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Keith Baxter, Spectator A splendid biography...Read gives us an astonishingly moving portrait of a very complex man, his loving marriage, and his quest for spiritual solace. It is a warts-and-all portrait but Read effortlessly invokes compassion for his subject...engrossing.
Patrick Garland, The Oldie Piers Paul Read's perceptive study about this much admired and most complicated of actors falls into that rare category of exceptional theatre biographies.
In the late summer of 1988, when he was about to make his last stage appearance in Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods at the Comedy Theatre in London, Sir Alec Guinness agreed to be interviewed for the Independent Magazine. I was given this assignment - one of a series - by the then editor, Alexander Chancellor. I telephoned Sir Alec's agent to ask his distinguished client to lunch but was told firmly that I would be Sir Alec's guest at the Connaught Grill.
The lunch on 9 September passed pleasantly. It turned out that Sir Alec had read one or two of my novels, and before I could express my admiration for his work he managed to compliment me on mine. It was immediately apparent that my subject would say only what he wanted to say and could not be drawn into any indiscretion. As a result my profile was based as much on what I had gleaned from his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, as on our conversation.
I had only seen Sir Alec once on stage - as King Berenger in Ionesco's Exit the King in 1963 - and so my judgements on his acting came largely from what I recalled of his performances in films. 'The other theatrical knights,' I wrote, 'may have outdone him in playing classical roles on stage; but none of them combines that mixture of kindliness, impudence and pathos which Sir Alec can put into a single smile...His talent was to be convincing not as men as we imagine them to be but as men as they are - shy, uncertain and ambiguous.'
I repeated Aldous Huxley's maxim, quoted in Blessings in Disguise, that 'no actor can be good because no actor can develop his own personality and know reality' and speculated that:
...if Sir Alec does at times appear to conceal his true feelings, it is not so much to hide himself from others as to spare them the sting of his sharp tongue. By his own admission he can be bitchy and irascible; and, given his dreadful childhood, he has every reason to be thoroughly unpleasant. If he is not - if, in fact, there is real kindness behind that kindly smile, and a check on his caustic wit, it is perhaps because of an early determination to prove Aldous Huxley wrong.
On 1 October, after the article had been published, Sir Alec wrote to me to say: 'The piece you did on me for the Independent gave me great pleasure.'; but, even before it was published - just a week after our lunch at the Connaught - I was invited to bring my wife to dine with Sir Alec at Cecconi's.
This was the first of more than two dozen such invitations issued irregularly over the next twelve years and the start of a friendship based on a shared interest in politics, literature and the Catholic Church. On rare occasions, Alec's wife Merula would join us, and we also met her at the opening of two exhibitions of her paintings and embroidered works of art. I would occasionally correspond with Alec (always writing to thank him, of course, after a lavish dinner; he was punctilious about good manners), but there were also exchanges on political, religious and literary questions. We were both against NATO's bombing of Serbia, and in May of 1999 he posted me the draft of a letter he had written to the Daily Telegraph but had decided not to send: 'It seemed to me too long and clumsy, and apart from the chore of trying to get it right, I suddenly realised I didn't want to step into Vanessa Redgrave's shoes...I have always resented actors airing their views in the press and here I was about to do just that.'
Alec sometimes wrote to me on religious questions. For example, he had been disappointed by a young priest at the Jesuit church on Farm Street whom he had asked for advice on the question of forgiveness:
I had said that I had learned to forgive (eventually) someone who had more or less slandered me but I found it virtually impossible to forgive him for the hurt, through me so to speak, done to those whom I love and are close to me. I was asking him for advice on this - but he said he didn't know any answer...Perhaps you would have advice. I find it a tricky area. I suppose forgiveness should be total and in all directions but - but - but. One day it will all have blown over and been forgotten - I hope.
In June of 1999, Alec suggested that 'perhaps one warm day we can entice you down to Steep Marsh for a night - then you will see how really tatty open-plan (of a sort) life can be. If the weather is decent we could eat out and avoid the dog hairs in which we live and have our being.' In December of 1999 he repeated his suggestion that we should come and stay, and added:
Early in the new year, when I can get hold of my solicitor, I am going to make an addition to my Will. (Merula knows of this and approves.) I have in my possession a sweet letter from St François de Sales to a Madame de la Fléchère, written in - I think, 1605. It is prettily framed with glass at front and back so you can see both sides. It was given to me by a charming priest who was my confessor at St Germain-des-Prés. He spoke perfect English and I was fond of him. He died, very young, of appendicitis, about twenty years ago. He had been given the letter for work done for the Sisters of the Visitation at Annecy. Anyway, it is to be yours when I die. I can't have it sold, of course, and if given to a church would be lost in all their clobber. And, as I said, I have very few Catholic friends so who better than you? Besides, as you are going to be living on and off in Burgundy, I like to think of it going back to France, if that was also your will.
On 22 February 2000, I dined alone with Alec at Odette's on the Regent's Park Road. There he told me that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Two days later, in answer to my letter of thanks and commiseration, he reassured me that:
My sentence of death (of 6 to 10 months or possibly a year) was only if I did nothing about treatment. Surgery was ruled out. Anyway it is now, I assume, under control and I start the injections of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires next week...
Lourdes crossed my mind (Merula and I went once, about 35 years ago) - not for a cure but just to pray and learn acceptance. But now I think the journey could bump me off. I may settle for a couple of days at Quarr Abbey. Or even Lisieux, among the scattered marble roses.
On 3 May 2000, at dinner at the Connaught, it was arranged that we would pay our long-postponed visit to Petersfield. 'So glad you and Emily can come down. You must be prepared for the worst - scruffiness, hit-or-miss food, dog hairs all over you and general untidiness. We wear any old thing that comes to hand, so don't put us to shame. Your barn-dancing clogs would be fine.' He enclosed a hand-drawn map with directions to Kettlebrook Meadows, '54 miles from Hyde Park Corner'. Soon afterwards, however, he telephoned to say that he had developed phlebitis and so our visit would have to be postponed. In July we left for our house in France and there, in August, learned that Alec had died.
In answer to a letter of condolence, Merula asked me to come down to Kettlebrook Meadows to pick up the framed letter of St Francis of Sales. She had had cancer for some time, had been expected to die before Alec, and now awaited death with a serene certainty that she would soon be reunited with him in paradise. Sitting by her bedside with my wife, and with Matthew, Merula's son, there was some talk of whether or not she should authorise a biography of Alec. Merula's anxiety was that, if she did not authorise a biography, Alec's reputation would fall into the hands of an established 'theatrical' biographer who would fail to understand, or under-play, the other aspects of his life.
It did not occur to me at that time to suggest myself for the task. However, after returning to France I received a letter from Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, once Alec's publisher and later his literary agent, passing on a request from Merula that I should write Alec's biography. Not wishing to disappoint a dying friend; assured that Matthew concurred with her choice, and reflecting on the ample evidence that Alec was an exceptional man, I accepted Merula's offer. I immediately arranged to return to England to see her but her condition had deteriorated rapidly and she died before it could be done.
Did Alec Guinness want a biography? He said nothing on the subject to either Merula or Matthew but, after his death, two of his closest friends, Anne Kaufman and Mark Kingston, recalled Alec saying to them that if a biography was ever to be written he would like it to be written by me. During his lifetime, as will be seen from the ensuing narrative, he was unhappy, even angry, that he was the subject of biographies - John Russell Taylor's Alec Guinness. A Celebration published in 1984 and Garry O'Connor's Alec Guinness: Master of Disguise published ten years later. All offers from would-be biographers were politely declined. However, he took no exception to Robert Tanitch's illustrated compendium Guinness published in 1989 and kept a copy in his study; it remains the definitive source for information on Alec's career in cinema and on the stage.
In his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, Alec wrote that he had left instructions for his diaries to be destroyed, but there were no such instructions in either the letter he wrote to Merula shortly before his death or in his complex and detailed Will; and his reason for wanting them destroyed was probably not, as we shall see, because they contained any sensational revelations but because he felt he may have spoken unkindly of others, and that they were dull.
There is also evidence that, in anticipation of a biography, he had made some selection of the letters in his files. Some had been marked with an x. An arbitrary judgement seems to have been made as to whether to keep letters from his friends. He wrote over 800 letters to Dame Felicitas Corrigan, but only a fraction of those she wrote to him survive. Clearly many, including the sacks of fan mail that he received after Star Wars, had been thrown away. Untouched were the 580 or so letters that Alec had written to Merula during World War II, and some of the letters that Merula wrote to him, that were tied in dusty bundles and stored in a drawer.
It should also be borne in mind that Alec loved chatting on the telephone. He spoke with his friend Mark Kingston every Sunday morning, and so it is only to be expected that there would be few letters from some of his closest friends such as Kingston, Alan Bennett, Jill Balcon, Peter Glenville or Peter Bull. But it is also possible that he destroyed letters from some of these friends because they revealed aspects of his life that Alec preferred to conceal from posterity. Coral Browne wrote to him in July, 1990, saying: 'I will be sending an envelope to you within the next week - it will contain your letters to me - which have given me so much pleasure - thought you might like to have them before someone went thru my panties & gave them to Alan Bennett to read on the BBC.'9 These letters were not found in Kettlebrook and must have been destroyed.
Here again, the presumption is that he regretted some of the uncharitable things he had said. 'I can't help feeling,' he wrote to Dame Felicitas Corrigan in 1972, that 'all letters should be kept absolutely private or returned to the writer if she or he is living. I'd hate people to have access to certain of my letters as I suppose they could cause trouble.' But he may also have felt that there were some things that should not be aired; and, as if to fire a shot across the bows of a future biographer, there appears in Alec's posthumously published Commonplace Book this quotation from Cardinal Newman: 'And so, as to the judgement of society, a just indignation would be felt against a writer who brought forward, wantonly, the weaknesses of a great man, though the whole world knew that they existed.'
It has been my intention in what follows neither to dwell on Alec's weaknesses nor to overlook them where they seem pertinent to an understanding of his character.
Alec kept two sets of diaries - one in canvas notebooks, the first of which, written during World War II, was 'destroyed at Barletta 11th February, 1945'11, the eve of his return to England from wartime service in the Mediterranean. These were not continuous: the first of the surviving notebook runs from 1945-1946; the second 1952; the third 1954-1955. The fourth, of only a few pages, was written in 1967, and the last three notebooks ran from 1973-1994. From 1961 onwards, Alec also made daily entries in small leather-bound diaries, often recording simply what the weather had been like that morning, or what he had done that day. He did so, he wrote, because he liked to remind himself what he had been up to in preceding years; but there are also brief passages that are more revealing of what was passing through his mind than the more composed and self-conscious narrative of the journals. I have referred to these as the Small Diaries. The last entry was made only two weeks before he died.
Copyright 2003 © Piers Paul Read
'My mother was a whore,' Alec told the author John le Carré and his wife Jane, standing in the kitchen of le Carré's house, Tregiffian, on the cliff top of the south coast of Cornwall. 'She slept with the entire crew on Lord Moyne's yacht at the Cowes Regatta and when she gave birth she called the bastard Guinness but my father was probably the bloody cook.' This wild conjecture about his paternity reveals more about Alec's feelings for his mother, or of the competitive spirit that sought to outdo le Carré who had earlier been telling Alec of the misery of his own childhood as the son of a convicted con man, than it does of the reality of Alec's conception.
The refusal of his mother to divulge the identity of Alec's father was one of the sources of the bitterness he felt towards her. When Matthew, towards the end of her life, asked his grandmother about his grandfather, a dreamy look came over her face and she said, 'Ah, he was a lovely man, so kind' - which hardly suggests a brief liaison with a customer by a woman of the streets. Matthew then asked, 'What was his name?' Agnes looked cross, called him a 'cheeky monkey' and the subject was closed.
Agnes Cuff, who later embellished her name to Agnes de Cuffe, was the youngest daughter of Edward Cuff and Mary Ann Cuff, née Benfield. Edward Cuff, originally from Lambeth in South London, was a coastguard in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. In the 1891 census he and his wife were registered at 2 Coastguard Station in Bournemouth and at that time had seven children. The Benfields were a family local to that part of England, mostly stonemasons working from the quarries in Swanage, where Mary Ann's grandfather, Thomas Benfield, had a pub. Agnes, who was also called Ann, Agatha and even Agony by her siblings, was born on 8 December 1890, the seventh of twelve children. It is difficult to place the Cuffs in the complex hierarchy of class to which the English were then prone. The family tree, which could be traced back to the seventeenth century, included a number of seamen. Many of the family were privately educated and a cousin of Alec's mother was an officer in the Royal Navy who returned home after four years' service in China with enough money to buy a pub - the Horns Inn at Coalhill in Essex.
There might have been gypsy blood in the family: Mary Ann Cuff, Alec's grandmother, had black eyes, black hair and smoked a pipe. Agnes and her sisters had dark auburn hair and hazel eyes. Mary Ann, at this stage in her life, was religious and never let alcohol pass her lips. Agnes may have rebelled against this strict upbringing: she took snuff, as did her sisters, and had already taken to tippling in her late twenties when Alec was a child.
It is clear that Edward Cuff found it hard to provide for his children on a coastguard's wage, and after his death the family's predicament was still worse. Some of the sons were classified as orphans and sent to work as indentured labourers in Canada. Agnes must therefore have had to earn her living as soon as she left school, thereby gaining a certain independence and escaping from the confines of her home. Her older sister Louisa was apprenticed as a seamstress and worked on clothes for the royal family. It seems possible that Agnes joined the large numbers who, before World War I, worked as domestic servants though Alec, in later life, took the trouble to take an early biographer, John Russell Taylor, to lunch at the Mirabelle in 1984 to persuade him to alter one or two inaccuracies in the book, 'particularly his speculation about my mother having been "in service" - which she never was in my life-time and unlikely before I was born'. He would rather his mother had been a whore than a housemaid.
In whatever capacity, it would seem that the pretty, auburn-haired, hazel-eyed Agnes Cuff found herself, at the age of twenty-three, in the town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight at the time of the Regatta. One theory has it that she had a summer job working behind the bar of the Royal Yacht Squadron clubhouse and there met members of the Guinness family whose fortune, based on breweries in Dublin, was and remains so vast that even the youngest sons and daughters of the cadet branches are substantial millionaires.
The head of the family in 1913, the first Earl of Iveagh, had both a house on the Isle of Wight and a yacht at Cowes for the Regatta and, according to his granddaughter Honor, was there that year with his sons Ernest and Walter, and perhaps a banking cousin, Benjamin Guinness. Different Guinnesses later claimed to see a distinct resemblance between Alec and one or other of the Guinnesses at Cowes in 1913. Honor Guinness, who made Alec's acquaintance on board the Queen Mary in 1950 by sending him a note asking him to take tea with 'his cousin', thought Alec's father was either her uncle, Ernest Guinness, or his brother Walter, a well-known seducer of women who was ennobled as Baron Moyne in 1932 and assassinated by Zionist terrorists in Cairo in 1944. She brought diaries and photograph albums down to Kettlebrook Meadows to point out the resemblances between Lord Moyne and Alec, and even the teenage Matthew. The nanny employed by the Elwes family, neighbours of Alec's parents-in-law, the Salamans, who had seen the Guinnesses pass through the nursery of her previous employers, was convinced that Alec was the son of Lord Moyne. She said both Alec's voice and the way he walked were the same. The supporters of the Lord Moyne theory of Alec's paternity also point out that he was not only a celebrated seducer but was estranged from his wife, Lady Evelyn Erskine, in 1913.
However, Belinda Guinness, later the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, who also became a friend of Alec's, said that his distinctive, slightly pudgy hands were identical to those of her father Loel, the son of the banker, Benjamin Guinness: and it is quite possible, as Alec's son Matthew later speculated, that Agnes Cuff's reluctance to disclose the identity of Alec's father might have been because she had slept with a Guinness, and a friend of the Guinnesses as well.
It was certainly a friend, or perhaps only a business acquaintance of the Guinnesses, who believed himself to be Alec's father. The Scottish banker Andrew Geddes was considerably older than the glamorous Guinnesses and his background more modest. He had been born in 1861, the son of a tenant farmer on the estates of the Dukes of Buccleuch in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. His eldest brother, Dick, was a blacksmith; his second brother, William, took over the family farm when Andrew went to London to work in the City.
By 1913, when he is presumed to have been a guest of the Guinnesses for the Cowes Regatta, Geddes was a director of the Anglo-South American Bank and a rich man with an older wife and six children. He lived in a large house in Barnet, just north of London, but took holidays in the resorts of the south coast such as Bournemouth and Eastbourne. Photographs show him with a round face and sticking-out ears, which makes him credible as Alec's father. That face wears a benign expression which fits with Agnes' testimony that he was a kindly man.
It was Geddes who, through a solicitor, provided an allowance for Agnes Cuff and paid for Alec's education. Alec even claimed in a letter to a cousin written at the end of his life that the sum of £25,000 had been settled on his mother, though presumably she only received the income from this fund. It was suggested by Eric Warne, one of Alec's Cuff cousins, that Agnes later took holidays with Geddes in the South of France. After the premature death of the eldest of his two sons, John, and the decline of his second son, Stuart, shell-shocked in World War I, Geddes seems to have shown as much interest in Alec as he dared. His youngest daughter, Katie Weldon, later told Alec how her father, after he had moved to a house near Lewes, would watch out for him when the school was on a walk, or going to church, and, if he had seen Alec, always returned home in a very disturbed state of mind.
Geddes would occasionally visit Alec and his mother, posing as an uncle. The last such encounter was at Bournemouth station in the summer of 1922:
I was eight then and it was summer-time. He was white-haired, top-hatted, frock-coated, grave and Scots. He kept an open carriage at the door while he paid a brief, unhappy visit to my mother. I remember her saying, 'Get ready to go with Uncle to the station,' and me saying I didn't want to. Then I quickly recalled that he always used to give me a sovereign when he said good-bye; so I got ready quickly and went with him. We trotted slowly and silently to the station - he, my mother and I. When he got into his railway compartment he still hadn't handed over the expected sovereign. Just before the train started he fished in his waistcoat pocket and with cold disapproving eyes handed me half-a-crown. Exit a father. Or possibly an uncle, but the former is more likely.
Andrew Geddes died in 1928. There is no mention of Alec in his will; however, there must have been some kind of bequest because in 1935, when he was twenty-one, Alec was told by Geddes's solicitor that he had come into some shares invested in a ranch in Tierra del Fuego. Their sale realised £700.
Copyright 2003 © Piers Paul Read
Before World War I - indeed until well into the second half of the twentieth century - conceiving a child out of wedlock gave rise to scandal and led to ostracism by polite society. It was considered irresponsible to bring a child into the world with no father to provide for it, and the word 'bastard' was not simply a term of abuse but also defined the legal status of an 'illegitimate' child.
Members of Agnes's family did not exempt her from the stigma attached to her misdeed. Her sisters, with the exception of Louisa May, living precariously on the margins of gentility, ostracised her to avoid being contaminated by the scandal. Her mother stood by her but, no doubt to minimise any embarrassment she might cause to her family, Agnes moved to London where, in a flat in Lauderdale Mansions, Paddington, she gave birth to a son on 2 April 1914. The name given on his birth certificate was Alec Guinness de Cuffe, while the box provided for the father's name remained empty - 'an intriguing, speculative blank'.
Little is known about the first five years of Alec's life but a charming photograph of him as a baby suggests that he was loved and cosseted as babies tend to be. He and his mother probably lived close to home on the south coast of England; and Agnes seems to have revisited Cowes, perhaps for the Regatta. 'My mother used to try and impress me with the story that Prince Louis of Battenberg once poked me in the stomach with his finger in a Post Office on the Isle of Wight when I was 21¿2 years old.'
For his fourth birthday, which he spent in Bournemouth, Alec was given 'a blue and gold bucket (very handsome) and a spade - but I behaved filthily because I couldn't have it on the breakfast table with me - and I ruined my day'. He later remembered being rowed out to the minesweepers 'working up and down the bay...to hand over packets of cigarettes to the seamen' who either had the 'full-set beards as in the picture on a packet of Players, gazing through a life-belt', or he simply imagined that they had because 'at the age of four or five I felt they should have such beards'.
Alec's mother may have had gentlemen friends but for four of his first five years, Britain was at war with Germany and there can have been few men around to court his pretty mother. In 1919, however, she married a demobbed army officer, Lieutenant David Stiven. Stiven was a Scot, the son of a gas engineer, divorced and, though aged thirty-eight, merely a lieutenant after four years of war. His rank, and the address on his marriage certificate - the Ordnance Depot, Didcot - do not suggest a distinguished military career. He was possibly an acting captain when demobilised - Alec calls him 'the Captain' in his memoirs; or he may have exaggerated his rank in the same way as Agnes did her father's: on the marriage certificate Edward Cuff is described as 'Captain RN'.
As a divorcé, Stiven too would have been subject to a certain measure of stigma, which may have made him more open to the idea of marrying a woman with an illegitimate child. It seems likely that he had served not in the trenches in France but in Ireland: 'He always has his gun with him, in case the Sinn Fein come after him,' Alec overheard his mother tell their landlady in their flat in St John's Wood; and from the time of her marriage to Stiven his mother would drag Alec quickly 'past London pillar-boxes in case they contained revolutionary Irish bombs'.
The Stiven portrayed by Alec in his autobiography is a violent eccentric who, for three years, made his life 'a terrifying hell' by, for example, holding his revolver to Alec's head and, on another occasion, dangling him from a bridge and 'threatening to kill me and himself' to get what he wanted from Agnes. Alec did, however, concede that his mother may well have goaded Stiven into this extreme behaviour; and it is also common, even for a boy of six, to resent the advent of a competitor for his mother's love.
At the time of her marriage, Agnes and Alec were living in Bloomsbury at 31, Upper Bedford Place. Later the Stivens took a flat in St John's Wood. When, at the age of six, Alec was sent to board at Normandale, a prep school at Bexhill-on-Sea, they were living in an airless residential hotel on the Cromwell Road, one of up to 'thirty different hotels, lodgings and flats, each of which was hailed as "home" until such a time as my mother and I flitted, leaving behind, like a paper-chase, a wake of unpaid bills'. Here Alec fell ill and remained sick for more than a year. He never returned to Normandale but spent several weeks recuperating in Brighton in a small hotel in Regency Square:
I am almost positive, that I spent several weeks when I was seven, recovering from nearly a year of colitis. I can remember a dismal 'tweeny' maid who scared the wits out of me by being creepy about noises in a water tank. And I can remember having a tiny tin kitchen range which was heated by a candle and on which I fried minute pieces of meat. It was at that time, too, on a blustery day, that my straw boater blew into the sea and I dashed in after it and was knocked down by a wave, or at any rate made to stumble in the foam. That was near the small stone jetty between the piers. I recall my mother screaming at some youths, dangling their legs over the jetty, to rescue me, at which they rightly laughed. No rescue was necessary but my mother remained in a furious panic, calling them 'louts' and 'good-for-nothings'. The straw hat was lost though.
When Alec was seven or eight, the Stivens moved to digs in Southbourne in Dorset, a village on the east side of Poole Bay. Agnes's older sister, Louisa May, lived a few miles away, in Poole.
She was rather nice, Aunty May, and always kind to me when I was a small boy, and really the only one of my mother's family I could tolerate. She had terrible teeth but a charming smile. I used to have tea with her in an untidy dark house in Poole and she would lash on the butter and jam on great slices of new bread for me. She was, I assume, very poor.
Alec's grandmother, now widowed, lived on the other side of Poole in Swanage, was 'a great black bombazine figure, drunk I suspect, and although she looked ninety perhaps she wasn't much more than in her late seventies - if that'. She lived in a cottage with an earth floor, had 'black fingernails, black eyes, black hair and was dressed in black from head to foot' and smoked a clay pipe.
Alec would later recall his days in Southbourne as 'the unhappiest period of my life' with 'endless rows, bullyings and general horrors'.
It was at Southbourne that David Stiven held his loaded revolver to my head, threatening to kill me and then himself. And it was at Southbourne I saw the last of him, when he emigrated to New Zealand on the understanding that my mother would follow.
There were some happy moments. In a letter dated 9 February 1943, while Alec was in New York, he told Merula how reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park had filled him with nostalgia for the English summer, and had taken him back:
...strangely enough, to the long time I spent as a child in Southbourne, when Crusaders were my heroes and my greatest pleasure picking thick wet river flowers along the banks of the Avon or Stour, or exploring Hengistbury Head, or going on my cheap red scooter up and down the hot dull pavements or being asked not to scoot outside the red brick house at the corner, where the blinds were down and black horses and carriages were waiting at the door. We lived in a house (v. small) with a woman called Miss Garrett, who had a chicken's plucked throat and a big fat niece at the Bournemouth High School. Miss Garrett's back yard had a pear tree, a few rows of potatoes, a few chickens, a glossy black Indian or Persian cock, and an empty rabbit hutch. Once I took into the kitchen a piece of white, sun-dried wholesome dog shit and pretended it was a new potato. My mother thought that quite funny but not Miss Garrett.
Once Miss Garrett and my mother took me to Evensong at Christchurch Priory and halfway through the psalms my mother said, 'For God's sake let's get a drink. You stay here, Alec.' And I was left, way on into the night, until pale men in black were closing the big barred doors and asked me where I belonged. It was a very dark night and Miss G and my mamma didn't come to collect me until the pubs were closing and they were in a pretty high giggly state by then.
This incident clearly left its mark: almost forty years after this letter to Merula, Alec again recalled in his diary how his mother had left him in the church at Christchurch 'while she and her cronies set off on a pub-crawl and failed to collect me until after the church was shut up'. It was added to the inventory of grudges he held against his mother.
As a result of the chaos and instability of his home life, Alec welcomed the order and discipline of school life. At the age of seven he was sent to a private fee-paying school in Southbourne called Pembroke Lodge.
The headmaster, Mr Meakin, 'was a kindly man...but he was horribly impatient, except with handsome boys who were good cricketers'. For the first time we now come across the tinge of homo-eroticism that was to be found in so many of the all-male institutions at the time. Alec and a friend called McCloughlin were 'tanned by Meakin on our bare behinds for fooling around with torches and playing cards in the dormitory after lights out'. Meakin's occasional visits to the boys in the dormitory were 'usually to tickle the Captain of the First XI'. His successor, 'Punch' Hill, was 'a devious character, given to holy words and unholy glints of the eye'. Here Alec learned, 'like most children, an acute awareness of the hypocrisy of grown-ups'. But he much preferred the company of the other boys to that of his mother and stepfather, David Stiven.
Alec longed to conform: 'I can remember when I was seven so well wondering what I'd be like at thirty. Broad, blond, v. frank and heroic and the possessor of a smashing push bike with 3 speed;' and 'school life...provided a dimension of security, a stable routine, and a happy freedom from the domestic dramas of holiday-time, with their financial and emotional upsets...' The other pupils came from stable homes and better backgrounds than did Alec. A retired colonel, whom Alec came across in 1973, he remembered as 'a friendly, genial boy at his happiest in the cricket nets...very very charming and civilised' and known as 'Dolly' Dickens.
Among the extra-curricular activities at Pembroke Lodge was ballroom dancing:
On Friday nights we used to put on black striped trousers, clean Eton collars, white ties, white gloves and pinchy shiny pumps and slide and gawk about the French-chalked gym with an angular lady in a green tea gown. But I had to give it up after a term, like my awful piano playing, because my solicitor told the Head I had to economise. It was always cold in the gym, I remember, and the only nice thing about the dancing lessons were the Swiss buns - those long things with icing - which we used to get afterwards. Buns still mean quite a lot to me...
Now, at the age of eight or nine, Alec found that he 'liked to dress up and pretend to be other people or animals' and was 'consciously acting, giving imitations of other people like teachers and matrons'; and there were amateur dramatics with end-of-term plays that 'were always farces and often quite funny', but when Alec asked to play a part he was turned down by the headmaster with the words: 'You'll never make an actor.' This may have been because Alec had difficulty in pronouncing his 'th's, frequently substituting an 'f'; but, rather than smothering the secret ambition to go on the stage that he already had at that age, it 'put in my soul a little grain of iron determination'.
Agnes Cuff's marriage to David Stiven ended around 1927 when Stiven emigrated to New Zealand. Now aged thirteen, Alec graduated from Pembroke Lodge and went to Roborough School in Eastbourne - not as Alec Stiven or even Alec de Cuffe but, he was told by his mother 'almost casually', as Alec Guinness. There had been a plan to send him to the prestigious Scottish public school, Fettes, possibly the choice of the Scot Andrew Geddes; but it was abandoned either because Agnes decided it was too inconvenient or, more likely in Alec's view, from 'lack of funds'.
Roborough, though a very minor public school, gave Alec a sound education. The clarity and elegance of the style found in his earliest letters and the extreme rarity of a misspelled word suggest a good grounding in English. He failed to master Latin, though he was taught it for eight or nine years, and later blamed the poor teaching 'without interest...like mathematics'; but he liked History and won a 'distinction' in the Cambridge School Certificate.
At school at Roborough, theatrical make-believe became both a private and public passion. In the dormitory after lights-out he would enact imaginary dramas under the blankets. In free-time, during winter evenings, while some of the boys indulged in 'ragging and sitting around on radiators', Alec joined those who pursued their hobbies, building 'a very collapsible cardboard theatre'. He constructed a shadow theatre using a sheet and a strong light, and directed plays and operettas, among them The Pirates of Penzance, recited a musical monologue called 'Dangerous Dan McGrew' wearing a slouch hat belonging to one of the masters and with a thin black moustache painted on his upper lip; and he played in Macbeth, running round the school yard so that he could appear breathless as the King's messenger - the first intimation of the professional dedication that was to be such a significant feature of his career.
Alec's first experience of the theatre had come when he was around six years old from an old lady living below the Stivens in St John's Wood. The former dancer had tried to teach the boy deportment: 'Why do you always run? A young gentleman should walk, not run.' Later, Alec had been taken to the musical Chu-Chin-Chow which he loved; and to the pantomime, Puss in Boots, which he hated. 'All the chorus girls came on dressed as cats and I was sitting in the front row and it terrified me...I think it put me off women for years.' He was taken backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 'when v. small to see a quite mythical "aunty" whom I liked. I remember being shocked at greasepaint and shouting "Take it off!"' During his long stay in the Turkey-carpeted hotel on the Cromwell Road, a Russian lady, also a resident, took him to a matinée at the Coliseum to see jugglers, clowns, maidens in flimsy frocks and, Top of the Bill, the saucy comedienne, Nellie Wallace, for whose sake Alec turned down the offer of an ice-cream soda made by the Russian lady after the show, asking that the money be spent on a bunch of flowers instead - the first of many bouquets he was to send to those he admired in the course of his lifetime.
In one of the residential hotels where he stayed with his mother during the holidays, he recruited two girls to act in 'playlets I devised which we performed, with storms of giggles, to anyone in the hotel who could be persuaded to sit still for twenty minutes'; while alone in his room he climbed inside a pillowcase to try and emulate the escape artist he had seen at the London Coliseum.
When staying in Bournemouth he would take any chance he could to go to the theatre and, aged sixteen, he had the audacity to write to the celebrated actress Sybil Thorndike, whom he had seen with her husband Lewis Casson in Ibsen's Ghosts and a melodrama called The Squall, to ask her to show him how the effect of thunder and lightning was achieved on stage. 'It is important for me to know as I want to be an actor.' He was duly invited backstage and given a demonstration. By now he had discovered that one could actually earn a living as an actor, 'earning as much as sixteen pounds a week'.
To the other boys at Roborough, Alec's family life remained mysterious: he was known to have a mother but a father was never mentioned. Agnes, when she appeared at the school, was a source of intense embarrassment, on one occasion borrowing five pounds from the Maths master to pay for her taxi. During the holidays Alec would either stay in a residential hotel or, between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, in digs in Ealing, London, where the landlady was a Mrs Gosse. 'Almost every week she would take me to the Walpole Cinema in Ealing and a couple of times to a musical in London. I must often have been a pain in the neck to her, with adolescent tantrums, but she seemed to retain an affection.' Mrs Gosse was a good cook and great fun with 'a sharp/sour wit'. She was an unostentatious Catholic, 'a regular Mass goer rather than a deeply devout woman'. She later told Alec that she had considered herself a second mother to him. 'My life would have been happier,' he noted in his diary, 'if she had been the first'.
Alec's years at Roborough had two lasting effects on the development of his character. The first was the importance he came to attach to the code and mannerisms of what would then have been called a 'gentleman'. It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that Alec was educated 'above his station'. His cousins Clifford and Walter, the sons of his Aunt May, were also privately educated. But his illegitimacy, his tipsy, scrounging mother, and the grandmother who smoked a clay pipe and lived in a hovel with a packed-earth floor were terrible secrets that Alec had to conceal from himself through fantasy and from others by a closed countenance - a dissimulation even greater than that common to boys in public schools.
For the same reasons, Alec came to distance himself from his mother's family - either because he felt he might be drawn back into the chaos and vulgarity that he associated with his mother and her drinking companions; or because they were privy to the dark secrets that he wanted to keep from the world; or simply because they were 'common'. 'Clifford and Walter knew Alec very well,' a great-niece of Agnes' recalled, 'but even as a child Alec was aloof. I think he felt rather grand.'
The second effect on his character came from the influence of the headmaster, D.G. Gilbert:
He was headmaster at Roborough and was particularly good to me, and was one of the first people in my life to give me a measure of self-confidence. Although he was very extrovert, with a rich hearty laugh, and nearly always good-humoured, he reacted with sympathy to the (very few) boys, such as myself, to whom the cricketing-nets and soccer were anathema. The off-beat individualist no doubt puzzled him, but he was never sarcastic. He encouraged us in reading books unlikely to interest many other boys, seemed to be rather impressed by my art work and didn't, in any way, stand up against my theatre enthusiasms. His passions were small boats and fishing. He took me, once, to a classical concert at Devonshire Park and easily talked me into 'producing' Gilbert and Sullivan for the school shows. On the day I left Roborough, he came to town with the London-bound boys, bought me a grey trilby hat, gave me lunch and took me to see the Coliseum. I suspect that, during the financial difficulties which always worried my last years of schooling, he either waived or greatly reduced the fees that were paid for me.
Though there were a number of women who had felt sorry for Alec as a child, and had been kind to him, Gilbert was the only man. Given the hatred that Alec felt for his stepfather, David Stiven, Gilbert would seem to have been the only role model during Alec's adolescence.
The Gilberts had a daughter called Beryl who was 'warm-hearted, laughed easily, was sympathetic, and a superb listener when the subject was serious'. She was seven years older than Alec but, together with several other boys, Alec was in love with her in his last year at school. Beryl, too, seems to have been touched by the poignancy of this thin young man with his sticking-out ears, who had no father, a dreadful mother and almost no money going out to make his way in the world: when he left Roborough for London she found him a job.
Copyright 2003 © Piers Paul Read
Excerpted from Alec Guinness by Piers Paul Read Copyright © 2005 by Piers Paul Read. Excerpted by permission.
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Part one: the seeds of genius
Part two: the sweet prince
Part three: lieutenant a. guinness cuffe, rnvr
Part four: guinness is good for you
Part five: faith, fame and failure
Part six: private lives
Part seven: indian summer
Part eight: sub specie aeternitatis
Posted January 9, 2010
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