Kiss Myself Goodbye – The Many Lives of Aunt Munca
Bloomsbury, London, 2020, pp 262, $40.
Eccentrics are an English specialty. Their production and memorialising. Edith Sitwell wrote English Eccentrics, and could well have included herself. Australia prefers celebrities, heroes and battlers – straightforward folk. The third Baron Mount, Ferdinand in everyday life, has added his aunt to the gallery. She has no stable name – a major finding of the book – but Mount’s childhood moniker for her was Aunt Munca. The name was her doing, sourced from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Aunt Betty, as she had hitherto been, extracted the female villain’s name, Hunca Munca, chopped it in two, lopped off an unwanted H, and uncle and aunt become Unca and Munca. Actually Munca despises people ‘with their noses in a book’ and probably hadn’t read this one because she thought Hunca Munca were two animals. But no matter. On she sailed.
Mount spent much of his childhood at a variety of Unca and Munca’s grand homes. Together with his sister and two small girls Munca adopted. It’s these two adoptees who first bring on an unease, a puzzlement, about Munca. The smaller girl is de-adopted, just disappears, and no explanation is ever given. The older child, Georgie, has her life blighted by Munca’s autocratic destruction of one romance after another. Serious reservations on Mount’s part, however, go no further. Eccentrics are figures for comedy, not tragedy or moral tales.
After the disturbing start the book rights itself and proceeds as a detective saga once Mount is contacted by a supposed niece of Munca’s, home from New Zealand. Her father is Buster (also of no reliable surname), Munca’s alleged brother. But the returned traveller lets on that Buster is actually Munca’s son, although never openly acknowledged as such. Yet the book has a dream cover – Munca and Buster, hand in hand, crossing a street on their way to the wedding of Mount’s parents in 1938.
The names Buster and Munca determine the tone of this book. It couldn’t be anything but a farce. The salient facts about Buster is that he married seven times, rode a motorcycle on the Wheel of Death, and had a different profession every time he signed a marriage register. It’s Munca however who’s at the centre. Born in the slums of Sheffield she was already as a teenager playing fast and looose with her identity (not her sexual identity!) “What a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive” sums up Munca’s life. But positively, for the untangling of the web is what gives Mount “this little book”.
Kiss Myself Goodbye is less a portrait of Munca and more an account of Mount’s investigative challenges and breakthroughs as he tries to winkle out the truths behind his aunt’s fairytale progress. Just about everything seems up for grabs. Kissing an old self goodbye is Munca’s standard reflex at any potential turning point in her life – and she ensures there are countless such moments. Maritally she is an underachiever by her son Buster’s standards; she goes to both altar and registry office only five times, but on two of those occasions she goes bigamously. Then there’s her wealth, her interior decorating triumph in Country Life – all trails for Mount’s magnifying glass.
Munca remains elusive. All the points of clarity, as well as all the displays of emotion – and admittedly they’re pretty muted – come when Mount’s hunches are confirmed by another birth or marriage certificate, or The Gloucestershire Echo – Munca had an affair with one member of the county cricket team, and married another, the captain no less, who was killed speeding home after his team’s defeat of Nottinghamshire, the day Wally Hammond hit 317, while Munca was probably in Antibes trying out her prospective next husband. Breathless all this.
In keeping with the book’s spirit, deaths become part of the farce. For one father for Buster, Munca nominates a Reginald Baring, a man she had never met, who was safely dead, killed in his Sopwith Camel in 1918. Serial name-changing and regular false declarations allowed Munca’s brand of eccentricity. Alas, the technologies of a new millennium have largely put paid to her line of work. The never censorious Mount ends on a debatable note. ‘Those days of shame are over now … Most of us lead untidy lives, after all. We are better now, aren’t we? Yes, I think we are. Our private lives are our own. There are no public pressures not to follow our desires.’
Gerard Windsor has published twelve books and countless reviews.