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Pack My BagA Self-Portrait
By Henry Green
New Directions Publishing CorporationCopyright © 1993 Henry Green
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.
That is my excuse, that we who may not have time to write anything else must do what we now can. If we have no time to chew another book over we must turn to what comes first to mind and that must be how one changed from boy to man, how one lived, things and people and one's attitude. All of these otherwise would be used in novels, material is better in that form or in any other that is not directly personal, but we I feel no longer have the time. We should be taking stock.
Most things boil down to people, or at least most houses to those who live in them, so Forthampton boils down to Poole, who did not live in but was gardener about the place for years. He used to lean on his spade with one foot up and go to sleep very much as later one was to see friends lean up against bars and go to sleep with one foot on the rail. In his quietness and with his beard he was fascinating to a child andI was always running out to him. He did not like my mother and when he was awake, which was not often, it was mostly against her that he talked. Was this the first disloyalty that I listened to him and did my brothers walk away while I stayed? I only know that I adored her and that nothing he said began to alter this even; it was as though someone were bringing out mean things about adoration to another full of his first love, what was said came as laughter in the face of creation and this and my love for my mother is what I first remember.
The house was called Forthampton Cottage and, like so many names of country houses, it is misleading. Here was no cottage and round and about was the English garden, flower beds surrounding a number of small lawns. The house, washed over in pink, was built raised up above these lawns on a low embankment, and it troubled Poole to mow the sides, he had a bad leg. Next to the house close to our nursery windows a huge beech tree grew, resplendent and vast, with millions of spiders. In that embankment was the coal cellar door, a wooden frame covered with wirenetting, and when I had discovered it and went to warn Poole it was there so full of treasure and menaces, he said he had always known. I suppose he had not much use for children.
We lived here in the early years, in soft lands and climate influenced by the Severn, until my grandfather died and we moved to the big house a mile nearer the river where it went along below the garden. Poole retired when this change came. And in this new house, Forthampton Court, we could see Tewkesbury Abbey from the lawn. Where from the Cottage we could only hear its bells when the wind was right, here they were much nearer, only over the river, and always at any time the pealing bells would throw their tumbling drifting noise under thick steaming August hours and over meadows between, laying up a nostalgia in after years for evenings at home.
Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at. I see her better after she had put the gun away, when she would come out as she still does with her retriever and a long hooked stick and all day would stand some way off with it raised on high, threatening the dog. Not one of her many dogs obeyed one of her commands. But in those days they say she used to call out, "Gardener, gardener, I'm going to shoot!" and it was for him then clumsily to bowl them. She called him gardener it is said but I know she called him Poole.
Most people remember very little of when they were small and what small part of this time there is that stays is coloured it is only fair to say, coloured and readjusted until the picture which was there, what does come back, has been over-painted and retouched enough to make it an unreliable account of what used to be. But while this presentation is inaccurate and so can no longer be called a movie, or a set of stills, it does gain by what it is not, or, in other words, it does set out what seems to have gone on; that is it gives, as far as such things can and as far as they can be interesting, what one thinks has gone to make one up.
If I say I remember, as it seems to me I do, one of the maids, that poor thing whose breath smelled, come in one morning to tell us the Titanic had gone down, it may be that much later they had told me I should have remembered at the age I was then and that their saying this had suggested I did remember. But I do know, and they would not, that her breath was bad, that when she knelt down to do one up in front it was all one could manage to stand there. But I never said so, I think, although I remember asking our head housemaid why she had a moustache. She did not seem to mind but I had been overheard and the others did. Why one and not the other when at that age moustache and bad breath were all the same, things which they had?
She used to stand, the younger one that is, at one end of the nursery passage and I would run and jump for her to lift me over her head. When she put me down again it always jarred but I never told them and used to beg for more, the just once more again.
There were windows in this passage which looked out on to a corridor open to the sky between pantries and kitchens and all the back wall of our stables. Along it was heaped, each in a bin, cinders, refuse of all kinds, empty tins and clinkers sprinkled all of them with wet exhausted tea leaves dumped on top, with their smell. I suppose she was looking out for the groom but if I ever catch that smell in backyards my heels begin to ache as they did then, so to speak, but it is my toes hurt now.
One could not have enough sugar in those days and there were times as in every nursery, is my son allowed to do it? when we could make toffee under the nanny's eye. Why can I hardly remember her? Only once at all clearly and then she was sick after eating fish much later when we were in the second house in London. Later still when she was dead my father told me it was in part my fault for giving her so much to do. I was innocent and cried. I can't have thought of her for twenty years. What was she like and did she ever speak to Poole?
Why is it, too, that one loved jumping to that nursemaid and hated it not six years later when in the gym at my first school they made us jump from a board over a leather horse into the arms of the sergeant major? Sex you say, but then there was her breath and I can't think sex meant so much to us then.
There was the butler with his outfit of gold teeth and one black one whistling through his pantry window. He got into trouble through teaching one of my brothers how to smoke and had to go, much like some maids teach little boys to kiss they say but not in my experience. I saw him once more after he left. It was during the war at my first school when we were on one of our Sunday walks and so was he. He was dressed as a private and it was painful to both of us, each being some kind of prisoner. I dropped out of our crocodile and we had two embarrassed words. I remember he did not call me sir and that I blamed him for it.
And there was Lydia, one of my great grandmother's maids, the last who could remember her. She lived in one of a row of cottages below that lawn my mother had used Poole to shoot. She was like any old pensioned Russian servant in their novels of sixty years ago. Of course her cottage was very clean. I used to visit her every Sunday afternoon and she treated me with respect, so precious to little boys. She was prehistoric, wore starched white bonnets and, as country people will, the fashions of a hundred years ago. If anyone idly says what were people like then let him get out into the country and anyone over seventy will show him in his talk. In fact much of their speech was fantastic and my father, an amateur of it, was always consulting his Dialect Dictionary. Sometimes he was able to use a word of theirs as once, when describing an exact kind of dryness in a pear, he brought out an Elizabethan word acquired by listening over years. He was at once corrected with a Saxon monosyllable he had never heard and quickly making his way home he turned this up to find it meant a drier state of dryness.
Beyond this row of cottages where Lydia lived was a wood called Volter's. The woods on this estate have pretty names, Sarn Hill, Volter's, Downend, Agborough, The Grove and not so pretty The Allotments. Alongside Volter's a path ran to the main road and once an old lady coming back at night slipped and broke her leg. My mother when she opened her window before getting into bed heard her crying, each thin scream regularly timed, and thought it so like a creaking wheel they had not oiled she did no more and there that woman lay all night, no one paying attention, perhaps no one else used to open their windows. If they never did the reason was probably the malaria my grandfather could remember not far away on Longdon Marsh when those who lived there before it was drained shook when the fit was on them like frightened prisoners.
Is it presumptuous to write about oneself and is that why it is easier to write about what one has been told when it has no bearing on what one has experienced? Is it fair to expect people to be interested if it is boring and hard work to put down and probably so dull to read. It may be worth doing if there are others interested in all sorts of people, interested enough that is to read any sort of person's life which is not made up of running away to sea or of privations. So everything must go down that one can remember, all one's tool box, one's packet of Wrigley's, coloured by its having been used in conversation or by one's having thought of whatever it may be so many times but necessarily truer to oneself for that reason and therefore unattractive no doubt, thick with one's spittle.
How unattractive is one now, and was one more or less so then? All I know is that I was very much alone, that is my brothers were older and the country more remote in those days of unreliable cars so that there was not much company. This meant aping one's elders before one was of an age and, in consequence, trouble and tears at home until they were glad enough to send me to school at six and three quarters and I was keen enough to go. But before that happened there are still some things to put down although there seem to be, I don't know why, surprisingly few.
There was my grandfather whom I can remember only twice, once when we met on one of his walks and he gave me a tip and I was so struck by his long white beard, and again at the end of his life when we came across him on the village green poking the bits of paper he found lying there into the ground with his stick. He liked everything to be tidy and they say that when he went to bed he used to wash his beard in rose water and then put it in a bag with two flaps to go over his ears. Or is this the sort of thing they tell children to please them?
It was about now they gave me a blue Persian kitten which I could never leave alone. We were never separated, she was not allowed to roam at night and to the day I went to school she would follow on our walks slightly behind or at the side, making out she was hunting us or lying down to take a rest but for all the elaborate attempts she made to show no interest, never letting us out of her sight. It was not unlike taking out a film star in London, she was unwilling but she agreed to come and part of the delight she gave lay in my having been told a thing of this kind was rare so that I thought I might be an animal charmer.
When we went out we would go along Bishop's Walk or Nabletts Lane, it might be as far as Long Green.
We were well brought up and saw our parents twice a day, that is to say my father worked in London through the week and we only saw him at weekends. We came down to their breakfast; my mother said "chairs boys" and we sat on these back against the wall and did not talk. Then in the evening, after my brothers had gone to school, I used to come down alone from five to six and each time hoped they would not hear the clock strike bed time. My mother used to say "how much do you love me-more than toffee?" or "more than this much" putting her thumb and forefinger so close together you could hardly see between. Years later a girl said and did the same and I could not tell her what she had made me remember, it spoilt the moment because I laughed. One is always laughing in wrong places or worse, as one gets older one is inclined to belch, it comes from pipe smoking. There is no escape from the ridiculous or from what has been so nice. What has been enjoyed so much so many years ago will lie in wait to crop up again at any time. If you once wet your bed, as I used to, then all your life you will get up in the night. But I cannot think of anything else, I was not left-handed and made to use my right so that I stutter now. I was perhaps unnaturally shy of girls for some time, having no sisters, but that is so with every Englishman judged by European standards. I was perhaps shyer than most Englishmen but that only made it the more fun later when that shyness had worn off. I was lonely, there was not much company of my own age, so that I was not sorry to go to school. These things apart I can't think of anything else although we are warned that what happened in those days, like the wilder wild animals, lies in wait, in ambush for when one has grown up. So they say, but it never does. It was all what I take to be rich and comfortable, some months in London of which I remember nothing and the others down at home of which I remember, as you have seen, hardly anything at all.
Chapter TwoThe school they sent me to, the private school so called, stood on a high hill in Kent and was of sharp red brick. Over its walls grew one of those creepers with leaves that turn to raw copper sheet and along the drive fir trees were planted, dark green and grey. It had been built and laid out as a school not long before so that the trees planted round its playing fields had not grown much and the windows downstairs looked to be what they were, classroom windows and upstairs those to the dormitories. The chapel stood apart with white stone facings. Inside the seats were in pitch pine varnished a bright yellow like sheet brass, with terrible grains surging over the surfaces, coming through a purple colour. There were seventy-five of us and we could just fit in.
Excerpted from Pack My Bag by Henry Green Copyright © 1993 by Henry Green. Excerpted by permission.
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