The Girl in the Shiny Boots
Richard Wollheim concludes his memoir
For as long as my parents still went on holiday together, which ended around my sixth or seventh year, there was nothing unusual in the fact that I should have been sent off with my nanny to stay in what was called a Board Residence in a seaside town on the South Coast. The first two or three weeks of the holiday were divided between long periods of routine and brief moments of terror, with, I am sure, some pleasure in the middle. I call the parts ‘pleasure’, ‘terror’ and ‘routine’ to mark the fact that for me in those years routine too was a kind of emotion. Pleasure erupted into my life when fine weather allowed me to arrive on the pier, and I was allowed to walk up and down the row of black and silver boxes, which were arranged along the broadwalk, until I chose the peepshow I wanted to see, and for this I was allowed to divert a penny from the buying of a comic. There were, I believe, peepshows for all tastes, and there might have been some that were unsuitable for children, but I did not spare a thought for them because I was interested solely in the historical dramas, and supreme among them was the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle. The momentous event, the inevitability of which was conveyed in a way that no history book could rival, unfolded in distinct tableaux, in the third and last of which Mary, who had already faced her accusers and said farewell to her ladies-in-waiting, was found kneeling with her neck on the block. At a signal from the man with the long auburn beard, who was the sovereign’s emissary, the masked executioner stepped forward, the axe rose and fell, and the head rolled. The great portcullis descended, and then there was a click, and the scene went dark. By the time the next person stepped up to the box, and another penny dropped, and the portcullis rose on the first tableau, the head was back on the young queen’s shoulders, and she was ready to meet her stern tormentors once again, to pit in vain her beauty and her freshness against their heavy, grown-up authority. Sometimes, amid the protests of my nanny (‘Isn’t it a waste of money?’; ‘Isn’t there something you’d rather spend your money on?’; ‘You won’t be able to sleep tonight’), I would insist on watching the drama a second time through, for I needed to know that Mary could have life restored to her, even if only to lose it again, and as pathetically. I deeply resented the presence of the holidaymakers standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, waiting for their turn, but I told myself that they could not take anything from me, because, while they were condemned to stay put among the crowd on the pier, eating ice-cream or candyfloss, breathing in the salt air, listening to the waves lapping at the metal struts below, wrapped in noisy laughter, I could, through the power of concentration, slip out of the present and escape back down the centuries to the scene of death and a woman’s courage. Such experiences were what I meant by a holiday.
I try now, through the mists of time, to make out the precise tugs of sympathy that the death scene of Mary, Queen of Scots, animated within me. As far as the central drama was concerned, I was wholly on the side of Mary, and wholly against Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a recurrent figure of loathing, occupying a place in my historical animosities on a par with that later to be filled by Churchill. I had my reasons. First, she was a patriot. Second, as I was to learn from various novels, she was an enemy of love, and she oppressed it and its faithful devotees whenever she could: one victim of her destructive rage was the impetuous Essex, another Amy Robsart, who was later to become a favourite of mine. But, worst of all, there was the permanent imputation, never properly laid to rest, that the Virgin Queen was a man. But, if between Mary and Elizabeth my loyalties were clear enough, and if, as far as Mary herself was concerned, it was my deepest loyalties that were engaged, what to think about the executioner caused me great turmoil. It was easy to think of him as the agent of badness, and there was some strand in my religious thinking that led me to entertain such thoughts only too readily. But I did not like this harsh way of thinking and, in this particular case, I saw the man who wielded the axe as himself a victim, a victim indeed of that fate which claimed the young queen as another victim. And that he should live to see another day, whereas she could not, was not so obvious an advantage since, as every new penny proved, the day that he lived to see was only another day on which he was obliged to take a life; and whether it was another life, or the same life another time, was immaterial.
Terror, for the most part held at bay during the hours of daylight by sheer forgetfulness, settled in as the daily routine wound down, and I had said my prayers and been settled into bed. Physically alone at last, I would be caught unawares by the sudden sight, through the net curtains, and over the slate roofs, of the stubby, grey gasometer, which, as summer progressed, grew larger and larger inside its metal frame. If it reached the top ring of the frame, it would, I had been assured in the car on the way down, explode, and, if it did, it would carry everything away with it: the little houses, and the corner shops with their supplies of comics and boiled sweets and cheap fishing-lines, and the giant cats who slept on the garden walls, and the men in overalls who walked the gangways of the frame, checking pressure gauges and tightening screws with gigantic spanners.
In 1943, when I was in the army, at an officer cadet training unit at Heysham, every Wednesday or Thursday night we would walk the two or three miles into Morecambe, and go to the dance in the Floral Hall. From about eight to midnight, several hundred men and women, nearly all in uniform, were packed in under a pink and gold dome, and wandered round in a haze, searching for a partner. I danced badly, and I was convinced that I alone of everyone under the great dome could think of nothing to say when the music stopped. I did not really like the routine of the dance floor. I was apprehensive of the greedy looks, given and taken, which served as introductions. It, the whole thing, was something for which I was too little prepared, and the trains of thought that ran through my mind in rapid succession amazed me with their absurdity. I never believed that any girl wanted me, but I was terrified of being entrapped. Desperate for the mere recognition of my existence, I felt that anyone I danced with completely owned me, both in her eyes and, for the duration of the dance, in my eyes, too. My feet were not free to dance as I would have liked them to, my mouth was not free to form the words I wanted to utter, my eyes were not my own to turn in whatever direction they were drawn. My only desire was to please the girl I was with, but, inside the body which my arm lightly, gently encircled, I could feel waves of scorn rising and crashing against the ribcage.
Looking back on those evenings, I find one thing that delighted me, and that was the sudden, poignant moment when a group of girls, fifteen or twenty of them, irritated either with the attention they had received or with the lack of it, fed up with the flirtatiousness that was first expected of them and then resented, banded together in a great anarchic ring. Girls of a 17th-century prettiness, and girls with dark, angry blotches spreading across their faces, and little nondescript girls levered out of their fathers’ corner-shops and now with corporals’ stripes on their sleeves, put their arms around each others’ waists, and swept round the floor in a large, defiant circle, kicking up their legs, their high, sing-song voices breaking out into a chorus of ‘Run, rabbit, run’, or ‘Hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’, or ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag’, the cracked vowels rising up to the ceiling, and then, when they could bear it no longer, the conspicuousness, the isolation, the dependence on each other, they dissolved in laughter, and slowly merged back into the vast supply of complacent partners. And all the while I lived with this terrible premonition: that, were a girl in uniform, through what I recognised would have been an act of random kindness on her part, actually to have taken it on herself to initiate me into the pleasures of upright sexuality, fully dressed, one eye kept open for the military police, the cries of soldiers revelling in the distance, the rough salt air blowing off the Irish Sea, I would have responded by falling so desperately in love with her that, as likely as not, my feeble sense of what being a soldier required of me would have crumbled, and the next night, and the next night, and the night after that, would have seen me standing under her window, a common deserter, shouting out her name through my tears.
It was some time in the autumn of 1943, or in the spring of 1944, that I lost my virginity. I packed a small bag, put into it a volume of Proust, which I had just started, walked down to the station, caught a stopping train, and found myself in Piccadilly in the blackout close to midnight. The streets were crowded with fast-moving anonymous bodies. I walked round and round, along Piccadilly, through the back streets, past the Regent Palace Hotel, across Regent Street, down Swallow Street, back to Piccadilly, then round and round again. I passed the same unlit shopfronts five, ten, fifteen times. At least two hours had gone by, and I could tell that a dreaded squeamishness was entering into me, which foretold a lonely end to the night. It was just as I was thinking this thought that I paused, exhausted, outside the great ornamental portico of the Piccadilly Hotel, and I found myself approached by a young girl in a brief belted coat. I could see, by the light of the match that I covertly struck for her, that she was pretty, short with curly fair hair, and a somewhat blurred poetry around the eyes. She was dressed in blue. I could also see that she was nervous. She suggested that I follow her back to her flat, which was off Orchard Street. I asked her if she would go ahead, and, as I followed her, the street stretching out before us, here and there broken up by low walls of sandbags, I felt inordinately proud and free, and it was only after she had fumbled for her keys, and opened the front door, and gone up the steep flight of stairs, and told me not to make any noise and to avoid the creaking stair, and had got me into the warmed flat with the gas-fire that had been left burning, and had shut the flimsy door behind me, that I felt myself her prisoner. She had gone out into the wild streets of wartime London to capture me. My freedom had suddenly evaporated, and I felt a little sick. For the first time, I noticed quite how pretty, and quite how nervous, she was. She was French, she was 19, and she had, she told me, a brother in the Free French navy. As I was slowly undressing, struggling with my Sam Browne, she picked up a silver-framed photograph from the dressing-table, and, giving it a quick kiss, put one knee on the bed, and passed it to me. It showed a very good-looking young man who was wearing a sailor’s uniform, and so, in her own way, I now saw, was she. She started to cry, and I told her that, if she liked, she could forget what I had come for, and I would pay her all the same. She dismissed the idea: it would bring bad luck, she said, and I believe that now I cried. What happened on that bed I cannot remember, but a frontier, an undefended frontier, was rapidly crossed. When I was once again outside in the blackout, I was overcome by her sweetness, and I might have gone back, had the thought not suddenly struck me that perhaps her brother lived in the flat, and that she was already in his arms. Then a sense of reality broke in. I hailed a taxi and got it to take me to the Russell Hotel, and I went to the Turkish baths, which were about four floors down. On every floor there was a strange damp echo thudding through the tiled halls, and now and again there was the silent apparition of a bald-headed man in a white towelling dressing-gown. I rented a cubicle, about which I remember only the enormous size of the key, and I lay down to sleep, but I couldn’t. I passed the night with a high fever, travelling through strange, lurid nightmares. In my lucid moments, I thought of the young French girl’s total charm of appearance, her modesty, and the dreams that must by now have passed behind her eyelids. I wondered how many clients she had already told to avoid the creaking stair, and whether she still remembered me. In that moment I knew that what I wanted, and wanted inordinately, was, not so much to have her, though I also wanted that, as to be her.
It was about eight o’clock in the evening, which was after my normal bedtime, and I was standing with my father in the foyer of the restaurant of the Savoy Hotel, breathing in the delicate, warmed smell of the chafing dishes. Looking through the large sheets of plate glass at the far end of the restaurant, I observed lights going on along the line of the Embankment, promising those who were able to stay up hours of pleasure ahead. It was like a scene from a Hollywood musical, a class of film I detested for their lack of rectitude, or their dissolution of the unities of time and place to which I was so attached. Nevertheless I had drifted far enough out on thoughts of dancing the night away, and of hearing the milkman on his round, and of watching my companion let her black satin dress fall to the ground that it required my father to tap me gently on the shoulder to gain my attention. I followed his gaze down the passage that led past the private rooms named after the different Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and there, coming towards us, swaying irregularly along the thick Turkey runner, was the debonair figure of the Prince of Wales, wearing a light grey double-breasted suit, and holding in one hand a black cigarette holder. As the passage opened out into the space where the two of us were standing, he straightened himself up; he stuck his cigarette holder between his teeth, and both hands flew up to adjust the large knot of his silver tie, which protruded from the famous cut-away collar of his shirt. Momentarily assured of his appearance, he paused. Then, the next moment, under our very eyes, he dived into the ladies’ lavatory. My father, noticing the error, tried, as a loyal subject, to move me on, but not before I had observed the heir to the throne re-emerging backwards through the heavy mahogany swing-door, trying, as he regained his balance, to take fresh stock of the world, which had so suddenly deceived him. Which, I wondered, which of the many blurred clues to life, which I had been struggling with for so long, and to such little effect, had the young prince scrambled in his head?
I do not know what precise degrees of ignorance or knowledge my parents attributed to me, and what dangers they inferred I ran, or whether they acted out of something they had read in a manual, but, when, at the age of 13 years and four months, I was about to go to boarding-school, they told me, in the middle of one week, that, the next Sunday morning, instead of going to church, I would get on my bicycle, and go and see Dr Barclay, and he would instruct me in ‘the facts of life’. Having said this, they made it clear that they did not want any further discussion of the matter, nor of what the matter was. Sunday came round, and I felt somewhat unshriven for not going to church, but I got on my bicycle before the congregation would have come out of church and had time to spill out over the neighbouring roads, rode very carefully, and, having concealed the bicycle in the clump of rhododendrons that encircled the drive outside the doctor’s neat, half-timbered house, which was called Woodlawn, I rang the bell, and was placed in what alternated as waiting-room in the day and family dining-room in the evening and at the weekend. I was alone with the mahogany sideboard, and the Georgian candlesticks, and the pattern-books that were being considered for the daughter’s coming-out dress. I felt cold, cold with a coldness that reached me only when the bathwater went cold. I went to the lavatory twice, each time, as I returned, pretending to the empty room and to the large watercolours of the Highlands that I had had no reason to leave it. At last the maid in her starched apron and cap came in and summoned me. Dr Barclay was sitting at his desk, wearing one of the dark blue bird’s-eye suits that he ordered from my father’s tailor, and he threw one arm over the back of his chair, as he turned to talk to me. ‘Now, let us see,’ he began, ‘when does term begin?’ Then, correcting himself against an error, he asked me: ‘You do call it "term", don’t you?’ Staring beyond him into the garden, I answered him. He then asked me if I was excited. I said yes, though reluctantly. I knew of about ten kinds of excitement, and, as a child, though I was generally prey to one or another, it was seldom the kind I was being asked about. By now Dr Barclay had released his arm, and he was opening and shutting his gold fountain-pen, which made a faint sucking noise. There were certain things, he told me, that I needed to know if I was to be happy at school, and to be able to concentrate on my work as he knew I would want to, and it was better that I shouldn’t first learn them from other boys. Boys sometimes got things wrong, or they put them in ways that made natural things ugly. Did I, as a point of curiosity, know what kind of thing he was talking about? I thought it wiser to say no. He asked me if I had ever kept rabbits, and I said yes. Had I ever noticed that overnight there might be not just two rabbits, but some little rabbits? I said yes. Had I any idea how that came about? I said no. Had I ever asked myself how it came about? I said no. If I hadn’t thought about it until now, could I suggest something here and now? I said, after further hesitation, no. Did I think that there was anything like this among human beings? I said no. For a moment, he tried to think of another question to ask me, his small dark eyes darting at random, and, with a deep breath, he gave up. He rose from his chair, adjusting himself in his suit as he did so. He wished me good luck, and suggested that, at a later time, I might want to come back, and talk more. He slapped me on the upper arm.
I was sorry that I had said no quite so often, but it was a matter of survival. What I could not tolerate was the sense that, under guise of being told something, I was in effect being told what I could know and what I couldn’t know. I could not bear the drawing of a line. By the time I had bicycled home, Dr Barclay had telephoned, or so I inferred. Later that evening, coming down the stairs, I paused. My parents were talking: Bunty and Noel H. were there. Dr Barclay, it seems, had been amazed. My mother repeated the phrase that had been used to her: ‘His ignorance is complete.’ Apparently my ignorance was so complete that it had made it impossible for Dr Barclay to know how to proceed. She said: ‘He had to give up.’ My father said to my mother, as he periodically did: ‘You always think that he knows so much.’ If my father had known, which he did not, about my fearless expeditions up the cliff-face of his books, and the samples of rare learning that I had brought back with me, would he still have inclined to the view that my ignorance was complete? Noel, who had had tyrannical parents, ventured: ‘At that age, there are a lot of explanations.’ In retreat up the stairs, I suddenly felt sorry for Dr Barclay, who had, I reflected, not particularly on that day, but on other days, or in general, done more for my education than anyone except myself.
Despite the secrecy that surrounded their nature, I knew three things of women, and all pointed to their superiority.
The first was that women were beautiful. Women were beautiful in paintings and in photographs, and so, with only two horrific exceptions, were the women I encountered in life. It is true that, if I stood back far enough from them, my nanny and my governess were not beautiful, but then I loved their faces with such passion that for them to be judged from any distance greater than that at which I could trace with my finger or with the tip of my nose the nooks and crannies of their features would have seemed irrelevant.
The second way in which women showed their superiority was in the more interesting and enjoyable lives that they lived. Men had to make money, which women, on the whole, did not, and this had the striking consequence that, whereas men were never permitted to talk about how they passed their days, it was something that women discussed continuously. Women could, I knew, be painters, sculptors, poets, dancers, actresses. There was no limit to the paradise that opened up at their feet and stretched forwards indefinitely, whereas for men such possibilities existed only rarely, and then mostly in the past, in history.
Third, women could love, they could fall in love, they could be in love, they could be lovesick. They could feel. Sometimes, after a man and a woman who had come down to the house for lunch had driven off, one of my parents would say, not exactly to the other, for that was not how they talked, but more into the surrounding air: ‘Why does she go on doing it?’; ‘What does she get out of it?’; ‘When will she settle down?’; ‘Why is she throwing away the best years of her life?’ If only, I would feel, these questions had been asked of me, I, though not able to put it into words, would have had much to say. I would have begun by saying that these were women, something that my father had never been, and perhaps something that ” my mother had forgotten how to be, and I would then have gone on to say that, for women, for some women at least, love, love in itself, love unrequited, love that did not even seek for anything in return, in other words the pure culture of love, could be a way of life. If asked for examples, I had them.
There was Peggy L., the grass widow, who pined for her husband, though she wished that she wasn’t married to him; there was Suzy the dressmaker, the chain-smoker, with her assortment of dashing menfriends who wore their hair enviably long; there was Daisy B., a friend of my mother’s from the stage, who ran a boarding-house in Highgate in a house where Coleridge had once lived, and who went everywhere with her younger sister, Pauline, arm in arm, both women always in dark red velvet, and it was only years later that my mother told me that Pauline was really Daisy’s daughter by some ne’er-do-well, one-night lover. And there was Muriel, my mother’s oldest friend, also from the Gaiety, who might easily, but wrongly, have been excluded from this list because of the slight laugh that was always present in her voice and in her eyes, which my mother called charm, and which prevented her from showing any excess of feeling or conviction. Rumour had it that Muriel had once sung in cowboy bars in the Wild West. Married, as long as I knew her, to a rich wine merchant called Wilfred, in love, vainly, with a rich lieder singer, whose concert programmes she organised, she had the will to make the three of them more or less inseparable. They would go to the opera together, and Wilfred slept, which he was allowed to do until he snored, and Muriel and Eric talked, and talked, and talked. When Eric died, his place was taken, and the flame of impossible love kept burning, by Gerry, who had been British minister in a small country, and was invariably accompanied by a good-looking young man from the Post Office.
Then there was Sigrid, the Swedish wife of Muriel’s first husband, Mr Cox, whose voice and furs and pale hair I recall, but nothing else to any degree of precision, except that one year my parents, when they still went on holiday together, took her with them to Marienbad, to help her get over some unfortunate affair of the heart. Then there was Molly Marshall, a tall thin dyspeptic woman, with features like my mother’s, whose black crêpe dresses smelled of stale cigarettes, who had to work for her living, and who talked endlessly about ‘the girls in the office’, and who redeemed herself in my eyes in two ways. One was by giving me for my 11th birthday Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in eight small volumes; the other was by being unshamefacedly in love with Barry, the understudy for Ivor Novello, although there was a recognition, not concealed from me, that he never would, that he never could, reciprocate her love. All he could ever give her was front-row tickets for the play when the principal was sick and he took over, and she went unfailingly. And there was Zoë, Zoë of the many scarves, scarves from Lanvin, scarves from Schiaparelli, scarves from Patou, the girlfriend of my father’s closest friend, David A., but who came to the house with him only two times out of three. With the exception of Molly and Muriel, all these were women with long earrings and with what I learned to think of as tinkling voices, and I would have added to this list Lucienne B., who, whenever she arrived for lunch, brought with her to my utter delight a jigsaw puzzle of great difficulty, with vast monochrome expanses of sky, or smoke, or ocean, which she and I would work on together, at a special card-table set up in the garden, until the sun started to go down. She was invariably accompanied by a suave Frenchman called Carson, with prim lips, which he barely opened when he spoke, and the only reason I have for associating her to this group of women in love is that she made famous all across the world a song called ‘Parlez-moi d’amour’, which I knew by heart, and, at that age, I could not visualise what an art would be like that was not in some large part autobiographical.
In thinking of women as the natural habitat of love, I did not envisage this condition as one of pain. Rather I conceived of the pangs of love as an internal flame, which warmed the soul rather than burned or singed it, and it gave a sumptuousness to women in glorious contrast to the partially frozen condition in which men, grown-up men, passed their lives. What made their condition fortunate, if not exactly happy, was that it transported them to a land, not otherwise visited by adults, where passion and excitement, the raw stuff of poetry, flourished, and where languor and even boredom, though not of the cruel kind visited on idle boys, sometimes took over.
This state of love, which was open only to women, though not all women availed themselves of it, was, I concluded, an internal state, but what made it tolerable was that it was not innermost, as was the life of children. A gulf separated it from the shrill, high-pitched despair, from the never distant scalding tears, which I saw as belonging exclusively to a child’s existence, and which I believed were comprehensible to God alone. Grown-up love did not result in that constant need to talk to oneself, which in my experience led so readily to prayer. When women fell in love, every step in their condition was carefully tied to some outward action, which expressed and relieved it. They picked up the telephone, they lit a cigarette, they bought more than ordinarily expensive shoes, they got someone to draw their portrait. The rearrangements that all this might, might not, necessitate were more like changes of train or destination, caused by the need for a foreign holiday, or by the sight of a young face, or made in response to a sudden judicious absence abroad. Every Sunday this fact was pressed home to me, when immediately on my return from church, my father would suggest that I go with him to meet the guests who were about to arrive for lunch. Men came to lunch with much younger women than I had seen them with before, women with fair hair just touched with grey produced ever older, ever more silent, men who wore shirts of expensive cotton threaded with fine satin stripes and smoked heavy cigars, all of which I appraised at leisure. Even when women cried, they cried to an end: they did not cry the futile, solitary, acid tears of children, nor, as their crying stopped, did they finish on a snivel. There was a word, a very special word for women in love, a word which I spent years brooding over, and which I did not fully understand, but which had the effect of diminishing somewhat their ultimate vulnerability, and of returning them, by however roundabout a route, to somewhere not so far outside the ranks of ordinary grown-ups, who, on Sunday mornings, walked to church, and dropped to their knees, and had nothing to say to a God who failed to understand them: they were – this was the word – ‘sophisticated’.
In my view of the lovesick condition as something peculiarly within reach of women, there was a lacuna, a hole, which, until it was filled in, deprived the picture of all sense. When women are in love, who are they in love with? And I knew deep down one thing for certain, and that was that the right answer was not men. There was nothing about men, not their manner, not their faces, not their bodies, not the way they talked, not their minds, not their feelings, if they had them, not even their elegant shirts and ties, that could make it plausible that they were the real objects of women’s love: it was a thought that could not ultimately be taken seriously. And, if this was so clear to me, after all a boy myself, was it conceivable that women, the monopolists of beauty, who knew what beauty was from the inside, would betray their inheritance, their birthright, so lightly? I understood that women had to behave as though they loved men, otherwise they would starve, and such behaviour on their part was totally honourable, just as it could be totally honourable for men to die in battle for their country. Love of money, love of country, were not, in my eyes, good things in themselves, but it might be inevitable that, in certain circumstances, one should sacrifice oneself for them. There was, I knew from books and from my father’s conversation, another mysterious word for women, which was really supreme praise, though stupid people could not see this. Some women were ‘adventuresses’, tawny-haired women who hacked their way through the jungle of men with a deep inner pride.
The true answer to the big question, or what, for many years to come, I took to be the true answer, did not dawn on me until, somewhere around my 16th year, about half past eight one foggy evening, having finished my prep early, and having got permission to do private study, I read for the first time the five ‘pièces condamnées’ of Les Fleurs du mal. So much of life, so many things that had been kept from me, suddenly became clear, and Baudelaire became one of my great prophets.
I had come to the conclusion that the only way, though not an easy way, in which, in a world in which women love women, a man might come to win a woman’s love was to try, in thought, in speech, in gesture, to become as like women as nature would permit, in much the same way as, within religion, which was only just beginning to lose its command over me, or perhaps to exchange one form of command for another, the believer tries to come closer to Christ through the imitation of Christ. The way to a woman’s heart, I had come to believe, was along the hard, stony, arduous track of effeminacy.
It was September 1939, and war had just been declared, and my father had decided that we must evacuate ourselves immediately, even though there was no sign of war nearer than the Polish frontier, which the German army, under the leadership of the mythical Guderian, had just crossed in force. We packed our bags, closed up the house, and drove down to Devonshire, where my father installed us in a large early 19th-century hotel on the front at Teignmouth.
After breakfast I dressed, and came downstairs, and made a careful decision about where to sit for the morning and read the English poets, or the harsh denunciations of war and capitalism that I had brought with me. On the second or third day, I noticed a girl of my age leap up from her chair, cross the road in front of the hotel, and walk rapidly towards the sea. She moved with great speed, her fair hair was cut in a bell, she wore a tartan skirt and very shiny black rubber boots, and she always carried a book. Sometimes she read walking, but it did not slow her down. She was staying in the hotel with her mother, to whom she seemed to have a great deal to say. Would I ever talk to her, this creature from Mars, this character from an Aldous Huxley novel? I assumed not, but to my amazement I found a way of doing so, I do not know how, and straightaway we were walking together, slightly faster than I would have chosen, round and round the municipal flowerbeds that stretched from the hotel to the seafront, pausing to watch the old men playing bowls, or, standing on the front, looking at the up-ended fishing-boats with their fresh coats of tar. We barely had to remind one another that these were the sights on which the young Keats had fed. She told me that she lived in the Lake District with her mother, who ran a hotel, but she boarded at a convent school in Berkshire. She knew a boy I knew at school who, by this time, had graduated from being my worst persecutor to being my accomplice in all kinds of literary and political subversion. She had read Marx, and Auden, and French poetry, though surreptitiously, because the nuns didn’t like it. However what brought us together was Russia, which was for me so much the past, and the present and the future. Our conversation suddenly lit up, like a great firework display, when we started to talk about Dostoevsky, and our versions of the Russian soul and the Russian Revolution.
As to the war, neither of us cared a great deal about the future of Poland, or, at any rate, about the future of Colonel Beck’s Poland, and we were in agreement that it was the worst issue over which to have started a war. Did I really think, Jill asked me, stopping abruptly, and staring at the splash of colour in the flowerbed, that intervention in the Spanish War would have made all that difference? Did I admire Orwell, did I read Lorca, was I sympathetic to Kropotkin? Did I think this, did I think that? I was amazed at these questions, since it was I who wanted to know everything that she thought. She was serious and intense, something that boys could be only under the lash of being bullied or in the throes of adolescent desire. It was only when I saw her coming from a distance that I dared look at her, and then I scrutinised her body from the top of her head and her straight pale hair to the toe of her boot. As she came closer to me, I took my eyes off her and stared straight ahead, so that, by the time she reached my side, I professed to be taken by surprise. It has been pointed out to me that this is something that to this day I do with certain people, with people I love, and I do it, I suppose, to avoid some unfathomable disappointment.
Term started soon afterwards, despite the war. Jill and I separated, though I do not recall the details of the parting, and my school was evacuated to the Sussex coast. I was anxious to see my schoolfriend, my one-time persecutor, now unique to me as the friend of Jill, and to tell him about the conversations on the seafront, and I believe that he encouraged me to write to Jill. I did, more than once: long, flowery, scented, perhaps even literally scented, letters, with quotations, I am sure, from the French and Latin poets, but I never had a reply. I believe that I was upset, but I was inclined to think of the whole incident, and the fast walks, and the conversations, and the questions, as a dream. I was certain that none of it could have left a residue in Jill’s clear, forceful mind, which strove so hard, as I saw it, to be unencumbered, and ready for ever new truths about ever new things.
That was how things were, more than sixty years ago, and that was how they remained for fifty years or so, until, that is, about ten years ago, when the philosopher who gave me my first job died, and the event achieved wide recognition, and I came to write an obituary in a leading newspaper in which I tried to defend him against the petty moralism that I foresaw. Some weeks later, a letter arrived for me in California. I could not tell from the envelope who had written it, and I opened it with eagerness: it was from Jill. She had read the obituary, and explained to me, as though it was something I knew already, that my letters to her had been stopped by the nuns, and so, she eventually discovered, had her letter to me. When she did find out what had happened, she had told our common friend, and had asked him to tell me.
Whether I already knew all this or not was hard for me to tell: it was Jill’s continuing awareness of me that took me by surprise. Her letter evoked with great force the memory of those walks against the background of distant battles. She wrote with great charm and with great precision of phrase, and said that the first awakening of intellectual curiosity, or excitement, I cannot remember the word she used, could, though often unattended to, be as important an experience as the first awakening of physical love. She had read some philosophy, she told me, but nowadays she mostly tended her garden. From the postmark I gathered that she lived in a large Midlands city, but she omitted her address, and gave only her maiden name, a double-barrelled name that I have now forgotten. I say her maiden name, though she did not indicate whether she had married. She asked me to think of her as she then was. I did not need the injunction. The image of the girl with the fair hair, and the tartan skirt, and the shiny boots, cutting through the damp, balmy air of the Devon coast, was impervious to decay, and I hope that it has escaped any clumsy retouching. I found a safe place in which to keep her letter close to my bedside, but it was so safe, so unlikely, a place, that now I cannot find it, which saddens me. The letter made me think, among other things, this: that, if my letters had got through to Jill, if I had heard back from her, if somehow what I call my life had started from such an early point, when I was under the same roof as my parents, and still found it conceivable that I should talk to my mother, and lived on pocket money kept in a leather purse with a flap, then not only would my life have been different, it would have been the life of a very different me. It would have been the life of someone who remained the permanent spoiled convalescent that I wanted to be for ever.
Smells of all kinds, some good, some bad, played a big part in my childhood: the smell of lilac, most beautiful of all, the smell of orange, the smell of coal, the smell of furniture polish and the acrid smell of metal polish, the smell of fried bread, the warm smell of the airing cupboard with its promise of new clothes, a new day, and many camphor-filled hours of convalescence, and the beloved smell of eau de Cologne. However, one smell played, and continues to play, a spectacular role in my life, and that is the smell of newspaper. It is the most persistent thread in my life, stronger, more unchanging, than any taste or interest, more demanding than any intellectual challenge, and I have never seen any way in which the power of love could transform it. It was like a ghost in a house that could be expelled only by demolishing the house.
I have an early memory, which I have recently, after much effort, called out of decades of dormancy, and which internal evidence dates to November 1925, when I was two and a half. It is teatime, the light of early winter is fading, and my nanny is sitting next to me in a big wicker chair, with a newspaper held wide open in front of her. She has fallen into a pose of great stillness. Her lips move, and she is reading with considerable sorrow of the death of Queen Alexandra, the queen mother, to which a full spread of two pages has been devoted. At this point my brother got annoyed: he could not bear my physical proximity to our nanny, and I believe he anticipated her intention, once she had finished reading the sheet of paper that absorbed her, to pin it up on the nursery wall as a memorial that we would wish to have to the passing of royalty, and this too he could not bear. To stop both he hit on a plan. Surreptitiously, he slipped a page out of the newspaper, and, making certain that nanny didn’t notice, began to tear it into small pieces, and then to roll the pieces between his fingers into tiny pellets. These pellets he then stuck in his mouth and moistened them, and then, placing them one at a time on his thumb, he flicked them with unfailing aim so that they landed in the middle of the page that nanny was reading. As the pellets hit the paper with a slight thud, they clung to the page like the scabs of some childhood disease. For a while nanny preserved the fiction that she saw nothing, knew nothing, and she may indeed have been so absorbed in the great news that this was no pretence, but I knew very well that this was something only my brother could have got away with. After a while, she lowered the paper as if to reason with my brother, who was now signalling to me that he wanted me to say that it was I who had been doing it. In fact, I might easily have done so, for, by this time, the juices that had risen up into my mouth in sheer horror at the scene seemed to duplicate the taste of the little pellets in my brother’s mouth as he rather awkwardly dipped them in his saliva, so that it might as easily have been I as him who had done it. It would have been a small departure from the truth for me to have confessed to what he wanted me to. But I didn’t. The next thing, and it is the point at which the memory breaks off, is that the sheet of newspaper slips out of nanny’s hands, and, as if in slow motion, slides over her knees, where, for a moment, it forms a protective apron, and then falls onto the linoleum. A last look on my part shows me that, as the paper billowed up in my direction, the embroidered bodice of the dead queen, to which the court photographer had endeavoured to do justice in the flat, took on sculptural form, but with a terrible difference. The legendary face and the priceless emeralds, and the fichu, and the small satin buttons, were now desecrated by spit, and smell, and the signs of disease, and it was hard any longer to believe that, as the nation had been told, death had come to the queen peacefully.
Some forty years after the incident I have described, I called on an old friend of mine in his rooms in the Oxford college where he taught. He was alone, it was just before lunch, he offered me some sherry, and, opening a corner cupboard, he took out a decanter and two glasses, poured out one glass for me, one for himself, and brought mine over to me. Barely had I lifted it to my lips than I was, without warning, overcome by nausea. I told him what I knew had happened. The college scout had washed the cupboard, and he had then lined the shelf, before it was fully dry, with a sheet of the Daily Mail, and on it had arranged the glasses rim down. I opened the cupboard, and it was so. My friend understandingly took my glass out of my hand, tipped the sherry down the pantry sink, washed the glass, poured out some more sherry, and brought it over to me. What it did not occur to him to do, so that I found drinking out of my clean glass only a small improvement, was to do the same for himself.
If my aversion to newspaper is primarily rooted in smell, then I ought to be able, in fact I would have to be able, to order it among the other smells I find bad, so that I rank it better than, worse than, the same as, say, the smell of excrement, which I also, in common with the rest of humanity, find unbearable. But I have no answer except perhaps this: that, for all their horror, excremental smells do not infiltrate the inner world, nor do they have the protean character of the smell of newspaper, changing from smell, into sight, into taste, into sound. If I catch sight of a newspaper across a café, or the length of the dining car of a train, my stomach closes up, and I know that I should give up all thought of eating. If I persist, every mouthful that I swallow, and I can swallow only a mouthful or two, and of fish or eggs not that much, offers to rise up out of my body as it goes into it. And all this happens before the smell has had time to reach me, or I have had time to imagine the smell, or, for that matter, I have formed the slightest desire to eat. If I try to look away, and to take advantage of there being no smell to pretend that the newspaper isn’t there, I now invoke all the terrors of safety. The obliging creak when someone quickly hides a newspaper under the cushion on the sofa, or slips it into a briefcase, tells me, as if I needed telling, that there is nothing, could be nothing, worse about newspaper than the fact that I need to be protected against it.