Germs: A Memoir

Richard Wollheim

As a child, I loved lists of all sorts, and found that all sorts of things could be listed. I listed the sails on a windjammer, not knowing how they worked, and the names of philosophers, not knowing what they were, and, a particular source of pleasure, the names of royal mistresses and of royal favourites, not knowing how they earned their keep. I listed the flags of the different nations, and their capital cities, and the rivers on which these cities stood. I listed butterflies, and the names of Napoleonic marshals, and shirtmakers in London, in Paris, in Venice. When on a journey I had, as a matter of singular urgency, to list in what became a succession of small red notebooks the names of the places we went through, often with a pencil that went blunt when I needed it most, I learned out of necessity countless ways in which place names could be discovered by a small boy sitting in the back seat of a car, and craning his neck so as to see out of the window. There were the wasp-coloured AA signs, there was the writing over the local post office, there were ancient milestones, and, in many counties, signposts had a finial, cone-shaped or circular, giving the name of the nearest town or village. To grown-ups, or those I met, these clues were unknown, or were so until the war came and they were ostentatiously swept away so as not to give assistance to enemy parachutists, but to a small boy, always in doubt that he had been anywhere unless he could write the name down with a pencil in a notebook, these signs had a value born of desperation. And, of all these lists, the most necessitated – though, even if I could have, I never would have entrusted it to paper – was a catalogue of the various ways in which the unreliability, the incontinence, of the body forced itself on my attention. I memorised the different shapes, and colours, and outlines, sharp or blurred, with which scabs, and bruises, and grazes, can mark the skin, nor was I content until I also had a mental list of the yet more formless stains that shame a child’s underclothing as the secretions of the body spread outwards, and I would try to commit them to memory even as, in the sanctuary of the lavatory, I endeavoured to remove their physical traces.

I was born on 5 May 1923, in a London nursing home, which occupied a house in an early 19th-century square. The square, Torrington Square, was destroyed in the war. One side of it still stands as a terrace, but I do not know whether this includes the house where I was born, even though I know the number of the house, and, if the house still stood, it would not be more than two or three hundred yards from the university department in which I taught for over thirty years. And, if I add that, for the last twenty of those years, my department was in the very square, and more or less directly across from the very house, where my mother was born, and where she lived for the first five or six years of her life, and I never went to look at the house, it might seem as though my life has had a unity to which I have been indifferent. I can only say that coincidences are not unity.

My mother was much impressed by coincidences: these and others. She treated coincidence as a fact of life, and she tended to think of it as the most powerful link that could unite two lives. She asked me if I didn’t think it a coincidence that someone had been to the same school as my brother, or that I shared my initials with a friend of hers. She would say to me sometimes, ‘Do you believe in coincidence?’ meaning, did I accept the importance of coincidence. If, in later years, I asked her something about the Russian ballet, or about my father’s life, she was likely to say, ‘That’s a coincidence, for last week I overheard someone talking about the Russian ballet,’ and she might add, ‘Has the Russian ballet come back into fashion, because I have a lot of things I could tell people?’ or, ‘That’s a coincidence, I was thinking about Daddy only today, and you couldn’t have known about that,’ and she might add, ‘Or could you?’ and these coincidences she then took, and expected me to take, as more interesting than what I had asked her. Certainly she never gave me the information I asked for. But she never answered any question that I put to her. She did not like it if one person talked to another.

From time to time my mother would say how much she would like it if one day I would arrange for her to visit the house where she was born, which by now belonged to my university. If her next question was not ‘Why won’t you do this for me?’ she talked of the visit, now assumed to take place, as though it would be of as great an interest to those who now worked there as it would be for her. Not that this was a distinction she often made: for she seldom found a reason for any course of action that was as strong as the interest that others took in what she might do. She did not want to disappoint the world.

My parents, once married, always lived outside London. This was a decision of my father’s. Before he married in 1920, he had, from the time he arrived in England from Paris in 1900, with just one exception, when, during the Great War, as we called it in my childhood, he had evacuated himself to Aylesbury, always lived in London.

Marriage, he thought, required a change. A family needed fresh air. I paid dearly for this decision, but it was what he would have thought had he worked in Paris or in Berlin, and, once I recognised the un-Englishness of the thought, I was willing, at least intermittently, to forgive him for it. I colluded by trying to think of the roads, and the houses, and the woods where I grew up as part of some leafy French or German suburb, Neuilly-sur-Seine, or Wannsee, or Schwabing, where the air is perennially fresh. Where I actually lived was the first issue over which I asked myself whether reality mattered, or how much.

As to what the decision meant for my father, I do not know. It certainly gave him freedom from the family for whose sake he had made it. Weekends apart, he dined at home at most eight or nine times a year. Generally he returned from London well after midnight. He rose after a breakfast in bed of stewed apple, toast melba, tea, a glass of hot water and some pills, and left the house briskly at 8.20. His face was delicately shaved, he selected his overcoat with great care, put one arm in the sleeve, shook the coat up onto his shoulders, inserted the other arm, picked up his letters and a newspaper, and ran the short distance from the front door to the waiting car. The only friends he had were friends who came down from London.

That I was born in London came about because my father thought that, at least for a matter as serious as birth, there was no reliable doctor outside London. Indeed it was only for us, us English as he must have thought of us, my mother, my brother and me, that an English doctor would do at all. For himself, until history put a stop to it, he always went to Berlin to see his doctor, and, when his doctor came to London for a few days, my father would take him out to an expensive restaurant, and there order for both of them all the rich food he had travelled several hundred miles to hear himself forbidden. In two other respects, he tried somewhat harder to follow his doctor’s orders. Every summer he started a cure at Marienbad, or Carlsbad, or Pau, though he invariably broke it off after a week, and spent the rest of his holiday on the Lido or the Riviera, or at Biarritz. And every morning, he stood on a pair of scales, and, taking out a gold pencil from his dressing-gown pocket, wrote down his weight in fine German numerals, on a pad which was attached to a metal ashtray.

Three years earlier my brother had been born in the same nursing home. He had been breast-fed for a little while. In my case my mother decided not to make the attempt. My birth was in itself uneventful, but I am sure that it caused my father to pine. It was a small death for him, one of a series of which his life came to be constituted. Thus far he had survived, in some measure, the departure of strange women from his life; the Great War; marriage; abandoning London; the frequent company of my mother’s mother; the birth of my brother, which also gave him pleasure; and now there was my birth. Other small deaths were to come, from which the big death, with all its terrors, was ultimately to bring relief. Not that my father was austere. I do not think that he willingly denied himself anything, nor would he have thought that there was virtue to doing so. He took a crueller revenge on himself. He converted the luxuries of life into necessities, so that, when they were absent, he missed them, but he took their presence for granted.

Shortly after I was born, I was circumcised. It was done by a rabbi, and with, I was led to believe, a cigar cutter. I was circumcised for health reasons, though there might have been other vestigial reasons. I imagine that my father was circumcised, but I never knew for sure. I do not believe that I ever saw my father naked, even though I often watched him dress in the morning. These levees, to which I was certain to be invited within a day or so of my father’s return from one of his frequent trips abroad, when he would lay out at the end of the bed the dozen or so ties he had brought back, were almost the total of the moral education that I received from him. However, from them I learned many things which I value highly. I learned how to choose a shirt in the morning, I learned how to hold up my socks with garters, I learned how to use the forefinger of the right hand to make a dimple in the knot of my tie, I learned how to fold a handkerchief, and to dab it with eau de Cologne before putting it into my breast pocket, and, above all, I learned that it was only through the meticulous attention to such rituals that a man could hope to make his body tolerable to the world. But, as to the body itself, what I learned was strictly limited by the fact that, at a certain moment, my father invariably turned his back to me, and, manipulating the long tails that shirts had in those days, passed the back of his shirt between his legs, and so deftly pulled it up towards his waist, that, by the time he turned round to face me, the lower part of his body was completely swaddled in linen shirt and silk underwear.

It was another thirty years or so before I came to realise the loss that I, and perhaps both of us, had suffered through my father’s reticence. We were on holiday in North Wales, where we had taken for the summer the upper part of a rambling 19th-century castle, and, one late afternoon, various members of a large and famous Bloomsbury family, children and grandchildren of the old lady to whom the house belonged, had settled down in deckchairs under the window where I was trying to write. Some of them had been swimming in the sea, some reading, one had been writing in pencil in a large notebook, and now they had gathered, with bottles of white wine standing on the grass between them, and they were settling down to discuss a member of the family whose arrival had been delayed. Was he a contented person, or a discontented person? Did he really belong to the town, or to the country? Would he have been more at home in Tolstoy or in Turgenev? What painter could have done justice to his appearance? How did he look at his best? On all these matters conflicting views were expressed, and, when it came to the last question, a dry, shrill voice, coming from a young man, rose to a peak: ‘I think Dad looks best stark naked.’ There were restrained cries of ‘Oh, yes, yes,’ and generous applause.

As these words reached me, sitting at my desk and writing a partly confessional work, which I recognised at the time would never, on one pretext or another, be allowed to see the light of day, I was made to feel how different my life would have been, what a happier fate my manuscript at least would have had, had I only been in a position to make that remark, or had my father, just once, turned to confront me as he was arranging himself within his trousers. I am not suggesting that my father was emotionally reserved with me. Indeed I never felt him to be more himself than when, leaning forwards and taking off his spectacles, he tickled my cheeks with his eyelashes, and gave me what he called ‘butterfly kisses’. With me, he was, I suspect, more bored than reserved. It was the thought of having, within the dullness of his own house, exposed to a young boy the vagaries of life, the excitements that awaited him in later years or in foreign cities, that he found so daunting.

When I was somewhat less than two we moved house, and this house, like the last, my father rented. The truth was that there were only certain things that my father liked owning. He liked owning paintings, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, he liked owning books. He liked owning the things that he turned out of his pockets at night and laid out on the dressing-table. These were the gold pencil, a gold case for a toothpick, a very thin Swiss pocket watch in a shagreen case, which, when pulled open, became a small bedside clock, a special key for opening first-class compartments on the Southern Railway, a silver cigarette lighter, a few carefully folded five-pound notes, printed, as they were in those days, on the finest transparent paper and held in place by a gold clip, some spare coins, and a small pearl tiepin, which smelled permanently of eau de Cologne. My father liked owning suits, and he liked owning ties, in both cases in profusion, and the latter passion he communicated to me, though, in loving ties, I possibly loved the shirtmakers they came from, or at least the names of the shirtmakers, even more. In time I came to believe that, through associating my father’s ties with the labels sewn inside them, I would, when expensive foreigners came down to lunch on a Sunday, be able, by observing how the silk was ribbed, or how the dots were formed, or the precise shape of the knot, to know one of the most important things about them, or the shirtmaker they went to. Another thing my father liked was paying for everyone when he ate out: he liked owning, for a brief while, his own airy portion of a restaurant or a grillroom.

The ‘we’ who took part in this move were my parents, my brother, our nanny, a cook, my mother’s two dogs, one from her days on the stage, a Pomeranian, and another, a Pekingese, and myself. We also had a parlourmaid who was black, which was a rarity in those days, and she was called – to her face, I believe – ‘Black Mary’. It was not till some two or three years after we moved that my father found it necessary to have a chauffeur, and then there was a succession of chauffeurs. One, named Keith, had a spidery handwriting in which he wrote out the weekly accounts of petrol and the hours he had worked, and my father, misreading his name, called him ‘Heath’. It was a sign of the times, either of the prevalence of respect, or of the scarcity of jobs, that the mistake was never pointed out to my father until Keith came to leave us and asked for a reference. He was a pale, sickly young man, with a moustache that was like hair sprouting out of a mole.

The one I knew best was the last, who also stayed the longest: a thickset, sandy-faced man with heavy tortoiseshell spectacles, called Allen, who had a strong temper, which was known to erupt in the early hours of the morning after my father had kept him waiting at the wheel outside a hotel, or on holidays abroad, when crossing some high Alpine pass between one Central European spa and another. A particularly terrible quarrel broke out between Allen and my father on the descent into Innsbruck, while my mother and my brother, sitting in the back of the car, white with tension, clung onto the silk tassels that hung down from the pale wood panels. The year was 1928, and, at that very moment, while they were on their way to Venice, where, as a photograph shows, they would sit on the Lido with the Russian dancers, I was on holiday at Felpham with my nanny, playing on the stony beach with my bucket and spade. I passed that summer playing a game that I had invented, which I called Butchers. To set up the game, I collected into a big pile the largest stones I could find in the immediate vicinity, and the game itself began with my picking up the first stone, holding it up to my eyes, and turning it over and over until I detected, or pretended to detect, which was a difference the game obscured, a hairline crack running across it. Holding the crack firm in my sights, and keeping my head completely rigid, I reached down with my empty hand, felt for my spade, tipped it on its side so that it was now not a spade but a cleaver, and, raising it a few inches, brought it down on the stone with a quick sharp tap. If all went well, the stone, colluding with my thoughts about it, fell apart along the line I had imposed on it, and revealed a blood-red interior, veined with grey and white. A second blow followed fast on the first, then a third, perhaps a fourth, until the stone was now in many fragments. I repeated this with stone after stone until the original stock was disposed of, and instead there was a pile mostly of red meat, but also of fragments to be rejected. These fragments I had already classified as gristle, as bone, or as fat, and, with deliberate roughness, I grabbed them and hurled them far away onto some imaginary sawdust floor. I was now ready for the last part of the game, in which, lifting my hand high above the blood-red pile, and opening wide the palm of my hand, I half brought it down, half let it fall, in a movement carefully modelled on what I had seen real butchers do, and, as it hit the slivers of meat, it immediately sorted them into the different cuts. In a butcher’s shop, the meat would have been soft to the touch, but, in the game, it was sharp and jagged and cut ferociously, from which it gained an unwanted realism as blood ran out from my hand and stained the stack of cutlets, steaks, chops, kidneys, liver, which I had piled up in front of me. And I must now explain, if it is not already apparent, that I knew the differences between the various cuts of meat in just the way that I knew the differences between the various sails of a windjammer, or the differences between the various philosophers of antiquity: my knowledge stopped at the names. I had not the slightest idea what the cuts of meat looked like, or whereabouts in the animal they came from, and, least of all, how they tasted. The beauty of the game lay in its abstractness, and the mysterious skills it kept alive. Another snapshot in my possession shows that, from time to time, I would look up from my work, and, under a mop of dark hair, stare out past the camera, to where the beach shelved steeply away, and where the sea could be heard crashing down on the shingle, sucking it back into its interior, with what was for me deadly regularity. My bleeding hands broke up the monotony of holiday life.

At about the time when I came of an age to notice novelty, and no longer assumed that the world as I now looked out on it had witnessed all the events recounted in the history books which I was just beginning to devour, the first new thing to break in on my vision was the cinema. At one moment the cinema did not exist, and, the next moment, these generally square buildings were all over. Made of the thin, dark red bricks of the period, they were faced with white stucco grooved to look like stone, which, with great artificiality, introduced the bright look of the seaside into land-locked suburbia. Behind the cinema was the car-park reserved for the patrons – cinema, car-park, patron, all being new words – but soon there were few more familiar, more welcome, sights than the string of small coloured lights looped over the entrance to the car-park, or the two chromium-plated boxes that were screwed to the brickwork of the cinema, through the glass fronts of which, when they were not too dirtied by the rain, passers-by could make out from the sepia-tinted stills, the high points in the movie that was currently showing: when one of these shots came up in the course of the movie, a low gasp of recognition was involuntarily released into the crowded darkness of the hall. If the film was a western, or a war film, another form of preview, which I loved, was a sand table that would be set out in the foyer of the cinema, re-creating the high sierras and canyons of some unknown land, or the battlefields of Flanders with their water-filled trenches and blasted trees, or the skies above them where fearless aviators were locked in single combat.

In every cinema, a patrons’ book was placed next to the kiosk where tickets were sold, and those who signed their names in the book would then receive free a monthly programme, printed in violet ink on shiny paper so that the lettering was always slightly blurred. Each double bill had a page devoted to it, and it was a rule of our family, originating probably from my mother, who liked rules without reason, that only on a Thursday morning, and then with her permission, and under her direct supervision, could the programme be picked up, and the page turned, turned and then very precisely folded back onto itself. When my mother turned the page of the programme, she let out a low hiss. Ordinarily the programme lay on my father’s bedside table, along with the miscellaneous books he brought back from his travels: some Tauchnitz volumes, a work of Freud’s in German, a novel by Joseph Kessel in French. My mother had no need for a bedside table.

Half turning the page, or looking round the corner into the future, was, without some very special excuse, forbidden, and not until I was 14 or 15, by which time I was grappling in my mind with the ideas of Raskolnikov, did it seriously occur to me to breach this rule.

For each film, the programme gave the title, listed the characters and the actors who played them, said whether the film was a U certificate or A certificate, and provided a brief synopsis of the plot. I loved the words character, cast, plot, synopsis, and I wanted to learn the precise distinctions that they embodied. I did well with some of these words, but with the last of them I made the least headway. The word itself was obscure, and so were many of the synopses themselves, particularly so when the film was A certificate, or was judged unsuitable for children to see, for the management went on the assumption that the synopsis, though it had to be fair, must be suitable for all to read, with a result that was very far from that intended. Even as I began to read the three or four lines, I fell into a state of dread that I had read, or was just about to read, something that, innocuous enough in itself, would nevertheless inform me, particularly if I allowed my mind to wander, of something that I was not supposed to know about, and, though I had no desire to preserve my innocence, what I did not want was to lose it through someone else, and least of all through someone else’s carelessness or oversight, for then I would inadvertently be tied for ever to the shame from which I desired to escape.

The regime under which I grew up reserved the cinema for two sorts of occasion: winter, and rainy afternoons. Winter came round with its own relentlessness, and it began on the day when the clothes I had been wearing for the past few months (aertex shirts, khaki shorts, cotton underpants) were, without any discussion, taken out of my chest of drawers and cupboard, and replaced by another lot (Viyella shirts, tweed shorts, woollen combinations) which were stored on shelves of wooden slats surrounding a metal boiler held together by rivets, in a small, steamy room called ‘the airing cupboard’. At first the winter clothes were painfully rough against the skin, the one exception being my balaclava, which, because it was made out of the very coarsest wool, had, on the suggestion of some friend of my parents, been lined with silk. However, one great glory of winter clothes was that, once the sharp smell of mothballs had worn off, they were aromatic, and, as they were laid out first thing in the morning, most powerfully when there was snow outside, they gave off the delicate smell of warmed flannel, which, merging with the smell of eau de Cologne, which illicitly I dabbed myself with as soon as my father left the house, stayed with me all day. The end of winter was left more to chance than its arrival, and it roughly coincided with the sound of the first cuckoo, and, a week or so later, winter and summer clothes were reversed.

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