What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)
PART ONE: SPECTACLES
My house in Oxford lay, and still lies, last in a Regency cul-de-sac of artisans’ houses behind an almost Georgian street that is at right angles to the comely parade of Beaumont Street that itself holds both the Ashmolean Museum and the Randolph Hotel.
I finished writing the last chapter you read on Ash Wednesday 2007. I am now speaking to you.
Deeper into the year on a hot May day, I very nearly burned my house to ash. Being an old terraced house made of wood and lath, it might as well have been a blue touchpaper.
As had become usual, I couldn’t see that day. I had become used to groping my way up and down the narrow staircase of the house, much as you do on a boat. For reasons to be seen, I have spent a good deal of my life in boats. Nonetheless, I am no good in on at or with them. I had acclimatised myself to the layout of the house but still banged into things and fell over frequently, especially over the piles of books. The things I loved had, though I didn’t know it, become a danger to me, and twice I slid gratingly face first down a flight of stairs over a slither of hardbacks, old TLSs and magazines. I was used to having bloody knees like a schoolboy and bruised hips like a mother with a granite baby. That hot day I was as usual pretending to myself and to the nobody at all who was looking that everything was all right.
I had run dry on doctors. My condition’s intractability either exasperated or baffled them and such significant words as ‘referral’ and ‘Queen Square’ had been muttered. One psychiatrist who vividly reminded me of the Scottish wizard Michael Scott who is mentioned in the Purgatorio, said that I had chosen to close my eyes against the unbearable sight of Fram’s happiness with his new love Claudia; I came back with the old argument–that since I love him I wish him to be happy. There was an air of psychological manipulation in that expensive room that might be better kept for playwrights than appointed healers.
There was the episode of the wonderfully named Alexina Fantato, who turned out to be not a strapping Italian glamourpuss with sexy but stern spectacles but a dear lady from Scotland married to an Italian. There’s a tradition in Scotland for these feminine-ending masculine names, Donalda, Kennethina. It seems that all note of disappointment is unintentional, unlike those long declensions of heir-hungry hermaphroditic names to be found in Burke. Alexina shrewdly saw that I had ‘issues’, as she kindly expressed it, with self-esteem. I made my usual noises about preferring to live by suppression than by spillage. She made a sensibly pawky face of disbelief at how someone this old could so mismanage her life.
When Proust comes to his account of the death of Marcel’s grandmother, the old lady and her grandson pay a visit to a distinguished doctor whom the narrator will not even dignify with an invented name. Simply referring to the smug physician with his failure in humane understanding, the prerequisite of good doctoring, as Professor E——, Proust has the man manifest his heartlessness and hypocrisy under cover of a decorous but fishy anonymity. My own Professor E——washed his hands of me in sight of a witness, Claudia, whose sharp large blue gaze saw and recorded it all. She is more direct than I could ever even try to be. Professor E——, intelligent, disinfected, effective, spoke:
‘I have done all I can for you. Some people may suggest that there is a non-physiological aspect to this unhappy condition of yours, which is always a distressing one. They are wasting their time and they would be wasting yours. You will not find it profitable to go down that route.’
I am still cleaving my way down that route, although the route itself has sometimes seemed to be narrowing, the stream drying up to reveal only little pebbles, hard stones hardly wet at all even by the grace of artificial tears, and this book is part of the walk following that diminishing way to some kind of resolution, if not the open lens of sight itself. Of course it is physiological; of course the cause of my blindness is neurological. But who says the life lived is separate from the body that has lived it?
Back to that stuffy day in May, my cats and I shut in the small wooden house. I was in my workroom and felt my eyes’ heat and discomfort become sharper. I pulled them open, unsticking my eyelashes. Even peeled, my eyes saw nothing. But this nothing was not black or stippled or veiled or any shade of the blindings I had grown used to; it was thick white.
That is how slow I was to realise that my small house was full of smoke. I did not think at all, which must have saved my life. Usually I am a great one for telling myself not to make a fuss and certainly not to bother other people, especially not the already overloaded public sector. I banged my way to the telephone, rang 999 and got a woman in Glasgow.
For the first occasion in my life, and not the last, I used my newly acquired unfair advantage, and I expressed it in words that felt like rhubarb in my teeth. ‘My house is on fire. I’m partially sighted.’ The woman with the reassuring Scots voice asked where I was and I replied to her as if we were sharing a sofa and a biscuit, ‘I’m in Beaumont Buildings. It’s a street in Oxford. It’s not a building.’
On I prattled in my burning house.
‘We’ll be with you right away, dear. Hold on and get out of the house right away, closing all doors you can behind you.’
‘But I’ve two cats.’
‘You’ll have to leave them.’
Now I see how patient she was with me, with all the flaming nation clamouring for her attention.
I didn’t obey and I did try hopelessly in the, I was now aware, reeking house to find my cats. I chased them, for some reason I can’t understand, into the basement and shut them in, or so I thought, but my thinking was as fogged as a choking drunk’s, and I was left to reflex alone and to action, perhaps my two weakest behavioural suits.
All that in a whisker. I was soon in the street with three fire engines and a score of strong young competent people. Yes, a firewoman too, and all of them concentrated on reducing harm and bringing later calm.
A neighbour took me in. A fireperson like the young Hector stayed with me and asked my neighbour to make tea. He actually asked me whether or not I took sugar. We conversed. Again it was the sofa and biscuit feeling. I learned that he was a keen hunt-follower, and that he and his wife couldn’t afford to buy a house in the Oxford area so that he had a long commute to his extraordinary work.
‘In fact,’ he said, ‘we’re really grateful to you because we had a city councillor visiting the station with a view to cutting down the service. Then you came through. You won’t mind my saying that it’s extra good you’re blind.’ How could I not love him?
Two hours later, everything but my oven was spick and span. Having seen smoke damage and water damage and having lost one house to arson, I was astonished. It was just like magic. The ‘emergency services’ had been heroic, the staled newsreader’s words had immediate Homeric meaning. These stern-faced young people had entered the house, located the source of the smoke, hacked the oven out of the wall, taken it outside, extinguished what turned out to be spontaneous chemical smouldering, sucked all the smoke out of the house, swept the kitchen, wiped the surfaces, and all but put a nosegay on the draining board. They had also attended to any over-spilling olfactory offensiveness that might have been caused to my next-door neighbour who had of course been regrettably interrupted by the bells and smells of the fire engines.
I asked them all when they stood round me, helmets off, after it, what I could do for them.
‘Write a letter to head office, that would be great. If you think we did our job properly.’
I wrote several such letters in my best writing that looks like my old worst writing. These were love letters.
And the cats? Of course, an officer had been deputed to find and liaise with them, so much so that his uniform may never recover from the cuddling.
That night, without my knowing it, my translation was organised. My second husband telephoned to my first husband and got my older son. It turned out that the fire, which could have been so much worse, came like a catastrophe in a play, a kind of relief, so that at last my family could talk about my blindness and where to put it and me and my two cats.
The novels of Iris Murdoch are, for the time being, out of fashion. She has become someone in a film, someone pitiable even, someone who has been impersonated by souls who haven’t read her work. It is not my place nor intention here to play reputations but in her time she was an enchantress and her philosophical work contains much that is luminous; as a girl, she presciently noted Simone Weil’s words suggesting that deracinated people can be among those who cause the most damage.
I mention Iris, whom it’s only fair to say I did slightly know (in case someone wants to niggle about Oxford’s closed hive), because what happened to the cats could only have been invented or written, in its full richness, by her. My cats, for the duration of my move from Oxford to London and the first precarious London weeks, were cared for by a couple named Leander and Rachel.
Leander and Rachel, at the insistence of each of their mothers, had moved from their flat in Stockwell with their own at the time five cats to Oxford where Leander lectures at Brookes University. The couple first met in the Lemon Tree cafeteria on Platform 8 at Reading Station. There was a theory to this, the Ancient Greek theory of buying off expectation, like calling the Fates the ‘Kindly Ones’.
If you meet, the theory of Leander and Rachel ran, in a truly awful place, your relationship will prosper and your love be lifelong. When they first met, my younger son was seven. He started angling to be pageboy at their wedding when he was about seven and a quarter.
He was finally the ring-bearer at their ceremony of civil partnership on a summer afternoon in 2007. Leander, a stunning redhead, as the old social magazines might have said, wore a frock modelled on that of Mrs John F. Kennedy, designed by Oleg Cassini, at the Presidential Inauguration Ball. Rachel, a beautiful petite brunette, wore an ivory silk sheath.
Leander, which is her real name, arrived in our lives with as much competence and fabulousness as Mary Poppins. She came with an emerald dolphin nose-stud and streaming red hair, to be my daily lady. She has stayed at the core of our lives as good genius, role model, Christian example (of course she’s an ex-Goth), Green activist, mentor, cat counsellor, nearest thing to a nanny in every good way and none of the bad, sci-fi nut, baker of weekly cakes and friend of the heart, together with her lovely wife, archaeologist, academic, beauty and the driest wit this side of Campari. Lists like this can be lazy, but there is a crammed goodness to the pair that has almost literally sustained me during the locust years.
At the reception there were fifteen wedding cakes including one topped with a bride and bride, and, for the duration of that hot green garden afternoon with children playing in several languages around us, I sat under a tree with my son and Leander’s mum and dad and allowed a new thought to cross my mind: that all could be well.
It was late June of that same year. My older son Oliver and I met in, as the nonsensical phrase has it, a ‘residential’ part of London where, even with my photophobia and flinching face, I perceived that I would feel like a thistle in a plushy meadow if I pretended to live hereabouts. My son had taken time off work. He is half a foot taller than I am. I love to be in his shadow. He was in a suit. The day was unbreathably hot. I could see he was missing important phone calls.
We were nearing the end of our list of flats for rent. We had squeezed our frames into several highly accoutred provisional and meretricious spaces with nice keen girls. We had viewed eight leather sofas and three very thin tellies. How did I see this? By doing as I’m doing now, to read this through, by pulling up my eyelids’ raw skin, and by making mad faces.
I feel like Mrs Tiggy-winkle with the spikes growing inwards especially over my eyes. I move like Mrs Tiggy-winkle too, tentatively shuffling as though in slippers and very old. I climb upstairs like a child of two.
We had one flat left. We had heard about it only that morning. Over breakfast, Olly’s godfather had told Fram, who is his great friend, that he had just inherited somewhere off the King’s Road, its owner an American artist who had lived for many years in Italy before moving to London in the nineteen-seventies. He painted right up till almost the very end and the last two squiggles of pigment he chose are still sitting on his palette under an inverted toffee tin. Mauve and ochre, the colours of shadow in Rome.
We sat in Olly’s car. I could feel his thin skin not liking the heat of the day. He has hair the colour of the flame on a firelighter packet and slanting green eyes. I was melting like an old cake. We were only just not tearful, like hot children on a birthday.
We shook ourselves down, he clicked shut his car and we ambled to a house that I had not entered since having dinner there thirty years before in the company of my father’s old schoolfriend Simon Raven.
The street was a chasm of heatwave. We pressed one of four bells. Two heavy doors were opened and we stepped into what might as well, that afternoon, have been in its shaded refreshing dinginess, a segment of a palace in Venice.
Oliver, who is formal in his manner and composed of jokes and understatement, said, ‘It’s like your old life, Mummy. Look at all the books.’
I could smell home. Books, linoleum, dust, polish, oil paint, soot, laurel and the very faint note of drains. Edinburgh, Cortona, Karachi, the Hebrides. And now Tite Street.
LENS II: Chapter 1
If I’d stayed at home, would it all have happened? Or is this every runaway’s question when chased down by shame?
It’s certainly a question you might have wanted to ask of my uncle Clement, who, if he’d been able to stay at home at ‘Dunkeld’, my paternal grandparents’ home in Sydenham, or at his and my grandmother’s grace-and-favour house at Windsor Castle, where he was organist and choirmaster at St George’s Chapel, might not have married or become a father. Would his musicality, sheltered, have made him a more sung English composer of the twentieth century? Or would he have chosen, as he did, his own merry means of death as one of the seven Noble Gentlemen of Poverty at St Cross in Winchester? Fewer than a dozen of us went to his funeral at Basingstoke Crem.
Clement’s son, David, one of my only two first cousins, who looks lugubrious and is funny, very handsome in the darker Italian fashion, stepped forward and stuck on Clement’s coffin as it slipped through the curtains the label he had steamed off his daddy’s last bottle of Gordon’s Gin. ‘Mrs Gordon’, Clement called it. For him, not mother’s ruin at all, but quite possibly a mother’s boy’s compensation for that mother’s absence.
Winchester Cathedral rang with voice at his memorial. He paid for his gin by giving maths tuition to the children of takeaway proprietors and late-night shopkeepers, ambitious for their children’s rise up the slippery pole Clement had negotiated by ignoring or perhaps remaining innocent of it. He saw the sad and funny, not the worldly, in the world.
McWilliams do this thing of fading out. They die young and they stay in touch with the aid of telepathy, of not writing letters and certainly not making telephone calls. They tend to eat unhealthily, to be musical and scholarly to the point of dust in their habits, with strong genes for self-effacement, religious faith (C of E in the rest of the world and Episcopalian in Scotland, or converts to Roman Catholicism), medicine and spying. They have been explorers and teachers but mostly they have been naval surgeons, musicians and secret poets. Their habits are gentle and they have a sweet tooth. Almost sickly thin in youth, they may get tubby later. It could in only some few cases be something to do with drink. It is not hard to see why they were only briefly kings of Scotland. My daughter Clementine compares them favourably with that reproductively inefficient animal, the panda. ‘McWilliams are rubbish at dating,’ she says, ‘but pandas are really rubbish at it.’
Clement himself loved the detective stories of Edmund Crispin, King Penguins, of which he had collected almost the entire run, the music of Buxtehude, Wilkie Collins. He knew his Bradshaw intimately, which of course gave him heartbreak as the railways were privatised. He slept from time to time on park benches. He wrote operas for children, preferred tinned fruit, and hummed as though continually about to hatch.
My father was not a drinker. He was a Capstan Full Strength Navy Cut untipped man. He gave up after his stroke, simply smoked seventeen in a row in the hospital and never again. Not that there was long to go. His stroke had hit him while he was walking along reading a Posy Simmonds book in Charlotte Square. Perhaps it was an excess of pleasure that felled him.
Up ahead of Clement and me is my robust Cousin Audrey. A dead ringer for Christine Keeler, Cousin Audrey is a Champagne girl, and I hope she won’t mind if I say that she is now to the north of seventy, in her cloud of fragrance purchased at Jenners, the Queen of Edinburgh department stores, and surrounded by the ghosts of terriers and horses. Cousin Audrey is my mother’s first cousin and is a Young of Young’s Malt Loaf, delicious, healthful and profitable. Young’s Malt Loaf will be remembered by some for its acronym: YOUMA, long since, to Cousin Audrey’s righteous and splendid ire, munched up by United Biscuits, now a mere crumb in Nabisco, which may be just a corner of Nestlé. Cousin Audrey keeps tabs on us all; she is not a McWilliam. McWilliams are mainly socialists and Cousin Audrey, to whom I can’t not, as you will have seen, give her full title, does, energetically, use the telephone. She has graced stages from Pitlochry to London. One of her dearest friends, a Miss Balfour-Melville, she addresses as Miss Balfour-Melville. Miss Rosalind Balfour-Melville will this week be one hundred years old; we are in May 2008. For her birthday present she has requested a new white frock with a lot of wear in it. That’s Old Edinburgh for you.
When Cousin Audrey is puffed out, she declares, ‘Whew! I’m peched.’ When she’s feeling dotty, she says, ‘I know you think I’m up the lum.’ Cousin Audrey is an alumna of a now-defunct Edinburgh school called St Trinnean’s, which is, you understand, not remotely the same as being a girl from St Margaret’s, which is quite distinct from Lansdowne House, George Watson’s Ladies’ College, Heriot’s or St George’s, which as it happens is where I went. St George’s is to the naked eye intensely Scots but to the understanding of mockers of a tubby wearer of its uniform in the nineteen-sixties, almost up-itself English.
My plaits often got filled with chewing gum on the bus or tied to the seat handles. The girls did the gum, the boys the tethering. Maybe it was the scarlet cockade on my beret embroidered with St George piercing his curly dragon and those four nouns from ‘The Knight’s Tale’, TRUTH, HONOUR, FREEDOM and COURTESY. In summer, we wore white gloves with our lightweight, fine puppystooth check, A-line coats; in winter the older girls sported a suit, known as a ‘costume’ and a cardigan in a shade named Ancient Red. I was only a ‘big girl’ for a year, but during that year was privileged to enter the mysteries of the Senior-style undergarments: white knickers, navy knickers, white cotton suspender belt and stockings, in the shade Aristoc ‘Allure’, the colour of strong tea with evaporated milk. There was a racier option, American Tan, that was a shiny auburn, the tea without the milk. The uniform came from Aitken & Niven or Forsyth’s; it goes without saying that there were distinctions between the two shops. Forsyth’s had a slightly swingier clientele and had perhaps less Old Edinburgh tone; it sold sportswear (tennis, croquet, skiing, cricket) and you sat on a polar bear to get your shoes fitted.
One of the things people ask, if they notice that you are female and gather that you might have been schooled in Edinburgh, is ‘Were you at one of those Jean Brodie style schools?’ There is of course no such thing; how Miss Brodie would have abhorred this sloppy generalising. But there’s no denying the precision of the echoes for St George’s. We were superbly taught by fine Scotswomen, mostly unwed, who had been unmanned by war. We started Latin and Greek before these languages could alarm us, while we were yet in our baby-pinafores.
My parents could not afford the fees. I got some kind of scholarship. My mother’s parents paid the rest, and I think minded. My parents fought about it. My father was vehemently agin private education. (I believe he married two women who may at least once in their lives have voted Conservative.) My maternal grandfather was self-made and highly suspicious of education beyond the respectable zones of business, boxing and golf. He read the FT and the Reading Gazette. He was quite right about the power of learning for its own sake, its huge and blessed leverage for freedom, the vital key it hands you should you require to escape.
Cousin Audrey’s hot on business too and to this very day often berates me, quite correctly and very loudly, for my pointlessness and the pointlessness of what I laughably do for a living. Nonetheless, she has in her time loyally attended readings given by me and at least one gentleman known in the wider world to be ‘that way’. She’s a bonny heckler and one of the bravest souls you will ever meet, a glamorous spinster of the old school, shrewd, courageous, greatly loved and on her own. She reads the right-wing press with close attention. It broke my heart when I suggested the Guardian or the Independent and she took up both. I feared for her imbalance. Her favourite paper is now officially the Independent, her favourite man in the world Boris Johnson, with two little pouches for my sons Oliver and Minoo. She is a man’s woman and has the hairdo to prove it, confected weekly by her dear friend Muriel Brattisani, of the famous Brattisani family, whose lobster and chips and cairry-oot Champagne are the talk of the entire globe.
My German publisher wrote to me once describing Oxford as ‘the Omphalos of the known world’. He went on to become Minister of the Arts for Germany and then, with some relief, the editor of Die Zeit.
Anyhow, Edinburgh knows that it is the centre of the known world and wheesht to your omphaloi. Has a doughnut an omphalos? We’re talking baked goods here. Omphalos? Can you export it? Well, of course you can, and we are an emigrated race, the Scots, bringing our notion of civilisation wherever we go, bridges, sugary snacks, books and stories, fighting and drinking.
What I’m trying to get round to is my birthday, the 1st of July 1955, the birthday of Julius Caesar, for whom my third name is Juliet. In October I was christened at Rosslyn Chapel, burial place of the Earls of Orkney, scene of The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott, reputed resting place of, among other things, the Holy Grail and the True Cross and scored with a number of unexplained Masonic symbols. I wrote in a novel twenty years ago about this numinous jewel in stone. Of course, its anonymity has since been rather blown by Dan Brown. It contains among countless other solid beauties, the ‘Apprentice Pillar’, a piece of carving so virtuosic that the chief mason is said to have murdered its maker, a mere apprentice, for his presumption, and then hanged himself in remorse. There is a small carving of the grieving master mason, his mouth an appalled hole. This pillar is depicted on the front of one of my father’s volumes in ‘The Buildings of Scotland’ series. Daddy died in the middle of writing Dumfries and Galloway. On the front of that volume is one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s palaces, Drumlanrig House, out of which, not very long ago, someone walked unnoticed carrying a small painting by Leonardo.
That’s carry-out for you on a scale beyond even lobster. The painting has since been returned. The late Duke was once our Member of Parliament and I remember him canvassing in Thistle Street, a tall curly-headed long man, before he broke his back out hunting. His father, the old Duke, had a silver wine cooler the size of a cow trough into which I remember being put for fun as a small child. Like being in a huge deep ladle of precious reflective metal, it fitted me fine. All made to hold drink.
My lips had never touched liquor then.
I was an only child, but even then somehow stood aside from properly inhabiting a self, even though at the beginning it was a fairly chunky self to inhabit. I played with dolls, glass animals, and small unmatching china tea services that my mother collected in junk shops. Wherever she went, I was. I followed her stuck like a limpet to its home-scar. I loved the scent of her forearms and the smell of her hands that combined acetone, coffee, Atrixo hand cream and cooked garlic.
In our crescent lived many mothers of families to whom Mummy became close. Constance Kuenssberg was a doctor and the wife of Ekke, our doctor, who came out day and night for us.
Ekke’s father had written to him when Ekke was a boy at Salem in Germany, the school set up by Kurt Hahn who later founded Gordonstoun. It was 1935 and the Nuremberg Laws had just been passed. In Ekke’s father’s letter were the instructions to walk out of Germany into neutral Switzerland, down into France, and thence to Great Britain. Ekke did this. He was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man, which some have described as being a kind of university then, a virtuous Babel. On his arrival in Edinburgh, Ekke trained to become a general practitioner and married Constance, who was part of the Edinburgh establishment, being daughter of the Rector of Edinburgh Academy. This extraordinary couple did much to set up the National Health Service in Scotland. Ekke’s son is now still my stepmother’s doctor.
For a more expansively raised generation I should say that you had, at that time (if you had shoes at all), indoor shoes and outdoor shoes, the line between each being the front door of any dwelling place. The purpose of these designations was cleanliness. It did not do to bring the outdoors in. You might spoil someone’s good housekeeping. It was a matter of everything in its proper place.
The cold: each day was a fight to keep the cold outside where it belonged and not let it into the house, though houses were freezing inside too; there was an unsleeping vigilance against cold as it came in from the sea and down from the hills and off from the mountains and into our bones. If the air was not misty with human breath and surreptitious attempts at thaw, it was misty with the haar, the mist off the sea, of which some Edinburgh residents were in my childhood very proud as it was yet another way of keeping yourself to yourself.
It was not unusual to see people ski the winter streets. Mothers would pull children on toboggans to fetch the messages, which is Edinburgh for ‘do the shopping’. Old ladies walked as I do now that I’m blind in the snowless streets of London, side-shuffling along the pavement while nervous hands feel for the next railing. I cracked today into a column of sixties brick, the corner of what used to be a rather ritzy rehabilitation clinic. The bruise is coming up nicely. Today’s blepharospasm doctor wryly remarked, ‘The clinic got out six months ago, or you might have been able to sue. It belongs to a property developer now and they’re a bit more hard-headed.’
My mother’s and my favourite junk shop was Mrs Virtue’s, in a basement on a corner with her name up in subtly shaded sign-writing emphasised in gold. The steps down to Mrs V’s had iron handrails curled to right and left. She herself wore a hairnet, a navy angora hat, a musquash coat, a pink-flowered pinny, many cardigans topped by a maroon one, a Clydella vest, fingerless gloves, varicose veins, stockings and socks, and what were called indoor shoes.
Mrs Virtue’s shop was a tunnel of mattresses twenty deep on either side, damp with cats’ piss. It was hard to imagine Mrs Virtue outside her musty nest. It is likely that she and her cats had a shared diet, though she smoked more than they did. I can’t think why I never stole anything from Mrs Virtue’s shop. Can it have been original virtue in me? The place was so chaotic and I so young that I understood the set-up as how things were meant to be and would not have dared spoil the careful arrangements Mrs Virtue appeared to have made. She had a face like chiffon for wrinkling and intermittent sets of teeth. Her eyes were dark and missed little.
Mummy spent hours talking to Mrs Virtue. They had far more than cats in common. I didn’t know then that these long conversations with people outside her marriage were a symptom of her loneliness as well as of her curiosity and friendliness. I am certain she was not signalling this loneliness to anyone intentionally, leave alone to me. She wanted to be the best of mothers.
It is not easy to say this out loud and before I went blind I would not have had to, but this greedy obsessive recall of trivial (and, it’s not lost on me, mainly visual) detail has clamped to me even closer as a habit since I lost my capacity to see. I was made of what I saw. I saw in panorama and in focus. I saw things at and even over the edge. I wasn’t half so good at hearing.
I’m scared I’ve become like an inventory for the sale of an old dead person’s house, what Scots call a displenishing; here I am, picking up lost bits and pieces of my scattered life to try to make something whole by putting it all together, my own flotsam and jetsam.
I plugged up my ears against the parental fighting. I think I knew that my parents, as a pair, were growing terribly demarcated from within, she the indoor and he the outdoor shoes. There was some scuffing. She threw and he hit. She slapped. He didn’t throw.
Both were sociable and attractive to the opposite sex. They took me with them to dinner parties and I either sat up with them or was put to bed in a guest room or the hosts’ bed. I remember falling asleep in a nightie from Mrs Virtue’s that my mother had laundered and starched. I had a tube of Smarties, too precious to open, in one hand. And I had done my teeth. The couple my parents were dining with encouraged me glamorously to call them by their Christian names, Gerald and Denise. He was what is called in Scotland a sheriff and she was French. From the age of three I had attended the Institut Français. It wasn’t a particularly fancy thing to do at that time in Edinburgh; it may have its roots in the Auld Alliance, that tie between Scotland and France against the old enemy, England.
When my parents woke me up, after dinner with the Sheriff had run its course, the bed was stippled all over the clean sheets by the gay fugue of Smarties.
It seems a pity to interpose ‘real time’ yet again, but it occurs to me that my use for Smarties as a child was only chromatic. I sorted them into colours, hoarded, hid and lost them or gave them away, mainly to my father who, being skin and bone, loved chocolate. From the first I knew that different characteristics inhered in each colour and that colours related to numbers and to letters of the alphabet.
I don’t like chocolate but I love to look at its outer casing. I am attached to those maps that come in chocolate boxes, with fanciful names for each mouthful. I still can’t face chocolate, unless, and this is awful, it is white and therefore not chocolate at all.
In fact, it’s probably my version of mother’s ruin nowadays and certainly this breast-fed baby’s only approximate mother substitute.
There was a sweet named Treets. Treets were like fatter, and merely brown, Smarties, and they had a slogan: ‘Melts in the mouth, not in the hand’.
I was first approached by a flasher when I was four. Actual manual work and melting in the hand not the mouth followed soon thereafter. There was one try to broach my milk-toothy mouth. I recall the feeling, as of a large eyeball with a thick lid forcing itself past my uvula. I didn’t seem to think this was unusual at the time. Families living many to a room in freezing poverty cuddled together for warmth; there was often a ‘simple’ son, who might wander the town. Having found the means of making a productive sensation, why might he not have taken it into his head to share the feeling? I simply stood aside from myself. I still have some of my milk teeth.
This intervention was exactly the opposite of reading. Reading was safe and something you went into. This invasive unshared business was something you stood aside from. It didn’t go on for long either in fact as an act or as a sequence in my life. Nor was the practitioner even someone whose name I knew, poor boy, trying to find a vessel for his pleasure.
Where was my mother at these times? She was being preyed upon too, by someone certainly less innocent than my poor urban simpleton.
Someone was circling her and smoothing her vanity, seeping into the crevices left by her dearly loved husband’s absence, away with his unsleeping work.
All my life I’ve had words that got stuck in my head as tunes do. When I was three it was San Francisco and Benozzo Gozzoli. I had no idea of the meaning. It was the sound that stuck. During other parts of my childhood, the needle stuck on various phrases or sometimes single words; ‘Pretty ballerina’ bounced in my brain for the obvious reason that I wasn’t. ‘Pink’ chaffinched away in my head for months. Ever since the fire in my Oxford house, the word that has been rolling around behind my eyes is ‘epilimnion’. I even wake up saying it. This may be a bad case of ‘Candia McWilliam’s swallowed the dictionary’, because I’ve only the slightest idea of what it means, which is, I think, the top surface of a large body of water, for example a lake. What I don’t know is how many meniscuses make up an epilimnion. Then other words attached themselves to it and now I’m bothered by the assonant but dead-end statement, ‘we swim the epilimnion’.
It has become impossible to write of my far past without being somewhat open about the present and its tense surface.
A carer brings breakfast to my cousin Audrey in Edinburgh; if it has not arrived by noon she’s fair mad with frustration, diabetes, hunger and very possibly loneliness. It is with grave difficulty that she gets about. Today, when I got up at six and started blindly doing my chores, I realised that I was like this, in inverse, about the arrival of Liv at 9 a.m. Just as Cousin Audrey is hungry for her breakfast, I’m hungry to pour out words and get them down. I have already after only six days become dependent upon the process and the presence of Liv. I no longer pace when dictating but sit slightly behind her to her right and hope that does not make her feel haunted; I’m less shy than I was, and can feel the sentences consequently relaxing. It’s less like doing a reading, and more like having a conversation, where the other person is not gagged but doesn’t talk quite as much as I do. I’m not naturally one for monologue, and was never, even at my most drunk, the life or soul of the party; one of the fears consequent upon my blindness has been that of becoming a big fat bore. The note I most resist in a female voice of any age is the note of complaint. Only French women do it at all attractively, and even then it seems to me too close to cleaving to the privileges of servility and aggression.
Say the present is the epilimnion, then, of this book; as we swim it so we shall feel the changing temperatures of the past rise up, the weed brush our legs; we may or may not sense schools of trout or a biding long-jawed pike. All over this house are pairs of spectacles, many of them purchased for one pound each at a Pound Shop in a subway under Basingstoke. None of these spectacles came with a prescription. I just like to have a pair of specs to hold and fiddle with and put on and wave around as though I were a person who could see. In my old life, before blindness, I had only just started to wear reading glasses, as was normal for my age. Before that, I was always seeing, watching, gorging my eyes.
What is enough to see?
What is enough to look for?
For the last two days, I have been conducting an experiment, and attempting to use my ears to catch secrets and the almost unheard, as, I realise, I used to use my eyes. Of course I’ve always eavesdropped; it’s a form of collecting irresistible to the spy side of being a writer. But I’m trying now to hear and listen supernaturally, around corners, within trees, into birds’ nests, right into the egg within the nest. So far it hasn’t come up to the level my seeing skills were at when they departed. That sounds ungrateful; I’m aware that it will take another fifty-three years to tune my hearing skills up; I’m just a hatching tuning fork, like the one emerging from the lyrebird’s egg drawn by my father larger than life size with his Flo-Master pen on the basement wall in Warriston Crescent after another row with my mother.
So far, my only auditory revelation occurred in a doctor’s waiting room. Unless I’m with Liv or asleep or actually with a doctor, these waiting rooms are where I spend my days. I was in a department of Guy’s Hospital that is a house built upon the place where Keats did his medical training, opposite the Old Operating Theatre whose motto is COMPASSIONE NON MERCEDE, near London Bridge. I heard three pieces of scaffolding being conjoined and the dead sound was exactly that of a wooden xylophone; distance had turned metal to wood.
Occasionally, fashion demands that very pretty people wear spectacles for what is called in the world of magazines a ‘story’. This is the run of editorial pages with some ostensible narrative connection using the same model or group of models. Sometimes film stars wear specs not on account of their trouble with seeing but on account of how they wish to be seen. They may for all we know be short-sighted, but these are specs for being seen in. Today, the left-hand lens has fallen out of my favourite pair of such specs. That’s what my specs are. They are all a put-on.
I trod upon what I thought must be a very thick and large toenail with my bare foot. I felt around and realigned my mind. The only sort of animal whose toenail it could be simply could not have fitted into this flat. I thought directly of our Latvian lodger, who often babysat me. That’s how my mother was able sometimes to leave me, I remembered all at once. I was left with the lodgers. One lodger was a sculptor in clay, his favourite subject crouching beasts, tigers in the main. His glaze of choice was an intense Middle Eastern turquoise. His hands and feet were interesting to me. He was a sweet man. I remember him clearly saying that at least the clay didn’t get under his nails. The nails of his feet and his hands had been pulled out under torture.
Unlike our lodger, my mother’s courtier was a fabulist. I would think this, wouldn’t I, but I feel it was less to my father that she was unfaithful than to the strictures of a certain Edinburgh that just couldn’t take her. If I look at this more closely, I’m aware that there was, together with the kenspeckle, right-and-proper city, a bohemian life stirring that she sensed but perhaps never quite managed to reach and that has since her death flowered orchidaceously.
It was not that my father did not love her. They were so unalike by extraction and temperament that it is evident, even to me, their child, that theirs was a real passion. It was just that he loved buildings too and the buildings of Scotland at that time were being blown up, knocked down, blasted, wrecked and swiped down by permission of the state in a way that called directly to my father’s dedicated curatorial heart. It was a love, and it was a love for life.
Several times, Mummy’s admirer turned up at our house dressed in costume. This wasn’t to fool me but to amuse her. I don’t think I crossed his mind. I seem to remember him turning up as Mr Toad once, but maybe that was a mufti-day. He certainly had a veteran open-topped vehicle of some sort, that necessitated the putting away inside our overcoats of my mother’s and my waist-length hair. Mummy had a circular thing like a fur hoop; it was called a ‘rat’. You pulled your hair through it and arranged a bun or a beehive or a twist or a chignon or a cottage loaf. You fixed the arrangement with long hairpins of the sort that come in handy in old black-and-white films, for lock-picking, car-starting, etc.
Just as she was an early user of the contraceptive pill, my mother was a pioneer hairdryer user. Like all her machines, it had a name and broke almost at once, to be half mended by her. One morning as we sat in my nursery, I on her knee, Morphy Richards sucked instead of blew and we spent a morning disentangling, you could almost say lock-picking, our long hair, hers pale blonde and mine more brown, from this space-age machine, with its cunning design suggestive of weaponry and air travel.
My mother followed with complete involvement the lives of many of the animals who lived at Edinburgh Zoo. We wept together when the elephant seal perished after choking on an ice lolly stick someone had given him. Why had they not given him a cornet? We observed the high-held pregnancy of Susu the giraffe. My mother tried to correct me for mourning the zoo’s elephant, Sally, more than my great-aunt Beatrice, known as Beadle. The defining triumph of my mother’s animally attached life was when, unanswerably, the zoo’s golden eagle, William, laid an egg. We both of us feared the salamander and the electric eel, looking at their flaccid yet potent inertia in absorbed disgust. My mother was warned off by zookeepers for hanging around the penguins and the ring-tailed lemurs. The keepers were right. She wanted to bring the creatures home with us. After she died, I was turfed out of the zoo for trying to catch a chipmunk. Actually, I wanted a pygmy hippo.
When you fly up to Edinburgh, if you look under the left oxter of the plane as it commences its descent into the airport, you will see what remains of my parents’ idyll. Its name was Craigiehall Temple and we went there on summer weekends towards the end of my mother’s life. It stands above the banks of the River Almond, a folly three storeys high growing among the wild white raspberries and enclosing beeches. Its stairs wound through its three octagonal rooms, the top one with a golden ceiling around whose cornice ran plaster ribbons held by plaster doves. It had a doll’s house portico and no amenities at all. My parents furnished it from street sales and Mrs V’s. The piano in the top room cost half a crown, of which there were eight in the pound. There was a large cane chair that extended and had a pocket for magazines and a place where you could put your sundowner. My father called this chair ‘the British Fascist’. The middle room was where we all slept on camp beds that rolled away in the day. I lay on mine in my sleeping bag pretending hour upon hour to be a caterpillar, then a chrysalis. I was usually asleep by the time I was due to break open as something more glamorous and winged. There was a chemical lavatory and at night, with much care, as though handling moths, my parents lit the gas mantles of hurricane and Tilley lamps. The smell of paraffin makes me feel sick, as do all petrol compounds including Cow Gum, which we used to stick down layouts at Vogue; but to the paraffin-nausea there is also a dizzy homesickness for me since it was the source of much of our heat and light when I was a child.
I don’t know how long we leased the Temple; I’m sure I want to think it was for longer than is true. In the end, my parents gave up mending after the vandals who would come and play football in the top room and turn my mother’s pearl-poppit jewellery out on to the floor looking for real stuff. We did spend one Christmas there and nothing mattered at all because the world was white and we were in a stone tower with no one near us and our dogs and our cats, log fires and drawing things. I had, too, one birthday there and remember thinking that the silky-shivering fields of barley all around were not green but blue and sometimes, under the wind, silver. My father made a rope swing for me and, insofar as my first childhood goes, this was the most physical my life ever got. I had a pet snail named Horatio and a stickleback named Lindsay. We lived very considerably on hot milk with crusts in. My mother and I liked salt with it, my father sugar. We went, as Scots say, enormous walks and I could tell my mother was pretending she was on a horse. The woods were full of smoking bluebells and white windflowers that, like the spirit they’re named for, lose breath when cut. It astonishes me, now that I am a mother, to observe in retrospect with how few elements both my parents could conjure magic. She was more confident at the Temple; she knew what to do in the country. She could name flowers and she knew how to kill a rabbit with a stone when it was wet and blind with myxomatosis. He was less romantic about the country-living side of things, probably because it was he who got to deal with the chemical lavatory, the log-sawing and the drive out to reach his wife’s dream-place. There was some other occlusion that I can only guess at; to do with my mother’s admirer?
To return to the epilimnion; this morning it came clearly to me that my father’s apparent absence of human demonstrativeness was just that, apparent. So intense were his emotions about buildings that he has left to me, and I believe to my half-siblings, a characteristic that sounds chilling–the capacity to be completely changed by a building, to be inhabited by it imaginatively and emotionally. Three times in my life I have been rescued by architecture. The flat where I’m staying now exemplifies this. At my blindest, I can still be consoled by the feel of the door handles in the studio where Liv and I work, their satisfying relationship to the human hand.
I used to be sorry for myself as a very small child because my father was so often away or, when present, actually utterly preoccupied by a building. It was only in my twenties that I even began to read this as not over-aestheticism but as deep humane connectedness. It is easy to misread so silent, so cultivated and so cool a character.
The history of architecture, the study of human habitations great and small, was not then fashionable. The National Trust was on a rescue mission, no mistake. The heritage business did not exist. Progress was the watchword; new was good. This leads me to a complicated personal muddle. It never crossed my father’s mind that what might be called a ‘social’ interest might be taken in great houses, but it may cross that of my reader, so much have the times changed. Great houses were being pulled down at the rate of one a week in Scotland, more in England, during my childhood; my father was, as it were, their protector, champion and physician. My father had no interest in who was who and indeed rather regretted anybody being anybody on account of his shyness about the personal. Naturally this made him an ideal friend of anybody who was used to being sucked up to; such people found themselves refreshed by his disinterestedness, his consuming interest. He engaged with houses, less so with home.
Where this is muddling in any account of my own life became clear to me in a horrible but revelatory way after the first ever interview I did when my novel A Case of Knives came out 1988. My trajectory, which has felt to me, naturally enough, just like my own life, is legible in various disobliging ways and it’s not lost on me that one of these involves what that genius Kingsley Amis calls hypergamy. He meant that a clever man who can make people laugh can marry any woman he wishes, even the most beautiful. It’s not the same for women. I mean that I started off what I think I still am, an Edinburgh girl, but somehow time and events have made me seem to be an Englishwoman; an Englishwoman, at that, of some privilege.
Then we did just stay in, visit, talk and think about houses. Some of these were small and some were not. What they had in common was that they were at that time imperilled.
Where were you when you first read Struwwelpeter? I don’t know if you can buy it now; it may be available from antiquarian or ‘special-interest’ booksellers. The first copy of it I found was certainly from the century before last. Its terrifying vigorous bossy pornography has set some of my rules for life. The red-legged scissor-man visited me only last night, oddly enough with the face of Richard Dawkins, with whom, how can one’s dreams be this trite, I was playing chess. Augustus the chubby lad–‘fat ruddy cheeks Augustus had’–is still, on bad days, my picture of myself, and, even when I got down to the pin man Augustus in my thirties, I still felt like the fat boy before he started rejecting his nutritious soup. I found Struwwelpeter under a bed I was sleeping in at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, built by Robert Adam on a cliff over the sea. Daddy was restoring it, quite considerably with his own hands; the castle has a high oval rotunda with a sweeping exaltation of staircase, arising with composure like written music up inside its shell. Daddy would be up a trembly ladder with his cigarette, re-limning cartouches or re-plastering crumbled bits of Vitruvian scrollwork. I was never, while he breathed, not worried about my father. When he died, there was at least that; he couldn’t fall off a battlement or dive through a skylight. Or, indeed, he couldn’t ever again get arrested for trespass or burglary.
The grateful nation of Scotland had just given a wing of Culzean in perpetuity to the American people for the use of their President should he find himself on the Ayrshire coast. I was left to potter about while Daddy worked. I had at the time a broken right arm and dislocated shoulder so I had learned to draw and write with my left hand. I was four but was very proud that I had a duffel coat made for a fourteen-year-old to accommodate my plaster. I was sleeping in President Eisenhower’s bed, or at any rate having a rest in it, when I found Struwwelpeter. Who the Dickens can have left it there?
Culzean sits on the Ayrshire coast in replete beauty among its gardens. We would always be there for daffodil time, later in Scotland than in England, and the creak of daffodils as I walked among them and smelled the sea from within the castle ramparts was safety itself. The spring of the broken arm I spent secretly memorising Struwwelpeter, being spoilt by the tea-room ladies who gave me glacé cherries, and sitting atop one of the stocky little cannons that defend this gracefully parodic masterpiece. I tried daily, failed daily, to lift a cannonball. The balls were arranged in neat pyramids beside each gun. In the evening after a sunny day they held warmth until the light had gone and if you licked them the rusty salt taste was delicious. It’s the taste of oysters. Blood, iron, iodine.
Around 1960, the National Trust for Scotland hired a cruise ship from a Norwegian shipping line and invited archaeologists and other enthusiasts to take a tour of the Hebrides on the SS Meteor. Particular attention was to be paid to brochs, early structures sometimes so early as to be hardly perceptible to the uninitiated. My father was overseeing some aspects of the tour and giving informative evening talks.
For a greedy only child who was the only child on the ship, it was a taste of the high life. One evening there really was a swan made of ice at the Captain’s table and, during the day, a childless American couple made much of me. We passed the great organ pipes of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave, we stopped at Iona where I heard the turf praying. No one had yet spoken directly to me of God, so I had built him for myself.
I had not become a liar yet and I am not a liar now, but I do believe that we made harbour at the island of Colonsay, disembarked and toured its surprising tropical gardens that surround the pretty open-armed big house. It only takes one more squeeze of my memory to have it believe that we met the handsome wife of the island’s laird. She was nice to me, my false memory tells me, because I was the only child aboard and she knew that plurality can nourish a being.
One of seven children herself, and mother of six, she seems in my mind’s eye to be wearing a flowered dress and gloves. Knowing what I know now, I realise I must have made it all up.
Perhaps on account of my father’s absent-mindedness about my mother’s birthday, I felt some unease around 3 September each year. On her thirtieth birthday, her cat Nancy Mitford fell two stone storeys from her bedroom. My superstitious mother really did take this as an ill omen, to which she often referred, to do with cats having nine lives but herself just the one and her birthday being the day the Second World War began. On my own thirtieth birthday, I was making supper when a large white rabbit fell from the sky. It screamed horribly, for its back was broken. Our neighbour from the flat next door kindly despatched it. Or should that be our neighbour from the flat next door despatched it, kindly?
A large and floppy-eared rabbit, the poor thing had been bought by the tenant of the top flat in our building as part of his pet python’s supper. The RSPCA visited in due course and found quite a selection of reptiles, including, tear-jerkingly predictably, a crocodile, diappointingly not resident in the lavatory.
Even at six, though, I had come to see that birthdays were the teeth of time and that things were not improving between my parents. My own high-summer birthday was celebrated with strawberries and cream. I was allowed a friend over. I chose a girl at random because I didn’t have a best friend yet. She was called Gillian. I thought her very dainty and pretty. When the time came for cake and strawberries and cream she cried and cried because she did not like what she called ‘real cream’. She was scared of my parents’ English accents and had met cream only once before, when it had been nice, between two pieces of meringue. It was ‘shop cream’. Real cream, she said, was dirty because it came from cow-juice and gave you an illness that made you cough up blood.
In embarrassment made worse by the need for festivity, my parents said goodbye to our poor little guest with her white socks and angora bolero. Later, the childish part of the day was over and the dinner table was full of adults, the blue and white plates, hot food. In the sky were both the sun and the moon. There was one more, and most beautiful present, a dress made of the best velvety cotton, cut exactly to my dimensions and embroidered inside its neck with lavender silk thread spelling out my full name Candia Frances Juliet in beautiful clear handwriting made with a needle. This gift was to go deeper with my mother than any tattoo on skin and I was one year closer to becoming a fat little liar.
A vacancy had been filled in our family, no larger than a needle’s eye.
LENS II: Chapter 2
In the life of the present I am reading, that is listening to, Paradise Lost. It is read by Anton Lesser, whose intelligent doubt-filled voice somehow emphasises the clouded giants and rivers of pearl he speaks of through the mind of Milton. So far in my blindness only my accountant has been sufficiently innocent and jolly to mention Milton to me, over the receipts.
How consoling and terrifying it was to hear the words: ‘the mind is its own place; and in itself / can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’. When first I became blind, Fram, who lives sixty miles away, suggested that I would never be quite alone because I have ‘my art’. I felt at once consigned to live off something that I was not talented or morally courageous enough to address. It was like telling a deer to build its future around raw meat. I’m doing my best and I’m quite aware that whatever my ‘art’ was, it will have been changed by my blindness. It remains to be seen, if I may use that word, how. I was never alone when I could read.
My parents and I visited England only for very specific familial reasons. I was always carsick and usually moving between anxiety and terror, relieved by daydreams, at this period all about being a doctor of great bravery during a selection of historical scenarios; I suspect I was usually disguised as a boy in these roles. My father had never passed a driving test, braked on corners and both parents smoked in the fuggy leather cupboard that was our car within. It wasn’t our car, really, but the National Trust for Scotland’s. This non-ownership was significant to my sense of our hardly holding on to our ledge in life.
Our reasons for visiting England included my parents’ bookseller friend Ben Weinreb and his family. Ben gave me the dummy of a book called London 2000 to draw in. Both date and city seemed lifetimes distant from me and my life; now we are years beyond it and Ben is dead. We visited other friends, a couple called Myrtle and Bear; he was known as Bear, since, as a diabetic, he couldn’t have sweet things. He too was a book dealer. Myrtle was a potter. There were some rather glamorous friends in Hampstead, he perhaps a sculptor, she certainly a sexpot. She struck me as the best sort of sexpot because her warmth went out in all directions, not merely to men.
The main reason that we ever went as a family to England was to visit grandparents. This was never comfortable. My widowed paternal grandmother lived at Windsor Castle in a tiny house in the cloister that nonetheless had a speaking tube to call long-departed servants. She had been a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital and bore the loss of her husband with a daily exercised Christian faith and ingrained modest fortitude. My grandfather, Ormiston Galloway Edgar McWilliam, a man whose temperament was made for peace and the arts of peace, fought as a teenager in the trenches in the Great War and was killed at the end of the Second World War while laying a smokescreen in the tail end of an aeroplane that was shot down, I believe, by our own side. Among his close friends was the painter Henry Lamb, and the letters between them show a relish for family life and a sensitivity to preposterousness both at war and in the smaller frays of family life. Lamb’s letters are often illustrated with quick sketches of his children being dried after a bath, paddling and so on. In one of his letters my grandfather describes tucking my six-year-old father back into bed after the child had been awoken by the flare and crackings of the Crystal Palace burning down, of which my grandfather gives an eyewitness account. My grandfather wrote and illustrated a published book before he was twenty. It is about the battle at Suvla. He must have known he was going to die then.
But he didn’t, or not in that war. I have the photographs of him as the captain of both rugby and cricket teams at Charterhouse. On the back of each photograph he has written in almost every case the date and place where each smiling young man in the fading picture had fallen in war.
His widow, my grandmother’s was not a false piety; she was a deeply believing Anglican whose daily notebooks used to shock me with their probity when I was ten and thought I knew a lot. Clearly I knew nothing. What decent child goes through the notebooks of her grandmother? Each day she recorded the church services she had attended, to whom she had written, and from whom she had received, letters, and how much money she had spent. The amounts were very small. She had an expressed quality of humility that enraged my mother and there is no doubt at all that my humble grandmother looked very far down upon her tall, ostensibly worldly daughter-in-law. The word, though it was never used, would have been ‘vulgar’. Certainly my paternal grandmother regarded my maternal grand parents as being ‘not quite…’ or, that damning deprecation, ‘too grand for us’.
My mother teased my father unkindly about his attachment to his mother and referred to her mother-in-law, also unkindly, as ‘Navy Blue Throughout’. These had been the words that my grandmother had replied with when my mother’s mother asked her what she would be wearing to the wedding that would conjoin their ill-matched families.
I called my paternal grandmother ‘Grand’mère’. I suspect this was to get over some difficulty about my own mother refusing to address her as ‘Mother’, as convention might then have asked. In due time, my stepmother would address her thus.
My mother’s own mother wasn’t that fond of Mummy either. My grandmother Clara was from theatre people; her own mother and grandmother, with their long beautiful legs, had been male impersonators on the stage. My maternal great-grandmother was a friend of Vesta Tilley. There are lost photographs of my transvestite ancestresses looking wonderful in tails and tights. How I wish I had them now. I packed them away in a trunk before I moved into my first marital home. The trunk was stored by a friend. The friend died sadly, surprisingly, dreadfully, young. How could I even mention my trunk of keepsakes to a family that had lost its head? As it is, the trunk of travesties sounds like the framing device for one of those dull novels that are meant to show us some flat tale of parallel lives separated only by time, whose moral is that we are all sisters under the skin. I worry, too, that my long-lost trunk may contain things of which I might be ashamed, satin trousers, proposals of marriage, lists of things to do that will resemble in every way those lists I write thirty-five years on.
Neither Mummy nor I inherited the great legs. My grandmother Clara’s first speaking role on the stage was as Little Lord Fauntleroy, aged five. She was so symmetrically and astoundingly elongated and so facially beautiful that she was continually stopped on the street. I have one photo of her, singing the part of Mad Margaret in Ruddigore. Considering the town’s later importance in my life, it is odd that I should, for the earliest part of it, have thought that ‘Basingstoke’ was an invented word that you employed to calm female lunatics. In the Mad Margaret photograph, my glorious grandmother’s glorious hair reaches to her calves. Later when she cut it off her father, who owned a string of theatres in the East End and on the South Coast, didn’t speak to her for months. He could eat twelve dozen oysters at a sitting. My grandmother Clara was known as Clare; she had two sisters, Ruth and Edna. Edna married and lived in Guernsey, impossibly exotic. I remember meeting Great-Aunt Edna only once, during a half-term out from my English school. We sat in some silence. Nobody’s accent sounded real except my grandmother’s self-invented grande dame tones. Poor, blind Ruth became a counter in my parents’ stony game that no one could win.
My father was a dab hand at playing ducks and drakes, making flat stones bounce off the, I suppose, epilimnion. As their marriage worsened, my mother would say, ‘Throwing stones can blind people. My Aunt Ruth was blinded, aged seven, for life by a boy throwing stones.’
You could see my father was getting bored with my mother. This boredom made her anxious. I was anxious for them both, with their separate damaged hearts. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that my father’s heart was literally fragile since he had had rheumatic fever during his National Service. He was meant to avoid physical risk and exertion; of course he didn’t. And since I lived with my face as far up my mother’s sleeve as I could get it, so as to smell her, I knew all about the heart that was worn there too.
Our visits to my maternal grandparents were approached with sublimated satire and some dread by my father. God knows how my mother felt. I think the person with whom she was easiest was Ernest, who had been her father’s soldier-servant and stayed on. She was adored by Ernest in a way that she was not by her parents to whom her gender, height, appearance and marriage were all a disappointment. Her father called her ‘Scruff’, not kindly meant.
The Folly, West Drive, Sonning-on-Thames, Berkshire, was England to me, and how it scared and stifled me. I could not then have placed what it was about this single-storey brick residence made, as I could never forget, with my grandfather’s blood, toil, tears and sweat, that took the air out of me but I never entered it without knowing I was going into another country where they did things differently. I recognised the claustrophobia when encountering it again in Elizabeth Bowen’s great wartime novel about escape from a certain England, The Heat of the Day. There is in it a house called Holme Deane, that is not The Folly, naturally, but has some of its effect.
I don’t eat ham or pork, sausages or bacon. I have a number of Jewish friends who really like sausages or will eat a bacon sandwich. My refusal to eat pig-meat started off as a gesture of wholly pointless identification, and maybe its motives aren’t as grand as I thought they were, when I was seven. Maybe they are a pettifogging, grandiose and utterly pointless boycotting of a certain England. I was scared of the flatness, the enclosure, the sense of being tinned. One could not, as in a home in the North, stretch and shout and breathe in and out. One was in a tin and on a shelf and set in place, the place to be, to sit and stay sat, set.
Ham and salad was what we had for lunch at The Folly, the ham like big wet hangnails, the salad made of units, one lettuce leaf, a quarter of tomato, a slice of egg, a pinch of cress, and that incontinent flitch of beetroot. My father loved Heinz Salad Cream and got his lunch down with the help of this; for pudding it was ice cream and tinned fruit salad. This was for the times a perfectly festive family meal. My mother had spoiled me by her Italianising of our life, her olive oil, aubergines, herbs. At The Folly, meals were taken because what you did at one o’clock was have lunch. It was almost an act of patriotism, a contribution to the resettlement of the world post-war, the healing deployment of routine against chaos or otherness.
My father, never a fan in other circumstance of healthy food, would ‘forget’ not to say, ‘Do you know, Clare, that Wall’s make pork pies too and that this ice cream is probably–delicious of course–pork fat with a bit of air whipped in?’ This was mean of him as he consumed quantities of Wall’s all his life, regarding it as a special delicacy not perhaps related to real ice cream, certainly not to ice cream in Italy or as made by the Italian immigrants to Scotland, Mr Lucca at Musselburgh, Mr Coia at the end of the Crescent, Mr Nardini at Largs, but certainly a treat in itself. This was the man, after all, who, when Lyons Maid brought out the new line in lollies they called a Fab, with hundreds and thousands on the chocolate tip, spent a weekend afternoon chasing one down.
I think my Christian name was a bother to my Henderson grandparents. It was ostentatious, foreign and pretentious; they had not heard it before. Grandpapa did not like what he did not know. Of course they were defensive; there had just been a world war; they had but the one child, who seemed to have decided to marry a man who was not only uninterested in making money but deprecated the process and the idea of a society arranged around it.
My grandmothers addressed one another as ‘Mrs Henderson’ and ‘Mrs McWilliam’.
It is all unspeakable and it was all about class, tone and education. My maternal grandmother, despite her beauty, a dowry that can re assure a man who purchases it that there has been a straight swap with no small print, was cleverer than she dared show her husband. He was older and controlled the purse-strings. She cleaned the house, starting at five in the morning every day, wearing what she called a ‘house dress’ before she changed into her proper–on show–clothes for that day’s part, and brushing her regrown waist-length hair one hundred times before dividing it into six, making plaits and coiling it up like Dorothea Brooke’s crown of hair in Middlemarch. She did the housework daily like this although there was Ernest’s wife Florrie to ‘do’ for her. Yet it was at The Folly that I found one of the books that changed my life. It had been my mother’s. It was a big coral-coloured cloth-bound book containing black-and-white reproductions of old master paintings and modern works with captions encouraging you to look harder into the picture. It had been published during the war and has something of the perspicacity of Kenneth Clark’s One Hundred Details. It was written by someone called Ana M. Berry and now belongs to my children. It must have taken faith in civilisation to produce such a book at such a time. Its name is Art for Children.
All her frustration my grandmother poured into systems of control that eventually grew inwards and harmed her. She was so proud; she would like it to be said of her that she never took a penny from the state, that her home was spotless, that she was a good wife, that she had kept her figure, that she wasted nothing. I think now that inside her stone self was a good deal more sweetness. I think that she was lonely and used pride and dignity to kill pain, in so doing closing over her heart an awful fist of calcification till it resembled flint and was not. All the creative dash she had been born with in the Mile End Road, where she’d kept her ponies as a little girl, she turned to producing light opera and operetta for the Sainsbury Singers of Reading, who became as family to her.
McWilliams think Verdi vulgar (I don’t. Don Carlos is my favourite). I learned about my father not caring for Verdi at the very start of the existence of the Sony Walkman. Daddy was in a ward of old men after his stroke. I flew north to see him with this exciting new invention and a stack of Verdi on tape, all in cellophane. Daddy, who had an immoderate passion for the NHS, was even quite chatty to me, and introduced me to a new friend he had made in the next-door bed.
‘Bob, this is my daughter, Candy’, said Daddy. ‘She is not a very keen swimmer as far as I know.’
He explained to me later, as he ate with real gusto his eleven o’clock lunch of Finnan haddock with extra bones and mashed tatties, ‘Bob likes girls. His daughter was a local swimming champion. He had an unfortunate experience with her and was sent to prison. He’s a charming fellow. Do you like Verdi, Candybox? I don’t think I could bear him at all up close.’ Long before it was fashionable to be keen on Handel as a composer of opera, Daddy was. I took my Verdi tapes back to England. We never had the time together to find that we both adored Britten and that I am nearing his feeling that Richard Strauss is the sexiest of composers, though I first met him in the Four Last Songs when I was sternly above sex, being fifteen and torridly in love, at that point, with one who was as remote and cool as the North Star.
I do not know why music should cause more curdling in matters of taste than literature, but so it sometimes seems. My parents’ parents each mistrusted the other’s form of musicality, taking it, unfairly and unsubtly, on either side, as a metaphor for much more.
I loved each of my grandmothers for physical reasons: my McWilliam grandmother had a nice little bob held in place with a kirby grip and read nineteenth-century novels to me; she had catch-phrases such as ‘Would patrons care for a cup of hot chocolate?’, and ‘Would you v.s.k. close the door?’ where v.s.k. stood for ‘very sweetly kindly’. My Henderson grandmother I loved for her waistline, her ankles, her deep voice, her extraordinarily stagey diction; but I knew to be afraid of her. She believed in posture, in scouring, and in never complaining. I never sensed that she had faith in anything but the joy music gave her and in discipline, while my other grandmother was suffused by her religious faith and knew and played ecclesiastical music.
We took a trip to the Highlands with my maternal grandparents. Grandpapa kept his Homburg hat on his left knee all the time he was in the car and on his head all the time he was out of it. He held on to the leather strap that cars had at the time in the back as we drove up to Blair Atholl and other photogenic castles. The idea may have been to convince my grandparents of the respectability of my father’s source of employment. My grandpapa Douglas Henderson was a pure Scot, his wife an Irish-Scot. It was impossible to detect any reaction to the operatic landscapes we were toiling among, no reaction save to changes of temperature in that claustrophobic vehicle. Although my grandmother on my mother’s side was a woman of habitual kindness, she was perhaps not kind to her own daughter. My grandfather simply was unkind to her. At over six foot, my mother was nonetheless a woman who expected to be knocked about.
We made forays to England, obedient to the proprieties of family life. Things at home were tightening up. My father crashed his car on the edge of Duddingston Loch, upon whose frozen epilimnion the Reverend Walker serenely skates in the famous painting. The car was of course not his but that of the National Trust for Scotland. Daddy had been driving on ice, and fast. There was but one tree on the edge of Duddingston Loch and that tree it was that saved my father’s life; the car’s registration number was LSD 414, in those days when LSD stood for money: pounds, shillings and pence.
I was beginning to start trying to stay the night with friends in order to avoid either the silence when he was not there or the shouting when he was. My mother cannot have been easy. She longed to work, she was lonely and dislocated; and yet she continued to pour into me the sort of imaginative care that may so easily be put out by what we nowadays have learned to recognise as depression. For there is no doubt that my mother was a woman in despair at a time when divorce except among the uninhibited rich or the very free-thinking was an extinguishing scandal and when a woman’s portion was her husband’s.
There is the awful irony that when a marriage is most in danger the couple behaves in exactly the way guaranteed to rile, madden and repel one another. If only they might be nudged to recover their actual as opposed to monster selves, the marriage might yet survive.
In this case, such a thing was not possible and did not happen. Matters were moving too fast, in ways that I could sense but could not know. It was a little ship, someone else was coming aboard and my mother took what I am convinced she thought was the most logical, kind and unselfish step that she might take for the sake of her husband and her child. She jumped ship. She couldn’t see another way.
I had always been a pamphleteer, boring my father with various documents that I had carefully written out in extravagant proclamatory hands. I remember writing a lot about the tensions between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, and I devoted screeds to the long dying and eventual death of Pope John XXIII. I never wrote a word about this disaster nearer to home.
My mother loved clothes that sparkled. She made a mauve silk ballerina-length skirt and bought to match it a mauve polo neck shot with silver. It was her best party outfit and before putting the polo neck over her face she would wrap her whole head in a chiffon veil so as not to mark the polo neck with make-up. She spent days deciding whether or not to wash these garments by hand with Lux Flakes or to take them to the, costly, dry cleaner.
Without conscious intention I wore on the occasion of my engagement to my first husband, a mauve silk ballerina-length skirt with a mauve sparkly T-shirt. Someone, of course, spilt red wine all over me and I remembered then that I must not send these symbolic clothes to the dry cleaner or they would come back only after I had died. I hand-washed them and they are my daughter’s now.
I suppose my mother’s sparkly mauve party outfit went, all nicely dry-cleaned, to the shop known as the ‘Dead Women’s’, where she did a lot of clothes shopping herself during her short spell as a living woman.
To be asked to be stepmother to any child must be an alarming prospect. To be asked to be the stepmother of a grief-stricken solitary with nearly a yard of hair must be devastating. Nonetheless, at the age of twenty-seven, in the April after the October of my mother’s death, my Dutch stepmother Christine Jannink took me on.
Christine’s parents, Dutch though they were, lived in another England, very far from The Folly in Sonning, on a farm that reached down to the banks of the River Wye and ran to other routines entirely. The routines at Llangetts, near Ross-on-Wye, ran on a mixture of ultra-English and ultra-Dutch lines that were to me both exhausting and really quite exciting.
At the wedding reception I sat under the festive table on which lay a long pink fish taken from the river, and I eavesdropped. The flowers my stepmother had chosen for her bouquet were white and yellow freesias and also, more unusually, the velvet black Iris tuberosa, more usually known as the widow iris.
The men wore buttonholes of this same velvety flower. It remains, peculiarly, one of the flowers that I most love and I first saw it on that day. It is associated with the best in my life; I thank its gardener for that, and my stepmother too.
My stepmother’s clever needle had run me up a coffee-coloured raw-silk frock. Unlike almost all brides, but just like an ugly sister, I got fatter and fatter as the wedding approached. My stepmother let in a cunning broderie anglaise panel across my stout front.
Although I was never able, without complicated feelings of disloyalty towards my mother, to address my stepmother as ‘Mum’, as she wished, I was able to call the grower of those irises ‘Mama’. I loved my bossy Dutch step-grandmother at once and with passionate feeling. Here was someone, I felt, as I sulked under the long pink and silver fish and the concealing damask cloth that covered the festive wedding-breakfast table, someone with kindness and style who had got through something very dreadful, the war, occupation, flight, and survived with love to spare.
Oddly for an only child, I had never had an imaginary friend. But now I was to have a real, pretty, new friend, about whom I’d heard such a lovely lot.
We had first been brought together, my new friend and step-aunt, two years my junior, the Christmas before. It cannot have been easy for any of the adults but they acquitted themselves nobly. Nicola, my stepmother’s adored baby sister, was the fourth and late child of her handsome parents. So special was she that she had been given the first name ‘Engelbertha’, literally brought by the angels.
She was being asked to love a gigantic ruffian in a kilt, two years older and ten sizes bigger than herself, with an inner life populated very considerably by the ancient world, North Britain and death.
Nicola no sooner looked than she loathed. I no sooner looked than, I guess, I envied. We were to learn over the next few years how veritably to torment one another.
Rushing up to the surface of today, no doubt in shame, I should tell you that while Liv has kept her chair at the computer, I have vacated mine at her side. This has been taken over by one of the two other personalities as well as my own that poor Liv has to deal with daily as we write this book together. Rita, the Russian Blue cat, who has the sagging undercarriage common to spayed queen cats, has turfed me out of my chair and I’m on a piano stool. Yesterday her resting place of choice was the so-comfortable computer keyboard, so we had to exile her. Today she is taking her revenge. The other cat, Ormiston, whom Rita disdains, and who resembles a minky koala bear with an owl’s face and leaves tennis-ball-sized clots of fluff everywhere, is outdoors pretending to be a dog. His loyalty, kindness and obedience are among the many reasons that Rita despises him. She takes much more seriously her feline duties, being spiteful, sneaky, narcissistic, and almost purely selfish. Her triangular face, large turquoise-emerald eyes, long legs and ever-questioning silver tail mark her out as what she is, a beauty from Archangel, a double-coated ship’s cat, used to men and to small territory. She very clearly prefers men to women and cannot abide the smell of any products made by Elizabeth Arden. I run all my scents past her for approval. If only she did the same for me.
Smell becomes very important as sight is lost and one scent that at once wakens me in the night is that of Rita when she has decided to take a territorial stand against the feral cat who lives in the Royal Hospital Gardens that are over the wall from the garden of where I am living. Cat’s pee wakes me up as quick as a flash. At the last count, there were at least thirty-nine foxes in the Royal Hospital Gardens. Today, as I write (Liv is ill so I’m tapping blindly myself), it is the first day of the RHS Flower Show, so the foxes will have much new excitement to look at and chew on and tonight a fox may look at a Queen.
My poor stepmother had to deal with a stepchild itself almost feral. There was so much that, aged nine, I simply did not know was essential to the sustaining of normal everyday life. Brought up in a large prosperous house with siblings and staff and a mother with a talent for domestic organisation, my stepmother was faced with a sullen lump who knew nothing of the arts of husbandry or of the activities of any proper, let us say accompanied, child. As she understood it, I did not even know how to play properly. Her own father had won a gold medal for hockey at the Olympics, she had played at junior Wimbledon, her brother had been athletic at Winchester, as a family they went to Switzerland each year for what they called the ‘wintersporting’. Her nursery life had involved games not of the imagination alone but with equipment and rules and competition. I was physically inert and evinced not even much mental movement. My stepmother called me once the least curious child she had ever known. We were walking along the Crescent at the time. I was of course thinking about myself and how I was perceived (I was by then in double figures). Did people think I was the au pair? I was wondering at that precise moment, the moment of my condemnation for incuriosity. But that was to come.
The first thing that had to go was my fat. Christine instituted the healthy habit of a run before breakfast. She monitored my diet with maternal care. My father and she made an attractive pair of newlyweds. My father always looked younger than his age and they were patently content in and respectful of one another’s company.
But there was me. Even as I diminished in size, I did not diminish in number and this cannot have been easy for either of them.
Thorough regime change commenced. My mother’s cats were destroyed, her yellow Labrador Katie sent to go and live therapeutically with the inmates of a lunatic asylum. I was given a blue budgerigar, whose death by careless starvation remains on my conscience. Nicola had at the same time been given a green budgerigar that lived a long and, one can only presume, happy life. Budgies don’t confide much. I named mine Sebastian. I do not like the proximity of birds; they are like escaped hearts in full panic, beating, beating, unable to help you to help them, unsusceptible to rational appeal, flickering, filamented, electric, random.
I was learning systematically to lie. Frequently these lies were pointless, for example that I had to stay late at school on account of a play I was in, when of course there was no play and I just didn’t want to go home.
I was hopeless with money so my stepmother initiated an account book; we did the accounts after Saturday breakfast, after my run and before I cleaned the brass. Our front door had the numerals 2 and 7 in brass, a letterbox, a large handle, a keyhole-plate, and to the right, set in stone, a square bell-pull of chaste Georgian elegance. There was the brass threshold cover and all the internal door handles and elegant acorn-tipped window raisers to do as well. I preferred using Duraglit wadding to Brasso and a cloth, because I was wasteful with Brasso and tended to splash it on surrounding painted areas.
The large square bell-pull was most rewarding. Was this because the neighbours could see that I was a good girl really, as I polished, those Saturday mornings?
Together, with their pared-back taste, my father and his new wife overhauled the house that had been so reassuringly stuffed and quite possibly unhygienic in my mother’s time. New spaces were made; a modern airiness not unfaithful to the Georgian whole prevailed. The tatty affectations of my mother’s gardening were levelled and a new aptness of intelligent planning for a growing family introduced.
Routine appeared where it had very probably culpably never been before. A goat’s bell was rung at mealtimes. Grace was said. Appropriate napery attended every meal. I laid the table for breakfast before I went to bed. A wedding gift of good china, navy blue vine leaves on ridged white porcelain, was the everyday service. There was other, Dutch, ancestral china for dinner parties. My stepmother’s magical needle confected dressings for every tall window and my father stencilled or carpentered witty architectural effects throughout the now, it seemed, much larger house.
In time for this largeness, the couple’s first baby was born, at home, my half-brother Nicholas Charles, named for Nikolaus Pevsner. We had become a churchgoing family, attending the highest of high churches in Edinburgh, Old St Paul’s. Some Sundays Father Chancellor, with or without his curate Father Holloway, would come for Sunday lunch. I loved Father Chancellor with his beard, big voice and golden robes. He was later said to have taken to drink. Father Holloway became Bishop of Edinburgh, then the chief Episcopalian bishop in Scotland, then lost his faith and is now a prolific writer and opinion-former. He gave the address at my father’s funeral though, quite possibly by arrangement with God, I never got to hear it, as will become clear.
The density of the frankincense, dispersed during the very long Sunday services by the swinging ball of the thurifer, was difficult for my poor stepmother during her two pregnancies and she sometimes felt faint. I developed a taste I have never lost for the ritual and intoning and chanting and bobbing and bowing of the High Church and indeed it is very confused with my faith, which is, as I write, giving me some trouble.
My first conscious taste of alcohol was after a church service. I am unconfirmed and have therefore never tasted Communion wine, and, even should I become confirmed, I shan’t taste it (confirmed alcoholics avoid the wine and take only the Host). This liquor was in an eggy Dutch drink named advocaat, to be eaten off a spoon, so guileless was the substance that was to reduce me as low as you can get this side of whoring and the grave. As many drinkers boringly say, I didn’t like the taste of the drink. I loved the Roka cheese biscuits that looked like the wattle fences on my toy farm in the blue and yellow tin that had in Dutch the slogan ‘De andere half van uw borrel’ (the other half of your cocktail).
My half-sister Anna-Sophia came next. Both my half-siblings are a charming combination of their parents and I can never believe or understand why they are so nice to me. I like them a lot and we stay in touch in the usual way; by not getting in touch. Nicholas, who has cycled across the Ukraine, made maps in Afghanistan and is on speaking terms with the North and the South Pole, is perhaps the most outstandingly silent of us though he will suddenly send a book of Tanzanian recipes or a picture postcard from Thule. Anna and I have been known to share a meal. We share the same jokes but we don’t need to talk about it. I think we loved our father from something of a similar angle.
After my father’s death, I was stopped in the street in Oxford by a handsome young man who asked me the way to somewhere. I started to describe it in the usual manner, giving helpful details but not very long on such things as north and south.
‘Do you mind my asking this,’ said the young man, ‘but are you related to the McWilliams?’
It turned out that he was the doctor who had had to break the news of my father’s sudden death at work to my stepmother. It was the precision and uselessness of my directions that gave him the instinct that told him who I was.
I often try to imagine how it must have been for my stepmother faced with me. All I wanted to do was read, and reading doesn’t shake off the fat. To her credit, she got me out on to the street. I skipped and skipped and skipped and skipped and skipped. There were plenty of rhymes that went with the skipping:
French Almond Rock
Bread and butter for your supper’s all your mother’s got!’
I skipped a minimum of one thousand whirls of the rope a day. My record at backward skipping was 305, and, fortunately enough, I forget the record for forward skipping. People did play more in the streets in those days, it’s true, and not just something said to make today’s young feel bad. We played hopscotch, we stilt-walked, and my stepmother even taught me to ride a bicycle. It is unimaginable to a person of Dutch extraction that any human being cannot ride a bicycle.
Dreadfully, because I felt and expressed no gratitude, only fear, I became the owner of an expensive new bicycle and soon I was cycling to school and guiltily getting off and pushing the bicycle and walking whenever I could. This bicycle, a generous gift from my stepmother, remained in my life all through Cambridge, when I used it once, and right up till the time when I worked at Vogue. Its last ever ride was between Warwick Avenue and Vogue House. Even in the nineteen-seventies, Hyde Park Corner was challenging to a wholly uncoordinated cyclist, attired as a matter of course as a flower fairy in buttoned boots and skeletal on a diet of vanity and fear.
I started to dread going home after school because I knew that I would in my absence have fallen short. Something quite evidently needed to be done with me, aged nine, and my stepmother rose honourably to the challenge. I could not have gone on as I had under my mother’s sway, just reading and drawing and emoting and inventing worlds, completely certain of at least one person’s love, dawdling in affection’s shade.
My stepmother did a good job. I did get thinner and I am quite a good housewife, though I do not have her gift for making of any space a dustless geometric zone of purity. I am like my mother and like my daughter, a collector of clutter, but I have a nice healthy case of obsessive-compulsive disorder and replicate many of the routines that I learned at my stepmother’s hand.
The really bad thing was the lying, and that was of course, of my own invention; QED. It hurts to lie, damages the understanding of the self and bruises any love that might be about. I seldom lied to give myself importance. I’m not interested in boasting. I’m afraid I lied in order to find some peace, which of course I did not, and in order to find love, which I then found on terms that were not healthy, or, rather, it was not love that I found, whenever I thought I had.
I just wanted to be left alone to read. I did not seem to be able to become the kind of child that was familiar to Christine, that she and her siblings had been, that Nicola, so close to me in age, evidently was.
My father and his new family were relieved of me during the holidays by the inspired intervention of my step-grandmother Mama, who would have me to stay either in Herefordshire or, in the summer months, at the progress of Jannink family houses across Holland.
It is said that Scottish writing cannot be separated from the idea of doubleness, and I feel it to be so as I speak private things aloud to Liv. I hear the echoes as I confess in my unbelonging-anywhere voice in this tall cold English room.
The first time I tasted milk fresh from the cow was at Christine’s parents’ farm. They had Jersey cows. Mama brought me a mug of milk in bed. She took it for granted that she would listen to my prayers. No one had asked this of me, or given this chance to me, before. I was enchanted. When she told me off I could at once see her point of view. It must have been upsetting for her to see her own daughter struggling with the ugly child whom she herself could handle with ease.
I took a sip of the milk after I’d said my prayers to Mama. It was absolutely disgusting, so rich, so sappy. Like little Gillian at my unsuccessful birthday tea, hating the real cream, I longed for town milk, milk, at any rate, that did not proclaim so gutsily its proven ance from a cow.
Mama and her husband, whom I called Papa with a long last ‘a’, were from different parts of Holland, she from Amsterdam and he from a large estate near Enschede, close to the German border. She had been an actress and had the poignant features all her long life of a sort of bespectacled Ava Gardner. He was tall, blond, handsome, beautifully dressed, very quiet and subdued, by the time I knew him at all well, by Parkinson’s disease. This meant that Mama had to undertake not only the feminine side of English country life but, increasingly, the running of the farm and the decision-taking, all of it. Her care of her husband disguised itself as nagging. In fact she was keeping him alive by making him stay as fit as he could by not giving in and letting her do everything. She forced him to feed himself, to do his buttons, to walk tall. Yet again she was evidencing imaginative, maternal, love, in this case to her unmanned and, possibly, previously dominant husband.
Every summer until I ran away Mama drove Papa, Nicola and me to one of the seaports for the Hook of Holland or for Rotterdam. She managed everything, from teaching me how to pack a suitcase, to the passports, the seasickness and carsickness, my heavy resistance to Nicola, Nicola’s distaste for me, the maps, the driving, the shopping, the cooking. She even got me to play cards.
I had long been afraid of card games. At some point in my life before Christine, I had met playing cards; I put about the untruth that my religion forbade me to play with them. I was simply bored by them and very likely too innumerate and idle to take an interest.
The first part of our Dutch summers was always spent at the Jannink seaside holiday house, Duinroosje, which means Little Dune-rose. The dune rose is what we know as Rosa rugosa, whose tomatoey hips make excellent jelly and whose pips make good itching powder. Papa was one of seven children and there were many pretty little blonde cousins. Naturally Nicola spoke Dutch to her cousins. Naturally, too, my Dutch took a while to get off the ground. There was the additional problem of my height. Nowadays Dutch people are often tall but it did not seem to be the case then and once or twice there was real trouble when I was queuing, after our early morning swim in the sea, for our daily buns or kadetjes, because people thought I was German. On our kadetjes we had little seeds of anise in sugar, called muisjes, that is, little mice. They were pink and white and blue. When an heir to the House of Orange was born, Mama said, all the muisjes in Holland were orange. There was chocolate hail for breakfast too, chocolade hagelslaag. The softness of the Dutch language is delightful and my step-grandparents’ English was winningly softened by their Dutch accents, so they said ‘of’ for ‘or’ and ‘v’ for ‘w’. It is a language I have long ceased to resent, though for some summers I felt it shut me out, till I got the ear for it. Italy had come more easily to me, but Holland is quite deep in me by now.
Mama managed the business of feeding me while controlling my fatness with the kind of commonsensical grace she brought to every aspect of managing me. Dutch food is delicious and highly calorific, featuring much bread and butter, plenty of red meat, pancakes the size of sunhats, snacks between meals, these snacks baffled under drifts of icing sugar or slathered with mayonnaise and washed down with bottles of stuff the milkman delivered called Chocomel, which is just chocolate milk. Mama wilily discovered that what I like best in the way of food is herrings and fresh fruit and that I loved to swim in the sea; and so she too helped reduce in dimension this seal-like child that had been washed up on her family’s shore.
It was at Duinroosje, where we lay having a rest, as we had to every afternoon, in the yellow-painted metal-tubing bunks, that Nicola told me that she came from a different, more elevated, social class than I did. She explained this in terms of the size of her parents’ garden and the amount of land lying thereabouts. I looked at the metal rungs of the yellow ladder that led down from my top bunk to hers below. I’d never really seen class in terms of stiff rungs or layers, but of continual change and adaptation, as something rather diverting, like picking up shells on a beach, knowing that each one was different, identifying how so, but not saying which was more or bigger or better, or, indeed, less, smaller or worse.
Soon enough, love distracted from class. We were at the next house on the summer progress through Holland, Springendaal. Set in a pine forest close to the German border, this was a gingerbread playhouse for plutocrats built in delicious brown wood and curtained nattily in red and white. This was the house where I learned to put off going to the lavatory for as long as two weeks. It is a trick that is unprofitable; you might say it backfires. But I was scared to go into the woods and crouch and dig and bury. Who was watching? Only God, but still I imposed this mannerly constipation upon myself, afraid of nothing more than my own body. It was merely a physiological version of what I was up to within more perilous recesses in my mind.
Other matters of hygiene were also mortifying. Nicola and I bathed, each with her own enamel basin of cold water, her flannel and soap, out of doors in the heather every morning in the slanty light among the cobweb-silvered heather. She was a perfect little cherub and I was shape-shifting in ways I would rather not notice myself, never mind have anyone else notice.
The air at Springendaal made up for everything. It was as I imagine the air must be in The Magic Mountain, bracing and curative. Although the land was flat the air was drinkable it was so refreshing; something to do with cleanliness and those inhospitable but sweetly breathing pines above.
The family’s large house outside Enschede was named Stokhorst, and it was here that the matriarch, Oma Jannink, lived, to whom, each summer, we paid our respects. It was a high cube of a house with yellow shutters and deep rooms, the kitchen painted that furious strong Dutch blue to keep off flies. The toy cupboard at Stokhorst was marvellous, stuffed with Edwardian dolls, complex tin merry-go-rounds and wonderfully articulated puppets. When we stayed there, the maid, uniformed, brought dry biscuits called beschuiten with strawberries squashed into them and fresh milk when she came to wake us up. Nicola and I generally shared a room.
It was with her cousin Alexander that I fell in love, in no very serious way, but it gave me a repository for my longing to be unaccompanied and to daydream and make up stories. Maybe this longing to be alone is just an attribute of only children, though I’m dead certain Nicola longed to be without me too. No one named Alexander can ever be quite unheroic. I chose Alexander to love because I was really in love with Alexander the Great. The very thought of him at his lessons with Aristotle or astride Bucephalus gave me a thrill.
Nearly all the worst fights that Nicola and I had in our childhood were semantic. She was practical, able, efficient and literal-minded. I was in a place where I could not express myself in language and took refuge in being dreamier and more in-turned than ever.
Nicola knew how to get a rise. She would talk Dutch to herself when we were alone in a room together, or (and she scored every time with this one) she would start to talk about the complete pointlessness of learning Latin and Greek. I still rise to this today. I feel my glands swell, my lecturer’s voice settle in my throat, the old arguments conjugate themselves within my enraged brain. Was it for this the Spartans fell? Tell them, passing stranger.
You can see Nicola’s point.
So we riled one another through these summers and became, probably, quite fond, each of each. I remember that I told her when I had the frightening experience of an elderly maid at Stokhorst getting me to put my tongue into first her parrot’s and then her own mouth. The parrot was an African Grey and its tongue the colour of an unopened black tulip. It was quite dry. The maid’s mouth was wet.
The happiest house, which I remember with love and where the atmosphere of devotion was so strong that one almost dared not spoil it by lazily falling into our bad sniping patterns, was named De Eekhof. This was the home of Christine’s Tante Lida and Oom Nico. They had no children, yet the house was arranged as though for children and the disciplines and routines led to mental ease and stimulation in a way that any family might envy. The maid Helli wore a white kerchief and everything about the kitchen and the dining room and where we played seemed clean but not sterile, and, which is irresistible to a child, even to a very tall one, all our equipment was one size smaller. We played, after our morning swim in the pool that was simply a sandy crater at the end of the garden, with a toy grocer’s shop, its name het Winkeltje (the little shop), that had come from the store of toys at Stokhorst. There were enamel weighing scales, little iron weights, jars of dry goods, small wax paper bags, churns, dippers, ladles, and carved wooden vegetables of every kind. Even when we were too old to play with this toy it was irresistible to us and peace would break out between Nicola and me. There were gravelled walks and flopping buddleia covered with tortoiseshell butterflies. At rest-time, we really did rest, like happy children tired out by play in some ideal of family life. Tante Lida and Oom Nico were cultivated, curious and sophisticated. They left their considerable collection of paintings to the Dutch people. I remember walking dripping after a swim past a picture that I know now was by Monet. There was no fuss. No one ticked me off for my wet footprints. Halfway up the stairs on the way to our bedroom was an automaton we were allowed to play with once a day each. You wound it up and then the real, stuffed, fez-wearing monkey under the glass cloche would begin to do magic tricks, lifting a bowl to reveal a different surprise every time.
The last time I went to De Eekhof I was reluctantly adolescing. Oom Nico took me for a walk. He had read my diary, in which I had written that I was so unhappy I wanted to die.
‘It is a waste of time,’ he said, ‘to be unhappy. And at your age it should be impossible. Believe me, I know. One feels important if one is unhappy. But it could all be so much worse, you know.’ He had the great gentleness to mention no other diary, no other unhappy teenage girl, to be found in Holland no time at all ago.
Oom Nico had hairs growing out of the end of his nose, and large, sad eyes. He wore bifocal spectacles that magnified these eyes. He was bald and was driven to the factory by a chauffeur. The factory made fragrant bales of cotton and printed it gaily. Nicola and I were allowed to choose a bolt each for Christine to sew summer frocks for us. We chose, that last summer, after lunch. Helli had made biftek and afterwards she had drained yoghurt in a cheesecloth and served it with strawberries that had got hot in the sun so that they were between fruit and jam. Nicola chose a white cloth punched with lacy flowers. I chose something pink, feminine and rosaceous, as though for curtains or some large expanse. I chose it for the girl I would have been had I been a better girl. My lukewarm but useful, merely theoretical, crush on Nicola’s cousin Alexander transferred its points completely to devotion and gratitude when Oom Nico said, ‘You will be pretty, you know.’
He had found me out. I had always known that it was lucky I was good at schoolwork because I was so ugly. The odd thing is, why did I not think that this relation, this non-relation, of mine was telling the truth? After all, I couldn’t imagine him telling a lie. During those summers in Holland, I too took a holiday from telling lies.
LENS II: Chapter 3
The first large family in whose cousinhood I tried to affix myself was the great clan of Mitchisons. It was a joke in scientific circles at the time that more than half a ton of human flesh answered to the name Professor Mitchison. Naomi Mitchison, the sister of J.B.S. Haldane, was the matriarch and pivot of the family. She lived to be one hundred and three, the oldest Old Dragon that doughty prep school has yet produced, and one of the first baby Dragons. Doris Lessing has described in her autobiography the atmosphere of intellection at Carradale, the Mitchison house in Argyll. I doubt if I can match her for I recall the passage as absolutely spot on and now of course can’t find it, though maybe I should learn to delegate now I am blind. That would make a drastic and rather late character change.
Naomi was known by her children, her grandchildren and her friends as ‘Nou’. One son, Geoffrey, had died in childhood from meningitis. The death is described by Nou’s friend Aldous Huxley in his novel Point Counter Point. There were five remaining children, Denny, Murdoch, Lois, Avrion, Valentine. Murdoch was Professor of Zoology at Edinburgh, his wife Rosalind Professor of History. Rosalind was known as ‘Rowy’. Rowy had been a close friend of my mother and her daughter Harriet was my friend; each pair of friends was as dissimilar in the same way as the other. That is, where Rowy was effective, certain, dark and convinced, my mother was indecisive, unsure, blonde and ductile; the same was so of Harriet and myself. Harriet’s younger sister Amanda went on to become a journalist who came from the Independent Magazine to interview me. When she was a refinedly pretty little girl, I had, with Harriet, tormented Amanda by telling her long, plotless, essentially theologically based stories about a monster we called the King Devil. I can’t think where we got him from, since the Mitchisons were sternly rationalist and unbelieving. Harriet’s reading tastes ran to The Lord of the Rings, which I could never hack, though I was a sucker for Narnia, so it looks as though I should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the King Devil. When Amanda came to interview me, I felt it only right to give her, in every regard, the upper hand. I was ashamed of my beastly stories in the dark at the commodious Edinburgh house of her childhood. The interview was perfectly nice, though it implied, which may be possible, that my mother’s suicide was the result of incompetence rather than volition. I’ve always comforted myself with the thought that what my mother did was what my mother wanted, but maybe it is good, if sore, to keep an open mind.
Harriet and I both wanted to be doctors. Harriet became one and I still think about it. That’s a difference between us.
The village of Carradale lies in a bay on the eastern edge of the Mull of Kintyre. In recent years, it has been tragically newsworthy because almost every member of its small fishing fleet was drowned. That guts a community for generations.
The big house was harled and painted white, pepperpotted and roofed in slate the colour of lavender when dry, of thunder when wet. There were never, it seemed to me, fewer than twenty adults in the house at a time, always a few babies and then there were middlies and, what we were becoming, teenagers. That I did not fall completely into internal delinquency is almost certainly due to the Mitchisons, Rowy at the core of it, but all those others each of whose names I can remember, with their faces, for ever, at the age they were when I was turning twelve, though most of them now are professors themselves and members of the intelligentsia, whatever it is now called. Certainly not the ‘chattering classes’. They were nothing as trivial as chatterers, rather forceful, indeed irresistible, asserters.
During our teenage years, we were sent to sleep at The Mains, the Scots word for the home farm. This was a sensible decision. Dressing for dinner took me about four hours, though I’ve never met a vain Mitchison, including those who possessed beauty: Clare and Kate, Mary, Valentine and Josh. It was in the bathroom at The Mains that I first saw underwear made for the delectation of men rather than at the behest of spinsters. It had been hand-washed, evidently, and was dependent from the taps of a washbasin in the freezing bathroom. It was at once very small and very emphatic, lacy, red, and belonging to the girlfriend of Francis Huxley.
The drawing room in the big house was full of the sort of silence that is made by eight or nine good-quality brains working hard and separately, absolutely not a library silence, more like being in a vast digestive system. Small, fierce Naomi sat typing at her desk that looked out over the unsmooth Highland lawn, a hedge of Rugosa roses, the path to the sea, Carradale Point itself and the sea beyond. She wrote well over ninety books. The light in the room was low and seemed to be green. There was a sizeable mobile made of metal fish that very probably interpreted Darwinian theory.
In the plain, loaded shelves was a tan first edition inscribed to Nou by its author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, on top of which I had one Easter found a chocolate egg hidden. This was a rare success for me since the annual egg-hunt clues had as a rule a scientific and mathematical bias, with a strong seam of Scottish history. After Nou’s death, this volume went up to auction and I saw it again in a newspaper; what it was and what it meant to me so separate.
Nou was, in addition to being an Argyllshire councillor, though devoid of any whiff of landlordism or lairdliness, Mother of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana, and frequently one or more of her honorary Bakgatla children would be staying at the big house.
Nobody said, but Nou, as well as coming from the intellectual purple, was also, though it infuriated her to be addressed thus, Lady Mitchison. Her late husband had been made a Labour life peer. I mention this at all only to introduce the ticklish subject of what to call the people who worked for her, since she was at once so clearly the product of at least two kinds of aristocracy and a good old-fashioned Red.
One evening we older children were asked by Percy, who did the gardening, although one did not call him the gardener, to gather caterpillars from the kitchen garden. The cabbage white has a caterpillar that is fat and striped like a wedding cravat; when you pick it up it looks interested at both ends. We took our catch, if you can call anything as docile as a few bowls of caterpillars a catch, in to Nellie, who certainly was not the cook.
The caterpillars, dipped in flour and nicely fried, appeared as the first course that night in deference to the palates of Nou’s guests from Botswana.
The dining table was enormous, thick, not polished but raw wood, aged, stained, practical; it was a rectangle with curved ends; there must be a geometrical term for this figure but I lack it. I do not mean an ellipse. There seemed in that atmosphere of intellectual certainty so little that was elliptical in the way my father was in person and in the way his mind worked. I am ashamed to say that I escaped from his intelligent failures of certainty to the Mitchisons’ apparent categoricalness with the cowardice that goes with a callow mind aspin. My father’s way offered no shelter, while that of the Mitchisons offered much of it and, or so it seemed, to spare. I was, as I am not now, sick for certainties. I now find them infertile and too often rooted in prejudice.
I wonder now whether I was ever actually invited at all to Carradale or whether I just hid within one family or another’s capacious kindness: Rowy was kind all through my youth in a sort of improvement on her late friend, my mother’s, way. An improvement, I mean, in that Rowy was alive. Nou’s daughter-in-law Lorna, married to Av (Nicholas Avrion in full, meaning the Victory of the People), came from Skye and always seemed to be carrying a baby in her arms. She never raised her voice and had the balanced selflessness that comes to only very few mothers. She was impossible to lie to. It was Ruth, Naomi’s oldest daughter-in-law, whom I loved and to whom I clung like stickyweed for years, though she never complained about it, even when I started sticking to her in the South as well. She was not a physically large person, nor did she shout. She seemed to see a great deal and to interpret it correctly but in silence. She was a doctor, musical, wore slim brown or grey shirts and sat at a tangent to the table. She was tangential in manner yet direct in thought; a mode I find increasingly appealing the longer I live. I wish she were alive now; hers was a singular note amid so much information and embodied, biological almost, confidence.
At the far end of the dining room was a sizeable brown painting, thickly impastoed. It was known as ‘The Goat in the Custard’, and worked surprisingly well as a splashback for the kippers that were left for each individual to fry for him or herself at breakfast, in a then remarkable item of culinary equipment, an electric frying pan. It is a miracle that the house smelt not of frying red herrings but of heather, wood, pipe smoke and wool. Heather smells like dust and honey both. Intellectuals smoked pipes then.
Sometimes, a piper would come up from Lochgilphead, and, perhaps, a squeezebox player, and we would dance in the library, which was called the ping-pong room. Nou, short, dense, wore garments of fantastic tribal splendour and simultaneous rationality, sandals, bright yet serious skirts and perhaps a serape or sash in acknowledgement of one or another of her encyclopaedic interests and convictions. She was unbending, solid, frowning; she looked like strength itself, like an animal, an armadillo or a Galapagos tortoise; absolutely not a pangolin. The pangolin looks as though his armour has only recently been donned. Nou was born in hers. She danced in a stately manner that attested to her sublime physical confidence. She was an advocate of the benefits of free love. I feared to be addressed by her, yet longed to get a smile from her. I felt easier in her house when she was not in the room and that this is not a particularly healthy state of mind. I do not think that she cared much for my mother or me; even as lame ducks, a class for which Nou had time, we were not interestingly lamed. I can imagine my mother getting Carradale all wrong, talking in the drawing room during the daytime or gossiping or noticing clothes or foods or smells. Certainly she would be overdressed. We were there together only one time, when I was two, so I cannot speak for her outfit during that summer of 1957.
Mealtime conversation was on the whole abstract or theoretical, whatever age you were. There was little people-talk unless it be of use, attached to a paper written, a law made, a proof offered. Avrion had made butter with Lorna’s breast milk, I seem to remember, and there was talk of self-made blood-pudding.
Two years ago, wandering around the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I came face to face with Nou. There she was, miraculously at about my height, as never in life, dressed in blue, frowning, chin on hand, looking me straight in the eye. It was her portrait by Wyndham Lewis, which had been on the ping-pong room wall and under whose gaze, dancing this time to records of Scottish dance tunes, I fell in love for the first time with a grown human not resident in the ancient world. It is a love that came to nothing in the conventional sense so that it remains, for me at least, complete. Nor is it untried. The one who generated it absolutely without intent remains today a beloved friend and provided for years as it were an internal moral thermostat that I fell short of, but knew when I was doing so. It is not coincidental to my life as a novelist that he was a child in India and is a musical scientist. Nor is it coincidental to my private life.
Wyndham Lewis was a good choice to paint the young Nou. He got that density, that energy, that intellectual force. In the corner of the painting to the sitter’s right is a curious pair of antagonistic marks, written in paint, like scallops inverted, or fists opposed, conjunct yet fierce. If they encrypt Nou’s character, they do it well. The other attribute caught is her uncompromising seriousness, combined with an irresistibility, like that of some metal.
In the long-playing-record trunk in that library, there were also to be found the speeches of V. I. Lenin and a Russian phrase book from which I copied into my diary at that time ‘A rose is a flower. A man loves a woman. Death is inevitable.’ I also found a book on medieval Latin lyric by Helen Waddell and remember the words:
‘Vel confossus pariter
that she translates as:
‘Low in the grave with thee
Happy to lie.’
I’ve used these words as soothers for years. They work as phrases whose meaning either dissolves, leaving you in a state of meditation, or tightens up, giving you plenty to think about.
I had discovered a great pleasure of the painful side of life: its relief, or exacerbation, by literature. Of course I’d been doing it all along but hadn’t realised.
It was typically bifocal of me to have lit upon the object of my distant love since his delightful brother was my first proper boyfriend. Between them, they constitute immortal disproof of the proposition that all Mitchisons are brilliant but not always super-subtle. Terence Mitchison was an undergraduate medieval historian at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, a place that was to recur and grow in my life. We met during the famous summer that Anthony Appiah, the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps and nephew of the Queen of the Ashanti, said, and we were just thirteen, ‘It depends whether you have an eschatological Weltanschauung.’ The thing about Anthony was that he had some paisley flares and a blue rollneck and he could play the piano. The other thing was that we became best friends and that he’s never shown off in his life. He just was that far in front–like Prospero, but kinder.
Terence courted me with letters that would, if anyone knew where they were, constitute the most colourful archive you could wish for, literally. He breathed jokes, mainly of the verbal kind, and sent them to me colour-coded, brown for medieval jokes, green for rural jokes, pink for jokes to do with the history of Empire and so on. And, of course, puns resulted in multicoloured words. It was not that Terence was, as I am, a synaesthete whose synaesthesia is redundant or at any rate useless; he was an etymologist with a grip on detail. So considerable was this grip that when we took a holiday, later in our friendship, on a barge on the Brecon Beacon canal with schoolfriends, Terence had embroidered his Admiral’s cap with the barge’s name, Samuel Whiskers. Everything about Terence was thorough and good. He had embroidered another cap: HMS Leaky.
Which makes that swivel of disloyalty, or whatever it was, in me towards my idol, his older brother, extra mortifying, and I only hope Terence was well shot of his schoolgirl correspondent. At the start, I suspect that I fell, as through a trapdoor, for the blameless older brother for the simple, no doubt tediously biological, reason that he was, and remains, the single individual who has, since my mother and father, been able to carry me. His areas of specialism included blue-green algae and dreams. I used to read books about finite-dimensional vector space and Riemann surfaces to try to make myself appealing to this distinguished ludic individual. When he remarked, glancingly, that he thought blue more becoming than pink, I did as my mother would have and made a stew of woad, or rather Dylon dye, in Strong Navy and bunged all my clothes in. Nothing could have prepared this poor man for cause and its effect upon his silly child-friend.
I drooped around after him for pretty much a decade, during which his circle of friends, to some degree, took me up and conducted the kindest of intellectual experiments upon this peculiar child. So it was that I found myself building sandcastles (one, for example, of the Gesù in Rome) with the right-wing philosopher John Casey, being introduced to green Chartreuse by the composer Robin Holloway who later wrote me properly critical letters about my work, which he did not like; and becoming a friend for life of my idol’s lodger, with whom he would play piano duets, Roger Scruton, who was then a boy of twenty-seven with hair that flamed over a face that also burned white with seriousness. The architectural historian David Watkin taught me to dance the galope and asked me to marry him, which he must have forgotten, or at any rate I notice that we don’t seem to be married. They gave me books to read and were, I suppose, waiting to see what the result would be when I had ground my way through whatever it was: The Anatomy of Melancholy, Hadrian VII, The Quest for Corvo, all of Firbank, Memoirs of a Mathematician. Unknowing, I was a kind of Maisie. Their patience with me and tolerance of my mooncalf presence among them was admirable. I was a bit of a liver-enriched goose, I’m afraid. What kind of egg they expected me to lay I cannot imagine, but not this life that I am laying out now, I’m sure. I still possess the label of the 1955 Veuve Clicquot bottle that we shared, perhaps eight or ten of us, on my fifteenth birthday, over lunch. It is, with all my possessions, not to hand but in store, awaiting a return to a life unpacked.
Before these loves, though, came rupture and detachment from my father’s house in my early teens. He and I never exchanged words about it, but I left his home and did not come properly back to it again, and certainly not to live.
I had become compact of lies, a child of flies, a beelzebubbler, as my stepmother apprehended it, and she did not, quite understandably, want me near her children. I suspect too that I was growing to resemble my mother and that my father could not face another unhappy marriage; since the only thing that was wrong with his marriage to my stepmother was me, might there not be benefit for all concerned were I to be removed from the sum?
I had always fancied boarding school and now its allure was unequivocal. Several prospectuses were sent for. I liked the look of Cranborne Chase and Bedales. It turned out that my mother had left enough money for me to be sent away. I sat scholarships.
It was to Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset that I won a major scholarship. The adjustment from a school whose houses were called Argyll, Buccleuch, Douglas, Moray and Strathmore to an establishment for young ladies of England and the Commonwealth was actually not all that painful. The only sad thing was that I lost all trace of a Scottish accent, though my children tell me my voice changes as we cross the border north.
In the scholarship examination I had scored fewer than ten points out of a hundred for mathematics and these points given merely for the sake of face. A special division below all the others was created for me and for a girl who had been terribly damaged in a car accident. We were patiently taught by a Miss Hayward, who challenged us with such problems as: ‘You have a curtain rail that is four feet long. You have four curtain hooks. At what intervals do you place the curtain hooks?’
My housemistress was a Scot, Jean Stewart, and a place had been found for me under her care because a glamorous-sounding girl named Augusta had of a sudden decided to leave. I was no substitute for this Augusta. Huge, foreign, by now crop-haired, queerly named and in my old school uniform, I was an odd fish.
I learned to love my housemistress, who combined suffering with beauty and reticence. She was a devout Scots Presbyterian, later retiring to the Western Isles and becoming a minister, but I simply could not abide the diamantine, pearly, glorious heroine of a headmistress, the radiant Miss Reader-Harris, later Dame Diana Reader-Harris, who is revered beyond her death to this day. I have no doubt that she was good and that she had star quality of the regal, cinematic sort. She would have made a wonderful-looking wife for a dictator. I am almost certain that she, who wore a large, three-stoned diamond ring, had, poor woman, like so many of our other teachers, lost her fiancé in the war.
Etiquette demanded that we say goodnight to our housemistress with a curtsey and a handshake each night, also that we curtsey each time we encountered the headmistress in whatever circumstance we found ourselves. I was in the sanatorium with flu when the headmistress made a visit, and hopped out of bed to curtsey to her. She smouldered bluely. Her crown of white hair, her aura of lavender, her good tailoring, her well-manicured hands, her lovely face, all flinched. She knew satire when she saw it and she didn’t like it. She’d taken me on halfway through a term and I was absolutely not going to prove to be a disappointment after all the Christian kindness she had shown me.
So it was that I discovered institutionalised duplicity. That’s a harsh term for it, but how I got happily by at Sherborne was by succeeding academically and, within that cloak, doing whatever I wanted, so that when there was a putsch against smokers, I could say that I’d been smoking which was an expellable offence, but they didn’t want to get rid of me because, in their terms, I might be a success and go up to university, Somerville or Girton. It was understood that one would not apply to King’s College Cambridge, the only ‘mixed’ college at the time.
At first I didn’t have to work very hard at all because my Scottish school had been so far in advance of its English counterpart. This was bad for me and I hung about idly reading novels. We were permitted five items on our dressing table, including a picture of our parents. I haven’t owned one of those ever. There were dormitories divided into cubicles and a few rooms for sharing. Nothing at all about boarding school struck me as more disciplined, demanding or impinging than had been my recent experience of life at home. I’d have been happy to spend the holidays at school, and in some cases did spend half-holidays and other times with some poor teacher, mainly Mr Hartley who taught Scripture and referred to the Minor Prophets as ‘this Johnny Haggai’, and ‘that fellow Habakkuk’. We all longed for him to say ‘this Johnny Jesus’.
It didn’t strike me at the time that my departure to Sherborne might be the cause of any grief to my father and I have no idea whether or not it was. He sent the occasional elegant postcard with an architectural feature depicted on it, for example the star-pierced dome of the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew Square. He was not a rich man and travel was expensive. He had a new family and I was very little fun for them to be around. On Sundays, we had to write to our parents. Very soon I started writing to other people’s parents instead of my own.
I had big feet with my full name written on the soles of my shoes. We were often at prayer, so when we knelt I could not avoid giggles from behind.
(Liv, who was once a chorister, has just told me, to my outrage on behalf of the bride, that she sang once at a wedding where the groom had taken the precaution before the service of writing on the bottom of his shoes: ‘HELP ME’.)
I’d only the sketchiest idea of how to make friends, as must by now be clear. Throughout my years at Sherborne, I was often ill and spent a disproportionate amount of time in the sanatorium being nursed by Sister Parrott and Nurse Greene, who in winter put goose fat on one’s nose against chapping.
On one such visit, I was in a sickroom with the eldest sister of a family from Scotland. She turned out to be the oldest of six. She was Jane Howard. Then came Katie who was apparently in my year, then Caroline, then Alexander, then Andrew and Emma, the twins. They lived on an island in the Hebrides. Its name was Colonsay.
Jane was a brave talker; during my cosy illness I listened spellbound to her stories of home and family. It was another kind of falling in love, and a kind I was used to. I was falling in love with a family. The parents, whose real names were Jinny and Euan, were known as Mummy and Papa (pronounced Puppa). The parents were young, busy, and alive. The mother wrote weekly letters to her daughters and sons. These letters were spicy with adventure and displayed a dashing tone that made of any material whatsoever an excellent story.
After some sniffing, because we were both used to sitting at the top of the class, Katie and I became the sort of inseparable that maddens adults. We remain so today, though were we to meet now at the age we are we might not care one bit for what we saw. She is practical, carries no fat and mistrusts display of or reference to emotion; she loves Hornblower, Patrick O’Brian, Nevil Shute, Alastair MacLean, The Lord of the Rings and Melville. I’ve read Moby-Dick only since I’ve been blind, and loved it. I am fond of HMS Ulysses and A Town Like Alice for love of Katie. We both dote on James Bond. She is a Bond girl type, too, and can quote pages of the sacred texts. I’m just asked to write forewords to them, that no thriller reader in his right mind would read.
Unlike Katie, I am not in practical terms resourceful, and am trying continually to put a name to emotion since I have discovered that apparently to suppress it makes you go blind. Katie is beautiful. Her father, whom soon I too was calling Papa, is partly Native American. His great-grandfather married a Cree. All the children, even blonde Emma, carry the stamp. Caro, who has married a Neapolitan and ‘become’ Italian, looks entirely Mediterranean till you look for what it is that makes her so. It’s the flashing teeth, the gesticulations, the mobility yet grandeur of feature, as though a pagan goddess spoke. She is taller than most Italians. So you see that several generations down, the consequences of this union with the Cree are apparent; perfect white teeth in wider mouths than human, almost lupine, intolerant eyebrows, flashing eyes, long bones, narrow pelvises, weirdly semaphoric flat-handed hand gestures, and a capacity to start bonfires with no materials but moss and flint.
For reasons that I don’t understand, fraternising between the school’s houses was not greatly encouraged; Jane, Katie and Caro were in a different house from me. I was in a house with a name I still only cautiously comprehend, Aldhelmsted East (it’s something to do with the ontological argument), which was over a bridge from the rest of the school. Katie and I were both passionate fans of a substance called junket, made with milk and rennet, an enzyme extracted from the stomach of calves. We made it in jam jars that we carried across the bridge in the pockets of our green tweed cloaks as gifts for one another. This is how our life has gone on to this day, carrying incomprehensible but to us amusing messages over whatever obstacle life has put in our way.
The dark star of the school was our friend Rosa Beddington, who was on her mother’s side a Wingfield-Digby. This family, who live at Sherborne Castle, had founded the school, so Rosa, in spite of her chain-smoking and early and dramatic effect upon men, became Head of School until she was demoted for being seen ‘drinking shorts in male company’. Rosa had grey hair when she was twelve and I was sitting behind her in Latin, which was one of the very few things she could not do, though she would have been able to had she decided that she approved of the subject. Like almost every femme fatale I have known, Rosa made no effort with men. She had a vocation and she fulfilled it. She became one of the very few female fellows of the Royal Society, shortly before she died aged forty-five, of cancer that had eaten every bit of her except her daily-fumigated lungs.
It is hard to know where to start with Rosa since it is a story of extreme compensation for absences. Her beautiful mother had been an Olympic equestrian and killed herself when Rosa was very young. Rosa lived with and was raised by devoted cousins who became mother and father to her. Her father, with whom she felt furious, came of a distinguished Anglo-Jewish family. Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde’s Sphinx, was a distant relation. Her father was a competent painter and so was Rosa, who was also an observant draughtsman, which was one of the things that made her a unique microbiologist, since she could draw what she saw through the electron microscope and she saw more than had been seen before about the processes of cell development in embryos. Rosa’s father published several books, including a tribute to his Labrador, Pindar: a Dog to Remember.
I was with Rosa when she was told that the cancer that had been in her breast was now in her brain. We were in the old Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Her husband Robin, who had already lost one wife to cancer, had rung me up and told me to go to Rosa right then. I got to her in time to hear a smartly dressed Australian lady doctor saying to Rosa, a young-looking woman with long silver hair, terrific curves and a moonstone on her hand,
‘You’re bright, so you must know it’s curtains.’
Rosa sent me out for two bottles of red and two packs of Dunhill. She lifted her booted legs on to the narrow hospital bed, crossed them at the elegant ankle, and lit up.
For the rest of her life, Rosa railed against the fact that because she had ‘Doctor’ before her name, other doctors presumed that she had no feelings. Not that she was railing on her own behalf, but on that of patients who weren’t even doctors; how did the doctors treat them?
In her dying months Rosa made a freehand and exact botanical tapestry that would cover a good-sized double bed. Every stitch was an act of will. Its ground is black, the most difficult of all colours in which to sew large areas. Yet not the tapestry but Rosa was being nightly unmade. She did tell me she was well in her dream-life but at the end she fought angrily with some apparition that made itself felt at her deathbed, perhaps her father, turning up at the last.
Rosa made a surprising schoolgirl because of her poise, deep voice, and innate aversion to wasting time. It’s pointless to speculate whether she knew she had to cram more into less time. She was a superb drinker. Hard spirits had no perceptible effect upon her; they certainly reinforced her already devastating effect on any man in her vicinity. She was drawn to much older men of powerful intellect. She is the only woman I know to whom a man has sent an entire antique ruby parure after only one meeting. Years later he shot himself, on Valentine’s Day. Rosa was fundamentally, and realistically, sad, which lent her a gunpowdery vivacity. Rosa also became attached to the Howards; large families have this fuzzy magnetic edge that pulls in others. The Howards deeply loved her. Her gap is shaped like that of a sibling in many lives. To and in her profession her gap is incalculable.
Rosa’s personality was in torsion, her character silver threaded with steel. Its quality was recognisable in her person, in her writing, in her work, and in the calibre of the men who loved her. Her widower, Robin Denniston, is more than twenty-five years her senior; it is cruel. Still he writes and still he reads and still he lacks her company.
At her end, it was not Katie or me whom Rosa and her body’s dying animal needed, but our other close schoolfriend, Emma, who has inherited from her own mother the gift of healing hands. She helped Rosa to peace and comfort by her presence and her touch as Rosa neared her death.
Emma’s mother wears a lipstick called Unshy Violet and is named Kiloran after a bay on the island of Colonsay. Emma is called Emma Kiloran. The name of the Laird who gets the girl in the Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going is also Kiloran. In the film he is considerably less glamorous than Papa, who is first cousin to Emma’s mother. Emma’s mother remembers children’s parties given by Nancy Astor at Cliveden, where the children had a little parade of shops and went ‘shopping’ with their own paper bags. Over eighty, she can still touch her toes, is a corking dancer, and mother of six. My first term at Girton, Emma’s mother took me out to lunch with her own godmother, who was Kipling’s daughter, Elsie Bainbridge. She was wandering in her mind and I was no help, very likely wandering in my own. Kiloran held things together. It is what she does.
She has never married again since the children’s father shot himself late one summer. Lucy, the youngest child, was still tiny.
That day, we were all, Rosa, Katie and I, going to Emma’s home on the farm in Dorset for lunch, a swim, a glimpse at the news papers and to visit the local steam fair, which had become an annual treat. Emma’s mother was the first person I knew who peeled cooked broad beans so that the little vegetable was bright green and digestible. She served them with thick home-made mayonnaise. On that day, we did still go to the farm for lunch.
Emma’s mother fed us, sat with us, looked after her still young children. A widow for under a day, she gave time to all these things.
Where does pain go?
Emma’s father was a joy to get a laugh out of. His was a languid slim English beauty. He loved jazz and secret jokes. I only once really got a laugh from him and it was when he came down to the disintegrating tennis court on Colonsay and saw something he thought he would never see in his life, which was me playing tennis. His daughter, my friend Emma, who is half my size and vitally bossy, had the same reaction when she saw me driving. We were going along a perfectly ordinary road and over a perfectly ordinary bridge.
‘Claude, darling, can you get out now and let me take over?’ she said, and completed the movement, exactly in the manner of her elegant father relieving me of the implausible tennis racquet when I was thirteen on the tennis court by the lupin field, where the tall pink and lilac flowers grew like a crop. Made into patties with water and cooked on hot stones, the flour made from ground lupin-seeds may have composed part of the diet of ancient man. Just think of the labour in collecting the stripped piplings, like lentils, their silky podlets discarded into frilly heaps.
As the slaps of my own familial tide broke repeatedly upon me, it seemed that the choice was to stay and be damaging or to slip away.
I did not run away from home. I took a boat.
I don’t know whether it was natural buoyant pessimism, self-paining good manners, a slight aversion to his oldest child, or simple exhaustion that led my father to take my disaffection with such quietness. He was a man not without anger, but the complications that came with keeping me at the heart of the home were painful and distasteful. Since his consciousness was of a piece with his tentative but utterly confident draughtsmanship, it is perfectly possible that he decided without even consulting himself to leave the area in his life that was concerned with me with rather more outline than shading. Unlike me, my father was absolutely not a monster of self-control. His life made intolerable demands upon him and he bore them apparently easily as though born to the task. I wish we had spoken more together. At the time, if we chatted, so attuned was our language that it seemed somehow discourteous to my stepmother whose English is perfect, but not highly nuanced. The responsibility for the jagged edge left by my departure was all mine and I only hope it healed as swiftly as it seemed to. Both my father and I had been so trained to be retiring that I have no idea whether he was as I felt myself to be, when I dared to think about it, haemorrhaging in my own nature internally, having somehow betrayed both parents, a stepmother and her children, by the time I was fifteen.
The internal valve used to decompress such feelings is commonly some means of escape or oblivion; I took one and was to take the other.
Today, in blind-time, it is the Wednesday of the Chelsea Flower Show. Staying in the flat last night was my landlord’s mother, a gardener by profession. Since she was coming to her own son’s house she need have brought no gift, but she had chosen for me Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I hadn’t read it since 1997, and was at once excited to see the russet cover. But that was all I could see. Somehow it seemed a perfect present and I remembered how struck I had been by Hughes’s translation of the story of Daphne; in my recall, the bloody words sprang leaved with green.
As if by telepathy, my landlord, who had accompanied his mother, asked, ‘Have you read Christopher Logue’s Homer?’
‘I love it. All Day Permanent Red,’ I replied. The luxury, for even two sentences, of an exchange about reading, after these dry months, was delicious.
It became plain to me only two days ago that we are in the season of sweet peas and peonies. One of my doctors lives within creeping distance and I feel a sense of achievement if I can get there and back without falling over or crashing into someone. Chelsea Week, I thought to myself, with plenty of nice country people up in town, would be a good time to make this stab at normality. It began as a treat. The King’s Road was the usual troubling sequence of negotiations and feints. Then there’s the big island to be gained in Sloane Square. Once in Sloane Street, I was sure I’d start to smell floral displays set out by the shops to attract the pollen-gatherers up for the Flower Show. I passed two neoclassical tubs of sweet flowery spikes, missed a lady who I could tell was very smart from her heels and her smell and from her polite, ‘I’m so sorry’, wobbled on for a bit more and bashed into someone around my height, gender female, coat weatherproof, accent cut-glass, shock utter, who shouted, ‘You fucking bitch.’
Perhaps she had just come from the doctor where she had heard bad news, or maybe the parking had been impossible or the train up from the country running late. Who is to say that none of us might not have said it?
There are some doctors who are in themselves curative. They lower your anxiety and your pulse as they speak; you sense their truth. This doctor is one such and I left his surgery capable even of seeing my way down the front steps. I walked home remade to a degree by this insightful man. It was only in my own street that I noticed my skirt had fallen down and that I was shuffling along inside a puddle of grey jersey that it had made around my shoes. The white stick was handy at pulling it up and re-establishing it. Another benefit of not seeing is that I didn’t see if anyone saw.
I am for the moment perching in this flat like a gull on a cliff. The metaphor isn’t overstretched. I am a bit of a gull, being blind, and gullible at the best of times. The flat might certainly in one way be likened to a cliff, for it is enormously tall. My friend and landlord has tucked me in under his wing in what was once one of the Tite Street studios of John Singer Sargent. Liv and I work in his studio, whose windows face north and south, twenty feet of sheer light, with muslin soothing or baffling the light over the street-side window.
It is not possible to be in this room and not feel better. It is exhilarating and it feels full of the ghosts of work. At present, it is not decorated, save accidentally and provisionally. Dressed or undressed, done-up or bare-boned, it is a room that in itself provides breath. I don’t believe in inspiration of the kind you wait around for, but this room has breathed some life back into me.
Sometimes in the night, between about 4 and 5 a.m., I can see a bit to read. I took down a book by Michael Levey called The Soul of the Eye. It’s an anthology about painters and painting; mostly it consists of painters themselves talking about painting and drawing.
I fell on two things, and now it is the day it is very painful, literally, to read them, but here they are, first Sargent himself in a letter of 1901: ‘The conventionalities of portrait painting are only tolerable in one who is a good painter–if he is only a good portrait painter he is nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch–but do not begin by learning what is required for a special branch or you will become a mannerist.’
In the pale gap of reading time that I was granted I came too upon this, from On Modern Art by Paul Klee (1924): ‘Had I wished to present the man “as he is”, then I should have had to use such bewildering confusion of line that pure elementary representation would have been out of the question. The result would have been vagueness beyond recognition.’
This last refusal of distraction is entirely true to the line my father in his life took and the lines he made and the lines he drew.
Looking, now, at the high window and the plain grey of the walls, though I see very little clearly, I do see a composition that is timeless: a young woman of lovely form at work at a table on which rest some vessels and a jar of flowers. If I scowl and make horrible faces, I can see what I already know, that the young woman is Liv, that the vessels are mugs, glasses and bottles of scent and that the flowers are what must be gathered in their season and cut and cut again, sweet peas.
All that is required is a frame, and it is that which I’m attempting to construct with these words. By opening my mouth very wide, as though I’m screaming, but without sound, I can open my eyes in sympathy and read from The Soul of the Eye what it is that Poussin has to say about framing his picture The Israelites Gathering Manna:
I beg of you, if you like it, to provide it with a small frame; it needs one so that, in considering it in all its parts, the eyesight may remain concentrated, and not distracted beyond the limits of the picture by receiving impressions of objects which, seen pell-mell with the painted objects, confuse the light.
It would be very suitable if the said frame were gilded quite simply with dull gold, as it blends very softly with the colours without disturbing them.
It is very difficult indeed to prevent the memory from confusing the light; as for the frame, I am attempting to gild it not at all save where it is of its nature golden.
Fram says that he never reads the childhood part of any biography, since childhoods bore him. He also used to say to me that one of my benefits as a wife was that I had no family, which is, strictly, very nearly true.
But I did have and do have the long, and for the most part by definition insular, since it took place and takes place on an island, family romance with the six Howard children and their parents, their stepmother, their beastly dogs, their fantastically frightful paternal grandmother, who on first sighting me enquired, ‘Who is the common girl in the corner?’ and who ended up by making revolting but much-loved bargello cushions for my first wedding present, embroidered with the coat of arms of my husband, and to whose wheelchair we tied fifty pink and fifty white balloons on the christening of my first son, so that the tiny fierce termagant was lifted up in her chair to the summer sky. She once again became, as she must have been in a hundred ballrooms when she was Di Loder, one of the identical Loder twins Diana and Victoria, who were on nonspeakers for half a century, a red-haired beauty afloat in white and pink, the cynosure of all eyes.
In order to make the crossing to the island of Colonsay it is necessary to end this chapter here.
LENS II: Chapter 4
Liv, who is twenty-two, has just asked me, at the start of our working day together, whether it would be better to be stone-blind than to be in this flickering and changeable state. As it happens, I have been up working for several hours and am therefore very close to stone-blind, but still it is inflected and there are colours within my eyelids. I seem to remember from accounts written by ‘properly’ blind authors like Ved Mehta and Stephen Kuusisto, that ‘real’ blindness can also be continually modifying within its veils and infinite shadings of black, or, more often, white. Of course, it depends on the kind of blind you are.
Liv’s question is an intelligent one. Perhaps it is the question; I’m certainly honoured she asked it, since it demonstrates a levelness of attitude to her employer and the peculiar situation she finds herself in with that employer, who is me. She made the point that her mother is averse to change, but that she, Liv, were she to be visited, heaven forbid, by such an affliction, would attempt to extract from it all the good that could be.
I recognise myself when Liv speaks of someone averse to change, but my life has been so zigzagged in its shape and so full of abrupt change, much of it caused by me, that I am unsure what not-changing–one might call it security–feels like. Perhaps this blindness is just another, negative, attempt by my mind to deal itself some security, by reduplicating the loneliness in which I found myself with that loneliness’s thickening through blindness. This remains to be seen.
I made a short, parodically adult, not totally convincing speech to Liv about acceptance of whatever comes one’s way, and the necessity to make an honest attempt at turning it to the good. I also told her the plain truth, which my friend Julian Barnes regards as tosh, that I feel as though, if I’m hurt, others whom I love will not be. The scapegoat theory, he calls it, and I thought of the dreadful Holman Hunt painting.
Still, dum spiro, spero, otherwise why would I be visiting so many doctors, at least three of whom seem resistant to the concept of my registering as blind, even with the promise of a guide dog, parking concessions, and other benefits that come with such officially recognised status?
My grey cat Rita has occupied the chair I sit in to Liv’s right. Fram has just rung to say that he is going with Minoo and Claudia to stay with mutual friends in Yorkshire over the bank holiday weekend and that he had a happy birthday yesterday. Sometimes I cannot be sure when I’m going to wake up and realise that it’s all been a dreadful dream and that I am well again and not alone and can sit in my own chair and read a book.
I say to myself, ‘Worse things happen at sea.’ After all, none of what is sad is happening to anyone but me. I must take Fram’s advice and detach, detach, take sannyasa insofar as a middle-aged Episcopalian can. I’m not made of the material that makes a modish new age Hindu or Buddhist. Fram is a Zoroastrian, a faith that accepts no converts, although it is so very practical a religion and way of life. But all that is for later.
If Liv hadn’t asked me her plain courageous question, we would have begun this chapter with a meditation on the place of magazines, especially fashion magazines, in contemporary life. Let’s get it over with and then we can set about the serious business of addressing the ferry that takes you over to the island of Colonsay.
We were not allowed to read magazines at boarding school. This heightened their value dramatically. We had in our house at school at least one accredited beauty and I think it was she who smuggled in a copy of Vogue.Her name is so apposite for a beauty that let me put it in; she is the granddaughter of Daphne du Maurier and her name is Marie-Thérèse de Zulueta. Although we were not allowed to watch on television the funeral of the late King Edward VIII, then Duke of Windsor, because he had been an adulterer, Marie-Thérèse was allowed to watch the film of The Birds, because her grandmother wrote it. She was allowed to sit up with our matron, Mrs Fraser, and watch all that avian horror on the little brown box.
Marie-Thérèse had hair thick as a squaw’s and the colour of corn that reached her waist. She had an olive green velvet hair ribbon, bendy eyelashes, a glamorous stepfather and a glamorous father and was like me addicted to Nestlé condensed milk sucked from the tube; that bears some looking into. Boys fell on sight of her like ninepins. This in the days when we had to cross the road if we saw a group of boys from the Boys’ School approaching. Men fell too for her mother. They both had faces of the ideal proportion, clear brow, low large eyes, perfect mouth, the features disposing themselves in baby-like proportion in the lower two-thirds of the face.
Edward Heath was in power. Electricity was rationed and for several evenings a week we were without it. This copy of Vogue fell into my hands. On page seventy-five, an announcement was made about Vogue’s annual Talent Contest. I’ve always entered competitions, the motive mostly publication or cash. In this case, it is fortunate that my habit was so undiscriminating, or I am sure that I would have been expelled for having entered this one, let alone running away from school for the day without telling anyone to have lunch sitting between Lord Snowdon and Marina Warner (who had on yellow satin hot-pants with a heart-shaped bib).
The competition rules stipulated that all entries be typed, double spaced; I had no typewriter. I wrote and drew my entry after the long school day by candlelight (absolutely forbidden for obvious safety reasons) with fountain pen and (contraband) make-up for colouring in my drawings. There were several parts to the competition, the only compulsory part being to write one’s autobiography. I had no very long life to write about, being fifteen, and caused great offence to my family on all sides by describing my poor stepmother, fatuously, as resembling a ‘beautiful milkmaid’. I also designed a Summer Collection around a moth motif and selected whom, alive or dead, I would ask to dinner. I can remember only Elizabeth I and Evelyn Waugh. I’d never made dinner or held a party.
There were in those days telegrams and I returned to Aldhelmsted East, after that disorientating day at Vogue House in London, to find that I had won by unanimous vote the Vogue Talent Contest for 1970. Thank God, and I mean thank God, the headmistress had also received the news on that very day that I had won a national essay prize sponsored by the Sykes Bequest, the topic to be selected by the entrant, anything at all as long as it was to do with Missionary Work. I had written a long, very boring, wholly invented, essay about smuggling Bibles. It was fictitious but full of detail; never did I feel so grateful for it as when Dame Diana Reader-Harris announced the double news concerning me at prayers the next day; that I had won five pounds in a national essay competition dedicated to Missionary Work and that I had also won a prize given by a magazine called Vogue.
The Vogue prize was a huge sum of money, fifty pounds, but the real prize of that contest remains to this day an astonishing one; every winner of the Vogue Talent Contest is awarded the chance of working on the magazine. What in my case this achieved will be seen; for most people it is an incomparable entry into an impenetrable world and a golden opportunity. I fear that for me it was a reason not to become an academic or a teacher and then it led to many of the things that are worst about, and worst for, me. But that comes later. All I will say for the moment is that magazines are, without a shadow of a doubt, addictive.
‘The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that it contains
Excepting the Western Isles, for they are David MacBrayne’s.’
Anyone who has been to the islands of Scotland will recognise the truth of this. MacBrayne’s run the ferries that are quite literally a lifeline to the islands. Every sheep, every jar of Marmite, every tank of petrol, every cornflake that you consume on an island in the Inner or Outer Hebrides will have been brought there by MacBrayne’s and will consequently have a surcharge that is referred to as ‘the fright’; that is, the freight. There are perhaps only two travellers over the last century of whom I’ve heard, who have travelled between the islands–save of course for those on private transport, yachts or planes and such–under their own steam and these two valiant travellers are a bull who swam from Barra to Vatersay and Hercules the grizzly bear, star of the Sugar Puffs advertisement, who set out on his own after a tiring afternoon’s filming, and made landfall a day or two later with a fine appetite for his next bowl of cereal. It’s probably fortunate they didn’t meet midstream or the food chain might have reasserted its sway.
The first trip I took to Colonsay was on the MV Columba. She was a much smaller vessel than the big drive-on ferries that are now used; vehicles were swung aboard her on davits in a great heavy net and positioned with much swearing and vehemence in the Gaelic by the MacBrayne’s men. The Columba had a writing desk with its own headed writing paper and tea was served, including cake stands, unless the sea got what is called lumpy. That first trip, I was sensibly attired for arrival at a small Scottish island in a voile maxi dress, bare feet and some sunglasses that had snap-in snap-out lenses in a choice of shades: turquoise, peat or rose. For my arrival I selected the rose-tinted spectacles. That crossing was a fair one and I wasn’t sick at all, though I had to visit the Ladies with its astonishingly heavy doors, fit to cope with a bad swell, to reapply my Biba eyeshadow which was also pink and frosted. I have in my life made this journey only twice, I realise, on my own. At the start of this book I thought it was but the once, when I left the island to do my bit for Man Booker, but of course I arrived alone the first time.
Arrival at the pier at Colonsay, or at any other island, is a mixture of a gathering intensely social and ferociously practical. Families reunite, sick people leave for hospital, children depart for school on the mainland, tractors roll off, the dustbin lorry arrives, a wedding cake must be unpacked with utmost care, a new baby may meet its father for the first time, a bull must be unloaded, a funerary wreath disembarked with due dignity, a body, even, must be consigned. So it’s fortunate that I have no recall of my own arrival at Colonsay. Perhaps, if anyone noticed at all, they thought I was a cabaret entertainer who had got on the wrong boat. Oban was not then the sophisticated burgh we now know.
Scalasaig, the port at Colonsay, is, however, inordinately sophisticated. Let no one think that because a community is small, it contains less nuance than a larger one; the reverse is so. There is no end to it; the place never stops. Like all life lived up close, the feeling intensifies with the proximity. The lens is tightened in upon you and your behaviour, your coloration, your profile in flight, your integrity.
There is a big book about the geology, archaeology, botany, ornithology, zoology and highly variegated civilisations of Colonsay and its tidal neighbour Oransay. Its name is Loder on The Islands of Colonsay and Oransay in the County of Argyll. I mention it because once you have a sniff of the place you will want to know more and here I can but represent it with a puff of cloud, a pinch of air, the smell of crushed bog-myrtle, or the call of the corncrake that lives protected within the island’s shores.
Another addiction warning must in fairness be issued at this point: one of the lowest blows about my blindness is that I can no longer really see to read the island’s online newspaper The Corncrake, that once read takes up its place in one’s reading pattern with a good deal more monthly tenacity than many glossy magazines. It is certainly more European-minded than many broadsheets.
As for the island itself, it grows through your circulation like a tree whose pip you have swallowed without knowing it. It is quite possible to make the world of Colonsay. It is an Eden. St Columba drove all snakes from it.
Oransay, which is attached at low tide to Colonsay, is a holy place. If I were told that I might never return alive, I would ask to be placed with the least fuss in a wicker basket and taken to Colonsay for the residence of my soul. Just as long as, mind, it was no bother. The freight on my cadaver might be crippling. Oransay is for other souls, to whom we shall come.
The island of Colonsay is the ancient home of clan McPhee. There is in Canada a town in Saskatchewan called Colonsay, witness to the Clearances. The New Yorker writer John McPhee has written a book of lasting value about Colonsay called The Crofter and the Laird. In my life I have had the luck to have known that crofter a little; the laird is Papa about whom it is impossible for me to be objective. Even John McPhee has trouble, writing in the early nineteen-sixties, resisting him; the same goes for Ian Mitchell in his far angrier book, The Isles of the West. In addition to looking just right for the part, Papa is an astoundingly sweet fella, as he will say of others.
It is 2008 and Papa, thank God, is still alive. Nonetheless, he is known on the island as ‘the old Laird’ because he no longer lives in the big house, so it falls to his older son Alexander to be the young Laird and responsible, not unlike God in an unblasphemous way, for everything that goes wrong.
But that is now. When first I met Alexander, he was portable. I took to having little children around me with passion. The twins were six, I think. Among ourselves we use the terms brother and sister, and I fell into a habit of ambiguity. It is perhaps among our children that the position is best and most tactfully made clear. My children refer to their ‘not-cousins’ and love making jokes about how they have genetically ‘inherited’ aspects of the Howards simply through closeness and osmosis. They cannot imagine how touching this is to me or how grateful I am to them for it.
It pulls together strands that I myself cannot pull without feeling them heavy as sodden hawsers leading to sunken hulks.
Not only is there no drop of blood in common, save in the most primordial sense, but temperamentally and in every other way I am as unlike a Howard as could be, save perhaps for my height. However, I like to think that this otherness makes me of some use to them as a sort of conduit or adaptor, a useless person when many useful ones are around. The autobiography of a person even temporarily blind must skirt sentiment with care and the subject of a childhood that was at once delayed, invented and almost impossibly beautiful spells danger for the glowing, softened, recreating memory.
There were of course rocks under the dream, but they have proven negotiable, which is a benefit, insofar as I can see it, of family love. From a distance of over forty years, it is not possible for those long holidays from school not to blur into one another, though actually I can tell the years each from each in a fashion with which I won’t trouble my reader now. It was a late childhood and with very particular conditions.
When I arrived in the lives of the Howards, there was no electricity save from little coal generators that stopped at midnight and sulked if you had a Hoover on at the same time as, for example, four light bulbs. This in a house with twenty-five bedrooms, albeit eight of these simply comprising a bachelor floor, as though for visiting swains, ready for eight dancing partners. We had candles by our bedsides, stone hot water bottles, coal fires in our bedrooms and, when I first arrived, ate with the grown-ups in the dining room only on special occasions; otherwise it was the nursery. I suppose I regressed appallingly. Certainly I fell with indelicate speed into calling the parents Mum and Papa instead of Jinny and Euan. Mum read to us after tea, which arrived on a trolley: gingerbread, Guinness-and-walnut bread, drop scones, soda scones and blackcurrant jam. We played dressing-up games and every day involved a physical adventure of some sort during which I would come to some safe small harm, be chaffed a bit about it, and be nursed out of it with affection from one or other parent or child. The parents had that dash and carelessness that goes with having a large number of children. It wasn’t actual carelessness. It was confidence of the physical sort.
When I arrived, the house’s harling was weather-washed with pale pink; it is now pale yellow. At the front it holds out accommodating wings around a sweep of pebbles and an oval lawn, each wing terminating with an elegantly arched Regency window. All around the edge of its front façade at the foot are pale green glass fishermen’s floats like heavy bubbles. From the back, the house looks surprisingly French, an impression not dispelled by the palm trees and tender plants that embrace it. The lawn bends twice deeply down to a cedar tree of great size, a stream and a bridge that leads to the many scented acres of subtropical garden that rise beyond and up and over to the pond and the gulches planted by nineteenth-century enthusiasts collecting from China and the Himalayas. In May and June the deep womanly perfumes of rhododendrons and wet earth almost make the air sag. The Polar Bear Rhododendron smells of lemons and tea with cream. You could make a tea tray from one of its leaves. All rhododendrons of the family loderi have leaves whose backs are soft as a newborn baby’s head, with a downy covering called indumentum. Many of the hedges are wild fuchsia or escallonia. The fairy-like white fuchsia is the loveliest and leads to a part of the walled garden where Papa put (with much indentured child labour) the great glass ridged tower of a disused lighthouse lens from Islay. Sit within it and the world splinters into its seven constituent colours. On a bright day, screw up your eyes for a blinding white inside your head. The lens itself is big enough to hold two or three people. I have been into it once since I’ve been going blind. Its gift on that day was to dress the closest tree of pink blossom in long light-ribbons of green and blue.
The oddity of a closely remembered late childhood is that I might not perhaps remember it in such detail had it genuinely been my own. Nonetheless, it did its binding work. Above the house is a loch called Loch Scoltaire. Each child kept his or her wooden boat slung in the boathouse there. In the centre of the loch is a small island, surrounded by other islets on which terns nest and dive-bomb your head as you row or swim to the central island. There is a Victorian pleasure-house, suitable for picnics and sketching, from which, in the nineteen-twenties, Papa’s glamorous mother might have gone swimming naked before setting up her easel. One summer when Andrew was about six, it was mooted that he was brave and old enough to have me in his charge overnight for a camping expedition in the little house on the island. He was an enchanting child, with a head like a broad bean and an enormous mouth. We set out up the hill through the heather and gorse and over two rusty stiles with our equipment. Andrew was in his striped pjs, maroon dressing gown and those old-fashioned slippers that little boys used to have resembling those worn by elderly gentlemen. I can’t remember what I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have been anything like as practical as Andrew’s attire. It had been made very plain that Andrew was the expedition leader, as indeed he was, since I can’t row. We pulled out the littlest dinghy, Duckling, climbed into her, trimmed our weights as far as we could and Andrew rowed lustily to the small island where we made fast the painter.
We settled down in our sleeping bags. We had brought two eggs for the morning and firelighters and matches. I was to be on wood collection duty. The island is maybe the size of four king-sized beds, the wee house the size of one. We told one another a few scary stories and soon Andrew, dear bean, was fast asleep. The next thing I knew was that we were participants in a really creaky Enid Blyton or Swallows and Amazons plot. I heard the muffled sound of oars and saw the fairy fire. I heard the deadly tread. All the other siblings except Jane, who was too grown up, had accoutred themselves as ghouls and skeletons and beasties. Anyone else in the house who could be persuaded to come along had done so. One house guest had had the idea of laying paraffin on the water and lighting it. But Andrew and I slept through that part of the invasion. It was such a comfortable haunting, safely to be teased by people who had gone to the trouble of frightening one just enough and then arriving to reassure, so that there we all were on the tiny island inside the already small island of Colonsay, sitting in the brick house with six little wooden boats pulled up stern to and painters tied with a round turn and two half hitches. In the morning Andrew and I went home to the big house for breakfast even though our disgusting boiled eggs had been so filling and nourishing.
With great patience, Jinny and Euan allowed me to tag along on all adventures and duties, or to absent myself from them. Katie has also been a lifelong task giver. One summer we were in the fruit cage, collecting gooseberries for jam and bottling for the winter. It was a boiling day and we were in swimsuits and shorts. Little Emma was with us and it was on that day that she told me that the feel of damp grass on her bare feet gave her an occasional sense of nausea. I knew she was a pea-princess then. We had several heavy baskets of red, furry goosegogs and a couple of trugs of harder green ones. Suddenly I made a noise. Katie had trained me to sneeze soundlessly and never to cough, even if I felt like it. But this was a loud noise and Katie didn’t approve of it. We went on picking among the prickly bushes under the net in the walled garden. About ten minutes later I tried to talk and found that I’d lost the capability. I made some more noises. Katie was bent over her picking. She is an efficient and excellent gardener, cook and household manager. She very much dislikes being touched suddenly, but I had to get her attention somehow. I tapped her hand with mine and poor Katie turned round to find me not quite doubled in size and gagging. I can’t remember what happened after that. Someone found some old Wasp-Eze in a cupboard and squirted it on to where the sting was still sticking out of my cheek. I love gooseberries and love picking them, like most gardening chores and especially doing them with Katie, but that time was nearly fatal and now I carry the syringe and pills that the terminally allergic wasp-stung need.
The best of the wasp incident was that every day Papa would say, ‘Claude darling, are you sure you’re all right, you seem to have got bigger.’ So, yet again, he made a comforting repetitiveness that when I started to deflate meant that the other children could tease me painlessly by pretending to be Papa. Later, we discovered that I was also allergic to Wasp-Eze, allergic both to the attack and to its prescribed redress.
The length of the summer days in the North, and the delicious light that lingers, retreats and is reborn, fills my memory with summer evenings when we smoked the mackerel we caught or made moules marinière in a bucket. The sea in summer can be purple or it can be aquamarine and so it is with the sky. Coming back from long days on a beach with one’s young children in a flotilla of boats, watching the kittiwakes and chugging into harbour with the remains of a picnic and piles of sandy tired children has become part of my deep life. One day, we were at sea in a small chunky boat, about eighty years old, like all Papa’s boats an orphan. We were just off a bay named Balnahard where the mackerel crowd. We had our darrows down and were waiting for fish. As a child I loved the gutting and it used to be my job to gut at sea, but since having children I can’t do it. Suddenly everyone’s darrows were leaping and on each hook were not one but three or sometimes five mackerel and then we found ourselves witness to what might have been an illustration of the food chain. From the sea leapt a sparkling cloud of colourless, minute fishlets, followed by a jacquard silver-and-blue arrow of mackerel followed by three perfect, classical dolphins as though posed upon a vase and then, enormously, slowly, holding back time with its size, the huge bridge of an emerging basking shark, three times the size of our boat.
Sometimes Papa might be persuaded, if the evening was flat calm, to take us, as children, and later with our own children, through the strand between Colonsay and Oransay, but at low tide so there was a danger of going aground. The benefit, however, was that when he turned the engine right down and steered as he can by feel, we were among seal families, for it is just off Oransay on Seal Island that the seals go to pup and we could watch them suckle and kiss and roar and chat and sing, the mothers so confident (so long as we kept quiet or did nothing but sing rather than talk) that they did not flop into the water leaving their babies but stayed with them on the kelpy rocks. We have been no more than six inches from those white baby seals with their awful cat-food breath and their black marble eyes. The sea on nights like that was like milk and, going home, there might be phosphorescence in our wake. We would tie up the boat in the harbour and unpack the box full of gutted fish, the exhausted picnic, Papa’s bottle of pink wine and our beach bags, a different colour for each child, with our names embroidered on. I was proud when Jinny said I could sew mine.
I cannot calibrate what the value of this family, and of its home, is to me; perhaps that is what having real siblings is like, but I think not, because I am conscious that it surprises me and delights me constantly, therefore I cannot be expecting it, therefore I surely don’t take it for granted, as one perhaps does the love of a sibling. I also feel that I am more use to them semi-detached than attached and homogenised.
Katie and her second husband William, who have been married for almost thirty years, grew tired of London. Katie is a country girl and needs to hack and dig to make a day feel lived through. William is extremely adaptable. They and their three children moved to a house on the Firle Estate near Charleston. They rented Bushey Lodge, a house that Cyril Connolly and his wife Deirdre had lived in. With driven application they commenced to become organic market gardeners just before the idea had caught on. Katie and William’s market gardening produced aesthetically pleasing vegetables in magnificent abundance. Katie loved the names; she was especially fond of a floppy lettuce called Grande Blonde Paresseuse. They grew purple potatoes and Japanese artichokes and cardoons, tigerella tomatoes, yellow beetroots, rainbow chard and a host of products that the supermarkets have now made familiar. Their project foundered on an unready market and perhaps too much generosity when it came to the accounting. There had also been an element of using hard physical labour as an anaesthetic, for at this point there was a shadow of unhappiness over each of their lives.
Enduring town life but not attached to it, Katie was delighted to be asked by her brother Alexander to come and live on Colonsay and work with him. I told her she must keep a diary. Colonsay isn’t like anywhere else at all. There’s an adventure every day. You could write a poem every morning and every night. I would like to live there for a good stretch of my life. I began to worry that Katie would get sad when the days got shorter and darkness came down at three, but she has the great gift of Arachne, and every minute is filled. William has now followed his wife to the island. He works as woodman, binman, soothant, impresario, baker.
The topography of the island offers all terrains in little, as though it were an ideal or invented place. It has its great peak, just under 500 feet, its isolated lochs, its whistling, golden, silver, black and pink sands, its cowrie beach and its fulmars’ crags; it has its deserted blackhouses and its wild flags, its own orchid, Spiranthes romanzoffiana, its fairy rings, its Viking burial ship, its standing stones, its overdressed choughs that look ready for town; it is the only place where herons nest on the ground and it has a pair of nesting golden eagles. Its turf is dense and full of wild flowers, including the smallest rose, the pimpinellifolia.
The islanders peopled my childhood, my growing-up, my middle age; some have left, many more have died, several tragically, needlessly. Some, over the years, have been brave enough to dance with me, or even come south to toast my wedded bliss. From the residents of Colonsay I have received steadiness, grace, jokes, music, irony, continuity in the sort of quantity that I would hope to offer a child, or, for that matter, a dumb animal. I have been privileged in this.
There is no avoiding boats on an island. The miracle of the ferry, for as long as I was at boarding school and then at university, was that there might be periods for as long as three weeks when the island was stormbound and the Columba could not get through. This must have been both worrying and tedious for all the adults concerned, but I was having a honeymoon with infancy and felt it bliss to be stuck safe at home, with its routines and rules and habits.
We did run out of food. We tell people we ate curried dog food. I can’t remember if it’s true. It might as well have been. We did eat any quantity of a magnificently Scots viand, buyable in bulk, named SwelFood. It had a connection with the vegetable kingdom. It lived up to its name should you add water. A little heat improved things. I ate and ate on Colonsay and, though not lean, like the others, I didn’t get fat, because I was living a life beyond books, though not without them.
I have never quite got over a bad tic I taught myself, very likely unnecessarily, under my stepmother Christine’s regime–to leap up as soon as one heard footsteps approach, to hide one’s book, and ‘look busy’. I didn’t do that much on Colonsay, at Colonsay, in Colonsay. The nature of my anxiety changed. I wished to fit in. In this I lost bits of myself. This was all my own fault. I think the Howards wanted me as me, if they thought about it at all.
When people look knowing and talk about the popular music of their childhood, I can honestly refer to both my childhoods, in Edinburgh, and on Colonsay, and look blank. When the electricity worked on Colonsay, the gramophone played classical music. Quite by chance I had lit on another musical household. To reach the drawing room from the front hall, you had to go through a curved room called the corridor-room; there was a smiley bison with a centre parting in his horns over the pianola that had sheets taken from Paderewski’s own playing of Chopin, and a piano that we sang around. Mum or Caroline played. It was from the corridor-room gramophone that I first learned to listen for the style of a conductor, though frequently the tempi must have been affected by the wind or the rain outside. We listened a lot, together, to music. I remember the Brahms Violin Concerto and his Hungarian dances, the Mozart Coronation Mass and Litanie Lauretanae, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, and Haydn and Boccherini. Just sometimes, Edith Piaf, whom Mum and Papa had seen in Paris. No Messiaen, no Mahler, no Russians, no Wagner, all of whom I love, but came to later. Papa, as on every ‘cultivated’ topic, knows more than he affects to know. He is a natural teacher, the only man I would allow near my younger son with a fretsaw, or near me with an explanation (all done in salt cellars and napkin rings) of how the universe works or what diatonics are. He is intriguing for many reasons. He has not grown old where old means bitter or incurious. Of course he repeats himself. That is because we force him to. We say, ‘Pop, Pop, do the one about…’
We are in our fifties and forties, he halfway through his eighties. I’m lucky to have been caught in his slipstream (he will correct the term, no doubt).
His brother Barnaby, who is perhaps eighty-two, was dying last year. He had had three wives, three children, seven stepchildren. Papa went over to St Louis, where Barnaby has made his own version of Colonsay, to say farewell for good to his younger brother. Papa officially hates death. Barnaby’s nurse fell in love with him. Instead of a funeral, there was a wedding. Barnaby shares his brother’s good looks, though without the beard. Height, black hair, now white but still thick, and cruel blue eyes belied by that smile wide as a wolf’s and as perturbingly white. Papa smiles while he is working, biting down on a small piece of his tongue. His children and grandchildren do it too.
They all carry multifunctional knives around their waists on lanyards, though have had to rethink this since airports grew difficult. Each one’s knife is of great sentimental value, having been given as a reward when, one by one, the children learned to sail their respective wooden boats around the tiny island in the loch.
I’ve never been in danger of possessing such a knife.
The Howard children were sent away to school considerably later than many children of their background, as it might conventionally be imagined. All the children owe their general knowledge and handwriting, their sense of lore and their manner of keeping things shipshape to their governess, Val, who had also been governess to their mother and her six siblings. The big house is full of things Val made with the children: tables with glass tops covering labelled shells gathered during afternoon lessons and laid on old green velvet; lists of birds seen and illustrated; children’s books carefully inscribed in the same fluent rounded hand as each child came to learn it. Val never taught me but the others had that kind of skater’s grace to elide this so that I might sink my roots deeper into the family myth.
Yet I was unconsciously deceiving myself on far too many levels. The fact remains that there are six Howard children, whom I love, and that they are not my siblings. Nor are their parents mine, though it is my belief that I love their father very much as people do love their fathers, as far as I can see it. It is far too late to untangle anything that goes so deep, but it is not too late to be clear about who is whose. I speak in this apparently chilly dissecting sort of voice on account only of knowing that it is with the precise naming of things that my sight will, if it will, return; and that the truth matters.
It is with reference to boats that I am able, perhaps, to express the intensity of my affection for this family. I trust my life to each member of it and have been hauled from the possibility of a watery grave, as has my younger son, by their strong arms more often than I can admit. (Minoo and I have spindly, useless arms.) Life on Colonsay is lived, very considerably, on boats. Given the chance I would rather step out of a boat than into one, be this into a harbour, which has happened countless times in Colonsay (and once in Tonga), or at sea, or into a loch (or into the South Pacific, where I hadn’t a Howard with me and which comes later). Perhaps at root there is little higher one may say of another individual with whom one has spent a mort of time than that one feels safe with them. The Howards make me feel physically safe, which is a state I achieve in few other circumstances. What these circumstances are will make itself plain to readers.
It was from Colonsay that Katie was first married at the age of seventeen and a half, in her wedding dress ironed by Val. Rosa and I made bowls of philadelphus and daisies. There was a marquee and the honeymoon was taken on the Isle of Barra.
In the photographs we all, including the grown-ups, look like children.
Marriage was still at the time the suitable terminus of the story of a childhood. Girls were married ‘from the nursery’, like trees taken for grafting.
During the time we were at Cambridge together, Katie and I were, I think, unsure of what narrative to follow. The times were changing, but nothing like as swiftly as retrospect might have you think. Girton was quite as sequestered and well-behaved as Sherborne School for Girls had been. Many of my contemporaries in college arrived engaged and left after their degree to enter into marriage.
The first night in the dining hall at Girton, which is a red Victorian Gothic structure, designed by Waterhouse, three miles outside Cambridge on the Cherry Hinton Road, a sturdy pink blancmange was served; I said I wouldn’t have any, thanks, and a shiver went down the table.
Later I sustained two approaches, one from a quietly spoken American girl who turned out to live just off Washington Square with her grandmother and two giant poodles and who became a friend for life, Miss Sarah Montague, gymkhana star and radio performer; the other from a girl I regret having lost touch with, who said, ‘You went to fucking public school, didn’t you?’
I think the truth is that I only went to fucking public school because my mother was dead, and that is the answer to the question I asked some chapters ago, would it all have happened if I had stayed at home? I wouldn’t have fucking talked like this. I might have talked like fucking that, and that in itself might have been a great big fucking relief. Not that, actually, all Scots do swear all the time, nor pace some English critics, does that brilliant writer James Kelman use such language, save where to do so holds to the truth.
If I had stayed at home, I wouldn’t have talked like this and I might have married a nice Scots boy who really could dance (though in the East Coast fashion) and we might have settled down to the couthie Edinburgh life for which, I think, I hanker so, now that I definitively have not lived it.
Scotland itself is zigzagged with strifes and loyalties, with roads that wind north in listlessness, desolation and ancient war; there are many sects and septs of Presbyterianism and many families who raise a glass to the king over the water. I won’t here go into Rangers and Celtic, for I’m ignorant, but so little is the country, so small its population, so deep its habit of talk and of remembrance, that the past lies over and within everything. While it is a hard fact that Papa’s great-grandfather received the Island of Colonsay in lieu of payment of a lapsed debt by Sir John McNeil, it is also true that if to own a boat, as the vulgarism goes, is to stand in a shower tearing up fifty-pound notes, to inherit an island is to stand in a maelstrom doing much the same, with added responsibilities for its human residents. Papa was born in South Audley Street to parents of improbable wealth, deriving in the main from the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company. His great-grandfather endowed McGill University and Papa said once that he seemed to remember a lintel over a door in the ‘Old Man’s’ house in Montreal that was made of solid gold. His great-grandfather, Donald Smith, became first High Commisioner of Canada and later Lord Strathcona (Gaelic for Glencoe which he also owned) and Mount Royal (which is just Montreal). Goodness knows if this lintel was a metaphor or what he literally saw, but Papa’s own life has been entirely unembittered, as he saw most things except for Colonsay go. He is a born master craftsman.
The words ‘private island’ come nowhere near Colonsay; it is not a plaything but a society, and most of the boats, houses, cars that pertain to the family that accidentally presides amid it with patience, beneficence and nothing short of love, are held together, bodged in some way. Papa is a genius at bodging. So are his children. It’s my sense that they don’t really like things that do not need fixing.
When we were younger, Katie, Caro and I shared clothes. Jane was careful and neat and very sensibly kept us off. Caro had a red jumper knitted for her by Val, Katie a becoming cream jumper knitted by her grandmother with a repeat motif of the Strathcona crest, a beaver chewing its way through a log. I had two jerseys, one of which I’d received for Christmas from Mum and Papa so it was sacred and came out only for evening wear. My other jumper was grey, knitted on needles the size of rolling pins, edged in grey velvet ribbon, large enough for a shire horse and had been thrown out by Daniel Day-Lewis, the weedy younger brother of our friend Tamasin. No. I don’t know where it is now. It disappeared with my dried-out and reassembled lobster, some old love letters, and the Clarendon Press George Herbert, all of which were by my bed, when I ‘grew up’ and Alex and his wife Jane took over the house.
There is a strong bohemian streak in the Howards. Papa’s mother, confusingly known as Oma, really could paint and her many swift oil sketches of the island catch it just so. Papa was brought up with Peter Ustinov, whose mother, Nadia Benois, used to paint with Oma. There are two ‘reciprocal’ paintings made by the two women on a summer day on the island in the nineteen-thirties that hang in the corridor-room on Colonsay. Tulips in a vase, dropped-waist dresses, a departed Hebridean afternoon seen through differing eyes. Many of the Howards’ close relations are artists; one, Linda Kitson, who briefly married her cousin, Papa’s brother Barnaby, was a Falklands War artist. Papa’s sister Didon was a creator in her every gesture and she leaves girl twins who have the very same trait; one of them, lying in Barcelona, felled in her forties by a stroke, is literally drawing herself out of it with pencil and paper. The Howards are not spoilt. Their affection for things is greatly enhanced when that thing is to some degree damaged or, even better, hopelessly broken.
It is my private belief that Papa rather resents things that work perfectly first time. I don’t mean he sabotages them, but he perceives less of a challenge in the spanking new than in the clapped-out old. He is without doubt an artist in wood and metal. It was a sad day when he moved out of the big house and his entire run of Wooden Boat magazine was on the line. He had first subscribed to it aged thirteen. In the end it went, though he has kept the squared notebooks in which he draws inventions and improvements upon machines that have caught his attention. One of the most happy days of my second childhood was spent not actually on Colonsay but off the old A40 in a disused church with Papa, Katie and Caro; we were there to meet one of Papa’s innumerable correspondents. His family used to say of Papa that he kept a steamboat hidden on most canals as other men keep mistresses, but that day we were privileged to enter the largest steam-driven Wurlitzer in the known world. We climbed inside its entrails, saw the real coconut husks that made clip-clop sounds for the movies, and Caro was allowed to play it while Katie and I stood inside and watched the bellows do their elephantine work. Papa, although he is, as I have said, a man resistant to the soapier sides of faith, is a soul whom it is a pleasure to see transported, whether by a Wurlitzer, the Queen of the Night, the way the bark grows on eucalyptus trees, or when a rope goes clean around a cleat.
It is this feeling of docking cleanly that grows more elusive with blindness. I will, if I may, give an account of my mornings at this time of my life. I get up at six, run a bath by ear, turn it off, feel for my electric toothbrush, load it with toothpaste, making sure by smell the toothpaste is not foot cream, do my teeth, get into the cardigan that I know hangs from the bathroom door, go into the room where the cats’ litter trays are kept, find a roll of dustbin bags, somehow discover the mouth of each one and put one inside the other, in case of horrible leaks, fill these with the used litter and any old cat food and the newspaper the cat dishes sit on, give the cats clean litter, wash their dishes and dry them, put clean food into each dish, making sure not to spill any cat food on my hands or I shall smell it all day. I then take the bin bag downstairs, holding the grabs and banisters, to the catacombs of this Victorian house, undo by feel three deadlocks and put the full bin bag in the appropriate dustbin. I re-shut the deadlocks and move slowly towards the kitchen where I know how everything is stowed, though I still fall. I half fill the kettle (I can do this by weight), take the coffee from the upper shelf in the freezer door, shake about as much coffee as a squirrel’s tail would weigh into the cafetière, wait for the water to boil, pour it on to the coffee grounds and commence my daily quarrel with the plunger. By now it will be 7.20 and my bath will be of any temperature at all, so that’s a surprise to look forward to. When first I became blind I was determined to be well groomed, something I have never in my life been before. I’m not sure it’s worked, although I know that I am clean. On my shelves however, await the jumpers of a well-groomed blind woman, each arranged in its own bag with lavender or cinnamon or clove (sovereign historic but useless remedy against moth). My jumpers are arranged from white to black through all the misty colours of grey and pink and blue and lavender and olive that I wear, the naturally occurring dyes of Scotland, where my jumpers were born. In its way my cupboard of jumpers is like Des Esseintes’s organ of perfumes in Huysmans’s Against Nature. In another way it’s just me trying hard to kill two birds with one stone; that is magically to become tidy and, even more magically, to unbecome blind. I did the colour-coding holding open my eyes with my left hand from the top of my forehead, like holding a cracked watermelon together.
About the time of Katie’s first wedding I made a friend who is everything I am not. I met her through my Czech friend Cyril Kinsky. He has twenty-six Christian names, wanted to be a theatre director, and was for many years. Then he fell in love, started a family, and trained for the bar. He is a QC and a virtuoso of marquetry, indeed all forms of DIY. He is also cool, unusual in a DIY-er. Kafka lived to the side of his family’s palace in Prague. His father Alphy smoked more eloquently than any man I’ve seen in my life.
Cyril brought to Cambridge his cousin, Sophie-Caroline Tarnowska. We’ve got an elective affinity. She knows what I think. Her husband Gilles is my son Minoo’s elective affinity. He is a red-headed Protestant left-wing banker of vertiginous musicality. He is so nice you want to take him home. I have loved Sophie-Caroline over thirty years. Recently they took a second honeymoon in Scotland. Gilles reported that the rain was ‘so delicious, so varied, so interesting’.
When Minoo went on his French exchange to the Paris home of this family (all of whom speak better English than I do, so it was pretty silly), he telephoned to say that everything was perfectly all right, actually very homely, for example there was a red-headed grand-mère who lived upstairs with her dog Gavotte and who wore jeans and the oven had fallen out of the wall, ‘just like at home’.
Twice in my life Sophie-Caroline has given me the courage to act as I could not have without her. She has never had to be explicit because she reads my mind.
When I went blind she rang me and I was transfused with a reason to go on. I know that she is devout and she gave me some of it, like a lozenge, or a bit of mint cake on a steep climb, a viaticum, without actually mentioning the name of the Manufacturer, the Almighty, but she was too clever and too kind to be so coarse as to say outright, ‘Do not harm yourself.’
For some of the time, they live in the Gers, in a sublime semi-ruin called Mazères, the ancient archiepiscopal palace of the archbishops of Auch. This house is the great romance of Gilles’s parents, their last shared project, all still very much in the doing. The Angelus tolls daily in the tower. The fields around and the earth and the cows and the farm dogs are the colour of pale bread. In the roof of the palace is a library as long as a church. Minoo lives in this room when he visits. Next to it through a glazed rose window is the music room. It is quite possible to go from the music room into the library and miss Minoo, for all that he is tall, petrified with deep contentment into the room. Down four flights of stone stairs red griffins, faded after centuries, are stencilled in rhythm on the pale curve of the chalky walls. The history of the Cathars and of the Albigensians is legible in one layer after another in this fortress. A corner of a fallen room is blocked up with stone of another shade, from a time long before the already far time that seems to be the closest, yet is already centuries away.
There is an enfilade, falling, snowing, with whitewash, of mirrors laughing thinly into one another, the panelling tactfully bracketing itself around each tall looking-glass. The ceiling asks for chan deliers but incompletion is the keynote. How to describe it? Perhaps if Ely Cathedral grew like an opening stone rose and softly half fell down…?
In this house, at the age of fifty, one night in 2005 I listened out for hornets in my bedroom. I knew I had to change my life before I lost it. A wasp will kill me, but hornets carry more poison, so I’d die sooner. I know, because I was stung by an orange hornet the size of a conker at sea just off Tahiti and that was nearly it for me, before even marrying for the first time. My then fiancé whizzed me by rubber boat into hospital and by the time we arrived my arm was a washing-up glove full of jelly.
Decades on, I waited for hornets, standing with a shoe in my right hand in the hortensia-wallpapered room in the hot Gascon night. The small double bed was occupied by the semicircular body of my then companion. Marcel contemplates the sleeping body of Albertine in like pose, reflecting on the infinitude of traits one human soul may possess.
Such was nowhere near my reflection that night. I knew that to be anything like truthful or kind, I had to get away while there was still time for him to locate another comforter, before I turned on him for nothing worse than his own fulsome nature.
It was nothing anybody said save he himself. It would take Proust’s cumulative genius to show how, feeling himself closest to truth, he most lied. To be with him through time was to see through him like a hoop. So, a profession can take the soul. It was politics that he professed.
In fewer than three months’ time, I shall leave this flat for, as its delicate state attests, it is in need of structural and architectural attention. Its ceilings sag a bit, its draughts are tempestuous, and aspects of its layout, although I have come to love them, are certainly dated. Liv and I get our fizzy drinks from a suavely concealed mirrored wall that you press and it magically opens to reveal a cocktail niche. There is a flip-over serving counter for when the studio was in use for private views in the seventies. There is a door into the studio that obviates the necessity of entering the artist’s private apartment, a system put in place for Sargent. The colours, that will of necessity have to go, are kind to pictures, ranging from every kind of dove grey through to lichenous greens and, in my bedroom, a colour that combines pink, blue, brown, grey, white and black and yet is very light; the colour of the gill of the smallest, freshest, field mushroom. The sitting room, that we call Henry James, might be any colour. It is the colour of memory, a tactful background, a recessive, becoming, dark but festive, shade, making everything hung upon it look better.
Five or so years before his death, the owner of this flat sustained a stroke that made movement difficult, although it did not stop him painting. In order to help him remain independent, banisters and grabs were installed exactly as though it had been a ship. They save me from sinking.
I could have done with more of those grabs, on a metaphysical level, when I was at Cambridge. I did not know that there lay within me a thirst nothing could quench that would nearly kill me. There were signs, but they were illegible to me and my friends at the time.
My room at Girton was called F6; it took some ascending to. I was next to a popular girl whose parents visited most weekends bringing lox and bagels. I was very grateful one Sunday when the mother of this family gave me a bagel, stuffed full. Some kind of fear set in. I did not understand how to get out of one’s room except to go to the college library or for meals in hall. I knew that when women were first up at university they joined one another for intense conversation over mugs of hot chocolate. I had two mugs, so that was a start. Further research revealed a row of three baths, each in its cubicle and each the size of a lifeboat, so I spent a good deal of my first year at Girton just sitting in the bath reading and getting wrinkly. I was an unreliable and irresponsible student, having come straight from school where, during the last term that Katie and Rosa were there, I had worked as a housemaid and kitchen maid, because I had got into Cambridge before my A levels, didn’t want to be separated from them and needed to earn money. It was interesting to see the modification of girls’ behaviour towards me as I changed from senior to skivvy. Mrs Rock, the house cook, was kind to this unhelpful pair of hands and gave me jobs she knew I could do like emptying the commercial dishwasher, grating fifteen pounds of cheese, or slicing ox liver and onions for fifty-six people with a knife whose steel was whippy, sharp and thin as a line.
The school train started at Waterloo and ended at Sherborne. For some happy reason, one summer day when we were in our A-level year, it dawdled at Basingstoke. We were told that we might go and purchase refreshments at the station buffet. We were not yet changed into our school uniform, and no one in their right mind would want to challenge Katie’s raised eyebrow. We purchased two pork pies and two miniatures of brandy. Brandy is rage and turmoil to me, gin the taste of isolation.
Otherwise strong drink hardly made its appearance at Sherborne, though there was a rebarbative cocktail offered by the headmistress to those girls considered made of the right stuff to meet visiting preachers such as Sir Robert Birley, formerly headmaster of Charterhouse and Eton. Katie and I were chosen for this privilege and liked him a lot. Neither of us felt the same about Dame Diana’s refreshing sherry, tomato and orange juice cocktail that was the speciality at White Lodge, the headmistress’s house.
In the first weeks at Girton, should someone have asked me what was wrong, I would have replied that I was simultaneously anxious and bored. I seemed frozen to the spot. I couldn’t leave my room. In my room was a bottle of sherry. Everyone knew that undergraduates offered one another small glasses of sherry. I drank the bottle on my own and went to sleep. I imagine that this sleep will have been the first blackout of my life, and that having glimpsed this option, my brain’s biochemistry was on the very tentative lookout for more.
There was a bus that took Girtonians into town for lectures and seminars. I ended up sleeping on the floors of my patient friends, Anthony Appiah the most patient of all, playing me his records of Marlene and Mahler and Noël Coward and allowing me to cramp his love life.
Of course there were some friends from school. Edward Stigant, descendant of the Archbishop Stigand on the Bayeux Tapestry, was reading History at Christ’s under Professor Jack Plumb. Edward looked like a very naughty Russian girl. He had the profile and eyelashes of a Borzoi and was short, lissom and bendy. His gift with languages was prodigious. When we did our examinations for Oxford and/or Cambridge, which were in those days separate from A levels, there was a translation paper from which you had to choose two longish passages from among a dozen or so languages to translate into English. Edward had done them all, with time to spare, and waltzed off with a scholarship. This took courage. His older brother had earlier achieved distinction at the same college and taken his own life while still at university.
Edward did not live very much longer than that brother, but oh the delightful nuisance he caused in his life. He was completely kind and, of course, when we first met at the school classics club, ‘The Interpretes’, which was a decorous means of meeting boys, I lapped him up. He was having an affair with a Turkish air stewardess at the time. This strange reversion to what might be thought of as deviancy in the context of someone quite so camp, also struck him during the week of our Finals, when he fell head over heels in love with a magnificent girl, and sent her a dozen red roses every single day. They both emerged with congratulatory firsts.
I’m astonished that I have any friends from Cambridge. I was a dilatory worker, a shocking shirker of essays and supervisions, and I did not understand that it was perfectly possible to say no at any stage of the transaction should you be invited out by a member of the opposite sex. I had a powerfully developed sense of my own repulsive ness that cannot have been helped by the fashion for platform shoes that coincided with these years. Thus, when I did leave F6, I was six and a half feet high and, in some senses, quite unstable. There were three dons at Girton whom I feared and respected, though they might not have guessed it: Jill Mann for Chaucer, who spotted me at once for a coaster; Gillian Beer, who has, despite it all, become a friend; and Lady Radzinowicz, who, with her dachsund Pretzel, taught me Milton and Spenser. I was so nervous about leaving F6 and actually getting on to the missile-launcher bus for central Cambridge, that I attended relatively few lectures, though I developed a fondness for Professor J.A.W. Bennett who must have been about twelve hundred years old by then. It was also compulsory, for reasons of cool as well as literary curiosity, to attend the lectures of the poet J.H. Prynne. I adored watching him take words to bits.
One day a vision entered the lecture theatre. Of course I had seen beauties before and there were even two at Girton, but this was different. She was attired in a coat of a red fox and it was clear that her electrical and crackling head of hair weighed more than her etiolated and fashionably attired body, from her Manolo Blahnik boots to her Joseph jeans and her Sonia Rykiel jersey (I was a Vogue reader and could do the semiotics). We had a catwalk model among us and she was one big cat: Tamasin Day-Lewis.
Tamasin was at King’s, a college full of interesting people who were not Girtonians. They included descendants of old Bloomsbury, precociously brilliant philosophers, a girl who lived with a man who had already sired children, and my beloved friend Rupert Christiansen, who allowed himself four minutes off work between breakfast and lunch and five in the afternoon for the ingestion of a cheese scone. Every vacation Rupert worked in the Arts Council bookshop in Sackville Street. He had one, orange needlecord, suit. Rupert is colour blind. He saved up every penny to go and stand in the gods at Covent Garden.
It says much for Rupert that he took me out to see the ballet La Bayadère. After three days’ thought I dressed for this occasion in eight-inch cork platforms, white tights, a wraparound white cheesecloth skirt, a scarf tied across my by now ultra-skinny chest and an enticing new bubble perm inspired by the film of The Great Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Rupert is a good six foot two and he weathered this fearful first date to become my daily correspondent, my test of decency, my measure of honour.
It was during Prelims that I realised that I could speak in tongues, or rather that I could do so if drunk enough and if the drink were whisky. Today I do not drink at all or I would be dead, and when people ask, ‘Do you miss anything about drinking?’ I can with perfect truth say no. But I do miss the smell of those island malts, that are nothing more or less than the smells of the islands themselves, of sea, of kelp, of heather, of peat, of wrack, of mist, of slow, slow burning.
I gave a party at the end of Cambridge, for my twenty-first birthday, for the friends I had somehow made. I sent out invitations on which I had drawn a bough with golden apples. The words written below invited each recipient to help me take my golden bow. The house in which the party took place belonged to none other than my present landlord, to whom, that first time, I was a lousy lodger, borrowing his tank tops, sending telegrams via his phone bill and continually introducing cats into the ménage. I remember Peggotty and Portnoy, who was a Siamese and therefore always complaining. In this may be glimpsed something of the golden character of Niall Hobhouse, who was Anthony Appiah’s cousin. To my twenty-first birthday party, the golden bow, I wore a jumpsuit made of paper that I had sprayed gold, and gold cowboy boots. I had not neglected to spray my hair gold.
For some reason, just as the party got going, Katie told me to cook some crumpets. She talks so quickly that I frequently mishear. I have before now jumped out of a boat when she was just telling me to ‘go about’. I set to with the crumpets and continued being my entertaining self, welcoming my friends and no doubt swigging along. For the record, Katie tells me that she was in Singapore on this occasion; so memory casts its dramas.
The grill began to send out little flames. I bent to attend to it. There was a thick smell of burning hair. The paint with which I had sprayed my hair and dungarees was gold car paint, highly flammable. I rushed upstairs dressed in flames, a zip, underwear and cowboy boots, drenched myself in the bath and returned later to my own party re-attired in some no doubt fearful ensemble, maybe even the £2.99 pink rubber dress from Sex on the King’s Road.
At the party was my very quiet friend Amschel Rothschild. He wore a navy blue velvet suit, an expression of amusement on his face, one that might have been painted by El Greco, and a cymbidium from his hothouse in his buttonhole. He had neatly sprayed the orchid gold.
But for him, who took me out of Cambridge for the last weeks before Finals and set me to my books as you might set an animal to exercise, I should have had no kind of a degree, let alone the pleasure of discovering what it means really to work at a subject and how that pleasure has no end. While it may be solitary, it is, at its best, love and sight, or, rather, vision. A love in which there is no doubt that you wish to do the best you can, not for your own but for its sake. Amschel died far too young and I shall miss him till I die. So I owe him my ‘good’ degree and many more degrees of gratitude.
LENS II: Chapter 5
In the summer of 1976, there was a heat that dried the green out of England. It was possible to faint away when you stood up. Water was rationed. There was even, I believe, a Minister for Water, or perhaps he was a Minister for Drought. During that summer, I fainted on a train that was crossing Suffolk and woke up with words branded on my arm in sunburn: Second-Class. I had seldom travelled far; after all, England was quite far away from my first home in Edinburgh and Colonsay was in itself both domestic and utterly exotic. There had been Holland, Italy, Switzerland; nowhere outwith Europe.
Amschel had at the time the use of his parents’ house in St James’s on Barbados. The house was reminiscent of Caribbean life as it’s not often advertised, a life of conversation, books and ideas. Amschel invited Tamasin and me to stay at the house and then to travel with him to Cape Cod to join his sister Emma.
Two days before travelling on this, to me, unimaginably complicated journey, I was on the tube on my way to work at Vogue. A nice young man called Simon Crow greeted me. I was standing; it was a crowded carriage. Simon was sitting down. He asked me what I was up to and I said that I was going on an aeroplane to Barbados and America. Simon was in the Foreign Office and knew his stuff, clearly.
‘Have you got a passport and a visa?’ he asked, still half asleep.
I had neither, but I did have a pair of pink stripy lounging trousers I’d sewn that I considered very suitable for Caribbean nights.
Simon Crow, who I think was at Oxford while I was at Cambridge, got me a passport in one day and stood in line to get me a visa. The sort of man you need in diplomacy.
The reader may not believe the following story. Or rather, it could not happen now, as old people say. Two days before my first wedding, my husband-to-be asked if I had a passport in my married name, since our honeymoon destination might require one. I really don’t know whether I quailed within while looking noncommittal or if I confessed. What I did do was telephone the Passport Office in Petty France. The telephone was answered in those times by a person. I blurted out my story in all its idiotic detail:
‘Getting married in two days; new surname going to be Wallop, yes that’s right W-A-L-L-O-P; don’t know where I’m going because it’s my honeymoon; yes very happy indeed; I have got into a mess like this before and the person that helped me out was called Mr Potts.’
‘This is Potts speaking.’
But I’m travelling ahead of myself. In Barbados I learned how delicious are limes, that mace is the web that wraps itself around the nutmeg, that really good manners go all through a person, that Tamasin would be pre-eminent in whatever world she decided to take on, that you must never sunbathe under a manchineel tree or its tannic fruit will drip poison on you. I read all the books save for the esoterica concerning the world of spermatology (Amschel’s father Victor Rothschild was a world expert on sperm as well as many other things including Jonathan Swift and the safe defusing of bombs). I sat on the white sand reading books and going blotchy in my Celtic fashion. Only one beach boy tried to pick me up during the whole ten days and he gave up on about day four when I said I was happy reading. ‘You not a woman, you a machine.’
It’s the quiet of the luxury of the place that I shall not forget, the white coral walls, the polished white coral floor, the stuffed white sofas and chairs, the delectable shade, the pale, light-lipped sea. In the library, the books were plump with sea salt, hygroscopically swollen. Books literally holding water is an theme for me since so much of my life has been spent at sea or enislanded.
The rain came promptly at siesta time, when Amschel would retire with verbally sophisticated modern authors whose drift he might sometimes explain to me later. Tamasin and I occasionally set out upon adventures, certainly the least bearable of which was a trip on a pirate vessel named the Jolly Roger. This vessel pumped out reggae for an hour in the middle of each afternoon, anchored offshore, offered limitless orange petrol to drink, and was operated by a captain with a strong line in innuendo; the voyage’s highlight was a mock marriage involving a good deal of crazy foam and rice. I do not mind if I never have that kind of fun again. Tamasin, in her unapproachable beauty, fared rather better than a poiseless Scot absolutely lost without her book. The drink was at this stage of my life too nasty even for me to drink.
We flew to Boston and drove down boulevards of thrilling tackiness; here the Leaning Tower of Pizza, there ‘Dan’s Clams: the more you eat the more you get’. The house Emma and her friend Alexander Cockburn had taken for the summer was a silvery clapboard house with verandas, perfect for a reader of Updike. You could walk out along the quay and swim from it through soft yet salt water edged with rushes. Intelligence was again the air of the house, this time fashionably radical and very fast moving. Alexander made us Manhattans to drink. For some reason, although I had in Barbados been soaking up four or five daiquiris a day, that Manhattan did me in. I spoke in tongues, I howled, I went on and on about the things about which drunks go on and on, the things they drink to forget. I remember being excruciatingly boring about Colonsay, and going on too about mothers. I was out of my depth in all senses after two measures of bourbon, a sugar lump and some bitters.
Emma did what she does, which was remain white and cool. Alexander, having much and distinguished Irish blood, must have seen a drunk Celt before but I was terrified to meet anyone’s eyes at breakfast, so I stayed upstairs for as long as I could reading Paradise Lost. I also found, read and was scared by Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. Its photographs of dead people in undignified settings, head in the oven, perfect hairdo hanging out of a ruined car, stays with me. It set one register of my bad dreams. Somehow the shamefulness of the book attached itself to my shame about having got so drunk.
I reassembled myself and occurred brightly into the others’ normal day at about eleven with the gelatinous acted normality that will be familiar to all who are or know alcoholics.
We progressed to New York, where Emma lived on Central Park West. Again the note in the house was of the Left, of books and the want of show. I discovered that New York was a walkable city, like Edinburgh, and loved it. I was unprepared for its expressive beauty, the variety of shapes, the quality of reciprocated light thrown between the buildings. Amschel fell for a Moholy-Nagy in the Guggenheim and drank gimlets at the Plaza Bar. We visited a bookshop at midnight and called in meals; what could be better?
Years later, when I was just over thirty, my Girtonian friend Miss Montague of Greenwich Village got married. She asked me to be one of her matrons of honour. There were, I believe, eight of us. I was much the tallest and the smallest was a groovy society photographer called Roxanne Lowitt who could look good in a brown bag. Sarah herself was a vision as a bride, lacy, light, frothing. I may have to go into the background of the garments worn by those of us in her train. Her mother was a balletomane and was to be found, as a rule, wherever in the world Nureyev was dancing. Sarah had one precious piece of material designed by Bakst for the Ballets Russes. It was a shimmering jungle silk, but there was hardly enough of it to go round eight people, so a plan had been devised. Each of our dresses, cut exactly to fit our disparate measurements, would bear at its neck a lozenge of the precious cloth.
So it was, on the afternoon after Sarah’s graceful and affecting wedding ceremony, that I was accosted by Christopher Hitchens, somewhere near Union Square. I did notice that we were surrounded by people who were not conventionally dressed but, hey, this was the time of club culture and I must hang with it.
Christopher has one of the most compelling voices alive. I confess I bought on CD his book god Is Not Great simply in order to hear those tones, so smoothed by cigs, so enriched by the booze, so clever and hardly vain at all, so lubriciously dated and grand.
‘Hi, Claude,’ said Christopher. ‘Happy Halloween. And what are you dressed as? A parsnip?’
As we returned to England in the aeroplane in 1976, Amschel asked if I’d like to be his lodger in Warwick Avenue. When I said yes thank you, I had no idea to what I was acceding. I did not know London in any sense at all. I had visited Madame Tussauds, a few antiquarian book-shops, Vogue House which is at number one Hanover Square, and perhaps a handful of fashion boutiques, Biba, Bus Stop and Laurence Corner Military Apparel, whose khaki siren suits were, with gold stiletto-heeled boots, my relaxation wear throughout the nineteen-seventies. I had no idea about the wires that hold a life together. All I knew was that I had that job on Vogue.
Warwick Avenue is a boulevard running down from Blomfield Road and the Regent’s Canal. Ava Gardner had lived around here. The green cabmen’s hut is famous among cabbies for the quality of its fry-ups. Amschel’s flat had been lived in before by his sister Emma and Alexander Cockburn and had clearly lain at a nerve centre of sixties radicalism. The journal Three Weeks was published from there. The chastity of the décor was something that I have come to think of as a particular form of le goût Rothschild. The first flight of stone stairs was bare. At some point a large quantity of serviceable elephant-grey carpet had become available and there it was on the floors of the drawing room, the serious library, all the way up the next flight of stairs and into each bedroom beyond and so right to the very top attic room, which was to be the epicentre of some heartbreaks. Amschel himself was fastidious and exquisitely dressed. His trousers came from Beale & Inman, his suits from Anderson & Sheppard. He was twenty-one, his jeans were ironed, his shoes from Wildsmith. But he looked like a saint, not a dandy. He was attending the City University. He would return from the country with his clothes for the week beautifully ironed and ready for his week’s study. Later he became the circulation manager of Ian Hamilton’s New Review. No situation could have been more elegantly suited to him in all its minimalism. At weekends he raced classic cars. His room contained his bed and, leaning against the wall, one ormolu-framed mirror that may have come from Mentmore.
The drawing room at Warwick Avenue was furnished with a desk made of a single curve of wood, a sculpture by the Greek artist Takis that when switched on at the wall flashed its alternating yellow, green, purple and blue lights, and an elephantine set of sofa and chairs, comfortably expiring. We did have a telly. I think it sat on a pile of telephone directories. There was a pencil drawing by Léger over the desk. Occasionally, Amschel might visit the kitchen, halve an avocado with a surgeon’s care, ease away its stone, and spoon a little Hellman’s Mayonnaise into the depression. Once or twice I saw him cut a slice of bread and turn it by various processes into toast and Marmite.
His generosity in having, as lodger, one so improvident and domestically gifted only at cleaning rather than cooking, was typical of the sweetness within the formality of this complicated yet simple-hearted man. I paid no rent. We had no romance. I suppose it was poor Amschel upon whom I learned to cook. I spared him the dish that got me through much of Cambridge, rice cooked with Bovril or tomato ketchup or, when the occasion demanded protein, whelks. I am not sure I could look a whelk in the face now. I am not talking about winkles, but whelks, that have a keratinous front door the size of a thumbnail, a flesh-coloured body that looks like a plastic model of the inner ear, and, tremendously evident khaki digestive arrangements.
Amschel’s father, who had mesmerising and often alarming charm, asked me one day whether I could cook Sole Colbert. I liked saying yes to Victor and sometimes his early morning calls demanding, for example, a crested ear trumpet, were challenges that it was amusing to rise to. I cannot imagine how his tenderly beautiful wife Tess and he got down the astounding brew I had made over three days’ reduction of beef bones. I had reinvented Bovril itself. I suppose Tess, as she always did, made it all right.
Meanwhile, I was learning the magazine trade from the bottom up. I am uncoordinated and not good with knives. Layout in those days involved the cutting out of individual letters with a scalpel and their placing at the actual point upon the page demanded by the art director. Vogue’s art director at the time was the innovative Terry Jones. The really fascinating people in the art room were the retouchers, who did by hand what computers do now, that is, make perfection real, with eyes as minutely observant as those of a jeweller, using brushes as fine as the tip of an ermine’s tail. With almost buddhistic patience and only the most cryptic of chat, these quiet, gifted people would lift a face on film from pleasantness into beauty by the application of tiny dots. At least one was a refugee from Austria. I could imagine her retouching for Horst, for Baron de Meyer. I imagine the retouchers spoiled their eyesight, though they did have lenses much like those a watchmaker might use. The rhythm of our weeks was ruled by ‘The Book’, which was the magazine itself. Copy dates were long and dictated by the seasons of the couture, so we lived always in an unreal, future time. There was nothing more precious than the dummy of the next issue, which would be full of ‘stories’ that had been thought out by the fashion room well in advance and dictated by some shift in collective mood as mysterious as the great annual migrations.
My first summer at Vogue was a summer of cream. All the girls in the fashion room had the look. If you didn’t understand how to have the look, you couldn’t be in the fashion room. The girls in the fashion room were riveting to observe. They had a susceptibility to trend and nuance that is germane to what keeps capitalism rolling round. In some this amounted to pure artistry; I think of Sheila Wetton, who had been Molyneux’s house model and who wore gloves to work every day; of flame-like Grace Coddington who cannot but breathe out new trends as she exhales, yet moves in classicism like the night; of Liz Tilberis, who epitomised for me fresh-faced, freckly, friendly, calico-wearing chic even though she ended a perfect size four for couture, thanks to cancer. The girls in the fashion room hardly spoke to the girls in Copy, or even in Features, where I ended up.
Our editor, Miss Beatrix Miller, was to me like a far less specious version of the headmistress of Sherborne. It may seem crass to compare a fashion magazine with that excellent girls’ school and the Church Missionary Society to which Dame Diana dedicated her life, but Beatrix Miller was an individual who was utterly committed to seeing and getting the best in and from everyone she worked with and who worked under her. Her leadership was generous; she was not an icon but an inspiration No liberties were to be taken yet her thoughtfulness was boundless, her private kindness silently conducted. Her office door was guarded by the magnificent Ingrid Bleischroder who was delivered to work in her father’s Rolls. Miss Miller, which was what we called her, seemed to live on fizzy Redoxon tablets. She had good hands and pencilled the underside of each nail in white crayon. Everything was in the detail.
Having acquitted myself hopelessly in the area of layout, since I vomited every time the Cow Gum was used, I was shuffled magnanimously into Features via Copy. At the time, Vogue had such writers working for it as James Fenton, Charles Maclean and Lesley Blanch. Polly Devlin, Antonia Williams and Georgina Howell were staff writers. The standard was high. I was allowed to start with writing captions. This isn’t an easy matter. You have to consider the ego of the photographer, the needs of the manufacturer of any garments depicted, who may be an advertiser, the size of the page, the demands of the font, and of course the story. I spent days thinking up the words ‘Double cream layers’. The photographer was Eric Boman, the model Beska and the lingerie was made by Janet Reger and Courtenay of Bond Street. The story was ‘Girl alone in bathroom in Grand Hotel with many diamonds and very few clothes. What, this side of decency, does she get up to?’
My particular incapacity was to remember to ask what the price of the garment was, so that sometimes a page might go to press with a pound sign followed by a hopeful row of zeros waiting for the real price to come through. The practicalities of working co-operatively on a magazine are similar to those of working on a film and require many of the same adaptive qualities. You need to be practical, quick-witted, resourceful, outgoing, good at working with other people, unflappable, not remotely touchy, able to cope in extreme temperature conditions and capable of soothing persons spoilt to the point of psychopathy. Miss Miller and her team did all this, and more, and evidently loved every minute. I was as bad at working on a magazine as I was later to prove duff at writing a film, though that film work did bring me two invaluable things; an attachment to Stanley Kubrick, who had asked me to write a film for him, and the startlingly prophetic words for my affliction, blepharospasm, which is indeed Eyes Wide Shut, the name of that film about my failure to write which Stanley was wryly graceful.
I came into work on my bike and left it in the Vogue car park underground. I worked out a uniform that would keep me unnoticed at first which was a pair of Amschel’s jeans, my school beige V-neck and a fox-fur scarf I had got for ten pounds (a lot of money) in a junk shop. I gave up eating, following a regime larcenously entitled ‘the doctor’s diet’. I ate a boiled egg and four prawns per day, but I did feel I was starting to fit in a bit more. I was moved from Copy, where my boss had been a pretty grey-haired lady who was fond of bird-watching and possessed unaccountably right-wing views, on to Features, where my boss was Joan Juliet Buck, Hollywood name to conjure with, playmate of the stars and later to be editor of French Vogue. At this point in her life she wore only the colour purple. It was to do with something Karl Lagerfeld, a close friend, had told her. Her eyes were purple, deep purple all around the iris’s edge. Her skin was white.
Joan was precisely the sort of person who is unique in style and therefore frustrates those legions who emulate her; that is part of being truly chic. I thought I might take up this monochrome business and I chose as my colour, probably because I am so chromatically indecisive, pure white. Between Joan and me was the admirably sane Lucy Hughes-Hallett. One day it was Lucy’s twenty-seventh birthday. ‘Oh my God you are so young,’ drawled perfectly maquillé Joan between taking calls and reading the celebrity bulletin to see who was in town that day. Her furs were good, and embroidered, as proper furs should be, with their owner’s name on the silk lining. Joan was interesting, kind and clever and I wanted to do something to please her. She was off out to lunch. Would I take her messages? Of course I would. Joan was engaged at the time. In a density of tailored yet clinging mauve, her black hair cut so perfectly that it had a ring of light around the top, Joan set forth for lunch, I just happened to know, with Donald Sutherland.
Joan knew all the stars, so I wasn’t surprised and I sat close to her phone to be really helpful and take messages in case it rang.
In due course Joan’s telephone did ring.
I picked it up.
‘May I speak to Joan?’
‘No, I’m sorry.’
‘Who is this?’
Although I had won the Vogue Talent Contest in my natal name, Candia McWilliam, I was very confused about names and many people knew me by my nickname Claude and the surname Howard, so, more often than not, I got into great knots of explanation. I can’t remember the name that I gave to my interlocutor but he did turn it on me. Let us say that he said, ‘Well, Claude Howard, where is Joan?’
‘Oh that’s easy,’ I chirruped, ‘she’s out at lunch.’
Forms of breathing that I should have had the instinct to recognise were audible. This was a powerful individual, changing into another conversational gear entirely.
With horrible adult lightness this man asked me with whom Joan was having lunch. The part of my brain that knew that Joan was engaged to someone ceased to function. The thought that this man might be that someone did not proffer itself. I just remembered the interesting bit and walked into the dragon’s mouth as I smiled daffily into that cupping receiver, ‘Oh, she’s having lunch with Donald Sutherland.’ There was a tremendous roar and a slam.
Joan, who arrived back at the office after coffee and petits fours, was sweet about it. I was so lucky in her and the other features writers that I did what I can do when things seem to be going rather well. I sabotaged them.
In the interests of this fascinatingly changing, daily thinner everyday me, I had forsworn alcohol. But it is perfectly possible for an alcoholic to be drunk on mood, tension or state of mind.
I was being courted by a number of countervalent men, at least three of them alarming on account of age, force, tastes or marital status. They took me at what was increasingly my face value, or rather decreasingly my face value, a skinny babe (that word was not yet coined with reference to people older than two) who worked at Vogue. I had no idea how to transmit to them that I was a trapped bookish fatty who was no good at working at Vogue.
I don’t know when I stopped going into the office, but I do remember, and I thank her for it, that Miss Miller sent me telegram after telegram asking me if I was all right when I imagine she could have sued or sacked me. I wrote her letters that I never sent and some, years later, that I did send, and do not even know where she is or if she is alive today, but I must be one of the most disappointing outright winners of the Vogue Talent Contest ever. I was just too scared to go back into that office. Having turned myself into a caricature of what I saw, I behaved like someone with an empty head. I froze like a thin white woman with a head full of snow.
It’s not a secret that Vogue in those days ran on the labour of gently reared girls with private income, so that, for example, it was possible to find Lady Jane Spencer in the Beauty Room, and a descendant of Pushkin and the Wernher mining family, who later became a virtuosic mime artist, in the administration department. It would be unfair on Condé Nast though to ascribe my defection simply to my not being able to afford to work there.
Addicted to magazines as I am, I could not bear seeing behind their pages. I was like the opposite of a conjuror who likes to make magic from his practical skills. I could not bear the bright light shed upon my dreams. I had grown ill within the very breeding ground of consumption.
There was a bad period of hiding and pretending to be going to work, but the 50ps ran out and even when I had pawned my mother’s jewellery box for eight pounds (it was ebony, silver, mother-of-pearl, had crystal phials and a box of mercury powder for wigs, was made in the eighteenth century and contained its bill of sale, handwritten; she had given it to me for my fifth Easter), even when I’d saved up cider bottles and taken them back to the off-licence to redeem the 10p on each one, even then I knew that the only sort of work I could do, with any honesty, was writing. I had dropped a stitch somewhere by not applying for a doctorate, by lazily, unthinkingly, slipping into my prize job at Vogue.
Happy outcomes from my time at Vogue were friendships. Two friends I had made just before Vogue, one the little sister of Alexandra Shulman, who went on to edit Vogue. Alex and I were friends but I was, I felt, too impractical for her; I remain devoted to her and impressed and rather intimidated by her. Her little sister Nicola became a friend of the heart. Beauty is an impossible characteristic. Women want to have affairs with men who have had affairs with beauties, as if it will up the octane of their own looks. Nicky is shrewd and innocent, a real writer, scholarly and kind. It just so happens that the capsule her soul is contained in is a beautiful one.
At school at St Paul’s with Alexandra were the famously terrifying Fraser girls. The Frasers lived in Camden Hill Square. Notoriously, a neighbour of theirs had been killed by an IRA bomb intended for their father Hugh Fraser. Hugh Fraser was an example to me of everything a man might be. He looked like an eagle, he took mustard on his smoked salmon, he sang to his dog, he was upright, noble and all the Alan Breck virtues.
Flora Fraser possesses that smile to be found on some ancient sculptures, referred to as the archaic smile. It is the sad smile, the smile of an all-knowing Clio, muse of history. When first we met, Flora was reading Greats at Wadham and I was at Girton–no, it goes further back. I remember a sixteenth birthday party at Camden Hill Square and precisely what I wore, footless tights in strong pink and a knitted transparent pink lamé nightgown together with my, at the time, candy pink and hot pink striped hair all twisted up in a bun. Flora married very young her peer in intellect and in love. She was still at university. Her husband Robert Powell-Jones had read Russian and Chinese. His intelligent beauty shook with the tension and pitch of his mind. He danced on a high wire in that head.
They learned Turkish and Italian together, living on love and carrot sticks. Their daughter Stella was born to them one glorious May the 15th. But Robert carried in him what I carry too and he did not escape it. They tried everything but in the end he died before Christmas 1997. He had just completed his translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman. It might almost be as though Robert’s own subtlety, that was compromised by the harm drink did him, has after death joined itself in posthumous conjunction with Flora’s own subtlety. I could not have managed my life without this strong friendship that she has thrown to me when I thought there was no one in the sea but sharks and minnows.
So somehow I ended up after Vogue working first in a joke shop and then for a decorous old-style pornographer on Old Street, which was not the fashionable area it is now. In addition to packing tired copies of Fanny Hill and trying to get off the ground a rather interesting-sounding book about the Blunt family and equine blood-lines, I ended up, thinner yet this time, and attired in white, but in rather the same situation I had found myself in at the very beginning of Vogue, ineptly laying out a magazine with scalpel, cardboard and Cow Gum, though now in a small room in Old Street with one man instead of Vogue House with all its varied and often congenial wildlife.
This time it was the AA membership magazine that I was laying out badly, the AA being a large organisation that comes to the rescue of motorists in distress and whose headquarters are in Basingstoke. My new boss, the Old Street one, who regularly paid me in cash on a Friday morning and borrowed much of it back on Friday afternoons, took me on a trip to Basingstoke. We underwent a lunch with the bigwigs from the Automobile Association in their local hostelry. Mention was made of my having worked on Vogue. This to demonstrate experience with layout. I deprecated loudly but no one was reading my body language. The AA headquarters was, at that time, one of the tallest buildings in Basingstoke and from its boardroom might be viewed the Wiggins Teape building, known locally as the Hanging Gardens of Basingstoke. I laughed, then saw that my reaction was not the right one and sucked in the laugh.
I knew that I was acting and that I shouldn’t have been given the part, should never have auditioned for it. Anyone in their right mind would have sent me away as had the kind lady at Konrad Furs in South Molton Street, who simply said, when I went in there and asked for a job, ‘Do you really think you’re suitable, dear? Aren’t you a bit over-qualified? How much do you know about selecting pelts?’
Out beyond the edges of Basingstoke, a town that grew almost as one watched it, were roundabouts, aspin with vehicles, their owners very likely members themselves of the AA. Our presentation having been accepted, we were appointed designers to the Automobile Association of their monthly magazine. Going down in the lift, my boss said, ‘Seems a pity all that land being built on around Basingstoke. Still, you’ve got to put people somewhere and it’s as good a place as any.’ And so I got the layout job for the AA. The prefiguring of my being practically laid out before I got to the other kind of AA is not too neat to be true.
I stayed with this job for about a year, my ineptitude in most areas outstripped by that of my boss, over whom there was a Mr Big of whose visits I lived in fear. In another part of the building, doing I do not know what, worked a tired-looking man named Mr Bunce, whose assistant Nanette came in one day with what looked very like a broken jaw. The one solid benefit of the job was that opposite the office there was that beautiful repository for the dead, Bunhill Fields, where I walked when I could, reading the stones.
But by now I was learning to take a certain amount of care of myself. Our lugubrious next-door neighbour in Warwick Avenue, Tobias Rodgers, a dealer in Spanish incunabula, threw a tablecloth over his ping-pong table and had a party. At this party I enjoyed a conversation about Hogarth, about building wooden ships, about the deliciousness of non-fizzy Champagne, about how weird it was to be the only Jewish family in your small town in New England. I had met the man who was to stop me going out dressed inappropriately, make me eat more sensibly, and show me, in the Cosy Fish and Supper Bar in Whitecross Street, opposite my workplace in Old Street, how to eat a gherkin properly. For a start it was called a pickle. His band was called The Forbidden and their number ‘Ain’t Doin’ Nothin” was number forty-three in the New Wave charts. His nom de guerre was Jet Bronx. He is now more ordinarily known as Loyd Grossman.
As we worked on this chapter together and I gradually lost sight, Liv and I speculated as to what lies at the root of the changes that dictate fashion. I said to her that I’d always thought of it in two ways; that, as it were, there might be a cobalt mountain somewhere and therefore, to keep to cobalt prices high, blue must be the colour for the coming season. So I’d thought of it visually, the colours laid out as you see great heaps of pigment in soft triangles set in low brass bowls at the roadside in India.
The other way I’d thought of it is as an enormous sneeze of influence, so that everyone under the age of forty suddenly thinks that she has invented the notion of edging a cardigan with velvet or pinning an outsized rose on to her lapel. The great trick is the usual one with capitalism: how to make everyone feel that they are expressing their individual self by purchasing the very same thing as many millions of others. Who are the great sneezers of influence? People imagine that it is the fashion editors, but I think the truth is more mysterious and lies deep at the root of the levels of discontent with themselves that are imposed upon women and that we embrace with such delight and appetite.
I had, in London, broadly, two milieux when I first arrived there in 1976: homosexual men and grown-ups. Of course they often overlapped. The first world set me at my ease when I talked, as the purely heterosexual world did not quite. Drawn as I was to art historians, architectural historians and painters, I found myself often the only girl in a room. I was fond of dancing and with my close friend James Fergusson, an individual of impeccably sober mien, antiquarian bookseller and revolutionary of the newspaper obituary, I used to jump about a lot in gay clubs. Jamie is entirely of the marrying kind and I have the privilege of being godmother to his daughter Flora, who would be horrified to see how her father and I, whose common ground is fundamentally bookish and topographical since we are both Scots with a close interest in stone carving and every matter of calligraphy, font or letterpress, cut capers in the Embassy Club, Country Cousin and other dives. The other thing we did by night was drive in James’s Mini-Clubman van, looking at churches and the streets of the City. On these drives I would come closer to understanding my father’s detailed love of London.
What was I living on during these days? I sold a lot of my clothes, I didn’t eat unless I was taken out, I had a little overdraft, and I got mortifying jobs. I ghosted two books and modelled for Levi’s Jeans. It is a nice point that my first husband’s second wife was auditioned for the Levi’s job, but her bottom wasn’t big enough. I was conscious that I was wasting time and that I should be spending my days accumulating and building words or else teaching in some context or another. I wrote tiny pieces for the TLS, the Spectator, anyone that would have me. Essentially, these publications were doing me favours. I had no sense of building a career. I was flashy-looking but recessive.
The moment any form of recognition or success looked as though it might be looming, I scarpered. I longed for routine, for a project, for a means of making something with what I was fairly sure I had, some kind of baker’s gift to leaven things.
Instead I woke up every morning with my heart battering in fear of I did not know what as the cavalry horses trotted down Warwick Avenue in the dawn. If I had enough money I would buy a newspaper, occasionally applying for jobs. On the way to get the paper, I would say good morning to Stanley, the tramp who sat on the bench outside the house in Warwick Avenue. Of course he knew my name. I always gave him the money I didn’t have.
One day Stanley was reading a rather thick-looking book.
‘Good morning, Stanley,’ I said. ‘Is it any good?’
‘Don’t look, Candia,’ said Stanley. ‘I’m masturbating.’
I was reading all the time, munching through the shelves at Warwick Avenue and rereading Under the Volcano suspiciously many times, though I still didn’t know what was wrong. I remember overhearing Christopher Hitchens recommending The Blood of the Lamb by Peter de Vries to Martin Amis. I read it. I wanted that kind of steer on what to read next.
One or two properly adult friends had the energy and gumption to tell me to sit still and write a book, but I still hung back. My friend the publisher John Calman was angry at how I was, as he saw it, wasting my life by failing to write. He shouted accurate and therefore even sorer accusations of time-wasting and expense of spirit at me in an echoing restaurant. I took umbrage, mainly I guess because I knew he was right. We fell into a stand-off. John was murdered in France at the age of thirty-seven by a hitch-hiker who used as his weapon cooking knives that John’s mother had given him. Nothing seemed susceptible of redress. This talented wilful passionate man had cared enough to say what should have been said. He paid me the honour of interfering as too few adults had in my wilful self-sabotage. If I had been attentive to John then, some disasters of my own if not of his life might perhaps have been averted. It is dreadful like a red spider shot into the head to think of his end. I dream of it never less than once a month, hoping to have reversed it by the time I waken. His mother outlived her son.
A new lodger came to Warwick Avenue. She had superabundant talent but also required system. When first she came to live with us the contained, feline Angela Gorgas was executing a series of quasi-tantric Indian miniatures for the Playboy millionaire Victor Lownes. Angela was angel-like, too, from every angle, actually embodying the entirety of her implausibly suitable name. She had hyacinthine locks, sooty eyes, a tremendous laugh, seemed to talk without moving her mouth, was half my size and was at the epicentre of more love polyhedra than one telephone line and front door could easily accommodate. If your arm was worth having then Angela was on it. She also made a sweet friend.
I became distracted from my own life’s path in the plots of the lives of others. I had no very strong sense, except when I was dressed up, of who to be. When dressed, I often overheard things that I disapproved of or feared. At one dinner party, evidently culled from the tips of various social icebergs, I overheard the unforgettably wrong-headed sentence, ‘That man is a traitor to his adopted class.’ I want one day to write the novel that fits around those self-revealing words.
I was learning the Lily Bart lesson but not taking it in.
Some of my friends were starting to get little dry coughs that wouldn’t go away. One friend I nagged at for a whole evening to go to the doctor. How he must have wished to back me away and how politely he concurred and said he would. They started to die in threes, the more outrageous ones, the ones who had given themselves girls’ names or only wore leather. Surprising people got thinner and thinner and then were dead. It was like a race that you did not want to win whose starting pistol had a silencer.
I received a long letter about the importance of d’Annunzio and about the health of his two Afghan hounds from my schoolfriend Edward Stigant weeks after he died in hospital in Milan. So his mother lost two of her three sons too soon.
Then, at last, I found a proper job rather than a hand-to-mouther. When people asked me the name of where I worked, they said, ‘You’ve made it up!’
Well I hadn’t, and it was a wonderful job, though I was a rotten employee. I was hired to write copy for an advertising agency whose name really was Slade, Bluff and Bigg. It was of small size and, which was startling for an advertising agency in the approach to the nineteen-eighties, radiant with principle. For every flashy account we had, there was a charity, for every glittery client, a quietly decent one. I was happy in my work, though I cannot believe how patient were my employers. Mr Slade, who was very musical, was a dedicated Liberal, the only Liberal indeed on the Greater London Council. His brother Julian wrote Salad Days. Mr Bigg had had a distinguished career in a much larger agency and lent calm authority to every meeting. Mr Bluff was a real sweetie and could handle such tricky clients as Gucci and Kutchinsky with his velvet paws. The agency was in bosky South Kensington. I had a room to myself. I shall never forget the art director because he told me two things: one was to write a book right then and the other that drink was no good for me because my character changed when I drank. And this was someone who had never seen me drunk. He himself never drank. I took neither piece of advice.
Loyd was in America pursuing his career in the world of punk. Actually, now I come to think of it, I suppose the answer to the question posed in passing above, about who creates the world’s fashions and trends, is probably none other than Loyd Grossman, sauce-supremo and anagrammatical arts tsar, and other such poly-national panurges.
To a considerable degree, the meta-Loyd whom the public sees was a creation of the nineteen-eighties. When first I met him he was writing a doctorate at the LSE about the effect of distilled spirits on the eighteenth-century working class in London and the author of a crisp book about the history of rock music. How less direct might his trajectory have been had he settled down with me and written treatises on the lesser-known pupils of Verrocchio.
Many of my Cambridge friends had departed to become professors in America. Perhaps it was a Hogmanay on Colonsay that drove Simon Schama off these shores for good? He certainly hated it so much that he mentioned it on Desert Island Discs. I felt so sorry, but I understood exactly. It was a mixture of heartbreak, weather, and what he apprehended as a glimpse of unreconstructed Philistia at play. He took refuge in the library at Colonsay House that he pronounced to be a decent though unadventurous Whig library. The record he chose to epitomise his short sojourn on the island was the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’. I’m sad he got that glimpse, and I have seen things through those eyes too, but the truth is, as always, more complicated. My Oxford friends had settled into their vocations, Rosa into cell biology, Jamie Fergusson into the world of antiquarian bookselling, my friend Fram Dinshaw into becoming himself a don at Oxford. Niall Hobhouse had left Cambridge early and set up as an art dealer specialising in art and artefacts relating to India. He is now profoundly involved with the philosophy and practice of architecture and of public housing. His public service genes came to get him.
In the story of a life, according to the best-conducted experts on etiquette, there are but three times when one should appear in a newspaper: when one is born, when one dies and, in the middle, when one marries.
On our first date, Quentin Wallop told me that he would never ask anyone to marry him.
We became engaged not very long thereafter. We married on 10 February 1981 in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. We chose the church with its sublime spire and then unrestored and umbrageous interior because Quentin was a dedicated circumnavigator of the globe under sail and it is the church of seafarers, and for its architecture, and on account of the charitable work it does among the addicts and the homeless of London.
My father, that is, my blood parent, had suggested that we marry in St Magnus the Martyr, for T.S. Eliot: ‘Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold’. But there was some problem with parking.
Eyes were very important in our swift courtship. Quentin saw me across a room in Marsham Court where he was living. My impression was of hand-painted wallpaper, celadon in tone, and a young man with gold hair not apparently enjoying his own party. We did not speak. No one introduced us. I had just returned from India, where I had gone to convince a friend that it was home that he was pining for and not me, so I was rather thin and must have seemed interesting on account of not having slept for some days. Quentin made enquiries as to who I was and moves were made towards an introduction. We were both motherless, both tall, both longing for affection, both serious about children and animals and we each believed that we could make the other happy. With so much breakage in our pasts, too many house-moves, too much unsettledness, we married, we felt, with our eyes and hearts open.
Another romance was shaking confetti over the nation at the time. I was surprised when pretty Lady Diana Spencer chose my dressmaker to make her wedding dress, but who could be annoyed for very long, when myhandsome prince was there? Our (I cannot say ‘my’; it was ‘our’ wedding after all) wedding dress was entirely covered with glass sequins, each one colourless, each one exactly like a tiny pierced contact lens.
My dress had a million eyes and it was to the future that they were turned as I went down the aisle on Papa’s arm towards my groom in the soft gloom of that great church, thirty feet of Argos-eyed glass and white taffeta train pouring itself down the aisle behind me. Daddy was in a front pew, having professed himself delighted not to have to take a central role; I wonder now.
From the tiara that held up my hair, released for the day from the Bank of Montreal, fell a long veil over my face. It too was scattered with brilliant lenses that made me feel as though I was seeing the day and the man to whom it gave me through shining tears of unquestionable joy.
Were marriages so tidy as to be best composed of opposites, how well we might have done; but in some ways I think we were too profoundly alike and are able better to love one another when not under the same roof but equal in our love for our children. Quentin is incontrovertibly the hero type. He camps under the stars with the Tuareg, he walks the Karakoram Highway, he loves the Hindu Kush, he is involved in the rehabilitation of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone. He works for the Red Cross. He does hidden good. When we met I thought he was ridiculously handsome with golden hair and a terrific beak like the old Duke of Wellington and he knew how to do things. I thought that it was pretty much as exotic as being able to stay on a bucking bronco to be able to drive, so it was inevitable that I became infatuated with this person who could do so much that I could not and to whom I felt I had so much to give. I did feel he was a kind of merman and it is the cruellest of fates to which, to this day, he will not allude, that his beautiful boat, Ocean Mermaid, launched by his mother, was burned in an accidental shipyard fire long after we parted.
However, it is restorative to see him on one of his hunters, Gus, Monty or Graf, and realise that he is once again connecting himself with the life for which he was made and that is in his blood.
In the dining room at his house at Farleigh are two tall portraits by Sir Francis Grant, depicting Isaac Newton Wallop, the 5th Earl, and his wife, Lady Eveline Herbert. The 5th Earl refused a marquessate and the Garter from Gladstone, thinking them ‘beyond his merits’. This Earl and Countess had twelve children and she embroidered a chair cover during each pregnancy, still managing somehow, in between all of it, to gather up into her social life, albeit briefly, Henry James, who wrote to his father from Eggesford, the Portsmouth house in Devon:
I am paying a short visit at what I suppose is called here a ‘great house’, vis. at Lord Portsmouth’s. Lady P, whom I met last summer at Wenlock Abbey and who is an extremely nice woman, asked me a great while since to come here at this point, for a week. I accepted for three days, two of which have happily expired–for when the moment came I was very indisposed to leave London. That is the worst of invitations, given you so long in advance, when the time comes you are apt to be not at all in the same humour as when they were accepted…
The place and country are, of course, very beautiful and Lady P, ‘most kind’; but though there are several people in the house (local gentlefolk, of no distinctive qualities) the whole thing is dull. This is a large family, chiefly of infantine sons and daughters (there are twelve!) who live in some mysterious part of the house and are never seen. The one chiefly about is Lord Lymington, the eldest one, an amiable youth of twenty-one attended by a pleasant young Oxford man, with whom he is ‘reading’. Lord P. is simply a great hunting and racing magnate, who keeps the hounds in this part of the country, and is absent all day with them. There is nothing in the house but pictures of horses–and awfully bad ones at that.
The life is very simple and tranquil. Yesterday, before lunch, I walked in the garden with Lady Rosamund, who is not ‘out’, and doesn’t dine at table, though she is a very pretty little pink and white creature of 17; & in the p.m. Lady P. showed me her boudoir which she is ‘doing up’, with old china & c.; and then took me to drive in her phaeton, through some lovely Devonshire lanes. In the evening we had a ‘ballet’; i.e. the little girls, out of the schoolroom, came down into the gallery with their governess and danced cachuckas, minuets & c. with the utmost docility and modesty, while we sat about and applauded.
Today is bad weather, and I am sitting alone in a big cold library, of totally unread books, waiting for Lord Portsmouth, who has offered to take me out & show me his stable & kennels (famous ones), to turn up. I shall try & get away tomorrow, which is a Saturday as I don’t think I could stick out a Sunday here…it may interest you [to] know, as a piece of local color that, though there are six or seven resident flunkies here, I have been trying in vain, for the last half hour, to get the expiring fire refreshed. Two or three of them have been in to look at it–but it appears to be no one’s business to bring in coals…
I have come to my room to dress for dinner in obedience to the bell, which is just being tolled. A footman in blue and silver has just come in to ‘put out’ my things–he almost poured out the quantum of water I am to wash by. The visit to the stables was deferred till after lunch, when I went the rounds with Lord P. and a couple of men who were staying here–forty in numbers, horses, mostly hunters & a wonderful pack of foxhounds–lodged like superior mechanics.
Although I have a soft spot for the 5th Earl, who is good-looking and sounds decent, one can feel that Henry James wasn’t perhaps putting his back into those so beautifully maintained dumb animals. During these blind years, I’ve been playing all sorts of silly games along the lines of who would you rather among the great writers be stuck in a boat with, and at first I thought the answer was a toss-up between George Eliot and Proust. But now I think, if we’re ruthless and it had to be one, let’s have Henry James. We can hide his correspondents Robert Louis Stevenson and Turgenev in his greatcoat pockets.
LENS II: Chapter 6
If my own is a story of uprooting and its effects, so is that of my first husband, about whom I shall take the course of writing as little as he would wish. We married in love and in good faith and are the parents of two beloved children. We come high in one another’s lives and have only kind thoughts for one another. We are both of a romantic temperament, both shy and both with an instinct to place trust in a metaphysical belief system that includes God. Quentin is a confirmed Christian. When I stand next to him in church, which I do quite frequently, I feel my own shaky faith strengthened by the directness of his.
I did not become confirmed when the opportunity to be so arrived at boarding school, taking the pi line that most of the other girls were doing it to please their parents and to get a nice string of pearls or a pretty diamond cross. I should have become confirmed then, because it would have so pleased my McWilliam grandmother. Quentin’s story of deracination and its redress is geographically (and in other ways) more dramatic than my own and I shall tell it sparely. Born in Spain, he was a young child in Australia. He loves the sea and ships. At a very tender age, he was sent to prep school at Farleigh House School. His grandfather, sensing after the war that big houses might be doomed, had leased his own to this institution, a primarily Roman Catholic prep school, and moved to Kenya. Thus Quentin was at school among boys of a different religious denomination; he had an Australian accent and was being schooled in a house that was, actually, his own. While he keeps many friends from those days, it was greatly to his satisfaction when the lease expired in 1983 to be able to restore and to re-enter his ancestors’ home. The school relocated to Red Rice in Andover. There is now no sense to the house that it ever was anything but a happy family home. People who were at the school are astonished by the difference.
One way of being evasive in a memoir or whatever it is that my mouth is making in an attempt to get my eyes to open, is to take refuge, as Anthony Powell so gruesomely enjoyably and teasingly does in his own memoirs, in genealogy. I shan’t do that. Histories of the Wallop family may be found elsewhere.
Perhaps the most humanly relevant fact about the Wallop family is that they are known as the Red Earls on account of the heir more often than not having ruby-red hair. Our son Oliver, who was named for Cromwell–one of the Wallops was a regicide–was born on 22 December 1981. His names are also Henry Rufus. I got to choose this third quite unrejectable name. As soon as a little bit of the baby’s head was visible, Quentin was convinced that he would be a boy, and a boy indeed he was, with a fiery head, at birth and ever since, of scarlet hair. It was a hard snowy winter and we spent Christmas at Basingstoke District Hospital, dizzy with joy and completely ignorant of how to feed our huge son. The NHS gave us a knitted Santa which is still in the day nursery at Farleigh. It was the middle of the shooting season, so Quentin would be busy in the day and then slide in his Land Rover back to me in the hospital with big dishes of salami that he had bought at I Camisa in Soho and sliced paper thin. Other mothers who gave birth in December 1981 may remember this handsome man handing around plates of cured Italian meats in his delight at being a father, and it was indeed to be a father that Quentin himself was born. His story of deracination makes for an absolute fix on steadiness as a parent.
Our honeymoon took place in Mexico. I had forgotten to get an American visa and even Mr Potts couldn’t swing it. This time, the crazy luck came from the fact that Papa was very briefly a Minister of State for Defence under Mrs Thatcher, who sacked him I think for being too left-wing; ‘wet’ was the word of the day. Phone calls were made and on our stopover in Los Angeles I was guarded, including on ‘comfort visits’, by armed police. Quentin is an experienced, hardy, courageous, adventurous and curious traveller. He was completely thrown to discover that he had married someone who turned to jelly at the thought of arranging a train trip from Basingstoke to London. He says that I offered to do the washing-up on our first long-haul flight together. In those days there was a sort of drawing room in the forehead of very fat aeroplanes, which I used to like. It felt solid. It was like being a citizen of Celesteville, Babar’s immaculately rational and so French city, all curves and absence of threat, while sitting up in the top of those fat jumbos.
We arrived in Mexico City in the middle of the night. I sent my sparkly pink and grey going-away outfit to the dry cleaner and, true to form, it returned doll-sized the next day. It made for a good grounding that I had read Under the Volcano so many times
But I was completely unprepared to conceive of the minds that could build the pyramids of unmortared stone that we climbed in the Yucatan. The solidity of such abstraction, the mathematical judgement and forethought required to cut each constituent stone just so and to cut it but with another stone, that obsidian axe, all this not only overwhelmed but terrified me. I found myself thinking about their thought and failing to conceive of how even to begin to think about it. It argued mental processes of such developed abstraction, whose result was transformed into something solid, and that felt deathly itself. There were no merciful flaws, was no tolerance of looseness.
It is common knowledge that the Mexicans go and picnic on the graves of their ancestors, taking food for the dear dead. Perhaps that was what I couldn’t supply imaginatively as I stood in the court where allegedly a game had been played with human heads, or when I looked into the stone face of the rain god Chac Mool at the summit of one of the pyramids. It was a relief to see that his uncomfortable pose and lugubrious features looked exactly like James Fergusson, who would have made an improbable Mayan.
In between visits in the dawn before the great heat rolled over these ancient sites, we drove with our guide Mr Cervantes, prodigiously belted around his generous tum, and visited churches whose inner gold was like being swallowed by the burning sun itself, though they were lit low and only brushed by little candles.
In Oaxaca, I was briefly kidnapped. Quentin found me in the police station. There had been a misunderstanding and a perfectly genial crowd of kidnappers had thought I was Jimmy Connors’s new wife, who was apparently a Playmate of the Year in Playboy magazine.
In the way of new couples in a new place, we found ‘our’ restaurant and ‘our’ waiter. We fell for an elderly waiter whose deep melancholic physiognomy was so paintable, so Spanish, that he seemed to have walked straight from the frame of a painting by Velázquez. Having been born in Spain, on the feast of Santiago, Quentin has an affinity with Spaniards, though a Mexican Spaniard is another kind of Spaniard. I feel a strong attraction to that Spanish Greek, El Greco, born in Candia.
It was at the metal table tended by this beautiful waiter, wrapped in his pure white apron, that I learned that of all spirituous liquors, tequila is to me the most dangerous and powerful. I saw black visions. The iguanas didn’t help, purposeful and with empty eyes. They look repulsively knowledgeable, hardenedly social.
Quentin had planned in detail a long honeymoon involving deeper penetration of the jungle–to see Mayan ruins–than we eventually made. We spent some time self-catering in Cancún, an outpost of one kind of American civilisation. When I say self-catering, I mean that we got shy of the communal dining room of the resort we found ourselves in. Somehow it was common knowledge that we were newlyweds and the combination of being serenaded and of not giggling at the menu (‘Pork Chops Deutsch’ got us every time) drove us to spend time in our little cabin on the beach. Since he had been to Mexico before, Quentin had developed a taste for Huevos Rancheros; since I was in love, I ate them too. The other thing we lived on was avocados. I never became quite used to the flat-footed arrival into our bedroom of a grumpy seven-foot-long iguana, who seemed to want to play. He did that thing that creatures in thumpingly hot countries do of staying very still indeed and then making a sudden movement that chills the blood. I think he was in love with Quentin too and wanted to drive us apart. He certainly saw it as his business to guard Quentin from any overtures from me. He was very dusty and I wondered whether he was polished at all underneath. His sides ticked. He stood, it seemed to me, for disappointment, aridity and a general sense of having missed the party. There was no reasoning with him.
In the end, for a Malcolm Lowry fan, it was the perfect way for a Mexican honeymoon to come to a halt. We ran out of money. Quentin, who is good at that sort of thing, made several phone calls. The iguana watched us. Perhaps he was even jealous of the telephone.
At last, after, it seemed, more than a dozen abortive telephone calls conducted in Spanish, Quentin got through to someone who said that they were the secretary to the British Consul. Naturally grave and courteous, Quentin enquired whether he might speak to the Consul.
It was the middle of the afternoon.
The reply came from the secretary, that no, Quentin might not speak to the Consul, since the Consul was taking his rest.
It was irresistible not to hope that the Consul was sleeping it off.
In the event, we flew home, happy in the almost certain knowledge that Oliver would be joining us at some point fairly soon. Over the next nine months I doubled in size. This is not a figure of speech. Quentin was gallant about having married someone of ten stone who very shortly became someone of eighteen.
After Oliver’s first Christmas in the hands of his doting but unpractised parents, help arrived in the octogenarian form of Nanny Ramsay. She was the real thing. Her best friend was also a nanny and had, like our nanny, been nanny to three generations of the same family. When they telephoned each other for a chat, they addressed one another as Nanny, as though it was their given name. I do not know Nanny Ramsay’s Christian name. She smoked one cigarette each evening, out of the window, one foot crossed over the other at the ankle and one hand on her narrow hip. The very old-fashioned sort of nannies used to come in two shapes, fat or thin. She was a thin nanny. She wore a white overall, a belt, a hairnet. Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party at the time and Nanny said of him, ‘Poor Michael Foot, I can’t imagine who his nanny might have been. Look at his hair.’
Nanny was a Scot from Crieff and had retired aged seventy-five. She came out of retirement to do some babies, as favours. She liked to weigh the baby before and after each feed, in proper scales such as a grocer might use, with weights going right down to an eighth of an ounce. Nanny made me keep a notebook to see how Oliver was getting on. It was quite clear that he was thriving. In the scales, he looked much like a person who is always going to hang over the end of things.
There had been but one tricky moment in the haze of delight that surrounded the arrival of Oliver, which was when Quentin’s aunt Camilla visited just before the birth. I had stencilled the cornice of the baby’s room with mermaids and Aunt Mickey, as the family called her, was perfectly content with that. My instinct told me, though we never actually knew from a scan, that the baby would be a boy, and I had purchased what I thought of as a very sensible selection of blue clothes for his arrival, jumpers, jeans, a blanket.
Aunt Mickey instinctively took over the matter of babywear for an impending heir. She took me to the White House, now long gone, where she ordered quires of monogrammed poplin handkerchiefs for the small face to rest upon. Dozens of long white nightgowns with no more than the faintest touch of forget-me-not on the smocking, drifts of shawl made in the Shetland Isles, Egyptian cotton sheets with the discreetest of ‘W’s in the corner, were all were amassed for this most weighty of arrivals. Any other equipment we acquired at the also long-gone Simple Garments of Sloane Street, where it was simply impossible to buy anything synthetic or with animals on it, or anything at all that looked as though it had been confected after 1953. Quentin’s Aunt Philippa Chelsea sent silk bibs. She was the family beauty, lushly voiced, clever, small. She had worked on Jocelyn Stevens’s Queen magazine.
Thank goodness for Aunt Mickey. She had set me on the path of rectitude. And so it was that Oliver and then Clementine were dressed as the kind of children who wore tweed coats with velvet collars and strapped sandals and short pure cotton socks. It is only fair at this stage to say that Clementine complained about this from the age of twelve to the age of twenty-three. She would say, ‘Mummy made me wear smock-dresses and strappy sandals till I was twenty.’ For a long time another line of Clem’s has been that she doesn’t want daughters though this has, by a recent miracle, been lifted during my blindness. The last time we touched on the matter of how she would dress her female children, she said, ‘I’m keeping them in smock-dresses and Mary Janes until they’re thirty!’
Aunt Mickey had worked at Bletchley Park, was widowed young, and lost both her older son and only grandson. For the weeks before my marriage to her nephew, she mothered me at St James’s Palace where the family lived when they were in London. It was at lunch on one of these pre-nuptial days that I learned that one must not cut the nose off a piece of Brie; to do so is called ‘nosing’, as in, ‘My dear, you’ve nosed the Brie’. It was at Aunt Mickey’s table during this astounding week that I looked into the bluest eyes I have ever seen up close, those of Clementine Beit.
Of course she was a Mitford. I fear blue eyes. I like them and I fear them. They freeze the mongrel in me that expects to be whipped.
I must here say something of Aunt Mickey’s brother, Quentin’s father Nol (Oliver) Lymington, my father-in-law. Nol had badly wanted to be a doctor but it was not felt that this was suitable to his station. He was a sweet man, with beautiful legs that he has passed to his son and grandsons. He was frail after a bout of TB and a long stay in Midhurst TB hospital. I am not sure that he received many visitors there, though I know that Mickey was a champion sister to him. He had a wide selection of talents. Towards the end of his shockingly short life, he apprenticed himself to Bill Poon, of Poon’s Chinese restaurant in Soho. Bill Poon was said to be descended from the man who invented the stock cube. Nol came away with a magnificent certificate from Bill Poon, certifying in cursive black ink that ‘Viscount Lee-Min-Tong’ had completed, with distinction, his cookery course. And so he had.
At this point Nol was living with us and I was pregnant: so were many of my friends who lived near us in Hampshire. Nol cut no corners and found every last elephant’s-ear fungus in the stores he haunted in Soho and gave us girls weekly lessons of such detail and panache.
After Chinese food, there was a lull; maybe it was in this lull that he produced my yellow retriever pup Guisachan, dropping her on to my bed as I slept after giving birth to Clementine. The next phase was altogether more esoteric and demanding; Nol became an apprentice chocolatier. He joined the University of the South Bank and learned a tremendous amount about the temperatures at which chocolate is shiny, less shiny, not shiny at all, completely screwed up and so on. He purchased a white overall and he worked in beautiful white gloves. There was nothing he could not do and boxes of chocolates so complex and so pretty that it was impossible to imagine eating them started to appear at family occasions. Nol was the most patient enrober, glosser, crystalliser, ganache-maker and praline-crackist. At this stage in his life he had not yet separated from his third wife. They lived in a house of airy elegance with a parrot named Albert, who had plucked off all the feathers save those on his head, so that Quentin would say he looked oven-ready, and three wire-haired dachshunds named Charlotte, Anne and Emily. The minute precision required by chocolate technology was a challenge to domestic and marital life and it was perhaps a manifestation of their internal schisms when forty-five gallons of enzyme for making soft centres turned up in a drum on the doorstep. Each chocolate requires but one drop.
Nol would have made a good teacher and, in happier times, he could have been an intimate and loving parent and grandparent, had his heart spared him.
The night before our wedding day, I lay in Aunt Mickey’s elder daughter Angela’s maiden bed in St James’s Palace and prayed. I do not remember sleeping though I must have. I remember quantities of indecisive, pleasant February rain falling and the wide view from my window over the sentry box and up St James’s Street. In a box in the cupboard were my white suede shoes, size six, in which I was to walk into my future.
Quentin and I moved to London, renting a house in the Portobello Road, because his bachelor house in London had been set fire to by an arsonist–an episode terrifyingly and more extensively described in Janet Hobhouse’s novel The Furies.
I am incapable of thinking about this with any precision. It occurred around the time of Oliver’s birth. I hardly know about it save through fiction. Quentin had lent his house off Westbourne Grove to Janet when she casually mentioned that she had nowhere to live on a visit to us that snowy winter of Olly’s birth. Janet was living there and lost the manuscript of a book that she was writing on Braque in that fire. Thank God she did not lose her life, though that too was early extinguished by the cancer that drives The Furies into being the stupendous novel it is.
The arsonist had seen Quentin’s car and formed an idea of us for which he evidently did not care. He made a pyre of everything moveable in the house, which was not a great deal, poured petrol over and lit it. Both Quentin and I have, with increasing reason, a deep horror of fire.
During our time in the Portobello Road, Oliver learned to turn somersaults and his sister was conceived. I would not mention this did she not like the idea; it has remained ‘her’ part of London.
While I was expecting Oliver, Quentin himself had been at sea for a good deal of the time, completing his own private circumnavigation on his ketch Ocean Mermaid. Quentin is one of the few people in the world who is entitled to wear the tie of the Association Internationale Amicale des Captains de Longs Cours Cap-Horniers. That is, he has been around Cape Horn, more than once, under sail. To attend the meetings of this society even as an appendage is a privilege. On one occasion, I was lucky enough to see a film made on a full-rigged tea clipper when one of the nonagenarians present had been just a boy holding on for dear life to a spar as the great ship rounded the Horn. No soundtrack, but you read the sails.
Quentin can name the stars and navigate by them. He can find land using dead reckoning. He stopped hunting after his mother’s death and took it up again the day it was made illegal. He has a passion for justice, a tenderness for the underdog, and a mind that works patiently and logically through to the bone of the problem. There is something of Plantagenet Palliser to him. He is quiet, but when he speaks, he has a beautiful voice.
When Clementine was born, Aunt Mickey presided once more like a more worldly angel of maternal lore, and Nanny Ramsay came too. We had a new house to move into, an estate house just beyond the gates of Farleigh House where the school still festered. Clementine had expressively conversational hands and was a very slow eater. She decided not to breastfeed and very early conquered her larger brother, who referred to her as ‘Birdy’ until her birth and was her subject in love as soon as he saw her. He would stand with his feet tucked into the bars of her cot and loom over her, shedding a shadow that was bright orange at the top where the sun fell upon it. They were, and are, each other’s stalwart best defender.
After the birth of Clem, the health visitor suggested that I might like to get out of the house a bit and do some A levels with a view to gaining some qualifications–and perhaps some other ‘interest’. I was reading avidly, though that is not invariably deleterious to the raising of happy and balanced children, and both children seemed to be flourishing. I was one of the first people to read Midnight’s Children. As well as the seethe of the book, I liked the look of the thin, modest, exhausted author. Shrewd of me, if not precisely prophetic.
Things between Quentin and me had shifted and held us apart at an undeclared pitch of difficulty. We could not find the words with which to row our way to safety, then found the wrong ones. Not for the first time I lit upon escape as a solution. My father wrote me a, for him, unusually direct letter of concern. It suggested that although powerfully drawn by temperament to Italy, he had come to place a higher value on the aesthetics of the Dutch School. He loved Quentin.
I left Farleigh. I went to stay with my friend Rosa Beddington in her tiny house in Oxford. The telephone rang. It was Lucinda Wallop, Quentin’s sister. She said, ‘Daddy’s dead.’ I said, ‘No, he can’t be.’ He was only sixty-one and Quentin had just found a home for him close to us on an island on the River Test. He was a loveable, unrealised man.
I visited estate agents. I am not at all sure how lucid I was. One estate agent assured me that very few rental houses accepted children, most particularly not one house I liked the sound of that lay deep in rural Buckinghamshire. ‘No Children’, I read. There were no pictures of the property.
Very uncharacteristically, I found myself driving down a half-hidden road signed to Wotton Underwood. I could park my little car because there was a large gravelly yard to the side of what seemed to be an architectural hallucination, a golden pink central house flanked by lantern-shaped pavilions, behind delicate wrought-iron, golden-berried gates. It was a sleeping beauty. I looked to my right and saw that there was a gate leading to a wishing well on a wide lawn that ended in a ha-ha and beyond that at least one lake. I rang a doorbell at the side of the house. A funny bracket, as though for a pub sign the size of an equestrian portrait, stuck out of the side that faced where the cars were parked. It was high summer. I realised that this bracket must be for swinging in enormous paintings, pianos, furniture through the great windows of the house. The door was answered by a woman with my maternal grandmother’s very voice. She took one look at me. I was not a pretty sight, fat, wretched, scared, uprooted, unaware that alcohol would never make anything better. The witch who opened the door, for a white witch she was, said, ‘My child, you will live here. And you will bring your children.’
This phenomenon was Mrs Elaine Brunner, who, going one day to a garden clearance sale in the 1950s had seen the house to which that garden was attached. The house was due for demolition, having in its last usage been a school for delinquent boys. She had on that day a powerful instinct that underneath the Edwardian modernisations by Sir Reginald Blomfield there still lurked a Soane house. It had been built for the dukes of Buckingham and Chandos as a companion house to Stowe.
She saved it, buying it for a sum, I think, close to £5,000. She was, right up till her death, one of the most compelling, sexy yet maternal and grand-maternal women I’ve ever known. She was one of the beloved monsters of my life and she worked untiringly for that extraordinary palace she saved.
My first night at Wotton, I slept in a slightly-adapted-for-lodgers ducal apartment. The telephone went and it was Quentin. It seemed to be ridiculous to be separated from someone whom one so wished to console. I asked him whether he wanted me to attend his father’s funeral and he said, ‘It depends on whether you cared for him or not.’ Of course I went.
And so we parted, as though our lives were happening to other people. We held hands in court and there seemed no question but that the children, on account of their situation, must stay at Farleigh. It was more unusual then, and my sense that this was the right decision was not one that I could ever make clear to any but the most intimate of my friends.
People have tackled me about this, thinking it unnatural or weak, but it laid between the children’s father and myself a small island of trust amid the perilous currents of divorce. It was the children who mattered. Whether or not it was right for the children can only be gauged by them. I wanted Quentin to trust me and knew that the next thing we had to build was a safe place for our children.
Mrs Brunner it was who insisted that we all, including Quentin, have Christmas together at Wotton. On the years when the children were with me at Christmas after that, Quentin went and worked for the homeless at Crisis at Christmas. I received a letter from Aunt Mickey that told me among many other things I had lost ‘a place in the world’.
LENS II: Chapter 7
Wotton became my place in the world, by which I mean my place quite far away from the world. Perhaps it was here, in its tall rooms and in its perfect self-contained hiddenness, that I relapsed into my inborn habit of reclusion. Wotton never did feel lonely, because I discovered that Mrs Brunner shared my affection for in-house mail, so that we left one another letters almost daily if we had not met in the rose garden or taking a walk under the chestnuts by the first lake. The park had been laid out by Capability Brown and there was, to the small landscape in which the house lies, an adaptation to mortal scale and vision that made walking along those lakes past their half-resurrected bridges and temples a humanising experience. Before the first lake there were two Doric-pillared Grecian temples. Oliver and Clementine and I would take bread to the swans who lived here. On the farther lake lived Canada geese with their two faithful watchmen-geese standing apart from the flock. Returning from walks to the house with the children was each time almost impossible to believe. We would pass a herbaceous border, leave the rose garden to our left, go and sit in the long grass on a bench by the wishing well and be paid visits by Solomon and Sheba, Mrs Brunner’s peacocks, who, she said, had probably flown over from Waddesdon, which looked down at Wotton from the east. If it was a sunny day, Mrs Brunner would call us up on to the back steps of the house that led in to her own quite breathtakingly sparkly apartments. She always had a treat for the children, though her appearance was in itself the greatest treat, for she was brightly manicured and preferred to wear the colours of the rainbow. She smelt good too. Inside the house the tall windows had shutters that were barred at night across the dizzy original glass. Each shutter had its hole, an oval about eight inches tall, through which to look out for the moon in its transit.
There were secret rooms and rooms filled only with ebony knickknacks. One room contained only objects made of mother-of-pearl. Clementine’s and my favourite had a high curved ceiling edged with shining pearls, each the size of a tennis ball, in freehand plasterwork; below this lay disposed Mrs Brunner’s own extraordinary wedding dress and that of her daughter, so that the whole room had a silvery-fragile bridal air, as though from the story of Beauty and the Beast. It was like the dream of a princely wedding that the poor Beast might have prepared.
If Mrs Brunner was attached to fairytale stage sets, she was also a brilliant chiseller at all possible architectural or state-related organisations that might help her to protect, conserve and reveal her exigent treasure trove. Even when I lived at Wotton House, she discovered an eighteenth-century ha-ha behind the nineteenth-century one, an indoor fish pond laid with tiles and braced with elegant bronze pillars, and several further follies in the woods beyond the second lake. I do not know how old Mrs Brunner was, though I imagine it would be easy enough to find out. Her role in our lives was so supernatural that I prefer my ignorance. I never called her by her first name.
The house within has a trembling stone staircase with wrought-iron work by Tijou that quivers as one mounts the stairs. The vistas within the front hall suggest the receding background of a Renaissance painting, exemplifying and playing with perspective. The hall is full of light, very high, and paved with black-and-white marble in squares on the grand scale. In winter, an open fire was set in the fireplace in that front hall, where the children and I left carrots and biscuits and, at Mrs Brunner’s insistence, a tot of brandy for Father Christmas.
It was at that first Christmas after the sadness of our parting that I saw how a pure flirt like Mrs Brunner made things easier between me and Quentin. The great lack in our lives, probably thanks to the premature death of his parents and my mother, was grown-ups to teach us how to pull the splinters out instead of driving them further in.
We developed a pattern, familiar to many families, whereby the children spent half the holidays with me and half with their father, and alternated, insofar as it was possible, at weekends. Thank God there were the two of them to sustain one another and grumble about this together, since it was to go on for a long time. I remember standing on the nursery floor at Wotton having tidied all their toys away and looking at the departing car, thinking, ‘What is in their heads?’ At around this time I wrote a children’s book and illustrated it. It was really about Oliver and Clementine, of course, and it was always going to be destined for Quentin, who has the paintings now, which are portraits of his children.
There was no sense of unsafety at Wotton although we were an old lady and a younger woman and two small children alone. The whole place was barred up so snugly that its only burglar, during my time, was a ferocious wind that punched holes in three fragile windows, whose panes simply couldn’t take the brunt in spite of their delicate ductility, like that of sails.
I had the notion that I would write some short stories to make a bit of money. I sent five to Auberon Waugh at the Literary Review. He sent them back with a kind note saying that he and his wife had enjoyed reading them in bed. I imagine this was a tease. I then tried applying to The Archers to see if they would like a new scriptwriter, but they wouldn’t.
There’s nothing for it, I thought, but writing a novel. I had bought my father an electric typewriter that he had seen the Observer newspaper was offering at a reasonable price. He passed me his old typewriter, whose keys you really had to think about pinging down like those of an old till.
I wrote my first novel, A Case of Knives, in my bedroom at Wotton House, a room whose mirrored cupboards chopped up the images thrown by the circular mirror the size of the shield of Achilles on the opposite wall.
In the South Pavilion lived Sir John Gielgud. In the morning, you could see his partner Martin taking their shih-tzu for a walk. Opposite Sir John lived an elegant German lawyer who worked between Washington and London and kept this celestial pavilion as his country hideout. He often entertained my children and me to Sunday lunch. His line in girlfriends was terrifying to one who has never seriously in her life thought of wearing leather. On the whole they turned out to be very nice and, moreover, to do things like run Lufthansa’s legal department or own a chain of supermarkets in the old Austro-Hungarian countries.
Behind this exquisite pavilion was a courtyard containing a long house that had at one point been where beer had been brewed for all the servants employed in the main house. In this house lived Graham C. Greene and his family, including at one point his mother Helga, with whom Raymond Chandler had been in love. Quite briefly, Clarissa Dickson-Wright was his housekeeper, and once she babysat for me. At this point she and I were both what is called ‘practising alcoholics’. I had no idea.
Every day when I woke up at Wotton, I was glad to do so. I suppose that means that one has found a place in the world. Once I saw fox cubs playing leapfrog on the back lawn. I so loved being there and when the children were with me it felt as though beauty in itself might feed them the things that disunity was taking from them. It was a hopelessly over-aestheticised view, I can see. But to this day, I like it when I know that they are in the places where there is beauty.
Mrs Brunner met and charmed my father; they were exactly each other’s sort of thing. Daddy, possessed by architecture, crazy about Soane and handsome; and Mrs Brunner, obsessed by her great charge, her house, and very fond of flirting. Mrs Brunner welcomed other friends as well, though she was a great one for taking what the Scots call scunners. She was absolutely beastly to the boyfriend of one of my best friends whom she regarded, quite correctly, as treating my friend unkindly. If not a witch, she was an advanced telepath. She could also dismiss people simply on the unfair grounds of their want of physical attractiveness, and she was extremely fussy about fairness between the children so that if someone bought a present for just one of them, there would be a note requesting the presence of the giftless child in Mrs Brunner’s drawing room where would be laid out a fairy feast and some compensatory present.
It is quite a feat for a mother of an only child to think in this way. She had at some level remained not childish but fierce as children are, and we were all her cubs and felt it. I hope that it is no shadow to Mrs Brunner’s own daughter to say that Mrs Brunner made me feel, if not mothered, protected.
My friend Rosa was a fellow of Brasenose. My friend Fram Dinshaw, whom I’d known since I was less than twenty, was a fellow at St Catherine’s College. My friend James Fergusson was working at an antiquarian bookshop in Oxford. Jamie and the children and I would meet in Oxford for greedy Chinese lunches at a restaurant where in the fish tank were those carp whose eyes stick out and who seem to be dancing with their floating veils of fin.
Long before my first marriage, Fram had, outside Rosa’s house in Oxford, given me a kiss. Shortly afterwards he wrote to me. I read the letter standing up on the Bakerloo Line between Warwick Avenue and Oxford Circus, on my way to Vogue. In it, he adumbrated that if I did not smell so horribly of smoke he might conceivably take an interest in me and that there was something about me that reminded him of blackberries and that we might, if I calmed down, end up together.
But by now, many years later, I was a vessel with cargo, my children. All the smelling of blackberries in the world doesn’t mean that you can be careless with human souls.
Our first date, or rather what reveals itself to have been, retrospectively, a date, was to Rycote Chapel. In the car Fram put on ‘Soave sia il vento’. Later he made me a tape recording of some Larkin poems. I found myself playing them when he was not there. I listened again and again to ‘The Trees’:
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Once, when the children were with Quentin, I agreed to go and stay with Fram at his family’s house outside Cortona. It was to be reached by a dirt road cut into the hillside. Opposite lived a couple called Gina and Nino Franchina. She was the daughter of the artist Gino Severini and granddaughter of the poet Paul Fort. Nino made tree-sized helical metal sculptures. Further along lived a family who would prove to contain the novelist Amanda Craig, though I’ve not met her.
Early one morning, taking a walk up the lane and between the strawberry trees, I looked in the damper gullies at the edge of the dry thin path. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There they were, growing wild, those black velvet irises that I love. They were everywhere at that spot, and beyond them red tulips, with reflexed petals and thin stems like veins, which preferred to be on flatter tilth, as though they knew that they were a motif on a million Turkish carpets.
The house at Cortona was simple, two storeyed, whitewashed within and then decorated by Fram’s mother, who had a gift for drawing that had won her a place, that she did not take up, at the Slade. The house smelt of woodsmoke, lemons and basil and was set amid olive groves. It had a particularly non-Italian garden because the whole family had that passion for flowers that may have come from living beside a desert in Karachi. Outside the house was a large Magnolia grandiflora, crinum lilies grew along the front and a catalpa shaded the terrace where, in good weather, we ate outside. Troughs of basil were everywhere and ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory twined around the kitchen door. The rose that changes in colour, Rosa chinensis mutabilis, grew around the front door. At Easter peonies we never identified, which had come from the villa below, would flower with pink heads considerably bigger than my own children’s. The bottom of the garden was hedged with a vine of that most fragrant and intoxicating grape the uva di fragola, the grape whose taste and scent is that of a strawberry and makes a wine that for some reason the European authorities disapprove of, so it is drunk in secret among friends. Rosemary and sage and all the herbs that flourish in dryness lent their oil to the air. By the well stood a fig tree and another deeper down the garden. At the side of the house was the kitchen garden, or orto.
The family who originally lived just below and later moved into the local town still came up to work for gli indiani on the hill. Franca, the wife, worked in the orto and as cook, and her husband Guido came and fixed emergencies such as wild boar in the garden or a plumbing disaster.
Negotiations between a Tuscan peasant and a fastidious Zoroastrian, as Fram’s mother Mehroo temperamentally as well as religiously was, were nothing like as difficult as they might have been had the two women not decided that they liked one another. Franca therefore simply fitted in with what she was told, that only napkins with a person’s initial on might be given to that person, that never must bedspreads be put on a bed with the foot part at the top, that all sudsing had to be done before all rinsing when washing up, and that the rinsing must be under flowing water, that dirty utensils must never be laid down on the side but on a dish and so on. Much of it was common sense and the rest she took as part of the charm of this little family who had decided for part of their year to move into the house that had proven such hard work for her own family.
Out in the orto, copper sulphate was sprayed and dried to a high abstract blue on the tomatoes, grapes, aubergines, peppers and zucchini, whose flowers Franca would fry and scatter with salt.
To watch Fram’s mother cook was to watch an artist at work. Her fine, beautiful hands had nails like almonds with that natural line of white seen in some Madonnas. To take the bitterness from a cucumber, she would cut off the narrower end and–often gently telling one a story and meeting one’s eyes with her own–turn and turn and turn the cut piece of cucumber until it had drawn out all the bitter white milk. Then, and then only, would the cucumber be ready for peeling and for slicing into lenses as cool as ice for hot eyes, cut not with a mandolin but with a little knife. She did everything domestic beautifully so that it must have been, for her family, like living with a ballerina or an antelope, something incapable of ungrace or disgrace. She was lovely to behold. It was a quality that resided in tempo as much as in address and gave each act its own dignity. She made, rather than took, time.
When I read Edward Said’s autobiography, I was pierced by the similarity of his own relationship with his mother to that of Fram and Mehroo, though, unlike Fram, Said seemed to have established some wafer of air betwixt she who bore him and what he could bear.
Today, 5 June 2007, is a flawless high blue June day in Chelsea. Some days ago, we were puzzled as to why the air was full of low, close, mechanical noise. It transpired that the Metropolitan Police had chosen to shoot a young man, unhappy in his marriage, desperate for the return of his wife, far gone in drink, and wielding a gun with which he could have killed no one. The police marksman shot him in the head; that is, he shot to kill. What of talking to him? What of tranquillisers? That young man might, a hundred times, have been me.
It is when such things happen that people around my age thank God their parents are dead.
Last night I had a visit from the film-maker Amy Hardie. We have a friend in common and she was keen to tell me about her experience of a shaman in Edinburgh, who she believes has saved her life. She feels that my eyes might open if the doctors could be more humble and eclectic when it comes to the hidden paths of the human brain. I had wondered if I blinded myself when I left Fram, whom I married on 27 September 1986. I left him in November 1996.
The onset of the physical condition, ten years later, seemed like the reification of a metaphor I had inhabited for a long time. This way of thinking enraged the more mechanical of my doctors.
Amy’s film threw me back on the dear dead. When I was drinking, I summoned them and held long conversations with them; I could actually see them. It was a solid experience. Among my dearest dead is Fram’s mother. You might say that it is easy for me to love her now that she is dead, but we do not love the dead on account of the relief they offer us but on account of the personality that has gone for ever. My mother-in-law was one of those who can turn a room to flowers and air or fill it with frost and razor blades. It gave my mother-in-law pleasure herself to give pleasure and yet sometimes something dreadful took and squeezed her. The persons who most understood, loved, overlooked and steadied this were her doting, hugely intelligent, husband Eduljee (Eddie) and her daughter Avi.
When, as a family (which is what I then believed we were), we visited Karachi, it was a time without flaw. Of course the city itself was growing more dangerous and I did not leave the house alone since in myself I constituted a western cliché, with my yellow hair and pink face, maybe even an affront. Fram’s childhood house had been eaten by white ants, so the Karachi house was built, oddly enough, by a Scots architect the Dinshaws came across who was working for UNESCO. The house dated from the nineteen-sixties. It was set around a cool quadrangle where we took tea and batasas, a kind of dry, cheesy, Parsi shortbread. The years fell away from my mother-in-law. Her husband’s sister was in Karachi at the same time with her family and there was much toing and froing, not quite the same as living in the extended family system in the Indo-Italianate villa of Fram’s grandparents that had been sold just that year and which we visited one day for tea.
We drove up past lawns edged with bright red bedding-plants to the façade of this house near the Victorian Gothic Frere Hall in the middle of old Karachi. We mounted the stairs, and in contrast to the other houses we visited during that happy fortnight, encountered the electric interference of modernity. Every room was dominated by a telly and video. There were at least two sons of the house, under ten and chubby. We took tea and talked. There was a year’s worth of Karachi gossip to catch up on, although it was not the inner gossip of the Parsi world. There was talk of conditions worsening in the city, of men with guns at night, of the chowkidars having dreadful fights. On a table to the side of the room reposed a selection of small-eats, or rather enormous and challenging cakes, clearly as much for show as for ingestion. I noticed that the chubsters had disappeared. The table that bore the showy cakes had a nice hand-blocked tablecloth that fell to the floor. It was a homely touch in a house otherwise fitted out by Sony, Sanyo, Bang & Olufsen. The chocolate cake was the most splendid of all, turreted, godrooned and melting. The attack it was receiving from the warm day, despite the chattering air conditioning, was being assisted by four hands that were hollowing out the cake from under the tablecloth with quite as much assiduity as if they had been white ants.
Fram remembers the mango tree in the garden of the house of his babyhood where he was born at Breach Candy in Bombay, within sound of the sea. He used to say that he was the monkey who played and ate and swung and made himself safe in the branches of me, who was that fertile, glowing, mango tree. How can I have taken an axe to its roots?
Back in Karachi, where my parents-in-law had made their first marital home, I had the sense that my mother-in-law was so secure that she could trust me. Her lifelong servant, Munsuf, served us at meals with a different cockade in his turban depending on the formality of the meal. I learned a, very, little Urdu because Munsuf was Muslim and I wanted to make it plain to him how happy I was to see him and the family at home. He began to work for my mother-in-law when he was still a boy and she not that much older, so their closeness was telepathic. One afternoon, my mother-in-law relaxed with me enough to show me her saris. She shook out each one and told me when and where she had worn it. In a woman so averse to show yet so sensible to beauty, this was the showing of a miles-long florilegium. The saris were stored with balls of cedar wood and muslin bags of lavender that she had grown in Cortona. Each sari was a woven story and there was what she didn’t say too, which was that she loved and quite clearly looked beautiful in that pink which is almost blue and that I particularly love; it is among the last colours to fade from flowers at twilight.
My father-in-law read the Dawn, Karachi’s newspaper, daily, and looked, as he always did, at the stock-market prices. In the evening he was reading Flaubert’s letters on a small upright sofa in the drawing room. The routines of daily life were congenial, airy and natural between each of us, I believed, at the time.
One night, because we were young, Fram, his sister Avi and I and their cousins were invited to a beach party. Many aspects of it were curious. The young women whom I had met as Parsi wives and daughters, ravishing in the modesty of their garments and the flat shine of their Indian-set jewels and pearls, had changed, since it was night-time and no one but their husbands would see them, into western beachwear or into some designer’s idea of western beachwear. Many of these couples, after all, had houses in New York too. We were driven along the spit out into the Arabian Sea where I doubt that anyone much keeps a beach house any longer, but in those days it was like a more expansive Southwold. The servants settled to making the barbecue and the wives to comparing their outfits. How much lovelier, actually, they had looked before. Nonetheless their husbands seemed pleased to see their wives turned out so with their crazy sunglasses–although it was pitch black outside–and marvellous sarongs covered with logos. Even the jewellery had changed and become the faceted hard jewellery of the West.
Yet perhaps they were right to be so strangely attired and that only for the cover of night, for it was to prove to be a night of nights, the night when the turtles know to emerge from the edge of the sea and un-dig from the sand the clutches of leathery eggs they have left there.
So there we were, all of us quite young, and everyone apart from Avi, Fram, their cousins and myself, dressed for a blazing day in Portofino, when out of the sea came lumbering animals large enough to ride on yet made almost completely of horn and leather, tanks on the sand, ballerinas in the water. Then it began. Hundreds and thousands of perfect models of their mother, but the size of a Jaffa Cake, came scrobbling out of their nests and hurled themselves into the sea, which indifferent, hauled them in its wave further up the beach to leave them high and dry. It proved to be a whole other way in which you can’t beat the sea. We picked up handfuls of the perfect, scratchy little things and went quite deep into the sea with them, but back the waves came with their freight of bad pennies. Exhaustion killed many; it’s not surprising to learn that so few survive.
While working in our high cliff of a studio, Liv and I are receiving more visitors than we used to, because this handsome, crumbly house is about to be taken to pieces and put together again. Contractors, builders, civil engineers, architects, curtain-makers, come and go with their laser tape measures and their pickaxes. We are polite but so far haven’t offered tea. We are working too.
So if I felt that I was contingent and perching on a small ledge before, I now feel the ledge is thinning and the sea beneath me is crawling, and I must get on with this story.
When we were nineteen or so, I knew from his appearance, which is elegant and slender, and from his colour, which is a light caramel brown, that Fram was not English. I assumed that he was Indian. He is in fact Parsi. He is a Persian, descended from that group of Zoroastrians who, at the time of the Arab invasions, fled from Iran in boats and landed in Gujarat. The Parsis made a deal with the indigenous ruler, fortunately for them a Hindu, that they would neither break any of their host’s taboos nor proselytise. In return he allowed them to settle and trade, originally in a kind of palm toddy. During the time of the Raj, Parsis found a thirstier market, purveying whisky, brandy, soda water and so on to the sahibs.
Zoroastrianism seems to me, who have less than no business to opine, but a Zoroastrian son, a commendably rational way of leading a life. That son, for example, really does implement the instruction left to him by his Parsi grandmother on her deathbed, ‘Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.’ It is a religion that institutionalises charitable giving and that reminds each member of the faith that he has brought nothing into the world and will take nothing out. Each Parsi wears a thread around his or her waist called the kasti, as a warning against excess; below the normal daily shirt of even a westernised Parsi you may find a sadra, which is an almost gauze-like vest of simple white muslin to remind the wearer that, no matter his prosperity, he is the same as any other man.
It is an ancient faith and I feel shy writing anything about it. However, its importance in my life cannot be overemphasised, both for good and for, entirely unintended, harm. Perhaps the thing that most outsiders know about Parsis is that they bury their dead on Towers of Silence, leaving them there to be eaten by vultures and returned, therefore, to the cycle of life. The other thing that people know about Parsis is that they are worshippers of fire.
There is in the world a dwindling number of pure Parsis. This is not helped by people like me, who have married pure Parsis. There has come a ruling from the Parsi Panchayat, the ruling body, that the children of male Parsis born to farangi women may still be Parsi, but this is not entirely popular with ultra-orthodox believers. One may read frightening things on websites. It all returns to the cruel question of purity, an inhuman phenomenon that is presently igniting all flammable faiths, creeds, tribes and dictators as it has immemorially done. Purity posits the notion that we are not one another; whereas clearly, to live, we must imagine how it is to be one another. This is where fiction, though it is not a utilitarian art, or anything so simple, cannot but come in. We need urgently to know how other people feel.
The closeness and decency of the Parsi community, insofar as I have ever encountered it, comes as refreshment to the soul. There are fewer than 100,000 Parsis in the world. Zoroastrians have been actively persecuted in Iran, and in India a really unexpected modern glitch has compromised their ancient burial customs. Indian vets have begun to treat ailing cattle with Voltarol, a painkiller that–if they eat one of the treated cows–attacks the liver of Indian vultures. The vulture population of, for example, Bombay, has dropped by ninety per cent, which presents a public health hazard and portends disaster–or change–to the Parsi community as it holds up the liberation of the soul and the rejoining of the body to the creation.
In fact for the last two generations, Fram’s immediate family have been buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. I am glad of this in some cowardly ways. The thought of my shrouded husband or my son in his cerements being loaded on to an aeroplane to be taken to the Towers of Silence, where women may not enter, is a lonely one. Lonely for them, I mean.
So how does this relate to Rycote Chapel, with its stars cut out of contraband playing cards on the ceiling? I had always known that Fram was clever and could be exceedingly cutting. What I had not expected was a complete unevasive answering of every question I had asked or even thought to ask. I think that I knew I loved him when he referred with exotic normality to Marks and Spencer as ‘Marks’.
I thought, here is someone with a perfect ear for seventeenth-century poetry, here is someone who never misses a trick, here is someone of whom I was afraid because I know his tongue has blades, and yet he is still, despite all his schooling and conditioning, that tiny bit unassimilated. All children brought up between cultures become felinely bilingual, trilingual, whatever it takes. Fram had in his time acquired illiterate smatterings of Urdu and Gujarati; more Latin, less Greek; French and Italian. His English modifies according to with whom he is speaking, so that when on the telephone to his parents, whose English was the hyper-English of let us say, the Third Programme in the 1960s, you would hear that note leaking into his own tone. When he is with his sister, they speak English at one another like birds. When he is teaching or giving a lecture he speaks naturally in a pure Latinate English and in paragraphs. I love his clarity. When we talk, I wave the butterfly net; he does the pinning.
Very slowly, and it was slow because the children were my main trust, I introduced them to Fram, mostly with Mrs Brunner or someone else there too. He was, at that stage of his life, as he expressed it, ‘agnostic about children’.
The curious thing is that while Fram was not disinclined in principle to undergo an arranged marriage should his parents wish it, and despite there being one candidate who sounded suitable and lived in Paris, his parents never did arrange such a match. For as long as possible, his mother ignored the fact that her son might be having relationships with non-Parsi girls, for so he was. His taste ran to beauties; quality not quantity was the characteristic of those who might be found in his sway. But somehow he managed, throughout his twenties, to remain the apple of his mother’s eye, unpunished as yet for having grown into manhood.
Meanwhile, happier news was coming from Farleigh. I had been nervous lest some hard-faced blonde direct herself at Quentin and the children, but I should have had more faith in him. My old friend Jamie Fergusson had introduced Quentin to his cousin Annabel, I believe on the Isle of Wight, maybe even over a bucket and spade. I do not know where to begin about Annabel. She is the A to his Q. But how was it then? Was I jealous to hear that Quentin had a friend whom he had introduced to the children? I was not. I had known Annabel since I was about seventeen and much liked her parents. Her father was a general physician in Richmond, one of the old school, who wore striped trousers and a black coat. He was very funny, but you had to wait for the jokes, because, like his brother Pat, the father of Jamie, he spoke incredibly slowly. I once missed an aeroplane because Pat Fergusson enquired over breakfast one day when I was due to fly to Glasgow, ‘Whether……….or………not……………you…………are………………an…admirer……….of……………the………………novels……. of…….Ivy Compton-Burnett?’
One of the treats available to a Fergusson-fancier, when the two brothers were still alive, was to get them together and overhear their conversation. It was like waiting for the Mona Lisa to wink.
Annabel’s mother is something quite else. Spirited, croyante, a Catholic convert, she is one of those people very much one’s senior who combine wisdom with knowing exactly what’s hot at Top Shop. I loved her from our first meeting, which was long before anyone in our generation had married anyone.
Annabel herself I first met at a party where what was striking was the blueness of her eyes, the grooviness of her physique and the old-fashionedness of her garb. I think maybe at her christening there was a fairy who arranged for Annabel to dress in an especially old-fashioned way, otherwise her effect as she walked down the street would, like that of Zuleika Dobson, have left men even more stupefied than they already were. The other thing I knew about Annabel was that she was clever in the practical, realistic way that I am not. People would say of her, ‘She looks like a Botticelli angel but do you know she can do the Times crossword?’
No one could possibly accuse me of either of these attributes and I was happy that Quentin himself might be growing happier. I also knew, most importantly of all, that Annabel was kind and good. Later it was my pleasure to find that she is really, properly, funny. It’s like medicine.
For reasons to do with the house at Wotton’s beauty and Mrs Brunner’s scarcely perceived but very present hand on the tiller of the life that my children and I led, we never felt transient or uncared-for. She combined bossiness with affection and the sort of over-partiality you do, on the whole, only offer to your kin, so that we did feel we were living with, if not a fairy godmother, a fairy grandmother.
I hate competitive games, maybe for the base reason that I’m no good at them. At New Year, Mrs Brunner, who had an entire room called the Oak Room dedicated to stage costumes, held a charades party. How I dreaded it. I can’t act to order and I can’t act if I know I’m acting, but I loved her and would have to attend. I couldn’t pretend I had to stay with the children because they were with Quentin, and Fram was with his parents because New Year’s Day was his father’s birthday. (Parsis have two birthdays, one dependent on their mama and one dependent on the moon.) Mrs Brunner had arrayed herself that night as a mixture of Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, the Empress of Bohemia and all nine muses. Her golden hair was up, her face painted. It was possible to see the captivating young woman she had been. But in this incarnation she was authoritative.
The script was complicated, a good dinner had been had, much Champagne drunk, a charming set-designer named Carl Toms, who had worked with Visconti at Covent Garden, was on hand, while to direct us there was none other than Nicholas Hytner. I’m glad to say that he recognised my acting potential at once and that I played my part as a poisonous mushroom with the sort of grace and sporingness you might expect. New Year was also the birthday of Annabel and I believe that it was then that Quentin proposed marriage to her. I hope that I am right. Perhaps I am giving them a few more years of marriage than they have had, in which case, lucky them.
In the case of Fram and myself, things could not but have been more complicated. When I consider myself from my mother-in-law’s point of view, I can see that what her beautiful only son was bringing home was a gigantic, Angrez, previously married, too old, and completely untrained animal. My mother-in-law could not help feeling these things. In complex ways, the West that she had been raised to admire, whose literature had arrived by steamer-trunk throughout her children’s childhood, had become grotesque, appetitive, grasping, vulgar. The particularly bad part of it all was that I entirely saw her point of view and agreed with her, so replete was I with self-disgust, self-distaste and the willingness to believe that I smelt and took filth with me wherever I went. It was an unhappy concatenation.
My father-in-law Eddie, who I always thought liked me a bit more than did his wife, actually liked me a good deal less.
Nonetheless, all these feelings were, for some years, hidden by my parents-in-law. It might have been better to have released them by some means other than the slashes of the razor that my mother-in-law chose as her means of attack. It was mainly her son she punished. Yet they themselves had been to school in England, had sent him to prep and public school in England, so to punish him for being what she called a ‘brown Englishman’ was cruel. She never stopped loving her son, so the hurt she felt compelled by her anxieties to cause him harmed her much more.
My mother-in-law was a woman who could make a room a paradise or a slicing unit on account of her mood. Her family were used to it. My sister-in-law Avi, who stands at under five foot and has known severe long-term medical pain in her life, simply and beautifully neutralised all malice ever afloat in the room by her own blessedly even nature. She has a keel. I don’t know if it’s a faith or her natural acceptingness, or both.
I fear that I was all too keen to condemn myself. At the very beginning, when Fram first courted me, I think my mother-in-law and I wanted to love one another; I certainly wanted to love her. I think she genuinely tried to love me, but my own sense of my unloveability rushed to greet her instinctive condemnation and they wrought, over the years, a terrible mischief together. In order to be married in Italy, we had to fulfil residency requirements and stay in the house in Cortona for something like two months. Quentin was happy that we were being married out of England–it seemed more natural that way.
We did have one happy day, the day of our Parsi betrothal in Cortona. My mother-in-law had threaded jasmine and marigold ropes and set in shaken chalk auspicious designs all around the perimeter of the house. Fram’s aunt and uncle came from Rome, a coconut was broken and rice placed on our foreheads and sugar on our tongues to make sure that we would only speak sweet words to one another.
The wedding itself took place under the aegis of the Communist Party of Italy. The Mayor of Cortona made us freemen of that beautiful town. We were garlanded with long strings of carnations that my mother-in-law had sewn. We were young, thin, blazingly in love and tremendously close at every possible level. There was a feast at Vasari’s house outside Arezzo, with Italian and Indian food alternating. Fram’s kind and smiling Aunt Khorshed had provided Niazi, her old cook from the Pakistani Embassy in Rome. Yet in the photographs my mother-in-law is holding her sari over her face so that she cannot see what is being enacted before her. If only I could have taken that pain from her and told her that I would look after and love her son for ever, that I could love her, that I was I, not a foreign culture. But it didn’t happen.
Months later, after our honeymoon, the photographs of our wedding came back and Fram noted on a visit home the distaste with which they were regarded. The poison had started to run and could only get worse, most especially when I began to make some small name for myself in that thing, the world.
Mrs Brunner had been simply furious when we got engaged, though it was in a direct and catty way and once she’d said her dreadful piece, we did make friends again. What she said to me was, ‘Go and live with an Indian beside a bus stop in Oxford.’ But in the end she was tremendously chuffed by the next lodger I was able to conjure, up to whom I could not come in any regard, for he was a boy and a handsome one and Mrs Brunner saw at once that here was something greatly more glamorous than I, Edward St Aubyn.
We settled into our flat by the bus stop in the Banbury Road, and I remember Brigid Brophy sending me a postcard saying that to live on the Banbury Road must be much like living in Persepolis. In several regards she can’t have been wrong at all, for I did indeed try hard, and mostly failed miserably, to keep a Parsi house. Even though my mother-in-law chose the sinks and all the sanitary ware and I never cooked onions because Fram hated the smell, I did not keep a Parsi house. My hair moults and Parsis have a horror of dead hair, wrapping it up before throwing it away, as ‘we’ might and ‘they’ certainly do with nail clippings. It was, of course, idiotic to attempt to ape a culture I had not been born into, no matter how open to it I was–and I was. The cracks in a performance, no matter how rounded it be, will declare themselves, through nerves, self-consciousness, or even that sense of falsity that goes with the attempt to imitate, be it never so innocent and good-hearted. How could I, brought up in Edinburgh, gather what had been handed down through thousands of years from the high plains of Yazd and Bam?
The following awful truth is so. My father was expected at our wedding, but mysteriously cancelled. On our wedding night, over dinner in Orvieto, Jamie Fergusson casually let it fall that Daddy was that day having open-heart surgery. Later that night, before retiring, we went for a walk in the town. When Fram saw someone whom he thought attractive, he said so, as he always did. I thought, ‘That’s fine. It’ll all feed back into me.’ Now I think I know that I should have said, ‘It’s our wedding night. Please look at me. I am here.’
I learned these things too late and from Fram’s new companion Claudia, who has only just not got my name. She enacts these things and is in this respect my beneficiary, as well as being someone who knows instinctively how a properly adjusted person should behave.
Having been raised in habits of unassertion, I have learned inadequate systems of self-defence that may seem suspect to outsiders especially when manifested by a person of such size.
There is on the face of Orvieto Cathedral one particular dancing angel, her mood choric, her hair loose, her mouth laughing. I did feel that happy on that first day of our marriage and often thereafter too.
Our honeymoon was short and busy. We drove the elderly white Lancia on which Fram had learned to drive in The Hague fifteen years earlier, when his uncle had been Pakistani Ambassador. You could see the autostrada through the floor. We drove south to Ravello and Amalfi. Lorna Sage had given us Gore Vidal’s telephone number and told us he’d love to hear from us.
Not much he didn’t. At Fram’s amused insistence (maybe he was bored) every day, after caffe latte and for Fram toast and croissants (I was constantly, in those days, starving myself) I would ring the Vidal house and get a very dusty answer indeed. We drove to Pompeii, Herculaneum and very early one morning Paestum where the air smelt of sage and rosemary and our only companions were two ghosts.
The ghosts were tidy and well turned out, clearly having died around the mid nineteen-twenties. Her bob, her filet, his hat, his pince-nez, their faded Baedeker, his ancient plate camera, her button shoes, her clocked silk stockings, his punched co-ordinate brogues, everything chimed. It was years later in England that we realised that they must have been Stephen and Oriel Calloway, doing a spot of rubble-romping.
It was Fram’s first sweet act as a stepfather that our honeymoon lasted only four days because we had to surge up to Rome again and fly home so that we might take the children to be page and bridesmaid at the wedding of our friends Cyril and Natasha Kinsky in Dorset. There was no grumbling at all and I recall, as the dancing began, having a sensation that should not arrive as a form of self-consciousness, since it is an absence of self-consciousness, that I was where I should be, with whom I should be. It was wonderful to be with the children again.
There was from the start something not good for our marriage in the routines that I collaborated with. Because I had never forbidden anyone anything, I encouraged Fram to spend as much time with his mother as he had when he was a bachelor, rationalising that this was an adjustment that I had to make as the junior partner (junior to my mother-in-law) and in deference to her increasing sense of alienation. I was atoning for the Raj, perhaps. I don’t know how. It is interesting that she had a Scottish governess. When she visited Edinburgh, long after we had parted, she said that it could have been somewhere she might have lived and that she wished she had seen it and understood before. This is very sad to address for me.
Her home, or any full concept of that home, had been ruptured by the Partition of India in 1947, the year of her marriage. She and Eddie were first cousins, but his father came from Karachi; hers from Bombay. They had married entirely for love, but the romance had been furthered by their common (Bombay) grandfather. It was an unusually tribal hybrid: a love match that might as well have been arranged. My parents-in-law were everything to each other and regarded their children as extensions of themselves. They began to pity Fram for not, apparently, conforming to their model.
My in-laws’ distaste was certainly not helped when it came to my first entering the world of being published. The Common Reader had all but died out. Publicity was in the ascendant, about to gain a grip even on the then fusty world of publishing.
Such was Mehroo’s charm, and so profound my longing to have a mother figure to love, that I often felt it could have come right, but she was undoubtedly massaged in her nascent, perhaps at the time only half-formed hostility towards me, not remotely by the family in Rome who were steadily loving, but perhaps by others unseen by us. Someone certainly ensured that my poor mother-in-law received every single press cutting referring to me. The sophisticated reader (and my mother-in-law was sophisticated until blinded by emotion) will realise that one has little control over how one is depicted in the press. When my first novel came out, there were a number of photographs of me, none indecent, but very few in my own clothes. I stayed with my in-laws while being photographed by the late (and notably serious-minded and intelligent) Terence Donovan. They were appalled at the stylist’s contrivances when I returned after the shoot. Fram was later given to understand that my painted presence would discomfit his father in his immaculate dressing gown over the breakfast table.
When it became clear that I was having a baby, we went to tell my parents-in-law the happy news. Something was very wrong in the atmosphere of the flat. My mother-in-law made what was meant to be an overture of friendship, but said something on the self-deluding lines of ‘Can’t we agree that these misunderstandings have all been Fram’s fault?’ I stiffened and could not agree. The atmosphere rapidly soured. Doors opened and closed; hurried consultations seemed to be taking place in other rooms. But whatever the thing was that I was missing or catalysing, I could not identify, nor would for many months later. My father-in-law had just been diagnosed with leukaemia and my mother-in-law in some measure associated this with a piece that had appeared in the Daily Mail about a German literary prize that I had won that made some ribald play over lederhosen. A kind friend had sent her a cutting.
Our son was born at 4.03 p.m. on 22nd February 1989. Fram was at a meeting in College. The baby lost oxygen at the last minute and arrived blue. A very smooth gynaecologist whispered the word ‘Resuscitator’ into a kind of grid in the wall and then the room was full of focused people doing the thing they had practised to do: to bring back life. Minoo changed from navy blue to mauve to almond brown. We met, liked one another on sight (I can speak for him too) and were at once separated to our respective units of intensive care. I had lost so much blood that they wanted to give me a transfusion. Luckily my blood slowly made more of itself. I was already making those deals you make when it is life or death. We were gently told by the well-meaning wife of a colleague that Minoo might never be mentally or physically quite right. My parents-in-law visited Minoo in intensive care, peered through the glass wall and noted with some relief that he looked very much like his father. I was not surprised that they didn’t come and see me. They would have characterised it as not wanting to disturb me. Now, almost twenty years later, I think that there should have been less of that sort of stuff in my life and that my son’s grandparents should have come to see his mother who was also, perhaps, in some danger.
Fram went home and prayed hard all night for our small son. In Italy while I was pregnant we had toyed with naming him Bruno or Gabriel, but, and I think this is quite right, the moment he was born it became clear that he should have the customary Parsi names: his great-grandfather’s, his grandfather’s and his father’s. So I have two sons whose names were foreordained. I have never minded this in the least; their names fit them like gloves. The birth of Minocher Framroze Eduljee Dinshaw was announced in the Telegraph, I suppose, and maybe The Times. It was also, thanks to the ignorance (let’s be gentle and not say racism) of Private Eye, announced in Pseuds Corner, as bearing witness to the fact that my pretentiousness knew no bounds, since I’d even given my infant son invented and show-off names.
For some months after his birth, we took Minoo for check-ups, and he learned very late to sit up. It’s certainly true that now I have Minoo, I believe that dyspraxia is real, not just a newfangled term for clumsiness. But those prayers Fram sent up seem to have achieved something. Minoo will never make a waiter or a footballer, but his brain functions, may the saints preserve it. He is presently exercising it swotting for his Mods at Balliol, having long outstripped, in literary terms, his exhausted mother. His brother and sister met him with the gentleness and curiosity towards babies that are characteristic of their own father.
LENS II: Chapter 8
Just in time to start this section of writing, two things happened. My eyes closed down and the doorbell went. Liv helped me to pack away the typical over-reaction that I enact whenever I have tidings that a child may be looming, in this case Oliver. I will not show him all that he is expected to eat or I will receive a well-made and entirely merited lecture against stockpiling perishables in an under-performing economy. I just want him to have the right level of bake to his water biscuits, the right absence of bubble to his mineral water, the correct ratio of cocoa solids to his dark chocolate, and of course the all-important mint tea bags, since he regards fresh mint tea as less satisfactory than the enbagged product. So, you might reasonably suppose, isn’t a woman who is this pedantic about her son’s grocery welfare set fair to be a hellish mother-in-law? I do hope not, and most of it, my intensive pampering and consideration of my children, is as it were love in microdot form.
So why did the lids over my eyes glue themselves together just like that when it’s an Olly day and Liv and I are, I think, quite relaxed together? The only reason I can adduce is that at the age of thirty-six, my mother decided to stop right there, just like that. Had she lived, she would be eighty-one, an auspicious number for Orientals as it happens, since it is divisible by three and compounds of three. I cannot imagine the sort of old woman she would have been, though I am fast imagining the sort of old woman that I shall become.
In fact, anatomically, I feel that I have become that old thing. I creep, I peer, I fall. I have very nearly forgotten how it felt simply to stride along a street with one’s head back and one’s hair falling down one’s shoulders. Yet this feeling was mine not two and a half years ago. I have become timid, from a very low base, since I was already really laughably, in many areas, psychologically timid.
I remember at my friend Alexandra Shulman’s twenty-first birthday party a wild Irish boy called Connor said to me, ‘You’re no use for anything but tossing your hair and making big lips at people.’ It looks as though he was right, in a way. Certainly I bear him no malice because he was one of those characters who bring event and warmth into a room, a plot-turner.
My father’s death was sudden too, like my own coup de vieux. My stepmother telephoned. I picked up the phone. The children were all three one room away. My stepmother’s clear tones said what she had to be ringing to say:
‘Oh Candy, it’s Colin, he’s died.’
I said at once what the celestial scriptwriter told me to say and replied, ‘You were a very good wife to him.’
My stepmother explained that essentially Daddy, exactly like Quentin’s father, had burst, his pacemakered but weakened heart haemorrhaging in that slim chest, and gore pouring from that witty mouth. Fram was in Jersey with his parents. I insisted that he should not cut short his weekend. They thought this odd and were uneasy. I told myself that this was selfless, that there was nothing he could do for me to bring my father back, and there was plenty he could do with his parents on Jersey to make them happy.
There was of course a baser motive, the motive that had been pulling me into quicksands ever since my twenties. If Fram were not with me in my misery, I could drink, and drink I did.
We were already at the time seeing a psychiatrist about my drinking. He was expensive but good. From an orthodox Jewish background, married to a black woman, he had experienced much that was helpful to us when it came to the atavistic flinch. Yet every time we visited, I wasted at least three minutes by making the ‘I know we’re lucky’ speech, the speech of guilty shrink-attenders everywhere.
By the time Fram returned from Jersey, I was the sort of drunk that he must, each time he approached our house, have learned to dread. I was a talking doll with a small vocabulary and stiff limbs. My brain, my spirit, my soul and my spirit-sodden body were unavailable to him at this most dreadful time, when he would have known in every wise how to calm and console me.
Five days later we left the children for the day with a babysitter and of course a list of telephone numbers. We drove to Heathrow and entered the aeroplane in our dark funeral clothes. At the then friendly and rather cosy part of Heathrow where one used to embark for Scotland were further mourners including my cousin Frances and Jamie Fergusson. Frances had been evacuated as a child to the house where we now lived in Oxford. She had known it as the house of one family. We knew it divided up by a developer; our kitchen was the old butler’s pantry. Frances had particularly disliked my first novel and wrote me a long letter explaining why, resting her case on the reasonable enough complaint that there are sufficiently many nasty people in the world without writing about more. She also very much disliked the business of my drawing attention to myself by being published. Nonetheless, she made a gay-hearted and kind companion during the long cold exhausting farce that was to be the day of my father’s funeral. In the morning I had rung a florist and asked for a big bunch of mixed anemones to be placed on his grave, with a note saying, ‘To Daddy, with all my love from Candy’. Once in the air, we felt all set for this impossible event, Daddy’s last ever slipping out of the room. Considering that he was only just sixty-one, what a lot he did with his life. He’d meant to die. He hated falling to bits.
We sat with our thoughts. Jamie is perfect at these occasions and knows to tease me but not to make me cry. He had written a personal obituary of my father for the Independent in addition to the official art-historical one.
Over the border, something started not to go quite right. Our captain came on to the public address system. Lovely, reassuring doctor’s voice. We were in the middle of a blizzard that had suddenly burst over Scotland and we would have to divert to Glasgow.
The funeral was in Edinburgh.
It was a bumpy flight with much flashing in the air and sudden darkness at the windows. I wondered if Daddy had anything to do with it. When at last we got out at Glasgow, we were faced with really only one practical possibility, to hire a cab and screech along the M8 motorway. We got out of Glasgow’s tentacular ring-road system, with its tall noticeboards reminding you in twinkly lights not to take a drink or smoke dope at the wheel. The motorway was completely blocked and the visibility was, exactly as my father would have liked it, minimal. There was a good smoky fog. Obviously he was going to slip away while the going was good. We had already overshot the time for the commencement of the funeral service, which was to be led by the Bishop of Edinburgh, the Father Holloway of my childhood. We drove cautiously–no screeching possible–over what was nothing less than thick black ice. No one was crying and I knew that if I started to, everyone might.
On the radio, Radio Scotland reiterated news of the sudden descent of a blizzard across the central belt. I was trying to think when exactly Daddy would be put into the earth. Frances was in the front seat, Jamie, Fram and I in the back. Blizzard lights over the road kept us aware that we were in ferocious rather than merely dim conditions.
As I had so often done as a child, I leaned my head against the window and listened to its hum. I cleaned the window with my cold fingers. There, to the left, reversed out as though in a print or a linocut, was a black horse galloping across a white field, with above it, on a hill, the thorny crown of Falkland Palace. Somehow, we had got lost. I felt that the horse was white, the field was black; the message was that my father was free. His contrary soul, his dear soul was free.
We arrived in time for polite drinks at Edinburgh College of Art and I was cornered by a girl who told me, at length, how dreadful it was for her that my father was dead. I agreed but couldn’t do much more to comfort her. She had clearly enjoyed a unique relationship with my father. That’s the charm problem. The last mourners left. Edinburgh College of Art’s staff annexe seemed, once empty, a cheerless place to have travelled so far not to see the last of one’s remaining parent. Jamie and Fram suggested that despite the thick snow, we go and find the grave at the Highland Kirk of the Greyfriars where Daddy is buried close by Robert Adam. He is memorialised in the Flodden Wall of Scottish Heroes. We set off almost skiing downhill in our thin wet shoes.
Lightly clad for a southern funeral as we were, we slithered and slopped and froze. But at last we did find the fresh earth, snow-blanketed now. And we found my cheerful anemones with their card, ‘To Dad, from Mandi’. The ‘i’ had a special dot on it like a Polo mint.
Most things about this vexing day would have been to Daddy’s taste.
In Edinburgh, which, to me, has always been an hospitable city, we could not find even a cup of tea. We returned to the airport, flew back to Heathrow, said our goodbyes and Fram and I returned home to Oxford where my older children had for the first and last time comprehensively destroyed their bedroom, very possibly egged on by their grandfather who was making such a spree of it.
When I undressed the baby he had a horrible welt, open and sore, on his left-hand side, the size and shape of an adult man’s thumb. I enquired of the babysitter what it might be. ‘It’s impetigo,’ she said. ‘I have it all the time.’
Apart from–and it is a very considerable ‘apart from’–those weekends when Fram was with his parents and I therefore corroborating to myself the unlikeability my mother-in-law sensed in me, we were often very happy. I have been close in the mind to no one unrelated to me by blood as I have been to Fram and in all other parts of our lives that remains true also. Every day when he dropped me at the market to choose our dinner while he drove off to work, I thought, ‘This is how it is and this is how I wish it to be.’ I worked hard and loved it.
Our joy was later increased by the presence of Clementine, who had come to the Dragon School in Oxford as she had outgrown her school in Hampshire. This thrilled me for all the obvious reasons, and also because it had been Fram’s idea and indicated trust between our two households, Quentin and Annabel’s and ours. Clementine proved to be a fire-breathing dragon. Soon she was in the scholarship class and schoolmates with exotic names were sending her Valentine messages. Her literary tastes grew. She loved A House for Mr Biswas, finding the episode where no brown stockings are available very poignant, and reading A Suitable Boy round and round.
Fram was working too hard and on too many fronts and I knew that he was often exhausted beyond endurance. I also knew–how could I not?–that there was something abnormal about my relationship with alcohol. When we entertained, I did not drink, but often disgraced myself when making the coffee. When we went out, I hardly ever drank. If I did do so, there would be a terrible script waiting just inside my larynx to tell itself. Fram would write down the awful things I said and read them to me the next day. It was like listening to another person. I had a bad person within me whom I mistakenly identified with my dead mother. What neither of us realised was the toll this was taking on Fram, not by nature immune to his mother’s melancholy.
The years rolled round and I produced my books. I lived by reviewing, which was congenial and constructive. I loved the chewiness of the process, miss it greatly in blindness. The children were flourishing. Fram had discovered a passion for being a patron of interesting architecture. Clementine disliked the boarding school she had moved on to, but, when offered the opportunity to leave it, decided entirely characteristically to stick with the devil she knew. Oliver was growing taller and taller. He played athletics and rugby for his school, in spite of his slenderness. We did not yet have a word for the clumsiness that ailed Minoo, but Minoo had a word for almost everything else.
When the three were small enough and allowed me to do it, I dressed them alike. Oliver is to this day very brave about this, though he will touch lightly on his determination never to wear quite as much pink as his mother introduced into his early sartorial exposure.
Frequently and especially at birthdays, we went to Farleigh or Quentin and Annabel came to us with their new baby Rose, an individual of early drollery and beauty. The four, apart from one short fracas when Minoo annoyed Rose at Farleigh by telling her that her bunk bed was a frigate in full sail, were as close as close.
‘It’s not,’ she said, ‘it’s a bunk.’
Something has gone wrong with my listening patterns. When first I started reading talking books, I gobbled first all my favourites and then those I’d been shy of. In that way I had, although my physical world was becoming distressingly straitened, my fictional world, or rather the worlds I was reaching through fiction; they were rich, orderly, coherent and bottomless, so that, for example, I remember a weekend of real physical discomfort and fear, but within it, telling human truths and diverting me from myself, lay The Mill on the Floss. Even through that patchy weekend, I knew that I was still I, because I could feel where George Eliot’s writing was strained, woundingly self-referential, and where it simply spilled out in its beautiful, thoughtful, human reams, as for example when the showy aunt whose name I forget shows off her hats to poor Maggie and Tom’s about-to-be-dispossessed mother.
I seem just now to have run out of reading matter, or at any rate to have lost the road I was following into the great heart of fiction. My new unities are shaken. Over this last weekend I have listened without discipline to a life of the young Stalin, to To the Lighthouse, to The Guermantes Way. I began to attempt to listen to either Hamlet or the Sonnets but the chaotic base I had stirred up for myself made this impossible and instead I seem to have made not a space for unclouded thought but a prescription for damaged sleep and violent dreams. Perhaps it is because I am so often alone that the book within which I am living at any time sets the mental weather and I can do real damage by simple accident or by running out of the steady material of genius that has the capability to crowd out my repetitively cycling thoughts.
The thing is that the steady material of genius, uninterrupted save by my own banal animal life, declares so clearly the gap between its simple exaltation and my crawling haltness. For people who read all the time, reading has a quest to it and I appear to myself, for the time being, to have lost that quest. I do not understand what patterns to make mentally with a cast of books that, although generous, is undoubtedly finite and devoid of, for example, contemporary clutter and the chitter-chatter of magazines and newspapers. I can’t look things up. I can’t reach for the tail of a memory. So much for recalling all the poetry you have ever known when you are in prison.
I must have known that the hardest part of this story to relate would be that of my marriage to and with Fram. Many of the strands that we worked at together with real happiness and perfectionism were in themselves, it is now evident, not good for us. It is only looking back that I can see that where I thought I was doing the gentle, sweet, right thing, I was in fact harming him by feeding that trait he had derived from his mother; not sadism at all, but a cool distaste for weakness. To this day I take very few breaths that are independent of thought of Fram, I take very few decisions that I do not run past the idea of his mind, I feel no experience full or ratified until I have described it to him. He is without doubt the person who knows me best in the world and has the imagination to see in me and care for the fat, pigtailed child lost in books. He is my home. I am homeless.
How does one write about a marriage? I knew what he was thinking about by looking at his face. I found him beautiful, we had countless small overlaps, plots, jokes, habits. I mourn it so much that I do not seem without it to be able to live properly, as I understand it, giving and receiving love within a moral shelter. That there were deep flaws in our marriage we accepted and grew with, like a distorted tree, and I conducted the lightning strike that cleaved us. I loved to think of us as Philemon and Baucis. But I was watering the tree from underground with alcohol and this, while Fram did everything he could to stop it and to understand it, was never as known to him as it was to me. There were the many times I got away with it and if you think you’ve got away with anything you are digging yourself a pit, most especially in a marriage. I felt that if I were thin enough and obedient enough and accepting enough, that eventually my mother-in-law would come to see that I was gentle and trustworthy and good enough for her son. The ‘surg’ might retreat, ‘surg’ being distaste in Gujarati, distaste especially in this case for too-muchness, my nimiety, Fram calls it.
In fact, of course, perhaps because of the alcohol, perhaps because the situation was irredeemable, no good behaviour was ever enough for my mother-in-law. It was probably not even what she wanted. Of course she was right to feel that I was meretricious, because I was changing shape to suit her.
My steadying father-in-law died suddenly on Jersey in the winter of 1992 and Fram flew to be with his mother and sister. On his return after the funeral, he lay on our bed and recounted with clarity the wrapping of his father’s body in white cloth, the holding steady of the chin with a band of white gauze and the days before the funeral during which my father-in-law seemed to exude a sweet scent. I could not have loved Fram more. I still today could not love him more. I love him more every day, as I do my children; it is a growing conversation.
Yet what cracked it? My insistence on surface perfection and my falling far from it? His insistence on surface perfection and my falling even further from that? Our tight closeness? I do not think that our marriage was airless and certainly we had many friends. I have far fewer now. Aloneness and blindness have seen to that. Fram built a beautiful and painterly garden, filled with striped roses, tree peonies and a special tree for the birth of Minoo. Indoors we had made an elegant flat, deeply inhabited by the spirit and works of his mother though it undoubtedly was. I liked that, solicited much of it. The thing is, I thought that I was helping my husband by going along with what his mother wanted of him, and in this I could not eventually have been more wrong.
So it was that I never fussed when my mother-in-law needed Fram at weekends or didn’t include me in family matters. I understood completely that it was cosier for them to speak Gujarati on the telephone as well as being more discreet. I understood very well that it was I that was being excluded and I went along with that because I believed absolutely fundamentally in my own exclusion. I did not think I deserved a place at the table. I was a servant and not a very accomplished one, when it came to comparisons, at that. I suppose that I added to my own distaste for myself that of my now widowed mother-in-law who needed nothing more than her children at her side, and if one of those children were married, well, it was to me, who made a very good job of dismissing my own self. I rubbed myself out.
A healthy person would see that this was the very opposite of what everyone involved might require. During our marriage, I had three novels in my mind whose long period of gestation I was moving through. One, set in a hunting lodge in the Czech Republic, was about children, power and loneliness. It will never get written. One was to be about the consolatory and diverting place that a wife’s girlfriends play in a marriage. I didn’t subscribe to the Anita Brookner theory that no woman is loyal to other women when it comes to men, and I still don’t; though I do believe that female institutions are nastier than male ones, very possibly on account of something like the Brookner-drag. The third novel, which perhaps I now may write since I have at hand what I never thought I would have, its termination, was to be about marriage, specifically about the happiness in marriage that is so far deeper than any I, at least, have found outside it.
Autumns were always difficult for Fram throughout our marriage. Not only was it the new academic year, but I would almost invariably, at some point around Remembrance Sunday or All Souls, get very drunk, mourning, or that was how I excused myself to myself, my dead. The boringness, the repetition of being married to an alcoholic and its frighteningness, are inexaggerable. Yet we went through long periods when I absolutely didn’t drink and we felt unclouded. A logical person, a non-alcoholic, would say, ‘Well then, don’t drink.’ But drink isn’t like that. It tells you it won’t hurt you and then it steals your love. One of these autumns, after both our fathers were dead, I dreamed that we were divorcing. It seems to me now that I fell on the floor. I felt like carcasses, hung upside down from their feet, split through, revealing all the purple and green and webbed gut and chipped ribbing within. I was not just one carcass, I was many. Fram comforted me and we went back to sleeping like spoons, which was how we slept. All along, throughout our marriage that was to me an intensely, intrinsically romantic one, where the romance lies in the heart of the marriage, not in assumed behaviour, Fram, who is rational, had said, ‘We can never know the future. One of us may fall in love with someone else. It’s more likely to be you.’ I could not imagine anyone who answered my internal mental and spiritual detail as he did. I still cannot. Nonetheless it happened, and he was right and here I am now living my life, thirteen years after leaving Fram, still married to him and fortunate enough to be, as his new companion Claudia, says, ‘His widow. You’re his widow. But you’re lucky because he’s still alive.’ What led us from there in our marriage, that several shrinks said was too close and we scoffed, to here?
It is hurtful but may be true that what led me here was nothing more, nor less, than alcoholism. I could not have behaved as I did behave had I not been, in addition to being unhappy, at a point in our marriage when Fram was intensely preoccupied with work, drunk. The children were fourteen, twelve and seven. I am a person who cannot bear mess, who is deeply invested in doing my best to be kind to other people at all times and who loves her children pre-eminently. I am a conventional woman and was at that juncture in my life not unhappy so much as caught in a web of behaviour that bewildered me and that I was not clear-sighted enough to see my way out of. So I hid from myself that I felt any resentment or pain at my unnatural obedience to my mother-in-law, because I really believed I was doing the right thing. Nonetheless, I left my marriage at the urging of someone I hardly knew who knew less than nothing about me.
Fuss is made about turning forty, particularly if you are female. People start muttering about hormone replacement therapy and diminishing quantities of eggs. In this last area of concern, I couldn’t have been gifted with a more imaginative present than that which I received, driven over in person from Herefordshire, from my step-aunt Nicola Jannink. By then personal assistant and more to the head of an international security firm, Nicola was a compoundedly confident character. She parked her sporty roadster in the always rather controversial car park with allocated spaces in front of our flats, and pressed the doorbell, arriving unannounced on my fortieth birthday for which I had invited twelve friends to lunch. I was making complicated vegetable mousses in the shape of lobsters and was already attired in the size twelve knock-off of a Jasper Conran that came out on these occasions. We saw and did not recognise Nicola on the entryphone camera, but of course her voice was characteristic. I was at once aware that I could not invite her to lunch and that it was approximately quarter to one. I was going to have to be rude.
Luckily, she, according to some ways that one might interpret it, got in first. She entered our drawing room, which we had been titivating and filling with flowers, with a very large box, perhaps a yard wide and a foot deep. From it there came a smell that combined every single pong that makes you want to chuck. It was not a question of a light whiff of white truffle, or a little farmyard on her boots. It was everything that no Parsi–no, no person–would want in their house. She put my scented gift down on our sofa, which, as it happens, was cream. I looked into the box, expecting to find I really was not sure what but at the very least telly-dinner for Grendel. Within the box was my name, ‘Candy’, beautifully spelled out in many varieties of birds’ eggs, from pheasant to goose to duck to Canada goose to hen to bantam to quail. So long must it have taken her to collate her generous gift, which comprised exactly forty eggs, that not all of them were barn-fresh. With them went a card that I opened to spread further this unique moment of coming of age. The card read, ‘To Candy and her various children by different men, happy fortieth birthday.’
I think I left it to Fram, to whom that sort of thing comes naturally, to be clear, or at least so polite as to get rid of her, while I in my party dress took my ovarian future down to the furthest end of the garden, trying hard not to break any more eggs.
The day extended and no further social eggs broke, so that for once, I believe, I did not even get shaky or high or any of the infinite gradations of drunk that were legible to me and my poor husband who, by nature vigilant, was rendered hyperactively so by having to thole my hidden but evident alcoholism over those first ten years. And there was that one other thing hiding inside us, we two who were one, of which we were ignorant.
LENS II: Chapter 9
Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is, that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
Perhaps I was at such a pitch of alcoholism, though I had kept it so well hidden, that Mark Fisher might have been anyone; he deserves a better life than the one I was not by any means sharing with him. Anyway it read more like a play than like a life, from this point on, for several years. The plays change in my mind but in the main it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
For the first two years I made an ass of myself, dislocated my children’s lives and misled another man as well as breaking Fram’s heart. When told the news, Minoo, brought up on Narnia, said to Fram, ‘It is all right for me because Mummy still loves me, but for you the golden chain is broken!’ He was seven. He held to the faith that it was not actually so, and he has been, a decade later, proven correct. For perhaps the next three years, I lived in a way that is familiar to anyone who lives on the streets. The only way that I can atone to my children for this is by never going near a drink again.
When I was alone, I simply drank, and I drank whatever I could get. This included household cleansers, disinfectant, a substance called Easy-Iron that lends smoothness to laundry but is not a smooth drink. I arranged to be alone as often as possible because I was so ashamed.
When you begin to drink, if you are a ‘normal’ person, you receive a faint heightenedness and a sense of confidence and permission. Very soon, and I do not know how, I realised that alcohol was my false friend; I think I knew it by my first term at university, but I chose to deny this to myself. I knew it changed me.
Alcohol utterly transforms my character. Very briefly, it used to give me a window of beauty and connection to that beauty, when I would see nature, people, children, all, as it might be, heightened in their own, as I thought, glow. I suppose it was nothing more aesthetically grand than having a sort of Martini-ad director inside my brain. During the years after I left Fram and was drinking, I must have humiliated Mark countless times and I am dead certain that I scared my children. How can a woman who has found her own mother out cold, actually dead, pass on to her beloved children the same experience in all but actual fact?
You can spot other middle-class alcoholics just as you might spot someone who belonged to the Masons. There are the big signs, such as being there before the Co-op opens, which it does, conveniently for alcoholics, at six in the morning, and the small signs, such as being far too polite and explaining exactly why, as you hand over the precise change in 1ps, you need a ready-made gin and tonic at nine in the morning. You learn to spread your custom thinly, so that the people who run Oddbins, Threshers, etc. won’t know that you are an alcoholic, when your every gesture tells them as clearly as though you were wearing the T-shirt. Alcoholics know a good deal of secret information and will in any town be able to find the corner shop that does sell booze. Under my belt are Aberdeen, Middlesbrough, Wick, Cromarty, many districts of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Inverness, a comprehensive guide to Oxford and absolutely no experience of where to get drink in London at all, although I do buy it online for my friends and my children. That gives me not a pusher’s pleasure, but answers the old need to feel connected to what is normal.
The rules by which alcohol makes you live are the instructions in how to live as though you were dead. Alcohol tells you not to answer the telephone, not to answer the door, not to open the curtains, not to eat, not to wash, not to clean your environment and to cover all mirrors as though after a death. Alcohol tells you to wear black and not to clean your teeth because your toothbrush will make you vomit. Alcohol tells you that you need a drink at four in the morning. It then tells you that you need to sick up that drink to get the way clear for the next drink. You obey it and you sick up blood. In the end your ears, nose, eyes and mouth are streaming blood. You shit blood. You piss blood.
I used to be visited by a bloke called Gary, who represented himself as being an ex-miner. He sold dusters, mops, oven-cleaner and the like, all smelling strongly of cigarettes. Every year of the ten or so I lived in my Oxford house, at the end of the cul-de-sac, Gary visited. In my, perhaps, fourth year of residence, he said, as I passed him a tenner, ‘God, m’lady, you look bad. I’ve never seen you look so rough.’ Oddly, I realised only a month ago that the honorific title was a tic widely used by Gary’s brethren. Sober now, but quite as jumpy about the front-door bell, I picked up the entryphone here in London, at Tite Street, to be greeted by:
‘Hello m’lady, it’s Gary. You know, dusters, ex-miner.’
I don’t think it was the same Gary and I’m not capable of seeing single, let alone double, but I was struck by the usage. The only other place where women are routinely addressed as ‘m’lady’ is, in my experience, Wiltons restaurant in Jermyn Street.
‘Hello, big girl, who are you married to at the moment?’ Peculiarly enough, I have been asked this question twice in my life and I take it ill. I forgive the first enquirer, who was drunk himself, unhappy and shy. He is now dry, handsome as all get out and back to his delightful manner that I’ve known since I was newly wed to Quentin. The other person should have known better. The occasion was a cocktail party for my older not-sister Jane’s fiftieth birthday at Leighton House. Actually I like the man who asked the question; he is interesting and uses his fortune to good ends. Nonetheless, I explained to him why I did not want to be called ‘big girl’, even if I am one, and I could not credit his having reached over fifty without realising that women are unfond of the insult direct, let alone the implication that one shags like a stoat and marries frivolously. Evidently my voice was carrying, which was very lucky as the party was full of family, their voices raised in euphonious competition. One of the many pretty cousins called Kiloran, this one a whip of courage and loyalty, was bouncing up and down. She is tiny, very sexy and has a lisp. ‘Thatth’s it, Claude, thatth’s it. You’ve toughened up at lathst.’ Not in fact.
Speaking of toughening up, there is one, slightly solemn, point that I’d like to make about AA. Of course I love it and owe my sobriety, ergo my life, to it, but it cannot but be observable that as an institution it is, and I’m not complaining, made for men. The systems whereby it strips down the ego and squashes, filtrates and cleanses the superego are all very well for people who think a great deal of themselves in the first place. I know that I drank from fear and shame and I have heard the same from many other women. Fear of what? Of comprehensively everything, mainly of how and who to be. And shame? Well, you are a woman and to be a woman alcoholic is to be born to shame, which makes a fine foundation for the Rapunzel’s tower of shame that will grow up on it as the woman drinker lives her eremitic life, and lets that lovely hair get so filthy she could never plait it to make a rope and escape from her tower of shameful habit. Her habit has become her habitat.
There is a point in alcoholism from which you cannot be brought back. This point is referred to by the nickname ‘wet-brain’. When people have wet-brain they are simply gone and are allowed by the defeated carers, medical and familial, whatever spirit it is they wish to kill themselves with, since the only way is down.
I do not know why it is but the feet, that are so rich in nerve endings, are tremendously vulnerable to alcohol, increasing in size, turning blue, cracking, exuding pus, losing nails, prone to ulceration. At one point, it looked as though my left foot was going to have to come off. I may say that my family spotted my alcoholism long before my GP did and it was Quentin and Annabel and the children, with poor Mark Fisher, who at last confronted me, collected me, cherished me and delivered me to Clouds, a rehabilitation centre near Shaftesbury, about which and whose late inhabitants, I had, long before, written that architectural-cum-social review. Clouds was, with Taplow Court and Wilsford, the lost house that V.S. Naipaul describes so beautifully in The Enigma of Arrival, the residence of a family who were part of that poetic grouping known as the Souls.
Since I had, amateurishly and alone, attempted all the usual separation between myself and alcohol–not drinking at all by using willpower, only drinking one glass and that glass being Champagne/red wine/vodka/alcohol-free lager/White Lightning/Benylin, and so on and so forth ad infinitum or more properly ad nauseam, I knew that I had to ask another person to help me. I was enormously lucky in that, given my incapacity to take initiatives, except disastrous ones, my family, that is Quentin and Annabel and the children, did so. I was literally too drunk to notice that Fram had a hand in it too.
For some reason I had never been to a multiplex cinema and on the fourth or fifth day of being dried out in Hampshire, it was decided that Rose, her friend Viola and their mothers and I would go and watch Shrek at the Basingstoke multiplex. I was, from the first moment, certain that someone would arrest me for being with normal people. Rose then ordered a medium-sized popcorn and I knew that I was very unwell indeed. A thing the size of a filing cabinet was placed in Rose’s slender arms. I asked the person behind the counter what large looked like and there passed across his features the terrible boredom of having to explain things in the real world to leftovers from the dusty old world. We sat in ogre-seats, each the size of a small car. I had Rose next to me who explained to me the quotations from other, classic, movies. Later in the day Rose was kind enough to opine, ‘I think you’re getting better, Claude.’ At that stage in her life her voice was very much like that of the Queen. Her part in my recovery is inexpressible because that child put her trust in me.
Of course no alcoholic is being honest if he or she denies that there were those radiant moments of connection with what felt like the truth and a clean vision deep down into it. William James catches it in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
The next step into mystical states carries us into a realm that public opinion and ethical philosophy have long-since branded as pathological, though private practice and certain lyric strains of poetry seem still to bear witness to its ideality. I refer to the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetics, especially by alcohol. The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the yes faculty in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognise as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what, in its totality, is so degrading a poisoning.
When I was about thirty-two I went on a book programme with Allan Massie and P.D. James in Glasgow; it was for telly, and I’m scared stiff of that. Each was asked to recommend a favourite book. I had just finished reading The Drinker by Hans Fallada. If I had obeyed it, I should not have had to live it to its dregs. It is the stony truth about drink for those who have alcoholism as I have it. It takes genius to write of altered states and how they feel, so that the sober reader may enter the state he has very probably never known. Are such passages ever written by non-alcoholics? One thinks of the writers of such sustained and convincing accounts as The Lost Weekend or Under the Volcano.
I wake up quite often in the night in white dread. Drunks are prone to what are called ‘drinking dreams’. One of my worst drinking dreams reproduces an evening at a private house in Smith Square at which I entertained Simon Sebag-Montefiore and John Stefanidis on Simon’s Anglicanism. He is, of course, a Jew. Neither of these men is crazy about fat mad enormous noisy women; they are used to the most groomed, elegant and pliant women the world may offer. The relief on waking to discover that at my bedside are no bottles of red wine, none of vodka, not a trail of sick, and no blood in the bed is great. I have as many gaucheries, madnesses and fugues as any other drunk. When I hear of some shit who has taken advantage of this looseness in my memory and suggested that we may have been intimate, I add it to my files. You will recall St Elizabeth who, when asked what she had in her basket by a superior who was growing weary of her good deeds, replied, ‘Only roses’, though in fact she was bearing bread rolls to distribute among the poor. So once, caught terribly short on Lexington Avenue, very late at night and unable to find the keys of my sweet old-fashioned hosts, I peed into my Accessorize evening bag. No trace at all in the morning; a miracle. The great thing I mind about having been drunk is the imprecision and boringness that descend and, should one sink further, the self-pity that is the worst of self, in the guise of a lament and in my case, at any rate, a keening for all the dead and all the living who will be dead.
Of course there were lovely funny things that felt like being fully alive, things like chatting with Jerry Hall, in her off the shoulder turquoise Chanel leather mini-dress and matching shoes, about our shared problems with long hair. I told her that, at her recommendation in Vogue, I’d put Hellmann’s Mayonnaise on mine when I was at boarding school and she ratified my suspicion that models are brilliant at teases when asked goofy questions by magazines.
A magazine carried a small intelligent piece on me in which I was described as a ‘party-goer’. It was almost then that I folded up on going to parties, folding myself ever smaller and smaller as with the impossible origami trick, until I was so infolded that I went out not at all, my character as apparently hard but actually layered and latent as a tree peony’s balled bud before it braves its own revelation. You can never prove that you don’t go out; it’s a self-defeater.
I suspect that there is a certain amount of old-school-tie snobbery about which place dried you out and which place is tougher than the other. I am certainly prone to it when I hear that softies at The Priory have televisions or rooms to themselves, or are allowed out for un supervised walks. That is, you could say I am thoroughly brainwashed and very easily institutionalised. Going to Clouds was more frightening than the first day at school, but with many similarities. If you break the smallest rule you are expelled; these rules seem arbitrary but are life-saving. If you hear of any substance being abused and do not shop the user, you are expelled. It goes against the grain. It goes, in fact, against all sorts of grains, both in soft privately educated people like me and in those who are taking the option of doing time at rehab rather than in Pentonville. There is something repellent, dishonourable, not to mention explicitly forbidden in the traditions of Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, about telling ‘war stories’, as they are known, to civilians.
There is nowhere to hide. Those who find this most difficult are certainly the bulimics and anorexics, whose habit seems to have its teeth into them further even than methadone or alcohol. Heroin is jittery to come off; for about three days people sit around shaking, saying ‘I’m clucking’, which means ‘I’m doing cold turkey.’ Methadone is a dulling brute. Junkies pass a rumour that it was used in the Reich, and derives from the words ‘Method One’; I just don’t know, but it is a slow pig to get off for sure.
The drugs that tell you most sharply that you must have them the minute you’ve got out of the place that is protecting you from them appear to be methamphetamine sulphate and crack. Speedballs, once had, are never forgotten. Speedball bores are like orgasm bores. You can’t convey it unless you can.
You have to have got to the bitter end of your using if you want to recover. Only desperation has the energy required in order to stay clean and dry, as the spooky, infantile words have it.
What I never got used to was that people were expelled or ran away with terrific expedition, so that the cast of characters in rehab–normally around thirty–changed all the time. Very few people lasted the whole six weeks and any of us who did were told that only one of us would be alive in five years’ time from among the thirty or so.
I grew attached to a beautiful heroin addict called John who’d been a pimp and had found his sister self-garrotted when he was a small child. He said that on the outside he’d have rolled me in thirty seconds. He meant robbed, burgled, what have you. He was fascinated by what I ate, particularly salad and olives. He kept telling me that they’d be no good for me at all and what I needed was a Big Mac. He spoke of a Big Mac in terms of such descriptive brilliance that he might have been describing the Warwick Vase. One day I gave him a physalis fruit that my daughter had brought for me. Of course I didn’t tell him its proper name or he’d have said, ‘You’re having me on; you can’t call fruit after the pox.’ I told him it was called a golden berry, which it sort of is in a merchandising way. There was one room where we were encouraged to mix, write our diaries of events throughout the day and hold meetings. It was the old drawing room of Clouds House, a long chunkily elegant room with desks and wipeable furniture. It was a visiting Sunday, deep into my stay at Clouds. The vicar really was circulating; it was teatime. I gave John my delicious golden berry to try.
‘FUCK, FUCK, FUCK,’ he screeched. ‘FUCKING BITCH IS TRYING TO POISON ME. IT’S YOU THAT’S THE VILLAIN ROUND HERE.’ Only a really big bar of Fruit and Nut went even half the way in convincing him that I was innocent.
In a rehabilitation centre, the currency is cigarettes and milk chocolate. Bizarrely, I met no regular user of heroin who didn’t inveigh against putting white sugar in your tea or coffee, explaining that brown was much healthier. Nor was this an in-joke; it was in deadly earnest. Same with bread.
We slept in dormitories, rose to and were run by shaken hand-bells, and were allocated chores according to the length of our trembly new sobriety. To a person who hasn’t washed for months, the sense of achievement in being promoted from dusting to cleaning up the hot drinks room is extraordinary. The first real faculty to return seems to be vanity and in its wake, not far afterwards, the instinct to, if not have sex, flirt a bit and find someone special among the crowd. This is entirely forbidden; when people are seen to be fraternising too much solely with one another it is systematically broken up, even at the level of friendship. During my time there were a few lightning conductors for all this loose lust, including a thrillingly tattooed Irish traveller who looked like a silver wolf, and a lap dancer whose loveliness was vitiated by the low price she put on herself. Hardly ever have I known a girl so in need of love and so incapable of understanding it save through the giving of sexual services. She could not remember a time before penetrative paternal abuse. She would sit at a table and one would wonder why all the boys were clustered round the table. She was, as it were, doing phone sex so that they could all then rush out of the room and wank. She had the face of a singing angel or a sex doll, mouth always open. She could not get my name right so she made me new ones every day, which pleased me. She was obviously used to the notion of confected names since her own was Benice, pronounced to rhyme with Denise; goodness alone knows what it was in fact.
She and I went together to church on the last Sunday in Lent. She asked me the meaning of many of the pictures in the stained glass. She had not heard the story of the crucifixion or of the resurrection. How had she avoided them? It was easy to imagine her in the garden, astonished by the man who was not the gardener. She had such space for belief and intelligence in her neglected life. She had a craving to be a mother because she had so much love to give and so much redress, she felt, to take; it was she who felt guilty at the abuse she’d suffered. She would plan how she would knit little outfits for her child–always a daughter–and she cooed over all the pictures of our children that those among us lucky enough to be mothers whipped out at any opportunity.
It was impossible not to be chuffed by attention from such a lovely being. She was being visited at weekends by an individual pretending to be a relation who was actually taking from her, repeatedly among the trees after Sunday tea, the thing she was used to giving. She hated him, but she gave him what he wanted: ‘I went around the world, Italian, French, fucking Russian, the lot. Who cares?’ she’d ask. He sent her children’s clothes to wear while he was doing it. Crystal meth was her drug.
Only two of us didn’t smoke and I am embarrassed to say that sometimes I took up smoking just to escape my fellow middle-class, healthy-lunged goody-goody. I think that what I could not bear in him is what I possessed so much of myself: the element of hysterical control. He was a high-achieving professional whose recourse to spirits had driven him to shove a knife through his wife. Each of us in that place was trying to find the reason why and how not to, not ever again. To deny the metaphysical aspect of this would be to deny the subconscious.
I’m trying to think what questions people ask about rehabilitation centres that I can usefully answer. If they are considering going to one the questions are all about what you are allowed to take in with you. I can only speak for myself. I was allowed to take no books, no personal sound system (not that I have one), no radio, no aerosols, no razor blades, no nail clippers, no scissors, and had to surrender to the nurses my scent and lotions in case I was moved to drink them. After a few weeks, I was allowed a squirt every morning of my scent and this luxury, having been withheld, became the morning’s grand bouquet.
When you arrive at a rehabilitation clinic a photograph is taken of you, for which you prepare to pose by, on the whole, being completely blootered, off your face, since it is the addict’s logic that if you are going to get clean, you might as well get truly dirty first. As it happened, I was only half intoxicated in my mugshot because of the good work my family had done, but I was still incapable of sitting still, incapable of walking, and drinking litres and litres of Diet Coke and water, and I was seeing things, scuttling, swarming, inbreeding. Five days after having had a drink, when my blood was taken, it was still well over the limit where it is legal to drive. I could have been used to start a fire.
There is nothing amateurish about the medical care at Clouds, and it is to the doctor there that I owe a blessed clarification he made for me. For years, doctors had been telling me that I was depressed and ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol. I knew I was not depressed. I was sad. Sad things had happened, one after the other. I did not fail to respond to beauty, I did not hate life, I did not want to be dead. Or, and it is the crucial golden ‘or’, I did not feel depressed unless I had been drinking. It was drinking that made me depressed, not drinking that ‘cured’ my depression. I was pleased that the doctor realised that matters were this way round because he could see that I was in good faith when I said that I could no longer drink and stay alive and that I wanted, more than anything, to be sober.
In my dormitory were a gorgeous pregnant crack-head, a sad girl who didn’t think there was anything wrong with her, and a methadone addict who later duped me into lending her ten quid, which was an expellable offence, but the Board of Trustees agreed that I was so dopey that I was hardly culpable and had probably really just been doing her a kindness, as I thought. Clouds is not smart. It is run by a charitable foundation. Many of its inmates are not paying for themselves.
The beds are just beyond camp beds, the blankets are nylon, the sheets polycotton, the rooms are stuffed with addicts and there are never enough beds. Talking after lights out is discouraged. Fraternisation between the sexes is forbidden. The nursing station and the smoking room and the room where hot drinks are made remain open all night. Hot drinks acquire fetishistic significance. When you enter a rehabilitation facility you are given a mug on which, with your shaky hand and some nail varnish, you write your name. For us, this was perhaps to be the seed of a future responsibility for our own lives, looking after a single mug. Hot drinks become all that drugs and drink were. People try new combinations and on the coveted Saturday afternoon shopping hour in Shaftesbury that is allowed at the end of your stay, you see your peers looking crazily for new ginseng, apricot, strawberry, redcurrant and vanilla teas. My own great discovery was high-fat Horlicks with extra milk. I broke a rule and took it to bed with me. In order to encourage healthy eating, there was a bowl of fruit out at all times in the main room. The only fruit my peers liked was bananas. They did diverting rude dances with them and didn’t think they were as disgusting as normal fruit, so I got my pick every week of apples, pithy oranges and tall, woody pears. The hero in the daily life of such a place is the cook. Day after day, with the help of whoever was on kitchen duty that day, the cook produced four or five options because, of course, there’s nothing like an addict for saying he’s allergic to gluten, nuts, chilli or what have you. As in, ‘The smack never done me no harm, it was all the take-aways. I can’t take rice.’
There was something beautiful, too, about seeing those who had been close to death regain, literally, an appetite. And God those skeletons ate. It was the crack addicts, the speedball users and the heroin addicts who just had to have puds, and every day our giant of a cook produced all the old-school favourites and then fruit salad for poofs like me. It was one of the shocks of body modification that I received when I was in Clouds, that probably half the girls in there had had boob jobs. But was it surprising to be able to abuse your body in this way (and who am I to be priggish about that?) when you had felt able to swallow fifteen condoms full of cocaine? When the girls got better, which took about three weeks–as short as that–each planned a new life, in almost every case, without the man inhabiting her old life. He would frequently be her dealer or pimp, often too the father of her children. The girls looked to a purer future, all except one who seemed already to be resigned completely to death. She was beautiful, loved, in her early twenties, affluent to boot, and very bored indeed. It is a sad reason to resign from life.
With the boys, it was the other way about; they’d got straight now and they wanted to get back to the old lady and straighten her out too. Invariably they wanted to stay in the relationships they found themselves in, unless, that is, they found new relationships in Clouds. We were attended by male nurses and male and female counsellors. The day began at 6.30, we hauled on the comfortable and loose-fitting clothes that the list of what to bring had recommended, and hurtled or hobbled down to whichever room was designated to our group. There was no doubt a more than quasi-religious element to the day. We would listen to a reading, go to breakfast, say grace. To be chosen to say grace was a privilege. Sometimes people would have gone in the night, having been found with gear or trying to escape. We cleared away breakfast, a mysterious meal for me because the dying girl could put back a packet of Cheerios and one of Frosties, and still she looked like death. A slight rivalry grew up between myself and a really handsome blond junkie who said his legs were murder weapons and he could kick a man to death. He kept a place for me at breakfast every morning, which I loved him for, but I knew one reason why. Every week I would try to get my Sunday visitors to bring hotter and hotter mustards and Linton could always beat me when it came to either putting them up your nose or eating them off the spoon. So we were getting our capsaicin high. While he spoke to me often of the beauty of needles, I just couldn’t be tempted to mainline mustard and I didn’t see how we could get any works here. Anyway, I’m scared of needles, but, peculiarly, the really needle-fixated junkies will tell you that they are scared of needles too, just like alkies ‘not liking the taste’. It is a complicated business that these poor counsellors are there to unknot. As a rule, they have ‘been there’, which creates trust and an ambition to emulate that is again–has to be–infantile. Counsellors go at it simply because what they seek is emotional truth, which is far plainer than all the distractions like class and milieu. After our morning’s group work in which I hid and said nothing at all for some weeks, allowing the others to fill in questionnaires about my character which were pretty spot on (‘this person is full of fear’), we had lunch and then optional creative work or exercise or other organised pastimes. I painted a bit but I saw at once that not my facility but the truth was required and that I was just making pretty marks on bits of paper. One of the sweetest inmates was a professional graphic artist who hoarded Marmite, since Marmite is famous for rehabilitating your liver. He shambled like a man with chains on his legs and his feet were too painful for shoes after all the superlager and methadone; yet every word he spoke was beautiful sense. He died shortly after leaving Clouds.
I abandoned myself to a masseuse who was using a technique called reiki. I was in a smallish room with two peers of whom I was categorically afraid, one a big talker from a family of nine sons in south London who teased me by stealing things from me; and the other, a displaced semi-posh boy with a heroin habit that had used up his mother’s jewellery and his father’s money. He was as proud as a knife out of a stone. In the background there was the customary uncommitted music that goes with massage and that makes me faintly cross in a Colin McWilliam-ish way. It was, nonetheless, in this company and within the aroma of a really cakey lemon-scented candle, reminding one of a lifetime’s washing-up, that I unbuttoned sufficiently to shed tears, which is, for the counsellors, a place to start.
Each evening we had to fill in our diaries of the day and write how each day had struck us. Several hardy souls played Scrabble. John the pimp was fantastically intelligent and as beautiful as a cat; what a life he could have had, maybe is having. Quite soon I was hauled into the staffroom to talk about my diaries. ‘What is this word “pulchritudinous”, Candia?’ I mumbled and said that it meant good looking.
‘Well, we’re going to have to change your diary keeping. You can write the diaries for the guys who don’t know how to write as long as you let them use their own words, but you are to keep your diaries, which have already covered more than a hundred sheets of paper and said nothing at all about yourself, to eight lines a day, only about yourself.’
I felt very much like crying.
They had me caught.
But looking at it from now, I see what they mean. Reading and writing were a kind of drug to me.
In order for the message of total abstinence to stick, those clinics where it is practised recommend no reading at all that is not concerned with the programme of Narcotics Anonymous and/or Alcoholics Anonymous. I was allowed my Christening Bible, King James, given me at Rosslyn by the Kuenssbergs four decades and more before.
It is true that I have consoled myself (the programmatical word might be ‘medicated’) with books and with reading and writing, but I am not prepared to accept that these are malign. I was, however, prepared to suspend them for those weeks during which I was, because I am, ultra obedient to our counsellors. The highlight of our week was a sing-song with the vicar, and the highlight of that–truly–was singing ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. I hadn’t heard it before. I hadn’t heard of him before. I was that disconnected.
For a start, there was the fact that almost without exception the counsellors were good looking (that’s where the pulchritudinous slipped in). Many of the male peers hungered for the beautiful, Spanish, booted, stern lady who took us through our character flaws with practised discipline on a daily basis. They vied for her white smiles. Romances were led in the head and added to the already electric atmosphere which sometimes exploded into a fight or a shouting match of incredible vituperation between women, but for a lot of the time people just shook and said, ‘I’m in bits, me, in bits, d’you hear, in little bits. I’m fucking fucked. I’m fucking FUCKing fucked.’ One boy who arrived in a state like this, left having built upon the good he had found within himself. He could have got a job at the Foreign Office, so great was his ability with every level of equivocation.
I wish any government would dare to institutionalise NA and AA rehabilitation programmes in prisons.
There’s a commonsensical and rather trite saying that goes around about addicts. The idea is that we are capable of enormous workloads because we in the past put so much effort into getting, using, recovering from, etc. our drug of choice. We are certainly obsessive, which is at its healthier end known as ‘applied’. When I left Clouds, I felt as newly hatched addicts do, skinless and terrified that I would find myself taking a drink.
One Monday after Clouds my literary agent came to see me and suggested that I write about the experience of detoxification. The people at Clouds had said the same. This book is not it. I would like to address a book that might be of use to an addict who is not sure whether they are one, and I’m fairly sure this book will be, if useful, useful in a more diffuse psychological way.
I will tell quickly, because I am so ashamed, the fact that after my agent had gone I saw the migrainous aura in the air that tells me that I am going to have a drink. For the next two weeks I drank to die, to the despair of all who had invested love, patience and trust, not to say a large sum of money, in my sobriety. Entirely drunk and responding, no doubt, to what had been there all along, I ran from my isolated house at the end of the cul-de-sac to Fram’s house that had been our marital home. Perhaps that is not true, perhaps Fram came and collected me. At any rate, after as many as five years without seeing each other in other than strainedly civil circumstances, we were together again. And there was Claudia. For, I think, two days, they nursed me. I stole two bottles of wine because I was having DTs. In front of Claudia, who is dry, witty, confident and intelligent, I was everything I had I thought managed not to be: maudlin, sentimental, snobbish, bitchy, envious of her solid yet elegantly raffish background, the lot. She took it all. Claudia is one of nine siblings from two marriages. I am one of one sibling from one marriage, really.
After that last bender, once more, and without complaint, the Farleigh household rallied around the woman who had never been its head. I was nursed for perhaps ten days in ‘my’ bedroom at Farleigh. Every day the sway of the trees made me a little less sick. Every day I could more easily fight off the racing thoughts of the urgent necessity of suicide. I could even see, in person at the bottom of my bed, my older two children, who were, if you can believe it, offering to drive me to meetings. The last drink I had in my life I could not finish. It was a can of Special Brew, taken from the refrigerator in my first husband’s morning room. I poured the rest away, squashed the can and wrapped it up. Later when I was returned to Oxford and having my second try at a sober life that has, so far, while undermined from many angles, not cracked, I threw the can away.
What seems to have happened is this, and Fram will correct me if I am wrong. When I left our marriage, Fram said his mother was ‘on the verge of beginning to be able to contemplate thinking of coming around to me’; Minoo insisted that she loved me. After I left, I received a letter from my mother-in-law begging me to reconsider and saying that she was sorry. I was very touched by this letter and have hidden it somewhere so deep that I can’t find it. I know now that Fram dictated it, but my late mother-in-law was willing to write it.
In a way, my departure was all my mother-in-law’s fears and dreams come true. She had her son back and she had her proof that I was as delinquent as the culture that I represented. She cannot but have been agonised by the pain in which she saw her son, but she also knew that he blamed her in part for the catastrophe, and that blinded her with fury. It was Avi and Minoo and, later, Claudia who got Fram through.
During the years in which I had imagined Fram all-powerful, plotting, arranging for my book to get bad reviews, talking the brilliant streak of malice that he can, and always, always outflanking anyone in argument, Minoo had made mention of Daddy’s ‘horizontality’. They had taken holidays together in Greece, in Sansepolcro, in Menton, and ‘Daddy has gardened and we did a lot of Gibbon/Plato/Donne together.’ Minoo would not be used as an informant and nor did I ever approach him with the intention of so using him. It was Claudia who told me later that Fram had, during these years that I was drunk, a nervous collapse.
At once all feuding and all stiffly held positions melted for me and I was struck at heart that this person with whom my mind was most involved had been dealing with such pain over such time. I bought a quantity of books on bipolarity and read them properly. I wanted to know everything that retrospectively might mend him.
My mother-in-law’s father, who looked very like Fram, died young driving home one evening on a road he knew very well. Mehroo’s mother, Ratu, remarried quite soon. She was the first woman in India to get a pilot’s licence. Home movies show her beauty but also shyness veiled to some degree by the fashions of the time–a cocktail or cigarette holder never too far away–and a Leonardo smile. Mehroo found it difficult to come to terms with her mother’s remarriage, and though they remained close, there was a touchiness between them. After her mother died, Mehroo cried every morning for several years. When Eddie died she berated herself for having done so and her own widowhood was almost impenetrably sad. When Fram returned from weekends spent with his mother, it was often as though he needed draining of the gloom he had ingested. In fact his patient, tranquil sister, who lived with Mehroo and increasingly looked after her, protected him far more than he cared to admit.
When Fram introduced Claudia into his life, which was long after I left him, Mehroo said that ‘even that one’ (me) would be better than ‘this one’. It is possible that she saw that Claudia (who hates me to say this, remarking that it makes her sound like a breakfast cereal) was authentic in ways where I, who had trained myself, in order, as I thought, to please my mother-in-law, seemed not to be.
The language of disgust came easily to my mother-in-law. It was the dark side of her noticing eye and impulse to order her surroundings to make them fresh, light and airy. It is a language perhaps available to women who have not allowed their sons to grow up. Fram was much more her construct than his father’s. Perhaps I am still in a swoon of honeymoon with my sons, or perhaps I am smug, but I don’t see why their loving other women should spell infidelity to me; I think it might even mean that they must like me, or some category to which I belong, that of being female.
It was Claudia who saw that Fram must choose between her and his mother and enabled him to make the necessary transition without any unnatural break. Throughout all this, Avi nursed her brother, took no sides, exhibited perfect tolerance and when the time came, with Fram, nursed their mother in her swift last illness right up till the end, which Minoo and I missed by a few hours. In her last weeks, she was allowed to remain at home, consumed by cancer and read to by her children. I sent her a short letter saying that I was sorry that she was ill, that I had loved her and that I was very sorry that I had hurt her.
Fram chose life. Claudia is life in the many. With her came Toby Buxton, father of her twins, and tutelary spirit of the household. I was lucky enough, and this is not invariable, to love their twins Xavier Buxton and Yvo FitzHerbert, on sight. They are dissimilar twins yet their sense of a shared life saturates their relationship. Tall strawberry roan Yvo has cornered climate-camp and chess, and blue-eyed auburn Xavier is that rare thing, a born classicist. By lucky chance, though his school offered no Greek, he attached himself to a retired don, Margaret Howatson, from whose private lessons he would return with shining, sharpened eyes. Curiously, through their father, Yvo and Xavier have, like my son Minoo, a brother seven years older, also named Olly and with a poll of red hair.
When first I heard of these domestic arrangements, my reaction was envious, I suspect, and petit bourgeois, I know. The truth is that it works very well. Toby does the cooking and lives in the coach-house. Fram does the gardening and emanates power from his elegant drawing room. Claudia does far more than she pretends to and emanates an equal power that contains Fram’s own and protects him from it, from her large, wood-stoved study. Bysshe, the standard poodle, a redhead himself, has the best manners of any dog I know. Segolène the cat seldom settles save to scratch or to burrow into her fleecy manger next to Claudia’s computer.
As you will imagine, I’m defensive when people ask the sort of questions you can conceive they might. On the whole I do not speak to people about it unless I’m fairly certain that they will understand, and the key to their understanding must be that I wholly accept all of this, since it is the source of Fram’s happiness, and to love someone properly is to wish them that.
When eventually I went stone-blind and I was still too scared of Claudia and of her and Fram’s felicity to go to their house (it made me shake since it was all I had failed to make with my husband), Claudia came round to my house with a bunch of flowers. Her colours are autumnal–warm Victorian reds, blues and browns. She also brought for me Antonia White’s Living with Minka and Curdy. This was a perfect present. Claudia herself is a convent girl like Antonia White and clever and teasing in a similar way. The book was a pretty edition with its decorative dust-wrapper, and Minka and Curdy were, of course, cats. For good measure, Curdy was short for Coeur de Lion.
In February 2007, I received a letter from Claudia. Once we had seen one another plain, I believe we immediately trusted one another, but for ten years before that I feared the Claudia I had invented: ferocious, social, branchée and able to mobilise, I chippily thought, platoons of literati, wits and heart-struck young men bound to her frank beauty and disgusted at my putrid, tarty, fat, pretentious artifice. I used words to describe myself that hurt.
It occurred to Claudia, as I grew blinder, that I should come to live with her and Fram. This was brave. The first time I had visited their house I was wobbly with grief and envy, for what I saw was my own exact life, but relaxed. I felt shredded and like a fat ghost, an undisposed-of Rebecca. I do not think that Claudia has any Mrs de Winter feelings about me, nor need she have. She wrote:
I felt that I should write to you directly about my reported suggestion that you think of Winchester Road as a base. I wondered if you felt you could not think of leaving Beaumont Buildings for as long as Minoo was Oxford based, and I thought that might seem an age given how unhappy you are and have been there and how impossible it feels to turn things around from there. You know that I have thought often, in the last few months, that it was quite wrong for you to be stumbling around alone and wished that you could see a way of stumbling around Winchester Road until the eyes were brought under some sort of control. But I also saw that Winchester Road seemed no solution to you, and was in fact a sort of torture. ‘I am alone’, you say, ‘that is the truth’. Well you are and you aren’t. If you can bear to take a place in our loose family structure then you would be a strengthening rather than a straining element. I think you know this, perhaps you resent it, why should you prop up our structure? Only because in becoming a prop it would become your structure too. I don’t know any other way, except to prop and be propped. But I also know, in some quarters, that this is regarded as a sick way forward. Still, I reiterate–we haven’t anything cosy and nuclear for you to disrupt–you must see that. Toby and I failed as a partnership–now we are back on course. I have no doubt at all that Fram and I would have failed if we had tried for anything tighter or steppier than we have got. You say the place for you at the table is still an outsider place and that is the story of your life. I say it is as outsiderish as you choose to make it. There are bonds between you and Fram which make me the outsider and bonds between Toby and me which make Fram the outsider and I don’t doubt that we too could grow some bonds of our own that would make outsiders of them both, not to mention all the bonds we have with our own and make with other people’s children to pass the life. I know that Doctor X and Doctor O have both warned against what is on offer here, to which I can only say what do they know and what do I know. Well I know–sort of–what is on offer and why–but of course cannot be the judge of whether it is what you want or need. I have, I suppose because of my mother, a horror of endings. All sorts of mess and experiment seem to me preferable to losing sight of loved ones. But that is my wing, I cannot make it yours.
I have no sense of anything but gratitude for this letter, with its beautiful sense of ‘passing the life’, a phrase she has coined, and its generous reference to her own mother, a Margaret like my own, who died young in a road accident. But I am I think too old and conventional and under-confident to enter such a collegiate way of life. I know myself too well and that I would fit in around the edge of yet another family while significantly being in some sense dead or absent, as I felt it. Am I wrong? I don’t know.
Most psychiatrists I have seen say keep off, keep off, he has two wives, his cake and his eating, and she has two husbands, and you have no one: face it. But how can I when they are my family and I love them? Much of me is from or in or with Fram, for I have known him for so long and am formed by much about him, that I have had to rip out, heal, remould and reform and solidify those traits or excise them, for I am a stand-alone doll now, unattached, what we are told all healthy personalities should be–or un-overattached may be fairer to the psychiatrists.
I feel that it is best to leave bits of myself behind at that house and leave it whole, and over time not to grow scar tissue or to harden, but to try to learn what it is to be a whole person, alone, a colouredin letter ‘O’ rather than an incised and empty zero.
I think maybe it’s anyway time for Claudia and Fram to get a rest from me. I have come to resemble Fram’s mother in a way maddening for and to him. She was inconsolable after the death of his father. Why should he have to console me for my having left him? When first Claudia was with Fram, he was bruised by me, and no doubt talked about me a lot, never guessing that I was thinking about him all the time. Now both Fram and Claudia know that I love them, separately and together, why should they not forget about me?
Then I remember the words of Turner, when asked which was his favourite of his own works, ‘What be the use of them, save all together?’ and I do think again.