THE FADING MARGIN: serial 25

Chapter THIRTEEN

Literary Leanings

Part One

A feet-on-the-ground assessment of my circumstances would have counselled almost any half-sensible course of behaviour other than the one that I now proceeded energetically to embrace. I was thirty-three. Unlike my closest friends without exception (it was a circumstance the significance of which could not be over-estimated and would never diminish) I enjoyed no private income. The ten years of my life over which I might reasonably be said to have had control had yielded nothing by way of recognizable qualification for any respectable revenue-earning occupation. Harry Oppenheimer had generously said that I would be welcome to join some part yet to be determined of his exceedingly large international spread of business interests. The owner of the English prep school to which my recent pupil had been sent, possibly the most esteemed and expensive prep school in the land, had offered me a job teaching French and Latin. Grateful though I sincerely was, I had taken advantage of neither suggestion. Leaving South Africa, I had been given not only a box of 50 Romeo Y Juliet Havana cigars (a taste for which, like Bollinger, I had acquired under the Oppenheimer roof. Tubed, I have two of them still), but a cheque for a sum which, prudently managed, might have provided shelter for the proverbial rainy day that even the most judiciously chosen career would inevitably have entailed. Instead, I bought a little Austin A35, a state-of-the-art tape-deck recorder  (the Walkman was more than 20 years in the future) with the BBC in mind and began studying motor routes to Calabria.

Impossible, at this remove, to be sure of the genesis of the idea, but I had recently heard a talk on the wireless about what the speaker had called “unknown” Calabria and it is at least likely that a tortuous process of mental cross-reference had occurred. The name Calabria already meant something to me. Old Calabria was the title of a travel guide by Norman Douglas (a copy is still on my shelves), who had also written the (then) well-known novel, South Wind, a story set in an island which the author calls Nepenthe, but which is obviously Capri. Popularly famous not so much for the novel as for the 1934 song and for Axel Munthe’s phenomenally best-selling The Story of San Michele, Capri held a particular and acutely painful interest for me. The year before, with South Africa and the prospect of six months of separation approaching, I had discovered that a long and increasingly close friendship had become a deeply serious love affair. There had been tears and the tenderest of embraces at my departure. By way of comfort I had said that six months was no time at all: in the autumn, I would stop off on my homeward flight from Johannesburg, she would fly from London and we would have a reunion in Rome, which neither of us had yet visited. It would be very romantic. We would have long dinners in Trastevere. We would throw coins in the Fonte di Trevi  (the Academy Award-winning song was barely two years old), thus ensuring a return together. Risking a gilding of the lily, we would take the train down to Naples and the ferry over to the Blue Grotto, Anacapri and the Faraglioni, not to mention Tiberius’s (but not Gracie Fields’s) villa. Capri! It would be the holiday of a lifetime. No need for tears.

In the autumn, the tears had been all mine.  Over a candle-lit dinner in the soft evening air of Trastevere she had told me that soon after I had left London she had met someone else. He was almost 40 years her senior, famous in a scholarly profession, star of a popular TV game show, three times married and notorious for his extra-marital liaisons; but inexhaustibly interesting, boundlessly charming and “very kind”:  in short, irresistible. She had not resisted. Over dinner on a terrace looking down to Marina Grande on Capri (I had judged it too defeatist simply to return to England directly from Rome, and in my traumatised state hoped for some sort of miracle) she pleaded for understanding. As I had already discovered in our pensione overlooking the Piazza Barberini in Rome, “Noli me tangere” had been the watchword for the trip earnestly enjoined by her new paramour and faithfully to be obeyed; all the same, she insisted, our relationship, though now irrecoverably changed, was and always would be very precious to her. The candles guttered in the evening breeze and I was aware of a loss that seemed more terrible than I had ever known. Now, only a few months later, and whatever the prompting, like a veteran returning to the scene of some near-mortal wartime experience, I had a compelling desire to go south again; but with funds already grievously depleted by car and tape recorder, how to pay for it?

During the long vacation of 1953, Mac and Denise, my wartime Belgian friends, had taken me on a memorable trip to the south of France. In the ensuing Michaelmas term at Oxford, encouraged by my small Undergraduate Page success of 1951, I had again submitted an account of it to The Spectator and once again, to my genuine surprise and no less joy, it had been published. It was the first travel piece that I ever wrote and was to be of seminal significance .

 

DEEP DEPRESSION

 

The notice outside the café was pathetically eloquent: “Service à l’intérieur.” It was raining on the Côte d’Azur. It was no isolated phenomenon. If the newspapers were to be believed, the whole of Europe was in the grip of weather, which, for August, could be considered severe. But while in London or Paris or Berlin, it had meant little more than the carrying of umbrellas and the modification of week-end plans, on the Côte d’Azur there had fallen a gloom and a chill which gave the lie to the promises of the travel agents and made nonsense of the brochures of the Syndicats d’Initiative.

 The comment of the facteur as he produced the letters from inside his dripping oilskin was briefly to the point: “Le temps est devenu fou.” From the Pyrenees to the Alps all reasonable forecasts had been confounded, all precedent overthrown. From Cannes to Menton and beyond, from Les Iles d’Hyères to St. Tropez, the pleasure boats were hugging the harbour walls and heavy clouds lay low across the hills. At Monte Carlo the beach was deserted. At Villefranche the streets were almost empty. And at Nice, “Jewel of the Southern Coast,” a wind from the sea was driving the waves against the promenade, sending the poor to their boarding houses and the rich to the refuge of the Negresco lounge.

At no point on the coast could the weather have caused any satisfaction, but at Le Lavandou it brought a dismay and a disorganisation which quite overwhelmed the little town. The rain fell upon a region unprepared and unwelcoming. It fell upon the red rocks where, the day before, people had been sunning themselves in between expeditions at pêche sous-marine. It fell upon the gaily-coloured beach tents, upon the white-walled villas and the cushions left lying on the lawns; upon the jasmine and the oleanders and the geraniums in the blue window-boxes. It beat through the pine trees and stirred the needles in their shade; beat upon the rocks and made the lizards scuttle for shelter in the crevices and thick undergrowth; and, higher up, where the ripening vines were watched over by the cypress trees, it fell upon the brown earth so that the dried-up drainage channels began to run again. The rivulets flowed into the gullies, the gullies into the bed of the stream, and the stream flowed down to the coast, gushed out from its grating at the end of the little promenade and sent a great brown stain spreading slowly out to sea.

Although the rain had begun falling long before dawn, neither natives nor visitors had dressed appropriately, for there had been no popular belief that the outrage would persist. Now, when luncheon was already being served, the cafés were crowded with those who had been exiled from the beaches and whose picnic baskets impeded the waiters’ feet as tray after tray of coffee and cakes were brought: “One could not just sit there without having something.” So they sat, toying with unwanted delicacies, subdued and shivering in shorts and slacks and open-neck shirts, wet from their dashes through the downpour, filling the atmosphere with a scent of sodden misery.

 It was a misery which was compounded of disappointment and frustration and, clearly identifiable above all else, a hurt and bewildered unbelief. It was a misery which ousted initiative and decision, leaving only a sad and confused uncertainty. The waiters and the barmen and the longshoremen were asked for their views, and, knowing well that they were expected to give expert and cheerful reassurance, they had at first obliged. “Ça ira,” they would say nodding towards the sea and the sky. “Ça sera vite passé,” as a doctor still groping for his diagnosis might seek to placate the fears of a nervous patient. But as the day wore on without any lightening of the skies they too began to betray a deep concern. Their manner changed from bluff confidence to uneasy doubt and then to ashamed silence, or, if pressed, to an attitude of defence and apology. “Mais c’est jamais comme ça,” they would say. “Je n’ai jamais rien vu de tel.”

Hour by hour there grew in the town a feeling of helplessness and futility. At the bigger and more fashionable resorts there may be many other things to do when the sun does not shine. There are the great hotels and the bars and the cinemas, entrenchments behind which the shadow of a cloud may be ignored. But in Le Lavandou there are few such retreats; they are not desired; one goes there for the simple life – and for the sun. And so, when the sun did not appear, and when the rain fell unceasingly, the brooding frustration grew. One was as if in a theatre where the star of a one-man show had not arrived in time for curtain-up.

 If the audience was depressed the staff were no less affected. In the narrow streets shopkeepers stood disconsolately in their doorways, watching the cars appear and re-appear, their foreign number plates somehow reproachful, their tyres swishing slowly and sadly through the puddles as yet another drive was made along the front to look for some sign of a change. Trade was almost at a standstill. At the boulangerie a mound of unsold loaves bore witness to the deserted shore. At the épicerie the wasps had to crawl beneath layers of sacking to find the fruit which should have been in open baskets on the pavements. The ice factory had suspended work. The post office was almost empty, and at the wine merchants, where by twelve o’clock not four litres of rosé had been drawn from the casks, the proprietor was asleep in his office, his apron hanging undisturbed upon the door. There was nothing to be done. That evening Le Lavandou went early to bed, tired with the wasted day, fearful of tomorrow.

 During the night the centre of the meteorological depression shifted more than a hundred miles to the northwest and its periphery cleared the coast. At six next morning a mist was rising over the town as the sun resumed its rule. The stream from the hills had shrunk to half its volume of the day before, and the sea was calm. The lizards came out again on the rocks, and in the streets the awnings were drawn out over the pavements. If, in passing, one remarked to a native of Le Lavandou that yesterday had been dreadful, had it not, or that it was good to see the sun again, one would be answered with the sort of smile which admitted nothing, hinted at delusion, implied that the morning sun could be taken quite for granted. “The sun?” it seemed to say. “But the sun, of course, on the Côte d’Azur!” It left the impression that the weather was hardly a topic for conversation, and that one’s own remark had not been in the best of taste.  *

 * Reprinted from The Spectator December 14, 1953

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THE FADING MARGIN: serial 24

Chapter TWELVE

Going Up Late

Part Six

The picture (if we may so generously call it) that I found in the overcrowded attic some months ago has been executed on a large unframed canvas board which has obviously been knocking about for some considerable time: the colours of the acrylic paint are dulled and the board itself is warped. Though it is a lamentable piece of work, its crudity cannot conceal an attempt to copy one of the most famous French Impressionist paintings in the world. Without knowing the provenance of the amateur work, the presumption would naturally be that the copying must have been done from a photographic reproduction. The presumption would be wrong; the perpetrator was working direct from the 1882 original. This I know for certain: the hand that wielded the brush was my own.

In December, 1954, J.C. Masterman asked me to come and see him to talk about a job in South Africa which he thought might suit me if I were not already otherwise committed. He had been asked by his friend, Harry Oppenheimer, who had been an undergraduate at Christ Church when “J.C.” himself was a don there, if he could recommend somebody as tutor to a son and heir who needed bringing up to speed in French and Latin before sitting the Common Entrance exam in England. Would I be interested? Wondering whether to spend half a year six thousand miles away from the general run of things in Europe would be advisable for a man who was already a late starter and had a lot of catching up to do, I hesitated over my answer. “The Oppenheimer connection”, interjected the Provost meaningfully, peering intently at me over his spectacles, “is a very large one, Buxton”.

It is not easy, now, to comprehend the extent of the ignorance and lack of worldy wisdom which denied me any but the most superficial and fleeting appreciation of  what the Provost had said. I knew (I don’t know how or why: it was just one of the things one did know) that the Oppenheimers were very big in diamonds and gold. I did not know that through Anglo-American Corporation, the company which his father had founded and of which he had become chairman, and De Beers, of which he was also chairman, Harry Oppenheimer controlled most of the country’s diamonds, more than 40% of its gold, half of its coal and nearly a sixth of the world’s copper, owned a stake in a multiplicity of South Africa’s most profitable businesses and was one of the richest men in the world. What difference it would have made if I had known is impossible even to guess.

A few weeks later, I met Harry and his wife, Bridget, at their house in Belgravia, flew to Johannesburg early in the spring to be greeted by Harry at Johannesburg airport with a dark green Mark VI Bentley, which he hoped I would find “all right” for my personal use, was driven back to what might have been an English country house in extensive grounds where the night air was scented with gardenias and was installed in a suite of rooms where his wife hoped I would be “all right”, but if I needed anything I was to be sure to say. The house was Little Brenthurst, the smaller of the two mansions on the Brenthurst estate. Harry’s parents, Sir Ernest and Lady Oppenheimer, lived in the larger one. The painting that had been the subject of my attempt at copying hung above the chimney-piece in the drawing room, where Sir Ernest was inclined to spend more time sitting in a high-backed chair than in his library and where I had first been introduced to him. On that occasion the two of us had been left together while Harry went off on other business. After talk about his adored grandchildren (Nicholas, aged 11, and Mary, aged 13), the conversation had drifted to Sir Ernest’s reminiscences of his early days in Kimberly, which I had found enthralling. When eventually I left to go back to Little Brenthurst Sir Ernest had convincingly said that I would be welcome to come and chat with him at any time. I had done so, had been bold enough to ask if I might try to copy the famous Impressionist masterpiece and had been enthusiastically encouraged in the attempt. Sometimes, I would indeed spend my time at the big house, daubing on my canvas board. Sometimes, the holdall containing my painting things would stay unopened while Sir Earnest talked about the old days on the Rand, fascinating me with his reminiscences of Kimberly when the 790-feet deep Big Hole of the diamond diggings was still no more than a deep depression in the land owned by farmers called De Beers.

In the months that followed I was treated as something between a member of the family and a house guest, with tutorial sessions almost incidental.  When Harry and Bridget went south to Cape Province to visit friends they took me with them, thus introducing me to Cape Province and Cape-Dutch architecture. In some of the most elegant dining rooms imaginable belonging to some of the loveliest houses on some of the loveliest estates in the world (ghosts of their 17th-century past still haunted them, I swear) I tasted wines from vineyards of scarcely rivalled beauty. Travelling now and then with my host on his business trips, I saw something not only of the Rhodesian Copper Belt but of the alluvial diamond territory of German South-West Africa. At the sorting belts near Walvis Bay, on the desert Atlantic coast of the future Namibia, they gave me a little chamois leather bag full of agates and garnets segregated from the more valuable spoil of the mechanical scoops. At some expense in London I had half a dozen of the larger and prettier stones polished and set as handles for coffee spoons. The beneficiaries of my injudicious largesse have long been forgotten, but occasionally I come across an errant garnet or two in a seldom-visited drawer of odds and ends. The trip subsequently provided the subject of a conversation at the Oppenheimer table with the majority shareholder of one of the world’s largest shipping lines. Enthusing about his love for deserts as well as the claret that we were drinking, he told me about metabolic water; the means, he said, by which many desert creatures and migratory birds survived. Such dinner table small talk, my own contributions rarely more than that of supplying an eager audience to the knowledgeable expositions of others, memorably included a measured rubbishing of Ernest Hemingway by an American Democratic Presidential candidate, a diatribe against publishers and literary agents by a man who was shortly to become the author of a world best-seller, a rhapsody in praise of orchids by a Knight Commander of the British Empire (DSO), who had been a major-general in the British Second Army and was now a helicopter salesman, and a dissertation by a high-ranking policeman about illegal diamond buying in Sierra Leone. The head of one of Britain’s secret services gave me his card and encouraged me to give him a call some time.

We flew by private aircraft for family picnics to an isolated ranch on the high veldt, where I was entrusted with the care of my adept pupil when he pleaded to be allowed to go hunting with an air rifle. Only when I had children of my own was I fully to appreciate what such trust must have entailed on his parents’ part. They had a racing stable and from time to time his mother would tell me that I had done enough tutoring for the day and would take me with her to see one of their horses running. Once, looking with her at the contestants for the next race parading in the paddock, I thought that the animal we had come to see was simply more handsome by far than any of the others and said that I proposed to back him to the tune of a fiver. “I forbid you”, she said charmingly but seriously. “Tim (the trainer) says he’s only running him to give him a feel of the course and that he can’t possibly go the distance”. The horse was first past the post. That evening an envelope was delivered to my room with cash amounting to what a fiver would have earned me at a starting price of twenty to one.

They were six never-to-be-forgotten months and for the most part memory has not failed me. I worked a little in the most enviable of circumstances and spent much of my off-duty time in the mostly attractive, high-flying, high-achieving sort of society that went with the territory, wondering sometimes a touch wistfully what the eventual and inescapable coming down to earth would be like. It was autumn when I got back to Sussex, and although the mists and mellow fruitfulness were all very well I knew that I was going to miss the Mark VI Bentley, the Bollinger and the crisp dry air of the Rand.


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 23

Chapter TWELVE

Going Up Late

Part Five

It is a day in summer, 1955. In the dining room at Oxford’s 149, Banbury Road, which is the largest room in the house, sheets of hardboard have temporarily been laid over the long dining table, at which I am working with an electric iron and several great rolls of polythene, each about a yard wide. My task is to join 12-foot lengths of the plastic together, side by side, so as to make individual sheets measuring 12 x 9 feet; the dimensions dictated by the practical working space available in the room, not by the use to which each sheet will eventually be put. It could hardly be called highly skilled work, but must be carefully done, since any incompetence will eventually prove catastrophic. The joining process consists of positioning the sheets of polythene so that they overlap laterally by about an inch, covering the overlap with newspaper, then slowly tracing the now hidden and protected overlap with a hot iron. If the iron is at the correct heat the loose union underneath the newspaper will become an airtight weld. Too little heat, and the weld will not be effected. Too much, and the plastic will simply melt, uniting polythene, newspaper and hardboard. When a sufficient quantity of 12 x 9 feet polythene sheets have been manufactured, the owner of the house will take over the iron and with myself manoeuvring the plastic under his anxious direction will with the dexterity and judgement of which he is a master, and with a precise understanding of what he is intending to achieve, will fashion a very large envelope destined to be filled with air heated by a large gas burner, thus acquiring a buoyancy which will carry it over the Oxfordshire countryside at heights and for a distance which, even with its creator’s scientific abilities, are unpredictable. Which is half the fun. (Years later, he will buy a proper hot air balloon and fly it himself).

The owner of the house and sole instigator of the present activity is Dr.E.T. (“Teddy”) Hall, whom I have known for only a few months but in whose company I find myself spending increasing amounts of time. He is one of the five statutory senior members of  the Gridiron Club (“The Grid”), the undergraduate wining and dining club to which I belong. Which may be how I first met him, but I think it was otherwise. Hall is just nineteen days older than myself.  After Eton, he joined the RNVR, served in landing craft as an ordinary seaman, went up to New College, Oxford, and won the first of his many academic distinctions with an aegrotat honours degree in chemistry.  An aegrotat (the Latin word means literally, “he is sick”) can be awarded when a candidate is prevented by illness from sitting an examination which, in the opinion of the relevant academic body, he would otherwise have passed. Such a degree is officially unclassified, but Hall’s subsequent performance left little doubt that in the ordinary course of events he would have achieved a First. Switching from chemistry, he gained his D.Phil in physics. Before his untimely death in 1971 he will have become the founder of the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archeology and the History of Art, the Emeritus Professor of Archaeological Sciences, a Trustee of both the British Museum and the National Gallery, a member of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum, an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, a CBE and a Fellow of my own college. Briefly, he will have achieved popular fame for his part in the exposure of the Piltdown forgery and the definitive dating of the Turin Shroud. I suspect that the cause of our meeting was the Piltdown affair.

It was an affair that shook the very foundations of paleontology. In 1912, on Piltdown Common, in Sussex, a skull and jawbone had been discovered which a number of eminent anthropologists declared to be the link, hitherto missing, between ape and man in the story of human evolution. Huge excitement and international controversy ensued. In the one camp were those who believed Piltdown Man to represent one of the greatest advances in knowledge ever made. In the other were those who considered the “discovery” to be part of a gigantic hoax. There was no entirely convincing proof one way or the other until in 1953, using  carbon dating, Hall and his colleagues were able conclusively and incontrovertibly to declare for the unbelievers. It was all rich material for cartoonists and others who saw the funny side of it. Encouraged by my earlier success as a freelance contributor, I sent The Spectator an appropriate piece, which the magazine published as a letter to the Editor and paid me ten guineas for. Unquestionably, Teddy Hall would have seen it. That my invitation to dinner at 149 Banbury Road was a consequence is more likely than not.

It was now that I was richly compensated for my failure in Prelims and subsequent rustication. I had missed the Trinity term in 1952 and even though I had passed Final School in 1954 was obliged to come up for the following (Michaelmas) term in order to make up in statu pupillari time. I had no tutorials or lectures to attend, no essays to write: simply a lot of time to be filled in. What was I to do with it?  “Teddy”, said one of  Hall’s oldest and closest friends, “always liked to have something on the go”. The balloon project was one example. Close on its heels, the West Country cannon excursion was another. The scene is the spacious grounds of a large mansion in Cornwall. Lying on its side is a medium calibre, 18th-century cannon. Gouges in the turf of the otherwise well-groomed lawn would appear to suggest that recent firing and recoil have forcibly removed the heavy barrel of the weapon from its mountings. Loosely grouped around it in the early summer twilight, wearing evening dress, champagne glasses in hand, are half a dozen men and an equal number of girls who a short while before were at table in the large dining room that overlooks the lawn until disturbed by an explosion that shook not only the windows and themselves, but also (though no one present knew it until later) a number of Boy Scouts sitting round their camp fire in a clearing of a wood a thousand yards or so away.

Two days before, Hall had been showing me a piece of equipment that he had recently acquired and was eager to try out. What appeared at first to be an unexceptional container on wheels, some seven feet long, six feet wide and two or three feet deep, opened up into a canvas-sided shelter. It was a very early example of the now commonplace and much refined trailer tent. Camping was not of itself one of Teddy’s preferred forms of recreation. Characteristic, on the other hand, was his readiness to experiment with anything that seemed to offer itself as a useful accessory or addition to his current interests. Whether the cannon or the trailer tent came first in order of inspiration I am unable to say, but over a drink one day Teddy proposed that he and I should drive down to Cornwall where during the coming weekend a friend of his would be entertaining a house party. On the lawn there fronting the dining room, pointing out over a ha-ha, looking seawards, Teddy said, was a cannon of which his friend was very proud. It would be fun to drive down the day before, camp overnight somewhere near the estate, wait until dinner time on the Saturday evening, then set off the showpiece gun with as noisy a charge as we might safely contrive. There were four berths in the trailer tent, so we could collect a brace of girls to join the expedition. As an ex-gunner, I would be just the man to supply any technical advice, if it were needed. (This, tongue in cheek: elementary technical contributions from others were rarely needed in any experiment with which the holder of a D.Phil in Physics was involved.)

At his boyhood home near Ewelme, not far from Oxford, Teddy said, they kept a supply of gunpowder for the excavation of old tree roots. Discreetly, we could obtain a sufficient quantity of this to make propellant charges. He knew that a number of cannon balls were piled ornamentally beside the gun. All we would need by way of tools would be a good hand-drill to unblock the touchhole of the weapon and some sort of a reamer to clear out any debris that might be found in the barrel. This, Teddy himself, who was skilled at metal working, quickly fashioned in the estate workshop, using a length of iron rod which he made into a giant corkscrew fastened to the end of an old broom handle. Organising the girls and camping gear took a little longer, but less than a day and a half after the idea was mooted we were ready to go. Packed in a biscuit tin along with bags of silica gel (a desiccant) was a pound or two of black powder that I had crammed into several of Teddy’s old socks. Everything went wondrously well. We had sent one cannon ball over the wood and were preparing a repeat firing when Teddy’s friend burst onto the lawn, soon joined by his fellow diners. For the perpetrators, the amazement, admiration and delight were very satisfactory. Champagne was fetched and eventually dinner resumed with four extra places set. Next day there was a visit from the local constabulary. The night before, a troop of Boy Scouts, camping in a clearing, had been considerably alarmed when the sound of an explosion had been almost instantly followed by a crash and a shower of leaves and branches immediately behind them. It was, the complaining Scoutmaster had reported, as if they had been under shellfire. Weeks later, Teddy’s friend, prominent in Cornish society, was told that a prosecution for “illegal discharge of ordnance” would not, after all, be pursued.

Thus time in the summer of 1955 never hung heavily on my hands. The workshop in which the reamer for the cannon had been manufactured soon came to be of a significance even greater than that of featuring in so memorable an escapade. At Littlemore, on the outskirts of Oxford, Hall at this time acquired the house which was to become his lifetime home. The premises embraced an outbuilding in which he proceeded to install the lathes and other items of professional metal-working machinery which had been at Ewelme, and others, newly acquired, together with a full-time machinist. “On the go”, currently, and in particular, was the design and construction of a meter for the continuous measurement of the average speed of a moving vehicle. When he ruefully remarked how expensive it all was I suggested that his accountant might be interested in the thought of establishing a company that would own and operate the whole caboodle: setting costs against tax, and so on. What about “The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company” for a name? His accountant approved. It was the beginning of the company that was to make not only the average meter as its first product, but an invalid chair incorporating a respirator, freeing its user from confinement to bed. Originally designed and built exclusively for a close friend, it was the prototype for a device that revolutionised the lives of numberless severely disabled people and inspired the foundation of an entire charity in aid of them and their families. The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company (ELSEC) flourishes today under the ownership of William Hall, one of the founder’s two sons. The average meter caught the attention of the rally team belonging to one of the world’s largest motor manufacturers and its cars were fitted with the instrument. Trouble came when it was found that a certain spindle had a tendency to snap if it was incorrectly fitted. Time before a crucial race was desperately short. Rigorously instructed by Teddy in the proper procedure, I was despatched to the team in the role of mechanic extraordinary to save the day by working late into the night. Memory has nothing to say how the team fared.

Such activities represented opportunities that I welcomed. Among the extravagancies that Teddy could amply afford but I could not were dinners at the Bay Tree in Burford or PK’s, a restaurant near Henley that was not only by far the best in the county but one of the most expensive. PK himself had a genuine affection for Teddy as a customer who was as gastronomically discerning as he was agreeable to serve. Our visits there were frequent enough for me at times to at least go through the motions of resisting them; gestures which Teddy treated with the argument that since he enjoyed our dinners together it was “pretty unfriendly” of me to object to them on the purely selfish grounds that I couldn’t afford them. It was much the same with the Bay Tree, where the ambience and food were particularly agreeable and service was by girls handpicked to match. Teddy had immense personal appeal (“charisma” would be today’s word), faultlessly carried, and there were evenings when I would return alone to Oxford in the Delage and he would follow by taxi, or I might fetch him, next day. To have taken resistance to his unpretentious generosity beyond the decency of an occasional gesture would have been a kind of vulgarity which he would have found intolerable, and to have risked that most heinous of all social offences – being “boring”. I was comforted by making myself useful from time to time.

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THE FADING MARGIN: serial 22

Chapter TWELVE

Going Up Late

Part Four

My pleasure at the publication of my piece in The Spectator far outweighed the disappointment of seeing it pedestrianly entitled Going Up Late, instead of the (as I thought) cleverly punning Getting Up Late that I had been so pleased with. In time to come I was to learn that editors do not thank writers for gratuitously submitting titles to their own contributions. Meanwhile, I basked in a brief sunsplash of glory. It was a satisfaction, I suspect, that would have been much modified if I could have heard the comments of my elders and betters. Sententious might have been too harsh a judgement, but were the sentiments expressed a suspicion too self-satisfied, a trifle too virtuous? I present it again in these present pages because, for all its faults (Oscar Wilde might have said it was not the least of them) it was written with sincerity and faithfully conveys the attitude of mind with which I not only approached the university but also spent my time there.

As I suppose it to be in all great centres of learning, the Oxford that I knew embraced numerous loosely delineated social enclaves (“sets” or “cliques” would be pejorative and wholly misleading terms), not self-consciously aware of their particular identities, not defined by any coherent criteria or regulated by any codifiable qualifications for membership, but nonetheless individually recognizable. The nucleus of the one in which I moved consisted of fewer than half a dozen members of my own college together with perhaps as many from other colleges. The great majority of those who comprised it had much in common. They came from at least comfortably monied backgrounds in which —not arrogantly, not as of a perceived right, but as a customary stage in a person’s normal progression from birth to adult independence— higher education at the university (which in mid-20th century was still to say Oxford or Cambridge) was more or less taken for granted. Not to have been at one or the other would have constituted a considerable aberration. With rare exceptions, their upbringing had been based upon that expectation. Their 6th form curricula had been devised to that end.

I was six or seven years older than all of them and apart from having been to a minor public school (in the scholastic hierarchy Eton was at the top, the ISC not far from the bottom) shared almost none of their conventional middle class characteristics. For me, Oxford was not the fulfilment of orthodox expectations, a step towards the realisation of practical ambitions, a means to the achievement of material success. It was no more than a fancy that I alone had concocted and was now enacting. Small wonder that I was never wholly to be free of an awareness of being the odd man out. At first a sort of wary formality appeared to condition our exchanges; but my history tutor in college, who was only a year older than I, had been in tanks and Normandy in the summer of 1944 and I imagine that it was through him (two or three of my closest friends in college were also reading history) that it came generally to be known that I also had served there. However it was, I soon became aware that a subtle shift had occurred in my relationship with my fellow undergraduates. What might have been diagnosed as a certain reserve seemed to have been ousted in favour of the unthinking acceptance to be expected among equals. It was as if I had been forgiven for my unfortunate peculiarities of age and experience and been accorded something like a bemused respect.

If a single over-simplification of our compatibility had to be offered the best might be that we tended to be amused by the same things. Not a man among us was by nature frivolous, but it was almost as if it would have been considered bad form to be anything but light-hearted. Though they seldom wore the universally famous old school tie which consists of a narrow light blue diagonal stripe on a black background, several of our number were entitled to do so and I have sometimes wondered whether our aversion to earnestness was an infectious, particularly Etonian thing. To see it carried to the nth – and on occasions tiresome – degree one cannot do better than to read Brazilian Adventure, One’s Company and News from Tartary, the hugely entertaining early works of Peter Fleming —Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford— in which he effectively apologises for taking anything seriously’.

Besides myself, most of the others had done their national service, almost all with commissions in the Rifle Brigade, the Brigade of Guards or the Royal Artillery, something that had undoubtedly meant much to all of them (two had seen active service in Korea) but was not publicly so acknowledged. Rare reminiscences of army days were invariably about some ludicrous military catastrophe or other: an uncontrollable fit of sneezing when trooping the colour; the battery of guns arriving on the firing ranges at Sennybridge only to find that their ammunition consisted of coloured smoke, not high explosive; the convoy intended for Swanley in Kent directed instead to Swansea in Wales. I was never encouraged to talk about my own time in uniform. Though it was known that I had seen some of danger’s wartime faces I was never questioned about such encounters and we never talked about the war; to have done so would have been to break a spell; to have identified a difference far greater than age; to have acknowledged an unbridgeable gulf.

It is, perhaps, a clue to the character of this nebulous fraternity that it did not own to a single member of the Bullingdon*,  nor in any respect conform to the largely fictional idea of an unjustly privileged elite. We wined and dined respectably; sometimes elegantly. We drank mostly in moderation with occasional excesses when striving to make the most-acclaimed (and in the early fifties fashionable) dry martinis. Even then, we trashed no restaurants or caused any kind of public disturbance. There was no vomiting through college windows à la Brideshead Revisited, no crying on staircases. And no teddy bears. To a man, nobody I knew, or nobody I regarded as an Oxford friend, would have been seen dead with a stereotypical decadent from the pen of an Aubrey Beardsley or Evelyn Waugh.

Everybody worked, some harder than others; a few (notably those aiming for the Foreign Office exam) with conspicuous diligence. Of the plausible excuses for the marginal 3rd class honours with which I eventually came down from the university the best is possibly the necessity of generating income in the vacations instead of reading for my degree.  I canvassed for new members of the Conservative Party, a deeply dispiriting exercise that convinced me that I could never be a successful sales person or politician. I translated texts from French to English for a Brussels advertising agency.  “Jamais deux sans trois” was a phrase that occurred in one piece of copy, which ingeniously (as I thought) I rendered as “It never rains but it pours”. The account director thought otherwise and withheld payment. It was never easy money. Masquerading at a Newmarket house party as a footman for an exclusive domestic servants bureau, I was recognised by one of the titled guests whom I had deeply offended in my time as an ADC and denounced to her hostess as an imposter. Chauffeuring a rich but singularly unprepossessing 60-year-old and her octogenarian mother from London to Nice, I was confronted by the daughter with a choice between being tactilely “more friendly” or being abandoned in Beaune. I settled for dinner alone in the capital of Burgundy and the train home. A moment of inattention on the bottling line of a famous wine firm whose slogan for their best-selling sherry was “A Gracious Welcome for your Friends” resulted in a batch of some 500 bottles emerging with egregiously less charm than the vintners claimed and their monitors demanded. My Christmas bonus was not paid.

Nor was my academic performance all plain sailing. In a battered box file, coming apart at the sides, untidily and inaccurately labeled “OXFORD & AFTER”, I have found a buff-coloured postcard. Printed in faded red on one side are both an indecipherable coat of arms and a 2p postage stamp bearing the head of King George VI. The postmark reads “OXFORD 5.15PM 28 MCH 1952”. In my own handwriting, the card is addressed to me in London. The reverse is rubber-stamped EXAMINATION SCHOOLS, OXFORD. Centred in the otherwise blank message space, written in ink by a hand far neater than my own, is one word: Failed. Known colloquially as “Prelims”, the exam in question had been taken by me a week or two earlier. Looking for “Prelims” on Google today, I find: At the University of Oxford, prelims are a first set of examinations, normally during the first half of the degree course for some courses … (and) must be passed in order to progress to the final years of courses, known as the Final Honour Schools. I had thus been required to sit Prelims at the end of the Hilary term, 1952. The Latin paper had been my Waterloo, with the consequence that I had been “rusticated” (expelled) for the Trinity term, but given the statutory chance of sitting the examination again before Michaelmas. It was back to intensive tuition at Davies’s; back to boots, boiler and best Darjeeling tips. In September I sat Prelims again, and passed. Now, Oxford could be resumed. I had lost statutory undergraduate time and would therefore be obliged to stay on at the university for another term after my finals in order to qualify for matriculation and my degree. In 1952 the fact seemed catastrophic, but the time was to come when I saw that my failure in Prelims had been one of the most benevolent ill winds that had ever blown my way,

_________

*

The Bullingdon. Social club notorious for its loutish excesses.