Sunday, 21 October 2012


 If Eve and I had thought that Sussex was country living, we soon found out that rural life in Somerset was the real thing. Cow pats in the fields and lanes for one thing, cocks crowing at dawn, huge blackbirds nesting and cawing high up in the surrounding trees and Farmer Burroughs, our immediate neighbour, watching me with interest one day as I removed a new scythe from the back of the car after a shopping expedition.
 'What’re you going to do with that then?' he asked.           
 'Cut the long grass in the lower field,' I answered.
 'Sheep will be better at that than you,' he said,  'I’ll lend you a few..'
 So we became sheep farmers. Well, we watched as three of Burroughs’s sheep munched the long grass for a couple of weeks, more concerned about whether they liked the names Athos, Porthos and Aramis than replenishing the water in the rather decorative wooden tubs we’d bought for them.
 The grounds around the Old Rectory were wonderland and my writing suffered delays, for I spent more time out in the open learning the difference between beeches and birches, alders and ashes, pear, apple and plum trees than tapping away at my typewriter.
 When the sheep had done their work Farmer Burroughs took them away and replaced them with a few geese, they were a bit noisy but did their duty till I found Jemima Puddleduck without a head.
 'That’ll be a fox’s doing,' Farmer Burroughs said quite unemotionally. 'Id let you have a cow but it’ll need milking. Would your wife do that?'
 'She was a London fashion model,' I said.
 And he didn’t pursue the matter.
 After a while Eve contacted a donkey sanctuary and we were appointed proud guardians of an emaciated creature with very long ears and a bulging tummy. The animal, we were told, would eat all our surplus grass, but he spent most of his time just standing looking sad and lovable at the farthest end of a paddock which was a long way away - so we called him Tipperary.
 'Do you think he’s happy?' Eve asked Farmer Burroughs one day, worried as the poor little donkey didn’t seem to be cheering up.
 'Best ask him,' he answered.
 It did not take us too long to integrate with the locals. A few evening visits to the pub down the road soon satisfied the curious that we were city folk so could be forgiven whatever errors we made in our knowledge of  the countryside and some even came to see what I was doing in the garden.
 'Things grow bootiful here,' they said, unimpressed by my new gum boots, new rake, new fork. 'You’ve got some lovely stuff to look after. The Vicar had green fingers.'
 Aware that I couldn’t tell one plant from another, I wisely walked over to the new vicarage on the other side of the church and asked our previous incumbent whether he could enlighten me on the rare species of vegetation I had inherited from him. He was a gentle elderly man who had loved the garden but had frozen to death in the house. He happily came over and I followed him along various paths between which there had been herbaceous borders and he pointed out leaves and plants that in their time would blossom into hydrangeas, delphiniums, lupins, dahlias. He pointed to areas where I could expect a pageant of blue bells, snowdrops, daffodils.
 Over a cup of coffee he told us that the Rectory had once been inhabited by Montgomery of Alamein’s uncle, then rector, and that the Field Marshall himself had often stayed in the house as a youth. I later wrote to the Field Marshall to verify this and was surprised to get a long detailed answer by return which started:
Dear Launay,  It would be true to say that I slept in the Rectory between 1903 and 1908. I always shared a bedroom with my cousin Neville, but cannot recall which room it was; it was a large room on the first floor......The letter ended : My uncle used to entertain the choirboys to tea every Easter and I used to help. 
  When the vicar finished his coffee, I walked him home and, at the gate, he looked directly at me and asked 'Will we see you and your good wife in church on Sunday?'
 I must have hesitated for longer than I thought, for he just smiled wearily, shook his head sagely and said 

 'Never mind...'

  Furnishing the place proved easier than expected as Eve and I bought huge wardrobes, bedsteads, tables and carpets that went for a song at local auctions benefiting from the fact that we had the space and no one else wanted the cumbersome pieces.
 When it was all done, the guests came. Major Bill and Doris every two weeks to begin with, then only now and again as we had hoped. London friends visited, happy to get away from the pollution. Eddy came over from France, was staggered by the size of the place and would have voiced his opinion that I was suffering from ‘folie de grandeur’  if he, my mother and Maman had not themselves invested in a palatial villa in Cagnes where all three now lived.
 Time and distance had changed Eddy’s attitude towards me. Though I was still a director of the old food firm he hardly asked about the business and was openly impressed by the publication of a book on luxury foods I had by then written which was pleasingly well reviewed. His visit passed off very amicably, even a little sadly for, on occasions, I saw him looking wistfully at Nicolas and Matthew, wishing, perhaps, that he was their true grandfather, for they were well behaved, amusing and lovable little boys.

  By 1966 I had written a dozen or so books, among them the six humorous thrillers, the Balmain epic, a failed biography of Russ Conway the nine fingered pop pianist, the successful guide to luxury eating, a less successful guide to English country wines, a quite boring recipe book for cocktails and snacks and compiled the dictionary of dates. I was an established author living comfortably on advances and royalties but by no means a best seller novelist. To rectify this, for I had become a little ambitious in that direction, I started going to London more frequently to build up contacts and, on the way, unfortunately fell victim to the charms of a pretty young actress.  

Lance Corporal Matthew on his charger Tipperary 
Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein

Friday, 12 October 2012


 During the five years that followed our move from London, two domestic situations developed that destabilized the happy foundations of our marriage. One was the deterioration of Eve’s relationship with her parents, the other was my own increasing ability to ignore her problems by losing myself in my work.
 Shortly after the birth of our new baby boy Matthew, who proved to be twice as energetic as his brother Nicolas and therefore exhausting, Major Bill and Doris announced that they intended to build an extension onto the cottage so that they could stay more often in greater comfort than was offered by our one small guest room. Eve had always been touchy when her father interfered with her life and this latest idea became a volatile issue. As Major Bill was guaranteeing the mortgage, we could hardly make our objections known and, soon enough, an architect turned up to study the designated site and, shortly after builders invaded our space and started on the unwelcome construction.
 Fortunately for me a publisher friend came to tea one day and was intrigued by a historical wall chart of contemporaries hanging in my study. I had drawn it up when writing ‘Death and Still Life’ ( my third thriller set in the art world ) so that I could see at a glance which writers, composers, and heads of state were alive at the same time as well known artists.
  e.g : Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin were all painting away while Tchaikovsky was composing the 1812 Overture, Longfellow penning his epic poem Hiawath and Queen Victoria sipping tea with Disraeli or Gladstone.
  The publisher was so impressed by the idea that he suggested I compile a dictionary based on the chart and commissioned it when I submitted a suitable format.  With the aid of a hundred brand new empty soup tins from the food factory ( which I occasionally visited for board meetings ) and thousands of different coloured cards, I spent days in my own happy world popping the likes of Socrates, Michelangelo, Chopin  and Louis XIV in their appropriately dated cans - a pass time nearly as exciting as Sudoku - essential information gleaned from a mountain of encyclopaedias as computers did not of course exist. It took two unhurried  years to complete and ended up with 35,000 entries, was published as the Dictionary of Contemporaries in 1967 and can be found gathering dust on the shelves of most UK reference libraries, ignored now because Google and Wikipedia have elbowed it out of the way.

  By the time Matthew was a year old and Nicolas was attending kindergarten, Major Bill’s extension was finished with a higher roof than expected which cast a long dark shadow on what had been the sunniest part of the garden. Major Bill and Doris themselves also cast a long dark shadow on our lives coming every weekend and this might not have been the end of the world if a developer had not bought the land on the other side of the cottage and started building a number of really ugly bungalows. With drills and cement mixers shattering the tranquillity of our surroundings our home was no longer the peaceful haven we enjoyed and Eve and I agreed it might be time for another move.
 By 1964 the housing market was not only in our favour if we sold in Sussex and bought in the West Country, but old vicarages were being sold off cheap by the Church of England Commissioners as country parsons could no longer afford heating such mausoleums. So off we went again on far away county drives and, one fine day, found ourselves in Halse, a tiny hamlet west of Taunton in Somerset, dominated by an early Victorian rectory which was for sale. Built of red sandstone it was on three floors with eighteen spacious rooms, three acres of woodland, boasted a disused chapel, outhouses and a back garden giving onto a 16th century church and its pretty cemetery. It was total madness to even consider but we loved it and wanted to buy it.
  Major Bill and Doris were incensed at the idea, opposed it and put every conceivable obstacle in our way, but a fairy godmother in the shape of Otto Plaschkes, a Hungarian film producer, appeared out of the blue and bought an option on the The New Shining White Murder ( my second humorous thriller ) and commissioned me to write the screenplay. This instantly solved all our problems. The selling of Manor Cottage and purchase of the Old Rectory went ahead, our debts were paid off and Major Bill recompensed for all he had spent on the extension.

 Early one misty Autumn morning, a number of removal men came with a sizeable vehicle and emptied Manor Cottage of all our worldly goods. With the kiddiwinks in the back of a newly purchased second hand Humber hugging their favourite soft toys ,we left Sussex for Somerset followed by the pantechnicon and, by evening, installed ourselves in the echoing vastness of the Old Rectory.
 Exhausted by all that such a move entails, we picnicked on the floor of the empty dining room by candlelight (the new electric metre not having been connected ) and all went uncomfortably to sleep in the same bed as Nicolas and Matthew decided that the place was definitely creepy and full of ghosts.
 The Old Rectory  proved to be neither creepy nor haunted when we got up the next morning. With the boys riding their tricycles up and down the long corridors and in and out of the empty reception rooms while we wandered around our new domain discussing what would go where, we felt we had entered a new phase of marital contentment and domestic bliss.
 But it was not to last.  

The old Rectory

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


One October morning, shortly after my return from Elba, I was happily raking over a gravel path in the front garden when I heard a cry for help from the house.
 I rushed in and found Eve in the kitchen holding her corpulent tummy, her face creased with pain.
 'I think I’m in labour.'                          
 'It’s not due for ten days,' I protested.
 'I think I’m going to have it now!'
 Eve had had the choice of either going to hospital or giving birth at home, and she had chosen home because the very helpful visiting District Nurse had said that it was usually better for the mother.
 I got her upstairs to the guest room which I had turned into a delivery clinic, that is I had moved one of the twin beds into a corner and the other centre stage so that the doctor and District Nurse could move around doing whatever they had to do when the child decided to emerge. I had also placed an empty cot with clean linen and cellular blanket in another corner. What I had not done, because there was plenty time, was prepare the various buckets, towels and disinfectants which I had been told would be be necessary.
 I settled Eve in the bed, propped her up against the pillows and felt a surge of panic when she threw off the bedclothes, leaned forward gritting her teeth and inhaled and exhaled deeply as I had seen mothers do in too many films featuring emergency births.
 I rang the doctor who wasn’t there, rang the District Nurse who wasn’t there either and failed to remain calm.
 I had read that it was essential for placentas and umbilical cords to come out after the baby or the mother might haemorrhage. The infant would also have to be held upside down by its feet and slapped so that it cried blue murder.
 Eve grabbed my hand. I might as well have clamped it in a carpenter’s vice and turned the screw, her grip was so fierce.  A painful spasm shook her body and she cried out. This brought little Nicolas from the nursery where he had been temporarily forgotten.
 For a moment he looked at us both and frowned.
 'We’re playing doctors and patients,' I explained.
 Eve tried a brave smile but instead emitted another cry of anguish. 'Ring the doctor again. It’s going to happen any minute.'
 I didn’t argue though I thought she was exaggerating. I reckoned she would have a good few more contractions with pauses in between before the main event. I rang the numbers and this time the District Nurse answered and said she would be with us in ten minutes.
 Back in the labour ward I lied. 'She’s on her way but said it would be quite a few hours yet so....'
 'It’s happening now!' Eve was not in a mood to suffer fools gladly and was gasping for breath.
 I looked on, terrified, and allowed her to stop the blood circulating to my left hand again.
 I had sensibly left the front door open and, after an eternity, heard the District Nurse coming up the stairs. She stuck her head round the door, took one look at Eve, tore off her coat and rolled up her sleeves, Miss No-Nonsense herself, efficient, reliable, a saint.
 'Hot water, but not too hot, and towels, every towel you’ve got, and a bucket. And maybe you could get the little boy away from under my feet.'
 Nicolas had crawled under the bed with a toy bulldozer. I grabbed his leg, pulled him out, carried him to the nursery and shut the door.
 'Mummy’s having a baby. It won’t take long. Just be a good boy and sit in here,'  I begged. Not really understanding but sensing the drama, he did what he was told.
 I got all the towels from the linen cupboard, a bucket from the kitchen, ran up the stairs, ran down again, put the kettle on, ran up again to check on Nicolas, ran down again because the kettle was whistling and, as I started up the stairs again the house was suddenly filled with the piercing  cry of a new human being protesting at being expelled from the safety of the womb.
 'It’s a boy,' the District Nurse said wrapping up the bright pink being in a towel, 'and can you please take that bucket out of here and bury the contents in the garden You can plant a tree on top of it. Placentas are very good for roots.'
 I glanced at Eve who looked like death, exhausted and soaked with perspiration. I glanced at my new son who looked like a severely disorientated dried tomato.
 I grabbed the bucket and tried not to check the contents, but of course I did. Not pleasant. Years ago I had seen the entrails of pigs dumped in front of me at the salami factory, so I wasn’t squeamish, but an after birth is not anything I would recommend anyone to study too closely.
 I got my spade, dug a hole at the bottom of the garden, dropped the placenta into it and covered it over. I then rushed back to be with Eve who was now lying back on the pillows with a contented smile on her face, the little boy resting on her chest.
 'Why did it come so soon? ' I asked the nurse.
 'The doctor miscalculated I expect. He’s not very good at maths.'
 I made all of us a cup of tea, sat down on the spare bed next to the nurse and heard some thumping from the nursery.
 'I think your elder son would like to be let out now,' she said.
 I opened the nursery door and Nicolas looked up at me with a furiously accusing expression.   
 'You’ve got a baby brother,' I said, picking him up.
 'Why?' he asked. It was one of the few words he liked repeating.
 'Because.' I answered. Always a good explanation.
 The District Nurse took the baby from Eve and laid it gently in its cot and tucked it up warmly. I helped her change the sheets and get Eve into a fresh nightdress. She checked that all was well, had to leave but would be back promptly. Mother should rest as much as possible and the baby would have to be fed, but for a while things should be calm.
 I saw her out. The whole business had taken less than an hour and we were now parents of another child, another life, another dependant.
 Before drawing the curtains I made sure the newborn was breathing and studied him for the first time. His eyes were very tightly shut and he looked incredibly knowledgeable, as had Nicolas when newly born, a wise expression that would disappear. I again got the impression that he had come from somewhere very important and knew a great deal more than any of us on earth, but it would all be forgotten and he would shortly just be another baby crying for his feed and messing up nappies. The difference, of course, is that he would be more intelligent than any other infant in the world and loved to death by both Eve and I.
 'Does he look like a Matthew?' Eve asked sleepily.
 We had decided on the name weeks before.
  'I think so....' I said.
  Nicolas looked at him thoughtfully then whispered his opinion. 'Small,' he said.
  'Yes,' I agreed, 'but he’ll grow.'
  And, as mother and newborn drifted into well earned sleep, we went down to the kitchen to eat some quite tasteless fish fingers. 

Mother with baby
Father with son a few years later