Deeds which populate the dimensions of space and which reach their end when someone dies may cause us wonderment, but one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies in every final agony, unless there is a universal memory as the theosophists have conjectured. In time, there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ; the battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of a man. What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
The Witness. Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges
In the final days of the year 1962 the worst snowstorm in living memory hit Britain. The prolonged very cold weather which persisted through the first months of the New Year and was known as the ‘big freeze’ has always seemed to me to mark the beginning of a new epoch. As I approached my ninth birthday I entered a time of transition which lasted up until starting secondary school where I began to observe the world about me with the beginnings of objectivity. From that period, I have memories which link together rather than stand out as isolated and unrelated incidents. I well remember the events of the morning of the storm; it started snowing on Saturday night and was still coming down as we attempted to walk to church the following morning for which crazy expedition I was dressed in short trousers! It was only when we turned from our road into Lower Crescent which ran in an easterly direction that we realised just how severe the conditions were. It was a dismal scene: an overall greyness almost like night, great drifts of snow over what had been pavement, swirling wind driving loose snow up the centre of the road and all the while the telegraph wires making a tremendous whistling and howling in the gale. We struggled up past our grandparents’ house and the railway station and almost reached our goal when we met another intrepid family who told us that there would be no Mass that day as a Priest could not be had.
One interesting thing about tracing my early memories is that I realise that most of those which remain clear involve being outdoors. An unforgettable event occurred in the summer of my tenth year. Until then our annual holidays had consisted of an always enjoyable week staying with our Aunt Kath and her daughter Theresa who lived in the pleasant Tile Hill suburb of Coventry; their flat stood on rising ground and enjoyed a fine view of the distant city. My aunt had a piano which I loved to tinkle around on; there was also one of those glass egg shaped things where snow seems to fall when overturned and a small Tower of Pisa made of some crystal-like material which turned from pale pink to purple when rain was imminent. But I think my strongest recollection of that nice flat was the strong sweet smell in the downstairs hallway which came from the odours of the communal rubbish shoot mingling with some powerful chemical detergent! At the time of our first visit we didn’t own a car and all of our journeys were by bus; Coventry Corporation or Midland Red from the bus station at Pool Meadow. On one of these sightseeing trips my aunt pointed out a terraced street where in a pub called the Ring of Bells an unsolved gruesome murder of the landlady had occurred, we always passed it with fascination and horror. A great many early historic associations come from those holidays, such as the trips to Kenilworth Castle which we thought wonderful and the much less exciting castle of Warwick, the constant retelling of the Godiva and Leofric legend and the Shakespearian connections with Stratford and the Forest of Arden which for some reason I even then associated with his Midsummer Nights Dream. But the countryside of Warwickshire and indeed most of the journey there didn’t differ greatly from our own part of Essex; true, the woods seemed denser and the hills a little higher but not different enough to cause us any wonderment. Then on this memorable Sunday my father drove us out for a day in the Cotswolds. We had lunch at Moreton-in-Marsh and later took the road west through Bourton on the Hill, Stanway and Winchcombe before making a circuit and returning by Temple Guiting and Stow and as we went through each of these sunlit and beautiful places we became quite transfixed by what we saw; never after that day did I ever again look on our English scene as uninteresting or dull, but have always wanted to see as much of it as possible!
The extreme picturesque loveliness of the Cotswolds could not have contrasted more starkly with the ramshackle little corner of Thurrock that constituted what might be called the playland of our early days. The extent of this area may easily be traced on a map and forms something like an island, being bounded on the south and east by the river Thames, on the north by that part of the A13 which used to be known as the Stanford by-pass and on the west by the busy road which ran south from the Orsett Cock pub through the estates of Chadwell and down onto the marshes at Tilbury. In shape this area resembles a slightly lopsided rectangle with Tilbury where we had our horrid secondary school at its south-western corner and the then attractive little country town of Stanford-le-Hope where we had our primary school in the north-eastern corner. It is not a widely-known fact that the writer Joseph Conrad who had been born in Poland as Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski lived for two years immediately after retiring from the seafaring life just outside Stanford in a lovely old farmhouse called Ivywalls situated just off Wharf road which marked the extreme eastern boundary of our domain. This ancient place was pulled down during the period just before the last war as were so many old local buildings of great merit. Just the other side of Wharf road looking across toward Mucking and the area known as the Warren was an even older relic, a farmhouse of the early Fifteenth century called Cabborns. I remember my grandfather talking about how it stood empty for a long while and how during the second World War he helped in its demolition; a great rope was tied around the structure which was then secured to his tractor and he just pulled the old place over (mention of Conrad reminds me that of all the great man’s books which I have enthusiastically begun there has never been a single one that I can honestly say that I have enjoyed; there is something heavy and joyless in the style and perhaps something too masculine in the tone. I feel the same about Henry James. They both wrote the dry, humourless and obtrusively style-conscious sort of novels which are very much admired by literary critics but tiresome to read). Right in the centre of this rough rectangle was our hamlet of Muckingford and just the other side of the railway station was the entirely self-sufficient estate opened in 1932 by the Czech Bata shoe company, our very own mini Bauhaus. Most of the workers were from Poland and Czechoslovakia and were Catholics and their children became my classmates at primary school. Of all the peoples of Europe I have always thought the British have the very strongest friendship and affinity with the citizens of those two brave countries, and I remember watching with anger the nightly news in 1968 about Prague and the failed revolt of the Dubcek government against those awful Russians. Toward the southern part of our area were the attractive villages of East and West Tilbury and further north the ancient habitation of Mucking which like most of the settlements hereabout were to be found on the very edge of the marshlands on the first pieces of higher ground. The sandy elevated hinterland was very thinly populated. The whole area had a dry, windblown and tatty aspect even in summer made even worse after the Dutch elm disease of the late 1960s. Apart from the environs of Chadwell and the inhospitable riverside wastes near Tilbury Power Station and Dust Shoot there was hardly a trackway, path or field in this entire region that we didn’t enjoy tramping or riding our bikes around. There were few extensive areas of woodland but there used to be many small stands of trees which in that part are called Shaws as in Cooper Shaw, High Ash Shaw and close to our village the lovely Rainbow Shaw which was the largest piece of local woodland. At the edge of that wood were mounded nests of ferocious red wood ants which we liked to disturb with very long sticks and so heavily populated were these insect cities that you could hear a sinister hissing coming from the disturbed and maddened heap. The trees here were mainly of Ash, Birch and Sweet Chestnut and in May the hilly ground was covered in bluebells. Our other large tract of woodland was entirely different. Where the tiny stream that lay at the bottom of our road flowed into the marshes was an area of swampy wilderness intersected by lush meadows. It is fairly rare to find trees growing densely in such wet habitats, and ‘The Henry’ as this enchanted woodland was called, became one of our favourite family walks. Silence reigned in this mysterious place, all about were fallen trees and trees covered in creepers and ivy and everywhere was bright green moss and the odour of fungus and decay. These memories from a very early age found expression many years later in the folder of 49 English Scenes that I painted in 1994. As I began this series of entirely green landscapes I happened to see a magazine article about the paintings produced by Adolf Hitler in his final days in the Berlin bunker. One of these late works depicted footsteps in snow disappearing into a mass of dark Germanic forest, a scene uncannily like those I was starting to produce!
It is curious how certain random memories remain clear while significant events and even entire episodes of our lives are lost in oblivion. It is often the intensity of new experiences that stay with us. I had become interested in soccer at that time; as in so many things I followed my elder brother, and can remember the day of the 1963 FA Cup Final which was between Manchester United and Leicester City and turned out to be rather a dull game; but it was the first Final I had followed and I was very excited by it. Before lunch I took our football into the front garden and kicked it around, this was most unusual as being so shy I rarely played out there and on this grey and intermittently wet morning not a single person came past. It is also the case that when we are involved in novel and exciting experiences time itself seems to go more slowly. And yet while joy is so often to be found in the new there is also a desire to find an unchanging constant in our lives and it is perhaps how well we balance these conflicting needs that determines as much as anything the happiness of our days.
There were some moments of intense anxiety and fear. One very hot summer morning at my grandmother’s in those long ages before I ever went to school I was lying in tall grass under the shade of our ancient Greengage tree when a harmless slow worm which in Essex we called an Eft slithered towards me; I still after all these years recall the great panic and commotion as I was plucked to safety! Another time on a wet Saturday teatime my brother tipped me out of the pram onto the pavement. I know to this day the exact spot, past the pub and old forge and opposite the first of a row of bungalows which ran up towards the railway station. We always looked upon these residences with their large and attractive front gardens and their respectable and mainly middle aged owners with slight contempt, they were the sort of people who didn’t mix much with the other villagers, rarely went to the pub and many had a sign on the front gate saying NO HAWKERS. One bungalow was named Miowne and further along was Sun Ray which had on its wooden garden gates a rising sun with spreading rays motif. The one in front of which I lay wriggling that wet day was home to a remarkable dog, an enormous chow which was a familiar sight throughout our childhood. Many years later this lovable beast met a sad end when it wandered one late afternoon into the road just as the mass of shoe factory workers went tearing past on their way home. I always liked animals and especially dogs more than most people and I am afraid that the experiences of more than fifty years have done nothing at all to change that. As there were few cars around in those days I probably was not in very much danger as I lay in the gutter, but my mother was really furious and gave my brother a good spanking. In my early years, it was dread of the supernatural which most often assailed me and I would lie night after night unable to sleep while a nameless horror haunted the dimly lit landing outside the bedroom door, so it is strange that when I experienced a real occult event I felt no fear at all. It was a Sunday night. We had been on a visit to our aunt Doff who lived at Benfleet, the gateway to Canvey Island, an old creekland port some twenty miles downriver. She was my grandmother’s older sister and we went to see her just about every other Sunday. Her ancient cottage consisted of one bedroom and single large low ceilinged downstairs room with an enormous fireplace, a kitchen tacked on the back and a lovely garden. In the afternoons, we enjoyed exploring the hilly downs almost as far as Hadleigh Castle or the muddy tidal inlets full of boats which lay between Benfleet and Canvey Island. I remember the sights of that route to Benfleet as well as any I have travelled, those slow journeys in grandads old Ford Popular car which had a cruising speed of about 40mph. The way led along the A13 beginning with a lengthy section of the Stanford by-pass which was made of concrete sections over which the aged vehicle rattled, and passed in turn the heights of Laindon, One Tree hill, the old Five Bells pub, the bend and little rise by Vange church and the busy junction at Pitsea before turning off to our destination at Tarpots. These journeys to Benfleet were always of interest but the returning ones in the dark were tedious – my brother and I would pass the time by calling out the colours of the street lights that went by, most of which were orange or white and with just the occasional one of blue or even green. On this particular night, excited to be home at last, I left the others and dashed through the unlit sitting room to hang up my coat in our little hallway and as I turned the light on I was confronted by a black-clad Witch at the foot of the stairs! She was absolutely solid and real and looked at me for a few seconds in a lively and challenging but not malevolent way. Those who know about such things may be able to say whether this was a Spirit, a Wraith or an Eidolon called up by my subconscious mind; if this was so then it was a work of impressive magicianship, so real did this thing appear. Startled, I rushed back to the brightly lit kitchen where the others were talking but I realised that I wouldn’t be believed and so kept it to myself. I was also often anxious on the occasions when we spent the night at our grandparent’s cottage. We slept in the musty back room which had an old iron bed with a hard old bolster. I always shared this bed with my brother and long after he had fallen asleep I would feel the house shake as the trains went by, and on foggy nights hear the distant growling foghorns of the flat-iron colliers on the river or the weird howls of foxes on the marshes.
In those days, old Essex people, including my own family often referred to the marshes as “mershes”. The high pitched and not altogether pleasant Essex country accent was not that apparent in our grandparents’ speech because in the early thirties they moved much closer to London, but when we occasionally made visits to those remaining family members who still lived at Dots and Melons or Sandbeach, remote farmsteads situated out on the marshes beyond Tillingham, their ‘funny’ accents were very noticeable as was their comical use of the word ‘we’ instead of ‘us’. There were many quaint expressions which have quite died out such as someone ‘dreening’ wet meaning soaking wet. Chemist was pronounced Chymist while dirt and mud were called ‘slud’; in fact Motts Farm near St Lawrence where my grandmother was born in 1894 was always referred to as Slud Hole. My grandfather had a seemingly endless number of stories of the olden times. He told us how one morning in the years before the Great War on the promontary of Dengie twixt the Blackwater and Crouch estuaries he and a gang of farm workers were unloading a barge of London street dung when an old “independent gentleman” came walking around the desolate seawall somewhere far out beyond Weatherwick and stood watching the men at their work. After a while one of the older men approached him and asked for some “largers” at which the gentleman reportedly replied that he had “no idea what you country people mean when you speak of largers” whereupon someone said “Mister, he wonders if you might let us have some money” He gave them five bob. I remember that on the farm grandad and his mates always had a mid-morning break for ‘beaver’ – a bit of food and a drink probably a derivation of Beverage. He was not a tall man but very strong and a big eater and he consumed tremendous amounts of bread; at any time, the bread bin in the larder would contain a seeded bloomer, a tin loaf, a sliced Hovis and a poor thing called Slimcea Procea which was for my grandmother. Towards the end of teatime on Sundays to the dismay of the grown -ups and the delight of us children he would often ‘saucer’ his tea to lessen its heat and slurp it down, before proceeding to clear his end of the table and start making his sandwiches for the entire week; half were of jam and half were of an incredibly strong and salty cheddar cheese which had a hard, golden rind. This was augmented with fruit cake or apple ‘hoglin’: a dry unimpressive looking lump made up mainly of left-over pastry with a little fruit filling. This he would put away in a knitted knapsack in which he would also pack each morning tea in an old Tizer bottle which he would drink cold without milk or sugar. On summer evenings at the end of the week he would come down the garden and give us kids what was left in his food bag. We avoided the cheese but we loved the way the jam had soaked right into the by now rock hard and rather dirty bread.
It was a common thing then to hear old people talk of the good old days, meaning I suppose those days of simple pleasures and innocence of the Victorian and Edwardian epoch. But nobody who grew up in Britain in the 50s and 60s of the last century as we did would ever refer to those unhappy decades as the good old days as there was a real lack of quality and variety and of course the scarcity of goods caused by lingering wartime austerity. The contrast with the relative wealth of today was nowhere more clear than in the kinds of food we ate. Anything foreign was more or less unknown and although tinned mulligatawny and minestrone soup might be had occasionally, garlic was never seen. We only ate rice and macaroni as a pudding. Bread and potatoes were our staple foods. Then in the mid-60s came Vesta Beef Curry. My mother always tried to serve this up in a close approximation to the picture on the packet; a serving of the wholly inauthentic but not unpleasant powdery curry which included lots of raisins sitting in the middle of a bed of impossibly white rice. Virtually every meal except supper on Saturday when we had chips would include vegetables, most of which we grew in our own gardens, as we did with salad stuff which we ate only in hot weather or at Sunday tea. These were plain affairs consisting of a selection of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, celery, beetroot, radish and cress with a rudimentary form of dressing made up from Sarsons malt vinegar and sugar; tinned salmon went with this or sardines, pilchards or even spam. For tea on Christmas day we would have instead a big tin of Olde Oak Ham in jelly, and I remember my father more than once getting angry when the key with which the tin was opened would slip or break before it got right around. Everything was seasonal as there was hardly anything in the shops from abroad and one of the most important items in the kitchen was the tin opener. We had pudding with every meal nearly always with Bird’s custard, tinned peaches or pears which my mother called Calabash and occasionally fruit salad or even plums which were in a much bigger tin. Other puddings that are hardly eaten now were jelly and blancmange. Unlike my brother who happily devoured large quantities of the plain and usually overcooked food, I was always a fussy eater; one of the very few foods I enjoyed was mashed potato with corned beef or later when we had a fridge, fish fingers and frozen peas. Sausages were popular and I often had the job of progging the fatty things with a fork before cooking. We never ate chicken except at Easter or Christmas but we had chops at least a couple of times a week and for Sunday lunch my grandmother always had mutton which smelt wonderful whilst cooking but was too gristly and fatty to enjoy eating. Every week we would have a huge suet pudding; this would be boiled in a white cloth and when turned out would be cut into slabs about an inch thick and covered in Tate and Lyle’s Golden syrup or eaten as savoury with our meat, a cheap but substantial food that we always enjoyed. Coffee was a relatively rare and special drink and always made with hot milk, and as this cooled an unpleasant sort of skin would form on the top of the mug, but there was always a pot of tea on the go which would be kept warm with a tea-cosy: the kitchen cupboard was always full of packets of loose tea; we made our mother buy these for our beloved collection of Brooke Bond cards which we would stick into our albums. The first that I remember were of Freshwater Fish and African Wild Life with illustrations by Tunnicliffe, vigorous magical paintings which most importantly showed the animals in their natural habitat, rendered always in glowing colours. Of the sets of fifty cards some were common and a few were hardly ever found and so we had many repeats, these we took to school for games of flicksy and dropsy. For lunch, we had tinned soup or baked beans with fried bread (always fried in lots of lard) or we would have a sandwich made with Shippams meat or fish paste which was so popular then, but would be nasty to the taste of today. But nothing was worse than the school meals we had to endure in my first school. This swill was delivered by lorry in great metal containers and the vile food re-heated in the school kitchens. The worst was cheese and bacon flan with grey flabby pastry, slimy egg filling and squares of fat instead of bacon, or ox liver, the liver in massive overcooked wedges covered in green scum and with great tubes running all through. The terrible meat was so tough and full of gristle that I found it impossible to swallow without gagging. Mrs Hill the school secretary, a big blond woman patrolled the dining room and forced us to eat everything on the plate even after vomiting; I used to fill the pouches of my cheeks with the awful fatty meat while I ate my pudding before rushing out to the lavatory and spitting it out. The horror of those fatty meat juices mingling with sweet but watery custard!
I think I am getting a little closer to understanding why the mind easily retains some memories and loses others entirely. A natural storyteller like my grandfather could pour forth an endless series of often amusing tales from olden days and yet recall very little of more recent events. The world was much less crowded then, the pace of life was slower which meant there was time for contemplation and memories of past events. To many of that generation storytelling was one of their main entertainments. We learn from many books, most notably in the story of the Kalahari bushmen by Laurens Van der Post, about primitive peoples whose cultures die out when their old stories are either forgotten or no longer told. This need to tell the individual stories of our lives and have them acknowledged is just as important in the technology obsessed and overcrowded world of today as it has ever been and I think that without it there can be little hope of personal recovery or growth. However, my grandfather, in common with most men who went through it, never talked about the Great War, and it seems that the only way they came to terms with the devastating effects of that terrible time was to forget all about it. That war changed everything-the world of today came about through this dreadful conflict which marked the beginning of the end of fifty thousand years of male dominance. I am lucky to be here at all when I consider that both of my grandfathers fought at the battle of the Somme in 1916 and probably not that far from each other, one in the Lancashire Fusiliers and the other in the Tyneside Scots. In later years, through persistent questioning I managed to get some harrowing stories from the old man. Despite fighting them in two terrible wars he did not seem to have much animosity to the Germans and, if anything he had a certain respect for them as well-organised fighting men. It was in the aftermath of this war started by old men, continued by old men in a world still run by old men that quite understandably Western societies began to turn against themselves and nearly all intelligent, sensitive and especially creative people moved toward the political left, culturally a situation that remains the same today where we find this politically correct orthodoxy has almost universal dominion. In conservative Britain, the old men did not relinquish power easily. As a child, I remember when our Prime Ministers Harold McMillan and Alec Douglas Home were always on the evening news, elders who became easy prey for the angry and clever young satirists of the age. With youth culture and the swinging sixties they were swept away, only to be replaced by Harold Wilson!
Memories about life in a fairly nondescript English village in the years just before those swinging sixties: most people knew each other, were friendly but not intimate. On Friday afternoons, a man with a lovely bright modern Volkswagen van selling fresh fish came by and I even have a dim memory of a very old man still delivering bread in a covered wagon pulled by a horse. Each week we would be visited by another horse and cart, that of the rag and bone man with his familiar call which started all the dogs barking as did the less frequent sight of the filthy coal man. At the front and back of our houses were uncultivated fields which years later were developed for housing and where we village children played at football and cricket-these scrubby bits of waste ground were a common sight in the years just after the war. There were a few poorer village families who were rather looked down upon and some young troublemakers who would later on become Teddy Boys, juvenile delinquents or Leather Boys and it was one of these ‘bad’ youths who one night broke into all the sheds in our row of houses and stole money from the gas meters. A little away from our village up the valley beyond where the roadway ended, was a little weather-stained caravan of the type which were once such a familiar sight on our roads at holiday time. This was for years the home of a family of Gipsies or Didicoy’s as we called them. They kept to themselves and were rarely seen, no one befriended them, in fact we never even knew their names, but sometimes you might spy them by rare glimpses, dark clad, wandering along some hedgerow or furtive in the country-lanes with dogs or in a distant field labouring at some menial farm task. Once a year they would go from door to door selling clothes pegs which were made of two largish wedges of wood bound with a strip of tin cut from a carnation milk can and tacked. All villages had at least one village idiot as they were called in those days. We had three in Linford, including two brothers who were often to be seen working on the allotments, and they were usually known locally as “spastics” though my family in a kindly sort of way simply referred to these popular and well-liked fellows as “backward”. Apart from Czechs and Poles on the Bata estate everyone was English, although because of the proximity of London and the docks there were plenty of Celtic admixtures. At our primary school, there were no black children and at Tilbury school just one family of boys, the Batsons, a couple of these brothers later became great footballers. While there were no black people locally, we were always aware of them and in those days, there was little serious prejudice. In our family, they were always referred to as “darkies” and were respected and renowned as sportsmen and musicians if not much else. Everything was more insular than today and the only foreigners we saw were on the telly. Americans were Yanks and generally liked and admired though we also thought they were show-offs. We never thought of ourselves as European, the language difference was fairly obvious and the Latin peoples of southern Europe were looked upon as temperamentally very different. The Italians who we always called I-Ties were probably seen as the best of a rum bunch. Mr Bastianni used to come with his ice-cream van on summer evenings, his arrival heralded by the blaring sound of Anton Karas’s zither music from the film the Third Man. We usually bought the very cheapest item; a brick shaped slab of vanilla ice between two wafers. It was still close enough to the war for the Germans to be thought of as a bloody bad lot and when I started primary school our favourite game began with a call to “join in the war in the air!”. The Japanese were similarly disliked and always called Japs just as Chinese were always Chinks. But the real bugbears in those days were the Russians, whom we feared. Soviet ships were occasional visitors to the Thames and my father always told us never to study these with binoculars lest we got shot. In the Arab–Israeli conflicts of the 1960s we were always on the Israeli side, but while we rather respected them we never actually met any Jews. On hot summer days, we would often go bathing at Southend and as soon as our car descended to the sea front at Westcliff my father would point out with an odd mixture of awe and slight contempt the Jews’ houses; a row of white-painted detached residences of the immediate pre-war period, set well back from the road. There was no real animosity in these attitudes to foreigners then, and we grew up looking at anyone from abroad with a sort of good-natured disdain because we still thought in some way that the British were the best at everything!
My brother always took the lead and seemed to do everything well while I followed on behind, a willing but incompetent and not very useful helper. I learnt a lot from him and especially enjoyed watching him drawing. He also unfortunately passed on many of his childhood illnesses. I was often unwell and I almost died when I contracted whooping cough when just a few months old. Later came other illnesses including Scarlet Fever, Mumps, Measles, Water Pox and Chicken Pox. I also suffered from agonising toothaches, many bad coughs, a serious problem with a gland in my throat and a brown and yellow runny abscess on my left eye. One of the only good things about being ill was that my mother brought us Lucozade; this nectar came in a large bottle covered in shiny orange cellophane with a gold foil cover on the stopper which we used to save to use as a bookmark.
With the flood of memories that come back to me at this mention of that golden ambrosia enjoyed during those early days of illness and recuperation, I realise that I have written these reminiscences without the now customary reference to Marcel Proust and the Madeleine dipped in tea at Combray! Having looked forward to it for years, when I eventually read Proust, I got virtually nothing from it. I found myself wanting to escape from and not into the closed world he detailed so carefully. But I very much enjoyed the works of Proust’s contemporary Andre Gide whom most I think would agree is a lesser artist, though for me an important one, especially in the way that he never carries over the concerns or even style of one book to another but begins each from a fresh objective standpoint. One of the most thrilling things that I read in my youth was Menalques repudiation of Marcel on page 100 in the old Penguin paperback version of The Immoralist (which has on the cover the painting of Van Dongen’s Les Fellans which is rather like a Marquet). I get the same sort of pleasure from reading Andre Gide and another of my favourite French writers Albert Camus as I do in listening to the fine and clear music of Albert Roussel and Charles Koechlin and Maurice Ravel, especially in the almost perfect works of art such as his Trio or his Mallarme settings.
As I was such an anxious child it is not surprising that many of these recollections are of fearful things, but all was not darkness and gloom. I remember rocking on my mother’s knee in our smoky sitting room as she sang along to the wireless, or I would be happy simply watching the floating dusty particles in shafts of pale winter sunshine or staring in wonderment at the fascinating wallpaper above the fireplace which was of an Oriental garden landscape in maroon and silvery grey with white details. The marvels depicted there included an old crooked fence, willow trees, some thickets of bamboo, little streams crossed by elfin bridges and two kinds of pagoda; a tall octagonal type and a shorter rounded one which had balconies. Some mornings my mother and I would take the train to one of our neighbouring towns. For these shopping expeditions, she would be dressed up and while I remember an attractive navy blue pin-stripe suit and high-heeled suede shoes I can remember little about the shopping apart from pleading with her to buy the gorgeous yellow haddock at the fishmongers at Stanford. In the waiting room at Grays station there was a big poster showing a beautiful scene of Somerset in warm tones and lovely sunlit greens; could it I wonder have depicted Bath or maybe Cheddar Gorge? I took a special interest in this West Country scene because we lived in Somerset Rd, and it was at the top of our road on one of my morning walks with my father that I first became aware of the glory of Springtime; a tree covered in golden catkins emblazoned against deep blue sky. One of my favourite things was to lay on the lawn at twilight and watch the sea birds, flying in V formation toward the coast to roost. These groups of birds would form and re-form with new birds joining and the occasional straggler left behind and it was especially delightful to see them way up high making their silent way home, still lit by the setting sun while the garden was fading into the bluish shades of twilight. One of my very earliest memories is of that same place on one of the first warm evenings of the year; I recall crawling around and taking from the freshly dug soil a large round stone which I showed to my father. It was exactly the same shape and colour as the great silvery full moon which had risen in the east, and I wondered if that far distant object was made of the same cold hard material as the heavy round object I was clutching. We never thought it odd that our tiny hamlet of scattered homes should have a row of old shops or that these all managed to survive in that empty quarter. Apart from the attractive Merrie Loots farm there were no houses anywhere near. Across the road was a disused shallow gravel pit which was used as a stack yard or to store farm implements and beside this stood a Methodist chapel and then nothing but open fields. We looked from our house across waste ground to the back of this tall row of shops, and our walk to school bus or train led past the butchers which had a slaughterhouse in a derelict looking shed at the back, which awful place was home to a colony of rats. Further along was a café, a hairdresser, wool shop, post office and the grocers shop owned by Mr Ward where my mother, much to my annoyance would spend so much time at chatter and gossip. But there was one of these premises that was hardly ever open and which had no sign on its brown frontage. In this dingy place, Alby who played with my father in the village football team, carried on an intermittent trade in shoe repairs. I have a very early memory of a visit to this shop with my mother one hot summer afternoon. The virtually empty interior of the shop which was quite cool and dark, had a bare wood floor, a high counter and rows of wooden shelves. On this occasion, we walked through the shop and ascended the stairs at the back where the sunlight came pouring in. I sat at the bend in the stairs beneath the window, while on the landing above Alby showed my mother two shoe boxes, one containing the sort of cosmetics I used to see on her dressing table and the other full of tubes of lipstick from which she eventually took a handful. Their conversation carried on in a sort of half-whisper went on for seemingly ages, and I had nothing to do as I sat there in the sweltering heat but watch the mass of dust motes floating about in the sunshine clearly seen against the drab walls. The carved banisters were dark varnished and in places where this was thickly applied it had melted and I can remember picking at the gluey mess. The dull and dusty wood of the stairs and landing was covered by a strip of oilcloth which I seem to remember had a black and brown floral pattern with flecks of bright orange- the whole scene rather like a painting by Sickert or as might be memorably described by Gissing or George Orwell -a reminiscence of a once familiar England that has now vanished.
As I look back I am aware of how much is forgotten, and that great parts of my life mean no more to me now than the world that went before it, lost in an oblivion as dark as the night of my fore-being. But the few early memories that remain, stand out clear, as if illumined by the light of an evening sun, or perhaps I might liken them to things I saw often in my boyhood wanderings among the lonely saltings and creeklands. There in a landscape consisting almost entirely of horizontals, thrust up from the salty water or low-tide ooze were ancient seaweed covered posts and stumps, the pitiful dislocated remains of landing places, groynes, and jetties; the main and greater part of these former structures entirely washed away by the tides of the years.