What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)
PART ONE: SPECTACLES
Why don’t you write your memoirs?’ I’ve been asked, or, worse, ‘Why don’t you write your life story? No one would believe it.’
Well, that’s why.
My friend Allan Massie wrote to me in 1996 that I was, as a novelist, ‘insufficiently prolific’. But for one thin book of stories, I am exactly as unprolific now as I was then.
My last novel was published in 1994, my last book of short stories in 1996. It’s not that I’m not writing, or it wasn’t, but rather that I had taken a wrong turning and got stuck. I saw this baulk reflected back to me in every face I met. It got so bad that I could not bear the glare.
That unbearable glare has in the last years taken on an entirely new meaning for me.
Friends who knew me better than the ones who simply asked about a memoir, said, ‘You really must write something about Scotland; it’s changed so much since when you were a child.’
In the new millennium, I attended a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholism. When the press discovered this, for a whole day I couldn’t walk through my native city without being stopped for I was that day’s page three and four girl; double spread, as it were, ‘my alcoholic hell by Scots writer’. I had my youngest child Minoo with me. His reaction was phlegmatic: ‘People who believe that angle believe that angle,’ he said. I telephoned the other children. One was in a pub in Caithness; I worried that he would be hurt. ‘Nonsense,’ he said, ‘I’m up here with a few of the boys carrying on your tradition. Seriously, Mummy, it’s fine.’ My daughter had left a long soothing message on every telephone in Scotland that might pertain to me about the nature of truth and corruption and how dreadful it must be–and she’s right–for really famous people.
Nonetheless all three children lived the painful truth of having an alcoholic mother. When it came to be known by certain publishers that this was the case, just one feeler came out to me. Would I write a misery memoir: ‘Middle-class, middle-aged woman at War Hotel spills all’, sort of thing? ‘War Hotel’ is the term used to describe rehab when you want to big it up.
My reply to this was the worst possible and constituted the last drink I’ve had to this day. It lasted a fortnight, I think. One drink being too many and a thousand not enough.
In the rehabilitation centre, which was set in a house about whose architecture and inhabitants, The Souls, I had once, long ago, written a review, several of the counsellors, themselves mostly ‘in recovery’, asked me if I would write about the experience. I was surprised because confidentiality is one of the tenets of all twelve-step programmes of recovery from addiction. They said, ‘No, yours would be different; it could help people.’
To one of my temperament, to be of use to others is an irresistible spur. Even my last child was an attempt to please my mother-in-law who had said bitterly, ‘I expect I’ll get a book a year instead of a grandchild.’
Still, I wrote no memoir, but I was thinking it. Towards what end I did not know, but I’m glimpsing now.
I didn’t see it coming, but in this spring of 2008, I’ve had to close down on my other addiction, far more serious than the drink, that was lifelong, beautiful, consolatory, solitary and terminal: reading.
For it appears that I am gone blind.
Blindness, and I gather that this is so for many who cannot see, is not a solid or unmodulated blackness such as one might imagine comes over the head of a hawk when you put on its hood. In addition my blindness could be termed illegitimate, since it is not so that my eyes cannot see.
It is simply the case that my brain has chosen to close them. For twenty-two hours every day I am unable to open them.
That is the reason why I’m writing a book more full of ‘I’s than I’m temperamentally moved, or perhaps even equipped, to. When you imagine a writer writing what do you see in your mind’s eye? I’m not talking about those pictures of writers’ studies in lifestyle sections. I’m talking about the thing itself, the solitary maker of what you read.
Unthink it now, perhaps, for I am not actually writing at all, but dictating, pacing a room sixteen of my paces long and fourteen wide and having my spoken words typed by a fine-featured young woman with the auspicious name of Liv Stones. I am marching blindly to and fro with my Diet Coke, carrying my pointless spectacles and trying to think aloud in sentences and paragraphs, I hope for your benefit, or, better, your pleasure.
Before I went blind, I would if forced to choose my most beloved author have said Henry James. He has been joined by Tolstoy and Proust. But he is still my great love and here it is irresistible to put in his tribute to Miss Theodora Bosanquet, his last, near-telepathic amanuensis.
James wrote to his brother William:
A new excellent amanuensis, a young boyish Miss Bosanquet, who is worth all the other (females) that I have had put together and who confirms to me in the perception afresh–after eight months without such an agent–that for certain, for most, kinds of diligence and production, the intervention of the agent is, to my perverse constitution, an intense aid and a true economy! There is no comparison.
I managed to read about the first twelve words of that aloud to Liv, by holding my eyelids open with my fingers, but it got too sore and if I waste sight this early in the day I will be bumping into things like a bumblebee by elevenses. I fall over a lot and am covered with the sort of bruises that worry social workers. Last week I had a pretty black eye that I wanted to keep for longer; I came by it walking into the bough of a pollarded wisteria in Radnor Walk. Since the blindness really took hold, I have hardly worn eye make-up and I had forgotten what an enjoyable, if minute, recreation the painting of one’s own eyes is. I feel like a Greek fishing boat without its painted eyes. Without my sparkle I can’t seem to see my way. In India mothers put kohl on babies’ eyes to ward off blindness. My black shiner was a beautiful mix of colours: navy, rose, ochre, olive, ultramarine. It returned one of my eyes to me in definition at least, for they feel as though they have fallen in and dried out like deserted eggs, or like painful stones behind crisped, gluey lids. It is to be hoped that together Liv and I may either lift, or bring life to, those stones.
Why call this chapter ‘Earpiece’? Because I have to accept that I cannot read through my eyes and must listen (I still can’t call it reading) through my ears. I held out pridefully, typically, self-punishingly, until 10 July 2007, when a friend got me to listen to On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan on her iPod. The iPod was on speakers because I still cannot bear to block another sense by putting things in my ears and stopping up two more holes in my head like Odysseus as he avoids the Sirens’ song.
You can’t hide in a talking book, and with my iPod problem I can’t ‘read’ in company. But that’s lucky, in a way, as I am almost always alone.
I do not live with my husband. I left him more than ten years ago. We are legally separated but not divorced. It was a mistake. He said to me when I went blind, ‘Perhaps you have had to lose everything to return to yourself and your art’, and it’s a thought, though rather too grand for me, who have always put on a clean, ironed, white apron in order to sit down to write. It’s the sort of thing you can say about dead people. I do feel dead sometimes. I feel like a fat ghost.
What’s the difference between the old way of reading and this new listening? Partly that is what this book will be about. In practical terms, there are the questions of the machines and the vital question of the reader, or actor, of the book. Machines first: I like tapes, even though they go wrong and are soon to become obsolete; CDs, with their wafery holographic smoothness, just don’t say ‘words’ to me. But I consume both in inordinate quantities. Part of whatever it is that has gone wrong in my brain involves broken sleep and where I would once have turned to a book I click on the merciful munching tape or set the CD spinning.
There is pleasure, and I really doubted that there would be, in relistening, just as there is delight in rereading. It is a very different pleasure, and one of which I might not have, in the purist old days, approved. I have always deprecated the habit of reading simply for plot, for the solving of the puzzle. It is the texture of the text, the touch of the writer’s thinking upon my own thought, the intimacy of interinanimation that I loved and that had accompanied me all my conscious life.
I confess I haven’t had even one jolt of this quality of delight since becoming a listener, though there have been many moments when I clumsily tried to stop the machine there–just there–and catch the words again, in order to make, as I’m afraid I would have done before, a note in the margin, or on a bit of paper. I find these notes now next to my bed where I do most of my listening, but of course I can’t read them; it’s like darning a black sock trying to read my writing now. The sort of reading that I used to love, reading several books simultaneously, is not now possible. I used to do it when I felt a novel brewing, that time when the unconscious is bulging, sticky and collecting with a view to its unknown quarry; in those conditions the strangest books forged relationships with one another and something new would be born. Books, even alone in a room, have that quality; they breathe; they can even, somehow, parthenogenetically, reproduce.
Somehow? I know perfectly well how in my case. I buy them. It’s silly and I buy fewer than I did when I read or when I had some idea that I could or would read them, but I buy them to have them handy by me, to have their breath in my air, their breathing mixing with my own. I miss them.
Just how hard this is to express came home to me only yesterday when, after Liv’s first morning typing for me, a young friend of my daughter’s visited. He had told me last week that he was going to spend the bank holiday weekend, among other, ice-creamier things, reading Timon of Athens in order to ready himself to read A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker on Timon. Never would I have thought that the intensest pleasure of my fifty-third year would be brought by being read aloud to from this generous, precise, thrilling book. It is the most intimate experience of my year so far and that intimacy was with the text and the ideas within the text and the modesty, breadth and quiddity of an, alas now posthumous, scholarly voice.
So far, in my experience, this hasn’t happened with talking books, but they are marvellous things nonetheless. I have the addict’s tooth-grinding shakes when I’m running out of talking books. I know that I can turn to Proust again, but I like to have a fresh stash hidden somewhere about the place. There are, for example, three box-fresh sets of CDs (Plutarch’s Lives, Aristotle and A Guide to Ancient Greek Philosophy) hidden in this room, and every room in the flat has a similar hoard. It is exactly like keeping vodka in your steam iron. Any alcoholic, set the task of finding my hidden tapes and CDs, ‘just for emergencies’, you understand, would be through with the hunt in five minutes, easy as finding a bottle in a gumboot.
The medical term used for my type of blindness is ‘functional’. The topsy-turvy logic of this is that I function hardly at all and can do very little for myself. I carry a fold-up-able white stick when I leave the house, which is seldom, and then mainly to visit doctors. You buy these white sticks from a website set up by the RNIB where all sorts of gadgets may be found, including talking microwaves. I’ve been fighting off microwaves since first they began and people started saying things like, ‘You can reheat your nasty cold coffee.’ I really don’t want a chatty microwave, but of course I see the point.
It is a new world and I’d best take it as the adventure it is, generously, as though it were a gift. It is in a way a new way of seeing, not to see.
Here I must advert to, and then we can each forget, or absorb, the saturation of our language with metaphors to do with sight.
One of the unlooked-for benefits of this functional blindness was that I simply gave up cooking as too extreme a sport; sadly, the new lot of drugs they are trying on me have made of the new, thinner, me the old, fatter, me.
Functional blindness is not a pest merely for its possessors. The state and its bureaucracy don’t much like it either, and in the past eighteen months I have spent much time with well-meaning personages assessing such grey areas as my ‘toileting ability’.
As things stand, I was advised by the state that I must apply for a Disability Living Allowance, since without this I cannot register as blind which I must do before I can be considered for a guide dog. This allowance has just skyrocketed 65 pence per week. But my short career as a benefits scrounger will, as far as I can see, be terminated at the next Budget, when, if New Labour are still in, I shall be reassessed and, putatively, retrained to do a job more suited to my capacity or rather, as they say, ‘ability’, meaning the opposite.
Back to that word ‘functional’. Perhaps it is my Scottishness, but I can’t see a way of writing this book without wanting it to be of some use. The privilege, as I understood it, of being a novelist was to touch the imagination of others with one’s own and to establish a contact more real than many other forms of encounter. It was my task, I thought, to convey the truth of what it is to be alive, to feel, and to think, to catch both differentness and connection in narratives that shed light on the secret human heart. So, perhaps, this exercise that intimidates me, on account of its going so deeply against my grain, may touch your synapses with my own as I give some account of what it has been to have lived, to have felt and to have thought within my head before and since it closed down its main route to, and means of, interpreting the world, my eyes.
I shall affix this spoken earpiece to the coming, first, dark lens of my account that follows. I wrote it before I knew how blind I was to become. After the central chapter named ‘Bridge’, the words are again spoken not written with that last stub of sight I had.
But first a few compass bearings:
I have three children each with a different last name.
I have been married twice.
In one sense I still am.
My children have two fathers.
My name is Candia. It is not Candida. When I meet people, they often say, ‘Don’t you mean Candida?’ not even, ‘Do you mean Candida?’ My nickname, which is complicated for reasons that will become clear, is Claude. My name is not Claudia. It is Candia. Greek, not Latin.
I have called five people Mum, Mummy or Mama.
The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 contributed much to the splitting of my second marriage.
My second husband, Fram, lives with someone else.
Her name is Claudia.
Fram and Claudia live together with her twins, whom I love, and their father, Toby Buxton.
I love my two husbands’ two partners.
Among the words that make me most frustrated are ‘Candia McWilliam’s swallowed the dictionary’. I heard them first in the sandpit, where I had just said ‘avocado’. I was three. It strikes me now that the accuser must have done some pretty heavy swallowing too. The sneers recurred a lot in reviews of my stuff; what annoyed me was the implication that women had better stay within lexical limits.
That said, I last heard these words, or their equivalent, only a few months ago in the mouth of a prodigiously educated Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Guy’s Hospital. How ingenious of him at once to have found me out. I was, very nearly, angry.
The following things are also true:
I am six foot tall and afraid of small people.
I am a Scot.
I am an alcoholic.
There is nothing wrong with my eyes.
I am blind.
I cannot lose my temper though I am being helped to, as you see above.
I exude marriedness and I am alone.
This book is, among very many other things, an attempt to find that temper in order that I may lose it, and in losing it, perhaps, find my lost eyes.
LENS I: Chapter 1
I have conducted my conscious life for as long as I can remember by suppression, and so this is, or threatens to be, the sort of book which I am not temperamentally suited to write, an account of a life lived, not transmuted into fiction. For me the fiction had carried the deep truths behind which I had felt able to retire, and to carry on weaving it.
Some writers, from Henry Green to Hilary Mantel, can manage this poetically veracious memoir-writing naturally. I read the best of them with pleasure and fascination. They illuminate without glare and delineate privacy without harming it. The memoirs I shrink from are accounts of profitable suffering; no, profitable accounts of suffering.
I can’t imagine that this book will be profitable in a pecuniary sense. Yet I know that any suffering in my life–‘suffering’ may be too extreme, too official, too martial, above all too tragic a word for whatever has happened to me, though maybe not for what I have brought about–might be of some use to someone. I am porous to the pain of others, but just of late have got stuck. I am fogged up. Here’s why.
It has been brewing since I was five, I know it now. I found that the way to distance oneself from discomfort was to trap it in not spoken but written words, and that, similarly, the way to hold fast to the good was to try–much less easy–to do the same. I was greatly helped in my project by being a fat child. I was good at sitting still because I wasn’t any good at moving. It was my good fortune to have two parents who never stopped making marks on paper and the richest part of whose lives were led in her imagination in one case and his intellect in the other. I copied them.
Why start on this now? In 2006, anxious about money and aware that I was about to start out aged fifty on a life alone, in Oxford, a city in which I had taken twenty years not to feel at home, I accepted an invitation to become a judge of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I was a sedulous, note-taking, reader of contemporary fiction as well as a lot of other stuff, and I thought I might as well harness my habit. I liked either the actuality of or the sound of the other judges. I wasn’t wrong to.
The entire process of judging fiction is difficult to defend or articulate and painful even–especially?–for any ‘winner’ of tender conscience but, insofar as it is possible, we remained pure. Early on, the Chair of the judges’ committee had given me a fine piece of advice: ‘If you fall in love with one book you will be setting yourself up for heartbreak,’ she said. I took prophylactic measures, and fell in love with three or four.
After the first judges’ meeting, which took place in the solid surroundings of the Athenaeum, I went to visit a friend with whom I had been at school after I was sent away from home in Scotland. We have known one another since we were twelve. ‘What is wrong with your face?’ she asked, and offered to balance teabags on my eyes, which did indeed feel wonky, despite the soothing light of a grey spring day in St James’s Square. My eyes juddered in their sockets as though they were coming loose and they were hot and couldn’t settle unless I told them to. So the implicit pact between intellect and eyes, eyes and reading heart, had to be declared and had already begun to involve willpower instead of consolation and ease.
I had noticed that I was having difficulty holding the gaze of anyone who was talking to me, but had, characteristically, ascribed this to even more reading than usual and an unadmitted struggle with sleeping, especially through the hours between two and four in the morning, the time when suicide suggests itself and addicts give in.
I kept on reading, of course. Twice, I visited GPs, who each prescribed eye drops. I was aware that I couldn’t deal as well with people as I had been used to, because I couldn’t hold their gaze. I wondered if this was a late-onset affectation, like a fake stammer to imply an engaging tentativeness. But I couldn’t employ my will over my eyes, couldn’t respond or beam or seek or console as I had always–I realised–been used to doing.
My stint as secretary of one of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings came to an end and I was relieved, as I had relied upon my intensity of gaze, my peripheral vision and my attunedness in order to intuit who needed to speak when and for how long.
From my father I have inherited the characteristic that I am irresistible to panhandlers. University towns are rich in such people and I have all my life felt that I am one. There’s no gap to mind. Most of the beggars in Oxford know my name, or a version of it. My chief heckling bridesmaid at the time was a rather cross, sometimes violent, highly intelligent alcoholic, named Man. By the cashpoint one day he said, ‘Ere, Candice, what is wrong with your eyes?’
I visited an ophthalmologist who laughed handsomely at the amount of reading I reported myself as doing. I found that odd, in Oxford. I doubt that I was reading as much as, for example, many dons, or my neighbour the Reverend Professor Sir Henry Chadwick, whose elegant figure might be seen daily as he got into the car on the way to the library in order to set about the Early Church with grace and vigour; and he, after all, was rising to the challenge of manuscript with eyes that had been working for all but a half century longer than my own.
I was reading those soft options, novels, printed (one might have thought) in typefaces congenial to the eye, faces confected to encourage and reward the process of reading.
I got more drops.
I took seventy or so books home to the Hebrides, where part of me had been a child. I rented a wee cottage down the drive from my adopted family, so that I might work. My family visited on a generously formal basis. There were painful family events occurring, than which any passing funny business with my eyes was far less harrowing. Also, my sisters, who are not really my sisters, each noticed, with her own fine eyes, that things had got better with those bad peepers since I had ‘come home’. That was so. The air in the Western Isles is cleaner than it is in Oxford. Certain stresses were removed. I read around seven hundred pages a day, took notes, wrote letters. For the first time since late childhood, I did not accompany my family as they walked around the island. If I had done I might have fallen off it, but I didn’t say that to anyone. A heron came each morning and stood in the burn among the reeds, his small knees like knots.
I went across to Edinburgh, leaving the island on my own for the first time in my life. I cried when I left as the sea widened between the ferry and the island. I do not often cry, but crying has proved to be one of the few things that wash clear my sight, however briefly. I’ve been trying to take it up more.
I watched the island go, and the other islands pass: Jura, Islay, Mull, the Grey Dogs, the Isles of the Sea.
I went through, as the process of crossing Scotland’s waist is called, to Edinburgh, did a reading over breakfast of a short story or two to an audience in the mirrored tent at the Book Festival, which has been a kind of annual transfusion for me in the many years during which I have read more than I have written (which is not hard), and then bolted for a train down to London for another meeting of the Man Booker Prize judges.
I’d been going to fly, but a terrorist incident had grounded all planes and put the nation on its guard against, among other things, carriers of lipstick, scent or fountain pens. Guilty on all counts, I packed my longish frame and a 900-page novel into the vestibule, as the greased-up hinge between carriages of a passenger train is fabulously designated, of a southbound train, and settled to some hours’ standing room only.
I minded even more than usual being photographed, as we all were, for the long list press meeting. It wasn’t–only–vanity, it was an acute sense that I couldn’t open my eyes. But when making a point or really engaging with the other judges, I could momentarily see into their faces. I realised that this peeled state of being was mind-altering and, while quite useful for an indentured servant of fiction, and a state desirable if it might be useful to the artist in one, not much good in a mother or a friend.
I returned to the North, relieved to be leaving the Quaker club where I had been staying in a bed off whose end I hung. In the night I had met polite dressing-gowned ghosts of either sex in the corridors, between fire doors, up in Town for a play or to clock the City churches. In each room at the club is a list of local things worth visiting which reads like a list of my great-aunts’ enthusiasms, those penurious educated lonely accomplished women. I could feel the fulcrum tipping as I passed into my own past and with some relief felt young no more.
LENS I: Chapter 2
In Edinburgh, as always happens, I took a lease of life and shared it with my younger son. We had a happy few days listening to authors, a really peculiar thing to enjoy doing, but we do. I continued to see jokes and architectural detail, two things that keep me going, though only as it were in stroboscopic clatters of vision.
My son returned to school and autumn was upon us.
Opposite me in Oxford lived two neurologists. The wife was slight, pretty, part-Chinese. By now, if I did have friends to visit, I was experimenting with wearing a green hat indoors to see whether this soothed my sight. I had accommodated to the difficulty of combining walking with seeing by capping the reclusion I had been working on for a decade with completely hermetic habits. I had stopped attending all meetings, including AA, save those for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006.
I visited the GP once more and met a new doctor, young, surrounded by books; on his wall–I saw!–was my favourite New Yorker cartoon, showing a snail in love with a Sellotape dispenser. I told him what had happened, that my world had narrowed quite and that I found it difficult to open my eyes.
He used a word that made complete sense, a direct lift from the Greek. It was very rare, he said, but it did exist. The word was blepharospasm. Blepharon comes up a lot in Homer, and is the Greek for eyelid. Spasm was it.
I was relieved that I had not been making all this up.
My neighbour the pretty part-Chinese neurologist knocked at my door one dusk in September. I wasn’t actually wearing my green hat, as I had been alone. Nor was I wearing sunglasses. I could manage by, as I had come to think of it, ‘striving’ with my neck and chin, to focus a bit and gather from her outline who she might be, and I could smell that she had quinces about her person.
‘Can you not see me?’ she asked.
‘No, not really very well.’
‘I’ve got some quinces from our tree,’ she said, ‘and you have blepharospasm.’
And so I do. My eyes are fine, my vision acute, but my eyelids will not open.
In order to gain sight, I grimace, stretch, peer and above all hold taut and high my already rather camel-like head with the result that I look, if I do go out, like the caricature of a snob. Mainly I take steps so as not to emerge from my tall thin house whose many and irregular stairs fill me with a reinforcement of the dread of falling to my death downstairs that I have had all my life; my parents’ house in Edinburgh had sustained such a death down its stone stairs, I had always gathered self-propelled; that was part of the reason they could afford it, I think.
I now have the elastic-braced white stick with which I hope to dispel the impression of a monstrous dowager with Tourettian facial tics and the creep-and-lurch gait of a not sufficiently surreptitious drunk. Also, of course, I don’t want to embarrass people, or to oblige them to ask if it is getting better. It doesn’t.
In some cases it can be alleviated by the injection of botulinum toxin, which hauls me up for my ugly pride in declaring that I’d never have facial ‘work’, as puritanical fans of plastic surgery call it. I clamoured for the injections now. In Scotland we call them jags and I had four jags in each eye, always praying while the needle goes in that I am somehow buying off Fate for my children and those I love, a dangerous deal and foolish, the worse and worst always offering themselves to the inward eye of a parent.
And as my eyes have closed, so I have learned perforce a number of things, some of which may even be passed on or rendered down, as those quinces were, into something useful or reminiscent or nourishing or maybe merely scented with something that reminds you of something else. It was as if my deep brain was telling me that I, with my lucky and unlucky life, have seen enough and that I really am for the dark. I must catch the light and offer it around, like those quinces and that insight from my generous diagnostic neighbour.
And of course it is not telling you a secret if I confess that I am blindly hoping by hunting down the light, the past, those lost places and people, to lift at any rate some of the stone that has rolled across the mouth of my cave.
My youngest child asked me, ‘It is a vulgar question, but, may I ask, do any of your other senses compensate yet?’
One of my sisters who are not my sisters declared, and it comforted me about her decided unchangeability, ‘Well, we always said we’d rather go blind than deaf.’
How dared we?
How lazily I have assured dying friends that they look well, how idly nodded when people mentioned the unerring ear of the blind piano tuner. Now is the time for me at any rate to pay attention and look hard, close, even if only upon what has been.
This might be as good a point as any to say that none of the treatments described in this book was covered by private health insurance. I did not have it.
Books have been throughout my life very much more than mere consolation and escape, but I cannot deny that they have, and the act of reading itself has, been that too. I now read with a certain amount of difficulty, and can do about a paragraph at a time. Reading in bed is not the bower it was. I cannot at the same time both lie and read, as I have, in the prone not mendacious usage, done lifelong. Reading is tiring which it has never before been. I have all my life eaten books, walked and run and done all I cannot actually in person do among, within and around books, and now am trudging and lagging. Nothing however that insists upon concentration, as this limitation does, is all bad. Memory grows less swooning, more muscular, recall more instructable, like a messenger, and as potent and alarming.
Most things had I thought gone wrong in my life by 2006, but there was always reading. Well, is there? Not in the old sense, the wandering, greedy sense, no. But, even if, in the worst case, I am left no longer able to read, reading will of course remain within me. I used to think, when I was five or six, at night in my nursery, that I would certainly die for books, for Greek and Latin, for words (of course I didn’t think of it then as freedom of speech); I know I would surely give up my own sight of them for these things’ sake.
I peg up my thinning eyelids with my left-hand thumb and little finger, wearing them through. This is called by doctors ‘the sensory geste’ and it’s a sure sign of blepharospasm. There are gadgets, of some of which I am afraid, most especially the metal loops, called Lundy Loops, that clamp open the perusing eye that then must be moistened with specially measured sterile artificial tears. The unfortunate echo of Belloc’s tearful Lord Lundy–‘Gracious, how Lord Lundy cried!’–seems all too apt. It all feels too metaphorical and too true. I have always felt people’s eye stories in my own eyes, cannot watch enacted scenes of blinding, the cloud crossing the moon, or even, truly, the cutting into a fried egg; I fear to read of Odysseus grinding the hot tree trunk into the Cyclops’ only eye.
The already challenging narrative of 2006 folded symmetrically closed, the judging eyes upon and against the judging dark, and the truth, had I even known it, could not, in the little pond of the ‘book world’, have been told. The hilariousness of a blind judge for a literary prize already buffeted by vulgar attention might have done an indignity to the prize or its sponsors. Before the actual dinner at the Guildhall in the City of London, I had to tell the public relations people for Man Booker, Colman Getty, that I was ‘functionally blind’. They were jolly nice about it and sat me with clever, tactful (and dashing) friends. They agreed that it must not be known and asked that I not wear dark glasses, which can offer relief from the juddering and facial tics. Later that week my daughter told me that someone, a literary editor, had told a newspaper gossip column that he had been on a deadly dull table. The columnist noted that this was my table.
I had bumped into the chap who had me down as deadly dull afterwards, as I slipped off (a system agreed with the publicity firm) before the sorrows-drowning, gossip and commerce began in earnest. What I couldn’t tell him, as I no doubt hurt his feelings by not recognising him, and hurt his pride by bumping into him and towering over him, was that I couldn’t see him. I’m sorry I bored him that night at dinner. I couldn’t think of any way of letting him know that did not let him know too much.
So now let me try.
LENS I: Chapter 3
The City of Edinburgh, heated, when it was, by coal and coke and paraffin, had not yet been cleaned. Its grave beauties were still black. Snow fell in the May before I was born. Black-and-white pictures display it all pretty much exactly as the city looked in colour. Scotland, East Coast Scotland, after the war, was cold, dirty, architecturally grand and architecturally ravaged, sumptuarily poor. Ladies over a certain age wore hats indoors. The smells in the street were of wool of stone of coal and, at home in Puddocky (which means: ‘The home of frogs’, fit for frogs only), of the pong of hops and yeast from the brewery at Canonmills, down by the Water of Leith, where the flour for the church’s canons had once been ground. We lived just a stone wall from the river, which was prone to flood. Our house smelt of wet washing, polish, joss sticks, my mother’s Je Reviens, and cats and their requirements. Our whole street had been condemned.
My mother boiled ox-lights for the cats. These enormous organs arrived full of air and redness from the butcher, Mr Wilson, and then clopped down, frothing in her jam-making pan, to chewy brown boxing gloves, under the meaty scum. She deflated them further–they hissed–into manageable chunks with kitchen scissors that I have now, sent down south to me thirty years later by my stepmother in a consignment including my toy box and a Fru-Grains tin, all transported by the Aberdeen Shore Porters, the world’s oldest removals firm, established more than five hundred years ago to move fish at the harbourside in that silver city.
The kitchen scissors were for kitchen jobs only, the sewing scissors for thread and cloth, and the paper scissors for paper alone. The pinking shears were so heavy and specific that they lived in a holster in the sewing chest with the button box, the cotton reels and the Kwik-unpik, a natty hook for the slashing open of stitches in order mainly to ‘let things down’, or to ‘let things out’, terms perhaps now unknown outwith the psychotherapeutic context. There were few rules in my childhood under the dispensation of my mother, but the scissor rule was set. Paper blunted the sewing scissors and kitchen work dirtied the paper scissors. And as for the grapes–they were a luxury to eat (or was it drink, so wet was their taste and so otherwise seductive?) and to look at, so at all times blunt silver grape scissors must be used, like a little flat bird skeleton with a toothed beak, so as to keep the bunch groomed and uncorrupt. I would take grapes with my fingers and leave behind the damp pippy stublet; mould then might spread through the bunch. It seemed I was always found out. If I was caught mid-theft, I would rush to blind whichever parent it was had found me with kisses so that they would not see that I had been greedy and failed to use the scissors. So kisses were connected with distraction and misdeeds–and, it’s true, stealing fruit. This book will be a struggle to find that Eden when they were both about, my oddly paired parents, both, incidentally, lovers of pears, and each devoted to a separate means of paring pears. She made slivers, he made hoops.
Another firm rule was that you must never–ever–write on nor fold down the pages of books. I have not obeyed this rule at all thoroughly and as a child was even worse, for I ate the corners of the pages, gouging out soft thumbsful of paper at the corner, chewing it, and collecting a ball. I was making paper, I suppose. An owlish child’s pellets.
It is hard to convey to a young reader the frustrations of my mother’s life. She was of a generation of women so much less free than my own, as mine is, I hope, less free, or more unrealistic, than my daughter’s. I am a poor example of any kind of liberation. ‘Are you a feminist?’ I was asked in my middle thirties with I knew not what kind of weight. The questioner was a colonial tycoon. I was nibbling at the sort of lunch thought suitable for reasonably attractive married women at that time in history, when the man was paying.
I replied, unforgivably, I think now, with a sort of, ‘Let’s assume that it’s been more widely achieved than that’ gesture. This man later went on to murder his wife. There’s no conclusion.
It is hard for my daughter to imagine the life of her grandmother, a woman of intelligence, allure and independent mind, who disappointed her father, her mother, and husband by being too much of all of it, too tall, too original, too keen to be the little woman, too anxious to conform. Me she did not disappoint, save by disappearing too soon.
My parents’ marriage was a practical disaster, as I felt it. It commenced in passion and was rooted at any rate emotionally and artistically, though only for brief times geographically, in Italy, a place which was in those days even more of a state of mind than it is now. I felt these undertow loves under my parents’ more ragged love. My parents often spoke Italian to one another. She was Scots-Irish and he was Irish-Scots. Both were anglicised, that is they spoke with what we would now call old-fashioned upper-middle-class English accents. He corrected her pronunciation of the word ‘orchestra’. She, like the mother in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, did not call people ‘dear’ like Scots mothers, but ‘darling’, and sometimes even ‘dulling’. Of course it was embarrassing. I do it too.
They didn’t want more of me, and I have been told they didn’t even want me. It’s an odd little thing for someone to pass on to me, and I’m not at all sure that they felt like that. They were worried all the time about money and they fought about it. They both hit one another. It almost certainly hurt each more than it hurt the other. I pretended to want brothers and sisters; I don’t expect I did. I knew things were desperate between them and it is one of my fervent and impure occasions for relief that I haven’t any whole siblings. Impure, because that way I have my mother to myself, I suppose, and I’m not proud of that.
I did have many dolls whose names, characteristics and academic records I kept in my ledger; any dolls not at the front of that day’s routine or drama lived on my nursery chaise longue, which was called ‘the chaise longue’, just as the tall bookcase, where the Petit Larousse I had for my fifth birthday was kept, was called the ‘secretaire’; my father used the correct words for things, my mother not always, though she could taste words exactly despite not being almost painfully good at pitch as my father was in music as well as in language. My dolls were ranked by strict precedence related to length of tenure. After my father’s remarriage they went to live in a box at the top of the stone stairs known as ‘the coffin’.
My mother took the contraceptive pill in an early form, I think. We visited a family whose father was a sculptor one weekend in Kinross-shire and there was a dash to hospital after the youngest child ate the medical contents of my mother’s handbag. I don’t know whether the tranquillisers were in there yet with the Pan Drops and the hanky that she used to scrub at my face with lick like Tom Kitten’s mother in the picture, and the lipstick that smelt of wax roses and the Consulate cigarettes and her dark glasses with the pussycat slant and her copy of The Turn of the Screw, or whatever it was she was reading at the time, but that’s one I remember.
She left over fifty lipsticks at her death and I used them up in a furious winter of drawing nothing but sunsets. What else was there to do with those lipsticks than make sunsets? My mouth was big enough for all those lipsticks to go on in candy stripes but I was nine; and anyhow she had left a lot of blank paper that needed covering by some means. I still have rolls of it that came south with the Shore Porters in the nineteen-nineties.
The cats were too plural in that crammed house in the Crescent. Before I was born the tortoiseshell Nancy Mitford, who enjoyed Dundee cake, had died. My mother’s passion for The Pursuit of Love, which she read aloud to me, lasted all her life. I think that she was, although so differently extracted, like sad adored Linda Radlett, and knew it; the same affection for Labradors and the same instinct for rotters. My father was not a rotter. Among the cats there remained grey Godfrey Winn with his small lopsided moustache, Peter Quint who was my mother’s fat-footed grey plush familiar, and Lady Teazle, a sealpoint Siamese of the pansy-faced, silk-stockinged sort, whom my mother took shopping on a lead.
This in the days when tradesmen in Edinburgh wore different-coloured cotton overalls, like indoor coats in cotton drill, the shade according to the trade, the tobacconist Mr MacDonald the only one who wore an uncovered suit. Mr Cockburn, the ironmonger, wore a cotton coat in grey, Mr King the grocer in royal blue, Mr Dundas the greengrocer, who kissed my mother one year under the mistletoe, in green of course, Mr (Charles) Wilson in pure butcher’s white.
Later, she added to the household. In the background there were as many make-believe horses as you can fit imaginatively into a crumbling house belonging to an ascetic bibliophile who doesn’t care for animals and an insecure hoarder with a menagerie habit, and the solitary child they bred.
My mother was horsey, to look at and by temperament; she would go out to the suburb of Liberton to a stables to ride a horse called Lady Gay. I rode the arms of the burst Regency sofa in the drawing room, perfectly happy with picking at the horsehair stuffing and keeping any actual animal content as remote as that. She loved all horses and waged a campaign to get blinkers removed from the dray horses which brought milk from Murchies dairy, where they still patted the butter and stamped it with a thistle, and from the giant Clydesdales who rumbled along with beer barrels to the pubs or loads of bluish-sheered coal under the tarps. The horse would stand at a massive mincing halt in the road outside the house while the coalmen hove sacks on to rests of greasy hopsack on their shoulders and chuted the noisy coals down into what Edinburgh folk call the ‘area’, then shovelled it into the cellar where the Indian lady lodger saw the black rat and where years later I put kohl on my eyes before the Scout dance at St Cuthbert’s church, aged thirteen, for make-up was not allowed. I was six feet tall already then and they were right about the make-up. I looked like a caricature without underlining any of it.
LENS I: Chapter 4
My father died quite young. My mother died very young. After my father died, I was asked to give a lecture in his memory. I called it ‘Living with an Eye’. At the time, I considered this both a kind of gentle joke of the sort at which my elegant father shone–the kick against grammar’s apparent rule–and a gainsaying of egotism, since my father, whose eye was wonderful, a plain fact to which his writing and his memory attest, was not an egoist. This was what I believed at the time I wrote my lecture.
I believe it differently now, having discovered that the sort of egoist he was not was not easy for either of them when combined with the sort of egoist my mother was not, and their issue is me, who can hardly bear to write the word ‘I’.
But I had best crack on and do it, or my children could be cast adrift as I was by unassertion. Thank God their fathers are fully furnished with a good I in each strong head.
Three meetings jolted the long-laid reason to start digging for my life. I met myself in a published diary and feared the loose half-life of what I found there. I met my father in a memoir and saw him as a boy. And I met my daughter’s notion of the Queen as a being without meaning, and I thought that if I did not at least try to re-enthrone the monarch in my female child’s head I hadn’t a hope of sharing my imaginative life with her, or of consoling her, no matter how much I madden her now, after my death.
The person I met in the diary was referred to as ‘the beautiful bolter’. It was like being sicked up. I couldn’t get the smell of it from me, because I was made of the vomit. Of course, part of having any kind of publicity, which is now a wretchedly essential part of selling books, carries an afterwash, but this was in the diary of someone I had loved and respected, to whom I had sent the only frequentative Valentine cards of my life, apart from those to my children. The adjective disquieted me as much as the noun in Jim Lees-Milne’s phrase. And in those pages I met Fram, Minoo’s father, damaged, and that by me.
My father as a boy I met in the autobiography of Frederic Raphael. The author had ascribed to Daddy the wrong first initial ‘F’, turning him into the sculptor F.E. McWilliam, but he meant my father Colin Edgar. Boys of that time had not much use for one another’s first names. I had known that my father was a committed socialist and enraged by injustice, but I hadn’t quite known how lifelong this lay. He appeared in these pages as defender of the small Raphael against anti-Semitism at Charterhouse. It also seemed that he had been the dux classical scholar in the school and on account of this (there could have been no other reason; he hated authority and loathed punishment, though he was perforce to mete it out to me) head boy of the school.
I knew nothing of this. It is unusual for public school men of my father’s generation not to allow their children to understand to what it is they are expected to rise. My father was not of this type. He terribly disliked male institutions, large groups of men, or men at all of a certain bullish type. He was a sophisticated man reflexively prejudiced against his own class, unless some mutual architectural or artistic enthusiasm would allow him to forget what they had in common in those unutterable ways.
I was astonished to learn of my father’s rank at school, for his dislike of authority was complete and mischievous all the time I knew him. He was sceptical even of the Brownies, an organisation he couldn’t quite agree was not crypto-Nazi at some level. Later, in a long and kind letter, Frederic Raphael tried to recall for me this tall gentle senior boy, ‘a kind of demigod to a new boy’ at the school. To my surprise, he remembered my father showing off a scarf that he had purchased for his ‘Popsy’ one Christmas. Popsy was the word used; I could hear it.
All his life my father was irresistible to women. He was handsome and fragile, funny and fundamentally, I think, rather cold, or cool. Catnip. I had always assumed that he had had a relationship involving what he called ‘the usual thing’ (for which Simon was expelled from Charterhouse) with his friend Simon Raven at school. I used to think that that was why Simon liked me, but now I think that they were simply friends, and anyhow I’m not sure how much Simon did like me; I was simply an experimental frog, though a frog he was once able in my twenties consciously to rescue from a nasty admirer by being fantastically rude to him over tea in the Stafford Hotel.
My father, not wholly a fiction man, loved Simon’s Alms for Oblivion sequence of novels; I think their classical heartlessness confirmed something for him, and he enjoyed the long tease on his boyhood bugbear William Rees-Mogg. Always, for a clever and subtle man, surprisingly willing to embrace prejudice were it against a Tory, my father was nonetheless open-hearted always about the boy, and the man, James Prior, another contemporary at Charterhouse.
Then: ‘Why do you like the Queen, Mummy?’, my undergraduate daughter, who, as it happens has had far more actual contact with the royal family than I have, asked in the car on the way to the eightieth-birthday gathering of the man who is not my father, but whom I address, as do his six blood children and their children, and my children, as ‘Papa’. And then I knew I had to write this book to tell her.
I like the Queen because she isn’t dead. I like her because she defers, as far as one can see, most gratification. I like her because she was there and is here, because she puts duty before sensation, because my father carried me to see her on Princes Street when she was a new Queen, because going to the cinema is connected with her dreary but durable anthem, because she is happy in Scotland, because she is the Duke of Lancaster and a woman, because she has found a way of looking and looks it, has found a way of being and is it, because she is absolutely not stupid but not intellectual, because she is not me, not even the best of me, but she is my times, and shelters my life. In the car I tried to say this.
‘I like the Queen because I loved my parents,’ I said, trying again. It stuck like a granny-knot, instead of flying like the standard I had intended.
‘But Grandpa was a republican.’
He was a contrarian, of course, a formalist and an anarchist, a patrician flincher away from all unfairness, a detester of privilege who knew great houses more intimately than some of their owners. He had that eye, yet was not, unlike me (until this closing of my eyes), a voyeur.
Now though, I am more a voyeur of what is coming back to me out of the past than of what offers itself to my closing eyes. They are becoming like lychees, jelly with a stone and a thin rind lid. And over it all still reigns the reigning Queen.
‘Like’ is too passionless a word for what I feel for her. The Queen is an emblem and carrier of memory, as rock music for my daughter perhaps.
Then again, as bores say, just as one thinks one can make a bolt–that word!–for it, then again, the Queen is like my own mother in one single way. She is safest, we imagine, among creatures. Where the Queen has her mystery and her awesome power of patronage, pure in itself but corrupting for the corrupt, to defend, my mother had her horribly vulnerable person; my mother was eaten up by other people wanting a bit of her. She was made of sex appeal, sweetness and unconfidence.
Two things I have said, in attempt at self-definition, for years. I’ve not believed them as I said them, but I was impersonating the solid sort of person who might be heard to say such things.
One is, ‘I don’t trust the sort of woman who prefers the company of animals to the company of humans.’
The other (which I haven’t said for about twenty-two years, prevented by some prefiguring shadow maybe) is, ‘I cannot stand a woman drunk.’
The first is Mummy.
The second, who might as well have modified her statement’s punctuation to, ‘I cannot stand, a woman drunk’, is, of course, me.
LENS I: Chapter 5
The sort of unpopularity that I enjoyed during my first period of schooling was regrettable mainly for the sort of popularity it set up later. I was unpopular because I was odd and then popular for the same reason. This made an unsound base for the dreadful glamour that visited later, attendant upon my mother’s death and the passive allure of my widowed father.
Today, when I am writing this, is a Monday. Monday is washing day; I do the big wash on Monday, which is right. I know this because
They that wash on Monday
Have all week to dry,
They that wash on Tuesday
Are not so much awry,
They that wash on Wednesday
Are not so much to blame,
They that wash on Thursday
Wash for shame,
They that wash on Friday
Wash in need,
But they that wash on Saturday,
Oh! They’re sluts indeed.
My godfather Francis Gordon of Cairness gave me for my first birthday, 1 July 1956, the book from which this jingle comes, an airily laid out nursery rhyme collection called Lavender’s Blue, compiled by Kathleen Lines and pictured by (these are the terms used) Harold Jones. I enjoyed that crossed wire of nomenclature, as soon as I could read the poems for myself, that it was actually Harold Jones who did the lines. His is a line-led relaxed style, not fussy but full of detail and shading. He makes the human figure architectural, though not massive, as in a frieze, and architectural detail, such as that of London Bridge as it falls down, dances along the page. The rhymes, proverbs and nostrums are placed handsomely within each page. Print and its layout drew me very soon; I loved lettering, but I remember being churlishly resistant to my godfather’s encouragements to learn calligraphy, the exercise sheets, the nibs, the black Indian ink that shone coppery if you spilled it on anything hard and non-absorbent. I had an ugly hand till I was about eleven, and after that a self-forced Italic that was over-decorative and built, thanks to that early shirking, on an insufficiently Roman armature.
Fram writes a good Italic hand. His was inherited from Wilfrid Blunt, brother of Anthony, who had taught that hand to many generations of boys at his school. I taught myself mine in order to have an accomplishment with which to win book tokens. I used regularly to win a handwriting prize sponsored by Brooke Bond tea.
Much of my childhood was to do with line and the materials used for making, drawing, following, understanding lines–pens, pencils, crayons, T-squares, protractors, chisels. My parents drew lines but hardly ever drew the line, save in matters of moral taste. After one outing with another family, I used an expression to which my father objected. If I think of it now I taste earth in my mouth. It was ‘little Jew’. I copied it from a father who was describing another father. My own daddy took me out of our house and walked me through the old streets. He sat me down with a book, with those photographs, the heaps of legs and deep-shadowed eyes, the shoes, the spectacles. I do not know where the book was kept in our house as I had found every other book that might be mined for prurience or horror by the time I was eight. I felt none of the sense that this was a world to come, that I felt when I poked about in Gray’s Anatomy or Fanny Hill.
I felt that this was it. This was the world from which the destroyed worlds of my night-time fears had come, that people could do this to other people. It was not a nightmare; it was the truth. It was not a private horror but a filthy fact. The next time we visited friends, the man of whom had been in Auschwitz, he got me to look at the number on his arm and to sit and listen. He gave me a maths tutorial immediately after the talk of how it had been in the camp, which no doubt he watered down. Never had mathematics been so welcome, so consolatory. I counted the white hairs in his beard with delight as though they were shoots coming through. Time looked valuable suddenly.
My father had that certainty, that racial or religious discrimination of any sort was evil. He had been raised in a household where everyone, including the servants, attended–Anglican–family prayers every morning. He hated that and was mortified though seldom mentioned it since the source of the piety was his mother and he was never in my hearing disrespectful of her, very likely never was so in his life. He was a choral scholar at the Pilgrims’ School, which supplies the choir for Winchester Cathedral, as were his brothers, Ormiston and Clement. Clement went on to become the organist at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, then at Winchester Cathedral. My father loved the liturgy all his life, attended church, and sang, but I’m not sure what he believed. He loathed the Pilgrims’ School and its School Hymn, into which he would insert the word ‘not’, as in
He who would valiant be
’Gainst all disaster
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first, avowed intent
NOT to be a pilgrim.
It was a hymn at my first wedding, an occasion it is too late now to ask my father about. Was he wretched or relieved that another man gave me away? What had happened to make this possible?
At the time of taking me out into the streets to tell me about the Holocaust, to shake me out of my sleep of reason, my careless imitation and failure to listen or hear, I think that he may already have lost any faith he had, and that he was an intelligent sceptic with anarcho-Anglican leanings, and knew he was lucky to live in a country that allowed all these contradictions to be lived by, lived through, lived out even. He was idealistic about line, and the Labour Party, which embodied, then, post-war socialism. It is hard to explain to my children the simplicity of his belief, when he was so complicated. Labour was for the working man and was the natural party for making good the ruin of the war. Men like my father, classically educated modernists who believed in conserving what was good and beautiful about the past, thought that all this was possible. They thought, because so many they loved had died in war, as had my McWilliam grandfather, that there had to be a reason for all that loss, that things could be made good, that something new and fair was possible. It is extraordinary that these thoughts have come in three generations to sound so naïve as to be alien, swivelled and uprooted and shaken aside by the advance of consumption, save where, perhaps, they are subjecting themselves to smart repackaging.
By the end of his life I think he felt the public world was all chaos. For a subtle man he enjoyed hating rather much. I think that he felt such rage about Mrs Thatcher, whose virtues he was incapable of seeing, although his wife was not, that his outrage really did all but kill him.
When I was going through a holy stage, after my mother’s death, I asked my father to listen to my prayers at night. He reasonably replied that he could not offer me that certainty. He was deeply thoroughly self-subvertingly principled. He could not bear the appearance of emotion for fear that it be inauthentic.
Nonetheless it is clear to me as I live that he felt it, hid it, and suffered from its burial.
I have come back just now from a trip into the centre of Oxford, the town in which I don’t feel I live but where actually I have for twenty years. I took my white stick and held my head up in the way that makes it possible to see the crevice through which I negotiate myself. I was going to collect a prescription. I get so many of these at the moment that the surgery calls to say, ‘Your script is ready.’ ‘Script’ is the junkie word, not the straight-world word. There are elaborate courtesies extended at the rear of the old-fashioned department store where I collect my drugs and the methadone-dependent collect theirs. The pharmacists are bilingual. They are as charming and responsive and chatty to those of us who say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ when asked how we are as to those of us who reply, ‘In fucking bits, mate, kicking off all over the place.’
The drugs I’m collecting at the moment constitute a sort of capitulation, but I’m trying to think of them as a contribution to a process that collaborates with hope and with my writing all this stuff I swore I would not write, ever. They are antidepressants, which I fought off for a good while, since I don’t think that I am depressed at all; I am sad.
Many things combine to induce that sadness and it seems a rational state in which to find myself at this point of my bewildering life. Indeed I think that to be not sad would be to be dim, or to use a similarly sight-suggesting word, unenlightened. But I agreed to take chemical help because something needed to change even if its terminus was not, quite, sight, or not the sort of sight that I had so greedily enjoyed. So, I caved in to these drugs and asked for their, as I saw it, only fair counterparts, which was something to close me down at night against the racing thoughts in the double dark, though we blepharospastics often see better at night, I am told; I haven’t yet met another ‘functionally blind’ person, as I feel that attending Alcoholics Anonymous is already a great enough adventure in fellow feeling, and I can’t face more, but must conserve it in order to invent characters in fiction, and put them through suffering. I have not written a novel for thirteen years, though short stories have come out of me like sprits from a forgotten potato.
I was in town on my drug run just now and I garnered two ribald jeers and a couple of flinches from people I recognised and who, in their shyness at what they registered as my catastrophic change, twisted their eyebeams away and moved swiftly on. One brave acquaintance spoke to me. The consolatory hyper-observant me was absent from this tame safari into Oxford. Even at my shyest and most reclusive, I’ve been visually fed by people in the street. By fascination with how they present themselves, how they sound, when that is compared with, or added to, how they appear; all those things. Because I couldn’t garner any human interaction and haven’t been able to for a while, I went into the clothes shop Zara, which I find can top me up. It’s something to do with its being Spanish, perhaps. The girls don’t snip at a blind woman holding up the garments to feast off their detail, and the smell is good, which is extra important. The cottons smell like cotton, the lurex has a foily taint. The wool is sheepish and soft. I harvested Zara and came home, passing a woman who smelt of lily of the valley and a group of people who smelt like synthetic bananas; is that the smell of poppers?
There are a number of medical people who have given advice on my present blindness, which does feel as though some dreadful thing, a sight-burglar, maybe, or another childhood terror from the dark, such as one of the Cauliflowers, the monsters who lived in my brocade nursery wallpaper, were sitting on my own head, my own deep brain’s poor florets. These expert eye doctors are of the firm, committed and explicit opinion that to seek relief from my affliction by any means other than sternly physiological would be deluded and even self-indulgent. Two other medical people believe that there are certainly psychological causes–they maintain that it’s hard for me to face life as it is at the moment conformed, with the result that I have taken refuge in my blindness.
I am not sure which is the case, but suspect a category error in any hard and fast distinction. All I know is that I am falling through the dark and that utterance feels like the only available light. I’m entirely unsure what stone, even what sort of stone, it is that I am looking for, as I sieve and pan the past, in order to lift the blinding weight off the seeing part of my brain.
In town groups of boys or girls catcalled. I look odd and slow and vulnerable. I creep along and hold my eyes up in their itching sockets as people hold spilling glasses of drink above a throng–as though the drinks with their precious realised meniscuses are threatened, and must be protected with an exaggerated care. I have also started to make involuntary noises and pre-emptive twitches and sallies with my head, which aches even by the end of a morning as if weighted with lead beans at the back as I hold it up as though trying to read the world with my chin. I saw (actually saw: she was sitting for some reason on the ground and I can at the moment see the pavement) a child with a rucksack in the shape of a teddy. He had sewn-on felt crosses on the blanks of his eyes and I knew how he felt.
Fram’s girlfriend, Claudia, very reasonably suggested that maybe I had seen enough in my life. I have for sure been lucky in what, and in how and with whom I have seen.
LENS I: Chapter 6
Elegance of posture was a great thing for my Henderson grandmother, my mother’s mother, the opera singer. She held up her noble head right till the end in her nineties. Her silver hair streamed down her back. She could sit on her hair, as could my mother and I once, and my daughter. Each of us has had it chopped at some point. My grandmother shingled hers in the twenties to irk her ferocious pa. My mother did it to manage her hair and I suppose her life just before she died; women change their style at important moments in their lives, we are told.
My stepmother did the only sensible thing after Mummy died and had mine cut off. It was a weighty reminder of my mother, a great pest to maintain, a personality in its own right and attached to one already disobliging; it also encouraged nits. For years after I had my long heavy striped brown plait (the Scots word is pleat) in a box; then I lost it after I went away to school in England. My daughter has lovelier hair than mine; it is fine and silver and grey-gold, and thick as fairytale hair. It weighed down her small head dreadfully I now sometimes guiltily think. She made a practical teenaged choice to have a lot of it cut off. It was the right thing to do. People had asked her about it before asking her about herself, as though she were a unicorn or a mermaid and it, the massive silky rope, her horn or her tail; it was a natural feature too much emphasised. Her hair is so thick that it has to be thinned in summer. It is miraculous stuff, glistening and falling with a kind of lunge of health. Mine I cannot bear to cut. I’m getting like my grandmother Clara Nella Henderson, the tines of whose silver plait fell to nearly her waist on the last day of her life, when she told me a great white bird was at her window and I thought in relief, ‘Oh, she has got some faith at last in her bitter life and at the bitter end.’ It wasn’t an angel. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was a herring gull driven inland to eat from the refuse bins of Reading General Hospital by that Christmas weather. She died in the night before Boxing Day. I want to think that we were reconciled. She thought that last day that I was her daughter, my mother, Margaret, whom she hadn’t found easy either.
I am growing increasingly like my grandmother. When she was getting infirm and failing to eat (I believe that she starved herself to death), I looked at ‘places’ for her to go. She fought against it. I took her to one. Most I had visited had been too upsetting to contemplate for her, but this one seemed ‘nice’, whatever such hell can be. There was a real room, and a real view; the nurses were, seemed to be, kind countrywomen. I smelled no fear nor piss nor shit.
My grandmother, whom I called Nana, was at over ninety still as tall as I and had been taller. She was very thin. Her lovely legs were sticking out of a garment taken from a hospital pool of such shapeless clothes. At home in her bungalow on the estate in Reading hung and lay her immaculately cared for frocks and cardigans, her evening gowns, her treed shoes, her gloves. She was, as the dying often are, terrified of disgracing herself, of having an ‘accident’. She did what any sensible child would have done in these circumstances. Terrified, about to be alone, as she felt it, maybe about to be abandoned by her own flesh and blood, she made herself, although she had little in her stomach, violently sick. The nurses were not kind, not understanding. We left, my imperious beautiful grandmother holding a grey cardboard kidney bowl aswim with bile and mucus. My grandmother carried the day, all her own teeth in her head, her gracious smile of triumph and relief as we left transforming her proud stony sad face for close to the last time.
I am growing more like her now, afraid of the powerlessness my body is forcing me towards, scared stiff of being disposed of, tidied away, thinking I maybe should do it for myself. I’m just over half the age she was when she gave in, and even then she forced herself to do so by refusing food and water. She was a far stronger character than I and I do not actually want to die. I find notes that I have written to myself and they remind me of my grandmother’s diaries that I dare not read. They’re engagement diaries, only, but it is enough.
She had been alone from the night when her husband, my grandfather, tried to murder us both in the drawing room of the house he himself had built, The Folly, West Drive, Sonning-on-Thames, Berkshire. He was a strong old man, older than his beauty wife. He was doing the right thing by trying to kill us, because he had long ceased to ‘know’ us. He was protecting his property, as he saw it, from strangers.
It was my first half-term out from my English boarding school. I had a major scholarship, but it was effectively my grandfather’s money that was paying the rest of the fees. The wheel of separation of child from antecedents by self-made money had begun. I could see that my grandparents were more conventional and right-wing than my father and mother had been. My Henderson grandparents didn’t like my father; my father’s family looked down on the Hendersons. Their separate, profound, kinds of musicality were incompatible. Professional musicians on both sides, on one the Church, the other the stage. I was the oil and water shake-up. My mother had been dead for four years when Grandpapa tried to kill his wife and his granddaughter, thinking us intruders, in his folly.
Grandpapa went for Nana with the hardwood truncheon he had used in the Army in Jaffa in the war; she yelled to me in her deep grand stagey voice, that never slipped, even as he thumped her (she was Scots-Irish cockney with the loveliest and most gold-rolled speaking voice of my whole background, including those backgrounds that were yet to arrive), ‘Candia, call the police.’
I did, but I couldn’t tell them how to find us, and my grandmother, holding down her spouse, himself strong with fear and insanity, gave me calm, self-possessed instructions to relay down the telephone to the police.
She had spine. It must have been worse, I think now, because I’m sure that she loved him, and she had a long widowhood to endure alone after who knows how long of concealing his decreasing stability. She did it all with poise. Her happiness in her widowhood lay in producing opera and operetta. I cannot think that I contributed to any happiness at all. I was a nuisance and a let-down, plain, brainy, a lefty and a snob.
Her engagement diaries are lists of small sums and presents she has given. She was generous and well-regulated. She was more hospitable than greedy and had no appetites but cigarettes and music and like-minded company, which I was not to become for her. She watched, it is clear from my inheritance from her, those little frightening diaries, my marriages and my giving birth and my small success as an author as perceptible through the press and ‘kind’ neighbours (she took the Daily Express), with increasing disgust. She would ask herself in her diary whom I had paid to get all this attention. Even reviews that I wrote she noted carefully in her diaries, not from familial pride but because she felt that they were bids for attention, that I had somehow paid to appear in the paper. She regarded my defection to the toff-class as a betrayal of decency. I didn’t know my place. Yet she was the grandest woman in her manner, as she smoked, or took out the wrapped sandwiches from her refrigerator before an after-rehearsal impromptu around her piano, or as she hailed the bus from Caversham into Reading, and stepped out to take coffee at a department store with a kind of film-star duchessly hyper-demeanour.
How odd England showed itself to me, a Scots child through and through, and how late I have been to grasp how I must have hurt my grandmother and let her down, by making what some few souls thought was a marriage advantageous in worldly terms. My mother failed her parents by marrying a man far more educated than she was, a man educated, toxically, as her parents saw it–socialistically–to place value on things other than money and respectability. And when I married a man who was many things superb beside his station, my educated father briefly–for he came to love my first husband with a deep affection–felt, momentarily only, a stab of something surely analogous to my grandparents’ sense of class betrayal when he had married Mummy. My father blamed me; he mistrusted my appearance, I think, and thought of it as a spangled meretricious lasso. I suspect my father pitied anyone who was going to marry me; I do not know this. I didn’t know I had the lasso to throw; we scarcely ever had a personal conversation, though all our exchanges were elliptically personal in their encryption; we shared matters of the eye.
Nana vowed upon my first marriage never to speak to me again. She was hurt. I married a toff and then a Pakistani. I did not have a respectable job. I was horribly visible. My grandmother never knew the odd congruence–starting from so different a place–of her own emotions and those of my Parsi in-laws, who so disliked all the publicity I received, reflecting, entirely reasonably, that one pair of ridiculous fashion tights, credited as costing some shocking sum, might water a village in India, and that no proper wife, no proper person, no proper writer, appears in evening clothes not her own in order to help publicise a book that is in literary terms respectable.
My grandmother thought that the education she had effectively paid for had separated me from her and made me pretentious; she was fed in this apprehension by friends who passed her all the disobliging cuttings they could. An equivalent drip-feeding went on to my poor parents-in-law. Neither of these things–the separation, the pretension–was precisely the case, but it helps worsen the hurt to coarsen the terms, naturally, and my grandmother and my mother-in-law were each attached to private suffering, a plot laid out for one by starting to earn her living aged five on the stage and caring for a blind sister, and for the other, perhaps, by the Partition of India and Pakistan in the year of her marriage, for she was from Bombay and her husband, her first cousin, from Karachi.
That my grandmother and I did speak again is due to telephone calls, made by each of my husbands, and each call concerning the arrival of a child, her three great-grandchildren, separated from her, as she understood it, on account of the bitter prejudices that rack this country still, by class in three cases and colour and creed in one, and yet–when at last she met them in her final year of life–she felt them entirely hers, her great-grandchildren, the older of whom have her posture and her gamut of social smiles and the youngest of whom has her appetite for libretti.
I have at last started to let go of the dear stone, that cherished discomfiting notion that my grandmother did not love me or my mother.
She loved us too possessively, too angrily, too silently, in the way of the day. It was her stone, a stone axe, beautiful and held behind her lovely face like obsidian, never letting her yield. I won’t feed my own stone by rereading her hard, withheld diaries, but must instead recall that at the end she let me hold her hand day after day, whichever one she thought I was, my mother or me, and that she left me in her will an envelope of mica windowpanes for a solid-fuel stove, each the size of half a playing card, little slips of crackly pearl for feeling heat through and for looking through, into the fire in our pasts.
My mother very occasionally brought home from her trips to the grocer Young and Saunders, or from Rankin’s the fruiterers at the West End, a pomegranate, in tissue paper. She would give me a pin and two plates. (Is this the sort of thing to which people refer when they say, ‘We made our own fun’?)
Mummy would cut the pomegranate into four, put on my apron, which was modelled on a French child’s smock and sewn by her, in her constant search for rational and appealing clothes for children, and let me take the chambered, compressed, treasure apart, with one plate for the leathery but blushful skin and the membrane that you could look through, and the other for the pressed red jewels, which I was allowed to eat with the pin. So long did this task take–a whole afternoon–and so magical a treat was the process that I was not surprised, when I read in my anthology of myths, The Tanglewood Tales, about Persephone–to learn that she had tumbled to a pomegranate’s charms in Hades, and that the seeds were measures of time spent with or without a mother.
LENS I: Chapter 7
Painstaking effortlessness, curiosa felicitas, was my father’s, apparently idling, actually supercharged, gear. There may have been something irresistible to him about my mother’s lavish appearance and her extremer way. But it was also, time showed, at some level repulsive. The quick term for this is, I suppose, a fatal attraction. They were stuck under the net of convention and another net of passion that had charred to distaste on his side I think. All this is speculation.
In marriage, and this is less speculative, since I have twice failed to understand, to implement and to reverse the disintegration of this, we are, or I was, trying to answer the loss and absence that the other has felt. One hopes the other’s gaps will be filled by something that one carries within. But somehow instead we may create what we most have feared because it is familiar. Perhaps everyone but me knows this.
I saw my mother be craven to my father. Cravenness has no place between any two people. Craven is the claw of the mode most repulsive to me of any, that of ingratiation. I hate full frontal flattery and its oils the more, the longer I live. My father lived perhaps a little too sternly by the exigencies of understatement; my mother’s overstatement I know, because I am like it too, was authentic, was intensity of feeling, terribly banked down. I’m like them both, dry and pyrotechnic; but you need to keep powder dry. I don’t like slobber. It is the slaver kills and not the bite.
Marilyn Monroe killed herself in the August of 1962. I was already much taken by suicide, but only as a means of transformation, the death of one way of being in order to catalyse the birth of another, as in the Beast becoming Jean Marais in the film by Cocteau of Beauty and the Beast, to which my parents were attached and which they took me to see whenever it was showing. Cocteau himself had designed the programme and poster for the first Edinburgh Festival. That was one of my parents’ worlds, the Edinburgh arts world. When the Traverse Theatre was born, Mummy cooked for the actors. The Incredible String Band lived in one of my friend Janey’s father’s barns. Our street had the poet George Bruce and even Chopin had stayed in the Crescent some time before, no doubt on his way to visit Miss Stirling at Keir, where there was said to be a piano he had played. There were recitals in the Chopin house, which belonged to a musical family. I remember my mother making zabaglione for the mime artist Lindsay Kemp. I felt at once a bond with him, to do with discipline, extremity, outsiderness. I was drawn very young indeed to the company of gay men. A matter of talk and of establishing hidden ways to utter; puns, jokes, playing around. This line in transmission ran deep. My father totted from a skip quite late in his life an old ironmongery sign made of cast-iron letters. He reordered them up the stone stairs of the house: IRONYMONGER.
I read all I could about Marilyn’s death. I remember reading Life magazine, lying on my stomach, of course, on the floor of another family, and getting the first intimation of why she really did it that made complete sense to me. Life had silky pages that smelt of my lino-cutting set.
The words that made sense were, ‘Breasts, belly, bottom, soon all must sag.’ The alliteration, the coarse mimetic bounce of the words and the downward fall of the sentence added to its crude potency; the misogyny agreed with some knot within me of self-dislike, and I saw that that was one reason to die (or transform yourself, as I saw suicide at that time, before it had come closer), that Marilyn had shifted shape by choosing to stay the same, by dying. I collected information about female suicides long before there was one at home, whose case I have refused to study until recently. I was interested as a quite small child by women who kill themselves and that they will often choose to wear make-up to do so. This may have changed by now. Many suicides are drunk or otherwise chemically changed, and grooming, as I have cause to know, is not a part of the throes of advanced addiction. Women used to get into their prettiest underwear, their nicest negligee, in order to be negligent of themselves in the highest degree. I don’t know what happens now that there is so great a passion for pictures of women falling short of the impossible standards they have set themselves in life. And if we think at all, we know, even without seeing photographs of really dead beauties, that the prettification will in time be all undone: the mouth falls open, the stomach rebels, the bowels let go, the worm or the fire do their work.
I was keen on the self-betterment side of suicide, so convinced of angelic afterlife was I, on account of knowing for sure that I had a guardian angel, partly because on my nursery wall was a reproduction of Ghirlandaio’s painting of Tobias, slung with the fish, gall from whose liver was to cure his father’s blindness, and his Angel, and partly on account of my guardian angel having told me firmly not to turn on my bedroom light switch which went on to give my mother a great shock later that day. My mother was undoubtedly attractive to shocks.
Also, someone had written on my nursery window with a diamond, which showed that a child or young woman (the writing made that clear) had lived in that small tall shuttered room before. The words were ‘October 1893’. What was important was that all the letters had serifs, so once someone with a lot of time had looked out over the garden and over the wall to the river and up and over the narrow walkway to the railway bank, maybe, and certainly within knowledge of the cemetery over that bank, where The Red Lady, it was known, walked by night and had done since thirty years before my guardian angel had written her tidy date on my windowpane.
The idea that suicide is a way of refining oneself is not new, to humans, to children, to girl-children, to girl-children of religious bent, nor to anyone who seeks a solution. Often the solution sought is temporary, and this temporariness cannot be ensured. Anorexia is its slower mode, taking appalling hostages. The joke of it in my life was that the long suicide I took on was the perfect undoing offered by alcohol, and I really didn’t know that I was doing it until very nearly too late, by when I had indeed transformed myself by taking the clear liquid solution.
Marilyn died and as a child I loved the most the pictures of her with her intelligent husband, always so evidently and photogenically intelligent, Arthur Miller. His dark looks established, together with almost all medical doctors whom we knew and the cold Edinburgh weather, which necessitated that men wear long tailored overcoats, what could be called my ‘type’, as in Proust’s ‘she was never my type’. Later this received a top dressing of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities and of the hopeless clever drunk Charles Stringham from A Dance to the Music of Time, Prince Andrei too. About the only thing I can say in my defence in this area of daydream is that I have never fancied Vronsky.
Hopeless, clever, drunk; that trio of adjectives reminds me of something that happened on the same day as I read that sexy and offensive sentence about Marilyn, and it reveals what conversation was like in the long afternoon winter drawing rooms of Edinburgh among my parents and their friends. We were some doors down from the house where Compton Mackenzie would hold court in his great downstairs bed. ‘We’ were, I suppose, another family, of two parents and four children, a grandfather and a very thin aunt who I realise now was dying, and my parents. The oldest daughter of the house, about sixteen, was reading The Flight from the Enchanter or some other novel by Iris Murdoch that I had seen my mother read.
‘Why do the adjectives in Iris Murdoch’s books come so often in threes?’ she asked.
So the game was to use only triplet adjectives for the afternoon and all of us played it. The taste of that house was black treacle with yellow cream, in bowls of uncooked oats. Over the dining table there was an oil painting of the mother, Marjory, in a hat covered with flowers. The father was a landscape architect. All the children save the boy, Simon, had dark eyes. Simon told me not to let people know how much I knew if I wanted more friends. We were six and took turns on the rowing machine that was there for the frail ones in the family. Simon and Polly were twins and I was a severe bore for them because I tried to copy them in order to be normal; copying twins who are not identical is a tangle.
But who to be?
When my mother died I had someone to be, perhaps. But it was in the days before people spoke about such events after they had happened, and we were in Scotland, where speaking was less the done thing, even, than in England, or speaking of dramatic personal matters, or personal matters at all.
I suppose there was some mongering of scandal.
But Scotland it was that saved me. I am sure of that, for all that I was sent away quite soon. The being sent away very possibly fixed Scotland for me, deep-laid as it was in a way that I had not understood was happening, as my father drove me and my mother all over the roads, never as the crow flew, but round and deep about and through the sea lochs and mountains and glens of the North to look at the houses, castles, villages, mills and towns he worked to preserve.
In the back as he drove, I sang my sagas and sucked on a fresh lemon against carsickness. The lemon had come, my mother had always said, as she pulled it from her travelling-basket the moment I started to whine, from sunny Italy. Sometimes it had the leaf to show for it.
LENS I: Chapter 8
I do not need to invent her because I can see her in the children. She had a terrible temper, slanting eyes, outrageously long gesticulating hands, cheekbones like a Russian, a faint overbite, too much height, a silly voice, a gift for making rooms and occasions with nothing more than, say, sweet peas, a matchbox and herself. She put nasturtiums in salads, she was unnecessarily kind, her heart was tender, she got things a bit wrong and said sorry, she held her hair up with paintbrushes, she shouted, she gardened passionately and hopelessly, she loved peculiar expressions–‘touch not the cat’–and was irresistible to old men; she was a bit of a snob, she had beautiful shoulders and threw bits of cloth round her home and herself; she gave too much away, she tried to save the lives of shrews, birds, mice and tramps by bringing them home, she had an extra-ness that some fell for and some resisted, she cooked on her budget as though for a family of eight, she turned heads and ended up talking not to the prince but to the scarecrow; she was untidy with spasms of obsessive reordering, she collected small heterogeneous things as though her life depended upon it; she remembered names. She wrote rather good doggerel. The nearest thing I have to a suicide note is one such poem. I cannot hand on the misery by sharing it.
In aesthetic terms, then, she hadn’t my father’s unerring line, but she did have colour. She loved magazines, as I loved comics. She longed to subscribe to the (then) French magazine Elle; her first copy of it arrived the week after her death. I would have tea with other families because they took comics. Fat use I was as a playmate when all I did was lie on my tum and read comic strips about large families in the midst of a large family, like the Mitchisons who had an au pair and Patum Peperium for tea, or the Michies, who were Communists and had a nanny and had married one another twice and were to die together in a car crash in 2007. Then there were the Ordes who lived at Queensferry and sang madrigals and whose mother herself was so beautiful that she made cakes rise like her golden bun, and the Waterstones who taught me the Lord’s Prayer with ‘debts’ and ‘debtors’ in the Scots way and whose mother made me baked beans and of whom I said to my own mother, ‘Why can’t you be like Mrs Waterstone?’ in the last weeks of her life. I meant, ‘Why won’t you let me use the grill?’ or something, I suppose. God knows how Mummy heard those words.
Mrs Waterstone’s condolence letter arrived very soon. People were good to my father.
I don’t know exactly what my mother did. A pupil, some thirty years my senior, at a course I taught once told me that my mother had changed her will and my father had changed it back. What kind of person tells one these things? Another told me that she had broken up the flat of someone outside our family the day before she ‘did it’. I can’t see it. Is that the thing I’m refusing to see? That my mother was incontinent with grief during her last days? How could she not have been? Why else choose to die?
It would be frivolous to die without reason, wouldn’t it? Death is better perhaps than such consuming rage or misery.
All I want, for her, is to soothe her.
I do not swallow the ‘cry for help’ theory in her case, just as I don’t swallow the idea that she had a rotten go of flu, which she did, too.
She did not want to wake up on the following day. That day was to include events that she could not countenance.
I don’t even know if suicide was legal when she did it, or where her ashes are. I think she died in October. I know that I wore school uniform to the funeral and that I was horrified by the tidy curtains as she went away through them in her coffin. My friend Janey Allison, Janey who had never joined the anti-Candy gang, who grew up to be champion downhill ski-racer of all Scotland, and who could like Paul Klee hold a line boldly, in crayon as she could in snow, Janey’s mother cried at the funeral. She was a terse Scots blonde, Mary, née Ingalls, who was given to ticking us off in Latin at table in the farm kitchen out at Turnhouse, but she showed an affection I cannot forget. Janey I never see nowadays but can, right now, in her button shoes, aged four, or in her ballet gear, with the petersham belt. Our mothers were such friends as I hope we are still.
Mummy put me to bed in her and Daddy’s bed, and she told me that she loved Daddy. I have no idea whether she got down the pills, which were transparent and turquoise, with alcohol. Their name was Oblivon.
The next day took one of two forms.
Either I was taken to the home of the Professor of the History of Art, Giles Robertson, and his wife Eleanor in Saxe-Coburg Place, or I was taken by my mother’s cleaning lady, Mrs Stewart, whom I loved and called Sooty, to her house on an estate in Pilton. I can remember moments selected from each very disparate residence. Perhaps there were two days inside that one day. Oddly, I don’t know the year, though I think it was the year after President Kennedy was shot. I know that I wrote a long encomium to the President after the assassination, and that my teacher didn’t like the way I mentioned Mrs Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit; to mention garments was not ‘suitable’, a very Edinburgh concept at the time. If she’d known he was going to be assassinated, though, maybe she would have chosen something a wee bitty more practical? (Is this an especially Edinburgh consideration? In Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, the protagonist selects a specially non-stain-resistant dress to be murdered in.) I knew that it was peculiar, even distasteful, to think like this.
I can remember when President Kennedy was shot, and not when my own mother died?
I know. But it was so.
I knew that something was wrong when I saw my mother on her tummy in my bed. I think that she had on not a nightgown but a green wool dress. She had sewn me a pink pillow with grey kittens and pussy willow branches on it to help combat my nightmares about the Cauliflowers, who came out of the walls and stole your breath. I do not recall whether her head rested on this pillow at her end. That is all I saw, except that her head was to one side. It will never cease to appal me that my children have seen me from this angle on account of drink. How can I? How could I? How did I?
There’s nothing so dreadful-tasting that, if it is your poison of choice, will not make you take it. That is what addiction is. The worse it is, the more ‘unsuitable’, the more it seems to be what is made for you, your final course of just desserts, not someone else’s cup of tea at all.
That day, whichever day it was, that Mummy died, I waited for my father. At first it seemed to be with Sooty.
When Sooty’s husband Sandy came in from the Ferranti factory, Sooty took him into their kitchenette where their son David would sometimes melt lead to make soldiers. Sandy had braces and the family had a television. Sooty called Mummy ‘Maggie’. She said to Sandy, ‘It’s very bad with Maggie. I think she’s gone.’
Sandy had a blue shirt and the lino was like coloured pebbles. In the garden was an aviary for budgies. The kitchen furniture was yellow plastic with dots and lines in black and white. I loved Sooty’s curtains. They were printed with pictures of onions and carrots and Italian things like peppers, and implements, whisks, which we called beaters then.
Sooty let me beat up some evaporated milk till it got frothy and eat it off the spoon. Did Daddy come and get me? How much worse it must have been for him, exposed to his wife’s grief and pain for good.
How terrified he must have been. What could he do but what he did?
He told me the truth in the bedroom of the two youngest Robertson boys, Charles and Robert. We played together all our childhood, the three of us. The Robertsons were Quakers. The house, home of clever articulate children and a scholarly pair of parents whom I loved, was always filled with wonderfully tempered vocative tones of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Their father, Giles, was a Bellini scholar. He read to us, very fast, in the drawing room, under the Venetian chandelier. He read, for example, A Flat Iron for a Farthing by Mrs Juliana Horatia Ewing. If we grew restive, we played. Our favourite game was ‘Siesta Time on Mount Olympus’. We put on our counterpanes and played at being gods and a goddess. If we grew more restive, their mother, Eleanor, or one of the older children would say, ‘Thee must not romp in the drawing room!’
Maybe a year later I was to embarrass Charles by pretending that he was my ‘boyfriend’ so as to stop being nagged about the existence of such a person by other girls at school. I said that he looked like Napoleon Solo from the Man from U.N.C.L.E. television programme and the bubblegum cards that were a modish collector’s item among schoolgirls at that time. Charles had heard of neither. The Robertson children and I were all avidly reading Pale Fire at that point. More secret languages were being learned but I had grown too drawn by the double tongue of trying to fit in. We were preoccupied by the work and pacifism of Bertrand Russell; also by his home life.
In Charles and Robert’s bedroom, my father told me nothing but the truth, upon which he never again enlarged; very likely, for him, the only way.
‘Candia’, he said. ‘You will never see your mother again.’
People ask, ‘Are you angry with your mother?’ I am angry with neither of them though I feel vivid disgust at myself still.
I went down the inside stone stairs and out into Saxe-Coburg Place, a green square; after that, I walked around the quadrilateral autumn pavement, feeling important, shut out, and singular.
I started to tell myself the story on that day whose end is my writing this down. I shall try to tell it as exactly as I can. I thought on that day, whenever it was, that this new swerve in my story made me interesting, but I see that in fact it is a story that makes us connected, not myself singular. It is the story of loss.
That exchange, of desolation for empathy, disclosed itself to me quite close upon my mother’s death, the click of a new consciousness that I would be better advised to listen than to assert when it came to suffering, that it is not a game of trumps, and that the suffering of those one loves cannot but be worse than one’s own.
My poor father read to me all night in the basement at the Robertsons’ house, The Sword in the Stone. Can you imagine his peril and his tiredness? The sheets were linen, an act of sure hospitality on the part of our hostess. Linen sheets are chaste luxury and comfort.
Later, I became a sort of succubus upon the whole Robertson family. I was to do it with other families, too.
That night I had–or so my memory, which is as reliable as my eyelids, tells me–a dream after I fell asleep in the early morning, that foretold the future. I would go away, far away.
If this were a novel, you would learn at what chapter of The Sword in the Stone my father and I eventually fell asleep. Let’s pretend it’s when the Wart becomes a bird of prey and there come the Latin words of the Scots poet Dunbar, from his ‘Lament for the Makars’, ‘Timor Mortis Conturbat Me’.
I don’t know really. I did become rigid with fear that my skinny father would slip away too, and I took, in the coming weeks, to waking him, shaking him awake, like a first-time mother with a baby. What sort of caricature of his dead wife must I have represented at those times, reborn, younger, desperate, alive?
LENS I: Chapter 9
My mother and I were jealous of buildings, first.
My father worked for the National Monuments Record of Scotland and then for the National Trust for Scotland. He was away a good deal, and at first he went on his own. They didn’t have a car in the early years and I imagine that a baby might have been a worry, even if allowed on field trips.
If people mention the conservation of buildings now, they think at once of something almost aspirational, associated with a style of life, a type of person, a version of the past. All this could not be further from how my father thought and worked and lived. He was working to save buildings that were being blown up, set alight, anything to get rid of them and to realise the cost of the land they sat upon and to be rid of the fearful costs they and their upkeep demanded. Roofs were pulled off Scottish houses in order for the rates to be avoided. There was a cull of castles, palaces were dynamited, streets fell to the wrecking ball, squares came down in the name of progress, tenements fell in stone and dust. The war had left the sides of buildings gouged, their innards shockingly exposed, wallpaper making its sad prettiness plain, a chained mirror blitzed to wood and a shard of looking-glass.
I played on weekdays in a playground called the Wreck, down by a bomb crater near Drummond Place. Years later I realised that it was called the ‘Rec’, short for recreation. The swings at the Wreck and at Inverleith Park, where you might catch minnows in a hairnet tied to a pea-stick, were tied up on a Saturday night by the park keeper, so as not to be usable on the Sabbath. Park keepers were renowned among the children who played all day at the playgrounds, and who were worldly-wise, for being great wielders of the belt or the strap. Certainly they fiercely guarded the pavilion in the park at the end of our crescent, where I never really did dare to play, except in the rough grass. Even a fat child could get through the railings that smelt of iron, rust, coally rain and lead paint. After I got thinner I played walking along the railings on the park side. On the side of the houses, most of the railings were topped with flèches, acorns or fleurs-de-lys, except where they had been uprooted to contribute to the war effort. I felt pity in my own body for the hurt buildings, encouraged by my parents, who took me with them everywhere when they were together. Later the National Trust gave Daddy a car for work, a fat Hillman we called the Tank.
I loved to sit in the back, my head against the rattly window, watching the rain make shapes, especially in the dark and under a rug, and most especially of all, when we were going north. The humming window gave me a pitch against which I could sing, like a drone behind a bagpipe; I think the noise I made was worse than any pipe (I love the pipes violently. Until recently, I would have said that they make me hold my head up, but now my failing sight is making me do that too, so let me say that they make my blood race). My father couldn’t abide my mother’s singing, which was flat, nor mine which was flatter, and booming, and often built around long stories whose heroine was me, assisting medically at some point during Bannockburn or helping at a crisis with the Argonauts. I was very keen on Jason.
I was in love always. Odysseus seems to have been its first really intense human object. My mother heard me calling out his name in my sleep when I was six. I’d started reading the Odyssey, in the E.V. Rieu translation, under false pretences. My father said that my mother was reading it because she thought that Homer was some kind of an animal called an Odyssey. He was teasing, but patronising also. In both senses, she wanted his education. That was for sure what I think that I thought, but I don’t remember. I identified with none of Odysseus’s womenfolk, not Athene of the grey eyes, not patient Penelope, not beastly Circe, not tall Nausicaa, head and shoulders above her handmaidens in height, but preferred to confect an extra part for a brave agile young female doctor. I was very taken, when it came to the Iliad, with Achilles for his sulkiness and with Hector for his fearful sufferings; but he was never going to pull through no matter how thoroughly I bandaged him.
Comics were early stirred into the reading mix. With some tact, my father pretended to like comics too and would pay me half the price of my WHAM! in order to ‘read’ it. WHAM!, which had an excellent strip called Georgie’s Germs that had those satisfying battles between microscopic life forms that are always so rich a culture for silliness, cost threepence-halfpenny a week, pronounced, I should perhaps tell you, ‘thruppence haypenny’. Where can one begin to translate?
The source of most comics, especially in Scotland at that time, was the ultra-conservative publisher D.C. Thomson of Dundee, to whose products I was early addicted, and still am. They did not come to our house but I knew where to get them. The Dandy and the Beano I could manage without, but still must have my Broons Annual, my Oor Wullie, reassuring and harrowing in equal part. They have moved with the times. While they were stuck in the forties or so in the sixties, with a few references to Mop-Top laddies or jukeboxes, they are now shockingly less sexist and no one is picked on for being fat and or ugly.
No one was ugly in the world of the comic that addled for good my drawing style, Jackie. (‘Be bolder! Be bolder!, my father would say, and once I heard my parents saying to Janey Allison’s parents at kindergarten, ‘She can’t yet get Klee.’) Jackie was thrilling pap, tame girl-friendly romance. Other girls brought it to school. I can to this day draw any Jackie type you will, daffy blonde, speccy brunette with latent romantic promise, spirited redhead, polo-necked love-bruiser, handsome toad, reliable mother’s boy. Golly, that sugar, that romantic sugar, it rotted my line. I can draw nothing like as well as either parent did, having trained myself to be more decorative than truthful in the shapes I make on the page when I draw.
But look! The blinding may be helping that, too. I’m starting to learn to draw again, teaching myself from a book given to me by my second husband. The book is called The Tao of Sketching, and it is by a Chinese artist called Qu Lei Lei, who has made an enormous portrait of our son, with a kind of predella feature, about the size of a bath, of his beautiful, strange, extra-bendy hands, folded, which is to be framed separately from the vast head.
So, there will be two ways of looking anew, with these modified eye sockets and with the help of The Tao of Sketching. I have had a good deal to unlearn, my cramped pretty curlicues, my symmetries, my velleity that tends to tidy, stretch, elide, as in fashion magazine drawing. My mother was trained in fashion drawing, and it was her work I copied at the kitchen table as we made all that fun on our own.
My father could draw, where ‘to be able to draw’ means to be able to transcribe that which you see, and pleasingly, in a way that does not betray but rather finds out, and is true to, the object seen. He could also draw decoratively from his imagination, with that trick that takes knowledge, so that he could make a line look as though it were taken from a certain architectural period, or even a period of design-influence. It is not surprising that he loved the architectural jokes of Osbert Lancaster. He had a friend, Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh, who had a similar talent. You are never quite alone with that percipience of eye, that witty strand. You can always make something of what you see. I have a few letters written by my father when he was still very young; he cannot restrain the pen. Finials grow, acroteria sprout, domes swell, columns are tactfully broken to accommodate the script; it is like wandering in a neoclassical garden, a spritzed Piranesi. He could cut paper into Corinthian capitals, into palm trees, into knights on horseback, into fretwork minarets, into a vista of a city. In one letter to a cousin he makes of a telephone receiver an Ionic capital.
My mother could make patterns, strings of cut-out dancing dolls, and she did such things with colour. It was her habit to buy second-hand clothes and to dye them in the big jam pan. Often when I got home from school, she would call out ‘I’m dyeing’ from the basement. Her colours were always changing but her favourites were silver and pink, smoky grey and mauve with no red in it. We mixed colours a lot, at the kitchen table. Guessing what the outcome would be if we mixed powder paint or watercolour or oil paint or Smarties or icing or ribbons, this was a good game. She let me paint potato crisps and offer them around when her friends came to drink coffee or–at Christmas, I think–Cinzano Bianco. She scribbled with wax crayons on cartridge paper–very expensive–and let me colour in all the little moons between the waxen boundaries of scribble, and to try never to have a colour adjacent to itself; was that possible? We used her paints from her student days, a Rowney set with little replaceable pans of watercolour, and a Cotman set whose replacements came wrapped in paper like sweets from Aitken Dott the art supplies shop on Hanover Street.
I had some triangular wooden mosaics with which I made patterns, and some wooden sticks named Cuisenaire that my poor parents hoped would make me better at mathematics, and architectural wooden blocks from Germany in a duffel bag. I would ask my mother all the time, ‘Which do you like best?’, ‘Which is your favourite?’ She would make a case for each. I do it with my children. The youngest gets cross. He thinks that I am being politically correct, that I am in thrall to the tediously New Labourite phenomenon he calls ‘the Equal Elves’. I’m afraid I am just copying my mother.
I cannot remember much about my mother, but I shall try, now, to do it. I am looking for her and with her for my ability to look.
I have looked away from it for a long time while pretending to look at it. God knows how it is for people who contemplate the disintegration or physical fission of someone they love. At least she was in one piece in my bed where she, at thirty-six, lay dead.
I regard (a word of seeing, I see) that last sentence as too aggressive to the reader, too showy, to remain. It is bad form. I cannot, I observe, look at it. So I’m going to make an experiment, and leave it.
I will now try to remake my mother’s last day during which she took me to the Nubian goat farm at Cammo to choose a pointer puppy, a dog that must have been a sop to me, or perhaps to herself, like the drugged meat burglars are said to throw for guard dogs. I remember the lop-eared goats and the brindle pups.
When with either of my parents, I had the sense that each was fragile. I asked them that disturbing incessant question, ‘Are you all right?’ a lot. His breathing sounded wrong, they fought too much, she cried on the edge of her bed. I avoided them on account of this, and hung about after school with the boarders, or walked home with other girls, bribing them with the bus fare I would save by walking. I had friends by now, other children of bookish homes, or daughters of my parents’ friends. I wasn’t popular, but I was on the verge of being a cult. Something was happening at home and other girls’ parents talked about it.
By no means all fathers liked finding me at the after-school tea table when they got in from work. There was something provisional and not respectable about me. It wasn’t just that my mother was tall and sexy and wore sometimes a silver and sometimes a pink wig, that she smoked or had that Englishy voice, the Siamese on a lead, the black poodle-cross (named Agip after Italian petrol–‘supercorte maggiore, la potenta benzina Italiana’) or the yellow Labrador Katie. It wasn’t really anything as simple as that I was not named Fiona or Elspeth. I was a Mc, after all, if not a Mac. It wasn’t as though she didn’t hand out jars of home-made, misspelt ‘blackcurrent’ jam, that delicious staining preserve with something of its leaves’ cat’s-pee tang to the black fruit.
It wasn’t Mummy’s awful driving. She learned only late in her life and had a half-timbered Mini van that got into scrapes. She might put the card discs from tubes of Horlicks tablets in the parking meters in Charlotte Square instead of sixpence.
That’s the worst thing, morally, I saw her do.
She was pursued by more than one man who was not within her marriage. One of these, later, after I was the mother of three, came round for lunch with me in my marital home.
‘What happened to your mother?’ he asked.
‘She died,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘What are you doing this afternoon?’
As I’ve said, a number of people have wanted to tell me what my mother did in her last days, or on her last day. I have no desire to know. I may be wrong in this. Other people are involved, and I don’t want them hurt. I don’t want anecdotes or gossip. I want the emotional truth, so I can make her better. And that I cannot have. I want the printout of her human heart.
I do not think that we can at this distance know the truth.
I do not think that we could even then have known the truth or seen it.
I have very often wanted to take from her thoughts whatever it was that so hurt her that she felt she had to die, and to replace it with the complete certainty that she is loved, and that by people, my children, their fathers, who never even knew her. I do not know how I know this save that she has grown less fragile, less contingent and less fantastic in my mind, the longer she has been dead. In life she felt frail to me, like a story, unless stories are not frail.