Uncle Patrick and The Age of Elegance
By Alan Russell
Uncle Patrick used to arrive at my grandparent’s house on a Lambretta scooter with Aunt Margaret riding pillion in the early 1960’s. Lambrettas were not a Mod vs Rocker mobile statement or even a fashion statement but a budget effective transport mode for cash strapped people in those post war years before salaries rose and the prices of family cars came down in what economists express as ‘real terms’.
If I knew they were going to be staying at the house my walk home from primary school would be more of an excited run than a leisurely walk along lanes and hedgerows in anticipation of seeing Uncle Patrick. He worked on board the passenger liners that travelled between Britain and the Far East stopping at all major ports on the way and always had stories to tell of far flung ports of call.
Each time he came home on shore leave he would give me a timetable of his next cruise. It would show a list of the ports of call. Places like Gibraltar, Alexandria, Suez, Bombay (now Mumbai), Colombo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Sydney, Wellington, Honolulu, San Francisco, Panama and then home to either Southampton or Tilbury. The timetable not only showed this list of faraway places but it showed the addresses of the shipping line’s offices where letters could be sent for passengers and crew in time for them to be delivered.
I would write to him at least once on each trip he did and then eagerly await his reply on an air mail letter with an exotic and colourful stamp on it. It wasn't the stamp I wanted but to to read of what he had seen as he travelled the world.
All the ports of call from that timetable would appear in my geography and history lessons during my secondary school years. Our only maps of the world for both lessons showed vast swathes of the six continents washed in a dark reddish pink Then they appeared again some fifty years later when the course I was studying covered international politics, globalisation and the so called ‘tiger economies’ of the Far East. And any world maps we looked at during that adult course were either monochrome or shaded in many different colours with very little reddish pink.
Quite often when they were staying at my grandparent’s house I would be invited to join Uncle Patrick and Aunt Margaret on day trips to places like Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. Patrick always took time to explain about the collections of art and military equipment. He was an ardent socialist and I remember him saying once that he resented the fact that families could amass such wealth but that without them much of our historical collections would never be on public display.
One summer his extended leave coincided with my secondary school summer holidays. He and Aunt Margaret took me for a week’s holiday with them to their house in Kent. By this time they had progressed from the Lambretta to a family saloon.
I remember walking into their home with my small suitcase and being overawed by the quantity of books. Shelves seemed to be crammed into every spare space to accommodate them replacing wall paper or magnolia wash the colour of choice in the sixties. In the dining room was a tall dark wood bookcase packed with large books on weaponry and the military. On the very top and far out of reach of a thirteen-year old were a fencing foil, with a button on it as I found out later, and a ceremonial Japanese sword in a black and shiny scabbard with pale brown inlaid patterns.
On the landing was another bookcase full of pocket books. All of them were either Penguins or Pelicans and strictly non-fiction. Uncle Patrick said I could help myself to any book to read for the holiday. I chose a Pelican history book about the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign and the Battle of Waterloo which were briefly described on the back cover. The short description of the Peninsular Campaign matched one of our set books at school; The Gun by C S Forester.
Every day of this week’s holiday was sunny.
On the first morning while Aunt Margaret did some picnic shopping in Maidstone while Uncle Patrick took me rowing on the river. It was my first trip in a row boat. While Uncle Patrick rowed and talked about the history of Maidstone I took the helm controlling the rudder to steer us upstream from where we glided back downstream to the jetty where Aunt Margaret was waiting with the supplies.
The whole of the week was planned with day trips mainly to the Cinque Ports along the south coast of England. The most impressive of these was Dover Castle where there seemed to be countless baronial halls whose huge walls were covered by hand weapons arranged in circular patterns. The question held in my school boy mind was ‘If they needed those weapons quickly, how would they get them down from the walls?’
After one long day sightseeing Patrick took me to see a movie starring Norman Wisdom in the evening. He had a very low laughter threshold and would be crying with laughter at some simple act of physical comedy. He vehemently disapproved of smut and innuendo; just pure slapstick visual comedy was the trigger for his lachrymose laughter. My laughter would come more from watching him laugh than what was happening on the screen as even at twelve or thirteen I preferred the evening suited raconteur style of Dave Allen.
When we got home that night, which was quite cold for a summer’s evening, he showed me a jar of thick black liquid with lumps about the size of dice in it. He took out one of these lumps, let the brown liquid drain from it and gave it to me to eat. I popped it into my mouth and was immediately hit by a dry spicy heat. I swallowed and felt the heat go down until it warmed me up from the inside like a wood burning stove. Sweat broke out and Patrick laughed at my condition. Once again he demonstrated his low laughter threshold but this time at my expense. He had given me fresh ginger that had been soaked in his rum ration and sugar on board ship for a couple of years in his cabin.
Regardless of where we had been during the day each one finished with a retreat into books and newspapers for all three of us after supper. The book I chose on the first Sunday was my retreat. Every night I would follow Wellington and his army across Portugal and Spain. Patrick would be engrossed in a book on weapons while Margaret would work through the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Even when I went to bed I would keep the bedside light on and continue to read about Lisbon, Zaragoza, Madrid, San Sebastian and Brussels for as long as my eyes would allow me. When I woke up in the morning and the sunshine lit my room I would pick up where I left off the previous evening; quietly reading until I could hear Margaret and Patrick get up. I did finish the book in the week. It culminated with the Battle of Waterloo and a victory ball in Brussels. At least in my memory it does but I am certain if I went back to it now the ending would be different.
I am convinced that reading this one book was the slow burning and perpetual fuse that ignited my interest in history which continues today.
Years later when I took up the pastime of hunting in bookshops for something to read I would go through the shelves of Pelican books looking for that one volume. Whenever I saw something that looked like it I would skim the synopsis on the back cover but nothing I found sparked the flame of recognition and interest. Even when I went to Patrick and Margaret’s, so called as I had reached the age where prefixing Christian names with ‘Aunt’ or ‘Uncle’ was not necessary, house as an adult I would scour the book shelves in the hope of finding that one volume but without success. Then in one of those unexpected turns in life I found it.
I held it in my hand, flicked through the pages and recognised some of the words instantly. Almost like seeing entirely randomly a long lost friend across a crowded street or station. I considered buying it and then decided not to. I had found the book and saw the title. That was all I wanted, just to know the title. It was the hunt I had enjoyed and the book having been so elusive, like the hunter's quarry, I decided to 'give it best'. I put it back on the shelf for someone else to buy, to own , enjoy build memories on.
The book was ‘The Age of Elegance’ by Arthur Bryant.