her folded umbrella and whacked him hard on the backside. He smiled, saw us out with a small bow and a smaller smile. He was a bank manager who would gallantly put up with anything to keep her account.
Next, we had to catch a bus — taxis being Granny’s area of acute meanness. She had no idea what number bus was needed, but hailed the first one she saw. I had to heave her up on to the platform, as she had only one free hand to help herself. The other was clutching the perennial scarf over the pearls.
‘Take me to the Bank of England,’ she demanded of the conductor.
By some miraculous chance, the bus happened to be going to the City, so he overlooked her lordly demand and nodded agreeably. She opened her vast crocodile bag and held up a threepenny piece.
‘There,’ she said.
Others on the bus were enjoying the scene, making no attempt to hide their smiles. I wanted to die.
Several alternatives crashed across the conductor’s face. Either he had to make a fuss, demand the right fare, turn her off the bus if she refused to pay — or he could opt for peace and accept the dotty old bat’s offering.
That’s what he wisely chose. Doubt contorted his face as he accepted the threepenny piece, but never have I been so grateful to a bus conductor.
At the Bank of England, Granny stalked her way down the great marble halls, inclining her head slightly, like a bride, to a great many clerks in morning suits. Her top-up cheque was received with extravagant gratitude and we were bowed out to find another bus.
There was the same performance with another threepenny bit and, by some million-to-one chance, another conductor who reckoned it was just not worth battling with so daft a passenger.
Never again did I agree to accompany my grandmother on one of these financial adventures. But I could not escape, on one occasion, a trip to Harrods to buy a dustbin. They had the very best dustbins, she declared.
After ambling, straight-backed, through many a department, whose assistants received the benefit of her loud, unasked-for opinion of their merchandise, we came to a floor that housed garden furniture.
Granny declared this was just where she wanted to be, but was suddenly unsure of the exact location of the dustbins. She needed help. Help was nearby.
On a stretch of artificial grass was a large man in striped trousers (which were almost ubiquitous in my grandmother’s world) and a bowler hat. He was bending over a mowing machine.
My grandmother sidled up to him, raised her weapon of the folded umbrella and whacked him on the behind no less hard than she had whacked the bank manager. ‘Can you help me, my man?’ she asked.
The portly figure jumped up and spun round to her, scarlet in the face, eyes exploding.
‘No, madam, I cannot,’ he shouted. ‘I’m a customer, not an assistant.’
My grandmother was not one to apologise. By this time, I had moved several yards away, but could see her give a small, balletic spin on her heels and move towards me, without a word of apology.
Granny’s real passion was for clothes and the House of Worth was her favourite couturier. When I was 15, she declared that I needed a winter coat.
Off to the warm, scented House of Worth we went. The vendeuses there knew her well and did not even try to conceal the looks that passed between them. We sat on a silken sofa, while bolts of material were brought in for our inspection.
At that time, I had just got my first pair of jeans and found it hard to summon interest in the exquisitely soft, grey flannel eventually chosen. Next came the linings and, there, I got my own way: emerald satin.
Finally, fur for the collar. Persian lamb was the unanimous choice. My faintly expressed opinion that I didn’t want a fur collar at all was passed over.
This initial planning meeting took three hours. I dreaded the next appointment with Worth, for I knew that, by then, the wretched coat would be cut out and there would be no going back.
That was the case. A couple of months had brought it to the stage of tacking stitches, chalk marks and no lining or collar. It was hard to visualise the finished thing.
There were several more fittings, each one more depressing.
Finally, the coat was ready. I stood looking at myself in a long mirror. It was, indeed, a beautifully made coat. It hung in thick gathers from a smock-like yoke, over which was placed the Persian lamb collar.
The sleeves puffed out from the yoke at the top, narrowed down at the wrists. The main body of it drooped almost to my ankles.
I was able to agree that it was a marvellous coat . . . for someone of 60. But I was still not 16.
My grandmother got out her Bank of England chequebook and the coat was swathed in tissue paper, where it lived unworn till the day I took it to a smart second-hand shop. It fetched about 2 per cent of its worth.
One of my most vivid memories was of the night she came to a ‘dance’, as she called it, that my mother had decided to give in our flat in Eaton Square. To spare our friends, Trish and I had claimed most of them were unable to come, so there were some 20 children of my mother’s friends, young and shy in their first long dresses and dinner jackets.
One of them, who later became a senior figure in the Bank of England, my forward-planning mother had in mind as a perfect husband for me. I was 12, but she liked to think ahead.
The sofas in the modest drawing room were pushed back. The three-piece band took up much of the floor space and played sloomy music with a fatigued air.
Enter Granny, followed — like Dame Edna Everage’s bridesmaid — by Aunt Jenny.
Granny wore a crimson velvet coat with a six-foot train, the pearls (of course), long diamond earrings and a huge diamond brooch.
I don’t know what was under the coat, for she never took it off.
She sashayed into the room, swooshing the velvet train about so that the astonished guests had to jump out of the way.
Then she glided towards my father. ‘Harold,’ she said, ‘let us dance.’
There was nothing he could do but oblige. A good dancer, he cantered around with her for what seemed like for ever, while the onlookers avoided them.
Each time a tune came to an end, Granny clutched at my father and begged for more. In the end, my mother guided her to the dining room, where she sat in her vast pool of red velvet and picked at the food.
Once I had left home, I gave up any pretence of being a dutiful granddaughter.
There had been too many ghastly public incidents, and visits — once Granny had gone completely deaf — seemed pointless: a strain for both of us.
At the age of 94, she was finally persuaded to have a nurse to look after her.
The afternoon the woman arrived, there was a knock on the door. In rushed two men with stockings over their faces.
They tied the nurse up with electrical flexes and hit her on the head with a small steak hammer from Selfridges, its price tag still intact.
The terrified nurse was warned that should she try to escape, she would be electrocuted.
Then they went into Granny’s bedroom, where she was sitting up in bed. She was thrilled to find she had visitors: two ‘nice young men’, as she later told reporters.
They said they’d love to see her jewellery. She said she would be delighted to show it to them. Out came the pearls, the earrings and brooch, smiles all round. Then, they scarpered.
I remember seeing the story on the news that night. Airports and ports were on alert. But the robbers were never found, nor the jewellery.
There was the insurance, of course — a few hundred pounds, about a hundredth of the value of the stolen stuff, which went straight into her current account.
After that little incident, my mother quickly put Granny into a home, where she died at the age of 99. As she had never believed in consulting financial advisers, her entire fortune went to the Government.
I did not go to her funeral. A genuine eccentric, she’d afforded — in retrospect — some amusement, but she’d never been the grandmother of my childish dreams.
Not the Whole Story: A Memoir by Angela Huth is published by Constable, priced £20. To order a copy for £16, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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