Unity and I made up a complete language called Boudledidge, unintelligible to any but ourselves, into which we translated various dirty songs (for safe singing in front of the Grown-Ups) and large chunks of the Oxford Book of English Verse. Debo and I organized the Society of Hons, of which she and I were the officers and only members. Proceedings were conducted in Honnish, the official language of the society, a sort of mixture of North of England and American accents. Contrary to a recent historian’s account of the origin of the Hons, the name derived, not from the fact that Debo and I were Honourables, but from the Hens which played so large a part in our lives. These hens were in fact the mainspring of our personal economy. We kept dozens of them, my mother supplying their food and in turn buying the eggs from us – a sort of benevolent variation of the share-cropping system. (The H of Hon, of course, is pronounced, as in Hen.)
The main activity of the Hons was to plan the outwitting and defeat of the Horrible Counter-Hons, of which Tom was the chief representative. ‘Death to the Horrible Counter-Hons!’ was our slogan as we chased him all over the house with home-made spears. We developed and played endlessly a Honnish game called ‘Hure, Hare, Hure, Commencement’ (of unbearable pain), a contest to see who could best stand being pinched really hard. ‘Hure, Hare, Hure’ was a refinement on an earlier sport known as ‘slowly working away’. Slowly working consisted of unobtrusively taking the hand of an elder, usually Tom, when he was reading a book. Very gently at first, and with infinite patience, one would scratch away at one spot. The goal was to draw blood before the victim noticed what was happening. ‘Hure, Hare, Hure’, on the other hand, required the active co-operation of two players. The first player pinched the arm of the second, increasing the pressure while slowly and rhythmically chanting, ‘Hure, Hare, Hure, Commencement’ four times. The player who could endure in silence till the fourth time was the winner. We thought it a marvellous game, and were constantly begging Tom, who was reading law, to look into the possibilities of copyrighting it so that we could exploit it commercially – a royalty to be paid to the Hons’ Treasury each time it was played.
Tom, our only brother, occupied a rather special place in family life. We called him Tuddemy, partly because it was the Boudledidge translation of Tom, partly because we thought it rhymed with ‘adultery’. ‘Only one brother and six sisters! How you must love him. How spoilt he must be,’ strangers would say. ‘Love him! You mean loathe him,’ was the standard Honnish answer. Debo, asked by a census-taker what her family consisted of, replied furiously, ‘Three Giants, three Dwarfs and one Brute.’ The Giants were Nancy, Diana and Unity, all exceptionally tall; the Dwarfs Pam, Debo and me; the Brute, poor Tuddemy. My mother has to this day a cardboard badge on which is carefully lettered: ‘League against Tom. Head: Nancy.’
In fact, the anti-Tuddemy campaign, which raged throughout childhood, was merely the curious Honnish mirror-world expression of our devotion to him. For years, he was the only member of the family to be ‘on speakers’ with all the others. In spite of frequent alliances of brief duration for Boudledidge or Honnish pursuits, or for the purpose of defeating some common enemy – generally a governess – relations between Unity, Debo and me were uneasy, tinged with mutual resentment. We were like ill-assorted animals tied to a common tethering post.
Occasionally Unity and I joined in the forbidden sport of ‘teasing Debo’. The teasing had to be done well out of earshot of my father, as Debo was his prime favourite, and fearful consequences could follow if we made her cry. She was an extraordinarily softhearted child, and it was easy to make her huge blue eyes brim with tears – known as ‘welling’ in family circles.
Unity invented a tragic story involving a Pekingese puppy. ‘The telephone bell rang,’ it went. ‘Grandpa got up from his seat and went to answer it. “Lill ill!” he cried . . .’ Lill was on her deathbed, a victim of consumption. Her dying request was that Grandpa should care for her poor little Pekingese. However, in all the excitement of the funeral, the Peke was forgotten, and was found several days later beside his mistress’s grave, dead of starvation and a broken heart.
This story never failed to send Debo into paroxysms of grief, no matter how often it was retold. Naturally, we were severely punished for telling it. Months of allowance would be confiscated, and often we were sent to bed as well. A more borderline case would be merely to say, in tones fraught with tragedy, ‘the telephone bell rang’, in which case Debo howled as loudly as if we had told the story to its bitter end.
Odd pursuits, indeed, and little wonder that my mother’s continual refrain was, ‘You’re very silly children.’
Extract from Chapter 1
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 52: Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels
© Jessica Treuhaft 1960, 1989