January 11, 2016

My Peter, II


My earliest memories of Peter are when he was 4 in our tropical bungalow in Livingstone (now Zambia) — within sight of the plume of spray from the Victoria Falls. We each had an African minder and a pet: Richard a sulky eagle owl chained to a stump, Pete a mongoose which nipped our heels but was meant to deter snakes — Dickie, our Dad, named it Rikki-Tikki-Tavi after Kipling. I had an armadillo which was singularly unresponsive to affectionate stroking. We bathed in the Zambezi protected from crocodiles by wire mesh fencing and had picnics in the dry season on a rock right on the lip of the Falls. There was a lot of travelling. We travelled to and fro — a gruelling three day journey – to Plettenberg Bay on the South Coast of South Africa for the hot weather and then to England (three weeks’ voyage in a Union Castle steamer) to meet our English grandparents. We eventually settled as refugees in our grandparents’ house in Painswick after our father died.


I’m a bit confused about the chronology but for several years we lodged with our Hyett Great Aunts in Painswick House, a small dowdy** but beautiful Georgian Mansion in a huge wild garden with romantic Rococo follies half hidden in the undergrowth. For Peter it was heaven. Aunt Lucy knew much of Shakespeare by heart so there were yearly productions of Shakespeare on the bowling green in which Peter always had a part. Julian Slade lived in the village so he was of course the lead! There are many echoes of that lost world in Peter’s books.


In a production of Alice, Richard was the Mad Hatter; Peter the March Hare. I was the Dormouse.


Of Peter my most vivid memory is of him sitting with his head in a book anywhere he happened to be: on the stairs, under the billiard table, behind the library sofa; on any vacant bed, with his thumbs stuck in his ears to exclude all exterior distractions like urgent calls. The only way to get his attention was to grab the book and run. One winter afternoon he didn’t turn up for lunch. We weren’t too surprised because time was a flexible dimension in his world; but when it started to get dark our mother began to get worried and I heard anxious grown-up whispered conversations. “What shall we do?” When it became too dark to read the ten foot high double doors to the drawing room were pushed open (the room was seldom used) and a rather bleary-eyed boy came out to ask if it was lunch time yet. His mother was uncharacteristically cross with him — I think she had been really frightened. “Peter, what have you been doing? We’ve been calling for you for hours!” “Oh sorry Mum, just been finishing Macbeth and Hamlet. ”


He had an extraordinary memory for poetry. At our prep school we had to memorise a poem each week and recite it on demand. Peter learned Chesterton’s “Lepanto”, admittedly in weekly chunks, but could still recite most of it*** years later. I remember him chanting in a gale on Painswick Beacon ” White founts falling in the courts of the sun, And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run, There is laughter like the fountains in that face that all men feared, It stirs the forest darkness the darkness of his beard, It curls the blood red crescent the crescent of his lips, For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships” . Our mother loved Housman’s poems and used to recite them to us on our long cross-country drives in our ancient Morris 8. Peter came to know many of them by heart and as I sat beside his bed in the week before he died we recited several together nudging each other’s memories. I have chosen the last poem he spoke.


From there Peter went to Eton as a King’s Scholar. It was a family tradition of several generations that “going to school” simply meant going to Eton. He was remarkably uncontaminated by the experience and seldom talked about it, perhaps because he got terrible reports for idleness and carelessness, but his natural intelligence got him an Exhibition to Kings College Cambridge, initially to read classics but moving over to English as soon as he could. Our ways gradually separated (I was spared the family tradition ) but when we met we always picked up our voluble conversations more or less at the point when we had last left them. Richard used to complain that we talked simultaneously and much too noisily.


He did 2 years National Service in the Royal Signals in the course of which he managed to mislay 4 army trucks which were never traced. He told me that a kindly Sergeant quartermaster added them to his own inventory of mislaid equipment for which he was court-martialled. It sounds a bit like a novel. But that is hardly surprising.


One final snippet. Peter loved limericks and invented a new verse form called a ‘Bishopric’ There were strict rules: there had to be a Bishop in the first line and another clerical office mentioned in the third.


The Bishop of Joppa

Grew moss on his topper.

He said to his curate

“My wife will manure it,

I wish you could stop her.”


The Bishop of York

Ate his soup with a fork.

“My Lord,” said his vicar,

“A spoon would be quicker,

And allow us to talk.”


The Bishop of Bude

Used to bathe in the nude.

“My Lord,” said the Dean,

“Wear a hat, lest you’re seen

On the beach by a prude.”


But it was to Housman that his mind drifted back at the end. †† Tess †††  is now going to read one of his favourites which seems apt today. ‡


* * *

Editor’s footnotes, for anyone who is unaware of blog style:

* by Peter’s brother Hugh, retired Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, which I think makes him a Very Reverend.  He was also my guardian angel both during the funeral Mass on Tuesday that Alfrick took and the funeral Wednesday morning^ which was immediate family only at the crematorium . . . both of which I wept shatteringly through and probably only survived at all because Hugh sat next to me and held my hand. 

^ before the memorial service Wednesday afternoon which is where these pieces are coming from

** Only the overpowering effect of a decade of being responsible for Salisbury Cathedral could make anyone call Painswick House small and dowdy.  I daresay my crude American sensibilities are being led astray by subtle English humour.  But for other easily misled Americans let me just say that  all nine bedrooms of our old house^ would fit in PH’s sitting room.  You needed a telephone or a carrier pigeon to talk to someone at the other end of that room and the ceilings were easily high enough that private weather systems were an issue.  Those of you who have read the Damar stories?  Luthe’s hall?  Yes. 

^ jackdaw-infested chimneys optional

*** All of it on that exciting trek from Bangor Maine in the middle of the night in February.

† Please.  Hugh went to Winchester, which is if anything even posher than frelling Eton.

†† With me it was Kipling–one of the things Peter and I first bonded over was Kipling, and he was murmuring Kipling to me till the end.  I imagine his four kids would offer two, three or twelve more poets. 

††† Hugh’s daughter

‡ This one:  XLV Smooth Between Sea and Land  

[Fixed – Blogmom] I’m sorry, I can’t get this ugly beast to light up into a link.  WordPress has been through 1,000,000 updates since I was last posting regularly, each one of them less helpful than the last, and the only old sneakaround I can remember doesn’t work any more.  If you copy and paste it into your own little screen window it will take you to the poem, I’ve just tried it.



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