Another day, another breakfast with the dear Stepfather, another small pile on the table. The very last things are going from my mother’s house. I find this exceptionally melancholy and have to make a lot of antic jokes to cover up the fact. Everybody has to go through the things, I think. They are just things. But there is something about the final remnants of a life which is almost unbearable.
In the picture, you see my grandparents. They were such an odd couple. (At least I can say things like this now without my mum giving me a reproachful look. She knew they were quite odd, but staunchly never said so.) My grandmother was a mystery. She never stopped talking her whole life, and yet she never said anything which elucidated the mystery. My grandfather was a reinvention.
You see the monocle? He rarely took it off. I think he wore it in the bath. It was the emblem of his reinvention, the mark of the country squire into which he fashioned himself. Look at the tweeds, look at the pipe, look at the ugly pile behind him. Squire to the fingertips. But he was born in Wanstead Flats. (For those of you joining us from foreign stations, Wanstead Flats is a rather forlorn suburb of London. It was not, in 1888, where the landed gentry lived.) My grandfather never spoke of his family, but there was some thought that they were greengrocers. He became an actor, a standing dish in the West End, much loved and admired and famous for his comic timing. He took the money he earned and bought his tweeds and rented one country house after another and got a string of splendid hunters and stuck that monocle in his eye and became the gentleman he wanted himself to be. He was a gentleman at heart, but not the kind you could look up in Burke.
For all that he was a tremendous snob – not in the way of looking down on people but in the way of wanting so very dearly to be a posh cove – he was also tremendously brave. He joined the RAF in the First World War, and flew those terrifying aeroplanes that were practically made of paper. When the Second World War came, he was in a play in the West End. He asked his producer to let him out of his contract and went at once back to the Air Force and joined up again. To his chagrin, they said he was much too old to fly. (He was fifty at this time.) Instead, they put him in the control tower at RAF Benson. According to my mother, the young pilots adored his resonant actor’s voice, and felt comforted when they heard him calling them home.
Nobody knows to this day where my grandmother came from. She insisted she was descended from Danish princes and American robber barons. But she lived in a world entirely of her own. She talked and talked and talked and, for all those words, the mystery remained. I rather like the idea of the Danish princes. When I was young and foolish, I thought I was Hamlet, so it felt excessively appropriate. I think those dear old Danes lived in her imagination, actual only to her.
So there they are, those two made-up people, in their curious, dated clothes, leaning on their garden fence, looking curiously real and curiously unreal. I look at them, with quizzical fondness, and wonder: who were you?
The funny thing is that one of the very few facts I know about them for sure is that they loved horses. My mother inherited this love, married a man who had that love, and they both passed it on to me. That fire burns strong in my heart to this day, as I go down to the field and murmur private words into the dear ears of my thoroughbred mares. So something survives, and that something is very real indeed. It’s a pretty fine inheritance. I'll take it every day and twice on Sundays.