A Lost Opportunity:in memory of Clive King

Some people with exceptional talent will reach the top of their chosen profession come what may. A surprising number of others owe their success to a lucky break. My own talents were more modest but as a young man that once in a lifetime chance was dangled before me only to be snatched from my grasp at the last minute.

It was the end of the sixties. I had just joined the British Council, then a cultural organisation and was posted to Madras (now Chennai). An envious senior colleague called it “the last outpost of gracious living.” And so it was, yet because of the lack of air conditioning and because it topped the the Foreign Office’s “scale of climatic beastliness” we were paid a hardship allowance. If hardship meant a lovely house, a large garden, four servants, a five minute drive to the office and a job that was better than many people’s hobbies, then I suppose it was pretty tough.

There was a stronger feeling than today of being abroad, of being in another place both physically and psychologically. English newspapers arrived a week late, our private correspondence was written by hand on aerogrammes. There was no telephone contact. Only the BBC World Service, if you could receive the short wave signal, kept us in touch with the outside. Home leave came round only every eighteen months and so we made Madras our home. We absorbed the culture and we made our friends. And what a culture, what friends, what a revelation it all was to an impressionable young man whose classical western education had excluded all this. Who needed the office?

During working hours there was so little for us four expatriate officers to do that we squabbled over files; if we wanted to get out of the office for a week or two we could tour the VSO projects which the British Council then managed, all over South India. The Mofussil.

One colleague kept himself aloof from all this. David was different. In an academic, hands-off way he was in charge of English Language programmes. On the strength of a best selling children’s book he had also established a name for himself as a writer. He sat in isolation in a large office befitting his grade. There he would spend many contemplative hours drafting and redrafting a single letter or minute, honing it to perfect prose. We knew, because every morning the day file, containing flimsies of all our correspondence of the previous day, (typed of course by our own Anglo Indian secretaries), was circulated and read assiduously. It filled the time and was supposed to keep us informed of what the others did. David’s one or two letters were always carefully crafted prose poems.

Among the files I managed to snatch was one for a young doctor called Roger Bannister who came out to lecture on medicine in sport. He had been the first man to run the four minute mile and in my schooldays had become a national hero. To meet him in this his second career was a thrill and one afternoon after a picnic on the beach I got to run along the shore with him.

Another doctor who seemed even then to be old, Richard Doll, came on a very different and controversial lecture tour. He astonished everyone with the claim that smoking was bad for the health. He went on to become Regius Professor at Oxford and was knighted in 1971. He lived to be 92 and is now remembered as one of the world’s greatest cancer researchers despite the posthumous revelations of having worked for Monsanto for several decades.

Sometimes our visitors fused the two cultures. One such was Peter Coe, fresh from directing Lionel Bart’s Oliver in the West End. This was a successful musical based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist. He came to work at Mrs. Rukmini Devi’s Bharata Natyam Academy. Single handed this formidable woman had revived Indian classical dance and was training young men and women to become professionals. Peter Coe spent six weeks in her theatre working with aspiring actors and musicians, amateur or professional, collecting their songs and their folklore and building a colourful stage musical. By the end he had a solid core of performers who had stayed the course and they produced a spectacular and enjoyable one-off show. He was to die in a car crash in the U.S.A. at the height of his success.

In addition to the dance academy there was a permanent group of amateurs dedicated to the Western theatre. They were all Indians, headed by the avuncular figure of Krishnamurthy, a scholarly businessman and Brahmin. He was always surrounded by a huddle of young men and women who hung on his every word. He threw very relaxed parties.

My introduction to this group was via a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The lead was played by Girish Karnad, the heart throb of the group, who gave a searing and passionate interpretation of the role. Although new to the country, after ten minutes or so, I entirely disregarded the fact that the entire cast were Indian. Girish was also a playwright himself with Tughlaq and Hayavadana, written in his native Kannada, already under his belt and soon translated into English. He went on to make a successful film career and achieved international acclaim.

Around this time Romila Tharpar had brought out her book on Asoka who in my total ignorance of all things Eastern was quite new to me. It struck me that this originally cruel and ruthless king who converted to and helped spread Buddhism to become both a powerful and yet enlightened emperor over what is now India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, that this Indian warrior turned pacifist was also an emperor for the seventies. There was also a strong love interest. He may have died in 232 BC but his reign of virtue would appeal to the generation of 1970 AD.

I began writing a play about him. Researching how people lived in the third century BC I had delightful discussions with Indian historians who were more than willing to share their scholarship. By now I had directed Pinter’s Hard Times with the Madras Players and worked with them on Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. I had got to know some of the members very well. Tentatively I showed my play to Krishnamurthy. I thought that he might be affronted that a young Englishman should even attempt such an exercise. He courteously relieved me of the manuscript and his reaction a few days later was overwhelming. He loved the play. It was a bit too long, but if permitted to cut the five acts to three, he would have a manageable vehicle for the players.

After the first reading of my revised script the players, too, were fired with enthusiasm. As a result Krishnamurthy said he would like to direct it. Already there was a buzz of excitement in the air. There was talk of touring India with it and then of taking it to London and New York. Several of the actors were considering giving up their day jobs so as to make themselves available. As for me I would naturally have to leave the British Council and stay on in India.

There was only one problem. Who to cast as Asoka? Krishnamurthy was not convinced any of his males were up to it. Their star, Girish, was now working full time in Mysore. Then a miracle occurred. David. my colleague, the timid English Language Officer, the only one of us who was a real writer and who might well have felt threatened by this junior upstart, read the play and was also captivated by it. To our astonishment he asked whether he might be considered for the leading role. He had, this shy, reclusive man, told us, acted at Cambridge. Krishnamurthy agreed to give him an audition. Now although Asoka was an Aryan ruler it was controversial to cast a fair Englishman in the role of Indian hero. But David got the part, rehearsals began in earnest and the future looked rosy.

Disaster struck in a most unexpected manner. David. already in his late forties fell for a young volunteer. This past teenager was the same age but the complete opposite to David’s own talented and pretty hippie daughter, not to mention his vivacious and entertaining wife. Being responsible for VSO work meant the Council exercised pastoral care over the 30 or so mainly school leavers who came to work in rural projects. David’s very public affair caused consternation and scandal. The British Deputy High Commissioner saw fit to call him in and reprimand him. His wife left. Rehearsals were missed.

When David finally walked out of the production and his post it was too late to find an understudy. The cast was devastated. Many had made sacrifices to be in the play, some had built dreams around it. Krishnamurthy, already middle-aged, saw his new career as a Shakespeare Walla-like tour leader come to a premature end. My play was never performed.

Fifty years on I still have the original copy of my play about Asoka written in green ink in a large ledger. The physical object reminds me of those hot nights of study and creation on my Madras rooftop, where in those days before air conditioning I would seek the slightly cooler air. I dare not read the play again. I do not wish to find it as insubstantial as the dream that all too briefly grew from it.

And David? His book, Stig of the Dump is still in print under his nom de plume and has become a much loved classic. I am one of the few who has never read it.

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Some of Them Were Human

Some of Them Were Human by William Wood

Ian Brown, a British official working at the EC in the early eighties, tells a series of anecdotes he has collected in his years of part of what he considers, by and large, to be a bureaucratic monolith. The stories typically relate to the lives of his various colleagues, and take a variety of forms both in terms of content and in narrative style. The fictional Brown also spins an intermittent narrative between each anecdote, creating the feel of a personal memoir or diary.

Overall, the prevailing mood of the narrative is one of ennui, with almost all of the characters finding their work futile and seeking recourse in alternatives to doing their jobs. These range from gathering stories to excessive drinking and extreme materialism, and the philosophy underpinning each character’s choice tends to be explored in the story they relate.

Overall the novel concerns itself with evoking a vivid if somewhat sardonic picture of both the organisation as a whole, and the individuals who work there.

In addition to being the title of the novel, Some of Them Were Human is also the name of one of the short stories contained within, in which an often inefficient, self-centred boss shows genuine emotion when his assistant leaves. As has already been mentioned, the title refers to the book’s juxtaposition of individual, personal stories against the backdrop of a large, faceless organisation..

That Some of Them Were Human is written by a published author is unsurprising. The writing style is generally very confident, showing a secure grasp of voice, pacing, and narrative tension, as well as the ability to weave different sorts of tale to achieve a variety of effects. There are many moments of wit, and remarks in the narration combine with the events described to create what is at points quite a cutting satire of the institution. The grammar and use of language meets a very high standard, although the bilingualism of the text may challenge readers without a basic knowledge of French.

The vignettes are usually introduced elegantly with details of the scenario in which Brown was told the story, providing something of a sense of context.

As the title hints, Some of Them Were Human is in many ways a collection of character studies. As such, the population of the novel is given a degree of development that surpasses most straightforward narratives. Initial introductions tend to be vivid and evocative, using a blend of physical descriptions and examples to give a strong sense of personality.

Eerie, bleak or affirming, the content of the novel varies from vignette to vignette. Some are sad, others funny, and a few are, in effect, ghost stories. The writer also uses pathos and bathos to combine the former two in some cases, creating narratives that are darkly humorous while also carrying serious undertones. There are a few cases when this contrast may seem a little too stark – most notably an early story in which an obsessively materialistic career woman decides to have a baby as a form of accessory and, after a somewhat comical description of her consumerist approach to childcare, realises it represents too much of an emotional investment and reluctantly suffocates it. There are other instances of similarly amoral characters, though not to this degree, although typically they receive a certain modicum of censure or disparagement through the narrative. These instances seldom feel gratuitous and do achieve a clear narrative goal, but nevertheless, some of these moments may shock readers of more delicate sensibilities.

Some of Them Were Human is an adeptly-written work with much to recommend it. The author’s sardonic observations about working in a large organisation are sure to find resonance with middle-class readers who have come into contact with such environments themselves, and the overarching narrative gives the story sufficient cohesion to be a compelling read. It is a bleak exploration of bureaucratic futility found not only in Brussels but in national and international organisations. But there is, as the title suggest, just enough humanity to give the book a certain warmth.

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Midsummer Dread

I dread late June. It fills me with an existential angst that even Jean Paul Sartre would have been envious of. June can be a lovely month but it is a turning point in the year.

I love the countryside and live in a quiet village beside a small but fast flowing river. Every morning I cross the footbridge opposite my garden and follow the river upstream for 200 metres. I fetch my daily newspaper from the stone bus shelter and return. This daily ten minute walk keeps me in intimate touch with the changing seasons: transformation by snow and ice, excitement of flood when the tame river becomes a dark and swollen torrent rolling through faster than a man can run, as well as the gentle, slower nuances of the usually normal though variable weather.

The village houses stand either side of the river bordering the long and broad village green. On this common ground, an extended garden and playground for us villagers, sheep of many different breeds graze year round. They lamb in March and April and sleep as much in the roads as on the verges, enjoying the radiated warmth of the tarmac after a sunny day. On hot summer days they seek the shelter of the large horse chestnut and sycamore trees give character to the village.

Spring to early Summer is my favourite season. The snowdrops see the Winter out and are followed by daffodils and bluebells and the huge variety of flowering shrubs and blossom of the fruit trees. But by the time the hawthorn sports its froth of creamy flowers I begin to sense the familiar dread.

The rebirth of Spring, succulent and energetic is so full of promise. It even gets my sap rising, makes hope and energy levels soar. Nights are light till late and dawn begins at 4.30. Then suddenly on June 22 it all goes into reverse. The decline starts. The days shorten. Another half year is over and at my age I wonder how few more summers I will live to see.

My walk to fetch the newspaper now lacks joy. The lilacs in all their different hues have faded to a shabby stain of brown, the spectacular candelabras of the horse chestnuts shrivel and transform into the prickly husks for Autumn conkers. The lambs are no longer white but woolly, grey and in their adolescence seem far less attractive. The ewes are dirty and bedraggled and shed their fleeces like rags across the green. Some walk about like half naked brides dragging their train behind them in the dust. Trout and salmon no longer brave the trickle of a river. A heron stabs fish stranded in pools.

True the grass is still growing vigorously as are the nettles and thistles. A heavy downpour can quickly bring the river back to life. But for me the sense of decline after mid-summer is overwhelming. Though the harvest is yet to come and perhaps an Indian Summer in September, I feel the end is already nigh. My decline too. I am paralysed by sadness and regret. So much promise so soon gone to waste. Every day, every night a further descent to darkness.

I am aware that for many Summer has barely begun. Schools and colleges have yet to break up, families to depart on Summer holidays. My only hope is to cross the equator and seek new beginnings in the Antipodes.

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A Bishop Bewitched

Since this is a true story I will not name the town where it took place. Suffice it to say that it was in a region of Southern Sudan that was steeped in witchcraft.

It was also a Christian area, though Christianity in this town was skin deep. For some it offered the same kind of post life assurance policy as it did for many in Europe; for others it offered an escape from poverty, an education and a full stomach; for a few it offered influence.

When the bishopric fell vacant the citizens expected a popular local clergyman to be appointed. However he did not get the job. A cleric from a neighbouring tribe was selected. He was not popular. Indeed he was not liked at all.

Now one way of getting rid of people in this area was by witchcraft. An evil eye, or the picture of one, was stuck on to the victim’s back. That way everyone knew that that person was cursed and would die. Invariably it worked.

Imagine the thrill, then, of the hostile congregation when their new bishop, a stocky, vain little man with a shiny, perspiring black face strutted up the aisle to take the service. For, displayed on his back, securely fastened to his purple robe, was the sign of the evil eye.

When he realised what people were staring at, did he denounce their superstition? Did he rise above the witchcraft? Did he proclaim the superior truth of Jesus Christ? Did he heck. He rolled his eyes in terror. He tore the robe off in front of the delighted congregation. He ranted at his staff, foamed at the mouth and died on the spot.

Among the ululation of some women rose a cry of “Allelulia.” The bishop’s rival, the vicar who had been passed over, stepped forward, clasped the dead man’s hand, looked up to the heavens and said sweetly, “Yea verily, it is His will.” Whether or not he had been complicit in the plot, he expressed some well-rehearsed, Christian sentiments at the funeral of the hated bishop. Then he stepped into his shoes.

Oddly enough, about a year later I had another, albeit indirect encounter with this bishop. There were at that time scores of young English men and women working for the Sudanese government in rural schools across the country. They were poorly and irregularly paid, living in much less well supported conditions than the VSO volunteers, for example.

One of these young men was Paul and I would look him up and give him a meal if I was passing through. It was during one such improvised meal that he told me his story.

Paul was a good-looking lad with a pleasant smile and an easy manner. He got on well with his pupils and fellow teachers. Though in no way aggressive he was a big man and perfectly capable of looking after himself. Perhaps it was his very stature that tempted some people in the town to want to pick quarrels with him, though no one went so far as to give him the evil eye.

White men in small towns were a rarity and we became used to the cries of “kawaja” thrown at us from children, curious more than insulting. When a young woman, however, ran up to Paul as he walked home from school and screamed abuse at him, he was quite taken aback. Particularly because unlike most of the townsfolk she spoke English very well.

“You white people,” she screamed, “you murderers! You are all murderers! You drive round in your big cars, you stir up the dust, you knock down our children…”

“I have no car,” interrupted Paul in his lazy manner. “I don’t even have a bicycle.”

This calm rejoinder stopped the woman’s invective but instead of abusing him verbally she hit him on the jaw. To his surprise Paul fell down. “Too much money. You have too much money,” she yelled at him. Paul got carefully to his feet and brushed himself down while trying to keep this mad woman at arm’s length. Her last remark stung. In fact he had no money. Like all government teachers he had not been paid for three months. Unlike many of his Sudanese colleagues who were able to grow some of their own food, Paul had no land and no money to pay for his meals.

“Now listen here,” he said, “I do not hit women, but there has to be a first time.”

Whereupon she got her second blow in before he did, punching him again full on the jaw. This time he got a hold on her and a group of amused on-lookers helped remove her from the scene.

“Is she mad?” he asked one of them.

“Mad? No, she thinks she is important. She is the bishop’s wife.” Then he sucked his teeth African style and added, “some say even she is a witch.”

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In Memory of Typists

REMEMBERING SECRETARIES

I have no idea how a modern office functions but I do know that many people have their own work stations. I retired before the advent of computers and correspondence by email. Office work then was a more collaborative endeavour. There was no email, correspondence was by letter or in emergency by telex. Few of us typed, indeed were able to type, our own letters, reports or minutes. We wrote the first draft long-hand or dictated it to tape. In the larger offices our scribbles were sent to a typing pool, a room the size of a classroom full of young women sitting behind typewriters and presided over by an older woman who distributed the work. Only the bravest of males entered this sanctum.

Thankfully most of my career I spent overseas in smaller offices. Even at a junior grade I had my own secretary. Indeed, before open plan became the norm, we shared a room with our secretary, usually a woman as young or younger than ourselves. If it went well the secretary did more than type, copy and file your work. She would help find reports and files, make appointments, advise you on local customs, locations and personalities and sometimes there was even time to talk about one another’s lives. For you spent almost as many hours cloistered with your secretary as you did at home with your wife. Usually, though, there was a degree of reserve in your relationship and certainly of mutual respect.

My first secretary in Madras (now Chenai) was Brenda, an Anglo-Indian. She was young, neat and pretty. Like all Anglo-Indian staff, but but unlike the other office staff, she wore western dress, usually a tight, knee-length skirt and white blouse. Her husband, who worked on the railways dropped her off and picked her up on his scooter, but she always looked immaculate. I wrote the staff newsletter, I reviewed visiting plays and music performances for HQ as well as doing the more run of the mill office business. Never once did Brenda comment, offer any opinion of her own, dissent or agree. She faithfully copied my work, uncomplaining if drafts had to be retyped three or four times, spelling mistakes tippexed and typed over. For there were no word processors.

In Norway, Rigmor was another kettle of fish. In a land of social and gender equality most of our small team were friends inside and outside the office. We socialized together, knew one another’s family; once I went on a four day hike in the mountains with Rosalind, the boss’s secretary and her son and other friends. Rigmor was a little different. Very reserved at first and from a poor suburb of Oslo, she had strong views. We had a small waiting room with a limited selection of magazines for visitors. One of Rigmor’s first suggestions was to subscribe to Spare Rib. To his credit our boss ordered it right away and I noticed that its most fervent reader was Rigmor. She and I also helped one another with language since to begin with her English was little better than my Norwegian.

Otherwise her job was as much as before, typing letters, fixing appointments and filing and finding. I did often ask her her opinion about our professional contacts and the institutions we worked with. She was not backward in giving it, but she remained reserved. We worked on friendly terms but neither I nor my colleagues gleaned much about her personal life. I do not know whether she had a boy or girl friend or how she spent her leisure. She remained an outsider.

My next move was to the Commission of the European Commission in Brussels and as regards Belgian social attitudes it felt like going back a century in time. The commission, though, was like a chaotic, anarchic and multilingual version of my London HQ. The secretaries were incredibly lazy to the point of taking offence if you asked them to type a letter quickly or to do anything slightly unusual. Correspondence was in many languages. Most secretaries could use the qwerty and the asiop keyboards since we wrote mainly in English or French. Some of them nevertheless had to be cajoled to typing in English. Some reckoned my Anglo-Saxon handwriting was indecipherable whatever language I used. In my time there were no native speaking English typists, except perhaps in the “cabinets” of the top officials.

From Brussels I went to Juba to open an office from scratch. I had no staff to begin with but was offered an empty room at the University of Juba. I had my own portable typewriter and a packing case that I used as a desk. I found a chair in another room of the deserted university and paper was sent down to me from Khartoum. In due course I rented an office, recruited staff but there was no electricity in the town. Typewriters had to be manual and I discovered that the Olympia was still being made in Kenya. Months later I had one of these heavy, solid machines delivered, along with a supply of ribbons. By then I had recruited Vashti as secretary, a confident young woman with a sense of humour. She was rather taken with her own appearance and dressed provocatively, but her English and her typing skills were acceptable. She found my western concern with time keeping a bit alien but she usually got her work done. She stood no nonsense from the other staff, an accountant and ex school teacher, a staid, middle-aged man I had later to sack for fraud, an office manager, a driver and the various expatriate experts reliant on my office who came and went between their various projects.

The problems began when Vashti became pregnant. She had a difficult birth and one morning I got the message that she needed a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type matched by none of us in the office. There were no doctors in Juba and the hospital was the place you went to die, not to be saved. All of us in the office tried desperately to find a blood donor from the right group. Eventually I found that among a group of French engineers building the new airport there was a driver of one of the earth movers who fell into the same blood group as Vashti. I tracked him down and asked this ruddy faced, fat French workman whether he could spare some of his blood for my secretary.

“When?”

“Now. It is urgent.”

“Is she English? French?”

“No, she is African.”

The driver hid his feelings. He said he would think about it, but now it was his lunch time. He told me to come back in three hours. I did not need to. Vashti died that afternoon.

By my next posting the British Council was introducing computers. In Ghana we vacated a huge space beneath the office and installed a computer the size of a small car. It had to be permanently air-conditioned. This was more than we had in our own rooms.

Some of the secretaries were given monitors so they could word process their work. This was before Windows came along. Every bit of punctuation, space, line change etc had its own code. I never bothered to learn it. Some of the women got to operate it fairly quickly but it was hardly the time saver we had expected. In fact it provided the common excuse for delay: sorry, the computer is down. Computers as we now know them, along with email and the internet did not appear until well after my retirement. Patricia, my last secretary was in the old tradition. She was efficient and reliable but left suddenly to live with an “uncle” in Sheffield. The beautiful Felicia made great strides through the office and moved on to an administrative job with the United Nations. We remained friends long after we had both left the Council and she came to visit me and my wife in UK on several occasions revealing an unsuspected weakness: she loved chocolate cake.

Typists hardly exist any more. All men and women do their own typing. A few conventional secretaries have become P. As to senior managers. I am glad I retired when I did. Today I should miss the companionship of sharing office space with a secretary and gaining a small insight into another culture and another life.

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Chanson Douce by Leila Slimani

I do not normally succumb to fashion and rarely read best-sellers. However such was the excitement in France when Chanson Douce, by Leila Slimani won the Prix Goncourt that I bought a copy. Since then it has been translated into American as The Perfect Nanny and into English as Lullaby and into scores of other languages as well. The book and the author have been splashed across acres of newsprint and filled the broadcast media.

Is the hype deserved? To some extent, yes. It is an original story told in short, simple sentences and largely in the present tense. It opens with a shock and continues at a fast pace. This makes for a gripping read. Moreover it captures a certain zeitgeist. There is the ambitious career woman who feels guilt at abandoning her children to a full time nanny; she is also, like the author a Moroccan born French woman and a successful lawyer with concerns about her identity. (Slimani of course is also cultural secretary to President Macron) The nanny who is from a poor background is the only white woman among a cohort of other nannies of varying ethnicity.

It is an easy book to race through and the social milieu is well described, but in the end the novel is unsatisfactory. The characters are not drawn in much depth. The parents, happily married and successful, fond of their children though they entrust them full time to the nanny, are too good to be true. Thanks to the nanny they lead the social life of a childless couple and seem very naive not to notice the warning signs of the nanny’s incipient instability.

As for Louise, the nanny, we get a good portrait of her appearance and an account of her actions, but we rarely get beneath the surface. It is not clear why children are attracted to a woman who appears to show no affection, who seems incapable of love. Her own teenage daughter leaves her and she does not pursue her. Her despair and loneliness are understandable but it is less clear why this should lead her to kill the two children who adore her and whom she has brought up very much unaided. True, the reader is party to Louise’s rapid mental deterioration and perhaps should not expect a fuller explanation. Louise remains in a coma until the end, her actions unexplained

I share the disappointment of the female police inspector who after an exhaustive investigation revisits the scene of the crime two months later to try and enter into Louise’s state of mind. She enters the flat and closes the door behind her, thus ending the book.

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BETTY

It was an extraordinary emotion. Not love exactly, though it was a kind of love at first sight. A coup de foudre. A recognition. Though the young woman was a stranger, as far as I knew. A stranger yet strangely familiar.

I blew gently on the glass and held the wooden framed glass slide to the light again. It was the size of a paper back book but transparent. The colours were still strong, perfect. And the girl in the photograph was beautiful, her expression enigmatic, bewitching. I half expected her to step out of her time capsule flesh and blood and ask not so very coyly, “well then?”

I was in my parents’ attic. My task was to clear it out. There was the usual jumble that collects in people’s lofts: old paraffin stoves, pictures, dusty trunks and chests, folders full of papers, a broken chair and gramophone records all preserved under the cloying miasma of nostalgia.

In the drawer of a discarded chest of drawers I had found this box. An ordinary, slippery sided, cardboard soap box. Inside the box, each wrapped between yellowing tissue paper were six glass slides. There may be a more technical term, for they were transparent photographs, not in negative as in more recent colour photography, but in positive, clear, bright colour. They were thoroughly professional. The composition and the clarity were as good as I have seen in any modern studio. They may have been known as lantern slides.

But it was neither the technical nor the formal qualities that took my breath away. The first portrait I looked at, holding it to the bare attic light bulb, was of the young woman I have begun to describe.

I climbed downstairs clutching the box to my chest and sat down at the table in the conservatory. Here I looked at each slide in turn in the daylight. All the photos were of the same happy, self-confident young woman of about nineteen or twenty. She had evidently enjoyed having her picture taken.

In one pose she holds a parasol, the handle resting on her left shoulder, the lilac membrane of the parasol rising from waist and shoulder like an insect wing against which her head is highlighted. A pink silk ribbon holds the thick pile of dark, centrally parted hair on top of her head. The ribbon is tied on the side in a big bow. She is wearing a moss green silk dress embroidered at the top and fastened above the lace work at the neck with a black velvet choker. There are three large pin cushion-like buttons at her breast. From the pinched waist the dress falls straight to the ground, unadorned except for a series of similar, padded buttons from the knee that repeat the motif of the bodice.

The parasol appears in another photo. The model wears the same hair-do and ribbon but a completely different outfit, this time a navy blue pleated skirt and a long, elegant jacket. On her right hand she wears a gold ring.

Other photos different clothes. In one she is at the wheel of a veteran car, klaxon, spare wheel and canopy clearly visible. She has a similar hairstyle but this time tied in a blue bow. The car, the countryside could be French.

What struck me instantly and still lingers now is not so much the curiosity value of the clothes and accoutrements as the woman herself. Most of all her face and her demeanour. She is pale with large, dark eyes and strong eyebrows. She has a wide mouth with full lips and for those days surprisingly good teeth. Her pose is obedient but playful. She is enjoying herself. Her smile is genuine as though for a lover. Surely the photographer was no stranger. She knows her own power, too. She seems happy, she knows her own mind.

Once I had recovered from the surprise of my discovery I began to ask myself who this person was. From the costume and the car I guessed the photos were taken around 1910. In all the slides she appeared to be eighteen to twenty years old.

The familiarity that had so struck me might indeed have come from a family likeness. Not in an identikit way, but rather gene switching on gene in remote recognition. I was haunted that though not a likeness there was something about her in my own daughter. It seemed a safe assumption that she was family.

Her colouring suggested she was from my mother’s line but she was not my grandmother or my great grandmother as far as I could tell. My mother had been an only child and had no remaining elder relatives. In the depths of my mind I half remembered a story of an exotic relative but could not for the moment fish it up.

There were two things I wanted to know: who was the person and when and where were the photographs taken? As I consulted photographers bits and pieces of my own childhood floated to the surface of my memory at last. Things my mother had spoken about, things she had concealed.

The first expert told me the glass slides must have been hand painted, the next said colour photography on glass was common in the early twentieth century. Many seaside postcards were created in this way. My slides, therefore, had no rarity value. Their interest was only personal. Faced with the lack of professional interest I abandoned this tack. Besides I was beginning to piece together my own recollections.

When I was about ten years old and my grandmother was staying briefly with us, I remember a visit from a larger than life old woman. I am not sure how she got to our house in the country but I remember a big, florid woman in a mink coat standing at the front door. There was a lot of noisy laughter and tears and she and my grandmother, then I suppose only about fifty, flung themselves into one another’s arms.

I do not know how long Great Aunt Betty stayed. Only a few hours, I think, before giving me half a crown and returning to her flat in Brighton. I never saw her again, but my grandmother was to refer to her from time to time in the way that younger sisters talk of their elder siblings. What my grandmother often repeated was that in her youth Betty had had a nineteen inch waist and many admirers.

My grandmother’s own origins were a mystery to her husband and daughter alike. According to my mother, all Nana could remember of her childhood was of being brought up by Betty, her senior by ten years. She spoke of no men in their lives, though there must have been, until she met my grandfather. There was however the trace in the collective memory of a terrible accident. The girls’ father, my great grandfather, was struck down by a runaway horse in the Strand and killed. His wife, distraught or relieved, we shall never know, disappears completely. Betty is left holding the baby.

One day an event occurred which I was not to associate with this story until I had grown up. My grandmother came to stay again and the next day she and my parents, formally dressed, disappeared for the day. They had gone, I gleaned, to see Auntie Betty in Brighton.

I would probably quite have forgotten the existence of my great aunt except for a chance remark of my mother’s forty or fifty years later when I took her to the Theatre Royal in Brighton. My mother realised she had been here before and it brought back memories for her of several happy holidays with her aunt in Brighton. Picturing the fur clad visitor of yore I asked my mother what had become of Aunt Betty.

Surely you remember that dreadful business, she said, forgetting I was a child at a time when children were kept in the dark if not completely ignored. Betty, I now learned, had discovered that she had cancer of the lung. Unable or unwilling to face the pain she had put her head in the gas oven. The police had traced my mother as the only surviving relative. That explained my parents’ sudden departure for Brighton all those summers ago and the secrecy. Both cancer and suicide would have been taboo.

Before the curtain went up my mother sighed and reflected that her aunt had had a sad life really. Her first husband had been killed in the Great War, her second in the next. This did not explain why we never saw her, though I think I vaguely remember remarks, spoken with disapproval about her “colourful” life style. I might be adding my own colour here. I suppose it is more likely that in the 1950s people worked longer weeks and were less mobile.

These memories, pat enough set down on paper, did not return ready-made. They filtered through over the next days and weeks. But fairly quickly I deduced that the slides that I had found were of my Great Aunt Betty. That this self-assured young beauty who smiled so happily was yet to face the social upheaval of two wars, a double personal loss and a brave and terribly lonely death seemed too awful to contemplate. Lingering over her pictures almost a century later there was nothing I could do to save her. Events would unfold with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, the more I look at the portraits, the more sure I am that she would have made the most of the good times. I hoped so.

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100 Little Pleasures

Since the first edition of this book in 2011 in which I tried to portray the small pleasures that make life worth living, the English speaking world has discovered “hygge”, familiar to me from Norway but hijacked recently by the Danes. There is no English translation though the Germans call it Gemütlichkeit and the concept was already to be found in many of my own essays. It means recognizing the special moment or insight, alone or together with friends, that has a special resonance. It involves a gentle feeling of well-being and contentment that the English word cosiness does not quite capture. It has become something of a cliché in the popular mind concerning candles, slippers and firelight. My book showed and still shows there is more to it than that.

Even more recently the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, acclaimed for his detailed and addictive books about his intimate life, has in his latest publication “Autumn” begun to see the world anew and has written some delightful vignettes of the simpler pleasures. What a pity he could not have read my 2011 edition of “A Little Book of Pleasures”!

For this book, too, is about the small pleasures of life. I may have experienced the grander passions and have occasionally been swept off course, but what I report here are less the crueller emotions and more the sweeter, life- sustaining delights of daily life. They are there for most of us to seize. This might be fond familiarity with a place or an object, a fleeting feeling or observation, an action or a favourite taste. It might be the tingle of delight I get when even the most ordinary cabbage white butterfly lands on the page of a book I am reading in the garden or the fascination when I look up from my keyboard to watch a spider in the corner of my study window jump on, paralyze and wrap a fly in its web for a future feast.

So what is it all about, this book? Does it have to be about anything? Does life have to have a meaning? The pleasures depicted here may be enduring or short-lived. Let us say, whether you are inclined to take it in the literal or in the figurative sense that these moments are God given.

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Howard’s End

Howard’s End

I am reading the novel during the same month as the TV adaptation is being aired on BBC. I am just about keeping pace and I am impressed by the film.

As a writer there are two rules I try to apply. 1. Show, don’t tell. 2. Reread, cut, reduce, rewrite. T.V. is ideal for the former. Several of the long passages in the novel are covered in less than a minute on screen even though much of the spoken narrative is kept. In Mr. Bast’s nocturnal ramble film and speech are combined. Gaslit Wimbledon and Bast’s recollection of his night out as recounted to the sisters.

Reading the book I wondered how some of the ideological, sociological and political debate would be transferred. The answer is selectively but brilliantly done. The longeurs of the book are lost but the necessary argument gets through.

Forster was ahead of his time. In today’s Britain we are rapidly plunging back before his time e.g. the disparity between the rich and the poor, and have added new gods to the worship of money eg consumer goods and the cult of celebrity. Fewer people, I would suggest aspire to literature and the arts.

In both book and film the plot itself moves on at a rapid pace. Worth reading the book. Worth also watching the film.

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NATIONAL THEATRE BLUNDER

NATIONAL THEATRE BLUNDER

I have always admired the work of our National Theatre though I have not often had the opportunity to attend a live performance. If in London overnight it remains my first choice of venues for play- going, though. Last week I went to see the play Common in the Olivier Theatre. I knew nothing about it and looked forward to seeing a well chosen play with a large cast on the big stage. I should have been forewarned by the welter of poor reviews.

What a disappointment it was! The production was good, the leading actress Ann Marie Duff was confident and competent, but the play itself was plain bad. Incoherent, muddled, unfocussed. It could have been about a number of themes. The trouble was which? Potentially it was about the enclosures of the 17th century but it did not hang together and descended into further opacity in the second half. Worse, the language was contorted and absurd, an invented, faux peasant- speak that reminded me more of Roald Dahl’s BFG than of rural England. Not only that, but although I had a good seat and could hear well, the enunciation was so poor I only followed half of what the actors said. Moreover, like some adolescent freed from parental censure, the author frequently sprays the text with the word fuck as adjective, adverb, verb and noun to little effect, other than to irritate me.

After the interval the play began with a bare arm rising from the grave which caused only sniggers in the audience. When the actress emerged from the ground she spoke to the puppet of a crow. All sense of reality had departed but no feeling of magic replaced it. Throughout the play there was no character I had time or perhaps even inclination to sympathise with, either, so the play had no emotional impact.

Much of the action was dialogue or confrontation between two characters which could have been done on a smaller stage. Admittedly there were some effective crowd scenes but even they verged on cliché.

I do not understand why the NT even chose the play and why the Olivier stage? Oddly, the playwright DC Moore does not even get a mention in their £4 programme. I discovered later that he is a favourite of the theatrical in-crowd, so I suppose they assumed we all knew who their darling was and what he had done. Or were they ashamed of him and had left it too late to withdraw the play? I have not seen his other plays but with this one he has obviously conned the powers that be. His earlier work cannot be worse.

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