Alan

My friend Alan died at the beginning of the month and was buried last week. I went to his funeral in Cambridge. Alan was my first boss, if you ignore a six-week stint in a watercress factory. I had a year and a bit between leaving school and going to Oxford. Cambridge turned me down, but Oxford said that they would have me a year later. Because gap years hadn’t then been invented, instead of doing dangerous things in the Far East I worked for a year in the Civil Service in London, in the Public Trustee Office. I lived at home and commuted in from the Surrey hills.

Every day I caught the same train into London and the same train back home. Some six of us traveled together almost every day. Sometimes we would loudly recite Tennyson’s The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet, to the irritation of fellow travelers, and sometimes we would just talk. It was 1966/7, and the things that we would talk about included the strange times that we were living in – the dawn of the summer of love, weird music, long hair, drugs, young men dressed in military capes trimmed with velvet, all that stuff – and how boring it was to be young. ‘Chap gave me a ticket for a concert at the QEH,’ one of our number announced one morning. ‘Pop group of some sort. Called The Pink Floyd. Bugger me: one of the chaps came on stage dressed full fig as a Rear Admiral!’

Work at the Public Trustee Office was not demanding, although the monstrous inefficiencies of the system contrived to make it more demanding than it might have been. Photocopying, for example, involved passing sheets of smelly photographic paper through a pan of noxious chemicals: and the resulting image rapidly faded to sludgy black in any event. I was a Clerical Assistant, the most junior rank among those of whom literacy was expected. Unlike life in law firms, as encountered five years later, where all lawyers are equal although the partners are more equal than others, the Public Trustee Office was highly stratified. Clerical Assistants were junior to Clerical Officers and of course to Trust Officers and Trust Assistants, who were qualified lawyers. They were junior to those of an NCO rank, the name of which I forget, who did much of the actual work. I was also junior to everyone who was ‘established’. Established Civil Servants had jobs for life unless, it was said, they interfered sexually with another established Civil Servant in a lift. Twenty years later, under Mrs Thatcher, it was revealed that this was a misapprehension, and established Civil Servants could be fired at will; misbehaviour in lifts was not after all necessary. Something similar happened at the BBC.

There was a Chief Accountant of whom we were all terrified. Then one day I saw him on the street, away from his place of power, and I realised that he was in fact rather small, grubby and not frightening at all. There were two surveyors, one for property investments in Town and the other for The Country. The latter wore tweeds and gumboots to the office, rather heraldically I thought.

We were required to start all letters, ‘I am directed by the Public Trustee to thank you for yours of the [whatever the date was] inst. or ult.’: ult., nearly always. Our Trust Assistant jibbed against this. He said that it made him feel like a hose.

Alan was a Trust Officer and presided over the cell of which I was the least important and most temporary member. He was qualified as a solicitor but had a dandyish style and implacably Marxist political beliefs, which he was often reluctant to leave implicit, and both would have told against him in private practice. We took to each other straight away, and spent far too much of the working day talking about this and that or setting out for long lunches or more extravagant expeditions, Alan in his morning coat, pin-stripe trousers and bowler hat – he never went outdoors without a hat – and I in a heavy double-breasted navy blue suit of which I was particularly proud. It dated from the 1920s and my parents had bought it for me when I started work from The White Elephant, a shop in Godalming run by Col. and Mrs. Ironside, where people could buy second-hand clothes to which their taste inclined them but which they could not have afforded new. The suit lasted for ever, or at any rate until I turned thirty and the waist no longer fitted me.

I believe actually that Alan was conscientious as regards his work and put in extra hours while I was on Southern Region going home, to compensate for those in the regular day spent coffee-housing with me.

It is easy to see why Alan fascinated me. My family lived, as I say, in the Surrey Hills. My father was a cultured man, and I was introduced to many wonders at school. I grew up with assurance as regards art, music and the LBW law. What I had never encountered was metropolitan life, and the insouciance with which cultural activity might be indulged. My parents treated London with wary respect, and until I was out of their control I was never allowed to go ‘up’ – as they said – to London unless dressed in jacket and tie. This was mainly due to my mother. My father had after all spent his childhood and youth in Lewisham, where ties were not universally worn, even then. In due course, when I visited the house in World’s End, where Alan lived with his wife Nan and their daughters Jane and Josephine, I would meet concert pianists, Freuds, painters’ models and suchlike drifting nonchalantly around in a way that was simply not to be found in Surrey.

Furthermore, my parents’ view of the world was Church of England and conservative. Alan’s upbringing was Quaker and left-wing. I had never actually met an articulate socialist before.

The house in World’s End was one of those tall, thin early-Nineteenth Century terrace houses to which we now all aspire, and indeed that house would now cost you millions. Alan and Nan had bought it before the area was fashionable. They told me that in the early days some of the neighbours kept livestock indoors. When I knew it, it was elegant, ramshackle, central-heating-free, and full of lovely things. Unfortunately it was also held on a long leasehold, it fell though the gaps as regards leasehold enfranchisement and in due course, when it had become worth a lot of money, they had to give it back. Alan, with his views on capital, had a thing or two to say about that. But that lay in the future.

Another thing about the house in World’s End was the food. Elizabeth David inspired it, and her influence had yet to penetrate very far out of London.

Alan once took me in a party to a performance of early music in a City church. It was The Schütz Choir conducted by the very young Roger Norrington, doing not Schütz but Monteverdi, if memory serves. Original instruments and fast tempi were still very radical then. We went because Wynne Godley, the economist and a friend of Alan, was playing an oboe obligato. The music was wonderful and I was also struck by one of the audience, a tall, thin young man, with a black serge suit and a military cape, with a velvet collar and brass clasps.

‘I want that,’ I said, and Alan said that of course I must have one, and the following day instead of acting as the Public Trustee, had he known, would have directed us we went on an expedition and bought it.

What did he see in me, apart from simple mutual affection? I suppose that it was partly a glimpse of his own youth. It was also however the strange times that we were living in, those that my friends and I talked about in the train every morning and evening. They fascinated Alan, and I think that he wanted some contact with them through me. I must in my almost total innocence of the great changes that were taking place have been a poor guide, but I did understand the music, and I remember frequenting the Indica bookshop in Southampton Row in my lunch break, chatting with Barry Miles (in those days just ‘Miles’) who ran it, buying International Times and Allen Ginsburg memorabilia, and reporting back to Alan afterwards. Alan was convinced that great changes were under way and he would quote the Wordsworth lines:

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.

He had an extraordinary memory, and was given to quoting hunks of poetry. This has always been largely a blind spot for me, but he would also quote prose, which is a lifetime’s passion. He introduced me to all sorts of wonderful things. I remember his reciting from memory the opening paragraph of Rose Macaulay’s Told by an Idiot:

One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, – in brief, in the year 1879, – Mrs. Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr. Garden’s study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor papa has lost his faith again.”

The final ‘again’ he would always produce with a shout. It has become a touchstone. The human race is divided neatly between those who get the sheer fabulousness of this paragraph and those who don’t.

He made me read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which has also absorbed more of my attention over the years than any novel should. I’ll read one his other novels first, I said; they’re shorter. But he insisted, and I am eternally glad that he did. As it turned out he had an ulterior motive. He was fascinated by the scene in the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, where the members of the Cricket XI at (effectively) Eton say good night to each other one by one:

“…there was the usual business of “Good-night, Bill, good-night – -”

“Good-night, Guy … good-night, Stephen … good-night, John … good-night, Ronnie … good-night, George.”

‘Exactly,’ said Stringham, “good-night, Eddie … good-night, Simon … good-night, Robin…” and so on and so forth until they had all said good-night to each other collectively and individually, and shuffled off together, arm-in-arm.”.

“You were at an all-boys’ public school. Did they do that? My school was co-ed. It may well have been different.”

“No,” I said.

I introduced Dance, as we Powellites call it, in turn to my father. He died before he could read the last three volumes, but he bought and read The Military Philosophers before I did. He rang me up. ‘Extraordinary things happen at the end,’ he said. ‘I won’t spoil it for you.’

But that was also later.

It was not all enchantment, though. I remember that a hippy restaurant opened near his house. It was called Gandalf’s Garden and it was, as seen from the street, high-minded, sensitive and vegetarian. I thought that it looked really right on and suggested that we might patronise it. Alan snorted. ‘I’ve had enough feeble-minded left-wing vegetarianism when I was young to last me a lifetime’, he said.

I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Meanwhile my parents became worried. I was coming home on the 6.10 every evening brandishing subversive things like Oz magazine and telling them solemnly of the redemptive power of drugs, of which I had no experience at all. They were also hearing about this man who was apparently encouraging me in my madness. It helped that, coincidentally, one of my parents’ best friends was also a close friend of Alan, and indeed had shared his rooms at Cambridge. Nevertheless there was to be a meeting. My parents drove from Surrey to Chelsea, with my younger brother and sister as well as me, one Sunday. Jane and Josephine took my brother and sister off to Battersea Park. It would have been unheard of for such an outing to take place unsupervised in our household. I remained with my parents, Alan and Nan. They talked of this and that. I preserved a tactful silence and observed my parents among the arty furniture, the casually good rugs and the opportunistically bought art. I am ashamed to say that with the ingratitude of youth I did so to their disadvantage. Anyway they all liked each other, and none of them thought that any of the others was in fact the great Satan, or that I had become a secret drug fiend. Nan’s presence was probably crucial here, as no one who has met her has ever thought her anything other than an obviously and transparently good person.

Actually, it was not totally peace and light. Alan would occasionally refer to my mother as a monstre sacrée, which he said was a sort of compliment, and she would refer to him as ‘that Alan’.

The other area where I probably blundered around insensitively was at the office. God knows what people thought about our relationship. I’m sure that there was scandal and that even where there was no scandal there was some jealousy. It never occurred to me at the time; you see, I had never worked in an office before. I do remember once that I was reading a book by Jean Genet and I left it on my desk. ‘Do put it in your pocket,’ he said. ‘I have to go on working here long after you’ve gone on your way.’

In due course I went off to Oxford. I returned for six weeks in the first long vacation to work again for Alan at the Public Trustee Office. That was 1968, the year of les evénements de Mai, the year of Golden Protest, and I was able to report back from the barricades. Most of the ones that we erected in Oxford were more self-regarding than the real thing in Paris. During this period I also discovered some of the experiences that my parents had suspected prematurely and Alan was a sympathetic and helpful if occasionally squeamish confidant.

Eventually I returned to London to become a lawyer. We resumed the habit of lunching together, though my new employers were less forgiving of long breaks in the middle of the day than the Public Trustee had been. There was a holiday in the Dordogne, with Alan and Nan, Jane and Josephine, my first wife and various others. I remember Alan and me attending mass in the local Catholic church. There were four of us: the priest and a nun being the other two. It was all over in twelve minutes. The priest and the nun, who had obviously done it before, gabbled the responses simultaneously rather than in sequence and all the optional bits were omitted.

After he had been with the Public Trustee for twenty-five years, Alan decided that he would rather be a priest: Church of England; he was no longer a Quaker. The World’s End house had to be given back and they moved to Cambridge, where Alan enrolled at Westcott House at the age of fifty-something and studied under Dr Rowan Williams.

(Rowan Williams, in addition to being a future Archbishop of Canterbury, was like me a fan of the Incredible String Band and like me contributed, much later, to a book on the group (Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium, Helter Skelter Publishing, 2003). I introduced Alan in the 60s to the group’s music and he even bought a copy of their third album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. I think that he liked the clever stuff more than the weirdness. I wonder whether he and Dr Williams ever paused in some group analysis of the homoousion debate to agree that amoebas were, indeed, ‘very small’.)

He was ordained and worked in parishes in and around Cambridge. He was non-stipendiary, which gave him a certain latitude as regards dandyism in vestments and Marxism in the pulpit. Inevitably I saw less of him. Our meetings tended to take the form of visits on his part to London, and we would inspect some art show and have something to eat. Alan was always a painfully slow eater, partly because of his teeth and partly because he talked so much, but as I got older I got slower and slower too. When we parted he would say, ‘God bless you.’ I never worked out a response. Could I say the same back, or was that reserved for priests?

Throughout his life Alan would form close friendships as he had with me. When he lived in Cambridge he adopted the excellent painter Thomas Newbolt. He was determined that everyone, including me, should buy his work, and I did. Thomas Newbolt told Alan that he had made a suite of etchings, which were with his London gallery; they weren’t on display but the gallery would be delighted to show them to us. We made an expedition there. It turned out that the gallery were far from delighted to extend themselves at all, when we made it clear that we were not going to make an immediate purchase, but a heavily suited and enormously patronising man did open the upstairs room and with great sighs displayed the etchings on a velvet thing made for that purpose.

‘I know that one,’ said Alan, at one point. ‘The structure is taken from a painting by Titian in the National Gallery.’

The heavily suited man turned in my direction. ‘Titian was an Italian painter of the Sixteenth Century,’ he informed me.

With time Alan’s sight started to fail. He took great pleasure in his white stick, with the help of which, and of strangers whose help he never failed to enlist, he would make his way from King’s Cross to, say, Burlington House. When he left the Public Trustee behind he allowed his dandyism greater rein, and he would arrive, in the courtyard where I would meet him, a magnificent sight: white stick, white linen suits, scarves, panama hats. Do I remember a cape or is that imagination?

There would be a big hug. He was an early adopter of big hugs.

Inside, Alan would comment loudly on the people and the paintings.

‘Is that a woman?’ he would boom.

‘No, Alan. It’s a man. Colourfully dressed. And currently offended.’

His take on the paintings became curious as his sight got worse. He would stand before some Academician’s pedestrian account of a middle-class family enjoying their lawn.

‘It’s an abstract.’

‘Not really. It’s some people on a lawn. Probably their lawn.’

Alan made the sound often rendered as ‘Pshaw’.

‘Nonsense. Look at that circle. Look at that green.’

And he would advance on the canvas, describing shapes with large gestures of his arms and occasionally taking an eyeglass from around his neck to inspect the detail close up, to the consternation of the staff. He was usually right; it was an abstract. Of course, good paintings always are.

Afterwards we would return to King’s Cross or Liverpool Street and I would guide him, still talking, to his train. He disdained taxis. Then I would return to my office and work through the evening, as he had done all those years before.

In addition to bombing raids on London art galleries there were celebrations of anniversaries and birthdays. One was painful. It was a significant wedding anniversary of Alan and Nan: probably the fiftieth. It was at about the point that it had become clear that my own was on its very last legs. He was supportive when the marriage broke up. My wife rang him up, as she did many of my friends, to vilify me. He listened and rang me in turn. ‘I don’t care what you’ve done,’ he said. ‘You’re my friend and I’m on your side.’

Some years later I met my second wife and I took her to meet Alan and Nan in Cambridge. She had met Alan earlier at our wedding but she hadn’t met Nan, who couldn’t come. We had a nice day and we went for a walk which ended with tea, if I remember right, at Trinity Hall, his old college and coincidentally the one that had turned me down. When we got there everyone was watching the television because it was the University Boat Race.

Oxford won.

When we left to return to London he took me to one side. He was going to say something important. This happened occasionally. When I qualified as a solicitor, for instance, he announced, ‘I have always paid for your lunch. Now you will pay for mine. But on each occasion I will give you 50p.’

On this occasion he said, ‘I am getting old and blind and I will no longer contact you.’

It wasn’t really a dismissal, but it sort of was. A week later I called him by mistake. I pressed the wrong button on my mobile phone. He was quite tetchy. ‘What are you telephoning me for?’ he said. Querulousness was always a possibility.

So we didn’t see each other. I was busy because I was very much in love with my new wife and living in our new house. Time went by and inertia took hold. I would talk about him a lot. Once when I was in Cambridge on business I went on an impulse to their house but there was no one there. They may already have moved. He minded my silence, they tell me, and I feel guilty about it.

I learnt all sorts of things at the funeral. He engaged, if not regularly, in Morris dancing, for instance: a dreadful thought. The only thing that he had told me about the War was that he had been made an officer because, although from a Quaker and therefore pacifist tradition, he had a place at Cambridge and was therefore officer class. It emerged however that he had been on the Normandy beaches on D Day + 1 and had been commended for bravery. His life in Cambridge as a priest had been a conspicuous success. When you are 93, your funeral does not have the tragic quality of those of people who die before their time. Nevertheless the last week or so, when the cancer, unsuspected only weeks before, got to his brain, had been very painful.

I shall miss, of course, knowing that he is there. More importantly I think back to my formative years and how important he was. I would not be who I am without him. And whilst the years in London have probably faded for his family and most of his friends behind the priestly years in Cambridge, they are more vivid for me, which is why I have written them down.

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8 thoughts on “Alan

  1. j fleming says:

    Robin, that was one of your best. I much enjoyed it. How recognisable!

    Jf

  2. alablague says:

    Thank you. He was a great man in his way.

  3. kcm76 says:

    Wonderful post! And I didn’t know about the ISB book.

    • alablague says:

      It’s a fine work, if light on criticism. My piece is about my ISB memorial mug and how it featured in an art show in Winchester about Memory and Obsession, with its own plinth.

      They had a launch party for the book at the Twelve Bar Club in Denmark Street. I persuaded the wife to come, against her better judgement. As soon as we arrived I was dragged away to meet someone, leaving her stranded at the door. There was another person similarly stranded, a man in late middle age with rather unmanageable white hair. Being a gentleman he addressed himself to the wife.

      ‘Do you like the music of the Incredible String Band?’

      ‘It is like how I imagine Hell,’ she said.

      The Archbishop of Canterbury (for it was he) cast an appraising and professionally qualified mental eye on this idea.

      ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Hell is rather different.’

  4. Just fascinating, evocative stuff: I lost my father last month, and oddly just scribbling bloggy thoughts now… there should be a word for the way those little film-clip edits of memories roll over and join up at these times…

    • alablague says:

      I’m sorry….

      If you don’t try to write them they often don’t come. And as you may have noticed with the constant references in the blog over the months to my own father, who died over forty years ago now, writing about him is a good way to keep the film clips coming.

  5. Jane Carlton Smith says:

    Absolutely wonderful. All those things I had forgotten come flooding back. As put so well by whistles in the wind. The parting was rather sad, but probably inevitable.

  6. Jack Fenton says:

    Thanks for this!

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