That’s the end of the memoir bits. You had mine first, which came last on the day, followed by some of his poetry, and the grandson with the amazing voice sang Linden Lea* and then it was over except for the champagne and fireworks.**
And then all of us left behind stumbled back to our lives. It’s funny what catches you out.*** Up till this week when it turned suddenly cold at last† it’s been insanely, unseasonably warm†† and all kinds of plantlife has been shooting out—my snowdrops are going to be over before they usually start—we had purple sprouting broccoli in November instead of February, and I’ve just been shelling my first broad beans of the year . . . broad beans? That should be like . . . May.†††
Broad beans were one of my early revelations about life in England. The only big fat round green bean I knew were frozen limas—preferably as succotash—and while they were fine the earth did not move and rainbows did not explode behind my eyes when I ate them. But broad beans . . . yowzah. YOWZAH yowzah. They are so spectacularly awesome they are worth the incredible faff of shelling the beggars. Those of you accustomed to this task will know whereof I speak. They grow in these massive great pillowy pods and you pick one up and think, YES! Big fat broad beans! And then you grapple your way into the thick uncooperative husk‡ and discover it’s mostly the plant version of bubblewrap and you have to lever out the few beans embedded therein. ARRRRRGH. Only the fact of the essential divinity of broad beans keeps any rational person at this desperate activity.
Peter derived some amusement out of my naïve horror at the process. And I did get used to it. Greed helps. But the thing is . . . it’s something we did together. We certainly did it literally together back at the old house, podding our very own broad beans out of our very own sweat-of-our-brows garden‡‡ And even since we moved into town and our broad beans come by organic-grocer delivery we at least had each other to moan at, whoever did the actual shelling that meal or that week or that season. Hey! the one would say to the other, shaking a pot with a modest layer of broad beans spread across the bottom. It took me forty five minutes to shuck that many!
Not this year. And telling the hellmob just isn’t the same.
* * *
* Peter had eccentric tastes in music as in most things. He would tell you he ‘wasn’t musical at all’ and didn’t care for music, or didn’t care one way or another about it.^ But if you put the wrong CD on you would hear about it and there were certain things he did really love, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for example.^^ I still wasted quite a bit of time believing that he didn’t care for music and, for example, originally assumed that the mum in SEVENTH RAVEN was a cellist because he needed her to be something, not because he was susceptible to a well-played cello. Oh. Anyway. He was sufficiently unmusical to like listening to me sing, and I’d been learning Linden Lea shortly before one of Percival’s visits. Peter certainly knew Linden Lea; I don’t think you can live on these islands without having some vague idea about King Arthur, Stonehenge and Linden Lea, but I don’t think the last had particularly registered with him before I started doing my dying-pig routine with it. Percival is always happy to take requests and he knew Linden Lea. Golly. So while Linden Lea was introduced at the memorial service as one of Peter’s favourites it might be more accurate to say it was one of his favourites for about the last year of his life.
^ And long-term blog readers will recall that he did the loyal-husband thing and accompanied me to many operas although this was not his idea of a fabulous night out and he usually complained about the libretto. Well I complain about most librettos. Any story-teller who doesn’t complain about opera librettos is an alien from the Crab Nebula only pretending to be a human story-teller. Well, a human story-teller with any pride.
^^ Which I learnt to pay attention to and then to love because Peter thought so highly of it. I wasn’t a Britten person when I moved over here; I knew his operas a little because I know most standard-rep operas at least a little, but their emotional reality is mostly too real for me. There’s no dazzling melodramatic catharsis at the end of Britten’s tragedies the way there is at the end of Verdi’s. And, just by the way, if I never hear the four sea interludes from Peter Grimes again, my life will be a little brighter. I should think Mr B would be rolling in his grave at the idea that something he wrote has been essentially turned into a frelling lollipop. Although I think he was the one who turned them into a concert piece in the first place. We all make mistakes.
** Well, prosecco. But definitely fizz.^ And yes, fireworks. Advantages of having a memorial service in January, generally speaking a quite depressing enough month in the northern hemisphere without any help: It gets dark early for fireworks. I’ve been saying that we blued the estate on the send-off. It was worth it.
^ I had two glasses and could barely walk. Maybe I should have eaten something. They even had a plate of gluten-free and I saw it like once before it ran away and hid in the shrubbery or under the piano or something.
*** No it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.
† And I found out again how many frelling gazillion geraniums I have when I had to bring the suckers indoors to save them freezing. I had visitors coming and the sitting room floor was suddenly wall to wall to bookshelves to sofabed with geraniums. I spent a day that might have been better spent cleaning the house^ hacking and repotting and wedging, got the floor clear enough to open the sofabed and the windowsills JAAAAAAAAAMMED . . . and then there was a family crisis and I have a nice clean sitting room floor and no one to admire it but me.
^ I lost the will to live on the subject of the kitchen floor of the cottage several muddy months ago. Now I know the hellmob do walk into the little garden courtyard to pee and so it is not surprising they come back in again mired to the elbows but I SWEAR the flaming mud can jump. I’m standing in the doorway just making sure that no one with a high-angle aim pees on a rosebush and the mud makes a sudden lightning raid and gets all over the bottoms of my house slippers. Arrrrrrgh.
†† AND WET. AND MUDDY.
††† Not that I wouldn’t be glad to have May’s daylight. This time of year, bad weeks the hellmob and I barely see the sun.
‡ The how-tos tell you blithely to run your fingernail down the seam and split it open. LIKE HELL. The how-tos, which have obviously never podded a broad bean in their lives, neglect to tell you that you have a better chance of seaming one open if you start at the rear end rather than the stem end, but even so, at least one pod in three disintegrates in nasty messy little spiral flakes as you claw at it. Think about running your fingernail down a line of bubble wrap and expecting it to pop open. Ha ha frelling ha.
‡‡ Note however that I personally did almost nothing in the vegetable garden. I was flowers^ all the way. Our broad beans were the sweat of Peter’s brow. I admit however that I’ve started surreptitiously growing a few broad bean plants in pots in my little garden. I get about one good plateful from them, but they’re not fussy as plants, it’s only when you’re trying to extract the frelling beans that their depravity manifests.
^ Hey. Only about 85% roses. Okay maybe 90%.
Writer and Seer: Peter’s literary works*
Now, for this next piece I need you to imagine that I’m voicing over the sound of a typewriter. It’s coming from up a stairway or behind a study door, and it sounds like this:
Chack-chack-chack-chak. (Pause for thought.) Chackchackchackchackchackchack…
Peter did not have typist’s hands. He said his fingers were like a sculptor’s, thick and stubby**. He typed from the elbow, two fingers, hitting the keys so hard that he could break them in ways that the repair people had never seen before.
He wrote books, but not only books. He wrote scripts for plays: amateur productions that we performed with our friends the Stuart-Smiths at their house at Serge Hill***; and for the highly-talented children’s opera group who performed in St James’ Church in London W11†. He wrote a screenplay for a TV series called Mandog, and drove our little Morris Minor as an extra in one of the chase scenes.
And he wrote poems. When he was re-roofing our large and leaky house at Bramdean††, he wrote poems about it on slates and hid them under the tiles for future generations to find. He wrote a clutch of painful little poems after the tragic death of Mary Rose in 1988, and more when Robin crossed the Atlantic to join her life with his. Many of these are in his collection The Weir.
But his books were the main thing. He would write two a year, one adult mystery, one children’s fiction, like a farmer rotating the crops in his field. Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.†††
His imagination was bold, far-reaching and quirky. He would follow a story set in a Scottish Loch with one in sixth century Byzantium. He wrote about the near future and also about the dawn of humanity. He did light romance in the General Strike and science fiction in an apartheid Britain where some skins were green. He loved to set his stories in country houses like this one.‡ And if when you’re looking around you see a drop of fresh oil on a weapon in a display case – that’s the clue!
His characters were complex, his prose rhythmic, his ideas tantalising. He would do nothing obvious or cheap. For him, all worthwhile moral questions were complicated and ambivalent. But he did not want to lecture his readers. He took them round the byways, through the wild woods of imagination, and if they came to ask themselves the sort of questions that he was asking – as it were, by accident – that was all he could hope for.
He kept it up, for over sixty novels. That’s a gravity-defying career by all standards. They’re all still available – just go to Open Road Media – Peter Dickinson or find his website Peter Dickinson . [Fixed – Blogmom] (Here we (*&^%$£”!!!! go again: I can’t make the suckers live. Time to call in Blogmom. Apologies.] Some of them won prizes. Tulku and City of Gold won the Carnegie in consecutive years. Others did not, but his quality was always high. Have you tried The Last Houseparty? Ah, you should.
Phil and Polly remember accompanying him to Crime Writers’ Association dinners and rubbing shoulders with the greats like Harry Keating and Dick Francis.‡‡ James and I remember our excitement when he fell into a correspondence with Richard Adams (I think Peter was less than excited about this, actually). He served as Chair of the Society of Authors. He went on lecture tours, he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. But he was no highbrow.
He won prizes, he said, because his books were the sort that adults thought children ought to read.‡‡‡ He was ambivalent about that. He told an Exeter conference in 1970 that the danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature was that “not enough rubbish is being produced.”
And he added:
“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
Back then that was fighting talk, and he had to defend it. Which he did. It wasn’t in his commercial interest, but it was what he believed.
So we thought we’d give you a bit of Peter’ essay “A Defence of Rubbish”. Here he is, the writer’s writer, the librarian’s favourite, up and fighting for children to be allowed what the hell they liked, even if, to the adult eye, it contained no value either aesthetic or educational.
…Third, I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in the process they will learn the art of comparison.
Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.
My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.
I have to take the podium again to make my confession here. I spent a fair amount of my childhood re-reading football comics. I was probably aware that I was being allowed to get away with it. I had no idea at all that I owed it to his faith in intellectual freedom.
Books, Peter said, are like leaves. They fall from the tree that made them and for a little while they lie golden on the ground. But very soon they are buried by the next layer of books, which of course are doomed to be buried in their turn. It’s a melancholy but realistic reflection on how much of a monument a writer can expect from his own works.
But of course, the monument is not really in the book at all. It’s in the readers who found that treasure trove and were touched by what was in it. Even if they can no longer remember the title or the author’s name. And sometimes they do. A few years ago I met a young writer who said: ‘Peter Dickinson? We had one of his books in the school library when I was twelve. It was called The Gift. I loved it.’
The Gift. Ah yes. Thank you, Peter. For that one too.
* * *
* by Peter’s son John, yes, that John Dickinson: Books by John Dickinson
He has a blog and a website, but they have been a trifle neglected: he says himself that do something about this has been top of the list for . . . er . . . quite some time.
And here is a BBC interview John did about Peter right after he died: Peter Dickinson OBE
The bit about Peter starts eleven minutes in. Several people have told me it’s good. I haven’t listened to it—I can’t bear to—so don’t talk to me about it.
** Peter had gigantic hands. My hands are big enough I can only get into size large dishwashing gloves but he could swallow one of my hands in one of his. Walking down the street holding hands we had to do it palm to palm like you do with a kiddie: if we tried to lace our fingers together I’d dislocate my knuckles. I’m wearing his wedding ring on a chain around my neck.^^ I could almost wear it as a coronet.
^ Trying to find dishwashing gloves that would fit him was epic. The holy grail was nothing on trying to find dishwashing gloves for Peter.
^^ Sigh. . . .
*** Hertfordshire. North of London.^
† Notting Hill. Next to Holland Park, as previous.^
^ . . . apologies to my English readers. But the majority of this blog’s readers are American and I’m making the assumption that they don’t know any more about English geographic niceties than I did thirty years ago. About the Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans, Antarcticans and Martians who read this blog I will not hazard a guess.
†† And he did a VERY GOOD JOB. It DID NOT LEAK in my era.
††† I’m pretty sure I’ve told the blog this story: Peter lived with me in Maine for a couple of months while I finished DEERSKIN before packing up to move to England (eeeeeeeeeep). He borrowed my old manual typewriter [sic] and started typing (as above: CHACK CHACK). After a few days he gave me the first chapter of what would become THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY. Since it’s the first chapter it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that it ends with the two main characters saying calmly to each other ‘I thought you murdered so and so.’ I looked at Peter with very large eyes: Wow! What happens? Who did it? —I have no idea, replied Peter.
‡ Avington Park, where the memorial service was held, and which is so much more fabulous than its web site makes out. Some day when I’m feeling jolly and expansive I’ll tell you about finding it.
‡‡ I met Harold Pinter at one of these things. I didn’t take to him. But then he didn’t take to me. Harry Keating was a sweetie.
‡‡‡ Ahem. He also won prizes for his murder mysteries. Ahem.
Dad–Punch, Mary-Rose and family: *
So there was Peter at Cambridge. Dad, typically, said that he felt he wasted his time there, worked ineffectually and took little part in the many extra-curricular activities on offer. He didn’t get the hoped-for first in his finals, but even so, the college gave him a bursary to study for a PhD. Half way through this he walked into the Dean’s room and the Dean looked up from the letter he was reading and said “Would you like a job on Punch?”
The background to that story was that when the youngest member of the five-strong editorial staff of the satirical magazine Punch turned 40, they decided that they were getting too old and needed to get some younger blood in to keep them relevant. The editor wrote to a don he knew at Cambridge to ask him to find someone to train up. Allegedly someone else also wrote to a don at Oxford who never replied. So Peter was the only candidate. On his way to the interview for the job he was knocked down by a tram and arrived covered with blood and dirt, but they gave him the job anyway. It makes a great first job story and eventually made its way into his novel Death of a Unicorn.
Around this time, Peter went to a party in a friend’s rooms at Kings and met my mother, Mary-Rose. A pretty girl, standing by the fireplace laughing delightedly because she had just managed to break an unbreakable glass in the grate. Family legend then goes that soon after they met, she was whisked away to India (allegedly because my grandparents did not approve) and he thought he’d lost her forever. Almost a year passed—and Dad was at another party when she came up behind him and rapped him on the shoulder with her fan—he turned around and there was the girl of his dreams.
They were married at Bramdean, Hampshire, on April 26th 1953. They set up house in a flat in Pimlico, he continuing at Punch; Mary-Rose working in the display department of Heal’s furniture store. A couple of years later, I came along, followed by Polly the following year.
They then moved to a seedy area of West London called Holland Park** and set about converting a tall, thin terraced house into a single family home (in common with all the other houses in that street, it had been let as single rooms with coin-operated gas fires***). The pub over the road was a favourite haunt for local workers and Friday nights were frequently enlivened by fights in the street. Occasionally accompanied by a drunken fiddler.
They did as much of the conversion of the house as they could themselves. Dad made cupboards and shelves and created ingeniously designed tables and benches to fit small spaces. Many of our childhood memories include laying slabs, bricklaying, painting and decorating in every house we occupied.
Meanwhile at Punch, Dad was progressing through a number of editorial upheavals and jobs. At various points he was Art Editor (despite only being able to draw dragons and trains sideways), resident poet, Literary Editor and eventually Deputy Editor. It was clearly an extraordinary place to work (occasionally the editorial team played cricket in the corridors) and brought him into contact with some of the great humorists and cartoonists of the time.
At home, the family was growing, with the arrival of John and James. My parents bought a couple of small ramshackle cottages in Hampshire and set about converting them into a single dwelling. With a well, a chalk heap, a growing vegetable garden and wonderful views, this was a great weekend and holiday home—and also eventually became the setting for The Devils’ Children.
Some of the most abiding memories I have of my father from this time are the stories. He would read to us every night without fail and every car journey there would be a new episode of a story to listen to. As I think back, I realise how extraordinary this was but at the time, we just took it as normal. Sometimes they were re-tellings of great legends –with a twist, perhaps. More often they would be completely new. The boys always wanted a battle, so there were lots of those. It was a brilliant way to keep four lively kids quiet on long car journeys. He was our in-car entertainment.
Around this time Peter started tinkering with what he believed to be an original idea for a crime novel, working on the kitchen table after supper.
In 1965 Peter and Mary-Rose moved from their cottage to take over half her parents’ house at Bramdean, which must have been a huge stretch on a journalist’s wages. It was a wonderful place in summer—though freezing cold with a leaky roof in the winter. They developed a large vegetable garden and Dad started brewing beer (more successful than his efforts at wine making!).
By 1966-7ish Dad realised that the crime novel he was writing was completely stuck. That must have been a bad time. But it also brought him the cold-sweat nightmare which became the first scene of The Weathermonger. The following evening, he put the crime novel aside and poured his heart into writing his first children’s novel. Once that was done and on the way to his publisher, he returned to the crime novel, saw pretty much instantly what he needed to do with it and finished The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (published as Skin Deep in the UK allegedly because someone at the publisher declared that no woman would ever buy a book with an insect in the title).
In 1968 both The Weathermonger and The Glass-sided Ants’ Nest were published to great reviews. By that time he had completed two more novels and was starting on a fifth. With these successes under his belt, he had what my maternal grandfather described in his diary as ‘a sudden rush of blood to the head’, left his job at Punch to become a full-time author – and also bought the other half of the house at Bramdean.
* * *
* by Philippa^ Dickinson, who, when she retired a year ago, was Managing Director of Random House Children’s Books UK, and is now in training to become ruler of the universe because the universe so badly needs ruling. Peter and I used to listen with rapt fascination to Philippa’s tales of taking on various corporate miscreants^^—the kind of miscreants who are used to ploughing ordinary members of the public under, and probably still don’t know what hit them. The trains/transporters/teleportation booths will run on time in Philippa’s universe. Also, the reason Peter’s memorial service went as brilliantly as it did is largely down to Phil. It’s end of year holidays and everyone is closed for business? Well they’re just going to have to open up again. It’s beginning of year holidays and everyone is on a beach in Barbados? Well they’re just going to have to come back again. We all^^^ pitched in at our various levels of competence—that would be me blubbing along at the bottom—and the Dickinson Managerial Gene in its rich panoply of manifestations was much in evidence# but the honours go to Phil.##
^ I had a brain failure last night—they’re a bit endemic at present—and forgot that I hadn’t already posted Phil’s and was queueing up to post John’s. Fortunately he didn’t answer by return electron.
^^ As if running a large wodge of frelling Random House wasn’t enough. I’m talking about corporate miscreants outside publishing, where no one would know that this woman with the pleasant smile and mild manner is dangerous.
^^^ chiefly Peter’s four kids and I, with crucial input from various spouses, cousins, and Peter’s brothers
# None of Peter’s kids is a wallflower. They had an excellent role model. I remember, early on, once complaining, after a Dickinson family dinner party, that I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise. Peter looked at me in surprise. Shout louder, he said.
## This includes a lot of kind and patient support of the blubbing widow.
** For anyone who doesn’t get this joke, Holland Park is like the place to live. Buckingham Palace? Don’t be silly. Notting Hill? So last century. Holland Park is the place to be. But sixty years ago it was urban blight. Peter and Mary-Rose were in the first wave of gentrifiers.
*** And, according to Peter, electricity that consisted of a single naked light bulb on the landing of each floor, and a loo at the bottom of the garden.
One day at a time is a good idea when you’re a little more plugged into the concept of ‘day’. I was planning to post another piece from the memorial last night, but I’d had a really nice day out with a friend* followed by supper at a pub** and when I got home . . . home was darker and colder and emptier even than usual since 16 December, despite the presence of a hellmob who were more than happy to join me on the sofa for some mutual support*** and I couldn’t face posting more remembering-Peter stuff. This evening I got home from my interview at the abbey to become an Ornamental Laic Doohickey appended in some mystic and numinous manner from the monkish community†, firmly opened my laptop and addressed myself to the next memorial piece and . . . realised I needed to ask its author a few questions before I posted it and he didn’t get back to me by return electron what is the MATTER with the man.†† My sensible alternative was to hang some photos—there were posters full of photos at the memorial service, most of them patiently loaded and tweaked into available digital format by the tireless Philippa—but I can’t face that right now either.†††
So you’ll have to make do with this for tonight. Tomorrow is another day. For better or worse.
* * *
*Fiona. We went to a YARN SHOP. That was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? But it’s a yarn shop that specialises in small indie spinners and dyers where if you see something you like BUY IT IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE IT WON’T BE THERE IF YOU GO AWAY FOR A CUP OF TEA TO THINK ABOUT IT AND COME BACK HAVING DECIDED ‘YES’. The problem with going in there even having decided in advance to kill on sight—er—I mean snaffle and stuff in basket on sight is that these frelling itsy bitsy indies—I mean the tinies, doing it in their kitchen sinks^, seem only ever to produce one middling-sized skein of anything. Which does make for a highly engaged day out, scampering around the shop looking for something that complements the single unique skein you have fallen in love with, which alone has about enough yardage^^ for a bow tie and one earring. This matching trick is likely to be impossible however because you’ve got to get the same gauge—the thickness of your yarn—and the mix of fibres similar if not identical between or among your skeins or your knitting will come out a gnarly ramshackle mess.^^^ This odds-against pursuit also goes some way to preventing you from buying more yarn than will fit in the car.#
^ You can tell what mum or dad is dyeing by the colour of the food on your plate. Orange meatloaf. Green bread speckled with dazzling yellow pumpkin seeds. Red peanut butter. Pink brussels sprouts. All finest wholesome vegetable dyes of course. That’s probably beet juice in the peanut butter and maybe in the brussels sprouts too.
^^ or meterage
^^^ Fiona, who has been at this scam a lot longer than I have, is also a lot braver. I keep looking at the percentages of stretchy (wool, etc) and non-stretchy (cotton, silk etc) and wanting them to match if I’m going to try to knit them together, and sometimes frelling teeny indies don’t even give you the percentages, so you have something that says wool/silk and something else that says wool/silk but THEY ARE OBVIOUSLY PERILOUSLY DIFFERENT and then you see something that says wool/silk and something else that says alpaca/cotton and they actually look pretty similar and you’re sure you’re losing your mind as you’re kneeling weeping on the floor when Fiona drifts by says, no, feel it—rubbing various yarns briskly between her fingers—it’ll be fine. She also has some INSANE ideas about holding double a 4-ply yarn that matches your unique skein of 8-ply colours in paradisical perfection, to make up the weight. AAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH. Maybe she could do this without inadvertently stringing herself and three local hellcritters from the rafters but I’m not going to risk it.
# It’s probably a good thing Fiona has a small car.~
~ I have ANOTHER yarn day out planned with ANOTHER friend. This however will be to a serious, sober yarn shop and I shall go armed with a LIST. As Fiona and I were agreeing yesterday, when you go into a random yarn shop you buy . . . random yarn which goes in your stash. If you have a PROJECT in mind . . . of course you have to buy yarn for it because your stash is . . . your stash. You don’t knit from it. Of course not.
** I think I’ve told you that the Troll and Nightingale used to be the brawlers’ pub, the presence of which haven of misbehaviour in deeply staid New Arcadia used to amuse me to an unseemly degree.^ Well it got a refit a year or three ago and has blossomed into quite the many-petalled flower of the art of the gastropub. I’m a tiny bit nostalgic for the bad behaviour of yore, but mostly I’m happy to have another option for a glass of fizz and some food to hold it down within walking distance. New Arcadia is so well off for foodie pubs that you can choose your atmosphere by your mood of the moment and you can indulge in a permanent snit with one of your locals and still have plenty of alternatives. For a cranky person the availability of a righteous snit that doesn’t cost anything in pleasure or convenience is as delicious as . . . well, Niall’s chocolate brownies, say. Anyway. The Troll and Nightingale wasn’t expecting much business on a wet Tuesday night in January and were understaffed and service was SLOOOOOW. But Fiona and I just got on with our knitting. Knitting rules.^^
^ except when the spilling into the street and the tops of their lungs and breaking furniture+ thing was happening very late at night on a summer evening when your windows are open. I won’t say I would be trying to sleep, but if you’re propped up in bed on six pillows in the wee hours reading, part of the pleasure of the entertainment is the you’re-the-only-one-awake silence.
+ You probably know it’s actually quite difficult to break furniture that hasn’t been Hollywoodised for filming scenic altercations, but it can be done.
^^ Even if I did have to rip that multiply-damned sleeve out again. I would suspect myself of not wanting to finish the last project I’d started while Peter was still alive but since I never finish anything anyway this seems superfluous to requirements. I’ve done a lot of knitting since 7 September because it keeps me off the ceiling^ and pretending to be calm and sane, knitknitknitFOCUSknitknitknit, but I think it’s all lying around waiting to have some kind of finishing element applied. Mostly this involves weaving in ends and sewing up seams but I’m also experimenting with making bags for handbells which require felting. Oh, and I made an adorable scarf with my last two skeins of indie yarn.^^
^ Unless of course I’m trying to knit with a double strand of 4-ply to match the every-two-rows swap with the other single-indie-skein of 8-ply.
^^ You’re allowed to knit randomly out of your stash. You just can’t knit planned projects.
*** And snoring. The hellterror is a redoubtable snorer.
† The monk who is Master of Ornamental Doohickeys said to me kindly that signing up was a significant thing to do at a crisis or turning point in one’s life. Oh. I thought Alfrick was just stampeding me into something he thought would be good for me.
†† Possibly he has a life? Some people do I believe.
††† The posters themselves, at my request, were handed over to me at the end of the memorial, and they are leaning up against a corner in the cottage sitting room. I want them, I just don’t want to look at them quite yet.
PETER — EARLY MEMORIES *
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.