photo: Miki Yamanouchi
We were The History Boys generation. From modest backgrounds we had cleared the hurdle of the 11+ exam, opening the way to the university educations our parents could never have had. And in my case, to my horror, I had been boosted into low orbit by a local-authority scholarship to boarding in a nearby public (i.e. private) school.
The school film society had screened Antonioni’s Blow-Up: a young East End photographer drove his Rolls Royce, wore white jeans, and wandered the fashionable rooms of London photographing beautiful women. It was the 1960s and the end of deference.
It was with no surprise then that I found myself at 18 courting the daughter of a Scottish laird and invited for a weekend at the family home in Norfolk.
I have only fragmentary memories of the visit now: a large, comfortable Georgian house. Horses, a younger sister, a titled mother, a tennis court; was there a swimming pool? A kitchen garden where we picked strawberries for tea. Coming downstairs the first morning late enough to find an empty dining room and a couple of bacon rashers in a chafing dish. The major proudly demonstrating the discipline of his gun dogs by calling them to attention, throwing his cigarette packet over the rose beds, then picking one dog to retrieve it, the animal’s mouth soft enough to leave the pack undamaged.
She was beautiful and smart and funny and had the slightly embarrassed smile Julian Barnes wears. I was crazy about her and carried a torch for years, but her invitation then might have been mostly about annoying her father. My jeans were not white, but I learned later that the steel comb in my back pocket was a known provocation. I’m sure everyone was polite to me. My own lack of ease triggered an inverted snobbery on my part that I recall without pleasure.
In the years that followed I read at weekly poetry sessions in the basement of The Troubadour coffee house in the Brompton Road, where we liked to remind each other Bob Dylan had performed on his first visit to London. Poets describe some poems as being “dictated”. The poem leaves no memory of composing or revising; it arrives fully formed. Happened to me two maybe three times. This one, no longer exhibited, arrived while I was working in a warehouse as a packer.
I was always called by the houses of the rich your father’s most of all: the gravel drive, the shotgun in the hall, the family portraits on the wall. Behind the house the gentleman’s small farm some horses, fields and late one night the barn where we spun beds of straw to midnight gold. I hold you in my dreams again sometimes and think of families too grand for Christian names, but Lady Greenwood this and Major Kensal that… It was not that I came without a hat or even shoes, but standing barefoot in the hall I realised that all the warmth the hall could muster was from polish. Then up through carpets to my room where outside in the sun the afternoon shone slowly on the lawn and on the wood. I do not think that once again I could sit through another dinner where the food – served by the cook and plain but very good – contrasts the conversation made of wood. “These knives are very sharp.” “The grinder called today. He will come every month. It’s understood.” I do not think I can again nor should. They did not like me very well your family I was not humble, did not call the major Sir did not play tennis, nor did I defer to his opinions on the good of war. I did not ride, nor even played at tennis and finally, I swam too well. Yes conversation flagged on that weekend and “Don’t you think?” and vagueness filled the air. Emotions throttled back contrived to send me mumbling to my room in sour despair. And you withdrew until at last you threw some gambit to the talk concerning Art and then you an your father both would start to argue: “Art for Art’s sake” “Beauty’s function” and so contrived to spin us through the luncheon. I would not join in even then I felt your father would deride my views on Art though now I think we both thought Art was on our side. He classed himself with all great men; when recognised, the major artists too: all who succeeded in their field; while I could not portray the sullen independent pride of citizen craftsmen festooned side by side with ornamented chains. And leaving left me free to go back home. “We’ll drive you there, of course, or we can phone to fetch a cab for you.” “I’ll walk,” I said and walked, alone.
Bah. I have no idea how we returned to London, but I did not walk eight miles into Norwich.
Half a century later, I find myself with friends on a leisurely cycle tour of East Anglia. We are riding from Lowestoft to Norwich and our route planner takes us through Bergh Apton. A chance to compare reality with my memories of the house.
Or it would be, if I could find it on a map. Google Maps finds Apton Manor but memory matches neither its location nor what I can see from Street View. We ride there and knock anyway. The lovely Annie emerges and explains her house was renamed and, confusingly, the original manor house is right up the road.
It is somewhat changed. I remember the drive as straight and a little scruffy, running up the left towards a barn before veering into a turning circle in front of the house. It now curves elegantly around a manicured lawn and a meadow. Flower beds are thick around the building. Money and taste have been at work.
And, as Alastair wrote, “I am not sure what else there is”.
I am not nostalgic, only obscurely disturbed; I am not sure what else there is, except a sort of formal leave-taking; I was coming here, and she going to work in Marks and Spencer’s in Newcastle. There was the warm, serious talking of friends, and nothing else: I have not seen her since, nor heard of her, nor the place, which is, probably, altered.