THE FADING MARGIN, by Nigel BuxtonPosted: November 16, 2012
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When he enlisted in the army in October, 1941, Nigel Buxton was still at boarding school. A year and a half later, following six months at the University of Glasgow on a special War Office course, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery for almost five years during which he was a junior officer on active service in France and Germany, a light aircraft pilot, an assistant adjutant in India during the last days of the Raj and ADC to the general commanding Special Force 401 in Iraq. Demobilised in 1947, soon obliged to abandon a fancy for becoming a film director, he became successively an employee of a major oil company, an Oxford graduate in history, tutor in South Africa to the son and heir of one of the world’s most powerful industrialists and deputy press officer with a leading UK manufacturer of drugs and chemicals.
While still an undergraduate he had articles published in The Spectator. Later, other successful freelance writing led to his living and working in Mallorca under the aegis of Robert Graves before joining the Sunday Telegraph at its inception in 1961 as regular columnist and travel editor. His published works have included the Penguin Guide to Travel In Europe, America, and the award-winning Walking in Wine Country, a consequence of five years exploring the vineyards of France on foot. He has been a contributor to numerous publications, was a founder member of the International Consultative Committee for the French National Tourist Office and belongs to the Circle of Wine Writers.
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A Village Boy
The flower pot race for 6-year-olds at my Sussex village school took place in flawless weather on the headmaster’s lawn the day before Sports Day itself. The texture and weight of the rough earthenware flower pots as I lifted them alternately is still with me along with the awareness of balancing first on one leg, then on the other in precarious progression towards the winning tape. I can still smell the close-cut turf and the warm rubber of my plimsolls. (We had never heard of ‘gym shoes’). It is certain that I cared very much whether I won or lost, but there is no recollection of either victory or defeat.
As anyone born when Kellogg’s Cornflakes were in their infancy could testify, there was a time when summers were never anything but perfect; when their taste was that of cucumber and egg sandwiches and home-made lemonade and their scent that of new-mown grass; when there was always haymaking in the long afternoons and in the coppice behind the cottage doves cooed from dawn to dark. If there is no meteorological record of droughts lasting from May to September I cannot help it; I write only of what memory holds to be true.
Dominated by its 13th-century Norman church, the village had from earlier than Domesday grown around a junction of North-South, East-West tracks through what may once have been a forest that covered the whole of the Weald between the North and South Downs. Mid-20th century maps and plans clearly show that, almost without exception, all building other than that of the church had even until then been confined to the margins of the last few hundred yards of the roads themselves before the junction. There were no side or back streets. At the time of my birth, and for many years thereafter, at the foot of the short and very gentle rise on which the church stood were a busy blacksmith’s forge and a mediaeval cottage with a sweet shop where Granny Grafton sold liquorice and sherbert by the pennyworth. A few yards away, in the churchyard, a low mound crowned by an ancient yew was reputed to mark the mass grave of victims of the Black Death.
From the ill-defined centre of the village a stile and 5-bar wooden gate gave immediate access to a meadow where the haymaking was done only by men working with horses. Tractors were still uncommon. To the west of the church the path that skirted the recreation ground, the school yard and the allotments (upon which many a villager’s economy depended) led directly into point-to-point country. Not a quarter of a mile over the hill to the north of the church was the farm from which we children fetched the milk in a tin can, swinging it round our heads without spilling it in demonstration of centrifugal force.
There was no money in the family, whereby hangs a tale of a grandfather’s financial disaster, a grandmother’s suicide, a father’s catastrophic deprivation (including the enforced end of schooling) at the age of 16, his loving but injudiciously early marriage and a world war followed by a depression. By the time I reached infancy three boys, the eldest born in 1912, had already left home, three more and a girl remained and my father had become a sort of general factotum on a country estate. Later, when adolescent snobbery wreaked its contemptible, but nonetheless cruel worst, there was a faintly consoling suggestion that we had somehow come down in the world. “The people that care don’t matter, and the people that matter don’t care”, was a well-worn maxim that my father was fond of but which, I was to discover, was only partly true.
A KIND OF POVERTY
Though far from indigent, we were nevertheless poor enough to be living in a cottage which for my first five years was without electricity and in which, for all of my childhood, the only running water came from a tank in the roof that was itself supplied by means of a hand pump. There was no hot water on tap. Poor enough for new clothes to be rare and pocket money to be a “Saturday penny”. Poor enough for roast beef to be a luxury, wild rabbit to be a staple of the family menu and for my mother to burst into tears when I lost the half crown (two shillings and sixpence) with which I had been sent on an errand. Poor enough for her to fret about the extravagance of sending household linen to the laundry and for illness to be feared as much for its economic as its medical considerations. We were a quarter of a century short of the Beveridge Report and the birth of the Welfare State.
Thanks to parental love and fortitude of a kind now hard to contemplate without emotions too intense for advertisement, we children were never at risk of being in any way significantly deprived, and for my first eleven years I was happily a village boy. Twice a day I walked the half-mile between school and home. Often in the lunch hour, and at the cost of my mother’s unease —but she knew I loved it— I rode in the baker’s van on his local rounds. After school when the days were long enough, and during weekends and holidays, by far the most of my time was spent in the fields and woods: damming streams, making rafts on ponds, angling for roach, stealing the eggs of moorhens and pigeons, building tree houses or huts in the hazel coppices, where sometimes Wills Woodbine or Players Weight cigarettes at a cost of twopence for five would be smoked. If for some reason I was confined to the cottage’s own half acre I was likely as not to be making a dugout or constructing a cart from old pram wheels and whatever wooden boxes were to hand. My dearest wish (I desired it with a fervour not equalled until puberty and girls ruined the blessed simplicity of childhood) was to have a bicycle of some sort. Any sort. I vividly recall the thrill of being able to freewheel downhill on the wreck of an old machine that I had found somewhere or other. There was no drive chain and the pedal mechanism was irreparably jammed. Facilely, I reason now that it might have been a desire for mobility, and in mobility a kind of freedom, that conditioned such passion. No other contemporary possession, or none that I can remember, gave me such satisfaction.
“I am part of all that I have met …”. Yet of the myriad influences that shape a man some must surely be more significant than others. Out of the mists that drift over that landscape of childhood certain features emerge with unfailing clarity. There is an innocent self-confidence, which in spite of the later assaults of a middle class education that might expressly have been designed to destroy it, survived into early adult life. Innocent because it had nothing to do with conceit; was not debased by arrogance or unmerited presumption. Absence of self-doubt might better describe it. It seemed, or seems to me now, as if I could always achieve what I set out to achieve. “Do your damnedest”, my father used to say, and the natural order of things was to do it. I liked coming top in class and frequently did so. I liked winning races (“Never look over your shoulder to see what anyone else is doing”) and as often as not won them. One of life’s enduring curiosities is that my prize for winning the 440 yards for 12-year-olds in 1936 on my last Sports Day at the village school was a set of fish knives and forks.
SINGING IN THE CHOIR
Then there is a memory of what collectively I call “religion” but which embraces an array (in today’s media jargon it would be a “raft”) of individually recognisable components. I had an outstandingly good singing voice that was routinely required at matins and evensong every Sunday for some four or five years in the church choir. Besides Sunday services there were weddings and funerals (more of the latter than the former, I have the impression) for which members of the choir were sometimes paid a few eagerly sought-after shillings. There were expeditions to choral events around the country, most memorably to the annual Festivals of English Church Music in Canterbury or Chichester cathedrals. Small wonder that large parts of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Common Prayer and the English Church Hymnal remain almost as familiar to me as best-loved nursery rhymes. Small wonder that among the indestructible sensory souvenirs of those very early years, the one an ineffaceable memorandum of formal death, the other of sanctity, are the scents of arum – “funeral” – lilies and (head bent in prayer, nose in close contact with the back of the one in front) of the oak of which some of the newer pews in the village church were made.
SALUTING THE FLAG
Quaintly – incredibly, as it must seem to many a reader – and to change metaphors, recollections ever to the fore in any cavalcade of childhood reminiscences are those that might march under a banner emblazoned “Honour and Duty”. Each 24th May, Empire Day was celebrated, for which event armfuls of decorative branches and blooms were carried to school. A copper beech tree evokes for me still an enthusiastic chorus of treble voices, accompanied by a vigorously played upright piano, in a song whose opening line was Now let us all salute the flag. The scent of lilac resurrects the sense of occasion felt as – hand raised to head in regulation military fashion for the last verse – we beseech some power or other to ensure that “the flag may ever fly in honour far and wide and be for ever down the years our nation’s love and pride”.
That 24th May was the birthday of Queen Victoria, the Queen Empress, was a fact of which one might be ignorant, as indeed I was, but that it was a day as deserving of mandatory observance as November 11th, Armistice Day, was unquestioned. That the flag of Great Britain might come to be painted on the torsos of beer-swilling young men or used as a wrap by semi-naked young women at football matches would have seemed hardly more improbable or less outrageous than the idea of a popular musical called Jesus Christ, Superstar. But Indian Independence and the end of Empire were yet in the unimaginable future and “colonial” had not yet been developed as a pejorative. It was with quasi-religious respect that we saluted the Union Jack.
Under the same banner in the cavalcade, wearing dark blue shorts of itchy serge, dark stockings with green garters below the knee, a khaki shirt, a green neckerchief, a lanyard and ‘Baden-Powell’ hat, is a twelve-year-old in the uniform of the Boy Scouts. I had wanted the uniform almost as much as I wanted a bicycle and almost as much as, at one time, I had wanted tame pigeons. “I promise on my honour to do my duty to God and the King, to help other people at all times and to obey the Scout law”. Less than three decades since the movement’s foundation in 1908 by Baden-Powell, the hero of Mafeking, had not been time enough wholly to erode its cardinal ethos, so that although strict juvenile observance of its enrolment pledge might be wanting, its ideals – coincident as they were with parental precepts – could hardly have failed to influence any but the most unimpressionable child.
At the age of eleven I finished with the village school and started at Collyer’s, a 16th century Mercer’s Company foundation of the kind that used to be among the finest educational establishments in the kingdom. Now, to the rougher of my village contemporaries I became a “grammar school puppy dog”, an object of disdain, distinguished principally by a regulation cap and tie. But now I had my bicycle. The school was eight miles from home. There was a bus, but it cost money. Five days a week, sometimes on Saturday as well, I and the brother nearest to me in age pedalled the sixteen miles there and back, calm or storm, rain or shine; in winter, always in the dark, our ways dimly illuminated by the sort of paraffin oil lamp that is now a collector’s item or by the slightly brighter light of carbide-generated acetylene gas (a considerable technological improvement), or (most advanced and prestigious of all) by dynamo. With such technical limitations, rear lights tended to be impractical and were in any case not compulsory. When the weather was foul we were enveloped in overtrousers and oilskin capes.
Over one stretch of the route there was a climb of several hundred yards, aptly called Long Hill, for which we were obliged either to dismount and walk, or to zig zag from side to side of the road, standing on our pedals, or (more dangerously than we were inclined to think) to grab a hold on the side or tail of a slow-moving lorry. The homeward descent was a breeze, in the course of which we could attain perilously high speeds. Safety hats did not exist. Granted, traffic on country roads three quarters of a century ago compared with conditions today was as a trickle of water to a river in flood, but that we survived without serious injury is today hardly credible.
Either documentary or anecdotal, there is scant record of those grammar school years. That there was a continuation of earlier athletic form is suggested by my present possession of a heavy bronze medal in a satin-lined case which celebrates someone of my name having been declared Junior Victor Ludorum in the summer of 1937. Otherwise, on the analyst’s couch, items of recall are few and curious (“Our memories are card-indexes consulted, and then put back in disorder by authorities whom we do not control”, said Cyril Connolly). There is digging for what we called “pig nuts” under the oaks in the school grounds, much-prized delicacies that I now suppose to have been a species of truffle. There is my being chased by a senior boy whom I had in some way grossly provoked and who, having caught me, proceeded to rub my face in a bed of nettles until restrained by a merciful sixth-former. There is the pleasure of eating egg and tomato sandwiches as part of the packed lunch that was brought each day from home.
Lastly, there are remnants of first nights of the school’s renowned productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. I was a fairy in Iolanthe and a little maid from school in The Mikado.
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NEXT FRIDAY. Chapter Two: ‘Bertie & Co’ (Public school).
The Imperial Service College at Windsor was the direct successor to the United Services College at Westward Ho!, Devon, the school immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Stalky & Co., a story with which I was already very familiar…………… the news that I might be going to the ISC filled me with eager expectation. Village life had been all very well, but one in which I would be a member of a society as rich in action and friendships as those in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, ‘Under Ringwood’s Rule ‘or ‘Cock House at Felsgarth’ would be fiction-inspired fantasies come true. It was not homesickness that afflicted me for my first few days as a boarder but an excess of excitement. Less agreeable emotions were waiting in the wings.