Buckle Up

Chapter 12 — The Allahakbarries v Caravaggio

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” — Virginia Woolf

The view through the semi-transparent envelope of my early childhood was of the Hundred Acre Wood with Owl’s House in the foreground. The path that led to Piglet’s House lay to the left of Owl’s tree. The path on the right led to Pooh Bear’s House and ended at Toad Hall where, through the pantry window, you might catch a glimpse of Jeeves pouring himself a stiffening sherry. If you took the path beyond Tigger’s House at the northern verge of the wood you would find Alice sitting fast asleep in the shade of an oak. A book without pictures or conversation would by lying open on her lap.

You tiptoe around her, taking care to avoid the rabbit holes. A wooden stile in a hedgerow of hawthorn and asphodel looks down on a maze of green meadows. An avenue of poplars leads you to a broad stream where you stop to listen unobserved as three men on the opposite bank argue about the ingredients of Irish stew, their little boat moored to a willow against the gentle current. At the water’s edge below your feet, Rat is teaching Mole the ways of the river.

You follow the course of the stream through glades of chestnuts. Its shimmering surface turns green, grey and greasy under the shade of giant fig and fever trees. Sudden squeals of alarm arrest your attention. In the shallow waters a baby elephant is struggling to extricate its trunk from the vice of a crocodile’s jaws. The distant report of a shotgun echoes off the granite walls of the ravine. A rabbit in a blue jacket dashes into the undergrowth.

The vista widens. The sky darkens. Time shifts and loosens. Swords clash in the riparian shadows where white knights save distressed damsels from ghouls and dragons. The Mary Celeste drifts on the tide of a swollen estuary, a ghostly silhouette against the gas-lit fog of a sleeping city where a mischievous shadow dances among the chimneypots. A woman’s muffled cry is followed by the sound of hasty footsteps on a cobbled street. The chimes of Big Ben are swallowed in the yaw of the night.

The remarkable thing about these creatures and creations isn’t that a toad should drive a car or that a shadow should detach itself from its owner. The remarkable thing is how familiar they are to so many of us — how conclusively, how comprehensively and how steadfastly they have colonised the dreams and imaginations of the descendants of that generation of boys and girls who first heard those stories in the few years between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the Great War in 1914.

My Plymouth-born maternal grandmother, Fanny Phillippa Kingwell, was one of those Edwardian children. She passed them on to her Durban-born daughters. My mother passed them on to us, apparently without modification or amendment. She read the same stories to her grandchildren on their visits to the farm, but this time with a tape recorder running. And now there is a fifth generation listening agog to their great grandmother’s voice as she tells them all over again.

I remember seeing Fanny Kingwell only once, and that was from a distance. I would have been four or five, and she would have died within the year. There was an unfamiliar car parked at the centre of the great lawn of New Dell. That was strange in itself. Cars were supposed to be parked under the holly. I think it was black. I don’t know if it was an arrival or a departure, but there was something stately and formal about the whole affair, as if we had been honoured by the visit of a royal. I recall only her outline against the small retinue of family members who had gathered to welcome her or to see her off. It was regal and dignified, and it merged later into the shape of the statue of Queen Victoria that stood opposite the Pietermaritzburg City Hall.

I have the combined memories of my sister Debby and my cousin Julia to thank for fleshing out the Fanny Kingwell I was too young to appreciate. I knew only that she had met my grandfather Benjamin Smith while he was recuperating in Plymouth after being injured in Flanders, that he had brought her back to Durban when the war ended to live at 32 Kildare Road, that he had worked from nine to five as an agent at the British India Shipping Line, and that he was an avid follower of football and cricket.

Now I know that he had adored Fanny beyond distraction, and I have a sense of why.

Born at the end of the 19th century into the financially straitened circumstances of a very middle class family on the south coast of Devon, Fanny must have developed her fine bearing in her early teens. She sacrificed her education to supplement their income, taking a job in the millinery section of a department store as a so-called “house model” to parade for the viewing pleasure of the good ladies of Plymouth the latest thing in hats, handbags and fashionwear from London, Paris and beyond.

She was a quick learner and an avid reader. She turned her self-taught seamstress skills to the profitable production of men’s tailored suits and ladies garments in the prevailing pre-war style. And she turned her love of fin-de-siècle literature to enriching the Edwardian lexicon of quotes, proverbs and phrases she was to pass on through her two daughters, my mother Rosemary and Julia’s mother, my wonderful Aunt Monica.

She appears as something of a dreamer: somewhat remote, somewhat eccentric; her thumb in a thimble, her head in the clouds. She drew three books a week from the Durban City Library: a classic, a contemporary novel and a play. Her time at Messrs Spooner and Company had given her an eye for fashion and a taste for fine things. In Durban the serial fantasist became a serial collector. At house sales and auctions she picked up the scraps of fine fabric and the porcelain, silver and antique period furniture that were to grace her daughters’ homes of New Dell in the Midlands and Thornhill in the heart of Zululand.

From her my mother and Monica learned to say, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses”, “When the wine’s in, the wit’s out” and “As happy as a lark in spring”.

But that her aspirations were distinctly those of an Edwardian middle class striving for the accoutrements of the class above them while struggling to put their lower class associations behind them is revealingly borne out by another of her sayings, “A tear is the misfortune of the day; a darn is the essence of poverty.”

This is the way life becomes fiction and fiction becomes life:

I was beginning to assemble Debby’s and Julia’s memories into this sketch of Fanny Kingwell when I happened to bump into her outside a drapery store in a seaside town on the south coast of England.

It was a Sunday afternoon in 1905, and she was walking to the pier alongside an awkward young man with embarrassingly sparse whiskers.

“It was one of the young ladies in the costume-room who first showed by her manner that he was a visible object and capable of exciting interest. She talked to him, she encouraged him to talk to her, she lent him a book she possessed, and darned a sock for him, and said she would be his elder sister. She allowed him to escort her to church with a great air of having induced him to go. Then she investigated his eternal welfare, overcame a certain affectation of virile indifference to religion, and extorted a promise that he would undergo ‘confirmation.’ This excited the other young lady in the costumes, her natural rival, and she set herself with great charm and subtlety to the capture of the ripening heart of Kipps. She took a more worldly line. She went for a walk with him to the pier on Sunday afternoon, and explained to him how a gentleman must always walk ‘outside’ a lady on a pavement, and how all gentlemen wore, or at least carried gloves, and generally the broad beginnings of the British social ideal. Afterwards the ladies exchanged ‘words,’ upon Sabbatical grounds. In this way was the toga virilis bestowed on Kipps, and he became recognised as a suitable object for that Platonic Eros whose blunted darts devastate even the very highest-class establishments. In this way, too, did that pervading ambition of the British young man to be, if not a ‘gentleman,’ at least mistakably like one, take root in his heart.”

H.G. Wells doesn’t provide us with the name of “the other young lady in costumes”, but I know that it’s Fanny Kingwell, and that she will soon tire of the awkward Kipps, and in ten years’ time she will meet a handsome South African soldier recently wounded in Flanders. Benjamin Smith will adore her forever, and the luminous halo of her childhood will become the luminous halo of mine.

But at the end of that passage I bumped into myself too. Because I was once a young man with a pervading ambition to acquire the outward qualities of the English gentleman my father was too much of a gentleman to affect.

The remarkable thing about all this isn’t that I was reading the same books in Natal in the 1950s that she was reading in Plymouth in the early years of the 20th century. Surrounded by the turbulence of the South African politics of the day it’s little wonder that my mother turned to the certainties of her mother’s literary legacy to reassure her children of the calm continuity of English culture and English values. Nor is it impossible for the rogue family gene that made a serial fantasist of Fanny to have skipped a generation to express itself once again in the third son of her eldest daughter.

What is remarkable is that all of the authors and illustrators of the fictional world that so dominated my early thoughts and fantasies were close contemporaries, producing their most notable work in the last decade of the 19th century.

What is astonishing is that nine of them played for the same cricket team.

Active from 1890 to 1913, the Allahakbarries was an amateur cricket team founded by the creator of Peter Pan. It included, not necessarily in batting order, the creators of Mowgli, Jeeves, Winnie-the-Pooh, Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown, the authors of The Time Machine and Three Men in a Boat, the men who inspired Detective Poirot, Raffles and Eeyore, a Punch cartoonist, the first cousin of Daphne du Maurier, the son of Alfred Tennyson, and the illustrator of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books that so captured the imagination of children throughout Britain and the Empire in the 1880s and 1890s.

Only Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and Lewis Carroll never made the cut, but I can see the three of them reclining on the grass around a picnic hamper in a patch of shade on the square-leg boundary.

An uncomfortable footnote to the story of the Allahakbarries is that J.M. Barrie named his team in the mistaken belief that Allah Akbar meant “Heaven help us” in Arabic.

There were other influences of course, less reassuring and less propitious: the stories of the Brothers Grimm were woven through the same tapestry in darker threads; Bambi, Snow White and Pinocchio blazed briefly in terrifying Technicolor before receding into the deep shade of an unenchanted forest.

But the overall effect on the beginning of my consciousness was of an English village where awfully nice people did awfully nice things with an awfully wry sense of humour; where dog roses in an English country garden climbed the casements of an English cottage in which the only signs of exotic adventure were a pith helmet on a mahogany hat stand in the hallway and a waste basket made of an elephant’s foot in the pater’s oak-panelled study. And the abiding feeling of it, the luminous halo that surrounded it, was of a simple beauty and a refined intelligence — the “sweetness and light” that Matthew Arnold described as the two components of a culture of excellence.

I hinted at this earlier, and it’s a theme I will develop further, but the essence of my present disillusion, the animus beneath all this analysis, lies in the difference between my susceptibility to the world view of a tiny elite of 19th century authors and Bruce’s unapologetic dismissal of it — in why they had made such a profound and lasting impression on me when only one of them had made any kind of impression on him.

At the age of fifteen he designed a pen and ink copy of Rudyard Kipling’s If in self-taught calligraphy, decorated it in watercolour, and framed it to stand on the bathroom windowsill above the basin in our cottage behind the farmhouse at Drakesleigh.

Where I was one of Wells’s very little boys filling my head with silly ideas about my Englishness, he was Kipling’s emergent Man filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”. Even then he was treating the two impostors Triumph and Disaster with equal disdain, steeling himself against the hurt of both foes and loving friends, and above all, never looking too good nor talking too wise.

If was Bruce’s manifesto against pomposity; his incantation against sententiousness and cant. And when I brushed my teeth I tried hard to believe it wasn’t pointed at me.

He never discussed it, he never tried to explain it, and he never quoted from it. Bruce didn’t need quotes because his pencil and his paintbrush spoke more eloquently than any arrangement of words. In another family in another culture at another time he might have fulfilled the promise of his immense talent. He had the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, the craft of Albrecht Dürer and the sensitivity of Vermeer.

I was being unfair when I said he wasn’t much of a reader. The truth is there were only six books on the farm that inspired his interest. Five of them were from the same series, the remains of what must have been a comprehensive collection called something like The Great Artists of the Western World. Each book was devoted to a single artist, the explanatory text on the left facing full colour plates of the artist’s work on the right.

My mother wasn’t interested in art beyond the not unskilful heirlooms of still-life oils passed down by the Smith side of the family. My father was interested in the art that interested my mother. So I assume Fanny must have come across the original collection at an auction, and her budget had constrained her to choose only the few favourites she could afford. But what will remain a mystery forever is why, alongside Degas, Monet, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, she had picked out the 15th century’s Paolo Uccello.

Bruce devoured them, and he made me an attentive witness to his feast. He said Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters were better than his paintings, and his posters weren’t that good. He told me that Degas’ ballet scenes were too pretty to be important but that I needed to admire his treatment of light. I have a specific memory of Bruce pointing out a bright lilac brushstroke that made the shadow on a dancer’s stockinged calf. I was thrilled by how thrilled he was.

He told me that Manet was a better painter than Monet, but that the painting of Monet’s called The Avenue was better than anything Manet every painted. I had no reason to disagree with him and I wouldn’t have if I did.

When he told me to take special note of the way Uccello had foreshortened his horses I nodded thoughtfully.

But the book that obsessed him was the 10th edition of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art which, six editions later, still starts with those famously abrupt statements: “There is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”

I have it open in front of me now. There are two images side by side at the top of page 13. They are black and white reproductions of two paintings by Caravaggio. The detail is poor. There is a background smell of linseed oil and pig manure. The shadow of a spine sways across the page 12. Bruce is telling me to look at them. He has covered the annotation with a wooden ruler so I can’t cheat. I look at them. What do you see? I see an old man writing in a book. An angel is helping him. What’s the difference? The angel on the left is guiding the old man’s hand. The angel on the right seems to be telling him something. That’s it? The man on the left has a black beard. The man on the right has a white beard. You’re not looking at them. The angel on the left is standing on the floor. The angel on the right is flying. He picks up the ruler and I think he’s going to smack me with it. You don’t know how to look.

In 1598 Caravaggio is commissioned to paint a picture of St Matthew for the altar of a church in Rome. The saint is to be pictured writing his gospel with the help of an angel to demonstrate that he isn’t making it up as he goes along.

Caravaggio paints a balding peasant with dirty feet “awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing.” The angel has to guide his hand like a patient teacher.

The church is scandalised. The painting is disrespectful and entirely unacceptable.

Two years later Caravaggio comes back with the client version. St Matthew has been dressed in white robes and given a dignified white beard and clean feet. The angel hovers over his left shoulder. St Matthew looks mildly annoyed at having to accept the angel’s advice.

The church is pleased.

It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what Gombrich meant by those first two sentences. I see now that I’ve always clung to a conception of Art as the mysterious source of some redemptive power, as if only Art in its purest manifestation could bestow meaning on the objectless trivialities of this contingent world. It’s the kind of superstition, as Wells said, that burned witches in the 17th century. It’s the kind of belief that dooms you to a life a constant outrage — because anger is always the consequence of hope frustrated.

Bruce had no such hopes and no such illusions. There was no semi-transparent envelope to obscure his view of the world, and there was no luminous halo to light his way. He was an artist who cared nothing for Art.

Bruce’s daughter, my wonderful niece Lizzie and an accomplished artist in her own right, seems to have divined my frustrations from the other end of the planet. I was deep into the fifth or sixth of these chapters when I saw this message from her on the family WhatsApp group:

“Last night I dreamt that Gor made all the cousins try to paint his dream. It was something about the look of the ocean we had to get just right. We tried all styles, from Impressionism to Contemporary, etc. Nothing was pleasing him.”

And there was Bruce’s voice again, but in softer, gentler tones, speaking to me from 1967, chiding me for making dreams my master and for making thoughts my aim; urging me to see the world the way the artist sees it, with clear unblinking eyes, in all its imperfect beauty.

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