Read an Excerpt
The Happy Ant-Heap
and Other Pieces
By Norman Lewis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Norman Lewis
All rights reserved.
God Bless the Squire
Forty Hill was once the northernmost place from which people might commute to London. It was on the borders of Enfield Chase, a landscape covered with ancient oaks, many of them hollow, cleared, in the far past, of human habitation by terrible kings, and designed for hunting stags. The land and its hamlets were owned and ruled by Colonel Sir Henry Ferryman Bowles, a sporadically benevolent tyrant who would not have been out of place in Tsarist Russia. Further sharers in this rural emptiness were the Meux brewery dynasty and Field Marshal French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. He retired here in advance of the great slaughter on the Somme, having publicly admitted that this was a war he did not understand, and that could only be won by trebling the number of cavalry engaged up to that date.
From the age of five I attended Forty Hill Church School. Studies began every day with half an hour's catechism. 'Braithwaite,' the headmaster, Mr Eastaugh, would bark at a boy, 'what is it our daily duty to perform?' And Braithwaite would rattle out the first of a succession of dispirited responses: 'Sir, we must do our duty in that station of life into which it has pleased God to call us.'
It was here that many of us confronted the class issue for the first time when the Eastaughs' nephew began school, and pupils were instructed by Mrs Eastaugh that he was to be referred to not as plain Thomas but as Master Thomas. The same distinction was conferred upon a young member of the Bowles family, the feudal landlords of the area. A dubious state of health prevented him being sent over to the selective prep school, and he was delivered to us in Sir Henry Ferryman Bowles's Lanchester, a prestigious car of the day that appeared to have neither bonnet nor engine and was driven by a chauffeur in a green uniform. Master William, from the day he was settled smilingly at his desk in a small space respectfully cleared in the classroom, was evidently not quite right in the head. We took to him, for it was clear that he shared the democracy of the insane. Idiocy had released him from normal tensions. He made happy inarticulate noises, giggled endlessly and splashed ink on the walls. Mr Eastaugh was lavish in the use of the cane, especially in the case of young girls; Master William, however, was not only above corporal punishment, but strenuously objected to others being subjected to it. Thus all of us benefited from his presence and were sad when he finally left us.
Isolation in relatively empty country, crossed with byroads going nowhere in particular, had never quite released the village from the previous century. An early photograph of it could have been of Russia in about 1913, with small houses of all shapes scattered about a ragged little prairie remaining deep in mud or dust according to the season. Livings in Forty Hill, too, had always been scraped, and this, added to its cut-off location, made the place a sort of museum of outworn social attitudes that could only be remedied by more freedom of movement and more cash in pockets.
Sir Henry owned everything down to the last rut in the road and the last tiny cabin perched over the cesspit at the bottom of narrow village gardens. The exception to odd hutments and bedraggled terrace houses were a few better dwellings inspired by a grand tour Sir Henry had undertaken, which had included the Italian Riviera. He had liked the architectural style of San Remo and had several houses built to remind him of it. The result disappointed him as the development was in an area where a number of deep gravel pits had been dug. All the new houses had been given glamorous Italian names. 'What does Buonavista mean?' Sir Henry asked to be reminded. But the promised view was of the eroded slopes of a chasm with a stagnant pond at its bottom, and the new buildings were sold off cheaply to anyone indifferent to their surroundings.
The village possessed a few small shops giving tick to impoverished customers, a bookmaker, an alcoholic doctor, and two pubs in which sorrows were drowned in sourish ale at fourpence a pint. It had an immense fake-Gothic church and a canon of St Paul's with a voice like Pavarotti's for a vicar, who with his glowing pink cheeks and magnificent beard looked like an embittered Father Christmas. On Sunday mornings he preached powerful sermons to a congregation of country folk gathered in the three rows of pews behind the front row occupied by Sir Henry, his family and house guests. Attendance otherwise was slight. For the evening service the normal congregation was five elderly ladies. The villagers had lost their faith.
Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Forty Hill were members of the working class, which itself contained subdivisions of the most complex kind. Most able-bodied men of the previous generation had worked for the squire or his relations; there had been some advantages and many drawbacks in this. Six social divisions existed among the estate workers. Those at the top carried out delicate manoeuvrings with plants in greenhouses, kept themselves clean in doing so and demonstrated more acquired skills than muscular power. Sheer strength was ill-rewarded, and at the bottom of the social pyramid were those who went out, whatever the weather, to plough Sir Henry's furrows.
Now, with the building of factories in the Lea Valley, half Sir Henry's labour force had deserted him, got on their bicycles and pedalled away down to Brimsdown where the implacable machines awaited them. They worked for 'good' money, among the voiceless chatter of machinery from which there was no escape until the end of the day. Sir Henry's esteem for his employees could never have compared with his affection for a well-trained working dog; nevertheless, esteem was conveyed in a word, a glance, a nod—even occasional stuttered syllables of praise—and Brimsdown offered none of these rewards. Moreover, estate workers passing through a door in an enormously high wall on their way home at the end of the day carried with them a trace of the atmosphere of protection and privilege in which they had worked.
Sir Henry paid little but showed no signs of shedding the courtesies of the past, never failing to ask after a grandmother's health or remember the name of a child. Brimsdown was unconcerned with such things.
One native of Forty Hill stood apart from the rest. This was Jessop, butler at Myddelton House, home of Sir Henry's brother, the famous botanist A. E. Bowles. Jessop, a bachelor with a house in the caste-ridden Goat Lane, had completed a course at a training school for domestic staff, where he had been urged to limit his utterances to five words appropriate to the subject, and to refrain from smiling in public. Although he had little to say and was rarely to be seen, his influence was great. People who came to him for advice were given five words that always proved useful, after which he turned away with a brief 'good day'. It was believed that both Sir Henry and his brother took his advice on village matters. Only Jessop, armed with respect, had triumphed over the class system in Forty Hill.
In the case of my own family, class divisions remained an enigma never fully understood. My parents, both from South Wales, now found themselves among people they could only study and seek to emulate with, at best, partial success. The social complexities of Forty Hill were wholly foreign to rural Wales. Carmarthen divided its citizenry into three classes based upon wealth, language and the forms of religious observance. At the bottom of Welsh society the country people, mostly smallholders, spoke and sometimes only understood Welsh, and worshipped in Welsh Baptist chapels where not a word of English was heard. Above them came the townspeople of modest means, usually English Baptists who had ceased to speak Welsh but belonged to chapels where sermons preached passionately in English were acclaimed by loud cries of assent. The third category was made up of rich and successful members of the Church of England who were calmer in their approach to the Almighty—most of them could have passed for the real English across the border some sixty miles to the east. At this level of Carmarthen society it was demeaning to be heard uttering a word of Welsh, and some parents, such as my grandfather, even urged teachers to punish children overheard speaking the old language among themselves in school.
A problem in Carmarthen was the extremely limited choice of surnames. There were Morgans, Reeces, Davises, Thomases and Joneses galore, and for this reason the acquisition of double-barrelled names was an intelligent solution. Thus something was done about a town with a population of 10,000 of which 400 were Thomases, and I often wondered whether this useful device had been invented in Carmarthen and then spread to the rest of the country.
My grandfather appeared on his birth certificate as plain David Lewis, but having made a killing on the salvaged cargo of tea from a ship sunk in Swansea harbour, became thereafter David Warren Lewis, and all the members of our extended family, except my father, gladly followed him in this bold change of style.
My father, having started promisingly enough in London as an analytical chemist, had then taken employment with a drug company where he found himself involved in the production of Beecham's Pills. Later he moved into a ramshackle shop in Enfield Town, where, having come to believe that all medicines were poisons, he devoted himself to the sale of homeopathic remedies that depended almost entirely upon faith for their effect. He decided to settle in Forty Hill because houses in these dishevelled surroundings were cheaper than elsewhere. Our home was semi-detached with no more than a partial view of a pit. The name originally given it by Sir Henry was Isola Bella. This, although there were no other numbered houses in the vicinity, my father hastily changed to number three.
Relations between Sir Henry and the village were going through a bad patch at this time. Although it was three years since the end of the First World War, field sports had not fully recovered, to some extent through the loss of gamekeepers and the time taken to train new recruits. As a result the pheasants left in peace for so many years had become so plentiful that they were to be seen everywhere, not only at the roadside but in the gardens. Cases were reported to Sir Henry of his tenants making meals of these errant birds, and his fury was said to have been terrible to behold. 'My God,' he screamed, 'they couldn't even shoot them decently. They actually used traps.' So stung was he by their ingratitude that he was reported to have threatened offenders with eviction.
These incidents coincided with charges in the popular press that, despite the sacrifices of their elders, the new generation was lacking in ideals. An example of this was reported in the Enfield Gazette and Observer, deploring the conduct of a number of teenagers in the local cinema, the Queen's Hall. This was a run-down fleapit charging a minuscule admission for a programme of outdated and often damaged films. The cinema had been urged to foil its patrons' habit of making a dash for the exit immediately before the ending of the last film to avoid having to stand to attention for the National Anthem. This was to be done by locking the exit door five minutes before the show ended. The cinema complied, but having heard that they were locked in, the audience joined in a vocal accompaniment of the pianist with a ribald version of the anthem inspired, it was said, by the public image of Edward VII:
God save our old tom-cat,
Feed him on bread and fat,
Long live our cat.
My only encounter with Sir Henry had happened at an earlier period, at the age of about eleven. His reputation for accessibility encouraged me to trudge up the long drive to his mansion at the top of the hill in the hope of gaining his consent through any intermediary who would talk to me to go bird-nesting on the estate.
I banged on the door, which was opened by his butler, but behind him, to my surprise, came Sir Henry himself, who waved the butler away and took over. Before this I had only seen him at a distance, and now at close quarters I realised he was small and unimpressive compared with, for example, the imposing Jessop, who by my standards put all other local males in the shade. He asked me what I wanted; I told him, and he began his reply, stopped suddenly then broke into a stammer, blinked, then after a silence the words poured out. Where Jessop would have dealt with me in five words, Sir Henry needed fifty. Behind him the room sparkled like an Aladdin's cave, a tall, willowy girl twirled as if in the arms of a partner to the music of a gramophone, there were flowers everywhere, and for the first time I drew into my nostrils the spiced aroma of wealth.
What surprised me most was that this man who ruled our lives should appear to be pleased to see me. In between the stammer he smiled affably. Bird-nesting was permitted and not only that, he said, but he would have liked to come with me to show me the best places for nests, but unhappily he had to address a meeting of the Primrose League that afternoon. 'Never mind,' he said. 'Come back and see me next week, but make it the morning when there's less going on.'
When I got back home, my mother asked me if I'd seen any of his lady friends, and I told her about the girl dancing by herself. 'That's the one who reads poetry to him,' she said.
In later years I heard more about these 'relations', as the females who surrounded him were known. They came and went. There was the poetry reader, a games mistress who kept him fit, a young nurse who told somebody in a pub that all she did was inspect his urine. He kept several aristocratic ladies living in cottages on the estate with nothing whatever to do with their time but 'visit'. They were the bugbear of Goat Lane, where the women had too many children and too many household tasks to have time to entertain these uninvited guests with empty chatter. But these visits were a matter of routine, and every house in the village would be visited several times a week; there was no way of escaping these intrusions.
The harassed wives and mothers of Goat Lane had little left to defend but their pride. Callers at the house for any purpose were expected to knock at the front door once or twice, and if there were no response to go away. Sir Henry's relations avoided this protocol by going straight through the tiny garden, usually littered with rubbish, to the back entrance. A soft tapping on the kitchen window would draw reluctant attention to the smiling face, and the woman of the house would realise that her poverty was on display. Unavoidably the kitchen door would be opened upon washtub smells, a grubby overall, soap-sodden hands, tired eyes and straggling hair. The visitor would be seated resentfully and offered weak, milky tea, while her victim settled with what grace she could muster to inane chit-chat, punctuated with the yowlings of her children.
It was an election that furnished the only instance of open opposition to Sir Henry's reign. As Conservative candidate he would normally be returned unopposed, but once, and to everyone's surprise, a most unlikely challenger came on the scene—a Liberal who happened also to be a pleasant young woman. Next a Liberal poster appeared in a Goat Lane window, put up by an old nightwatchman in one of the factories, thought of as weak in the head. At the weekend Sir Henry's steward called on him to drop a hint that, as in the case of the pheasant-trappers, his tenancy of a tied cottage might be at risk. Any estate worker would have caved in on the spot, but with this the first glimmerings of proletarian solidarity were evident, for although no more Liberal posters went up, several Conservative ones were taken down. For all that, Sir Henry won in a landslide.
Life in the country had undergone much dislocation during the war and had continued to suffer from shortages of every kind for so long after its end, but was beginning to pick up again. Agricultural produce, still in short supply, fetched satisfactory prices. Farmers admitted to not doing so badly after all and could afford small increases in wages. The big houses were taking on staff, and girls brought up in the poverty-stricken democracy of the Lane now became domestics dressed in fashionably old-style uniforms, working fourteen-hour days and learning from butlers such as Jessop how to return short toneless utterances to orders received, 'Will that be all, madam? Shall I clear away now?' A better class of car was back on the roads with the appearance of a beribboned Bentley from Brimsdown snuffling softly through the dust of the Lane on its way to a wedding.
Excerpted from The Happy Ant-Heap by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1998 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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