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Ah! There You Are!

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940


It is at the age of ten years that great importance attaches to the arrangement of affairs strictly according to routine. Yet it was at that age that I learned exact routine is not always practicable: the rules by which I was governed did not always extend to my elders in that they did not do invariably that which they were expected to do.

This fact was made patent to me one day late in December, the era being pre-Great War.

I was arriving in London from school and, as customary, was to stay with my father for a day or two before going to Yorkshire for the Christmas holidays. The train was late, and it was unheated—an uncalled-for hardship on a damp and raw day. However, I was young and excited, for in addition to the pleasure of being released from the thralldom of Latin declensions there was in store the early prospect of meeting my father. I saw him seldom and for short periods, because, for many reasons, I had to be “brought up” in the stabilizing influences of England, while he gallivanted abroad in search of material for his books: “Old Calabria,” “Fountains in the Sand,” and “Siren Land” are three of them.

The train was aggravatingly dilatory and my feet were numbed by the cold, but it did not matter. School with its dietetic horrors was over and done with for five weeks. My father, recently returned from Italy, had sustained my faltering courage through three months of school by keeping “in touch” with me: through luridly-colored postcards of churches and mosques, on the backs of which he wrote excellent pieces of advice such as “Brush your Teeth 1” and “Use a nailbrush—never a nailfile!” I had followed his advice conscientiously throughout the term and now was due to receive his commendation in person.

I stepped out onto the gloomy, fog-enwrapped platform of the railroad station. There was an atmosphere of stale fish, engine oil, horses, and newsprint. But there was no sign of my father. Anxiously I glanced up and down the long wood-planked platform in search of him. No father. I began to worry—which at my age meant a hard fight with tears. What had happened? It was half past five and all was dark outside. The passengers had all hurried away as soon as they had been greeted by their friends. Only I, aged ten, was unmet and alone. Where was he? What should I do? A large policeman appeared and stopped before me.

“Is your name ‘Douglas’?” he inquired portentously, but he smiled as he said it. On my admitting the fact, he produced a slip of paper from his helmet.

“Your Dad got tired of waiting for the train so he asked me to give you this.”

“This” was a slip of paper on which was a message in the “Brush-your-Teeth” handwriting I knew well: “Gone to English Review office, Tavistock Street. Come on there as soon as you arrive.”

St. Pancras Station is in a district far from delightful or “desirable.” The streets around were, at that time, dirty, ill-lit, and awesome. Nevertheless, having received my instructions to go to The English Review offices, I ventured forth from the gloomy station into yet more gloomy thoroughfares. Apprehension of I knew not what made me walk quickly; yet, despite my anxiety and hurry, I was compelled to stop no less than a dozen times in my progress along those poorly favored streets to ask my way. Although the fog was not a “pea soup” one, it was thick enough to conceal from my view the grime-smeared nameplates of the streets, placed high up on the walls. The directions given me were grudging, terse, vague, and misleading.

It had been just past six o’clock when I left St. Pancras Station, and because of my ignorance and the name-concealing fog it was more than an hour and a half before I came to that district characterized by the smell of decaying fruit and vegetables—Covent Garden. I sniffed the malodorous bouquet gratefully, for now I knew my whereabouts. Tavistock Street was near and I had come to the end of my fearsome walk. In the daytime, Tavistock Street is a tangle of barrows, carts, and bricks piled high with fruit and vegetables, while through this maze of traffic step nimbly and deftly those agile cockney porters with eight or ten half-bushel baskets, balanced one on top of the other on their heads. At night the noise and bustle is gone, but the smell remains.

Of course, by this time The English Review offices had closed, a possibility that had not occurred to me. However, there was a note addressed to me, pinned to the door of that eminent journal. Taking the piece of paper to the light of a nearby street lamp, I read: “Gone to Gennaro’s for dinner. Follow.”

The English Review offices in Tavistock Street were barely half a mile from Gennaro’s Restaurant in old Comp-ton’s Street, but I did not know that, and the directions I received from people resulted in my arriving at that gay place some time after nine o’clock. The enormously rotund Gen-naro placed vast hands on my shoulders in welcome.

“Ah! Your Pappa! ‘E is gone home ten minutes ago! See! ‘E leave this note for you!”

He had indeed left a note for me: “Gone home. What’s the matter with you?”

I took a bus number 19 to the Chelsea end of the Albert Bridge and dragged my weary way on foot over the bridge for the remaining third of a mile. It was perfectly true: my father had gone home—he opened the door of 63 Albany Mansions when I rang the bell.

“Ahl There you are! What on earth happened to you?” was his greeting. “The train was ridiculously late, I suppose. And I’ll be bound it wasn’t heated, either—damned English trains! Are you hungry?”

Was I hungry, after walking around from six o’clock until ten! I devoured canned sardines, new bread, butter, goat’s milk cheese, and two large cups of very strong and fragrant tea sweetened with condensed milk—a most un-dietetic supper for a growing boy. I admitted that the train was unheated and during my self-served meal was treated to an explosive diatribe on the inhumanity of the English people in general and railway officials in particular. He never asked me how I managed to find my way around London on that Point-to-Point chase, from one note to another, nor did I volunteer to tell him. He had assumed that I would manage and he was right. We let it go at that.

The triple-windowed living room of my father’s flat faced the greenery of Battersea Park and this landscape was one of the chief reasons for his renting a flat in a somewhat down-at-heel neighborhood. Another reason was its cheapness. The rent was so low that he could afford to lock the door with a clear conscience of not being extravagant when he went abroad on one of his long trips: it worked out far more cheaply than moving things into storage and moving them out again. There was no central heating nor was there a constant hot water supply; nor were there doormen and liftmen—there was no lift. The flat was well built and comfortable and the living room particularly inviting with its foreign appearance. The furnishings were a precis of his wanderings. The room gave an immediate impression of faraway places, being cluttered up with little statues and bronzes he had excavated: fragments of marble and Roman tiles; amphora? and other vases somewhat smaller; daggers and curios of all kinds; and rows upon rows of bookshelves, reaching from floor to ceiling and occupying at least two-thirds of the available wall space; and there were hangings of Indian silk and brocade wherever it was possible to place such splashes of color. An outsize specimen in desks, a comfortable writing chair, two or three easy chairs, a table or two, and the anthracite stove that heated the room with amazing efficiency practically completed the inventory.

Being a moving object, there were times when I was just one item too many in that crowded living room. On those rare occasions when I was a guest of my father’s he must have felt seriously discommoded, I am sure—although such visits of mine were infrequent. He had plenty to think of and to do without having the inconvenience of a small boy around the place. Either he was writing or he was assisting on The English Review—or he was determinedly trying to do both, with fierce grumblings at men and letters in general. If he was writing, it meant that he needed complete silence in order to employ absolute concentration. If he was at The English Review, he was enforcedly absent from the flat at least for the greater part of the day.

Whichever happened to be the case, it was his wont to hand me half a crown (the equivalent of about fifty cents) and bid me go out and not return until dark. The first time he did that I was back within an hour with two beautiful German bayonets I had bought with the money—delighted at securing such magnificent bargains. My father had different notions: he chased me and the bayonets out again to the park; and there I spent the day with nothing to eat, resolving firmly not to invest further in bayonets. I was devoutly glad when the park keepers rang the bell to announce the official close of day. My father said nothing more about the bayonets but he smiled slightly as I hinted that a good, thick slice of bread and butter would not come amiss.

That same evening, for no reason at all that I can recollect, he produced from his black steel jewel box a parchment paper and pushed it under my nose.

“You see that?” he demanded. “Read what it says.”

“To Our Well Beloved and Trusty Servant, Norman Douglas… .”

He folded up the paper before I could read further.

“Yes. That’s from Queen Victoria sending me to the Legation in St. Petersburg. Long time ago. You mark my words! We’re going to have trouble with Russia before not so very long!”

With groans and curses he wrestled with the problem of a starched collar which he finally anchored around his neck. When dressed—to a running commentary anent the idiocy of all men for allowing themselves to be imposed upon to the extent of wearing the clothes they do—he produced an antique Russian snuff box of silver, ornamented with highly intricate relief work and having, as I remember, a lid that fitted with some difficulty but stayed rigidly fastened when once it had been induced to close. This was his gold coin purse, which he examined to see that he had enough sovereigns and half sovereigns before setting out for dinner. Usually this would be about eight o’clock or a bit later.

Gennaro’s was the most frequented rendezvous; it was then not as well known and tourist-ridden as it is this day. In the early years, the eldest of the three Gennaro brothers always found time to summon the kitchen cat to make it leap through his locked arms for my edification. My father would join a group at a table in a small room leading out from the one and only dining room: Joseph Conrad, Rafael Sabatini, John Mavrogodato, George Thomas, Austin Harrison—into such a gathering of literary people my father would move with a small and silent son in tow. I would eat a vast quantity of spaghetti followed by an indigestibly large portion of Neapolitan ice cream, and then, without further ceremony, I would be dumped into a nearby motion picture house until such time as my father and his friends had finished their conversations.

A tap on my shoulder in the dark of the movie palace would startle me as I sat enthralled at the sight of red Indians surrounding the covered wagons. Thus was I collected, and home we went, about midnight. If either of us were hungry then, and usually enough we both were, he would fix up a snack of some kind. For bedtime reading I was handed “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” by Edgar Allan Poe. Thus did my father complete his contribution to my education for life.

At the side of Albany Mansions there is a street called Park Walk or Park Road, which leads from Albert Bridge Road to the Battersea Bridge Road. Some evenings we walked along this street into the bustling, tram-clattering thoroughfare of Battersea Bridge Road, across the bridge to Chelsea, with the Old Chelsea Church raising its grey-brown tower somewhat to our right and in front of us, and then turned left along Cheyne Walk until we came to a narrow alley named the World’s End Passage—a mean and malodorous slit of rough paving stones between workmen’s dwellings chiefly one story in height. This alleyway possessed a most unsavory reputation in police records for deeds of violence. It debouched into the King’s Road, Chelsea, at the side of the World’s End Public House, which had a clientele drawn from this and similar alleys and swarming poverty-stricken streets in the neighborhood. It was the starting point for many a lusty, bloodletting brawl in those days. The World’s End Passage was a grim and uninviting walk of about one-half mile, redolent of all the worst smells that could be associated with humanity at its lowest stages. Usually it was dark when we walked along here: a darkness that was accentuated rather than relieved by three lamps, one at each end and one halfway along the Passage. This noisome gloom never failed to inspire my father to unprecedented heights of reminiscence.

“Just here!” he said musingly, while he tapped with his walking stick against a doorway surmounted by barbed wire and broken bottle glass, “Just here, a woman had her head bashed in by some chap who must have thought she had a shilling in her purse. He cut her throat too; with a piece of that glass!” We walked on a bit further. “You see all those cats? Well, every now and then, those restaurant fellows come down here and catch all they can and kill them. They use cats’ brains to make that whipped cream you’re so fond of!”

We were on our way to Muriel Draper’s house in Edith Grove; it was during the era she describes so vividly in “Music at Midnight.” It was at this same time that my father was writing one of his more difficult and less well known books, a book that has brought him but little in the way of pecuniary reward or even notice; yet it is one of his most valuable contributions to literature. I refer to that “breathless catalogue” entitled “London Street Games,” for the garnering of which from the gamins of the streets, my father would leave the flat early in the morning, with his pockets stuffed with rewards in the way of sweets, toy pistols, small dolls, cheap watches, and pennies with which to bribe the suspicious urchins to divulge their invented games. He recorded these faithfully in the identical wording in which they were told to him. Such inventiveness by the children of the poor is now a thing of the past—organization, the radio, overemphasised civic virtue have combined to direct the formerly inventive minds of the young animals of the streets along certain, well defined channels. “London Street Games” is a chronicle of things now become a rarity.

My father would go out in the morning and be absent all day. For the remainder of the week he would be busy at home analyzing the spoils of the chase: seeking the meanings of meaningless rhymes, the purpose of purposeless moves in the involved and intricately designed games that had come to his notice. It is no wonder that he welcomed relief from the drab stuffiness and harshness of the streets by visiting Muriel and Paul Draper. There could not be a much greater contrast than that afforded by his day’s research environment and the artistic comfort of 19 Edith Grove.

Those evenings spent in such an atmosphere were always strange to me. For they came at infrequent intervals and always after I had been spending weeks or months in one of two clearly defined and utterly English surroundings: either at boarding school, where everything has an idiomatic flavor of crude bleakness unmatched by anything in the world, or in the countryside of Yorkshire among simple people who would have been as out of place in Muriel Draper’s studio as most of her guests would have been on the Yorkshire moors. Writers, painters, and musicians were no part of the daily fare of an English schoolboy: all I knew of such artists, other than my father, of whom I knew too little, were the books of Ernest Thompson Seton and the “Zampa Overture” on a gramaphone record.

I was a silent, utterly silent, spectator at these gatherings, at which would be such world-famous people as Ysaye, Casals, Rubenstein, and many others. My father was perfectly “at home” with these musicians, for he was an accomplished pianist himself. I usually sat in somewhat miserable loneliness on a hassock, which always, by some mischance of the devil, managed to move itself, with me on it, into the center of the big studio. My father, observing my unhappy face, would call out from the piano:

“Do you want a chocolate? Give him a cigarette, Mill One of your good ones. Nothing cheap and nasty!”

“Rut it’ll make him sick, Norman!” Muriel Draper would protest.

“What of that? He looks sick now! Give him two—he might as well learn to smoke now as later on!”

I was given the cigarette—and was not sick. After all, at the age of eleven, in a roomful of strange people, buzzing with talk of incomprehensible things—cricket was never broached as a topic—jokes that I could not understand then but would appreciate now, music that was far more incomprehensible than Greek to me, filled with the scent of fat wax candles that threw their flickering light into the shadowy corners of that warm, human arena of artistic lions, the aromatic perfume of burning birch and cedar logs on the enormous hearth . . . decidedly I could not refuse a cigarette, and I owed it to my eleven-year-old dignity not to be sick, not in front of all those people—whose conspicuous feature, in my eyes, was Hair: silvery grey hair; unruly curly hair; lank black hair; the sparse yet sleek hair of Paul Draper; Muriel Draper’s beturbaned hair.

The studio was built out into the garden and there was a steep flight of stairs connecting it with the dining room which was part of the original house. At the appropriate time I would go to the dining room, hovering as close to my father as I dared without annoying him and saying nothing until he was aware of my existence—which he acknowledged by passing me a plate heaped with selections from the entire buffet table. Everything from lobster mayonnaise and gelatine of chicken to ice cream and Gorgonzola cheese was piled on one plate and I was bidden to go and eat in the now deserted studio: ‘And don’t you dare to be sick I It isn’t at all the thing to be sick in front of other guests! There’s a big fireplace in the studio; remember that: if you haven’t time to get to the you-know-where!”

When it came time to leave my father, either for school or for the countryside, the parting was as casual as the meeting. In ample time for the train, he took me to the station, secured for me a corner seat facing the direction of travel, bought me a selection of reading matter, of which I still recall the jokes in the pornographic Ally Sloper’s Weekly—and that was that. Before the train was due to leave, he would look up from the platform, say, “Well, remember all I told you! ‘Bye ‘bye!” and turning around, walked down the long platform. The walking stick carried in his right hand tapped the boards at the precise moment as did his left foot. His erect figure, with hat perched in seeming precariousness atop his head, pursued a steady and deliberate course down the platform. Other figures would intervene for a brief moment, as I leaned from the carriage window following him with my eyes. The figure grew less distinct, for there was a blur to my vision; I could see but no longer hear the exact beat of walking stick and left foot, there were more people in the way; then he was gone from sight.


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