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Daddy's Machine, Nanny's Garden
Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall was a member of the prosperous middle
class, a status his family had acquired during the previous century as a
result of initiative, industry, luck, and playing cards.
According to family tradition, some ancient Goodall experienced a
more than passing association with the gallows, as either a hangman or
hanged man; but the family's more reliable record starts with the birth of
Charles Goodall, on December 4, 1785, in the town of Northampton. By the
early 1820s, Charles had finished his printer's apprenticeship in London and
struck out on his own as a small-scale manufacturer of playing cards and
message cards. Business was good, and he moved into progressively larger
premises until he built a factory at 24 Great College Street. By this time the
concern was known as Charles Goodall & Son.
After Charles's death, in 1851, his sons, Jonathan and Josiah,
began expanding operations, building more factory space, purchasing new
high-speed color presses, and diversifying their line to include almanacs, ball
programs, calendars, Christmas greeting cards, menu cards, memorial
cards, New Year's and Valentine and visiting cards — and playing cards. The
company trademark consisted of the name Goodall split in half, stacked four
letters over three, and placed inside a heart:
By 1913, Charles Goodall & Son was printing, packaging, and
selling over 2 million packs of playing cards a year, roughly three times the
production of all other manufacturers combined, and by 1915sales had
reached 2.2 million. The two Goodall brothers now running the company,
Charles's grandsons, together took three quarters of the net profits, while a
third brother, Reginald — the youngest — having been given no responsibility
for running the company whatsoever, was forced to remain content with the
final quarter of net profits.
Reginald may have been a prodigal son, and after he married
Elizabeth Morris, against the family's wishes, he proceeded to give all their
children a hyphenated last name — Morris-Goodall — as if to make a point.
He made the point five times before falling off a horse at the Folkestone Race
Course in Kent and landing on his head, producing a cerebral blood clot that,
on May 3, 1916, proved fatal.
Mortimer Herbert was nine years old at the time of his father's
death, and in the years following that unhappy moment the family moved a
number of times, eventually settling down when his mother married again.
Her new husband, the imposing Major Norman Nutt, DSO (who was said to
have led a charge during the Great War by standing on top of a rolling tank
and waving his sword), or Nutty, as Mortimer called him, managed the
Folkestone Race Course. As an astonishing perquisite of the job, Major Nutt
and his family were allowed to move into an ancient manor house built inside
the ruins of an even more ancient castle owned by the Folkestone track. By
then, however, Mortimer was off to Repton, a public school in Lancashire,
where he proved an indifferent scholar. After Repton, he studied engineering
and eventually took a job with Callender's Cable and Construction.
Callender's had contracts for laying telephone cables all over England, and
Mortimer would go around with a test phone to see that the cables were
joined up correctly. "That was very interesting," he once recalled, "and it
involved traveling and driving the test van, which was right up my street: I love
Driving was his life 's dominating passion. His mother taught him
to drive when he was fourteen years old, and by his late teens he had bought
his first car, a sporty four-cylinder H.E. (made by Herbert Engineering), which
in 1930 he traded for a most magical machine.
Aston Martin was started around the time of the Great War as a
manufacturer of racecars, producing during the 1920s fewer than a dozen of
their superb automobiles per year, on average; the company then began
producing sports and touring cars and in the early 1930s picked up
production, turning out some 210 cars between 1930 and 1932. But an Aston
Martin was still a rare — and very beautiful — object when Mortimer first set
eyes on a gleaming white three-seater International on display at the
Brooklands Motors showroom at 110 Great Portland Street in London. "It
looked so beautiful I was determined to have it," he later recalled, and so
when the crankshaft on his H.E. broke, he sold the vehicle, borrowed against
his inheritance, and bought the Aston. As he drove the gleaming machine out
of the showroom, he thought to pause and ask the fellow who had just sold it
to him where the factory was, and thus he learned that Aston Martin
assembled cars in a London suburb not far from the showroom.
He found the factory, known as "the Works": four huge brick
buildings, each one inadequately heated by four small coal stoves, with the
racecars under development at the end of one building, their frames
strategically situated to avoid damage from rain coming through broken
skylights. He walked onto the shop floor and began asking people for the
boss. Someone said, "There he is," and so Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall
met the chainsmoking, Italian-born engineer and racer Augustus Cesare
Mortimer said that he had just bought an Aston Martin
International and wanted to race it. Bertelli said that if Mortimer really wanted
to drive competitively, his car would require some very significant
modifications. Meanwhile, Bertelli advised, it was important to start out by
driving in reliability trials rather than serious timed races, so that Mortimer
could learn how to handle the car under pressure.
During 1930 and into 1931, Mortimer drove his International in
reliability trials as well as a few timed races, eventually achieving credible
results in the long-distance runs from London to Land's End and from London
to Edinburgh. The International, tuned for regular driving, could reach top
speeds of around 80 miles per hour, not particularly fast for competition cars
of that era, but its excellent handling and good brakes meant it could run at a
high average speed under challenging conditions. So Mortimer did well, and
by the middle of 1931 he believed he was ready to drive a real racecar.
Aston Martin was now trying to make money selling first-rate
sports and touring cars, but the company continued to promote its name with
an of ficial race team, which by the early 1930s was concentrating on the
most challenging and glamorous race of all, the twenty-four-hour Le Mans
Grand Prix d'Endurance. Compared to the other cars running in the Le Mans
Endurance — the Mercedes, Alfa-Romeos, Bugattis, Talbots, and so on —
the Aston Martin racer was a lightweight understatement, but it was also
nimble and reliable.
In 1931, Bertelli transferred Aston Martin's seventh Le Mans racer
(identifi ed as LM7) to Mortimer. European motor racing during this classic
period expressed a certain nationalistic spirit, with racecars for each nation
painted one color to simplify the problem of national identification. French
cars were blue, Italian red, German white, and British green. Mortimer's LM7,
therefore, was colored a sweet olive green. It had cut-out doors and wire
wheels, an external exhaust pipe emerging with an elegant swoop on the
passenger's side, a long louvered hood kept in place with bolts and a
wraparound leather strap, front motorcycle-style fenders anchored to the
brake plates and turning in concert with the front wheels, a tiny glass
windscreen, big rock-screened headlamps mounted on short poles, and an
aerodynamically tapered rear end. Soon after he took possession, Mortimer
thoughtfully lined the passenger's side of the cockpit with green baize.
Mortimer kept his job at Callender's, and he lived in London, sharing rooms in
a Queensgate boarding house with Byron Godfrey Plantagenet Cary, a
schoolmate from his Repton days. Their rooms happened to be on one of the
lower floors, near the stairs. And, as the two young men noticed, late every
afternoon the same stunningly attractive young woman would walk past their
open door on the way to her bed-sitter, two floors up. Their door was left open
on purpose, of course, and the pair would stand half out in the hall and talk to
each other casually around the same time every evening in order to observe
the young woman returning home from work.
Margaret Myfanwe Joseph, or Vanne, possessed a striking
combination of fine arches and curves in the face, a warm and confident
smile, high bright cheeks, and a firm jaw. A certain young man once told
her, "Your hair is liked burnished chestnut." Another young man commented
on her eyes: "What do you think you are, a green-eyed goddess?" Vanne had
come to London in the late 1920s from her family home in Bournemouth, first
to acquire secretarial skills at the Pittman Secretarial College, near Russell
Square, and then to practice them for the impresario Charles B. Cochran.
Cocky, as he was called, had a small office at the top of 49 Old
Bond Street and during the early 1930s was at the height of his career as a
show business entrepreneur, creating and producing plays, musicals, and
dance revues. Vanne's duties included answering the telephone ("Regent
1241"), typing up letters and documents, and taking dictation. By her own
account, she was "absolutely useless" at shorthand and typing, but Cocky,
who was famously fond of dachshunds and beautiful young women, may not
have examined her secretarial skills very closely. At any rate, she
remembered him as an agreeable, generous, and dynamic boss,
and "famous actors and actresses, Noël Coward and people like that, used to
sit on the arm of my chair and help me with my shorthand." Another benefit of
working at 49 Old Bond Street was free admission to most of the major
theatrical events in London.
In those days people dressed up for evening events. Vanne wore
silk stockings (nylon was yet to be invented), but she could afford only half
an evening dress. The other half belonged to her sister, Olwen, who still lived
at home in Bournemouth. Thus, before any major show, Vanne had to make
sure that Olwen mailed the dress in time. The day after the show, the dress
would be posted right back to Bournemouth.
Among his many creative innovations, Cocky introduced a rotating
stage to London audiences, for the 1930 Rodgers and Hart musical
Evergreen.Vanne attended a performance, and because she worked for
Cocky, she was able to slip backstage and visit with some of the dancers.
As she was chatting enthusiastically, though, the stage began revolving.
Someone shouted, "Hey, Vanne, look out!" And before she fully realized what
was going on, she was front stage and facing a large, wildly applauding
audience. She waved eagerly, as if she actually belonged onstage.
Vanne's true ambitions were quieter and more solitary: "I always
wanted to write. I was always practicing writing." Since she was also
interested in music (and had played the violin), she would sit in her room,
smoke Craven A cigarettes, and try her hand at writing biographies of
musicians: the prodigy violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the pianist and composer
Frédéric Chopin. "I just loved playing with words, sorting out the sentences,
getting the right word for the incident. That's really what it was."
Meanwhile, she began to notice that every time she climbed the
stairs in the evening, two young men would be standing at their door and
talking to each other. Once, one of them — tall, handsome, with bright blond
hair, blue eyes, dimpled cheeks when he smiled — fell down the stairs in
front of her. She said, "Now you've done it." He said, "Yes, I've
done it too much." It was the only way he could think of catching her
attention, but he had sprained his ankle in the process.
Vanne checked on his condition the next day, and so they began
talking. After a while he asked if he could drive her to work, and she began
accepting rides in his Aston Martin racer. So the friendship brightened. He
was kind, laughed a lot, and had wonderful friends, and he introduced Vanne
to what she later identified as a "whirly kind of life."
Mortimer's wonderful friends included particularly his roommate
and old school chum, Byron Cary, who was the second son of the fourteenth
viscount of Falkland. Byron's daughter Sally recalls her father as being "very
witty and amusing and all the ladies would rock with laughter at his stories.
In fact, one friend had only to see him, and she would start laughing in
anticipation before he even spoke." His charm and sociability, however, were
lubricated with a good deal of alcohol and hid a deep unhappiness. After the
war he ran out of money and never settled into any fully satisfying
occupation. Byron's later life, according to his nephew, Lord Cary,
was "unsatisfactory" in many ways, "although he was always a devoted
father. He was something of an eccentric personality and served a
prosperous shipping family for some years as a rather grand Jeeves-type
But that, of course, takes us ahead of the story, into a dark time
of destruction and disintegration, through a war and a world gone mad. For
now, at the hopeful start of a decade, Byron and his friend and soon fiancée,
Daphne, and then Mortimer and his friend and soon fiancée, Vanne, were
enjoying the happy, whirly kind of life in London. Vanne loved dancing. Her
favorite was the waltz, but she also loved the tango, fox trot, and onestep.
After the free shows, courtesy of Cocky, the four of them might find a
nightclub in the West End. As for drinking, pubs were considered off-limits to
women in those years, so Byron and Mortimer might go into a pub and bring
drinks out to Daphne and Vanne, who would be sitting in the car.
Byron may have had a small family income. Mortimer tended to
spend whatever he could get, often faster than he could get it. But if they
were short of money, Vanne once told me, "there were always things to do.
Going for a walk in the park, or going to the museum. Stand in the gallery
and get a place for nothing."
Mortimer and Vanne were married on September 26, 1932, at
Trinity Church in Sloane Square. After the wedding they crossed the Channel
and drove in the green racecar to Monte Carlo, where they stayed at a fancy
hotel, watched dreary people losing money in casino games, and ran the car
fast on roads snaking into the mountains. They returned to England "just in
time," according to Vanne's recollection, for Mortimer to grab his racing gear
and run the Aston Martin at the famed Brooklands racetrack outside London.
Then they took up a regular married life at 2 Clabon Mews in Chelsea, not far
from Sloane Square. It was a small, charming townhouse in a row of similar
buildings, consisting of two bedrooms, a bath, a living area, and a small
dining room, all on the first floor. The ground floor, formerly a stable, served
as Mortimer's garage. And Vanne quit her job to become a full-time
housewife and supporter of her husband's rapidly developing career as a
In 1933, Mortimer was asked to add his LM7 to two team Aston Martins, the
LM9 and LM10, for the Le Mans Grand Prix d'Endurance on June 17 and 18.
The company team plus supporters and friends and family, including the
young Mrs. Morris-Goodall, lined up for a photograph outside the Works, and
then they climbed into their respective vehicles and pulled onto the highway
in a green convoy. They crossed the Channel via Newhaven- Dieppe and then
ran east like a small invading force: the three racecars in front (with rubber-
bulbed ooga horns and spare wheels bolted onto their sides), followed by
some Aston Martin touring cars and an Aston baggage wagon. Before
reaching Le Mans, they stopped the convoy and raised a Union Jack onto the
radiator of the lead car, and then they roared into town, honking madly. They
set up headquarters in the Garage Lenoir and tested out the track: narrow
spots and tight S curves, a tree at one corner with a hub-height groove, brick
cobbling that got very slippery when wet on the corner known as Indianapolis,
and so on.
The Le Mans Endurance was a twenty-four-hour marathon, and
the object was to drive as fast and far (as many laps) as you could, starting
at four o'clock one afternoon and continuing until four o'clock the next
afternoon. Each car had two drivers, and they were required to carry all their
tools and spare parts with them, with everything officially identified and
approved beforehand — including, at least for the three Aston Martins, a
clothesline. Drivers sat in open cockpits wearing leather helmets and
goggles, and they drove without safety harnesses or seat belts.
The drizzly morning of June 17 turned dry by noon and
intermittently sunny by afternoon, and at four o'clock the starting flag was
waved over twenty-six madly whining, rumbling, roaring, spinning, spitting,
smoking, accelerating cars. A pack of five Alfa-Romeos took the lead, and
after a brief mix-up when the LM10, driven by A. C. Bertelli, spun around and
threatened to crash head-on into Mortimer's LM7, the three Aston Martins
pulled together into the middle of the pack.
At two o'clock in the morning, Bertelli pulled into the pits and
handed the LM10 over to his codriver, Sammy Davis, who at the first turn
found the steering mechanism seizing up and nearly crashed; he pulled back
into the pits after a lap and located a frozen kingpin close to the wheel hub.
Meanwhile, Mortimer's LM7 had been running reliably around and around at
its predetermined pace all evening and into the night, until 3:30 in the
morning. Mortimer had by then passed the car over to his codriver, one of the
very few women in the race: Leslie Wisdom, known to everyone as Bill.
During her run down one of the straightaways, a rod blew through the side of
the engine block. So that was the end, and Bill had to leave the car and walk
along the edge of the track back to the pits. Various spectators and a few
gendarmes had trouble understanding that Bill was a driver, and so they
persisted in trying to pull her away from the track, and she persisted in
beating them away with her crash helmet and shouting, in her best
French, "Voiture bang! Voiture bang!"
As the sun rose on the second day, the front mudguard of the
LM10 broke loose. The clothesline had been included in the tool kit for just
that sort of eventuality, and so Bertelli, driving at the time, stopped at the pits
to secure the flapping part skillfully with a complex web of rope, and then he
handed the car over to Sammy Davis. Both the LM10 and the LM9 stayed in
the race, at one point skidding around a tree that had been knocked onto the
track by a crashed Alfa-Romeo. They finally blasted underneath the finishing
flag at 4 p.m. on June 18, with eleven other cars. The LM9 had covered 1,584
miles in twenty-four hours, to take fifth place. The LM10 had gone 1,463
miles, to rank seventh.
Altogether, that was a fine showing for Aston Martin, and it
marked the commencement of Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall's career as a
top British racecar driver. Within a year he was a regular on the Aston Martin
team, behind the controls of a new and updated machine. By the end of his
career, he had distinguished himself as the only British motor racer ever to
have competed eleven times in the grueling Le Mans Grand Prix
d'Endurance. He drove in every major competition event in Britain and on the
continent, and in 1954 he was part of a team that established several world
land-speed records while driving a Healey on the salt flats of Utah. True,
Mortimer was never as famous as, say, Sterling Moss, but he was good
enough to team up with Sterling Moss, which he did in a Jaguar for the 1953
So the end of June 1933 was the beginning of something very
exciting for Mortimer Herbert Morris-Goodall — and his first daughter, Valerie
Jane Morris-Goodall, was born approximately nine months later, at 11:30 in
the evening of Tuesday, April 3, 1934, in a nursing home in Hampstead
Heath, North London.
Though successful as a racecar driver, Mortimer proved less successful as a
husband and father over the next few years. For one thing, he was
irresponsible about money, which, as Vanne once told me, "just went out and
out all the time." Once during those early years the gas company cut off their
gas. There was no money, not a penny, and Vanne ran to a Sloane Square
bank, took off her emerald ring, and handed it to the bank manager. "The
bank manager just laughed. Took my hand in his. Pressed the ring back on
my finger. Oh, dear!"
Of course, Mortimer himself had grown up without a father — his
stepfather, Major Nutt, always seemed more like an older brother — which
may help explain his confusion and disengagement. He responded badly to
Vanne's pregnancy, never comforting her during anxious times or offering
emotional support, and after his daughter's birth he remained aloof,
seemingly indifferent. "For the first year or so she was a baby," he told
me, "and so I think until she was a year old there was nothing we could do
with her. Then we moved, but I had a job in London, so that when I got home
at night she was in bed, and again I didn't see her for about a year."
Mortimer, for all his charm, verve, and social grace, was a cool, self-
contained, and remote father, a man who, according to his daughter's
recollection, "touched me only once" when she was a young child.
What Mortimer contributed to the life of his remarkable offspring,
therefore, was more of nature than of nurture, visible not only in certain facial
similarities but also, more significantly, in some surprising similarities of
physiology. His baby girl grew up to be a woman with a race driver's
constitution: good eyesight, high energy, a natural and happy
competitiveness, a capacity for intense and extended concentration, a
surprising attraction to risk, and an unusual tolerance for physical stress and
oscillatory motion — the latter feature protecting her from seasickness in
rough weather and the need to tighten her grip on armrests during flight
When Valerie Jane was about three weeks old, a nanny arrived at 2 Clabon
Mews. She had curly brown hair, blue eyes, and a well-defined and rather
pointed face emphasized by a sharp jaw; according to Vanne's memory,
she "stood a straight, sturdy five feet without her shoes."
Nancy Sowden was an orphan who left school when she was
sixteen, took a job in a photography shop, and attended art school in the
evenings. She wanted to paint. But she had come of age in hard times for
England's working class. The New York stock market collapse of 1929 led to
a global recession, with 2 million British workers unemployed, and Nancy's
older sister wisely counseled her to get a steady job with a home attached.
Trying to make a career in art was too risky, the sister said, so she arranged
for Nancy to become a proper nanny, which required twelve months' formal
training (in child psychology, hygiene, nursery management, children's art
and games) at the Hampstead Day Nursery and then three months' practical
experience at the Swiss Cottage Hospital. After her education was complete,
Nancy bought her uniform: brown skirt and tunic with white apron, white
collar, white cap (which she hated, because her curly hair meant the cap was
never straight), and for colder weather a brown wool coat and a wide-brimmed
brown hat. A Hampstead Day Nursery badge identified where she had trained.
Mrs. Morris-Goodall offered the standard compensation: room and
board plus a pound a week spending money in return for six and a half days
a week of child care. Nancy Sowden accepted the offer, and thus "when
Valerie Jane was three weeks old, I started there. That's what I wanted: a
The townhouse at 2 Clabon Mews, fronted with cream-colored
brick and red-brick trim, occupied a quiet little spot on the inside corner of a
long U-shaped, cobblestoned alley off Cadogan Square. Nanny and Valerie
Jane shared the smaller of the two bedrooms, and every morning after
breakfast, in all kinds of weather, Nanny bundled up her tiny charge and
gently placed the bundle into a soft nest (frilly pillow and white coverlet)
inside the black pram. The infant settled comfortably into place, facing
forward, and was rolled out the front door into the light and the moving air and
over the bumpy cobblestones. The pram proceeded from bumpy to smooth,
sailed past the private Cadogan Gardens, and soon reached Sloane Street,
where Nanny and Valerie Jane joined the morning's parade of nannies and
prams, all headed for Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
The route turned north up Sloane Street, past the women's
fashion shops, and through Edinburgh Gate into Hyde Park. Through a maze
of walkways, they entered a green, flickering expanse of scampering
squirrels, chattering birds, and horses cantering down Rotten Row. As the
pram rolled on, the horses went away and the city's noise retreated to a
distant din, mild competition with the whispering air that filtered through
leaves. Perhaps they turned into the daisy walk, where all the aristocratic
nannies sat and knitted next to crested prams; or perhaps they proceeded
uphill to the pond, to gaze at boaters stroking the surface and squint against
the light on the water. On overcast days the water became slick and gray,
with wavering dark bruises pressed into the water where boaters worked their
oars or ducks and other waterfowl floated.
At a time when most English parents still believed in physical punishment as
an important part of raising children, Vanne was a kind of philosopher of
liberal parenting, emphasizing the importance of love and reasoned
discipline: "My own early childhood had been a happy one. We had lots of
love, lots of discipline, laughter and books." But according to Nanny's
memory, her young charge hardly required discipline in any case: "She was a
lovely child, very patient and happy, never needed scolding because she
never did anything wrong! She was really happy."
Vanne's mother (by then known to everyone as "Danny," a
childfriendly pronunciation of "Granny") echoed that positive opinion in a
report to Vanne on the infant's progress during a 1934 Christmas visit: "V.J.
is asleep in the garden, she is a model baby, no trouble, behaves just as a
good healthy baby should. She is wonderfully strong in fact she plays tennis
already with her arms, & swims with her legs."
At the same time, there may have been something unusually
focused or attentive about the infant's demeanor. Nanny returned from a stroll
one day very upset. She had stopped at the front entrance to Peter Jones,
the department store, where a big uniformed man grandly welcomed
customers and opened doors. "That porter," Nanny reported to Vanne, "was
really nasty about Valerie Jane today." The big man had said, "She looks
straight through me, just as though she knows all my secrets." Vanne
pointed out that such words might be a compliment, but Nanny was not so
easily mollified: "Do you think he is afraid there 's something peculiar about
There was something peculiar, or at least very interesting, about the gift
Mortimer gave his daughter on her first birthday. Nanny was "horrified" by the
thing. It was a child-sized stuffed toy chimpanzee, with dark shining button
eyes, light-colored felt face and felt eyelids, a molded snout marked with a
pair of comma-shaped nostrils, funneled ears, white downy chin, silken dark
brown hair over the rest of the body, and felt hands and feet with separated
thumbs and big toes. When a child squeezed its stomach, the chimpanzee
played a music-box tune.
The toy had been produced on special order to honor a real
chimpanzee born in the London Zoo on February 15, 1935. The real baby was
named Jubilee, in anticipation of the upcoming May 6 celebration marking the
twenty-fifth anniversary of King George V's ascension to the throne. Jubilee
was, in fact, the London Zoo's first captive-born chimp: important enough to
warrant a photographic feature in the Times and to inspire Hamley's toy shop
on Regent Street to organize the special manufacture of a stuffed toy
chimpanzee. Mortimer, on the lookout for a birthday present, happened to
pass through Hamley's, saw the toy, and bought it. "I was looking round for a
sort of cuddly toy, and I just saw this. There was no other reason. It was just
a cuddly toy," he explained. "Took it home. Didn't expect it to have the effect
it did have."
"She took to it," Nanny recalls, "and she was always carrying it
around." In later years the child used to put her many toy animals and favorite
dolls in a row and pretend to teach them things, but Jubilee was always the
one who got to sit in her own chair and wear real castoff dresses.
In the spring of 1935, the family — Mortimer, Vanne, Nanny, Valerie Jane,
and Jubilee — moved out of London and into the suburban town of
Weybridge, home of the world's first and England's most important motor
racing track, Brooklands, a three-and-a-half-mile-long loop of concrete poured
in 1906 and 1907. Their house, called The Winnats, was located at 27
Woodland Grove, a quiet side street in a suburban neighborhood. The
Winnats was a red-brick, three-story Edwardian affair, and Valerie Jane was
given her own bedroom, a gabled room on the top floor, while Nanny took one
of the five available bedrooms on the floor below.
In Vanne's view, the house was much too big: "The entire
contents of the mews flat looked lost in a corner of our new entrance hall, a
space we never managed to furnish adequately." Nanny likewise remembers
the downstairs nursery as being "huge," but during bad weather she and
Valerie Jane passed many happy hours there. The child loved to color with
crayons, dress and undress her dolls, play with Jubilee, and sometimes
throw dice with Nanny in the board game known as Snakes and Ladders.
Compared to London, Weybridge was quiet — lonely for Nanny, who spent
most of her evenings by herself. After she told Mortimer that she wanted a
radio for company, though, he bought one, and thus in the daytime, dance
band music on the radio became another source of entertainment for Nanny
and her charge.
The Winnats had three large oak trees, two at the front, one at the
back. There was also a small garden and a small pond at the front, and at
the rear a much larger back yard, which included a small flower garden and a
surrounding edge of fir trees. From the nursery young Valerie Jane could
now, according to an unpublished memoir by her mother, "listen drowsily to
the songs of the black birds and the thrushes, the twitterings of all the little
birds or the hooting of the owls in the woods behind the Church." In the spring
she could smell the wallflowers and lilacs and lilies of the valley, and "it was
a new delight to be able to run out into a garden of her own. The place had
stood empty for a long time . . . and Nature had taken over the once trim
lawns and scattered the long grass with wild sorrel and sturdy little blue
bugles, buttercups and daisies and the golden stars of myriads of
dandelions." They would sometimes have a picnic in the garden, where
Valerie Jane soon became acquainted with "a new world, inhabited by gem-
like beetles, spiders and ants, flies, wasps, bees and not least among all
these fascinating creatures, the busy earthworms who slid so quickly from
her sight beneath the ground."
One evening the child brought some of those earthworms inside,
and Nanny came rushing downstairs to inform Vanne: "I think it's quite
disgusting. Valerie Jane has taken a bunch of earthworms to bed with her,
under her pillow, and she 's touching them. I don't know what to do."
Vanne went into her daughter's bedroom to find her lying blissfully
in her bed, the evening sun pouring onto her face. Valerie Jane said, "Look!"
and moved her pillow to show off the worms.
Vanne said, "Well, Valerie Jane, if you keep these worms there all
night, they'll be dead in the morning. They really ought to go into the garden
where they belong." The child sighed and looked at the worms. And then
together they took them down to the garden, dug a shallow hole, and put
them back in the earth.
That rear garden was big enough to run and play in, to line up the
dolls and Jubilee for various make-believe enterprises in, to organize snail
races in. To have a pet tortoise named Johnny Walker in. (Johnny Walker
kept disappearing, and Nanny had to paint the top of his shell bright red so
they could spot him more easily.) And to have a dog in.
The dog was a bull terrier named Peggy. According to Nanny,
Valerie Jane "could do anything with Peggy — sit on her back, take away her
bowl, do anything." Peggy, however, was a fierce dog who would bite
strangers coming in through the gate. She bit the postman, for instance, and
Nanny had to sew a patch on his trousers. But at night, when Nanny was
alone, Peggy always went up and sat with her, and that was comforting.
Occasionally Peggy would disappear, and twice someone rang up
from the local pub and said, "Your dog is here. Can you come and fetch it?"
Mortimer went to the pub frequently in the evening, so probably Peggy had
gone out looking for him.
Mornings in Weybridge, Nanny would leash up Peggy, Valerie Jane might get
on her tricycle, and the three of them would follow a sandy road lined on
either side with rhododendrons that led to the village shops. Nanny might
stop at the newsagent's and pick up her weekly copy of Nursery World —
and one time Valerie Jane walked away with a small, cheaply illustrated
booklet on circus life, with red and black pictures of a clown, ringmaster,
animals. When they got home that day, Vanne commented on the booklet,
whereupon the child blushed, closed the book, and sat on it. She had stolen
it. Vanne took her hand and explained that since she had not paid for the
object, she would have to return it. After much sobbing and hiccoughing on
the way to the store, Valerie Jane recovered at the last minute, soberly stood
on tiptoe, and reached over the counter to hand back her illgotten prize.
The women and girls took occasional trips to Brooklands to watch
Mortimer drive around the track or to sit in comfort inside the clubhouse and
consume tea and pastries, and once Mortimer drove Nanny around the loop
in his racing car. But most exciting were visits to the grandmothers: to
Vanne's mother, Danny, and Mortimer's mother, Danny Nutt. When Valerie
Jane was very small, she would be transported on the train for a couple of
hours to Danny's house in Bournemouth. The Bournemouth holidays were
short and sporadic in the winter, but in the summer they sometimes lasted
all season. Vanne was not necessarily there, however, and thus Nanny and
Danny often took charge. In the hot weather they went down to the beach,
where Danny owned a bathing hut, and all three of them would splash in the
water, eat sandwiches, and dig holes in the sand.
Danny Nutt had the advantage of living in the most appealing of all
possible places — the Manor House — and Valerie Jane began going there
for short visits as early as April 11, 1935 (when Danny wrote to
Vanne, "Bless the little Angel, you will miss her, I know, but you must think
how much good it will do her, she will get such a lot of fresh air & come back
with rosier cheeks than ever. Tell Nanny not to be afraid to ask Mrs. N. for
whatever she wants for V.J."). The Manor House was an eighteenth-century
red-brick mansion of two stories, with four reception rooms, eight bedrooms,
and four baths. With various corridors leading hither and thither, the old place
rambled out to the back before attaching itself to the last standing tower of
the ancient Westernhanger Castle. The house, in fact, was surrounded by
the remnants of the castle moat and nestled inside a crumbling stone
rectangle, the heaps and piles of an edifice that had served Henry II in the
twelfth century as well as Henry VIII in the sixteenth. In 1701, unfortunately,
an enterprising real estate developer tore down and sold off most of the castle
as building material for local barns and farmhouses, which helps explain why
it was such a wreck.
It was a fascinating wreck, though, pleasantly melancholic and
suitably romantic. As Jane recalled years later, the castle ruins "seemed
scary, all gray, crumbling stone and spider webs. There were bats in one
room that still had part of its roof." As for the house inside the ruins: "If you
walked from one end to the other, you had to go down one or two steps here,
up a little slope there, and so on, because different parts had been built at
different times." It had no electricity until perhaps the end of the 1930s, so
kerosene lamps were lit every evening, and the house was permeated with
their sweet and oily smell.
In the country and adjacent to a large farm, the old Manor House
was surrounded by gently rolling velvety green pastures dotted with white
clots of grazing sheep, some cows, the occasional farm horse, and even
sometimes a mare and colt from the nearby racetrack. Danny Nutt was fond
of geese, so there always seemed to be half a dozen geese puttering about;
and Major Nutt was master of the foxhounds, which meant that a seething
pack of floppy-eared, sloppy-tongued dogs was in residence. There were
sweet blackberries and bright daisies that turned into little moons at night.
The Nutts also kept an enclosure for hens, along with five henhouses, and
young Valerie Jane would help feed them and then gather their eggs. Finding
the eggs was an adventure in itself, since many of the hens liked to lay their
eggs in the bushes rather than in the henhouses.
Mortimer's younger brother, Reginald, usually known as Rex, also
lived at the Manor House during those years, and he managed a local stable
of racehorses. Valerie Jane had her first experience riding a horse at an early
age (about two years), when Uncle Rex lifted her onto a big brown steed
named Painstaker. He showed her how to make Painstaker change
directions by pulling gently on the reins, and so "I managed to steer him, all
by myself," making figure eights around the trees along the road. "I was very
Johnny Walker the tortoise died. He hibernated on the compost heap in the
garden, and then there was nothing left but his shell. Next Peggy began
disappearing for long stretches of time, educating herself, it eventually
became clear, in the art of killing sheep. One day she was brought home in a
police van, along with a warning from the sheep farmer, and so she was given
to a friend of Mortimer's who had a commission in the Queen's Regiment.
The bull terrier became a regimental mascot, "loved, spoiled and cherished,"
according to Vanne.
Valerie Jane likewise had been loved, spoiled, and cherished, but
on her fourth birthday, April 3, 1938, a noisy object unpropitiously turned up
in the back seat of a taxi: a baby sister, plump and hungry Judith Daphne.
The old pram was dusted off, and Nanny became distracted with a series of
new and, from a four-year-old's perspective, unpleasant things: smelly
diapers, dirty bottles, demanding shrieks. Valerie Jane was very unhappy.
Nanny remembers that once, when she was taking the pair for a walk, the
baby in the pram, the older sister shouted out the vilest word she could think
of: "Diarrhea! Diarrhea! Diarrhea!" As Valerie Jane has remembered, "Oh, I
was jealous. Not so much of Mum, but Nanny. Nanny loved the little baby.
And Nanny sort of almost abandoned me when Judy was born. So I went
berserk for a while. I became very unmanageable and wild. I did awful things."
Meanwhile, Byron and Daphne Cary, Mortimer and Vanne's best
friends and married around the same time, had produced two girls, Rosemary
Sally (born on June 18, 1935, little more than a year after Valerie Jane) and
Susan Valerie Jane (January 30, 1938, slightly more than two months before
Judy). Sally and Sue Cary eventually joined Valerie Jane and Judy to make
up a very happy foursome. At the moment, though, only Sally was old
enough to appreciate Valerie Jane's troubling ambivalence toward her baby
sister — and also to notice the other playmate now turning up.
Dimmy was an imaginary friend, but for Valerie Jane, he
possessed enough substance to talk to, look at, and laugh with. Perhaps
Dimmy moved at high speed, because according to Vanne's recollection,
whenever Valerie Jane talked to him, she spoke very rapidly, in a voice that
was "punctuated by little bursts of laughter when they shared a joke
together." One day Sally pulled Vanne to the edge of a room to observe this
phenomenon. In Vanne's words, "At the door she jerked us to a halt. Her
large blue eyes were dark with concern. Valerie Jane was flitting from corner
to corner of the room, talking to Dimmy who was evidently flying about near
the high ceiling."
Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall, even the four- or five-year-old version,
was blessed with an unusually direct connection between her imaginative and
analytical selves. From an early age, she seems to have possessed a
capacity for focused attention and a mental clarity that was readily
transported from inner to outer, from dreaming to waking, from vision to
action. Yes, hints, possibilities, and promises were appearing in the life of
this young girl — perhaps not so different from the hints, possibilities, and
promises many eager parents observe with concern or excitement in their
growing children. She had gifts and talents. But how would she use
The social and financial advantages that may have seemed to
surround this lucky child, heiress to the remnants of a playing card fortune,
were flimsier than one might think, and her early environment during the
London and Weybridge years was never as promising as her talents. Her
father was handsome and charming but irresponsible and usually missing.
Vanne, far more stable, sensible, and mature than Mortimer, always
possessed a cheerful adaptability and sense of adventure, but during the
early part of her daughter's life, she cheerfully adapted to Mortimer and threw
herself fully and eagerly into the adventure of their marriage and his racing
life. She was, as she once summarized for me, "a flibbertigibbet" during those
years. Nanny was like a second mother, but with Vanne gone many
evenings, weekends, and holidays, Nanny was gradually becoming the first.
So, how, in such a context, would little Valerie Jane escape the prison of
self? How would she move from her perfect position at the top of Painstaker
and the center of things to a less comfortable place at the edge of the world,
striving to push it in a better direction? How would she grow to discover a life
beyond the infantile egotism that often distracts so many talented and
otherwise admirable adults? Where would she locate and absorb the
discipline and moral idealism that a few years later were to become such
important parts of her adult personality? What quiet revolution or violent crisis
would break through the nursery door and, like a thief or a monster, seize
this child and transport her away from the potential damages of the coddled
life, and from the sparkling promises of the whirly, flibbertigibbety life?
Copyright © 2006 by Dale Peterson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton