WHAT WOULD I DO WITHOUT ME?

“I don’t believe in an afterlife but I’m taking a clean change of underwear just in case.”
Woody Allen

At 9am on September 11th 2001 my cousin Keith and I were sitting in his shop in the East End of London watching the attack on the World Trade Centre on a portable TV. Together we saw the smoke pouring from the North Tower, listened to the hesitant commentary as the reporter tried to explain something that he himself didn’t understand. And then there was the dot in the sky that disappeared into the second tower in a silent puff of smoke, the unsteady images from hand-held cameras, people running from the tsunami of dust and paper that swept down the streets as the towers sank to their knees in defeat. Even now, thirteen years later, after the whole tragedy has been dissected, re-enacted on film, analysed and grieved over, even now that I have seen for myself the bleak cavity of Ground Zero, the overwhelming shock remains at this pure manifestation of evil which somehow became personified in the wall-eyed expression of Muhammed Atta. This meticulously planned and religiously inspired attack provoked an invasion of Iraq, fortified the radical Christian Right and brought forth, 6 years after the event, a trio of books from Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray and Richard Dawkins that made me think.

We were not a family of church-goers; religion, along with politics, sex and anything that required exposure of feelings, was never discussed. In fact, I don’t remember a single thing my father ever said to me; no repeated piece of advice that might have shaped a boy’s future. I have the impression his life stopped sometime before I was born, perhaps when he laid down his cherrywood pipe and started smoking cigarettes. I realize now that I was a smoker at the age of four, inhaling the smoke from the 60 un-tipped cigarettes he smoked each day. Photographs of him sitting alert and arms akimbo as a member of Alleyns Soccer Eleven of 1921 or smiling with his Pioneer Corps unit in Egypt in 1944 suggest that I had two fathers. The man I knew seemed to be always on a ladder painting drain pipes or sitting cross-legged on a lawn removing weeds with a chisel. He may be in his Parker Knoll watching Morecombe and Wise on our Radio Rentals TV with its detachable legs or reading the Daily Express over a cooked breakfast. Perhaps he’s shoveling salt into a water-softener or in his attic darkroom, developing undistinguished black and white prints. Even if he stood before you, dragging deeply on a Capstan Full Strength, he was somewhere else, probably in the smoky, hop-scented saloon bar of the Heaton Arms; let’s not mistake him for a deep thinker.

Mum had more to say. She’d sit and talk over cups of PG Tips with Mrs Smith who came once a week to polish the silver tea service on the sideboard and the brass frogs and bells and Spanish grandees that sat in niches in the brickwork around the fireplaces. While I collected newts from the village pond, she’d chatter away with her friend Sheck who managed an antique shop in Chislehurst. She talked to me too, often about a past that sounded more fun than the present. Along with an introduction to guilt she also offered endless warnings, “You can stoop low and pick up nothing” (a veiled reference to my father), “Chew it properly” and “Look both ways” still reverberate down the dark tunnels of my un-sleep.

“Mundania is a very drear place where the people do not believe in magic.”
Review of “The Man from Mundania” by Piers Anthony

Our house in Mundania Road, Honor Oak, was in a quiet grid of streets named after places in the Crimea, part of a 1930s development of gravel-walled semis. Beyond us was a series of gloomy, late Victorian houses and then, on the corner of Forest Hill, a dilapidated block of white, art-deco apartments opposite a church. I can still recall the smell of sun-warmed creosote on fence palings, of dock and nettle and privet; the oily fumes of combusted fuel from London Routemasters; the savoury steam from Sunday roasts and poached haddock; the aroma of newsprint and confectionery, of polished linoleum and most of all, of damp, that awful damp that pervades the inseparable boroughs of Camberwell and Peckham, Lewisham and New Cross, Deptford and Penge. I also remember the first thrills of escape, of slipping through a gap in the fence at the bottom of the garden to roam the wide open spaces of the playing fields that backed on to our row of houses, the lone visits to my Uncle and Aunt’s house around the corner in Therapia Road and scaling the wall of the underground reservoir in Homesdale Road to search for cartridge cases.(1)

On weekdays my father would drive his old cream and blue Sunbeam down to 190 Rye Lane where he would slowly destroy the timber merchant business his father had begun and built up. My grandfather had taken advantage of the canal built in the 1820s for the transport of softwoods from Surrey Commercial Docks to New Cross to set up a saw-mill on its banks and a retail outlet in Peckham. He called it “W Lynn and Sons” for he had expected both his sons to continue the business but my father’s younger brother, Ted was rounded up by the Japanese when they took Singapore in February of 1942, and after a spell in Changi, died in January of 1943 helping build the infamous Burma Railway. (2) Would things have turned out differently if he had been there? Who knows? There were further complications when grandma died (3) and was replaced by her husband’s house-keeper, Constance, a humourless, dessicated prune of a woman with illusions of Gran’dad.

It is easy to see now the strategic options that would have been open at the time to someone interested in developing or even merely saving the business. But my father was not interested. The body language, the resigned attitude, the constant resort to the temporarily uplifting saloon bar of the pub across the Rye told it all. Often, on a Saturday, my mother would help with the bookkeeping and I would be taken along to play on the piles of timber or in the heaps of sawdust in the old stables that was sold as bedding and toilets for rabbits. I could also escape into Rye Lane, in the 1950s still a bustling shopping centre with its fruit and vegetable stalls in Choumert Road, Austins Antiques warehouse, the Tower cinema, the stall under the railway arches selling cigarette cards and the confusing labyrinth of Jones & Higgins, at one time the largest department store in South London. How my father coped with the final collapse I cannot imagine. “He aimed low and missed,” explained my mother some years later.

In the early 50s we left Forest Hill and moved a dozen or so miles south to Petts Wood, a garden estate of Tudorbethan style houses surrounded by woods of oak and silver birch. To create a village atmosphere the developer had grouped the shops in a square surrounding a mock Tudor pub called the Daylight Inn named in commemoration of William Willet, the inventor of daylight saving, who had lived most of his life in nearby Chislehurst. The owner of the Dunstonian Garage, a dealer in Hillman and Humber cars, had even been persuaded to cover his petrol pumps with a canopy and to incorporate oak beams into the façade of his workshop and office. Slightly out of keeping was the local church, St Francis, set in woodland and built of wood and Sussex brick, its long straight hammerbeam roof recalling a medieval tithe barn. Our own house at 17 The Chenies (4) was all white with leaded-light windows and an elaborate porch and oak front door with gothic panels. There was a crop of silver birches in the front garden and a pond with water lilies and frogs in the back. Although there was a nice lounge with inglenook fireplace and a view of the garden with its screen of pine trees at the far end we lived grouped around the television in the dining room or in the kitchen.

In this paradise of “rus in urbe” I watched relations between my parents deteriorate. Apart from my father’s lack-lustre performance in the work-place and his heavy drinking my mother confided to me that he also had a “weakness for women” and enrolled me as her private investigator. Children, in both fact and fiction, have always been used for nefarious ends by their elders. The experience of young Leo Colston in L P Hartley’s novel “The Go-between” left him psychologically impaired for life. How will those 8 and 10 year old Junior Streetwatchers (embryo Stasi agents?) employed by Ealing Council (5) to identify and report on enviro-crime issues (graffiti and fly-tipping) fare as adults? My duties were to search the ashtray of dad’s car for lipstick stained cigarette ends when he came home late and to make sure he was never left alone with unattached or unaccompanied women. On at least one occasion I was sent out to call my mother from a public ‘phone box, a supposedly mysterious admirer designed to provoke my father’s jealousy. I doubt whether the plan worked. When on occasion I became the subject of discussion between my parents I was never referred to by name but as “that boy” (even if I was within earshot) as in “That boy needs a new pair of shoes” or “Don’t you dare hit that boy, Arthur”. Like all children I didn’t like to hear my parents arguing and I would creep from bed to listen to what my mother would later, in comforting me, describe as “just a discussion”. Was my father joking when he announced, in response to my mother’s threat that she would dance on his grave when he was dead, that he would be buried at sea?

My sister, ten years older than me, was already planning her escape into matrimony; my escape for the moment was into the branches of the pine trees at the end of the garden, among the books that lined the shelves over my bed or into the Embassy, Petts Wood’s art deco cinema on the other side of the railway line that divided the town both territorially and socially. On those evenings the family went to the cinema we were greeted in the foyer by the manager, Mr Helstine, resplendent in evening suit. There was chop, chips and peas in the first floor café lounge with its fashionable tubular chairs before we settled into the rose and gold auditorium for a full evening of cinema – Movietone News, cartoon and a double bill of A and B films, spoilt only by my mother fidgeting and grumbling about the “stupid slobbering” when the actors happened to embrace. Better still when I could travel alone to the kids only sessions on a Saturday morning and follow the adventures of Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe and Hopalong Cassidy. Cinema was not the only casualty when the Embassy closed its doors in 1973; the building’s new tenant, Safeway’s, spelt death for many of the local butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable shops. A regrettable loss was David Grieg, a meat and dairy shop in Station Square where assistants in long aprons would cut your order for butter from a pale yellow mountain with cheese-wire and then slap it around between wooden paddles before packaging it in grease-proof paper.

My sister’s marriage to her Dutch boyfriend, in St Francis church (with reception at the Daylight Inn) did not result in her immediate liberation. For the first year or so of their marriage she and her husband lived with us in The Chenies. This is not an easy situation in the best of circumstances and it must have been a happy day for her when she and her husband moved into their own home some five miles distant on the other side of Orpington. After my sister left, my mother moved into her own bedroom (newly and un-tastefully decorated in pale grey Formica) while my father slept on in his cold room with its heavy mahogany veneered furniture and smell of stale cigarettes until he decided to move full-time into the Heaton Arms. ‘He was called to the bar,’ explained my mother.

“I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”
Julian Barnes
“Nothing to be Frightened of”

If religion was never discussed and we were not church-goers there was also no sign that either of my parents were private believers. Grace was not said at meals; there were no framed prints of Saints on the walls as there were at my mother’s sister’s house. God’s name was only called upon in contexts of blasphemy. In spite of all this I still have a fading card that says on April 5 1942 at St Augustine’s Church in Honor Oak Park I was made a Member of Christ, A Child of God and An Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven but it was not until I was packed off to boarding school for nearly eight years that I was fully exposed to religion or, more accurately, to the Boys Own Anglican version of Christianity. At Dulwich College Prep there were prayers and hymns morning and evening and, on Sundays we were shepherded in a crocodile up College Road, past the toll-gate and into St Stephens for morning service. (6) At Cranleigh School there was chapel each morning and every evening we would kneel on the bare boards of the dormitories for prayers before bedtime. On Sundays there was Evensong as well as morning chapel when some visiting cleric would deliver a sermon to a largely uninterested congregation. I enjoyed chapel, listening to future organ scholars playing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, sun illuminating stained glass, gripping the wings of a brass eagle as I read the lesson from a massive Bible and the carols at Christmas. I was a good divinity student and passed it at GCE. I still take great pleasure in the language of the King James’ Bible, in Donne’s sermons and the poems of George Herbert. At fifteen I was confirmed by the Bishop of Guildford, kneeling on the black and white marble tiles hoping for, but not expecting, some magical revelation as I received the sacraments.

But I never believed. My lack of belief was instinctive not something I thought about or intellectualized over; certainly I never had Christopher Hitchens’ self belief or intelligence as a schoolboy to voice my rejection of religion in general. I knew then that Genesis was a fairy tale and still find it amazing that there are educated people who believe the earth is 10,000 years old. I could never accept Jesus’ divinity or any New Testament tales of the super-natural; after all, what was the so-called miracle of the five loaves and two fishes other than an equitable redistribution of pooled assets, the burning bush other than a natural phenomenon. Faith was required and I had none. Why would anyone place faith in something that for two thousand years had never provided a single instance of justification? Judging from history those who had faith were seldom rewarded in this life and as far as I was concerned there was no other. And isn’t it strange how contemporary Greek Othodox ritual seems as alien to an Anglican as Sumerian Sun worship, that Sunnis and Shiites slaughter each other over interpretation of some arcane procedures of the same religion and that educated men like Latimer and Ridley were toasted for their intransigence by the separate branch of a common Christian faith. And wouldn’t the faithful Christian be a loyal Muslim if he had been born in Islamabad rather than Ipswich? And so, looking back, I can see Bible study was just another part of the broader study of history in general and history, or a large part of it, the struggles of one religious sect against another. Hitchens and Dawkins and Onfray were only making me feel more comfortable with something I had always felt. The love of churches and cathedrals, of Christian ritual at the time of birth and marriage and death remain as mere memories of England and Englishness and not objects of guilt over lack of faith.

I wonder what my father thought of in those post-stroke years, in bed alone or silent in his slippers in front of the television as my mother discussed him within earshot with visitors. Did religion or the possibility of afterlife ever cross his mind? We’ll never know.
He finally gave up at 75. Weakened and emasculated by a stroke, deprived of tobacco, strong drink and the ear of a friendly barmaid, he sat quietly watching the sport, mother clicking her dentures while he wobbled a lower front tooth until he could pluck it from his gum and start on the next. He was buried in a postcard country churchyard, four men in black carrying him through the yew trees to be lowered into the earth. Somehow this was a betrayal. He wasn’t meant to be there alone in a churchyard next to a church he had never visited in a village he had never known. Better his ashes in an urn, flanked by bottles of Bells and Teachers, on a shelf behind the saloon bar of the Heaton Arms. At least, reduced to dust, he could have been himself. Mother chose not to attend the funeral although she removed Dad’s signet ring and wore it to her own. In a final act of misandry when her time came she elected to be consigned to the flames and her ashes scattered in a Garden of Peace rather than bear the eternal proximity of her husband. Presumably, among her powdered remains are flecks of my father’s gold signet ring.

Mother had longer to reflect on past life and after-life in her retirement home bed-sit in a large Victorian house on the outskirts of Maidstone smelling faintly of stale pee and cabbage. Too proud to mix with the other inmates, she must have watched those last seasons come and go alone, writing out shopping lists – Jay cloths, shortbread biscuits, note paper – to hand my sister when she came to visit, cutting unwanted faces from photographs of the past, re-writing history in her head. On my own infrequent visits we had nothing much to say to each other. On one occasion, jet-lagged from a 24 hour flight and overcome by the heat in the tiny room, I passed out on the bed and was unconscious for two and a half hours out of the three I had allowed for the visit. And so, as the years ticked by it sometimes seemed as if she would go on forever. Even though choked with the horrible finality of it all when she was finally swallowed in the inferno, I experienced a mild feeling of release afterwards as I joined the mourners for tea in my sister’s garden and when Keith and I later sped off towards London I felt quite happy it was all over.

(1) The biggest underground reservoir in London. Used as a rifle range during WW2; now a golf course
(2) Signalman 2357597 Thomas Edward Lynn, Royal Corps of Signals. Born March 1907; died January 2nd 1943. He is buried in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, located 129 kms WNW of Bangkok and close to the famous Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, which was completed one month after Signalman Lynn’s death.
(3) Grandma Alice died at the age of 62 in 1934. She was 6 years older than her husband.
(4) The Chenies, a cul de sac of 29 houses, was designated a Conservation Area of architectural and historic importance in 1982
(5) Article in the Weekly Telegraph 10th September 2008
(6) Both St Stephens and Dulwich College were the subjects of paintings by Camille Pisarro who had fled France in 1870 on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war to live with his half-sister in Palace Road, Upper Norwood.

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