Category Archives: Autobiographical

Mostly autobiographical but with occasional comment on life today

Getting out, getting in

Morris 8 c1955

It was our first car. The picture, Merry Hill Road, Bushey, shows the previous owner, a close friend, emerging from it shortly before I bought it. It was some months later when I took the risky step of offering my ageing parents a ride. My mother was even more nervous than I and my father, who had never himself driven, firmly cautious on my behalf. The project was prickling with peril.

We started from their Devonshire cottage and headed through narrow serpentine lanes to the coast. I forget where. The road suddenly narrowed and I slowed. Ahead, it dipped out of sight, the final hill down to the seashore. I saw the dangers and said I was going to park the car by the stone wall in the tiny lay-by just ahead and we would walk down.

First, I eliminated the risk of having to turn the car round after others had parked; I turned it then and there. The driver’s door was now very close to the wall and I injected a little innocent drama into the situation by pointing out that, because of our close proximity to the wall I would be very clever and, like themselves, exit from the passenger door. (This model of the Morris 8 had only a single door on each side.)

We walked down. The day was of that of utter perfection, gentle breezes and all. We had a cream tea. My mother said again and again that it was all so lovely, my father rolled up his trouser legs and took off his socks and, gingerly over the pebbles, walked stiffly into the water, ankle-deep.

It was all over. We were approaching the car. No-one else had parked. At the passenger door, the key in my hand, I stopped. The brain was spinning with two problems: first, how was I going to tell them that we were locked out, and, second, how were we were going to get in. I had failed to notice that the passenger door on this model did not have a keyhole.

There were no cries of dismay, nothing beyond my mother’s quiet remark that she was longing to sit down and my father’s tut-tutting. His style of the tut-tut resembled the sound of a lusty baby at its mother’s breast. It was followed by ‘What are you doing?’ I was giving my jacket to my mother and edging sideways along the tight gap between car and stone wall with the stonework snatching at my shirt. I slid the key into the lock, undid the door and opened it the few inches until it touched the wall. I inserted my head and shoulders. From then onward it was a lengthy matter of inching from outside to inside. Halfway, I found myself stuck, unable to move either forward or back. I think it must have been the closest I ever came to panicking. I tried to concentrate on sensing the slight actual motion at each twisting of the trunk and urging of the waist, each grunt. Finally, there came a little plop! of freedom and, sweating somewhat, I reached and lifted the locking device on the passenger door and pushed it open. I lifted the front passenger seat forward on its hinges to make  the rear seat available and croaked at my father, ‘OK. Hop in!’ With the front seat returned to its normal position I managed what I hoped was a winsome smile up at my mother, and beckoned.

Driving back, there were cockney-style jests from my father such as ‘no more of that malarky, my lad!’ and, from behind, my mother’s occasional and gentle murmuring of ‘Oh, do take care, won’t you’ and so on. Waving goodbye to them as they waved from their front gate I was a sober and far wiser young man.

The Organ and its Pipes

My wife and I were working at the Ludhiana Christian Medical College and Hospital in the early 1960s. In the college chapel there is an organ with an unfortunate history. It was donated by the authorities of the Vice-Regal Palace chapel up in Simla shortly after Independence was declared in August, 1947.  It was a very fine instrument with about nine hundred pipes: naturally, its removal involved total dismantlement, the pipes being removed one by one and the identity of each one carefully marked on it in ink. They, with all the other parts, were loaded onto a heavy vehicle, covered with tarpaulin and driven from Simla to Ludhiana.

It was the monsoon season and upon unloading the vehicle it was found that the heavy rain had penetrated the covering. The full significance of this dawned on the installer only when he picked up the first of the 900 pipes and looked for the ink markings. He found nothing. He had no idea where it should go. The reason: whoever had done the marking job had not used a waterproof ink. The leaking covering had meant that none of the pipes escaped the rain. A determined effort was made to find a way of making the instrument produce helpful sounds of some kind. The result was a little disconcerting but, all things considered, it was a noble effort. Barbara was asked to take on the post of Organist. After her first service she said that the experience was ‘interesting’.

But, had you been in the position of that poor installer, what would you have done? Answers on LinkedIn, please! Or here if you wish.

Shorts story

Somebody’s Facebook entry today has reminded me of a tragic personal tale. I was coming home to England on the Capetown Castle after my two years with the RAF in India. A few of us were in the habit of sitting on the ship’s rail and chatting, wearing the usual shipboard uniform of a pair of shorts. They had very short legs, as it was the custom to signal one’s status as an old hand by getting the village tailor to shorten them considerably. One day as lunchtime was approaching we were sunning ourselves there, waiting for the bell to go off. Opposite us was a row of elderly ladies in deck chairs.

A ship’s wooden rail is beautifully wide and gently rounded, perfect for a young man’s bottom. However, at intervals along its length it has small pronged objects called cleats: sailors use them for securing thin lines when they haul mail and other packages up from the quay or from small boats alongside. Without realising it I had placed myself close beside one of these cleats and a prong had found its way into one leg of my shorts. The bell sounded for lunch and we all leaped down. There was a ripping noise from behind me and the elderly ladies were left gaping at the  rear end of a youth running past wearing a tattered miniskirt. The sound of their little chorus of ‘Oooh!’ is with me still.

Sir John Betjeman

Back in 1982 I decided I just had to meet John Betjeman. I wondered how I might achieve this. Then I discovered that Lady Penelope was giving one of her lectures on Hindu temples at Lacock Abbey. It seemed the perfect opportunity. So I went, and took with me a small gift for him – a recently-published book of mine – the first ever – entitled A Victorian View of Old England, a compilation of Victorian text and engravings of English scenes.

Penelope finished her talk, and I approached her. She was surrounded by a chattering group, happily answering questions in her high, clear and faintly edgy voice. I greeted her, handed her the book and asked if she would be kind enough to give it to Sir John with my compliments. ‘Oh, he’ll like that. Thank you,’ she smiled. I said it would be lovely to meet him one day. ‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘But you MUSTN’T STAY MORE THAN TEN MINUTES. D’you understand?’ Capitals were her way of stressing phrases in her letters and it seems only right to use them when quoting her. I reassured her and said ten minutes would be fine. She pulled out a small notebook and wrote in it. ‘I’ll arrange a meeting for you with his secretary.’ A day or two later she rang me to tell me to go to No 29 Radnor Walk. Could I manage August 19th? Somewhere round about 11.30? I most certainly could.

Why I didn’t discover Betjeman’s poetry before I was forty I can’t imagine. But when I did it came as a revelation. In his free use of strict scansion and rhyme his disregard for the lofty poetry-world critics was made clear. And his discovery of the funny in the obscure, his trick of capturing the extraordinary within the ordinary, his skill in communicating all this, made him stand alone. From that day onwards I blatantly imitated his style.

On August 19, 1982, I took a day’s holiday. My early feelings of inadequacy and my father’s ready confirmation of it came to me as I rang the doorbell of No 29 Radnor Walk. Little old me, going into the home of the Poet Laureate, now into the hallway, now into the small front room, seeing him sitting there in an easy chair, turning his head stiffly towards me. The three full-blown strokes he had suffered and advancing Parkinson’s made it difficult for him to smile.

We talked and talked and drank champagne. After half an hour or so his then secretary, Liz Moore, had to go out for ten minutes. She asked me if I would mind looking after him. The moment after she left, the phone rang. I reached for the phone, and in doing so knocked my glass of Champagne – the best Moët – on to the floor and saw it soaking the carpet. As I finished taking the message and was ringing off I caught sight of him looking across at me, eyes alight with boyish merriment.

‘Just help yourself to more,’ he said. ‘Oh, this is fun!’  He knew how to make idiots happy.

A couple on minutes later the phone rang again. It was one of the papers. What was Sir John’s reaction upon hearing that Naseby Field, the scene of the Battle of Naseby, was to have a road built through it? He thought for a moment.

‘Tell them it’s like cutting a man in half,’ he said. Then, after a pause and raising a hand – ‘Alive!’

And he sat thinking about it. I wrote a poem later, describing his gloom at that moment. John Murray once said that John was never gloomy. ‘Melancholic, yes. Never gloomy.’ It’s a nice distinction, but Jock should know, having been his publisher since 1937. Perhaps the two of them have discussed it by now, up there in some sunlit heavenly chapel.

John looked up, and pointed. He said someone had given him a painting. He was pointing to where it lay, still rolled up, and asked me to look at it. ‘What kind of mount d’you think it ought to have?’ he asked. It was of a tree, an apple tree. As I looked at it I found myself feeling somehow ‘inside’ the picture – a trick of the over-excited mind, I suppose. I told him how I felt it should look.

After unwittingly breaking Penelope’s rule by an hour and a quarter I asked him if I might just take a picture of him, with Archibald and Jumbo on his lap. Jumbo was his elephant, whom he had relegated to Number Two in his affections. He agreed instantly so Liz Moore went upstairs to his room to get them. When he had them on his lap I snapped away nervously. After I’d finished he sat looking at Archibald, his bear, murmuring, ‘Archie, Archie. You’re alive. I know you’re alive. You must be alive.’

Liz said, ‘Time to go, Sir John.’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I have to go and have lunch with Ozzy.’

‘That’s Osbert Lancaster,’ said Liz. She left the room and returned, bringing in his wheelchair. ‘Now, would you give me a hand?’ She showed me how to lift him, and I took hold of Archibald and Jumbo, laid them aside, put one arm round him and one underneath him and together we lifted him into his wheelchair.

On the way back to Sloane Square Station I felt a little lightheaded, almost as though I were floating above the pavement. I stopped at a little restaurant and had a cup of tea and a bun. The only table with an empty chair was occupied by a mother and her small son in his school uniform. He was being treated to a cream tea. I asked if she would mind if I sat there and she smiled her consent, with some pleasantry or other.

Still slightly intoxicated, more by the miracle I had just experienced than the plentiful Champagne, I sat down, beamed at them and said, ‘I’ve just been to see John Betjeman.’

The Barnato Bentley

Barnarto Bentley 3litre PE3200- Kodak 3My gesticulating here was probably to assert myself on matters of extreme importance. After all, I was the key man of the occasion and I was jolly well going to make the most of it. Art Directors have trouble in becoming famous. Nobody knows what they do. Nobody cares. But now, here on the premises of Kodak Limited (my employer) where the company’s advertising and promotional work was done, I had absolute responsibility for the safety and reputation of nothing less than the world-famous Barnato Bentley.

I knew nothing about racing and very little about cars. I knew how to blow up the tyres on my Morris 8 but that was about all. I simply understood that millions round the world found racing cars fascinating and practically adored the Barnato Bentley. So it was ideal choice as the eye-catcher for whatever ‘Kodak’ product, or perhaps service, was being advertised. I have a feeling a new ‘Kodak’ medical X-Ray film came into it somewhere.

And I knew the man who owned the Barnato Bentley. I got on the phone and asked him if we could hire it for one day. Bless the man, he agreed. I’d had a word with the company Maintenance Manager and told him I wanted to turn the employees’ cycle sheds into a part of a racing circuit’s pits. He stroked his chin, and said OK. I think he had an idea I was going mad. We hired the necessary props, the car was delivered, the picture was shot and the ad appeared in the appropriate magazines.

But I became no better-known, received no prizes and settled for being grateful to have the job of art-directing. The photographer was a speedway fanatic and was enormously grateful for the chance to sit in the actual vehicle. I need hardly add that this grabshot of him at the wheel made during the job by his assistant bears no relation to the finished 1970s ad.