One of the more graphic clichés is the expression, ‘hard rails’. There was a point, around the turn of the century, where the marketing people I met used it endlessly. At this time of particularly hard rails, when the oppressive dictats of a pandemic have been replaced by the oppressive panorama of a dictator, tufts of moss between steely miseries are a joy. A primrose growing by the iron road is an act of defiance. Every flower is welcome.
Nostalgic for amusements, I find myself opening wardrobes of memory at odd times of day. The name of a long-forgotten school companion is recalled when brushing my teeth. That house with bumpy chimneys, where we turned right on the way to school, is photographically magicked out of nowhere. Tiny but vivid tastes or scents, whispers in the uncertain April air, catapult me backwards with rapier velocity. I am jolted to guinea pig straw; boiling flannels; the intense, tomatoey reek of a greenhouse in August.
These curiosities linger. Schulz’s wobbly-line smile hovers, with that Charlie Brown crumple, on my face in recognition. Small madnesses, strange behaviours and engaging oddities have never been so welcome.
Our first ever family dog was a golden labrador. A pale, top-of-the-milk cream, my parents christened her Brie. “Because she runs everywhere and smells awful,” suggested our Uncle Phillip. (Brie later gave birth to a litter of ten puppies we named after cheeses. Beaufort, Dunlop, Stilton and Charolais – the only girl of the ten – are the names I can remember.) Our encounters with animals had begun with a succession of cats and my brother’s mouse, Plimsoll. The poor thing was eaten by the same uncle’s dachshund at the end of my father’s long journey to Battersea. He took Plimsoll there for safekeeping before our family holiday, in an absurdly cumbersome, homemade wooden hutch of many compartments that could have housed the dachshund, let alone the mouse. Besides our own pets, visiting animals to Little Downham added to the tapestry. An extremely distant cousin – my father was a dab hand at unearthing bloodlines to remote Awdry relations – would come and lunch with us occasionally, bringing her parrot. It was a free range creature as, in many ways, was she. Sarah, scion of the architectural and artistic Lutyens tribe, must have been fascinating, but we children only had eyes for the bird. One Sunday, it stomped about our dining room table, peering at us as we attempted to ferry food from plate to mouth. The poor thing developed Alopecia and, on another visit, was all pinkly white skin and bone, the odd, bedraggled feather hanging out of its bottom. Sarah took it to an animal psychiatrist somewhere in London. While waiting for her consultation, the man sat next to her had a large, wicker basket on his knees. It quivered spasmodically. Intrigued, she explained she had a chronically defoliated parrot which she believed was suffering mental health issues. Gesturing at his basket, he said, “Psychologically disturbed python.” Living in a damp basement flat, the snake was struggling to slough its skin in the usual way, and was upset by the – presumably soggy – folds blocking its vision. We imagined the python on a couch, under the beady-eyed tutelage of the psychiatrist, with a hair dryer in one hand and a large invoice in the other.
My older sister had a fabulous school friend called Sally Steele. Full of energy and fun, we devoured her stories with enthralled fascination. Her parents had retired to the South Coast, but her father had no time for the easy life. On cliff top walks, he determined to walk closer and closer to the edge to keep things interesting. When the thrill of being millimetres from the precipice dulled a little, he took to walking backwards, sometimes adding an extra frisson by closing his eyes. As far as we knew, he never stumbled.
His proximity to the Great Beyond prompts a segue to the tea parties we attended with the three, very elderly, surviving daughters of William Bramwell Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Our ailing grandmother had nearly lodged at their vast house in Finchampstead, but decided against it, convinced they would curtail her enthusiasm for drink. The eldest, Miss Catherine, later became famous as a Michael Parkinson TV chat show guest on two or three occasions. She was consumed with the idea of flying saucers and space travel. Miss Olive was (at the age of 90) still the driver, and would scan the motoring press with a caustic eye. Our particular friend was Miss Dora, the baby of the family at 86, who loved badgers. She would sit up all night in the woods, wrapped in a blanket, watching them go about their set-digging and nocturnal antics. At the conclusion of tea in the croquet lawn-sized ‘drawing room, where each of the three sisters would be entertaining guests, we would be invited to kneel on the parquet floor as Miss Catherine riffed through improvised – and extremely long – prayers. We would all slide to the ground, except for Miss De Winter who, at 101 years, was “closer to heaven than the rest of us” and allowed to remain in her chair. I would open my eyes every now and then to peer at her through fusillades of random, percussive Amens from the assembled. Such afternoons were bubbles of tightly wrapped life from the 1890s, light years away from late Sixties England with (unknown to me at the time) all its liberated abandon.
From the same era, our childhood was blessed with the redoubtable Great Aunt Bee. Resolutely single, capable and direct, she had spent a life nursing children with unsentimental vigour. In school holidays, our mother would pack us into the old green Morris and we’d bomb down to Shoreham to visit. Aunt Bee’s bungalow was one of hundreds that paraded the roads a little way back from the seafront, its brownish, pebble-dashed uniform an echo of the regiments of surrounding houses. A woman of delightfully trenchant views, she was convinced that if you drank alcohol quickly enough, it would have no effect. When she came to see us, my father would pass her one of the generous Portuguese glasses, with bright red and blue dancing figures twirling around its perimeter and, before he’d retreated two steps, she would drain the nutty amontillado in a gulp. Her Shoreham bungalow had two doors, side-by-side, the ‘front’ door leading to the hallway and the other directly to the kitchen. When the local butcher pressed the front door bell and she opened it, there was a pause. She held up her finger soundlessly, shut the door and walked round to the kitchen – past my visiting parents – to receive him at the tradesman’s entrance. It was for her that a granny flat was built onto the back of Little Downham, a comfortable and independent annex that took the place of the old greenhouse. In her early nineties, Aunt Bee moved in after sternly advising my parents not to fuss over her. She wished to remain as independent as possible. She died two weeks later, a shock as we’d assumed she was eternal. The morning my father tentatively checked the silent flat, my mother discovered her perfectly prepared, suet-hatted steak and kidney pudding in the small oven, ready to cook from the night before. From thereon, the granny flat meant we became a prime target for aging relations, eyeing us up as a last stop-off possibility on the railway into the night.
I spent six weeks on Koh Samui in 1979, when the island sported one policeman, no hotels and not a single, metalled road. The airport hadn’t been dreamt of. Visiting Westerners were largely a rabble of gentle, late-stage hippies or traumatised Vietnam vets, who’d failed to rejoin American life after their draft tours. Amongst them, I made friends with an Englishman called Lawrence. In his late twenties, he clutched a yellowing, crumpled copy of the Daily Telegraph from months before. Each morning, over breakfast under the palm thatch, peering out at the South China Sea, he would carefully complete the crossword in pencil, in a delicate but clear hand. When completed, he would survey his handiwork, take a sip of coffee from the chunky Duralex glass, and then rub it all out again ready for the next day.
For exceptional curiosities, my father gave me a brilliant book, compiled by the wonderful John Timpson, in 1992. English Eccentrics (Jarrold Publishing, 1991) is a loving compendium of extremely odd people. Timpson was the honey-voiced, mellifluous anchor of the Today programme, a warmly amused, perceptive and penetrating interviewer. His observations about Sir George Sitwell remain exquisite. Father to the remarkable trio of Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, Sir George took eccentricity to another level. Entering his manor house at Eckington in Derbyshire, visitors were met with a sign that telegraphed something of his character: I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night. He instructed his children that ‘It is dangerous for you to lose touch with me for a single day. You never know when you may need the benefit of my experience‘. When Osbert was posted to the trenches in France in 1914, Sir George wrote a helpfully encouraging letter to the older son: ‘Though you will not of course encounter anywhere abroad the same weight of gunfire we had to face here‘ – he was writing from Scarborough – ‘yet my experience may be useful to you. Directly you hear the first shell, retire as I did to the Undercroft, and remain there quietly until all firing has ceased… Keep warm and have plenty of nourishing food at frequent but regular intervals, and of course plenty of rest. I find a nap in the afternoon most helpful; I advise you to try it whenever possible.‘
It’s unlikely that anyone in Ukraine has received that kind of advice. There are hard rails that remain stubbornly unyielding.