‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day’. Winston Churchill.

‘Only artists produce for each other a world that’s fit to live in’. D H Lawrence

In the late 1760s a young Frenchman , Noel Desenfans, arrived in London to teach languages, later marrying one of his pupils, who came with a fortune that her new husband used to acquire important works of art. Such was Desenfans’ success in the field, that King Stanislaus of Poland appointed him Polish Consul General in England with a mandate to collect pictures for the formation of a National Gallery in Warsaw. In 1795, when Desenfans had already acquired a substantial number of paintings, Poland was rudely partitioned by its neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria and Stanislaus was invited by the Russians to be a permanent houseguest in St Petersburg. In 1799, Desenfans, whose art collection now included all the unpaid works he had acquired for King Stanislaus, offered the whole to the British Government. Fully occupied with another war with France, the Government declined the offer. On his death in 1807, Desenfans left all his pictures to his friend, Sir Peter Bourgeois, a Royal Academician, who in turn, in 1810, bequeathed them to Dulwich College, a South London school founded in 1619 for the purpose of educating twelve poor scholars of the parish, but which, by 1950, was almost entirely focused on teaching the sons of the better off.

A gallery to house the collection was designed by Sir John Soane and built in Gallery Road, Dulwich. It opened its doors to the public in 1817, seven years before the National Gallery began business in Trafalgar Square. For several years I lived in the same Gallery Road, a boarder at the school that owned the picture gallery.  It was too convenient not to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and on wet, weekend afternoons, when the cricket was called off, we formed a crocodile and marched to the gallery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the collection was still mostly Desenfans’ original, largely Baroque, collection and the gallery was not the ‘vibrant, cultural hub’ it is today with its glass-encased cafeteria, shop, website and colourful, outdoor installations for children. It was heavy duty for a ten year old, but among the grim Velasquez portraits and dark, classic landscapes there was the odd, saucy work by Rubens and there was Van Dyck’s titillating ‘Samson and Delilah’ to store in the memory and take back to the dormitory. The gallery was a pointer as to how I would spend my future leisure time; art would come before sport.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

At school most of us drew and painted in our leisure time. At home my mother was an unhelpful critic – ‘Very nice, dear’, she would say as I presented her with another page from an endless portfolio of spaceships and dragons. How do life-long passions for a particular pastime originate? If you are a painter, is it from the covers and illustrations of our earliest books, or the pictures on the walls of our childhood bedrooms? Ideally, a hobby needs to get you to the very end. Keeping fit is not a hobby. I take heart from those photographs of Renoir and Monet in old age, sitting at their easels in their gardens, Renoir with his arthritic hands bound with rags, Monet half blind, both kept alive by their hobbies. Two of the more minor criticisms of my character that popped up frequently on my school reports were ‘needs to try harder’ and ‘gives up easily’. Recently, it came to me that after all these years, in spite of countless failures, I’ve never given up hoping that one day I will paint a picture that more or less lives up to my initial expectations.

Dulwich College, (1871) by Camille Pissarro, a refugee from the Franco Prussian war.

At my next school art was discouraged, buried in small print in the curriculum and listed after every sport and every dead language known to man. Those interested in art were treated like vegans at a Texas barbeque. Schools think their job is to prepare us for a career and forget that we have all that leisure time to fill, especially the lengthy, post retirement bit at the end. Not all of us are interested in a career. In spite of the lack of encouragement, my interest in painting was consolidated by three events, all independent of the teaching staff.

The first was the decision to abandon watercolours and switch to oils. It was like parking the Vespa and slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Watercolours are tiny, the domain of lavender scented, Victorian ladies; they prohibit the bravura brush stroke and lack the colour intensity and oozing beauty of a coil of oily pigment. Squeeze out some paint from a tube of New Holland and you will understand why Vincent liked to occasionally tuck into a tube of ultramarine. Watercolours are odourless; oils appeal to our senses. Although the smell of pigment is quite subtle, a good quality turpentine, distilled from the resin of Mediterranean pine trees, a heat-thickened linseed oil or a fine varnish deserve to be sniffed as you would an ancient cognac. Over time I have become addicted to resin and its Greek wine derivative, Retsina. Watercolours only require water, maybe a little gum arabic and a sable brush while oil painting requires a fascinating array of paraphernalia. My spare bedroom studio resembles Merlin’s cave, with its rows of bottles of siccatives, thinners, varnishes, glazing materials and gessos, forests of flat, round and filbert brushes, bundles of charcoal and selection of palette knives. Then there’s the romance behind the oil paints themselves, in tubes since 1841 when American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible, screw top tube, without which, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no impressionism. JMW Turner was a technical advisor to Winsor & Newton when they opened for business in 1832 but today their paints seem a trifle industrial compared to another, new British art supplier, Michael Harding. Charvin opened its doors in 1830 on the Cote D’Azur and has a very South of France spectrum. Try their Veronese and Prussian blue and you will be using the same paints that Cezanne used in his landscapes in Provence and around the Mont Sainte Victoire. Bonnard also squeezed his paint from Chardin tubes. Being French, Charvin likes to be different, using poppy oil instead of the cold pressed, extra virgin linseed used by most other suppliers. The Rolls Royce of oil paints is Old Holland, created in 1664 when a Dutch painters’ Guild began manufacturing its own paints. Rolls Royces don’t come cheaply and the more expensive pigments come at the same price as a box of Monte Cristos. Acrylics are an attempt to bridge the divide between oil and water, but the finish has a plastic, artificial feel and the colours lose the vibrancy as the paint dries.

Leave it to the French to sum up the subject in a few lines:

La peinture a l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beacoup plus beau
Que la peinture a l’eau.

A second epiphany occurred while reading a biography of Toulouse Lautrec, my first experience in linking a painter’s life with his work. As soon as I had put it down my future suddenly seemed bright and the road ahead clear. I no longer had to agonise over whether to seek a career in the army or join a sea of clerks in the City; I was going to be a painter and live in Paris. The Place du Tertre, a sort of open-air, art supermarket near the Sacre Coeur, seemed the ideal spot to set up an easel. The quality of the art work I had seen there was conveniently poor, mainly pictures of the façade of the Moulin Rouge or the old windmills that still stood in Montmartre. Most importantly I had a career objective that didn’t require the sort of swotting needed to become a brain surgeon or actuary.

Lastly, there was a visit to the National Gallery. At the end of one term, taking the special train that the school laid on for the sons of those parents too busy to collect their children, I left Charing Cross intending to make straight for Soho but instead, for motives I have forgotten, crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the National Gallery. Three paintings I saw that day I have never forgotten. The first was by El Greco, the Mick Jagger of Renaissance art, whose swirling lines and rebellious colours resurface in the later works of Van Gogh.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal, El Greco, 1614. Said to be the prime source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Next was a peaceful, Dutch, 17thcentury landscape and the last an interior by Fujita, a Japanese artist and print maker who joined the international brigade of Modigliani, Soutine and others in Post Impressionist Paris. Epiphanies mainly happen while you are young.

Years later, still determined to live dangerously, I planned to enroll at St Martin’s School of Art (located conveniently on the edge of Soho), but doubts soon entered my mind when I explained my intentions to my flat mate who had just signed up to become a Chartered Accountant. Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time, and still is, but listening, I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. Plus, I still wanted to shop at Harrods. My mistake was thinking that accounting was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk.

The day came when I was freed of my accidental clerkship and transferred to the firm’s Paris office as a newly minted Chartered Accountant. I knew the instant I emerged from the Gare du Nord just how Vincent must have felt when he arrived in Paris, fresh from the dung-coloured potato fields of Belgium. Out with the Sepia, the Burnt Ochre and Van Dyke Brown, in with the Ultramarine and the Cadmium Yellow. Clerkship in Paris was not unpleasant and I was both unhurt and unsurprised when occasionally clients or new acquaintances were stunned into incredulity or laughter when I announced my profession. And then, while painting one weekend in my apartment, a thought suddenly struck me – Is this not what I had planned all those years ago at school, to paint in Paris?

Having clerked and painted for many years, I have learned that art requires courage, clerkship a clean set of numbers. ‘I believe to create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage’ said Georgia O’Keefe, echoing Churchill who claimed the first quality needed in a painter is audacity. I still sit in awe of each clean, new canvas, convinced the first mark will eventually condemn the whole project to the dustbin. When you get going fear can make you hesitant; agonising over a brush mark will result in loss of spontaneity and will show up in the finished work. To show a completed painting to others is to risk exposing a lack of taste; exposing a lack of talent is less damaging. I start off each painting with a clear idea of how the finished work will look but with the certainty that I will not be able to attain the perfection of the original conception.

There are artists, like Gauguin and Van Gogh, who pursue their own feelings and own self satisfaction and expect audiences to come to them. And artists, such as Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, who exploit the desire of the audience to be wooed, amused and entertained. Vettriano, one of the world’s richest contemporary artists, only began painting in 1987 when he was 36, channeling Gauguin by leaving his wife and job in educational research to apply himself fully to his art. Success came in 1992 with The Singing Butler, which last sold in 2004 for US$ 1,340,640.

The Singing Butler. 1992

Reproductions on posters and greeting cards are reputed to earn Jack a similar amount annually. Called ‘the Jeffrey Archer of the art world’ and ‘a purveyor of badly conceived porn’, Jack’s paintings are shunned by the galleries but popular with the public and celebrities with taste like Jack Nicholson and Elton John. So satisfy yourself before others. Still, Vettriano does follow one rule and that is to attach a story to a painting. You do need a point of view.

What is the purpose of art; does it need a purpose, by what standards do we judge it? Is graffiti an art? In the Gaza Strip it’s politics, in London’s Mayfair it’s vandalism, in Hamburg it’s an art movement. John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), who knows about these things, writes in The Aristos that it is the artist’s job to describe the outer world, to express his feeling about that outer world and to express his feelings about himself. The explanation of self by the expression of self. At least that was the old way of looking at it; the principal gauge of art is now STYLE. Style is acquired by painting subjects about which you have a point of view, trying different techniques until you find one that you are comfortable with. If you spend your life copying you will never find a style and you will never experience the pleasure of composition or choosing your own palette.

Has my painting suffered from not going to art school? Yes, because some important techniques like paint mixing and draughtsmanship need professional instruction. Many may disagree, but if you can’t draw you will never produce great art. Rothko with his two fields of intense colour, Jackson Pollock and his whirligig drippings, both began as master drawers. Dribbling liquids haphazardly onto a ground, swirling them around until you find, by chance a likeness of aurora borealis will produce no more than a bit of harmless fun.

I have also learned to avoid sport as a subject to paint; it has never been a topic for great art. A notable exception is the Panathenaic Amphora depicting athletes at the Panhellenic Games in 530 BC.

Amphora 530BC

If horseracing is a sport, paintings on the subject by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec may also be exceptions. It’s the horses that tip the scales; men and women engaged in sport present too trivial a subject to be represented in bronze or oils. Honey bee draws my attention to the mosaics in The Room of the Gymnasts in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Art, like the Amphora, it undoubtedly is -and I put this anomaly down to time, the length of survival of an artifact, which becomes a factor in its beauty: survival in time seems to add beauty and interest.

‘Movements’ are a convenient way to study art history and satisfy our urge to categorise everything. What movement are we in now? There have been countless art movements over time, but most are short lived. Take Dadaism, an attempt to intellectualise art by adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Duchamp had the sense to resign from the movement and take up chess after The Society of Independent Artists unsurprisingly rejected his urinal as not being art. The urinal was not art but a statement about art and a forerunner of those future statements featuring a pile of bricks or an unmade bed. Dadaism and all other movements are mere footnotes to the two ‘big bangs’ of art, the Renaissance and Impressionism. ‘Art requires the right space’ claimed Rothko and we are fortunate that most Renaissance art is to be found in the places intended for it by its artists, that’s to say the churches and historic palaces of Italy. In the Uffizi I came across a painting of Madonna and Child. It was a circular canvas, freshly restored and sitting on an easel, just where Raphael, the Prince of Painters, would have wanted me to see it. It is the first painting in my collection.

Impressionism began in France and spread like a tsunami both into offshoots (Neo, Post and Fauvism) and geographically into, among other places, Bloomsbury where it spawned the Omega Workshop and ended up in its textiles. A hundred years later forgotten pockets of Impressionism were still popping up. The works of the Scottish Colourists, like a rare Bugatti found in a barn, were rediscovered the 1990s.

The Founding Fathers of Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro and Cézanne gave us those illuminated and brightened landscapes which were partly due to their research into the physics of colour. They also gave us a new painting method, alla prima, a quick, wet on wet technique that opened the door to we amateurs. I have chosen a Cezanne for my collection, Still Life with Onions, which I thought made a nice change from apples. Impressionism was all about the outdoors and still life paintings were unpopular at the time but Cezanne said ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’ and he did.

Still Life with Onions. Paul Cezanne. 1898

Cézanne set the stage for the Fauvists, a group of wild beasts comprising the Dutchman, Kees Van Dongen and the Frenchmen, de Vlamink, Marquet, Matisse and Derain. I’m choosing a Van Dongen portrait – Woman with Large Hat (and bare breasts).

Woman with Large Hat. Kees van Dongen. 1906

Some painters fail at the end, something goes. Van Dongen had the chance to go out on a high when he painted the portrait of French Goddess, Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte fed it to her cats. One wild beast, Georges Rouault, set me off in the direction of the German Expressionists and to the work of Ernst Kirchner. I’m finding a spot for his deeply disquieting ‘Self-portrait with Model’, painted in the atmosphere of insecurity that preceded WW1. When the Nazis launched their ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ in 1933, Kirchner was one of the first to have his work deemed ‘degenerate’; a few years later 600 of his paintings were destroyed to protect the morals of the German people.

Self Portrait with Model, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, 1907

To be a collector with money and taste in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury must have been Heaven. Most painters then seemed to congregate in two Montparnasse cafés, La Rotonde and Le Dome where, for the price of a glass of absinthe, you could take home a Modigliani sketch. There were so many wonderful artists in Paris at that time – Soutine, Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Vuillard, Utrillo and two very talented ladies, Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. I’m not adding a Picasso to my collection; he did remarkable things and stood against fascism but he was unkind to his chauffeur and to his women. The sheer ubiquity of Vincent has cooled much of my former enthusiasm; I’ve seen his art on too many coffee mugs, tea towels and mouse pads.

Tourism had yet to be invented when I arrived in Paris. There was no waiting three months for a table at Maxim’s and if you were visiting the Louvre you needed to wake a sleeping attendant and ask him to turn on the lights. In the department of the museum devoted to the Romantics you will find The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827 by a 29 year old Eugene Delacroix.

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix, 1827

Based upon Byron’s 1821 poem of the same name, it depicts the death in 876BC of the last king of Ninevah, who, to avoid humiliating defeat by his enemies decides to kill himself after destroying all his prized possessions, including his concubines and horse. There are references to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the painting blazes with the sensuality and colour of a Rubens. You can feel the heat and excitement coming off this canvas; you won’t need central heating. Delacroix also provided the cover art for Coldplay’s album ‘Viva la Vida’.

Delacroix’s Spanish counterpart and fellow Romantic, Francesco Goya was caught up in the twin horrors of the Inquisition and the invasion of his country by Napoleon’s armies. The result were Goya’s breathtaking pictures of bandits and succubi, devils and dwarfs, witches riding on cats and women trying to pull out a dead man’s teeth after a hanging. I would like one of his macabre etchings but it might frighten the children so I’m choosing La Maja Desnuda, painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.

La Maja Desnuda. Francesco Goya. 1800

Famous for the insolent way the little minx stares out of the painting at you as if to say ‘so what’ and the whisper of pubic hair (reputedly the first artwork to show this), La Maja was hung in Godoy’s ‘boys room’ alongside Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus and a score of other paintings of female nudes until it was raided and closed down by the Inquisition.

Whether you are painting, collecting or just looking, your choices will be bound up with your childhood memories. Mine are of the artwork of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and later of painters Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin:

and David Hockney:

Portrait of an Artist, David Hockney, 1972

In 2018 Portrait of an Artist sold at auction for US$90.3 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a work by a living artist. Thankfully it is a painting that replaces the previous holder of this distinction, one of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which to me always give off the same message – ‘Look at this trashy world we live in’.

If you are an Aboriginal artist your palette consists of charcoal, kaolin ochre, white and black because you’ve grown up with Nature in its dead, burnt and crispy state. If you grew up in the lush, English or Irish countryside your palette will be green, blue and yellow. The mood is peaceful and nostalgic, as in Constable’s The Hay Wain painted in 1821 and left unsold at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It had better luck in the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a medal and was praised by Gericault. The house on the left is still there today. The wain stands stationary in mid-stream to cool the horse’s legs and to soak the wooden wheels that can detach from the metal rims when dry. This is a painting about those ‘blue remembered hills’.

The Hay Wain, John Constable,

In 1999 English artist, Tracey Emin entered an unmade bed for the Turner Prize. My Bed failed to win the prize, pipped at the post by Steve McQueen and his home made video, but the fact that it was short listed caused a sensation. In 2014 it sold at auction for 2.5 million pounds. I didn’t bid as I was sure Honeybee would want to change the sheets. Between 1984 and 2019 only 6 winners of the Turner have entered paintings, the other 29 a mixture of videos, sculptures and installations prompting the question ‘Is painting dead, replaced by pseudo technology?’ In 1830 it was assumed the arrival of photography would kill off painting but it merely pushed artists, like Vincent, into distorting nature and using unnatural colours. Dadaism was once thought a brief threat but perhaps it’s back; maybe painting is not a medium that can express the amount of existing discontent. I’m quite unconcerned; I can always look at my own, un-made bed in the morning before I get behind my easel.

And then one weekend in Norfolk we lunched at the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, an 18thcentury estate, once used by Edward VII for naughties with Lillie Langtry and now restored and converted for hospitality by art dealer Ivor Braka. Ivor has decorated his hotel with an art collection that saves the locals a trip to London’s Tate Modern. There are David Bailey prints in the bathroom, a Lucien Freud painting in the TV room, a Damien Hirst hanging in the bar and in the corridor a Tracey Emin painted sculpture. Avoid this if you are about to go into the dining room for lunch.

Tracey Emin. Cockwork

Later I came across an exhibition of Tracey’s drawings at the Musee D’Orsay – think Egon Schiele in monochrome – convincing me that, out of bed, Tracey is a talented drawer.

The mention of Lucien Freud makes me think about how life imitates art:


The Venus of Willendorf. 25,000BC

The Venus of Hollywood, 2019


Venus Reclining (Big Sue) Lucien Freud, 1995

We only have a small apartment but I can squeeze in one more painting and it will have to be a Gauguin.

Breton Calvary, Paul Gauguin, 1887

What stories exist, both in his own quest to find some nobility in life and in the paintings themselves! Hardworking, eternally poor Gauguin was only 54 when he died. If you wish to get near him you should visit the small Breton town of Pont Aven where he, Emile Bernard, Paul Serisier and others painted in the mid 1880’s and where cloisonnism was born. He also had some important advice for us amateurs: ‘L’art est une distraction. Tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus a la création qu’au résultat’.

In 1916, thirteen years after Gauguin had died in the South Pacific, Somerset Maugham travelled there to research the exotic life of the French artist. The result was ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, published in 1919, which tells the story of a bank employee who, in middle life, abandons career and wife to devote his life to painting. After struggling for years without recognition he sets out for Tahiti, settling down with a young Polynesian woman in a hut whose walls he covers with astonishing paintings. Before dying of leprosy he instructs his companion to destroy his work after his death. Only on the discovery of the canvasses he had tossed aside in Europe does the world of art realize that it has lost a genius. It’s the story of a painter who was a clerk.
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“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.