Tag Archives: family

All My School Reports

It turns out that my mother kept all my school reports. I’m sure that I didn’t see them at the time. Those from my primary school are dutiful and of little interest. They detail my pleasing and early literacy and my enthusiasm for making things out of old eggshells, which is what we did in those days, finger paints still being rationed. What I mainly remember of my primary school is the enormous girls. Boys were taken out and sent to their prep schools at the age of eight but girls by and large were considered not to merit an expensive education and stayed till they could be shipped off to a state school or dodgy convent at the age of twelve, so the playground was at the mercy of these giants. There was only one boy I remember who stayed until he was twelve. He was called Oliver. He was an honorary girl.

The reports for my secondary school are too agonised to make easy reading. They are conscientious, often going on to a second piece of paper. They document with increasing desperation my total inability to write Greek poetry that looked as if an ancient Greek person had written it. My teachers had very high standards. There was no question of all must win prizes. They railed against my habit of playing the saxophone when I could have been learning Latin vocabulary. There is an enormous sigh of relief when I finally achieve a place at one of the Universities, albeit Oxford and not (thank God) Cambridge, for which I had been intended.

There is more pleasure in my prep school reports, when nothing really mattered. They detail my career from the age of eight to thirteen. These were undoubtedly the most miserable five years of my life. My parents didn’t want to send me off to boarding school at that age (thank God, again), but the school that they chose was a boarding school and I was one of only a handful of day-boys. No one is treated worse than a day boy at a boarding school. Maybe it is different now, when children at these institutions are encouraged to go home for weekends, but that is how it was then. Day boys were thought of as having access to the treats of the outside world, such as chips, and out of envy they were bullied. Even if they weren’t bullied they missed all the social life of the school which took place after the end of Games, mid-afternoon, when I was collected and went home.

And Games themselves were a nightmare: endless Rugby matches of being thrown about in the mud and sat on; boxing, the worst, standing there in front of a crowd of assorted ill-wishers and hoping to achieve a state of Zen mindlessness at least until the end of the round, while another boy, more inclined to play the game, drew blood all about my eyes and nose and one of the masters shouted, ‘Blood! I want to see more blood!’.

I had a group of friends who conceived a tactic for procuring some of the treats of the outside world. The manual work of running the school was consigned to a group of men who were of orc-like intelligence and foreign. I worked the foreign aspect out when one of them, called Reg, shambled up to me in a corridor one day fingering his penis and muttered confidentially, ‘Saucisse’. I realised at once that he was either French or had a background in catering. It was this Reg to whom my friends offered a deal: hand jobs for sweets. I was allowed to share in the Smarties, which were less highly valued than some others: but only Smarties, since they and not I had had to manhandle the man’s sticky but, they said, surprisingly firm member. They took this obligation strictly in turns, regardless of Reg’s own preferences.

This was not the point of view from which I was assessed in the termly reports. My attempts at sport, for example:

Swimming: Cannot swim.
Hockey: Jumps well.
Games: His appearances on the sports field have provided him with the necessary exercise and others with a great deal of humour
Rugger: Played in the end-of-term matches much to his consternation and astonishment

But it was work that mattered, and here I had a fundamental problem. I made a flying start at the school expressing myself, as I tend still to do, with a pencil. But when I was nine it was decided that I would have to use a pen instead. That meant a dip pen, a nib on the end of a stick dipped into an ink bottle. I never mastered the art of conveying the ink onto the page in the form of words to the exclusion of blots. This meant that I was:

Appallingly untidy.

One of my teachers thought that he discerned literary ability in me. He encouraged me to write and I shall always be grateful to him. This was clever of him because the official archetype of imagination at the school, as in my senior school later, was a florid affair involving adjectives and feelings, and not what I was best at. But it was one of his colleagues, another English master, whose reports I cherish more now:

He is sparing of effort.
He veils flashes of intelligence under a bashful nonchalance which the unimaginative might take for laziness.
His imagination is a poor limping thing…

But

Quiet endeavours below the blots

They took trouble with reports in those days. Mr Marshall, English teacher whose precepts I have entirely forgotten, cricketing umpire endlessly innovative with the LBW rule (which I suspect he never mastered), Mr Marshall with the languid manner, the refusal to take seriously anything since the War except his Austin Healey, Mr Marshall, dead now I believe these many years: with my poor limping imagination and the dogged remains of my long-term memory I salute you.

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Making Things Up About Uncles

There are various stories of my family’s history in Cornwall. There are of course also stories about my paternal family’s history: almost none from our centuries in Barbados but thick and fast when we get to London in the 1870s (my great uncle’s alleged fraud and imprisonment and the national campaign for his release – but that’s another story). There are my mother’s relations in Devon who slaughtered each other on a remote farm because one of them fell in love and it was necessary to keep the blood pure. All these stories with the exception of the last, about which the facts, though gruesome, are clear and documented in a book (Earth to Earth), are the subject of endless family debate, but since I have just come back from Cornwall, it’s the stories of my family’s history in Cornwall that I am particularly concerned with now. Here is one.

My great uncle, or probably an uncle more remote in time than a mere great uncle, was a sea-faring man. Ancestors get promoted with every generation, so he was a Captain. His name is forgotten.

He may or may not be the same sea-faring man as the one whose name people have also forgotten and who sailed to Mauritius and came back with a Mauritian bride, to the annoyance of the Royal Navy, who thought it would be only proper to return her to Mauritius toot sweet. He and she were the parents of my much-loved Auntie Rene.

Actually there is some doubt on that story too. At the end of her life my mother insisted that the sea-faring man whose name everyone has forgotten met the mother of my Auntie Rene not in Mauritius but St Helena. I think that this must be wrong. There are no native people in St Helena: only temporary clerks and possibly penguins. Furthermore Auntie Rene had the features of someone from the Indian Ocean, not the South Atlantic.

Anyway, the first – the principal – sea-faring uncle fell overboard. This would have been during the Nineteenth Century and I think that he must have fallen from a sailing ship, because if it had been steam he would have been caught up in the screw and killed, wouldn’t he? He didn’t die. He was involuntarily keel-hauled. He went down below the keel and right up the other side, scraping his skin on barnacles as he went, whereupon he was rescued by his shipmates. He survived but unsurprisingly he lost his nerve: he couldn’t bring himself to go to sea again.

The Royal Navy found him a berth within their purview that didn’t involve his sailing any more. He became a Coast Guard. He had a Coast Guard’s hut on the cliffs above Polruan, from which he would gaze. If he saw a ship in trouble or a bank of fog he would communicate this fact to the authorities by pigeon, or, probably by that stage, telegraph. If not, he would just stare at the great waters on which he would never again journey: never in this life anyway.

He died, full of the honours that the Coast Guard service reserves for its best, but it was never enough: he’d thought that an admiralship was there for the taking, and in his lonely hut he’d had long enough to brood. (I’m making that bit up.)

In due course (the story goes) communications between ship, shore and weatherman improved. (They were weather men in those days; female weather-casters had not come onto the scene.) As a result the coast guard hut above Polruan was no longer needed. It fell into disrepair and many years later was leased by Daphne du Maurier, who would go there to write her books in peace and possibly fulfil her Sapphic assignations. I must be careful what I say here. My family never actually speculated that Ms du Maurier used the hut for her Sapphic assignations, because no one yet knew about them. The ground-breaking biography, the name of which I forget, was still to be written. I made that bit up too.

I added a literary note of my own. In Rose Macaulay’s novel Crew Train the heroine, who is in Cornwall in a town not unlike Polruan, escapes her dreary and over-literary companions and makes a refuge for herself in a hut on the cliffs. Clearly, I thought when I read the book, Ms Macaulay didn’t make that up; she got it from Ms du Maurier, possibly at a novelists’ soirée; it’s my uncle’s hut, doubly celebrated in literature.

Anyway, I said to the better half when we visited Polruan that we should climb up to the cliff top where we might find a ruined hut. And so we did and we found not a ruin but a fully-operational Coast Guard unit, with aerials. This surprised me considerably. There was a ruin, but it was a church from the Sixteenth Century or something, and they are two a penny down there. There was a nice man in uniform, who was not immediately engaged in scrutinising sinking ships or ominous cloud formations and was happy to talk to us. I told him the story, though not getting as far as the Rose Macaulay bit, which depends of course on the reliability of the Daphne du Maurier bit.

Oh no, he said. Not at all. This hut and the huts that came before have always been Coast Guard huts. Our eternal vigilance demands it. Better telecommunications: pfui! It’s never been decommissioned, not since it was first built, centuries ago. Daphne du Maurier used to write her books in a house that she rented down by the Bodinnick Ferry, the ferry across the river below.

So where does that leave us? My uncle and his coast-guarding are probably true, and it’s entirely possible that he did go under a ship. But the connection with famous people is just my family’s fantasy. It’s all too easy to do.

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Chalky

The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.

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The Table

When my father was demobbed after the end of the War my parents married. They bought a house and furnished it. Some of the furniture was from one side or other of the family and some my parents bought in antique shops or sales; but some was new. One of the new items was a dining table. It had been made in accordance with Utility standards. The top was (as I recall) veneered.

I was born a couple of years later. As a small child I did not like the dining table. I took the pessimistic view then – and I have rarely had occasion to change it since – that the main function of veneer is to come adrift – not, I believe, that on this article it did. Maybe it wasn’t veneered. But it was flimsy and a rather down-at-heel mahogany colour.

About 1965 – fifty years ago – my parents moved house. My father thought that it was time for a new dining table. When the first table had been bought there was nothing to be found from Europe, where in the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of Nazism furniture was not a priority, and the good stuff made in England was exclusively for export. There were no such limitations in the early 60s, but, as with food, if you wanted the best you had to look for it. My father discovered that in Denmark they were making stylish, simple but sturdy furniture and from the photographs he liked the look of it. He decided to buy a Danish table. There was no internet then, but there were public libraries and in his lunch hour he identified the table that he wanted and sent a letter placing an order, using an airmail stamp, because we were not then in the European Union.

He was notified that the table had arrived by ship. He drove to St Katherine’s Dock, which was then still a dock, paid the Customs duty, because we were not then in the European Union, and drove home with his purchase. I was away at school but my sister and my mother assisted in this adventure.

When I came home I didn’t like this table either. This was for completely different reasons. I was then in my teens and I despised my parents’ taste in absolutely everything. At this distance I’m not sure what I would have preferred. Ten years later it would have been something made of hairy stripped pine, but that was yet to come. I remember that we all then hated the architecture of my school, which now seems ravishingly mid-Victorian Gothic, so it wouldn’t have been the desire for decoration. Probably I was just being bloody-minded.

Actually my father went overboard with 60s design. My bedroom for example was orange and black. The living room, where the new table stood, had one wall papered. The design was bold and abstract. My father was delighted with the effect until about a month after finishing the papering. He said to me, ‘Do you see that big purple mass? I’ve just noticed that it’s a fat female opera singer. She’s singing. You can see her tonsils.’

He never really liked it again, and I wish that he hadn’t pointed out the opera singer to me, because nor did I. I might never have noticed. And, being wallpaper, the tonsils repeated every few feet.

Early in the 70s my father died. My mother moved house, and ten years or so ago moved again, taking the table with her. It sat in her home in Yorkshire, perpetually covered with a table cloth. On very special occasions, when the family was there in force, the extensions were pulled out. They were a more pristine colour than the main section of the table. By now it had become Mid-Century and rather fashionable, but in my mother’s house it was surrounded by furniture and other bits and pieces in a miscellany of styles and it didn’t look fashionable.

And the sad thing is that one has one’s taste influenced by articles on design and trendy shops in places like Clerkenwell and Stoke Newington, and I realised that I liked it after all, quite apart from the respect due to age, and I would give it an affectionate pat when staying there.

In March my mother died. After the obsequies there has been the melancholy business of disposing of the goods and chattels around the family: the immensely distinguished dinner set that no one would actually give house room to; the modern sofas, DFS’s finest, newish, destined for landfill. One thing that quite a lot of people competed for was a brass owl; it has mysterious and inexplicable innards but a certain presence and a history going back to our childhood. No one else wanted the table, to my surprise, so I have it. Fortuitously the table that we had recently bought had cracked, in the manner remarked upon by the Lady of Shallot, from side to side and has been returned to its manufacturers, so there is room for this one. Last night we assembled it. The better half applied hot soapy water to it, as is her way with things she encounters. It is the same as tom cats pissing on them, a way of taking ownership – but much more hygienic.

It looks very stylish in our living room. At each end there are my Eighteenth-Century Chinese yoke chairs: something my father never aspired to. Tables bear the traces of family histories. I know one (inherited by one fine painter from another and then bequeathed to a third) that has a large gash where one member of the second painter’s household went for another with a kitchen knife. Ours has had a more bourgeois life. There are traces of spilt wine, ghosts of tea cups, small gouges where scissors slipped when Christmas presents were being wrapped. I hope that they will not all disappear under the better half’s soapy water.

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My Mother 2

When you die, there is a process by which all the public authorities and utility companies are informed, so that existing arrangements can be brought to an end and all that is necessary is done to tie up any loose ends. I am the named point of contact in my mother’s case.

Two letters arrived in this morning’s post. In one, HMRC commiserated with me on my own death. They said that they recognised that it was a difficult time for me. More dramatic was the letter from British Gas. It starts:

Dear The Estate of Mrs J B-

We’re sorry to see that you have cancelled your HomeCare® agreement. But of course we understand that you have your reasons.

We’re still there for you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I would find the idea that I would have to share it with British Gas particularly chilling.

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My Mother

One of the reasons why I have posted nothing recently is that my beloved mother took ill rather suddenly, a month or so ago. She was in Southampton General Hospital for ten days, where her family maintained a vigil around the clock; and then she died. She was cremated in Southampton and a week ago we held a memorial service at the village where she lived in Yorkshire. This is what I said at the service:

When you get old your mind tends to prefer to deal with things that happened long ago, at the expense of the here and now. My mother started this process about a year ago. Last summer her grandson Will was surprised to find himself swapping war stories from the classroom with her. In the autumn she was full of memories of how she met my father. Last month, on our last stay here, she talked a lot about her childhood. And then, having reprocessed everything to her satisfaction, and with huge dignity, she died. And in a way I think that that was fitting.

Because she was a remarkable woman as well as a very nice one, I thought that it would be right to reverse the process and say just a little about her long life.

She was born in the closing days of the First World War, in Milbrook, in Cornwall. Her father was a solicitor’s clerk, studying for his exams in the evening. Her mother was a teacher; she was Cornish, and in the school holidays my mother spent much time with relations further west, in wild Cornwall: particularly Polruan. She developed a life-long fascination with the sea.

Her father qualified as a solicitor and they moved to Plymouth.

My mother went to university: Bedford College, London, one of the places that pioneered higher education for women. When her father came to London on business they would go out together. Once they arrived late for a performance by the Crazy Gang. This was as dangerous then as it is with Dame Edna now. Bud Flanagan (or maybe Monsewer Eddie Gray) broke off in the middle of a sketch. ‘You dirty man,’ he said. ‘She’s young enough to be your daughter.’

It was at the house in Plymouth that she met my father. He was billeted there during the War. The other lodgers were Air Force pilots. My father was in the Royal Army Dental Corps and my grandmother was relieved to have someone with a life expectancy of more than a week or so.

My father was the love of my mother’s life and she was the love of his, and there is nothing more to be said about this.

When she graduated my mother taught history at a girls’ school in Wimbledon. In the 1945 General Election she campaigned for Ernie Bevin. The family was horrified and sent a delegation up to London. ‘You know he’s a socialist,’ they said. ‘Of course I know,’ my mother said. ‘That’s why I’m campaigning for him.’

This turned out to be a passing phase, however.

She and my father married in 1947 and they lived first in Dorking and then in Peaslake, in the Surrey hills, where my mother was to spend more than half her life.

After my brother, my sister and I were born, she returned to teaching. In was in her blood and she continued to learn and to teach long after it ceased to be her day job. Emily, her eldest grandchild, remembers her Granny teaching her to read.

She was an infinitely loving and practical parent. She was also no-nonsense: she knew her own mind even when she was quite wrong. One of her convictions was that it is always possible to have a picnic on Easter Monday, and I remember at least one occasion, with the family sitting forlornly around the picnic basket wearing all the clothes we owned, while the snow fell softly around us.

She never put up with any nonsense from the cold.

My father died in 1972, tragically young. The illness took years. My mother cared for him and ran his dental practice, hiring and firing locums and when he was asleep doing battle in correspondence with the Dental Estimates Board.

Widowed at 53, she volunteered as a probation assistant. She was modest about this, saying that she did it for the petrol money. But I know that she fought indefatigably for the wives of the prisoners on her books to get their rights, ferried them around in her car, gave them all very direct advice, and developed a sometimes astonishing sympathy for wayward behaviour.

As a family we had always had adventurous holidays, driving through pre-motorway and pre-budget-airline Europe. My father would have spent the previous six months, mastering the local language: he had a talent for that. When she got to retirement age my mother took to travelling again: Russia a number of times; round the Mediterranean; small boats off the coast of Turkey; China once. She scorned America though. I’m interested in history, she said, but America has only geography.

She also had her caravan, on the south coast, where she took her grandchildren for memorable stays. She was a vigorous and loving grandmother. She had in a way a more straightforward relationship with her grandchildren than she felt able to, until quite recently, with her children. And until not so long ago she could out-walk any of them.

My mother had a fractious relationship with cars, but she relied on them in Peaslake. When it occurred to her that she would not be able to drive for ever she abandoned the village where she had lived for fifty years, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, and moved here. She had more or less run Peaslake, presiding over the WI and as an interventionist churchwarden, but she said that at nearly 90 she deserved a rest: she would no longer involve herself in local matters. This turned out to be over-optimistic.

Some time after she left Peaslake there was a huge row there, with resignations and an article in the Daily Mail. Someone rang me up. It wouldn’t have happened if Joan were still here, they said. She would have sorted them out.

I have my own private memories, as do all her family and friends, and they are our own business. In time they will be memories to be treasured rather than as now unfillable holes in our lives. But this is the more public side of her remarkable life, and it deserves to be honoured too.

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Shallow Assets: Cousin Alicia’s Book

I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.

I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.

I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:

Shallow Assets
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail

Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:

Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.

I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.

I bore the book away.

“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”

I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.

The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.

When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.

It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.

Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.

Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?

Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.

“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”

Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.

I returned the book.

“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.

To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.

“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”

I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.

But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?

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Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.

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Secret Water

It’s funny how life imitates art.

The scene in my latest post where my mysterious double Alfredo, in a guise as an Italian which may or may not be natural to him, capers bandy-legged around the lady from the trattoria while uttering the sort of cries that an Italian impersonated by, say, Benny Hill might use, came as I thought entirely from my head. In the post I speculated indelicately about the reason for the bandy-leggedness.

Later the same evening that I made the post I accompanied the better half to the front door of our block of flats for her post-prandial cigarette. Our new neighbour came up to us. He has taken quite a shine to her and when he sees her goes immediately into stage-Italian mode. No finger stays unkissed. He ignores me completely – looks straight through.

On this occasion however there was a significant modulation. For the first time he went bandy-legged. He had capered before but straight-legged, as an Englishman might, if of course the English were given to capering. I was marvelling at the bandy-leggedness, the way the sharp little Italian shoes came up, first one and then the other, each at right angles to the temporarily stationary leg, when he went one further than even Alfredo, as imagined by me, had. Ensuring that he had the better half’s attention he gesticulated at his crotch.

Two big melons! he said.

I felt obscurely vindicated. The better half says that she did not hear the remark, which is a credit to her wholesome cast of mind. Nonetheless, he certainly made it.

Anyway, from the ludicrous to the sublime.

On the morning of my eighth birthday I was called into my parents’ bedroom. Traditionally in our household a gift would be vouchsafed on these occasions, together with a hearty handshake. Afterwards I would go as usual to fetch in the coal. That was my duty. Then half an hour for my Ancient Greek studies, and the family would finally gather for porridge, and then school. Nothing more would be said about birthdays.

Anyway on this occasion we were still at the present and congratulations stage. My mother handed me a book. I could see that it was unwrapped and slightly grubby but it was complete, with a dust wrapper in near-fine condition.

Lovely, I said, a second-hand book.

It’s not second hand, she said. Your father’s reading it.

Give it back, he said. You can have it again when I’ve finished it.

It’s awfully good, he said by way of explanation.

That was my first (and his first) Swallows & Amazon book, by Arthur Ransome. After that they came frequently, with or without a birthday as a pretext, until I’d read them all. And I’ve read and reread them since. I loved the camping and the sailing without for a minute wanting to try either activity voluntarily myself. What I really loved and tried to replicate was the map-making.

In each of the books the children find themselves in a real landscape and they rename all its features to conform to their own fantasies, whether of being pirates or explorers. Sometimes the real landscape (as in the books set on the Norfolk Broads) corresponds more or less exactly to objective reality, but the lake in the early books is a conflation of two different lakes in the Lake District.

My favourite of the books was always Secret Water, partly because map-making is what holds the book together – there’s little plot and nothing much happens. The children spend a couple of weeks in a tidal area, flooded by the sea at high tide and mud flats at low tide. Birds feature, and eels. There is a map in the inside front cover and the islands and inlets on it are named by the children.

I was determined to find out if it was a real place. I knew that it was said to be on the east coast of England so I borrowed the AA road map from the family car and systematically cross-checked. I found it. With the exception of one non-existent creek it matched exactly an archipelago in Essex.

Fifty years of school, university and work then intervened. They invented the internet.

I bet it’s gone, I thought. It can’t have survived anthropogenic climate change. It’ll be under the rising sea. It would only take a few centimetres there to make a big difference. I summoned Google Maps in some trepidation. There is was, just as it always had been.

Well I expect it’s an Arthur Ransome theme park, I thought.

Now that we’ve got a Mini, I said to the better half, we’d better go and find out.

Like many women, the better half is good at multi-tasking.

Good idea, she said. We’ll take the kayak that I’ve borrowed from Thumper and we can paddle round it. I tried to explain that what I wanted was to be alone with my melancholy thoughts, but the kayak was in the back of the car last Sunday when we set out. Fortunately we were meeting our friends the Fosters there and she is too pregnant to be able to bear the excitement even of watching us attempting to boat. So the kayak was quietly forgotten, and by mid-afternoon we were walking down a deserted track (there is no Arthur Ransome theme park) towards the causeway where the children were caught by the tide and nearly drowned, and there it was snaking away to the island where the farmhouse (the ‘Native Kraal’) was just visible in the afternoon sunlight and we could not follow it or we too would have been caught by the tide. I was profoundly moved. We turned, like Moses at Mount Pisgah, and went back to the car.

I don’t think that we are done with Secret Water, and the kayak may well yet come into its own, maybe rechristened and bearing at its prow a small Jolly Roger.

Wikipedia reveals incidentally that the correct and splendid name for the inlet that the children call ‘The North West Passage’ is ‘Cunnyfur Ooze’. That would probably appeal to the smutty mind of our Italian neighbour. On second thoughts, he’d probably be more at home with ‘Enormous Cock Mountain.’

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Assassins Don’t Wear Shorts

I thought we’d go out, said Alfredo, for breakfast.

It was promising to be a hot day and I had come down in a t-shirt and shorts. Alfredo on the other hand was soberly dressed in slacks, loafers and an open-necked shirt.

Am I dressed OK? I said.

Of course.

He smiled self-deprecatingly.

Assassins never wear shorts.

We walked in silence the short distance to a trattoria. A big woman of a certain age came out of the door and waved her arms when she saw him.

Excuse me, Alfredo muttered.

He also raised his arms.

Ah! Bella! Bella! Molto, molto, molto bella! he said, giving little whoops.

He capered in front of the woman, bandy-legged. I imagine that the formal message intended was that such was the enormity of what he carried between his thighs that it was impossible to bring them anything like together. He threw one arm around her and fondled her bottom with the other.

She noticed me and let loose a torrent of Italian. The only word that I could recognise was ‘fratelli’.

She says that we must be identical twins, said Alfredo, running his hands through his thick black curls. The woman grabbed us both to her bosom, one in each arm and one to each breast, and then guided us to a table in the corner. With much kissing of fingers and more business at her bottom Alfredo ordered some coffee and tea, a plate of cooked meat and some bread.

Molto bella’, I said, or ‘molta bella’?

Molto’, he said. Adverb.

Where do you come from? Originally?

He gave me the look deserved by someone who has just been thoughtless, and said nothing.

Sorry.

The first thing to do was to sort out the problem of our shared passport. Surprisingly, this turned out not to be difficult. The solution would not have occurred to me but it was no doubt something that Alfredo had done before. I cannot of course reveal it but there is absolutely no chance now of either of us spending the night in prison in Port-au-Prince.

And you? he said. Alablague. Funny name.

Huguenot, I said. Kettering.

I embarked on a brief account of the Edict of Nantes and its revocation, but he indicated that that was unnecessary.

Of course.

Our business was done, or so it seemed.

Did you ever, I said, have a failure again, or was our darling Harold the only one?

He was silent for a moment, no doubt wondering how much he could reveal to me.

Are you setting out after this? You’ll need more than bread inside you.

And he ordered me a small plate of the local pasta.

It’s delicious, he said. You only find it around here.

He named it, pronouncing it clearly so that I would remember. Since it is so specifically local and since I am determined to preserve his identity I will call it merely ‘–i’.

Your –i look indeed delicious. Take a forkful. No, I insist. Yes, so they are. With nothing but black pepper, olive oil and a little garlic they are practically perfect. So much more toothsome than most other pasta. But I think you were about to tell me about another failure on your part.

Curiously, he said, there was one. And it was the only one apart from Wilson where my sympathy was with the victim. It was for the Russians, and it was in London. Another outsourcing.

The mafia or the state?

He looked at me kindly, as if, again, I had let myself down.

Let’s just say that my employers found it hilarious that I had previously done work for the brutal Putino family in Salerno. Literally hilarious. How they laughed. My target lived in London in exile. He was a nasty cantankerous old man, with a smelly beard and a noisy conviction that all his misfortunes were the personal responsibility of the Perpetual President. This was only partly true, but it was decided that he should be eliminated. Do you remember the man who was murdered with a poisoned umbrella?

Markov?

Yes, him. That was the Bulgarians but the Russians thought that it would be a lark to use the same method on my man. So I was duly kitted out. I objected to that too. I like to use my own ways and means.

It was a sunny evening, which made my umbrella doubly silly. There was a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Notting Hill and my man was to be there. He always was on these occasions. And there he was pontificating to whoever would listen.

I dropped my fork into my –i.

Alfredo, what was the occasion of the demonstration?

He told me.

You’re not going to believe this. I was there too. The better half dragged me along. Let me tell you my story and you tell me if it isn’t true.

I thought back to that evening. I remembered the man with the beard and my subliminal thought that he might have washed first. Nothing much had happened. We had stood there. Some people had shouted. Banners were raised. The goons inside the embassy no doubt photographed us but no one came out. Then we all went off for a drink. There was only the one tiny incident.

You thrust out your umbrella, I said. Between you and your victim a clumsy Englishman trod on it. Surprisingly it broke clean through. The Englishman was angry. He said, ‘You idiot!’. He thought it best to get his retaliation in first. You, surprisingly, did not stop to argue, but grabbed the wreckage and ran. Am I right?

For the first time Alfredo looked at me with affection.

I think you might just be my guardian angel, he said, as well as my double. Finish your –i. They’re much too good to waste and you won’t be able to get them in Stratford. You know, he said, this is like one of those great metaphysical novels by one of the South American magic realists.

South American magic realists? You really are foreign, aren’t you? I was thinking more of a television comedy series,

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