29th May 1999
My dear Children
When I started to write these little reminiscences for you I called them Reflections in A Blemished Mirror because there's an reflective neurone in the minds of many of us that makes us wonder what sort of lives our parents lived, not for any part they might have played in shaping our world - because most of us are like grains of sand on the beach of history - but merely to be able to share some of their feelings as they watched the tide sweep over them; so I decided I'd write some patchy reminiscences for you. The blemish in the mirror is my bad memory for facts, so the things that occur to me could be compared to some torn pieces from an old notebook which have been found in the bottom of a waste-paper basket.
But I've changed the title to A Bottle in the Smoke because that is how I've thought of myself ever since I heard the words sung at Mattins when Gabriel was a chorister in Salisbury Cathedral.
For I am become like a bottle in the smoke: yet do I not forget thy statutes. Psalm 119 v.83
Was the bottle a leather one being cured in the smoke of a nomad's fire ... or was it a clay pot being fired by a townsman?
I've always thought of it as a goat's leather skin being converted into something beyond a goat's comprehension. But there are so many compar- isons of humanity with clay that I've wondered since whether the psalmist had that in mind. It doesn't matter does it? The imagery is of a natural thing being changed by an unknown hand for an unknown purpose.
Eighty years later that hand is still unknown to me. Whether my formation was by the hand of the LORD God or by a miscegenation of molecules I've never been able to be sure.
Can you understand what I mean by saying that I put my trust in the LORD and try to obey his statutes - but I still find myself unable to believe in God? Since I was in the Garden of Eden I've tried, and I keep on trying now; but it's no use my pretending something that is not true, because if God exists God can see into my mind, so I am condemned to simple trust without belief ... but not without hope.
The Book of Genesis tells us that Adam ate the forbidden fruit 'of the tree of knowledge '.. that grew in the midst of the garden,' and I see that as a parable which explains why the secret of the universe is hidden from those of us who are condemned to thresh about searching for it. Now I have found that I can run life's race better as a blinkered horse, by simply accepting that I've eaten the forbidden fruit which prevents me from seeing whether there's a gold cup at the end, or whether it's the abattoir.
Then to the rolling Heav'n itself l cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?"
And - "A blind Understanding!" Heav'n replied.
Edward Fitzgerald, after Omar Khayyam
Early Years in Hornchurch
And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Genesis 2 v.5
The Garden where I was put after I had been formed was eastward in Essex; and there I first gazed up at the heavens from my pram. I was born on Sunday the 25th of January 1920, in time for the bell-ringers, led by Rolf, to ring out a welcoming peal before Mattins. Like the signature of a member of the House of Lords, Rolf had no other appellation: he wasn't Mr Rolf, and he wasn't Christian-name Rolf, he was just Rolf, and there was nothing he couldn't turn his hand to. Mummy explained this by telling me he'd been in The Royal Marines, and that that said everything. As well as my friend, he was head bell-ringer, and he was our gardener, and our chauffeur, and our chicken-keeper, and -Mummy told me- he'd even been our cook at a time of crisis.
Although I was born an Essex baby, you'll soon see my mind was far too ingenuous to qualify me to grow into Mrs Thatcher's favourite citizen, 'Essex Man' - whose hall-mark seems to have been a sort of worldly-wise opportunism.
My Garden of Eden was The Chaplaincy at Hornchurch, and it was my home for the first five years of my life. Daddy was the Vicar, and his parish of St Andrew's was in the patronage of New College, Oxford, which is why the house was called The Chaplaincy (but don't look now - it's been replaced by modern dwellings). Daddy called it The Vicarage to make life simpler for those not in the know. He had been a graduate of New College around the turn of the century, when Dr Spooner had been Dean, and my baby eyes might have seen him when he came to preach, but I was too young for that to be in my memory. Mummy said he was a dear old man, and had made no spoonerisms in his sermon - which disappointed her - although she pretended to me that he said he'd left two rags and a bug in the town drain when he came. (Do people still talk about 'down' and 'up' trains, when they're coming from, or going to London?)
I'd like to tell you more about Daddy.
Ian Hay described a mine-owner whose remarks resembled his product, in that they were preceded by a deep internal rumbling before they were delivered at the pit-head.
That would be a fair description of Daddy addressing the family. He was a big man and not given to light chit-chat, so 'addressing' is Ie motjuste. I can't think of any occasion, either then or later in life, when communication between the two of us could be classified as conversation - implying an easy two-way exchange of ideas. (My sister Jane could talk to him, being female, but she wasn't born till 1928.)
His mornings always started at 7 o'clock with a cold bath, followed by a shave with a cut-throat razor, until he was in his 70S when chronic bronchitis - he was a lifelong smoker, and he'd been gassed in 1918 - forced him to accept some of the comforts of modem life. On Sunday he got up at 6.30 to take early Communion at seven, and after he'd finished work in the evening he allowed himself the luxury of a hot bath, then on Monday he didn't get up till eight.
He sometimes read to me after tea, and he read with expression. Uncle Remus was one of his favourites, which brought out the negro accent he'd picked up in the Traansvaal; but I couldn't always understand it, and I didn't really like the hostility that prevailed between Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox. The Just So Stories appealed to him too, with their African background; and Kipling's illustration of Small Porges in The Butterfly that Stamped always tickled him because he said our baby brother David looked just like that when he was born: I think he'd have liked to call him Small Porges, but Mummy didn't quite see him that way.
Another children's classic I had was Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter; but it made me too sad because Pigling Bland danced away over the hills and never went home, so I didn't like Mummy to read the ending. She couldn't see what was unhappy about it, but it held a terrible poignancy for me. Granny gave me a copy of When We Were Very Young by AA Milne, which came out at that time, but most of it was more appealing to adults than to me. (Now-a-days I think it is very romantic and that it contains true poetry - The Invaders fr'instance - but I suppose that would be put down as sentimentality.)
Daddy not only filled the part of paterfamilias but he also filled another part outside home. He knew God.
Of course Mummy was acquainted with God, but less personally; she wasn't employed by God as Daddy was; she couldn't just go across the road to Church and hold a conversation with God - any old time, not only on Sundays - or get up in the pulpit and tell everyone what God thought about them. Daddy could do both those things, and that put a respectful distance between him and the rest of us. You couldn't just say silly childish things to someone who was on familiar terms with the maker of the whole world.
I'm sure he was respected by everyone for his genuine faith, but his sermons may have carried even more weight because his enunciation didn't score many marks for clarity - he pronounced God as Guard for instance - and he had a rather poetic way of interpolating quotations into his discourse, so his congregation might well have been able to ascribe a hidden portent to what they only imperfectly heard. Like petitioners at Delphi.
Thus Daddy filled two parts. And he didn't just fill them metaphorically, he filled them physically. When he sat in his car it was as if it had been built round him; and when he preached the pulpit fitted him as neatly as an egg-cup fits an egg - a resemblance which didn't end there because, when he rested his hands on the edge of it, his surplice would cascade over them just as the white of an egg runs down over the cup. They were made for each other!
He was a tower of a man to me, and I think he towered over the parish too: it was still an age when the clergy were looked up to as leaders of men, and his physical appearance enhanced his moral stature. He refused to be weighed because he said one of his parishioners had stepped on to a Speak-your-weight machine which shouted "One at a time, please!" (That was the story I remem- ber anyway.) He was in his 40th year when I was born, and Mummy said he was 16st and 6ft 2ins at the time. He was a bit thin on top, with quite a monas- tic bald patch over the crown of his head (I could only see that when he carried me on his shoulders). He was blue-eyed and a bit short-sighted, so he always wore a pair of oval, gold-rimmed spectacles which left a furrow over the top of his nose when he took them off. The pattern became old-fashioned and he got more modern ones in the 1930S, but the old ones have come back into vogue in the run-up to the millennium. It's a pity that the portrait Mr Connor painted of him in 1956 shews him with the thick lenses necessary after cataract opera- tions then, because they diminish the power of his features by enlarging the proportion of his eyes.
The services he held on Sundays consisted of Holy Communion at 7am. for the industrious, Sam for the sedulous, and Sung Eucharist at loam for the leisurely. But Mattins at llam is what drew the crowds, which included me when I was old enough - although I didn't have to stay for the sermon. In addition there was a 12noon Communion once a month for people who were too old or frail to make the earlier celebrations. Evensong was at 6pm, and it was attended more by servants who'd had to work earlier in the day.
Every morning throughout his working life (except Monday when he allowed himself a lie-in) Daddy went across to the church to celebrate Holy Communion at 7.30 - whether anyone else attended or not.
He was one of the most devoted and sincere parsons I've ever know, and the last message he gave me, 34 years later, while he was lying in what was shortly to be his deathbed, was this: "The one certainty I've had all my life is that Jesus is my Saviour. I have witnessed many arguments about religion, and about dogma; and I've seen rituals that were once regarded as essential to the practice of Christianity superseded by others; but, through all those changes, the one thing I've been sure of is that Christ died for me."
That's the Man my Father was. I've tried to recal1 his words as accurately as I can here, anachronistically, so that you should know that much about him, and so that I can acknowledge my fealty to him. Also, I think it explains why in 1925 he was to sacrifice his chances of promotion in the Church of England in order to take up the humble post of Chaplain to the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, because he felt that was the most intimate way of getting a personal impression of Jesus' life on earth, and thus to inspire his own ministry.
Mummy used to sing, "There's a home for little children above the bright blue sky." I loved to hear her singing it in her sweet untrained voice, and I remember searching the clouds in the belief that there must be some chink where that home could be glimpsed - although the possibility of any other home was unthinkable. The hymn may have appealed to Mummy because she lost my next brother in childbirth while I was still a baby. Peter was the private name she and I gave him, but he died before he could be christened; so that little recollection is the only mark that's left now of his passage through this world. I wonder what genes had been reserved for his formation, and whether they were just snuffed out, or whether he took them with him if he went to that other home. If so, I'll have three brothers waiting for me there!
Mealtimes at The Vicarage were formal, and were served by the maid in her cap and apron. We children had our meals in the nursery with Nanny except at dinner-time, which for us was one o'clock. The only breakfast foods I can remember consisted of porridge, a soft-boiled egg with soldiers, and toast with marmalade: if cornflakes existed, they hadn't been discovered in The Vicarage; and nursery tea at 5 o'clock always started with a piece of plain bread and butter before you could have a piece with jam; when you'd filled up on that you were allowed one slice of plain cake -madeira for me- and if you were still hungry it was plain B.&B. after that. Luncheon was not a meal I recognized by that name: dinner was what we had in the Vicarage at one o'clock - and no doubt that suited Daddy, who had evening meetings to attend, Mummy, who had to order the food, and Cook who had to prepare it. Another way in which we differed from the norm was in having the weekly joint roasted on Saturday, and served again cold on Sunday. That gave the servants more free time on Sunday and allowed Daddy more latitude over church services. Puddings were the old-fashioned oven-baked sort - sago, rice or tapioca, jam roly-poly - or wonderful suet puds boiled in a cloth that left them deliquescent on the outside: treacle pudding, and what the world knows as 'Spotted Dick', but which Daddy called 'Bugs-in-a-Bolster'; but on Saturday the pudding always seemed to be fruit tart and cream, because what was left over could be served cold on Sunday.
"Grace-mutter-giftstroys-mumble-mumble-mumble-Amen," was the grace he said before every meal. I've told you his enunciation was far from perfect, but "Grace" made sense - though what gijtstroys meant I had no idea; I just accepted it as part of a mantra that I should understand when I grew up. Years later I comprehended the whole sentence: "Grace O Lord these gifts to our use and us to thy service for Christ's sake. Amen." But Daddy did mean what he meant to say.
The Chaplaincy garden in Hornchurch was surrounded by a ten-foot high brick wall, which is all you can see of it today. It was pierced only by tall, green, solid wood carriage gates, with a wicket for walking through; and they were always kept shut. If! squatted down I could just see the feet of passers- by, but otherwise my domain was secluded from the outside world.
At the back of the house were the stables where Daddy's Model- T Ford was kept, and where another wooden gate, not quite as high as the front ones, opened into the lane which ran down one side of the chaplaincy to a farm at the back. In front, at the corner where the lane joined the main road, was a gas street-lamp which the lamp-lighter lit every evening with a long pole. That was one of the puzzles that beset my childish brain: how did he do it without a flame at the tip of his pole, like the flame of a match? (When I asked someone, they told me there was a pilot-light in the glass lamp-case, but I could never see it when I looked in daylight.)
While I'm thinking about things that puzzled my childish mind, another one was how people's voices were carried along telephone wires? You could hear the humming of all those conversations if you put your ear to the pole, but it didn't sound anything like voices. And telegrams: how did they get along the wires when it was obviously impossible to roll them up small enough? In themdays the wires were carried on telegraph-poles alongside roads; the bigger the road the more were the wires, often dozens of them strung on dollies - china insulators on the cross-bars. Occasionally there would be a heavier cable strung below the wires, and I concluded that those must be what the rolled-up telegrams travelled through. (Even so, the technology was as far beyond my imagination then as microchips are today.)
That brings back what must probably be my earliest recollection: Grandpa Whitcombe, because he died when I was only just over two. His visits must have been etched into my brain by Mummy's love for him, and there's little more than a feeling in my heart to remember him by - but I do know that I was hoping to see him again and he never came, and I didn't understand why - although I must have been told in some metaphorical way. (He was the first Bishop of Colchester, but he had been a master at Eton where he met Granny, who had been born an Evans. She was a daughter of Sam Evans of Evans' House, and niece of Great-Aunt Jinny, the last Dame.)
My world was The Vicarage, and it never entered my head that the whole of my life would not be spent there; I thought, as Adam and Eve must have thought, that The Garden of Eden was mine in perpetuity.
The house itself had been built at a time when the incumbent was expected to live the life of a country gentleman, with a staff of servants and a stipend to match; but time and The Great War had brought about a very different state for us; although we still had a house-parlour-maid and a cook and Rolf and Nanny - in reverse order of importance. Nanny's name was Mary Aldrridge, and she was also my Godmother. She had been part of Granpa & Granny's family at Colchester for years, and had looked after my younger uncles and my Aunt Kaffin, *
* When Katharine was little more than a baby, she was playing with her brother
Christopher when someone asked their names. "Kaffin & Kiffer", she replied.
so she came to us when they were old enough not to need her any more; which was a cause of some jealousy because Kaffin was only six years older than me and loved her as her Nanny. Kaffin had long curly dark hair which was kept in a plait, and which Nanny brushed for her when she came to stay. She hated that. One day I noticed a pot of ointment on her dressing-table and asked her what it was for.
"You put it on the banisters before you slide down them", she replied.
The position of house-parlour-maid was a chimera which the reduced middle classes had cobbled together out of a housemaid and a parlourmaid. I can't put a name to the cook because cooks came and went -in the market for better jobs no doubt- and Elsie is the only maid I remember because I commit- ted the solecism of comparing her name with Aunt Elsa's.
"Charles, don't let me ever hear you say that again!"
I think Mummy was more afraid I'd repeat it in Aunt Elsa's presence than shocked by my childish observation! In spite of the fact that they were not to be mentioned in the same breath as their social superiors, Mummy treated her servants as friends and called them by their Christian names, instead of using their surnames alone as was fashionable. Mrs James was the exception: she was Rolfs sister-in-law, and my childish memory puts her in long black dresses and wide black hats.
When people went out it was never without a hat, and the sort that was common among women tended to be wide-brimmed, which meant they had to be skewered to their heads by hatpins for fear of blowing away. I couldn't imagine how those great pins didn't perforate their heads: in fact there was a time when I thought they did, and that you would find a lot of holes in their skulls like a pepper-pot if you looked; but how did they get their aim right? and why was there never any bleeding?
Mummy wore her hair long then, wound up into a loose chignon at the back and secured by hairpins, but she eventually rebelled against the inconvenience of it and had it bobbed when David was born. After that she was never quite the same Mummy to me and I never really forgave her for it, but that might have had something to do with jealousy over another baby. In contrast to Mummy, Aunt Elsa wore her hair scraped back and fixed in a firm bun, and Aunt Mildred wore hers in two chelsea-buns like headphones, one over each ear.
Young children of both sexes used to be dressed pretty much alike in themdays, and my brother Michael had long blond hair and wore a smock until he was over two, so it caused me to look at him in a completely new light that I didn't altogether like when he had a haircut, and went into blouses tucked into knickerbockers like me. Quite little boys wore boots as they were supposed to strengthen the ankles and help form the feet for the walking and marching that adult life would expose them to, so I had my first pair of brown lace-up boots when I was four years old - but of course I couldn't tie a bow, so Nanny had to do that for me.
Mrs James used to help out when we hadn't got a regular nanny, but I found her rather uncongenial; however, I think she had been widowed in the Great War so she was probably going through a difficult time. She lived next door to Mr & Mrs Rolf, with her daughter Lesley, and when we went to Jerusalem in 1925 she agreed to come too, to look after us children, and Lesley lived with the Rolfs until her mother came back, which I think would have been nice for her. Lesley was the first female I ever saw naked, but that was much later in 1927, when Mummy had taken a house for us at St Agnes, in Cornwall. I wasn't meant to see her but I passed the entrance to a cave where her mother was drying her after bathing, and I caught a sideways glimpse of her - full frontal. I quickly averted my eyes and walked on, but I thought she must have tucked her penis between her legs, so I went back to have another look as soon as I could appear casual enough. Of course I was too late as I always have been in life, but I kept a regular vigil at that cave until Lesley went home ... well, it was the year of the eclipse!
(I remember the eclipse because Mummy had a carriage clock with a glass panel which she took out and smoked over a candle to look at the sun, and that cracked it. Apart from that I didn't make much of the event; Lesley had been much more interesting!)
I hadn't really meant to put that bit in there, but it just got ahead of itself.
The Vicarage is what I was going to describe. I suppose it replaced a mediaeval building, but I've just been looking at the only photograph I've got of it and I should say it was a mid-nineteenth century yellow-brick building, with two gables in front and a more modern wing on the left. It didn't have the pseudo- gothic windows which blighted so many Victorian ecclesiastical residences, but it had a portico with William of Wykeham's coat of arms over the front door, and that lent the house a certain gravitas.
The newer wing held Daddy's study on the ground floor, with his dressing- room and the spare bedroom above it, and to the rear of that a lavatory and a bathroom. I suppose it was this new-fangled plumbing that caused the wing to be added.
I used to puzzle over the exterior drain-pipes which ran down the wall by the back door; the big one came from the lavatory I guessed, but there was a narrow vent-pipe that rose above the gutter and was open at the top except for a mesh cover: its purpose defied my imagination because it appeared to be connected to the drainage system - but then why didn't water come out at the top? (Newton's apple hadn't dropped on my head!) And where did the fresh water come in?
On the way up to the attic was a cupboard where a cistern would suddenly hiss alarmingly as you went up the narrow stair, and make you run for your life. If you dared to open the narrow door you could see the glint of dark water, and who could guess what crocodilian jaws might lurk in its daunting depths, to snap at an unwary hand? - or even worse, to slither over the edge and drag you down through a terrifying tunnel to the sea?
These perils were more frightening for being hidden in the dark, as there was no window and electricity hadn't arrived at The Chaplaincy; the nearest light was a fishtail gas-burner on the upstairs landing, and that only gave a ghostly blue luminance which was thought to be sufficient for a passage or a lavatory. In any event gas took some time to give a bright light because the glass lampshade had to be warmed slowly so that it wouldn't crack, and you had to take a candle to bed unless a grown-up had gone up first and put a match to the gas-mantle.
Mummy could sometimes be persuaded to make shadow pictures on the wall - a rabbit, or a crocodile, or a face with mouth and eyes that moved.
As well as "God bless Mummy and Daddy..." Mummy taught me to say, "Jesus tenter shepherd hear me, bless thy little lamb tonight, through the darkness be thou near me, keep me safe till morning light." What was a tenter shepherd? - and why should I need one to keep me safe? I was safe.
The two things I had to kneel by my bed for were linked in my childish mind: saying my prayers and doing wee-wee.
Under my bed was what Mummy called a jimmy - I suppose from hearing her brothers talk about jimmy riddle - rhyming slang for piddle even as long ago as that. Every bed had one; but the usual word for it was 'po' (short for chamber-pot, of course) but if you had to refer to it to a stranger, 'chamber' was the word you'd use. My jimmy was an enamel vessel, and when I was very little peeing into it made very little sound because it stood on the floor and I knelt by it - just like saying my prayers! - but when I got older I did the job standing up, holding my penis in one hand and my jimmy in the other, and that created a diminuendo echoing tinkle which would bring a blush to my cheeks if anyone was within earshot! The grown-ups had ceramic poes, often beautifully decorated, which led to the old euphemism for peeing - 'reigning over China'. Now-a-days I suppose a po would be made of plastic and the sound wouldn't have any audible characteristics - or even if it did, who'd be embar- rassed by such a thing in these immodest times?
The other thing that marked those days from these was the presence of a wash-stand in every bedroom. The better sort had marble tops, but mine was a wooden one with a circular hole that fitted the bottom of the handbasin. In the basin stood a jug of cold water, and beside it a soap-dish and a carafe of drinking water with an inverted tumbler on it; and underneath was kept the slop-pail which had a dished lid with a central drainage hole that was concealed by something that looked like a two-stemmed mushroom. Nanny would see that I washed my face and cleaned my teeth when I got up; because I was too small to lift the jug for myself.
I've already told you that Daddy's car was a Model-T Ford: it had a black steering-wheel, and was a two-seater with a dickey-seat at the back which was exposed to the elements and had to be tied together with cords by Rolf because it was wonky.
It's hard to believe how cold and draughty cars were in themdays. Instead of glass windows there were panels of a transparent material I've forgotten the name of, which slotted into the doors; even when they were new rain spattered in round their edges, but they got opaque and cracked with age too. Anyway Daddy didn't use his side-screen because it got in the way of making hand-signals wearing big leather driving gauntlets, and he had to open the windscreen to see where he was going if it rained because the wiper was only hand-operated. As Mummy's sister, Kaffin often came to stay with us: she said to me recently that she can never remember Daddy having the hood up; and that tallies with my memory: he always drove the car with it down.
I think the seat was quite wide, as I've seen films of Americans travelling three abreast. There was no central gear-lever to obstruct people's legs because Model- Ts had only two forward gears which were changed by pressing or releasing a foot-pedal, and the handbrake was on the outer side ofthe driver, so there was room for me to travel on the floor between Mummy and Daddy's legs, sitting on a hassock borrowed from the church. That was both uncomfy and dull, because it shut me into a confined space where I could only see the dashboard - or the road between the floorboards if I lifted the coir mat - while everything we dashed past at 2smph teased me with the fascination of the unseen. But my weak chest was safely out of the draught.
Daddy had developed a habit which he never lost - of urging his car uphill by writhing back and forth as if he was encouraging his horse - until the critical moment arrived when he was forced to change gear, and then he could relax.
Daddy's car didn't have a battery: the only electricity was the high-tension current generated by the magneto for the sparking-plugs, so there was no self- starter. To start up Daddy had to retard the spark with the hand-control, then go round to the front to crank the engine, and then nip back to advance the spark again and open the throttle as soon as the engine fired: otherwise it would stall and he'd have to do it all over again. It was much better if Rolf did the cranking while Daddy sat in the driving seat and juggled the controls. Although later Model-Ts had electrics, Daddy's headlamps were lit by acety- lene, while the side and rear lamps burnt oil, which made driving after dark something to be avoided. The horn projected through the dashboard and had a rubber bulb that was too big and stiff for my little hands; all I could do was to make a hoarse puff.
Radiators were made of brass, and over-heating, as well as the minor leaks of an imperfect honeycomb, were a perpetual source of water-loss, so frequent topping-up was required and that caused spills which meant a lot of polishing to keep them bright; no owner would allow his radiator to remain tarnished.
The only photo I've got of Daddy's car shews the petrol tank above the engine compartment in front of the dashboard, where it fed the carburettor by gravity through a copper tube with a stop-cock you could turn off to prevent leakage when you parked the car; but I suppose there was a risk of fire in that arrangement so you don't see it in later models, which must have been fitted with a pump - or 'AutoVac' - to draw the petrol up to the carburettor.
A filling-station pump was not electrically powered like today's either; the apparatus looked rather like an ostrich; it had a long neck with a glass head on top, marked with the brand it sold, and a cylindrical body with a locked waist- coat that contained the pump; an attendant had to unlock it and fit on a handle with which to crank a chain and deliver the petrol a gallon at a time, counted by a metal finger. A later model had two glass containers each of which contained a gallon of petrol, so the attendant could be filling one at the same time as the other was draining into the car.
The funny thing is that I don't remember a single journey to Brighton, although I must have done it a good many times - perhaps that is because I couldn't see anything? I think we nearly always went by car, although I know we did at least once travel by train, by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway to Fenchurch St, and then across London to Victoria, which was the terminus for The London, Brighton & South Coast Railway.
Mummy once gave me some quicksilver to play with, and I'm reminded of that when I think of the first railway companies being amalgamated into four in 1923, then nationalized into one in 1946, and then split up again in 1996. Like nations and empires.
Only fossils - and the mercy of God - last for ever.
O give thanks unto the God of all gods:for his mercy endureth for ever.
Who smote great kings:for his mercy endureth for ever;
Sehon king of the Amorites:for his mercy endureth for ever;
And George the king of England: for his mercy endureth for ever.
And gave away their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever.
Things only seem as if they'll never change when you're very young, and that's why I'm writing this now, because they have.
There were three classes of railway compartment - 3rd, 2nd, and 1st - for "the striving, the thriving, and the thriven" - according to my Grandpa.
A dozen years before my birth,
My Grandpa left our mortal earth -
(His coachman, Dutton, and his wife
Typified his fiscal worth)
He used to say with punning mirth:
'Strivers catch a train at seven,
Thrivers don't go off till eight;
At ten o'clock arrive the thriven;
To travel up in First Class state.'
That's how Father told it me
As I sat upon his knee.
At the time our lights were gas,
And candle-shadows leapt the stairs.
Further back's a mystery...
Progenitors are simply names.
So I've told my childhood's history
To flicker on in firelight flames.
3rd Class actually had wooden seats in my lifetime but, as hygiene improved and infestation diminished, they began to be furnished with cushions, and 2nd Class was abolished; so we then had 1st and 3rd until fairly recently, when 3rd had not only become 2nd Class, it was actually renamed 2nd Class too! - as you'll remember. of course.
It used to be quite easy to reserve a compartment, but you had to pay extra for that, and Mummy developed a plan which was to get us all into an empty compartment and then ask a friendly guard to lock the door - "because she had to feed the baby" - which he usually agreed to; but getting it unlocked again when we reached our destination could present a problem as the guard had many other things on his mind. I can remember one hitch when a new guard who didn't know about us had replaced our original friend en route, and Mummy had to wave out of the window for ages to attract his attention. On another occasion the station we wanted to get off at wasn't a terminus and the nearest porter hadn't got a key, so we only just avoided being carried on the next stop.
The customary tip for that sort of service was a silver coin (and it really did contain silver in themdays) so Mummy used to save threepenny-bits for tips as they might pass for sixpence in the haste of the moment. She wasn't mean, she just didn't have the means. But she always gave a porter more if we'd had a lot for him to take to the luggage-van: his was a poorly paid job, and he was heavily dependent on tips to eke out a living. One of a porter's tasks was to take bulky luggage, bicycles, prams, and so forth, to the weighing-machine where excess weight had to be paid for; and there you'd see a pot of glue - usually with a clotted brush sticking out of it - and a set of labels for all the stations along the line; so that each piece could have its destination pasted on it before it was stowed in the luggage-van. After that the guard would be responsible for putting it out at the nominated station.
Peaked caps and uniforms with the company's name on them were the rule; but porters were only issued with caps and waistcoats, and you were more likely to get their help if you only had a few pieces of luggage, or if you looked the sort of person who might be good for half-a-crown.
I suppose I'd better say something about the coinage, it's all changed so, and what I take for granted my grandchildren will hardly have heard of. £.s.d. was a common expression for money in the round; it stood for libra, sestercii, denarii, and the pound sterling, or 'sov', was accepted worldwide as the Dollar is today. At one stage in my early childhood England went back to the gold standard, and Mummy actually carried gold coins in a silver-mesh sovereign purse (which was stolen from my surgery in Kingston) with her initials B.S. on it. (There had been another gold coin, the guinea, but it was not current in my time; it was worth £1.1S. and it was still used on paper for professional services until decimalization came in.) There were 20 silver shillings (20-bob) in a pound (quid), and there were silver half- crowns (2/6d) which were still being called 'half-a dollar' even when I was a grown man and they were only worth half that. An equally common coin was the silver florin (two-bob bit) and then there were silver 6d. bits which were called tanners or tizzies, and 3d. pieces - pronounced thrip'ny-bits. The copper coins were pennies, ha'pence and farthings; and when I got to the ripe old age of four I was given pocket money -my 'Saturday Penny' - but there wasn't a lot you could buy for that, apart from small bags of sweets.
In Brighton the bravest sight I remember were the trams. They would make huge flashes from their tracks at junctions -if you were lucky- and the drivers stood on the balcony in front, chained off from ordinary people, and twirled their polished brass levers and stamped on a bell-clanger to warn of their approach. At the rear was another balcony where the conductors stood to issue tickets, or ring the bell by the driver's ear (twice to start and once to stop) or run up the steep curved stair to the open upper deck, where the rod went up to the overhead cable. I couldn't imagine how such flimsy things were able to move a great tram!
The back-rests of the seats were pivoted to the floor so that they could be tilted to face in either direction, because trams didn't turn round - they were metallic Push-me-pull-yous - when he got to the end of the line the driver simply changed ends, taking his levers under his arm, and drove back again.
And all that excitement only cost a penny!
The buses at Brighton were yellow, but at Hornchurch they were red, and Mummy tried to get me to read the name 'GENERAL' on the side of them.
"G - what does that spell?" she asked.
"GGG", I replied
"But it has an E after it, so that makes it into JJJ"
It was too much for me to think of pronouncing the same letter in two different ways, and I remember actually walking away from a bus and giving the problem up. And I also remember, a year or so later in Jerusalem, Daddy shewed me a copy of 'The Times' and asked me to read the title, but I had no idea. 'T' - yes, but 'Th' - no! I didn't get round to really wanting to read till I was seven -or was it eight?- and even now I read slowly, word by word. I think I may have missed the bus!
Those buses and trams didn't have windscreens, instead they had rolled-up leather aprons which the drivers could unroll and attach by straps at each comer to lugs on the dashboard and in the roof above their heads. That protected the lower parts of their bodies from the elements; and of course they wore peaked caps to keep the rain out of their eyes. There was a real use for peaked caps in themdays, and soldiers didn't wear sloppy berets: even postmen wore helmets and theirs had peaks at the back as well as the front, which must have provided some protection from rain dripping down their necks as they bent to look at the letters in their sacks.
Telegraph boys wore round pill-box hats with no peaks. They rode round on red bikes and delivered all urgent messages before telephones were common - and hoped for a tip of a penny or so. If they got one they might even wait and take a reply, as I believe they were meant to! I think the rate for telegrams was a shilling for ten words, including the address, which explains the use of telegraphese - a language which omitted all unnecessary words and stuck pretty much to nouns and verbs.
I was once given a toy conductor's set which consisted of a cap, which I thought made me look very important, and a shoulder pouch; but I think they were both made of cardboard because they didn't last long. There was a ticket punch too, which was made of sharp-edged tin that I cut my finger on, and through it ran something that looked very much like a bent meat-skewer (of course it couldn't have been, could it?) which silently made a ragged hole in the ticket when you pulled the ringed end down. It was rather a disappointing tinny replica, and I had to pretend hard. The real thing made a neat round hole in the ticket, and a resounding Ping! at the same time.
My mind is really running on the subject of wheels though. The smallest ones I encountered were on the roller-skates belonging to the village boys; I could sometimes hear them outside the gates, but I never looked out, or wanted to play with them; nor was I expected to; they belonged to the lower classes. I felt secure from all strange encounters behind those closed gates and high protective walls.
The village boys had iron hoops too, which clanked like broken bells as they bowled them -at a run!- along the pavement, with iron hooks. My hoop was a genteel wooden one with a wooden stick to guide it, but could I bowl it? Not me!
The difference in bicycles is that in themdays the handlebars were high because people sat upright on the saddle, and the ladies' variety had string guards to prevent their long skirts from getting tangled in the spokes. I had a funny idea that it would be easy to cycle through a very narrow passage that ran between some houses in Hornchurch because bicycle wheels were so thin: the width of the pedals and handlebars hadn't impinged on my conscious thought, nor had the bulk of the rider!
(Did you know that the houses around the mediaeval square in Monpazier were built with gaps between them wide enough to act as fire-breaks, but too narrow for a person to get through? In 1336, when Edward III was Duc de Guienne, the majority of Gascons recognized the King of England as their 'natural lord'. Although he paid homage to Philip Vl, he had his castles put into a good state of defence at the same time, and then set about plundering his overlord's feudally divided country. At Crecy he made a killing, but The Black Death made a bigger one, and he eventually lost the lot.
You really don't want my potted versions of history, I'm sure; but I know why I put that in - it's because Monpazier gives me a feeling of domestic life at the beginning of the 14th century, in a way that I'm trying to describe it at the beginning of the 20th.)
A lot of the local transport was still horse-drawn up to 1925, from the two- wheeled delivery cart to the two-horse coal-dray, or a farm-waggon which might be pulled by as many as four horses. The grocer and the butcher would never have survived if they hadn't delivered orders to the house, 'Families Waited upon Daily' was written over most of their shop-windows - although of course I couldn't read it! - and they had hard-back order books with their names embossed in gold on the cover, and an oval window above that for the name of the customer. Inside were ruled pages with columns for the order and its price in £.s.d., and these were invariably entered with an indelible pencil which was kept behind the shopkeeper's ear and had to be licked before use, making purple smudges of gentian violet which tailed off as the spittle dried.
A few people still used pony-traps, but that became more and more of a rarity, especially after Henry Ford built his factory nearby at Dagenham in 1923. (Daddy used to go there, I'm not sure why, to talk to the workmen I dare say, because he was good at that sort of thing. It was built on the site of the biggest rubbish-dump in the world - at least that was the way it looked to me -like a mountain!)
Mummy didn't feel quite at ease with horses and always warned me to hold my hand very flat if! offered one a lump of sugar (I can still see my little fingers bent backwards for fear that those great yellow teeth might accidentally bite them off) and to keep well clear of their back legs, because they were frightened of people going behind them and were liable to kick. Horses that were prone to kick had a red ribbon round their tails. It can't have been uncommon for people to be injured by run-away horses, for I got it into my head to look for doorways or other refuges in the street in case such a thing should happen when I was there; and I suppose Mummy's nervousness about them is one reason I've never felt at ease with horses, although I get on well enough with other domestic animals. Daddy was brought up with horses, and he used to tell me of riding for miles round his parish of Randfontein in South Africa in 1910. I even wore a pair of his old riding gaiters when I joined the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers - 'Dad's Army') when it was formed in 1940, as we didn't have uniforms at that time. During Daddy's youth Grandpa (who died in 1906) kept a groom called Dutton, who lived in a cottage in the grounds of Forelands, and I can recall Daddy and Uncle John discussing the pension the family was still paying him in my lifetime because they were brought up with the princi- ple of responsibility towards their employes.
"Gee-up!" and "Whoa!" were the words used for acceleration and braking then, but I notice that modern term for the former command seems to be "Walk on!" In common with the rest of society, horses are becoming more literate, I suppose.
Sometimes a trap was tethered outside St Andrew's during Sunday services, but for the most part people either walked or came by car.
When Mummy first took me to Mattins I liked to sit at the end of the pew because it was finished off with a sort of arm-rest that resembled the cab of one of those 1920s lorries which didn't have doors, and I could sit there driving along in my imagination and making hand-signals which sometimes took members of the congregation by surprise as they walked by. As I got older though, Daddy thought it would be nice to have me sitting in my little chair next to his stall in the chancel, which put an end to those childish games and left me horribly exposed. In the beginning I'd expected to witness some sort of apocalypse but as that was never vouchsafed me, and as I couldn't read, my education was not greatly advanced by this religious observance; but at least it was better than having to attend Sunday School, because that involved meeting other children.
I was allowed to leave Church before the end of the service - while the congregation was singing a hymn - and go home alone, which gave me an opportunity of dawdling among the parked cars and studying what they were like, but I never succeeded in making out why they all had two 'handbrakes' while Daddy's car only had one: of course I didn't know that the second 'brake' was a gear-lever which Model-T Fords didn't possess. One car was fitted with a 'Klaxon' instead of the more usual horn with a rubber bulb; it wasn't all that uncommon though, and I knew that pressing its serrated plunger would produce a crescendo howl from its diaphragm - so I gave it an experimental push -little more than a touch- but before I could retract my hand the terrify- ing howl began! Of course I fled as ifI'd been stung; but 'klaxons' made a loud gargling noise on the recovery stroke too, and that seemed to go on - and on - as I dashed for the safety of our gate. But no-one came out to see who was tampering with his car, and no-one asked me about it afterwards. So I got away with it; but my anxiety didn't entirely abate for several days, till I felt reasonably sure that no-one was going to come round asking questions.
The milkman customarily drove his cart round to our kitchen door. It had a big milk-churn over the axle, and I used to wonder how he balanced it so cleverly; as It was before the days of milk-bottles he had a row of shiny measuring scoops for gills, pints, and quarts, hanging in a row by their long hooked handles, and cook would take out what jugs she needed to be filled. Very few people had a fridge - we didn't even have electricity did we? - so a cool north-facing larder was important, and the milk would stand on a slate shelf, and be covered by wet muslin in summer.
There was a scullery by the back-door too, which had a shallow sink with a scrubbing board in it, and a big wooden-rollered mangle standing alongside; and from it a steep set of stairs led down to the coal-cellar which had a cool store-room opposite, but the cellar stairs were steep and narrow - who would consider it worth putting a good staircase where nobody would see it? - so it was out of bounds. Anyway it was dark down there so it wasn't a place that held any attractions for me: just the dank smell of it lingers on, and the flickering shadows cast on whitewashed walls draped with dusty cobwebs.
There was a large deal table in the middle of the kitchen, and a coal fire glowing behind the bars of a black iron range on top of which a big iron kettle would be quietly singing, alongside a hot-plate with a cover of concentric steel rings that could be removed to fit any saucepan that was put on it. Beneath that were two ovens which were controlled by dampers that had to be pulled out or pushed in, opening and closing mysterious flues in the body of the range to meet Cook's needs. If you want to know what it looked like, there's an illustra- tion by Tenniel of a similar one in the Duchess's kitchen in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; and we had a cat too - not a Cheshire cat but a kitchen cat - called Spider, who liked to sit by it: I can't remember her ever coming into our part of the house; she knew her place, and it was the best one for cats. We had another, rangy, cat whose name I can't remember. Tom?
Like comfortable old Spider, the servants inhabited the kitchen quarters and used the back-stairs to get to the floors above, which allowed them to go about their duties without troubling their superiors. That staircase was made of scrubbed deal which made footfalls echo as if they were being tapped on a wooden box, and it was on the edge of my known world: it wasn't that they were actually out of bounds, but I was discouraged from getting in the way of people who had work to do.
One day I was playing outside the backdoor when Mummy was in the kitchen, and she asked me if I'd go and collect an egg from the coop opposite. It was at the same height as my chest, out of the reach offoxes. Timidly I went over and opened the door, while the big broody hen stared fiercely at me; then I cautiously put my hand out towards her - and she pecked me! Through my tears I saw Mummy shewing me how I should have lifted the old girl off her egg and given her a china one instead, but I was never brave enough to try it again.
A yearly excitement was provided by threshing time at the farm behind the vicarage. (It used to be spelt thresh but pronounced thrash of course - or isn't it of course these days?)
Early one morning, with a hoarse whistle, the steam traction-engine chug- chug-chugged into the lane alongside our house, grinding over the gravel as it towed the threshing-machine, which looked like a huge shed on iron wheels, into the farmyard. What a thrill that provided for a small boy! - what antici- pation as the machinery was made ready! - the sun glinting on the shimmering shadow of the whirling governor! - the varying beat of the exhaust, chuff- chuff-chf-chf-chug-chug-chug! - as the flashing piston spun the great black flywheel and slowly moved the giant driving-wheels - the smell of coal-dust and hot oil- the way the smoke shot out of the tall chimney, and curled round, and turned the sun brown ...
"... But Mummy! ... Look! ... They've got our sieve from the kitchen on top of the chimney!" - a sort of panic took over:- a feeling that has since became familiar to me, and is usually connected with misunderstandings.
"It's all right, you silly boy, it's not ours: it's to stop the sparks flying out."
"Are you sure? It looks just like ours ..." I wasn't really convinced. The driver shunted the engine into a position where its flywheel was exactly in line with the pulley on the threshing-machine, and a great leather strap was hitched over both of them, with a twist in the middle to check the amount of flapping; then the driver gently inched the engine away to tauten it; and - at last! - the clap of the strap as it flapped was added to the steady chug of the engine, and threshing was under way. Horses brought up waggons laden with stooks from the cornfields, and men with pitchforks stood on top, throwing bundles on to a conveyor-belt with spikes that carried them up and tipped them over into the top of the threshing-machine. Below, sacks were tied to the grain-chutes which had a vibrator that shook them as they filled; and the straw tumbled out to make a warm, fragrant heap you could dive into, until it was carted away to be stacked into ricks.
Labourers used to be dressed in shirt-sleeves and braces, with corduroy trousers which they kept out of the dirt by tying a length of sisal round their legs below the knee; and they were kind to little boys watching them at work - as long as they kept out of the way. Clay pipes were what workmen commonly smoked -not while they were threshing of course- and they were obtainable at any tobacconist because they were brittle and the stems didn't take long to break; their bowls were often shaped like negroes' heads or castles, which jutted out of their mouths upside-down if it was raining. Another remarkable thing about people you saw in the street was matches. Theirs were made of wax or cardboard and had pink heads, and -incredibly- you could strike them on the wall, or on the sole of your boot! They were called Vestas, and they carried a risk of spontaneous combustion in people's pockets. Ours were safety matches, wooden with black heads that would only strike on their box, which was yellow and had a picture of Noah's Ark on either side. We children were not allowed to touch them, unless Mummy helped me, the elder, to light my bedtime candle.
Mummy bought some clay pipes to blow soap-bubbles with, and she followed the custom of putting sealing-wax round the mouthpiece to stop it sticking to your lips. Daddy smoked a brier pipe with a straight stem which he didn't pack very tidily, so bits of tobacco trailed over the edge and sometimes sparks from it blew away in the wind - which was rousing if you were sitting behind him in the car. He used to keep a box of spills by the fire to light it with - and they were useful for lighting the gas too; but oh how frail gas-mantles were! You only had to touch one after it had been burnt-in and it would crumble to bits.
The Vicarage was the last house in Hornchurch, and beyond it the road rose slightly till you could see the Upminster windmill away over the cornfields, and the movement of its sails would tell you when the miller was grinding his corn. One day we went to see the mill on the bus which stopped outside our house and put us down in the road below it. Until then the mill had looked like a toy in the distance and I had no conception of its towering height. As we arrived a cart was unloading sacks of wheat which were hauled up by a derrick high above our heads; but we went through a door at the top of a set of steps into a dim interior that smelt of sacks and flour, where the thunder of great wheels and the click of machinery drowned conversation; and chains rattled as they hauled sacks up through trap-doors which slammed shut behind them; dust hung in the air like a mist, and as our eyes became adjusted to the gloom we could see daylight glinting through the rafters, and make out sacks standing at the mouths of wooden chutes that led down from overhead. No wonder anyone with the name of Miller is called dusty! Our miller called to us to climb up floury ladders inside the mill, till we got to the gantry where the sacks were being unloaded from the derrick and weighed, before they were trundled off and stacked ready to be tipped into the hopper.
I stood nervously outside on the balcony, in the grip of fear that I might fall (like Milton's Beelzebub) from such a pernicious heighth, and gripped, too, by wonder at the immense sails swinging round so close above my head. When I looked up the mill seemed to be falling on top of me, and those huge beams kept flying by; what would happen if they accidentally hit a cloud? Mummy told me they were turned by the wind - but of course that couldn't be true! Those massive beams and slats moved by the same air that would drop me to earth like a stone if I stepped over the edge? I couldn't believe in that then, any more than I can believe in the existence of God now.
We drew back into the safety of the interior and went down the ladders again to where the cart still stood, and the outdoor smell of horses mingled with the interior aroma of sacks, flour, wood, and oil. Daddy was to come and meet us in the car because the bus would have been too late, but he was delayed, so I had an anxious wait in Upminster, wondering if we we'd really come to the right spot, or if I might have to walk all that way home.
When I was three there was a windmill in Hornchurch too. It was a post mill which stood on a low eminence on the other side of some derelict ground behind the church - where I wasn't allowed to play because rough people went there. My memory of it is only hazy, but its destruction was the cause of the very greatest disappointment I ever suffered in my young life: it burned down one night and I didn't see it happen because I was asleep. Mummy told me about it in the morning and promised to take me to look at it later on.
"Oh can't we go now, Mummy?"
"No, I've got some things to do, and you must have your morning rest first."
"Oh please let's go now! Can't I have my rest after?"
"No, but I'll tell you what: you can have your rest in the drawing-room, so you'll be downstairs and we can go over quickly before dinner."
I lay down on the sofa which had its back to the door, so as soon as I heard the door-handle rattle I sat up eagerly. It was only Mummy bringing a rug to put over me. It rattled again, but this time it was Elsie polishing it. Then it rattled some more, but I decided I wouldn't keep sitting up to look. Again it rattled, and it was Mummy.
"Hooray! Let's go quickly!"
"It's too late now, Charles, it's dinner-time. I did look in, but you were asleep so I didn't want to wake you."
"But Mummy, I wasn't asleep, I just had my eyes closed! I heard the handle rattle but it was only Elsie cleaning it, so I didn't keep looking up!"
"Well, it's too late now, dinner's on the table and you must go and wash your hands. "
There were tears of course, but it's difficult to explain to an adult how bitterly I felt the disappointment as infant. The poignancy of it kept welling up inside me for years, and I don't think it was because I thought there'd been anything dramatic to see, because even I must have realized there could have been little more than a heap of smouldering ashes by that time. No, the tragedy lay in the might-have-been - the misunderstanding that I'd brought about for myself by not opening my eyes when I heard the door-handle rattle. That's why I was inconsolable, and why it was too late to go and nose about later in the afternoon. It wasn't because the ashes might have vanished, it was because the glamour had. So I never did get to rummage round the remains of Hornchurch windmill, and that became a tragic landmark to me in my young life. (I've got a book with a photographs which states that the mill was burnt down in 1922, but I feel certain that it must have been later than that. Surely I wouldn't remember an event so clearly if I'd only been two and a half years old?)
When you came into the nursery there was a sash window opposite that looked out over the front garden to the road, and the church on the other side. and in it stood the plain deal table where we had our meals. It was moved back into the middle of the room. where it was warmer in the winter - or when it had to double as an ironing board. On the left was a coal fire in a cast-iron grate, which was screened by a wire-mesh fender with the brass rail round the top of it that could be used for airing my brothers' nappies when they were babies. (They had a soft one next to the skin and a towelling one outside to mop up the wet, and both were fixed with a big shiny safety-pin. I learnt how to put David's nappies on, but they didn't trust me with the pin!)
The fender had to be moved aside when ironing was to be done because a trivet had to be attached to the grate for the flat-irons to stand on. They didn't have thermostats of course! - Nanny tested their temperature by spitting on the sole-plate and when the saliva bounced off with a squeak she knew it was ready for use, so she had two irons in the fire and used a third while they were getting hot. Naturally she needed a pad to hold their hot handles by, and she used old kettle-holders which had got scorched. Kettles had hot handles too, from standing on the hob, but people liked to have pretty holders for them because they might appear in public, so they were often crocheted or quilted as little gifts. In themdays many ready-made articles seemed to be of greater value than the love and trouble that went into making the same thing by hand; and when people sat together after work a woman would knit, crochet, or do the mending It was common to see patches in the seats of trousers where pride and poverty went hand in hand, and the ragged holes that are worn with pride in modern jeans would then have been a sign of shame. 'The devil finds work for idle hands' was the watchword, and hand made was often a derogatory term for something collectors would give their eye-teeth for now.
Mummy had a treadle Singer sewing-machine which she took the greatest care of as it was such an important piece of household equipment, so my little experiments in putting my foot on the treadle met with her stern disapproval - it always seemed to turn the wheel backwards when I did it, which left an obvious clue as to what had been going on. It had a little wooden drawer, too, which held thrilling metal objects for hemming and so forth, which was another source of fascination for me; they were brought into play when Mummy made clothes for us, using flimsy paper patterns. That wasn't so easy and button-holes were a special problem, so wherever it was possible we had hooks-and-eyes or 'poppers' (press-studs) instead. Zip-fasteners hadn't been invented; nor had 'Rufflette' tape either, so when curtains had to be made each pleat had to be formed separately, and each hook had to be sewn on to the tape by hand, which were time-consuming jobs.
One day, when I was playing in the garden, I heard some boys kicking a piece of metal along the road outside, and to my great excitement they left it where I could just see it under the gate, and as soon as they had gone out of sight I sneaked out and picked it up. It was the ratchet of a bicycle-bell, but I didn't know that so I asked Mummy at dinner-time what it was.
"Where did you find that?" she asked, "It's part of my sewing-machine," and she put it in the little wooden drawer, in spite of my protestations. That was an early lesson in the fallibility of grown-ups.
We had a toy-cupboard - a most annoying thing because we had to put our toys away in it when we were told to stop playing with them! I had a set of beautiful wooden 'bricks' that included pillars and arches; and a model pulpit with pews, a font, and a lectern (wasn't that appropriate?) but I only had a wooden parson who was far too big for them; there were larger wooden 'bricks' too, with letters pasted on four sides, and two sides which formed pictures if you arranged them in the right order. There were coloured sticks of Plasticine which became grey when they got mixed; and other coloured sticks of Glitterwax, which you had to soften by warming it in your hands before you could mould it, or by putting it in front of the fire where it would melt and run all over the hearth.
That was one of the attractions of having open fire-places: not the melting, of course, but the things you could do there. There'd usually be a toasting-fork hanging by it to make toast with, or stick marshmallows on till they swelled up and grew a brown skin and began to ooze off into the ashes Or Mummy could bring in an old tin-lid and you could help her make toffee which got hard and had to be broken with the poker when it had cooled. Or you could just sit in the cosy firelight and watch the lumps of coal glow and crackle and burst into flames which leapt up the chimney: sometimes they would whistle as a jet of smoke shot out, and sometimes they would crumble and fall into the crimson caverns beneath, sending up fountains of sparks; or you could watch the soot on the chimney's throat glow into stars and chains, and writhe about like red- hot worms.
The outer parts of a room were never very warm in a cold winter, so the sofa and chairs would be drawn up to the fireplace. After tea Daddy might read aloud, sitting in the big arm-chair on the right, with Mummy on a smaller one opposite him holding her hands out to the fire, while Michael and I sat between them on two children's chairs which had carved wooden backs and rush seats. If you were playing on the hearthrug your face would begin to flush in the heat but your back would be in the cold, so you always wore woolln underclothes and puHovers.
I had a big teddy-bear which Cousin Emily had passed on to me when she outgrew it (and which I eventually returned to her children) and a stuffed Peter Rabbit, who was almost as large and had a blue waistcoat with brass buttons - but after I'd succeeded in taking it off he came to pieces. I had several Dutch Dolls too, they were common and cheap then, and they had wooden bodies and painted heads, and jointed sticks for arms and legs which easily got broken. The two wheeled toys I had: were a trike with pedals on the front wheel; and 'Dogsterbark' who was a stuffed dog on steel frame big enough for me to ride on. He'd once had a handsome collar round his fine furry fabric, and shining glass eyes, and pricked-up ears; but his coHar got lost, leaving nothing to pull him along by but his ears, so they eventuaHy came off; then his eyes came out, and thus he eventually became a poor wreck of a creature. I'd caHed him 'Dogsterbark' in the early days, when I'd been too young to understand the words of the nursery rhyme, "Hark! Hark! the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town," and I felt it was almost a lese-majeste when I was old enough to discover that that had been the derivation of his name.
I didn't believe in animism. I'd have liked to, because I badly wanted something of my own to cuddle and share secrets with, but I couldn't quite manage it.
Mummy taught me a belief in God; but as she also told me about Father Christmas and about fairies; I couldn't get the relationship between the three clear in my childish mind; so one day I asked her if God knew about fairies, and if they knew about God. The question must have shocked her and she replied in hushed tones: but I didn't get a satisfactory answer, and her obvious horror at being asked prevented me from going into the problem any more with her, so I pursued my own hopeful investigations I remember squatting down by the flower-bed in the front garden and pretending to gaze across the path, all the time watching the plants out of the corner of my eye in the hope of seeing fairies going about their business - quite unaware that I was looking out for them of course. The trouble was that I had no idea ofthe size of a fairy and I didn't really know what I was looking out for: Mummy was unusually vague on the subject -even suggesting on one occasion that they might be as big as people!- so the only guides I had in my mind were Tom Thumb and Thumbellina, the size of my thumb, but I really expected something smaller.
In my search for God, as I've already told you, I followed a visual line of inquiry by lying on my back and staring up at the heavens, in the hope that the clouds might part for long enough for me to get a glimpse of paradise before God had time to whip it away. But the angels were always too quick for me.
On the other hand, I knew from my own experience that Father Christmas actually existed, although I can't say how old I was when he visited us.
Mummy always put a christmas tree up in the drawing-room, and decorated it with fragile glass baubles and real candles - which she lit on Christmas after- noon - just before we were allowed in to see what presents Father Christmas had left when he'd come down the chimney in the night. That was the way she loved to organize Christmas. She found stockings for us to hang at the end of the bed on Christmas Eve, and when we woke we found them full of trinkets - each carefully wrapped in coloured paper and tied with ribbon - and when we'd undone them all there was still an orange in the toe - and, right down beyond that beyond that, a silver sixpence. There was never anything in the stockings that cost more than a shilling or so, but the excitement of unwrapping them invested them with a glamour and fascination they'd never have had if you were to buy them; the bigger presents were put round the foot of the tree, to be opened at tea-time; but even they wouldn't have cost more than five or ten shillings (25-50P infin-de-siecle currency, but the equivalent of £5-10 in value.)
On the Christmas afternoon I'm telling you about, I waited outside the drawing-room door with Nanny till Mummy opened it - and there stood Father Christmas himself, with a white beard and dressed in traditional red robes!
He actually talked to me and gave me my presents, and then he went out of the room and down the passage to Daddy's study opposite. I wanted to go and see him offbut I wasn't allowed to, and presently Daddy came out of the study.
"Oh Daddy, Daddy! - did you see Father Christmas? He's just been, and you missed him! Didn't you see him in the study? Can I go in and see if he's still there?"
The window was shut and barred so he couldn't have got out through it, and there was a gas-fire in the hearth so he couldn't have gone up the chimney.
It was a mystery.
I believe Mummy tried to explain it, but her explanation didn't seem nearly as convincing as my experience. I knew I actually had seen Father Christmas. Proust wrote: 'What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time ...' and my belief that I'd met Father Christmas was much more of a reality to me than Mummy's interpretation of what had happened.
That is the sort of grist that was delivered to my emotional mill.
The physical mill was fed with three good meals a day, a good walk every afternoon, and a purgative once a week.
There was a widespread belief in themdays that many physical diseases were caused by toxins absorbed into the blood-stream from the bowel, so Mummy gave me an aperient every Friday night: it was either Californian Syrup of Figs or a tablet of 'grey powder'* ground up and taken in a teaspoonful of sugar or jam. Even up to adulthood I could never enjoy a spoonful of sugar or jam, imagining little gritty bits of Grey Powder on the back of my tongue which made me retch. It was, as Mummy told me, perfectly tasteless, but I couldn't agree with her claim that fig-syrup was positively nice - until I was given liquid Cascara Sagrada at school, compared with which it was! Since these were routine measures to maintain regular health, if I fell ill a more potent remedy was brought into play: Castor Oil; and I can't begin to describe the nauseating flavour of that thick yellow oil - which Mummy chose to disguise in a glass of orange-juice; of course the oil floated sickeningly on top, and that put me off orange-juice for years too. When I had a cold the dictum was 'starve a cold and feed a fever' - so it was short commons, to add to my discomfort, and -even worse- a drop of eucalyptus on the corner of my hankie: something that made my nose and eyes run worse than ever, but I suppose was thought to have some antiseptic property. Then, if it went to my chest, my cot would be moved to Daddy and Mummy's bedroom where it was sunnier during the day, and I'd have my temperature taken with a thermometer under my arm.
* Grey Powder was Hygrargyrum cum Creta, or Mercury clarified with honey, & chalk.
Martindale of 1912 quotes it as being efficacious in smallpox.
My memories of The Doctor with his gladstone-bag are only of the vaguest - the cold stethoscope for instance. His prescriptions were for linctus (pink and nice) cough medicine (brown and horrid) and poultices of Antiphlogistine* - this came in a round 80z tin printed with its name and the directions for its use - which were to put the tin in a bowl of very hot water and let it stand for half-an-hour till it reached the heat of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace. When this therapeutic temperature was reached, Mummy would take a palette-knife (1 knew it was sharp and might cut me) and spread the scalding mud over my chest. "Ow! No! Mummy! It's too hot!" - "No it's not. Look, I can put it on the back of my hand!" - "Ow! Oh, don't cut me!"
* Cataplasma Salicylicum Co.
On top of that soon-clammy breastplate she'd stretch a piece of muslin and finish the job off triumphantly with a 'pneumonia-jacket':*:. How pleased she was when she stitched a waistcoat together out of pieces of wash-leather sold for window-cleaning, which she'd got for a shilling or so, whereas the official garment at the chemist would have cost 25/-. But 1 was ashamed of its patch-work appearance and didn't at all like her showing it off to anyone.
* A sort of shammy-leather waistcoat.
As 1 was asthmatic it was thought Friars' Balsam~ inhalations would help my breathing, so Mummy would put a teaspoonful of that brown, insoluble gum into a jug of scalding water and make a tent over my head with a towel; but the jug was gummed up for ever and, like much medicine in themdays, the remedy was more helpful to the attendant than to the patient.
One of the worst things is to have to stand by and watch someone suffering without being able to do anything to relieve them, so the very act of doing something relieved the tense anxiety that would build up at the bedside - especially if it had been prescribed by the unquestioned authority of a DOCTOR - and that helped the patient too. We've lost that spes therapeutica, now that the most ignorant patient thinks he knows best.
Mummy believed in a pretty Spartan upbringing: bedroom windows must always be kept open at night, summer and winter; and wool was the only stuff for warmth, but it shouldn't be worn next to the skin - why this was I'm not sure, because it's not very absorbent 1 guess. Cousin Emily told me, when she was in her eighties, that she remembered me sitting up in my cot and asking her whether she thought God would give me a woolly vest if 1 prayed for one. We were never allowed to eat anything after we'd cleaned our teeth at night, and we were only allowed one seet on wkeek-days or two on Sunday, after dinner but none in Lent. Spiral sticks of barley sugar packed in square glass jars were the only manufactured sweet I can remember having, and I was allowed a piece roughly an inch long; but Mummy was able to get sugar candy sometimes huge crystals of brown sugar which had been formed. We were living in a post-war era in which some luxuries were only just beginning to reappear, and Mummy spoke disparagingly of cheap sweets made with glucose, implying that poor people bought them because they were cheaper than real sugar; but they were probably a left-over from wartime scarcity.
The real and obvious mark of the poor was that they couldn’t aford to go to the dentest or if they did go, it was only for unavoidable extractions so black or missing teeth were almost universal among the poorer classes; and modern films that shew them with beautiful white teeth seem quite unreal to me.
There was a serpent in Eden which I didn't know about at the time. Mummy told me much later that her early domestic life was made unhappy and insecure by Daddy's tendency to discuss matters with his older sisters, Aunt Mildred and Aunt Elsa, instead of conferring with her; a niggle that was made worse by the inadequacy of his stipend and his need for financial assistance from Granny.
At Granny's house in Brighton the servants all wore a uniform of brown stuff dresses with caps and aprons, and I remember arriving after dark one day and being put to sleep in the spare room, instead of one of the children's rooms on the top floor. In the morning a maid brought hot water in a polished copper can with a spout - something like a small watering-can - which she put in the basin and covered with a towel to keep the heat in, then she put a glass of milk and a biscuit on the bedside table for me. But I only remember that happening once, and I think it must have been because there wasn't a bed for me upstairs, and the maid hadn't been told that the guest was only a child. Granny's personal maid was called Jessie, and I'm sure she would have known better!
More exciting still, there was electric light!
The light switches had polished brass covers of a fluted pattern, which was vaguely similar to Granny's silver teaspoons, and I came to regard the pattern as in some way symbolic of her household. Unlike our home where practicality ruled, in hers ornament had its place too, and in the case of the teaspoons it was dominant - because they were scallop-shaped and the grooves prevented your lips from sweeping them clean - which was frustratingly impractical if some grown-up happened to give you the jam-spoon to lick - you couldn't get at the last traces!
Daddy and Uncle John were trustees of Grandpa's estate and they used to meet from time to time to discuss business affairs (I've seen letters from Uncle John indicating that such matters usually involved Aunt Mildred's pecuniary prodigality). Anyway the upshot was that one day he had to go down to Brighton, and he took Mummy and me to spend the day there, and it gave me an opportunity to wear my new boots because and to shew them off to Granny.
In themdays Brighton glittered in the sun like a huge walk-in wedding-cake, the houses along the front all had fresh paint and glossy cast-iron railings. In the mornings maids would be on their knees hearthstoning the steps that led up to the front-doors (which made me wonder, as I often did, how the grey brick they used could possibly turn so brilliantly white when it dried on the step - which it didn't if you put your foot on it while it was still wet!). Later on you'd see families in gaily coloured clothes sitting at tables on the balconies and watching the world go by. As you came out on to the Marine Parade from Kemptown, there was the sea spread out below you, glittering on a fine day like a silver snake-skin with sunlight sparkling on its scales. The only modern place I've seen to equal it is Monte Carlo, which is not surprising because before the Great War there were more millionaires in Brighton and Hove than anywhere else in the world.
On the day I'm telling you about we must have started early, and we were met by the familiar smell of salt sea and yesterday's seaweed, but the sea was grey with white horses, so Daddy parked the car on the Madeira Drive and we went to look at the waves breaking on the beach before going on to Granny's. In my usual way I was standing well back for safety's sake, when I noticed a much larger wave than any that had come before - it swept up the beach towards me - it couldn't climb over the wall could it? - it did! Cold fear gripped my heart, cold water filled my boots, and hot tears ran down my face as I squelched back to the car to take them off. My thoughts of marching in to shew Granny how grown-up I was vanished.
14 Sussex Square was a corner house built on five floors: there was a basement, a ground floor with the dining-room in front and the housekeeper's room at the rear in a kind of annexe; a first floor or piano nobile, a second floor where the bedrooms were, and then the attics where the schoolroom was. Michael in his high-chair and I would have breakfast at eight with Nanny in the housekeeper's room. The grown-ups had their breakfast later in the dining- room which had a lift to bring food from the kitchen (like the one we had at Moreford Lodge, Kingston).
The housekeeper's room! Higgledy-piggledy memories come tumbling back of a sunny brown room, behind a footbridge which led from the side gate, over a courtyard, to the back door. The table in the middle of the room was covered with some brown chenille stuff you couldn't do anything on, and there was a dresser with a clock that I couldn't read, and a jar of Virol* which Granny thought would be good for me.
* The benefits of malt extract were widely believed in themdays.
The basement at Brighton contained the kxitchen, laundry rooms, store- rooms and servants' sitting room, and it opened into the area (what Sam Weller called 'the airy railings') in front with the coal-hole opposite, under the pavement, which had a round hole covered by an iron plate with the house number on it. As the coal-heavers tipped the coal through the hole they had to make a pile of the empty sacks so that they could be counted at the end of the delivery, and someone from the house generally kept an eye on the procedure to make sure that the odd empty sack didn't get slipped in as well. Their aim was pretty good but they couldn't avoid some spillage round it which they had to clear up after them; but there was always dust which needed to be swept up when they had gone, and the windows had to be kept shut because of it too.
Arching over the area were the steps up to the front door, and inside was the hall where the grandfather clock stood on the right, next to a seascape shewing a sailing ship in a rough sea lit by a full moon that was partially hidden behind scudding clouds. The dining room was on the left and beyond it was the passage leading to the housekeeper's room at the rear, and a place I valued most highly: the downstairs lavatory! It was a spacious room which held a mahogany cabinet with a fitted lid that you lifted to reveal a bowl with a trapdoor at the bottom of it, which only opened when you pulled a recessed handle up to activate the flush. That was what was so wonderful about it! You could be perfectly certain that nothing could come up the drain while you were sitting there and attack you from underneath.
Opposite the dining room, carpeted stairs with polished brass rods led to the floor above, where the drawing room and billiards room were situated, with balconies outside their tall french windows. There was a full-sized billiards table with ivory balls in a wicker basket, a set of cues and rests in a rack, and a scoring board; and against the wall stood a Pianola which I longed to play, but my legs were too short to reach the pedals. In the drawing-room was Granny's Steinway grand that she played Chopin on, and a gramophone with a huge trumpet, and bookshelves containing bound volumes of Punch, and Edward Lear's Nonsense Rhymes, but I could only try and make something of the pictures, because I couldn't read. My cousins had a wireless crystal set there too, with a cats' whisker that could be fiddled to get 2.LO -the London broadcasting station- but it never worked when I was listening.
What were the people like who lived there you may well ask; and the answer is that I don't really know. For one thing I was very young, so grown-ups were a different species from me; and for another, I've never been inquisitive about other people. What they are is their business, not mine. But I've recently been feeling a special sympathy for Granny. I was always fond of her, but she was protected from me by Aunt Elsa.
It may sound far-fetched, but she always seemed to me to be installed in the drawing-room in a sombre dress and wearing a velvet choker and a lace cap - like Whistler's mother- with Aunt Elsa at her right hand. Although Grandpa had died in 1906, she was still dressed in black fifteen years later. I feel now that it must have been an indication of her enduring desolation at his loss, which was also why she allowed other people to organize her life - such things didn't matter any more, her role as mate and parent was over. After years of marriage Grandpa and she had planned and built Forelands at Stoke Prior, near Bromsgrove, to be a family home for themselves and their children; but then he had died at the age of 56, and my guess is that that put an end to her earthly ambitions. She was a warm and affectionate person and I used to feel perfectly at ease with her, perhaps because I shared her attitude of not wanting to tell other people what to do.
Aunt Mildred was the eldest of her children, and she too had an amiable and complaisant nature - profligate, Uncle John would have said, as she was the uninhibited spender of Grandpa's fortune (he'd left £g8,000!) She lived in the house too, with Uncle Percy (Tollitt) who was a science master at Brighton College, and a skilled craftsman and inventor, and I suppose they shared the expenses because the house was full of his handiwork, which included an electric clock he'd made in his basement workshop: it ticked once a minute, and controlled slaves in the upstairs rooms. He had a high, bald forehead, and his eyes used to screw up when he drank tea, which made him look like a Chinese mandarin. He was much smaller and bald in front, contrasting with Daddy (with whom all men had to be compared) who was eighteen stone and bald on top - like a monk's tonsure appropriately enough.
When Uncle Percy retired somewhere round 1927, the house was sold, and Granny and Aunt Elsa moved to The Lydd at Sharpethorne, near West Hoathly, while he and Aunt Mildred went to live with their daughter Emily, at Mallards in Moulsford.
Emily was the beauty of the family and she was really the first love of my life; but at the age of four I was too young for her, so she had to find solace elsewhere and was credited with many affairs. She had fine features, perhaps slightly marred by an angular jaw and thin lips that turned down at the corners - a predatory mouth I should say, which perhaps evinced her mother's propri- etary attitude to wealth - but she captured my heart and I used to daydream about seeing her again when I was at home. My earliest true vision is of her wearing a straw school boater, when she must have been at least sixteen, but she soon became a flapper and winged her way out of my orbit, only leaving me the legacy of a shared Teddy Bear which I was able to restore to her years later for her grand-daughter. Teddy's twin was owned by Rachael, Emily's younger sister, who also had a straw hat and a pigtail; but in whose company I felt less at ease for some reason I am unable to identify, although she was always kind to me - but perhaps her superiority put a distance between us. She later became a school-teacher; but she never married so my shyness of her must have been shared by others. She had a slightly twisted scar from the repair of a hare-lip which may well have had a profound effect on her self-confidence.
Their older brothers, Dick, Maurice, Francis -known as Froggie- Andrew, and Quintus, were in the stratospheric relationship to me of adults. Years later I heard Aunt Mildred explaining to Father how one of them had been entrapped by a woman at a swimming-pool who had taken her wedding-ring off! Brazen hussy! It wasn't fair! That's the only interesting thing I ever heard of any of them, but what the rest of the story was I don't know. What I do know is that I slept in what was still called The School-Room - no doubt it had been The Nursery until they'd got too old for such a thing.
One day I was told I couldn't have any breakfast! Why ever couldn't I? Then I was allowed into the drawing-room, which was odd, and people were hover- ing at the window to see a car draw up in the square outside.
"It's the Doctor! Charles, I think he's come to see you."
"ME? No he hasn't! I'm not ill. He must have come to see somebody else!"
"Yes, he has come to see you, so just come up to the schoolroom and let him look at you ..."
"The schoolroom? Why the schoolroom?"
"Now lie on the table."
"Lie on the TABLE???"
"Yes; and now just smell this eau-de-cologne!"
"Odourclone??? That's not odourclone!! You've made a mistake!"
"Well, try and blow it away!"
"How can I when you're holding that white sieve over my face? Where did you get it from? Is it Granny's tea-strainer? HELP!! ... I'm suffocating ... HELP!! ... please ..."
The next thing I knew I was vomiting, retching and vomiting; the back of my tongue was trying to climb out at the front, and waterbrash was welling up under it ... and what was that red stuff in the jimmy?? Jimmies are for wee- wee! It was whisked away and replaced by - the big porridge dish with the Indian tree pattern! So that's what people used to be sick in! 1 thought it must be a special receptacle dedicated to the purpose: it couldn't really be the same one they used for porridge.
That's the story of my adenoidectomy.
1 had a few days in the schoolroom to recover, and as 1 got better 1 used to lean out of the window to watch the world go by. Gardens surrounded by high cast -iron railings occupied the centre of the square, and gates with spring locks kept them private for the residents who each had a big brass key to get in by. There were lawns with seats beside them, and a sundial, like Tenniel's illustration to The Jabberwocky only higher so 1 couldn't see its dial, and gravelled paths which branched about in a forest of high bushes and led to secret bowers that were ideal for hide-and-seek; and there were fuschias with red flowers you could pop open with your fingers. One day 1 was there with Rachael when she lost the key to get out again, so she offered a prize for the person to find it. It was me! I was little and 1 stooped down with my eyes close to the ground, and there it was, in the edge of a flower-bed. The prize was a chocolate and I wasn't allowed chocolates because of acidosis, so she ate it.
I suppose it was Granny who paid for me to see Dr Still, the famous paediatrician in Harley Street, and it was he who made the diagnosis (I think it meant ketosis, and would be called 'periodic syndrome' now - meaningless phrase!) He had a toy cannon which he aimed at a teddy-bear on his desk - I put my fingers in my ears because I was frightened of bangs - but he took no notice and fired. He hit poor teddy and was terribly chuffed - but 1 burst into tears! I've sometimes wondered why he took up paediatrics, as he was clever enough to invent juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Anyway, after that I wasn't allowed cream, or chocolate, or currants (sultanas were ok!), and the only cake I might have was madeira - as long as 1 didn't eat the piece of candy-peel on it. (Why was the esplanade at Brighton called the Madeira Walk? 1 never could see any cake there, but 1 supposed it must have been sold in the booths which had their shutters closed whenever 1 looked.)
From the gardens in Sussex Square a pedestrian tunnelled down under the Rottingdean Road and ended with a private gate to the seaside, where the Volks electric train runs from The Palace Pier to Black Rock. The track was built on trestles high above the beach and a flight of steps took you down under it, which was exciting when the train rumbled above you; but last time 1 was there the shingle had been washed right up level with the line. Michael called the train 'trick-trick,' which is exactly how it sounded. After he'd died some grown-up suggested that he'd actually been trying to say electric, but it was too late to ask him.
One day a car like no car I'd ever seen before was parked below my window in Brighton; it had a silver, boat-shaped, back and a little half-door on the driver's side which he didn't bother to open but jumped over! - the door had to be small because there was a big brake-lever outboard of it, as well as the spare petrol can on the running-board - and a spare wheel each side: but thewonder of wonders was the steering wheel: it was huge, wooden, and flat, when ours was smaller, black and dished. The West Pier at Brighton was far more interesting to me than The Palace Pier because it had penny-in-the-slot machines; the trouble was that it was a very long walk and Mummy didn't have enough pennies for the bus as well as the machines. My favourite was one that had two competing brass handles you had to turn in order to propel a couple of firemen up parallel ladders: the player who turned his handle fastest got his man to the top first - but there was no prize for winning, so bang went another penny!
My first real memory after leaving Hornchurch is of being aboard the SS. Hector of The Blue Funnel line after she sailed on 28th February 1925. There must have been weeks of packing, and hours of travel by train to Liverpool, but they have been washed from my memory by time, leaving only some confused perception of cloth-capped bustle on the quay; of the sides of ships higher than houses, of towering cranes, of wet cobbles with railway lines in them, of hawsers and bollards; but -more than anything- of breathing the pervasive atmosphere of coal-dust, tar, seaweed, and wet ropes, which was the characteristic smell of all harbours in themdays. It's gone now, with the disappearance of coal-fired steamers, but whenever I used to smell it my mind got carried back over years to the maritime mysteries of Liverpool and the perceptions of childhood - just as a Madeleine cake carried Proust's.
Michael and I shared a cabin: he had the lower bunk - which I coveted because it looked so snug, with its own little electric reading-lamp and switch on the bulkhead: mine had its own light too, but the bunk didn't give the same feeling of boxed-in cosiness. The door had a panel of louvres through which you could see the feet of anyone standing outside, and on the opposite bulkhead was the porthole, which had a steel plate clamped over it until we'd got past The Bay (that was the Bay of Biscay) and then the crew came round unscrewing them all, and we could see the green water seething past. I was a bit nervous about that! Also in the cabin there was a wooden unit with a looking-glass, and brackets to hold tooth-mugs, and shelves with rails to stop thing falling off them, and in the middle of it was a flap with a catch at the top and a hinge at the bottom; when you raised the catch the flap opened downwards and attached to the inside was a stainless steel wash-basin! It didn't have a plug - you emptied it by simply shutting it up again, and that tipped the water into the cupboard underneath where it vanished (out into the sea, of course, but you couldn't see how). There were little taps for hot and cold water, but instead of turning them on you pressed them down, so you couldn't leave them running and waste fresh water. Michael couldn't reach far enough to press them, so I had to do that for him. Altogether, our cabin was a paradise for two, and we didn't have to share it with baby David, because his cot was with Mrs James in the cabin next door. Mummy was proud of the way she'd made the cot for him out of a laundry basket: he slept on a tray which fitted into the top of the basket, and underneath were stored all his nappies, bottles and dried milk. Mrs James used to wann his feeds in a saucepan over a little stove that burnt a solid fuel tablet called 'Meat', short for metaldehyde - which you could make 'snowflakes' from, by touching it with a hot poker.
Having a bath at sea was much more complicated than it had been at home because Mrs James had to ask a steward to run it in one of the bathrooms on the other side of the gangway.
There the huge corroded taps didn't have handles, the steward had to bring a key to turn them on, when they shot torrents of hot sea-water under high pressure into an enonnous abrasive bath; and it was his duty to adjust the depth of your bath to the weather conditions, so that water wouldn't slop over the floor with the rolling of the ship. Even so, the bath stood in a lead-lined tray with lip round it and a drain, to prevent the spills running over the floor. As you had to wash in salt water there was a brick of soap-substitute on the side, but it didn't give you a proper lather.
One day I went on a guided tour through the engine-room. In through a steel door we went, stepping over a high threshold on to a steel balcony from which slippery steel stairs led down into a cathedral-like cavern. At first there were only pipes to see, but as you went down you reached the level of the huge humps of the steam-turbines with their bronze propeller-shaft - I don't know if it was bronze, it may have been simply that the dim light that made it look like bronze - it was a horizontal pillar the height of my head, and it appeared motionless as the Chief Engineer rested his hand on it with an oily rag in his palm, but the instant he relaxed his grip the rag was whisked out of his hand and dropped on the deck at his feet. After that the shaft ran into a dark, narrowing cavern, and disappeared into a stuffing box from which water dripped threateningly, to turn the great screw in the deep sea outside.
I could have gone on standing there mesmerized by my surroundings, and the dial which relayed instructions from the bridge, but we were led forward into the glinting gloom of the stoke-hold where men, their sweating bodies stripped to the waist and glistening in the flames, fed the boilers from a mountain of coal that stretched out of sight behind them. We weren't allowed long there because we were told the stokers didn't like being stared at, but it was long enough for me to wonder why two of the boilers were being used - one had flames licking up inside its door, and the other had an open door and a level field of white-hot coals - but a third was black and cold. And why were the fire-box doors so high above the floor? That meant the men had to lift the coal to the height of my face. These were more of the mysteries of the grown- up world.
A wonderful thing about ship-board life was elevenses, when white-coated stewards circulated with tea and coffee - and the most delicious chicken broth I've ever tasted. For me it's still the bench-mark of broth!
One night there was a fancy-dress party, and the ship's barber had a stock of props from which Mummy managed to get an imitation axe; so she dressed me up as The Headsman from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and I got a prize; but she said that some passengers who didn't recognize the allusion criticized her for such a grisly idea! Next day the axe crumpled up when I tried to chop something with it, as the handle was only a tube of cardboard like the middle of a toilet-roll.
That's all I remember about our week's Odyssey until we reached Port Said, when the 'gilly-gilly' man came on board, and mystified us all by hiding a little yellow chick under one of his three cups on the deck and taking bets on which one it was under. "Gilly-gilly, gilly-gilly", he kept saying as he shuffled the cups round, until I could never tell which was the right one. Alongside were boats of naked boys who would dive overboard and retrieve coins that you could see shimmering as they twisted in the blue water when they were thrown down.
After that, we must have gone ashore in a tender, and coaling began. All I can remember is seeing a chain of men with sacks and an overseer with a whip, and hearing a chant as they carried coal in sacks from a barge up a gangway to the coal-hold.
It was dark when we arrived at St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem; a bell-chain hung at the carriage entrance of the embattled gatehouse, and after some debate the driver pulled it, making a bell peal inside. An eye looked through the squint, the great doors creaked open, and with Arab courtesy Younis welcomed us in.
How we got there from Port Said I can't remember, but there we were, on a branch of a tree I hadn't climbed. When I asked about getting down and going home I couldn't believe my ears when Mummy told me this was our home now. Naturally you would like to know what Palestine was like in 1925, but there's not a lot I can tell you because I was only five, and I led a sheltered existence - mostly in the confines of the Cathedral Close; all I can do is to give you a few naive over-all impressions.
A small gravelly garden occupied the middle of the garth, with a pillar stand- ing in it, and the adit to a cistern which we were told had proved useful during a recent drought. From the gatehouse cloisters ran round the other three sides, with the cathedral door opposite and the bishop's palace on the right. Our front-door was in the far left corner, where Daddy had an office on the ground floor; and where our drawing-room was too, next to the dining-room and the kitchen quarters. From our hallway a flight of stone stairs led up inside the house and opened on to a wide stone roof over the cloisters that was flanked by a row of doors opening into the bedrooms, the furthest of which, as well as its external door, had an interior one leading to a dressing-room beyond, without an outside door - that's where Michael and I slept under our mosquito-nets, and where David's cot now intruded on our privacy.
At the end of the row of bedrooms was another door which led into what Mummy called 'The Meat-Safe', which was a wire cage with a mesh small enough to keep mosquitoes at bay. It had been designed to hold a bed in the hot weather, but it had corroded over the years and that resulted in showers of rust particles falling on to clean sheets, and it also left holes large enough for mosquitoes to penetrate its defences. Mummy would have nothing to do with it, so it was only used by Daddy - who seemed to be impervious to both defects - when he was left unsupervised after Michael fell ill.
We had an Arab cook called Sultani (ha-ha! - like a sultana!) and a maid called Naomi (pronounced Narmi not Nairmi) but Younis, the gatekeeper, was my special friend and protector; he had a great pair of moustaches, wore a red tarbush and a white jalabiah with a cummerbund, and he lived in the gatehouse. He carried a five-foot wand of office which I saw him use with great force on some presumptuous callers -beggars I suppose- because he seemed to know everyone who had any business in the cathedral, and was respected by all the staff there. However, I think he did get a remonstration for being quite so brutal. He taught me to speak a few words of Arabic, of which hubs meaning bread is the only one I remember, because when I told it to Kaffin later on in England she laughed at me and said 'Hovis' was what I was trying to say.
One of Younis's special cares was the electricity generator for the compound; it was run by a diesel engine that was regulated by a governor which simply cut the fuel supply if it began to run too fast, and that gave it a strangely syncopated rhythm; it charged a battery of accumulators, and occupied a room on the opposite side of the gatehouse: The electricity, a direct current, was not of a very high voltage and ran along twin wires held apart by ceramic insulators on the surfaces of the walls; the switches consisted of insulated bridges which you simply twisted to make the necessary contacts. It may have been weak, but it was real electricity and it was under our own control, which we hadn't had before.
The plumbing was another story. We had a bathroom, but it didn't have a fixed bath with taps; only a tiled area which had an open gully through the outside wall, and that's where the hip-bath stood: it was emptied by simply tipping it up - but how was it filled? There was a tap for cold water from a tank on the roof for the handbasin - and that, too, simply discharged its waste through a pipe on to the floor - but the only source of hot water was the kitchen, and it had to be lugged up from there in lo-gallon petrol tins. They were the universal container all over the Middle East, and they were still being used 20 years later to ferry petrol up into the desert during WW2. They were ideal for carrying water, for which purpose the top would be cut off and a wooden bar fixed transversely inside; but they were opened out and used for every other imaginable purpose, even roofing.
We had a walled garden at the back of the chaplain's residence. It was dry and dusty, and digging in the earth used to turn up mosaics that I called sugar- lumps. It was bounded on one side by the cathedral - so you couldn't play there when services were being held - and on the other by a high stone wall which had a gate in it giving on to a side-road. That's where grunting camels would be made to kneel down with sacks of coal for the kitchen; but they were bad-tempered beasts so you didn't offer them a lump of sugar, as you would have to the horses which delivered coal at home. Although we arrived in March my overwhelming memory is of heat. I'd been provided with a solar-topee and I'd been warned NEVER to venture into the sun without putting it on - but I do remember dashing across bareheaded from one entrance to another and wondering whether I should be struck down like the widow's son at Shunem. Heat bounced off the paving stones: it got under the brim of your hat and hit you in the face, and the glare made you screw your eyes up; but people's eyes were stronger in themdays than they are now, and I can't remember seeing anyone wearing dark glasses.
The two other inhabitants of The Close were Canon Bridgeman and Miss Matthews, both of whom I liked. I don't know what the official position of Miss Matthews was - perhaps she was Bishop Mackinnes's secretary? The Canon's title speaks for itself; except to say that he was American and a man of small stature but immense energy. The Governor General of Palestine at that time was Lord Plumer, who commanded the British 4th Army in France, after he'd stabilized the Allied line in Italy at Piave. I heard years later, when I was at Aldeburgh Lodge, that he'd been the only general who was said never to have made a mistake. I can only recall meeting him once -in Government House- he had a thick white moustache, and there was nothing wrong with his approach to boys. That's pretty well all I can tell you, except that I've got a marvellous letter his widow wrote to Daddy when he died, in handwriting so large that she only got four or five words on to each line and about six lines on to each page, so what looks like quite a respectably long letter consists of only three or four sentences; she dated it 25th Nov. - but had no room to put the year in! I suppose that even now we like to claim some acquaintance with the aristocracy, but most of the people we knew were English residents or officers of the local garrison.
"Do you think I'll grow feathers and start clucking?" I asked Mummy. I'd been in the local hospital for several days because I was suspected of having dysentery, and there I'd been put on a diet exclusively of boiled eggs and stewed chicken. The only times I'd had chicken before they'd been roast ones on special occasions and I couldn't really believes that these tasteless stringy things could be the same thing. It was a boring diet in a boring room, and Mummy used to come each day to read to me; but even that palled -especially for her I should think- so she got some black paper and made cut-outs of the animals in Kipling's Just So Stories -like the silhouettes he illustrated them with himself- and she stuck them round the walls. They were so good that the staff begged her to leave them when I was discharged, although she really wanted to bring them home. However, they tore a bit when she tried to take them off, so she left them.
When I got back something happened that I'll regret as long as I live.
As soon as he could Michael ran up eagerly and stood by my bed to talk to me; but it worried me to see him standing there while I was lying down, so I told him to go and get his little chair so that we could both be comfortable. But he thought I was sending him away, so disappointment spread over his face and he ran off in tears. I tried to get Mummy to help explain what I'd meant, but somehow it seemed to be too late: he was only three, and language didn't mean that much to him.
Of course I didn't intend to trespass on his feelings -quite the reverse- but it is exactly what I mean when I ask for my trespasses to be forgiven. If it had been intentional it would have been a sin; but Michael didn't know that, so it needed to be forgiven by him just as much as a sin would have. I've wondered ever since whether he did forgive -or at least forget- it; but I'll never know, because he fell ill and died.
The change in where we lived did not affect Mummy's ideas of how we should live, so the daily walk was still part of our routine; and what I remember about that is how hot and thirsty I used to get. Mrs James used to push David along in his pram, with a canopy over it to protect him from the sun, and a bottle of lime-juice in it to protect Michael and me from dehydration. I'd never tasted lime-juice before, and it has remained a favourite of mine ever since.
Not far from the cathedral was the Tomb of David, where at that time the stone paving made an ideal threshing-floor, and I was allowed to help by adding my weight to the threshing-board that was dragged slowly over the corn by a camel. When the grain had been separated from it, the chaff was winnowed by women with fans of palm leaves; and another of life's mysteries to me was the way it formed into a single heap a little distance off. I suppose I thought it would just disappear, as the wind would have caused it to at home.
The Jaffa Gate was the nearest one to us, but you had to go round to the Damascus Gate to get up on to the city walls, and then you could walk round and look down on all the roof-tops where people were living, with their cooking stoves, and their washing, and their latrines - the last being a special source of interest for me at that time.
The people you met in the streets were Arabs, and they wore the same dress as is shewn in the stained glass windows of our churches, so I suppose it has altered little since the time of Our Lord. A few wore sandals but most of them went bare-foot, and now and then you'd see Yehudi, but that was rare enough to be something to comment on - with an apprehension I didn't understand.
What else? Flies, heat, and the smell of camel-dung and donkeys. Arab women were heavily veiled, and carried their wealth threaded on to strings attached to their head-bands. The coin was a piastre, which had a hole in its centre: each was worth 100 millimes, and there were ten to the Egyptian pound.
Then Michael fell ill, so Mother took us children down to Hallowaan*, a suburb of Cairo, where he'd get better medical attention. We stayed in a hotel where there was a cage of monkeys near the gate which I poked canes into - which was a naughty thing to do and I was told off - but they had the greatest fun with them, and I couldn't see what was wrong with it.
* I've spelt it as it sounded to me at the time. It might be Helwan on a map.
I nearly learnt to tell what o'clock it was there too, because Mummy had to spend so much time looking after Michael that she needed to explain how long I had to play by myself in the garden. Some days a donkey-man called Maghmood* came round to take me for a ride into the desert, where there was a railway line with beautiful shiny tracks that were polished to glinting silver by the driven sand. (Later on, when we came home, I was amazed to see how rusty and dirty the English tracks looked in contrast.) Mummy taught me how to put a stick to my ear and rest the other end of it on the line, in the manner of a stethoscope, so that I could hear an approaching train before it hove into view; but there were all too few of them for my taste, and the occasional one that did pass had passengers riding on the roofs and buffers of its coaches in very thrilling way!
* The gh represents a gutteral sound like an Englishman hawking before spitting!
As a little boy I had great difficulty in pronouincing it.
Poor Mummy, she must have felt she was neglecting me because of the time she devoted to Michael, so as a tfelt she was neglecting me because of the time she devoted to Michael, so as a treat for my sixth birthday she took me to the pyramids for a picnic. We took a train into Cairo and a garry* out to Gizeh, where we ate sticks of sugar-cane which Mummy bought from one of the many boys who sold it there, and then sat by the sphinx and watched the lines of labourers chanting as they carried sacks of sand away from the excavation. That was the one landmark birthday in my whole life that has never faded from my memory.
This is a later picture. In themdays only the Sphinx's head and shoulders were exposed - the great mystery being what lay beneath.
* A sort of horse-drawn barouche, spelt phonetically.
I was taken on another outing to the Cairo Museum to see the latest finds from the tomb of Tutankamen - as we called him then - but for my interest they couldn't match the working models of donkeys turning archimedean screws to pump irrigation water out of the Nile and channel it into the sweet-water canals. All this time I only saw my brother occasionally when he asked for me: he was in a slow decline and growing too weak to take any interest in his surroundings. It must have been the most harrowing experience any mother could go through, and I don't think Mummy ever recovered fully from it.
On the 26th of February 1926 Michael's time ran out.
Daddy was the sole family mourner at his funeral in the British Military Cemetery in Cairo. He wrote a very touching memoir in the Jerusalem St George's Magazine which is in Maxwell's keeping. My poor Mummy had got scarlet fever and the doctors refused to allow her out of the isolation hospital.