A gloomy few months
As I’ve already indicated it has been quite a gloomy few months. The news from Ukraine continues to be depressing; an unknown number of civilians including children are still trapped in bunkers beneath the giant steelworks, and the Russians seem unwilling to abide by the promised cease-fire and the humanitarian corridors. Closer to home there is a huge looming financial crisis. For families, I mean, not for energy companies. Shell have posted an unprecedented three-month profit for the last quarter of some £7 billion. Meanwhile our monthly energy bill threatens to rise to the level of mortgage repayments on a small house. Government policy seems to amount to no more than purchasing a small hotel in Rwanda and, thanks to George ‘Useless’ Eustice, advice on how to economise by buying own-brand baked beans at the supermarket. In a generous gesture [forced on her by her husband’s colleagues] the Chancellors’s wife is now to pay UK tax on her significant overseas and investment income. But not to pay it retrospectively. No wonder that Blustering Boris looks like a decorative candle left on a radiator overnight. This morning there are rumours that a person in Scotland voted Conservative in yesterday’s elections. But that rumour is not yet substantiated.
Escaping the gloom
Personally I have retreated from the gloomy news by painting our very handsome new shed with Cuprinol. For the first coat I used a ageing, square tin [jerry-can] of Cuprinol which I found in the garage. Sadly I failed to ‘Shake well before use’. So the first coat began as akin to transparent nail polish, but at the bottom of the tin it morphed into something like old mushroom soup. A second coat of nut brown has restored some kind of equilibrium.
After a lengthy exposure to the grim history of twentieth century Ukraine [see TaGD, passim], I turned back to the pleasure of Donna Leon. Beastly Affairs, is the 21st [I think] of her Brunetti books. A dead man is found in a canal with no identification. He has Madelung’s disease. a rare disorder of fat metabolism. And is identified as a vet from the mainland. The trail takes Brunetti and his colleague Vianello to Mestre, to an uncomfortable encounter with the widow and her small son. And then on a nightmare visit to a slaughter-house, all blood and guts and sadism, described in uncomfortable detail. As ever with Leon’s books it is a story of private greed and institutional corruption. Which she takes as normative in the Italy which Brunetti inhabits. The final chapter, in which Brunetti and Vianello attend a funeral mass for the dead vet, and are distracted by a variety of unusual and unexpected noises is an engaging and whimsical event. Very unusual for Leon.
Her books give a pleasure for a mix of reasons. Yes, there is the Venice backdrop. But more important is the depth of Brunetti’s relationships: with the solid Vianello, now a vegetarian and ecologist; with the striking Signorina Elettra, flower lover and computer sleuth, brilliantly able to seek out a lot of supposedly secret information; with Elettra’s boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta; and with his wife Paola, daughter of a noble Venetian family, university teacher, and passionate admirer of Henry James. I wonder how much Paola is based on Donna Leon herself, who has lived and taught in Venice for some thirty years.
Scanning The Times one Saturday, I came across an obituary for Brian Thompson, a writer of whom I had never heard, with high praise for his book Keeping Mum: A wartime childhood, published in 2006.I found a copy in the central library on George IV Bridge. [Along with Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows, of which more another time.]
Thompson grew up on the outskirts of Cambridge during the Second World War. He was the first child of a loveless [dysfunctional] marriage. His dad, Bert, was a Post Office engineer [linesman], from a poor London background, but determined to get on in the world. Which he does in 1940 by volunteering for RAF aircrew. As he explains to his young son:
“ I realised he was giving me his Clark Gable. My mother [a rather crazed Vivien Leigh] joined us with two flowered tea cups. There was much more of this suppressed danger in the adult conversation that followed. I utterly failed to register the importance of what was being said and wandered away … … Soon , what had been promised arrived. The shouting began and there was the sound of breaking crockery.”
With his father gone, the radio is turned to dance music, tea is sweetened with jam, and his mum sleeps in her fake fur coat. And takes up with Yanks from the base. Thompson is farmed out to aunt Elsie in New Malden, whose house has an Anderson shelter erected indoors. They spend the nights there with a bottle of tap water, and the family Bible, and a first aid kit in a pink biscuit tin. A flying bomb, a V1 rocket, lands uncomfortably close, and they are dug out the following morning by the emergency services. “The house had been cut in half as if by a bread knife.” Thompson returns to the house in Cambridge, now smelling of Lucky Strike tobacco and a cheap perfume called Blue Moon. He helps to draw seams down the back of his mum’s legs with an eyebrow pencil. “She was probably at her happiest in the three or four brief years the Yanks chased after her. She loved dancing, wore clothes with a wild, untutored flair, and milked the men she met unmercifully for love and romance. Her sense of her own worth was non-existent.”
Away from Cambridge the boy visits his father’s parents; Jockie and Queenie Thompson who live in a tiny house crammed with bicycle gear in Lambeth Walk. Laid out in empty tobacco tins are odd nuts and bolts that his grandfather had scavenged from the gutters of Lambeth Bridge Road. Jockie had served in a cycle battalion in the Great War, and sang the songs of that war still “in a voice like a choking dog.” He has an occasional job bundling up copies of the Evening Standard. From which he is wont to return ‘a bit aeriated’.
Thompson acquires a bicycle and is offered a place at the County High School for Boys.
“I consulted Gloria Wilkes, the girl who considered me common. She gave the grammar school the thumbs up, since it was her uncle’s old alma mater and Uncle Richard, as she called him, had gone on to be an assistant harbour-master in Dover. Gloria was aiming higher: she was going to be a doctor when she grew up.”
He goes to the grammar school, discovers books, joins the library. He and Gloria hang out in the evenings, swapping notes about school, leaning on their handle-bars. His education progresses in other ways when Gloria invites him into her father’s shed one Saturday morning. She tells him how her grandfather was killed falling out of a car in Snowdonia. The romance does not last. “Thank you for coming to see me on Saturday. I learnt a lot about you. Yours sincerely, Gloria Wilkes.”
What might have been a ‘misery memoir’ is rescued by Thompson’s humorous depiction of his younger self. And by a series of set-piece comic moments. Such as his school dance:
“A five-piece band was hired, of elderly men in claret blazers, their hair pasted down with Brylcream … … The pianist was at least my grandfather Jockie’s age. The quicksteps were poorly supported but there was much pleasure in watching the staff arise en masse for the waltz and the foxtrot. This was the first school dance since the winter of 1940 … … As [the Headmaster] spoke, the swing doors opened silently behind him, and my mother slipped into the hall, her hair pinned up, wearing a button-through floral dress. On her feet were the famous Cuban cork sandals. With the genius of the deaf, she had caught the mood of the moment and was smiling demurely. As the headmaster finished with a command to the band to let rip, he glanced round, saw her standing there, and walked towards her with both hands extended …” A triumph for them both.
The first ever family holiday, in a boarding house in Clacton, with his father in knee-length khaki shorts and a copy of the Daily Telegraph under his arm, is a major disaster. “Have you come far ?,” the Good Samaritan asked me. ‘From Paris’. “Lucky chap. And what did you like about it best ?” ‘The Eiffel Tower’ … …’ The man patted my shoulder and lit a Gold Flake.”
Thompson gropes a beefy backstreet girl, Sonia, behind the garden shed. He plays rugby for the school against other local schools, including the feared Bedford Modern. He is beaten by the headmaster for mistreating a young probationer science teacher known as Voodoo Lil. Forming a school jazz club widens his horizons. Mahalia Jackson is booked to appear at the No. 3 touring theatre in Cambridge. When the curtain goes up, the audience comprises seven schoolboys, and she bursts into tears. She is persuaded to sing one song. “Hop it, boys”, says the stage manager.
Thompson’s screen heroes are Robert Mitchum and, supremely, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High. “Are you American ?’, asks a woman outside the cinema, “staring at my newly purchased zoot suit and a haircut that was known to the barbers as a duck’s arse.” He looks carefully in the mirror at his Cecil Gee suit. “This was a suit made for homicide on the sidewalk . … … In Cambridge, modelled by some skinny kid who had yet to shave, its magic was diluted.”
Suddenly O levels are on the horizon. He falls for a girl with grey eyes called Figgie who barges into him in Boots, and he takes her to Joe Lyons. Figgie likes Al Martino and worships Gregory Peck. Together they have an almost adult night out, down in the West End, at South Pacific.
When the exams are over he sets off by bike with Teeth Harris, planning to take the ferry to Calais and to cycle down to Paris. Their first day in France is severely curtailed by an encounter with four drunk Swedish sailors. After which they wobble onwards to camp in a potato field, pausing only to buy two bottle of peach brandy “which we supposed to be the drink of Parisian sophisticates”. They never get to Paris, defeated by cobbled roads and cheap alcohol.
“The lowest point of the trip came when we wandered through a stand of pines by the coast and found a sandy hollow to our liking. It was night and we pitched the tents at least to the extent of inserting the poles and spreading out the stained cotton. In the morning we were woken by three polite Frenchmen who pointed out that we were in a fairway bunker of the very prestigious Le Touquet golf course. One of the player’s balls was trapped under our bikes.”
Read it if you can find a second-hand copy. I’m now looking out for the sequel which is called Clever Girl. It’s certainly more fun than watching the tv news or reading about blustering Boris.