Disastered Me

Ian Hamilton

  • Rebecca’s Vest: A Memoir by Karl Miller
    Hamish Hamilton, 186 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 241 13456 0

On the train, sunk on dusty and sagging cushions in our corner seats, Lotte and I spoke of our attachment to one another. I was as weak as I could be when I got off the train. We made our way to the gates of Downing, where – I hope in candour, meaning to show her what I was – I gave her my terrible diary to read in a terrible tea-room, while I entered the college, at five p.m. sharp for my little chat.

This is Karl Miller, aged 18. His ‘little chat’ would be with F.R. Leavis, who subsequently admitted him to Downing College as a student. ‘Lotte’ was his older woman, an exotic foreign dancer of whom we will not be hearing a lot more. The ‘terrible diary’ was the record of his life-experience so far. On the evidence of the diary, Miller would probably always have a Leavis and a Lotte in his life. Leavis could be seen as his reward for teenage virtue, for highmindedness, hard reading, for having been solemn and severe in his intentions. Lotte was the culmination of some other, darker strain – a strain that was already proving something of a strain.

Miller had always known that it was there. He had been told about it by the women who had brought him up. He had been born with it. Miller’s Scottish parents separated just a few months before his birth. Their short marriage had been spent in London, where Mr Miller, a painter of landscapes, had declined to make ends meet. Mrs Miller, née Connor, returned to Scotland in protest against her husband’s feckless ways: ‘concealed about her person’ was wee Karl. This was in 1931. After the boy’s arrival in the August of that year, Mrs Miller set off to make her living as an accountant for various hotels and shops. She lodged the new baby with her mother and three sisters in a mining village near Edinburgh.

From time to time the child received visits from his mother, but the real bringing-up was done by Grandmother Connor and the three live-in maiden aunts. ‘For the first five years of my life I barely knew where my father was or who he was.’ In the stern but witty Connor household both of his parents were reckoned to be faulty. The absentee father, though, came in for the greater weight of disapproval. The aunts thought him a bohemian, a drifter, a bad lot. And when Karl was caught looking a bit dreamy, they would say that the Miller in him was beginning to show through.

Young Karl, of course, had no idea of what ‘the Miller in him’ meant; he would investigate this later, or attempt to. As an infant he was left to imagine both the best and worst. There was a shadowy glamour in styling himself ‘orphan’, in having guardians instead of parents, and there was glamour, too, in the idea of a birthright, or birthwrong, which ran counter to the puritanical right-thinking of the Connors. His awareness of an unearned disapproval was to afford a secure basis for self-pity but also for a kind of grieving self-respect. And when literature became his friend, he was gratified to discover that some great writers had often felt as he did. Over the years there had been some mightily distinguished miseries. He began to cherish the idea of himself as peculiar and wild, as an interesting alien, a species of foundling or foster-child. Sooner or later his innate unruliness might disconcertingly spring into play.

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