I was born on a Sunday morning in April. It should have been spring, but there was snow on the ground and perhaps this had its effect on the attendant nurse. Or maybe she just didn’t like the sight of a delicate looking woman, separated from her husband, giving premature birth to a ‘rabbit’ of a baby. Whatever the reason, three days later she placed a pillow over my face and if my mother had not, in the nick of time, spotted what was going on, there might have been remarkably little to be said on the subject of Ida Crowe.
If such a thing happened today the police would be called, there would be column inches in the Press and there would almost certainly be ‘compensation’. On that far off April afternoon they simply ordered Nurse Hill out of the house, and my mother was left to stare at her new baby. And ponder, no doubt, on an uncertain road ahead.
My mother - M, as I'll call her - had been the much loved youngest daughter of John Osborn, a talented Victorian architect who tended to find his five other children disappointing and a bore. Strikingly attractive – ‘they called me the beautiful Miss Osborn’ - she turned down a number of marriage proposals, then one evening, at a ball in Greenwich, she danced with a Russian duke (‘Russian dukes,’ said my grandfather, ‘are ten-a-penny’). That night the Russian, a cadet from the Royal Naval College, saw her home, and so began a story that seems eventually to have resulted in me. Three or four years after that first meeting my grandparents died within months of each other, and as life turned upside down M found herself marrying a widower old enough to be her father. Arthur Crowe came from a solid Norfolk family, a race of merchants, lawyers and clergymen, but he had been born with a congenital heart defect and perhaps because of this had squandered money, got into various difficulties and quarreled with his relations. He had a fine singing voice, and had sung in the choir of Norwich Cathedral. He also possessed striking blue eyes and white-blonde hair, and he was ‘a gentleman’. On the basis of these slender credentials his proposal was accepted, and the marriage took place at St. Alphege’s Church, Greenwich. The bride, still in mourning for her father, went to her wedding clad in unrelieved black, and as they left the church she apparently longed to tear the ring from her finger and throw it away. I have no details because on this one subject my mother was always vague, but a year or so later the young Russian put in a brief re-appearance and it’s then that the mischief, as it were, seems to have been done. Looking at my black hair and slightly slanting eyes, a doctor once asked M if her husband had connections in the East, and years later an Army officer observed that every time he looked at me he thought about the Uplands of Shan. Though I love England, I have to say I have never really feltEnglish, and on the whole I have what might be termed a Russian temperament. But M never even told me the name of her Russian, and it would be hard to trace him. So I have let him go.
Several weeks before her baby was due, M walked out and went to stay with one of her brothers. When I was a month or two old the couple seem to have got together again, but their re-union did not last long. For one thing there was not - never had been - any kind of physical relationship between them. There must have been some feeling, on one side at least, and given a chance the marriage might have worked as such marriages often do, but on top of everything else Arthur Crowe had begun to drink heavily. When he was in a bad temper his years in the choir came back to him, and he sang hymns, predominantly Fight the Good Fight. . . not the stuff of mental cruelty, perhaps, but in the circumstances it can’t have helped. I know that my supposed father did take some interest in my existence. He chose my first name, Ida - because it would be difficult to shorten - and on one occasion is said to have remarked that he ‘wished I loved him too’, a tragic observation or a self-pitying one, depending on the way you look at things.
When I was about six months old my mother finally left, taking me with her. Her Old English Sheepdog was also in the party - whatever else she might have decided to leave behind, it wouldn't have been the dog - and that night the three of us stayed at a small lodging house. To deter the dog from attempting to join us on our bed, M tethered it to a wash-stand which it proceeded to drag about all night, but in the morning we sorted ourselves out and went to stay with my Aunt Dolly, who lived in Lewisham. Aunt Dolly had a little boy, Reggie, who was four years older than I was, and for more than half a century Reggie was to be my best friend in the world.
We all lived together for several years, and on the whole it was an arrangement that worked. Aunt Dolly's husband, a musician, had died before their son’s birth and she had been obliged to cope by producing fine woollens for a top London department store - my grandfather, a free-spending dilettante, had left little or nothing to anybody. With M looking after the house and the children things probably worked fairly well, but money was always tight and both sisters were tortured by worry. If she hadn't been burdened by me M might have done all sorts of things, but I existed and had to be put first. And then a possibility seems to have arisen. It wasn’t something M will have relished, in fact it must have caused her a lot of distress, but at that particular moment it may have seemed like the best option available, at least from my point of view. On an April morning, soon after my fifth birthday, I found myself being put into a railway carriage and sent to stay with one of M's wealthy Osborn cousins, a person known as Uncle Bertie.
Uncle Bertie lived near the Surrey town of Weybridge. He had a wife and three sons, and together they occupied a large, sumptuously furnished house which was surrounded by lawns and tennis courts. To me this stockbrokerish splendour was mystifying, and I couldn't have felt more confused if I had found myself in the City of Oz. There was a nursery, and an elderly nurse called Louie who was expected to look after me. Uncle Bertie's wife, Aunt Ginny, was kind enough in an abstracted sort of way, but she had nothing whatsoever to do with my everyday well-being, and most of the time I wandered about the house like a lost sprite, wondering forlornly if I would ever get out of this prison and find my way home again. Feeling Aunt Ginny might just possibly be the person to approach about this I followed her one day to the doorway of her bedroom, but she didn't seem to notice me and I hadn’t the courage to speak. I can see that bedroom now - lavender coloured curtains drifting in the breeze from an open window, and a vast dressing table smothered with pretty bottles. I liked that room, despite my distress, and many years later I put it into a book.
April passed, and May. Soon it was summer, and one day the boys, whom I had always viewed with suspicion, were ordered to take me out on the river. This they interpreted as an instruction to let me follow them on to a boat. As we set out my spirits were lifted, a little, by the fact that I was wearing a rather nice straw hat - something M had acquired for me - but as I sat in the stern of the boat a river breeze whipped the hat from my head and I was forced to watch as it drifted away behind us, bobbing on the water like a demented duck. I never mentioned this incident to anyone, and I’m not sure anyone mentioned it to me. It just seemed to be one of those things. Life was something that happened to you, and there was nothing you could do about it.
Then something positive intervened, a miracle, in fact. My mother arrived. Speechless with joy, I imagined we would be leaving immediately, and was disappointed to find she intended to stay for a night or two. She was there, though, and that meant I could put up with anything. I didn't realise I would not be going away with her, not until she was just about to leave, and even then I didn’t display my torment; but that night I was violently sick. Through a blur of misery I saw Louie fussing round me - they even called Aunt Ginny. By the next day, however, I had got myself together again. I existed through the rest of the summer, until one day I stood silently in the doorway of Aunt Ginny's bedroom, watching as she checked through a stack of small garments - dresses and skirts and socks and underwear, all designed to fit a little girl just my size. Absently, I wondered who all these things could be intended for. Not that I really cared. Then suddenly M came back again. This time she stayed just one night, and when she left I went with her.
Of course, I was to have been adopted. Aunt Ginny wanted a daughter, and tormented by the belief that I would be ‘better off’, my mother had sent me to Weybridge for a trial visit. Arriving after an interval to find out how I was settling in she had decided, sadly, that I seemed content. It had been a moment of grave danger, but mercifully in the end she had not felt able to part with me. Not till years later did I understand how close I had come to the abyss.
Anyway, it was over now and a new solution had been discovered. Aunt Dolly had a brother-in-law, a widower who needed someone to look after him. He was prepared to pay, though not a great deal, and could offer a comfortable home in nearby Lee Green, which was a sort of suburban village close to the edge of open countryside. He didn’t object to me, and from the start my mother knew she could not afford to refuse his offer, but there was one significant drawback. Because ‘Uncle George’, as I was told to call him, was not a blood relation, and because his dwelling was too small to provide separate quarters for a housekeeper, there were certain to be raised eyebrows. For a woman as sensitive as M this can't have been easy to accept, but she had already discovered that life is rarely easy; so she gritted her teeth and we moved in with Uncle George.
I began attending the nearby school, and life settled down to a pattern. M was an excellent cook and she had also discovered an aptitude for looking after people - if she had been stronger physically she would have chosen to become a nurse. Soon she was known as someone who could always be turned to in a crisis, particularly when a sick child was involved. Looking back, I can never quite understand how she coped, especially as that year, and the three or four that followed, must have been difficult for a whole variety of reasons. For one thing she was still a very attractive woman, and there isn’t much doubt that Uncle George was aware of the fact. She could not have married him, even if she had wanted to do so, because she was already married and divorce was out of the question, but it’s fairly certain this impasse did not prevent him from getting ideas. One evening I was lifted out of my warm bed, dressed and bundled downstairs into a street filled with cold, brilliant moonlight. For perhaps half an hour or so my mother and I walked up and down. Then we went home, and I was put to bed. Nothing of the kind ever happened again.
And I was happy. School, even, was all right, if one set aside the fact that I didn't quite understand what I was supposed to be doing there. I never seemed to learn much and nobody noticed me either, not that I minded that part, I just wanted to keep my head down and avoid attention. After a time I did begin making one or two friends, but I didn’t want to get involved in things, not in the way that other girls did. I didn’t belong, and that being the case had no particular interest in following the local customs.
When I was out, alone, I stared up at the sky and the scudding clouds and I ran, faster and faster, usually until I fell over. On summer mornings I sat among the waist high sorrel in the field beyond the railway line, all alone with my thoughts and a bottle of home-made lemonade, and on summer evenings I leaned out of my bedroom window, watching the stars until the lamp-lighter came. I liked the stars better than the moon. They were such a long way away, nothing to do with earth, and when the sky was clear they shed just enough light to steep everything in mystery. I thought it would be fun to travel by starlight, but you had to be grown-up before you could do things like that. After I had gone to bed I frequently lay awake, weaving a story in my mind, a serial story in which I was the central character. In this other life I had an older brother, a dashing Army officer who spoiled me and kept an eye on me. Somewhere I had a father, I knew that, so I didn't need to invent one of those. Anyway, you couldn't depend on fathers. They had a habit of going away and not coming back. What I needed was a brother, someone on whom I could always rely. Who wouldn't disappear without trace.
Aunt Dolly, who had gone into private nursing, came to see us a lot and by this time I was firm friends with Reggie, who treated me like a younger sister, which helped me to regain a feeling of stability. But it was to be a long time before I could see my mother go out of the house, without me, and not feel uneasy. The memory of that uneasiness is with me to this day, and the fear of being alone.
Meanwhile, things were happening in the world. In 1914 a war had started and for those who were grown up nothing was ever going to seem quite the same again. The dreamy world of my mother’s youth was on the point of disappearing forever. It was a different kind of war, too. For the first time, people in or near London stood a chance of looking up and seeing the enemy’s airborne weaponry – doodlebugs – lumbering above their heads. I don’t remember picking up any sense of fear or panic, but I do recall the police officers who cycled through our streets shouting ‘take cover’, and – oh, yes, the female neighbour, a glamorous lady who shopped in the West End, fainting dead away and requiring to be resuscitated by my exasperated mother. Where there was sadness, and there must have been a good deal, I think it was expressed mainly through silence. One of M’s nephews had enlisted at the age of fifteen – lying about his age – and with his regiment had been sent to what is now Israel, where he was killed outside the gates of Jerusalem. After the war was over, his mother travelled to visit his grave. Not once, but three times.
My most vivid memory is of an evening in January 1917. Reggie and I had been sent to collect something from a shop, down near the river. I don’t know what we were collecting, but I do know that as we turned to leave the shop something happened. A blind that had been covering the window suddenly shot up, and there was an earth-shattering explosion. Outside the sky seemed to catch fire. We rushed out into eerie brightness, only to find no-one about. . . Just silence. Slowly the world began steadying again, and we heard some running footsteps, shouts and cries. We didn’t run, though, we just walked rather quickly, Reggie keeping a firm hold of my hand, and when we got close to my home M came rushing to meet us. Panic stricken, she had left the house without pausing to grab a coat.
At the time many people seem to have imagined there had been some kind of enemy attack, but the truth was almost worse. At Silverstone on the northern bank of the Thames, an emergency munitions plant had been set up. Housed in what seems to have been an inadequate structure it was probably an accident waiting to happen, and that night several van loads of TNT had caught fire, triggering what is still described as the worst explosion ever to occur in the London area. Seventy thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed, seventy-three lives lost. While every death was obviously a tragedy, the toll would have been much higher had it not been for one miraculous factor - the explosion happened just before seven pm, a time when most day workers had left, while the night shift had yet to arrive.
The Silverstone explosion was heard as far away as Southampton on the Channel coast. Reggie and I had been no more than five miles from its centre. I can’t say it has ever haunted my dreams, but sometimes at the height of a thunderstorm – just for a second or two - I am back in that January night, with the river smell in my nostrils and the earth catching fire around me.
I was fairly healthy - too healthy, in my opinion, other people got far more time off school - but I grew with painful slowness and was also subject to occasional blackouts, incidents that must have been terrifying for M, though they didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on me. Our doctor was sure I would grow out of these phenomena, and by the time I was twelve he had been proved right. There is an accepted medical explanation for such attacks, but in my case I can’t help feeling they must have had something to do with the attempt that had once been made to suffocate me (all my life I have suffered from an extreme form of claustrophobia).
Though my school career was undistinguished, I had no difficulty in learning to read. The only problem was, I didn’t want to do any reading. My mother, a voracious bookworm, found this disappointing and efforts were made to obtain books that might catch my imagination, but nothing seemed to work. It was as if I had been placed in front of a brand new computer and shown how to operate it, but someone had forgotten to turn the power on, then one day, I think it was raining, I picked up a grown-up novel set in the old West of America, and the power came on. That book was very long, but I hardly put it down until every word had been digested, and I knew I had discovered something of huge importance. Books were a bridge to that other world I had always known existed but hadn’t been able to reach; and they were also something I didn't have to share with anyone else. It struck me that writing books and stories must be a wonderful way of holding on to all those things that otherwise slipped away from you, and I even tried it. Just a few lines at first, the beginning of what was supposed to be a story, then I got through a page or two and M was impressed. At school, I won an award for composition. Considering I was getting quite a bit of practice this probably wasn’t surprising, but I remember being astonished, at the time.
I had one or two friends and there was always my cousin, but generally speaking the people I trusted, felt closest to, were usually adults. They stood around me like a guardian circle: my mother, Aunt Dolly, my Sunday School teachers. And Uncle George's family. Uncle George had a brother and three sisters who lived together a short distance away from us. The sisters were middle-aged spinsters, a species that has since died out. They were also civilised, carefully educated women. One had a trained soprano voice, another was an accomplished pianist, the third produced exquisite needlework, and when they weren’t doing anything else they all cooked and baked and preserved, filling their small house with delectable scents. They were pillars of the Church, but this did not mean they were narrow-minded or dry or humourless. They were endlessly kind to me, and they were extremely fond of M, whose position worried them. We often went to see them on Sunday evenings. Even in those days most people of my age would have been bored out of their minds, but I adored those visits. It wasn’t just the home-made sweets, the pots of strawberry jam or the shilling coins wrapped in tissue paper – ‘I expect you can find a use for this’ - though all were acceptable. There was a kind of tranquillity in that house, and there was music, and I craved both of these things.
There was something else, as well. Uncle George’s brother, Will Savage, was away a lot on business and for this reason it was probably some time before he and I got to know one another, but eventually an extraordinary friendship developed between us. Will had read a very great deal, so much that it sometimes seemed there was nothing he had not read, and he was in the habit of going to concerts and the opera. He had travelled all over Europe, and spoke a number of languages. And he talked to me.
Normally tongue-tied and inhibited, I always relaxed with Will, and I don’t suppose there were many things we never thought about discussing. We went for long walks through Blackheath, making our way along streets with magic names - Blessington Park, Grey Ladies, Love Lane - before cutting across the heath itself, and all the time we talked. About the Alps, which he loved, about China which interested him, about the rival merits of Wagner and Rossini, who otherwise wouldn’t have been much more than names as far as I was concerned. He was a bachelor in his forties and I was just coming into my teens. It was an odd relationship and some people might say it was undesirable, but those walks and those discussions were absolutely innocent. They gave me an understanding of the world and a large store of knowledge - as I struggled to dredge readable stories out of my restless imagination, it could be an enormous help to know what the sunset really looked like from a Swiss mountainside. And that wasn't all. Because Will took an interest in me, I began to believe in myself. Of course my mother had always tried to give me confidence, but she was my mother. ‘Uncle’ Will represented the great, sophisticated world, and he thought that I was worth something. I owe him a lot, for that.
Slipping into the muddy waters of my teens I could have begun to experience problems, but so far as I can recall there was nothing traumatic. For one thing I wasn't particularly interested in the opposite sex, not, at least, in the specimens I saw around me. I knew there were attractive men in the world because they turned up in books, and because my mother talked about them - though it had always been impressed upon me that men in general were to be treated with caution. They might, sometimes, be glamorous, romantic, interesting, even admirable, but they were at the mercy of their own baser instincts, and not to be trusted an inch. Weighing this up in my mind I decided there could be a touch of exaggeration involved, but on the other hand M’s view of most things tended to be reliable. Anyway, I just hadn't encountered any really interesting men, and so far as I was concerned boys of my own age didn't exist. One day, when time had removed their acne, they might, I supposed, turn into something more or less civilised, but looking at one or two I couldn’t really imagine such a metamorphosis occurring. I loved my cousin, of course, but then he was my cousin, and that was something else again.
Just once, I remember wondering whether life would ever change, panicking because there was so much I wanted to do and see and I couldn’t imagine any of it happening. Most of the time, though, I was content to wait for the future. And change wasn’t long in coming.
When I was fifteen years old an important bank ran into difficulties, and Uncle George was affected. He lost his home, his business, his money and his way of life. I witnessed no scenes of panic, nor did I hear talk of breakdowns or whispers of suicide. I knew that my mother looked anxious, and sometimes I heard long, murmurous discussions; but none of it affected me. Not, at least, until the house was sold. . . then to my inexpressible delight I learned we were moving down to Hastings, which was said to be on the Sussex coast. Uncle George’s family, it seemed, were helping him to buy a property in this enticing place. On a cool, bright spring day we left Lee Green and moved down into Sussex. I don’t believe my mother’s relationship with Uncle George had ever changed dramatically, but by this time we seemed like a family, and like a family we settled into our new home.
Our house was one of a cluster that huddled together near Emmanuel Church, just above the town and quite close to a strip of open cliff-top. The cliff top was a miraculous expanse of tussocky grass and scented thyme and just beyond, moody and challenging, was the cold, bright, restless Channel. I had never been near the sea before, I didn’t know its smell or its feel, but now I made up for lost time. I spent hours hanging round the lonely ruins of Hastings castle, and more hours just staring at that sea. At last, I was on the edge of Life.
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