"They’re just simple countryfolk,” said my fiancé’s London aunt as she and her husband gripped me firmly under the arms and propelled me towards an aged oak tree in the grounds of St John’s College, Oxford, under whose grandiose canopy I was supposed to meet my future in-laws for the first time. It was a long time ago but I remember it vividly.
We were engaged secretly — for no better reason than that my elder brother-in-law-to-be had endured problems introducing his “intended”, an old-fashioned expression very popular among the older members of my fiancé’s family, and that my future father-in-law had temper tantrums to rival the eruption of Vesuvius.
So, here we were, marching towards the great oak, me more like a prisoner on Death Row than a bride-to-be, with my grim-faced jailers refusing to let go lest I make a run for it. And then I saw her, under that benign, leafy canopy, the mother-in-law elect in an osprey hat à la the Queen Mother, and an elegant mauvey shantungy suit, flanked by a small, smiling, plump man who looked like an old baby in a pin-striped suit (he has a temper?). And then, bringing up the rear, already wearing the slightly sheepish expressions of wedding attendants, came my brother-in-law-to-be and his wife. I was due to meet the whole family shebang at what was beginning to take on the sense of a military passing out parade, but was actually Richard’s Master’s degree ceremony.
I had heard tales of my future mother-in-law’s personality. She was an unctuous lady doing good deeds all over Southport, opening orphanages, delivering presents and speeches to old peoples’ homes, a Grand Master at her Masonic lodge. I had heard her described as entering a room like a galleon in full sail. I stared at her from a distance and quaked. She was not like any London mother-in-law I had ever seen or imagined. Born and reared in Brighton, she had married a Manchester furrier, when she knew nothing about sex, she would later confide. He brought her to Southport, England’s most European of northern cities, with gazebos in Lord Street, tasteful clothes in shop windows, and rows of redbrick Victoriana nestled between upmarket sprawling bungalows with long, flowering front gardens.
They lived in an ancient Gothic mansion with a ginormous, industrial fridge (she had a commitment to feed the masses), and he was converting another mansion on the seafront with two staircases — one going up and another going down — straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. This failed enterprise was called Agincourt in the imaginative but turbulent mind of my future father-in-law, and never was a property more aptly named.
I had a reputation of my own; as a “spoiled, hard-bitten” London journalist. I knew nothing of Northern Jewish life, its aspirational magnetism, its deep-rootedness in traditional Judaism. I, with my secular, liberal heritage, understood on that first day under the oak tree, that I had much to learn. I was caught between overwhelming pride at seeing my beloved receive his degree in his black academic robes as a welter of Latin words descended from on high, and the knowledge that I risked, if I was not careful, being totally overwhelmed by this family.
This was confirmed later when, saying things I should not say, I dodged the scalding tea and the biscuit tin thrown at us by a father-in-law whose volcanic temper did indeed erupt if you offered him tea and biscuits ten minutes after he had asked for it.
I did not know this then. I did not know how he shouted at louche bargain-hunters in his Manchester fur shop sending them packing to Marks and Spencers. I did not know about my slightly pompous, but elegant mother-in-law having to throw pig-swill over the lawn at his behest to enrich its growth, and feed the workmen an unending diet of fish and chips to keep them on the go.
I could see nothing of that as I walked towards the Oxford oak tree. But what I did see in that first moment, was her smiling face coming towards me as she embraced me like her own long-dead daughter, saying “Yes. My dear. How lovely to meet you at last. Yes, dear. Oh my dear. Oh yes!”