Do other people’s perceptions
Do other people’s perceptions ever correspond to one’s own image of oneself? I suppose that perhaps they do when one is seen through the eyes of love.
Photographs of the time show me as a shy callow ungainly youth. From my journals, without these, what would one deduce? I suppose, if they were taken at face value, some faun or satyre or even some person so infinitely radiant that their parent must have been a Goddess or God.
I sketched a portrait of what I thought I was like in a journal of that time, creating out of myself a dream person;
‘My youth was passed in that state known by decadent novels as ‘passionate purity’,’ I wrote. ‘I read avidly, walked for miles in the country, thought about myself and the stars and the heavens, and how the devil it could all have started; threw myself down on beds of bluebells, heard voices in every wind.’
So far the journal presents a picture not too far from reality. What follows owes more to the imagination; ‘The family disease which is found in no work of reference and we believe to be unique, was in me far advanced. It took the form of a pain affecting the soul rather than the body, ennui for this earth and for humanity.’
‘I grew up in surroundings different from those of most boys of my age and this seclusion accentuated the effect of so many associations connected with the house. “Be proud, proud and beautiful”, was the message flashed from the dour faces among the family portraits, as from the banners of my ancestors in the time of the crusades - ‘BEL STÖLZ et BEL’, stamped in gold on leather bindings, wreathed in silver on the tapestries.
‘Bearing all this in mind, it is surprising that I grew up into a fairly normal boy.’
I wonder how close to my parents’ true feelings was what I wrote next; ‘They did try to make me a bit more like what one expects boys to be, less self-assured, less unashamedly narcissistic. They were not too successful.’
For my descriptions of the house where I was living I drew also on the interior of Woolley Park, my cousins’ home on the downs near Wantage.
‘The library is a long faded room from whose thick carpet an amber coloured light is reflected onto the low white-pinnacled ceiling,’ I wrote. ‘Rows of leather books, stamped in gold, reflect from one to the next the glitter of candles or the glow of the evening sun when in setting it slants through the tall windows. The glass above the fireplace mirrors darkly as though through a mist or veil, and beneath it a bowl of Chinese porcelain is filled perpetually with the odour of rose leaves.
‘This afternoon, on the window-seat which overlooks the striped lawn and shaggy park, I sit, oblivious of the shadows lengthening outside, turning the vellum pages of Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’. The paper has been cropped to fit the antique binding, and the text obscured by annotations, but the tall type is still legible for the passage where the author, wandering alone through the depths of a wood, comes upon a shepherdess singing impromptu to her lover the lines;
‘My true love hath my heart and I have his,
Each in exchange is for the other given .....’
Did my real life resemble this picture in any way? One image comes back to me.
I am on my pony and my father is mounted on his big chestnut horse, Doctor Syntax. We have reined in to stop by a gate looking out over the misty countryside.
It is a special day. I will never forget that empty yearning feeling in the stomach as the hours tick away towards the moment of waving goodbye to parents at the entrance to school. I wonder if anyone who has been sent at a young age to boarding school ever completely forgets it. Later that afternoon we would pile into the battered Jaguar and I would be on my way back to the Downs School, near Colwal. I was eight.
‘It is sad that we can’t be as people were in the old testament,’ said my father, ‘with the fathers and daughters and grandfathers and grandchildren all travelling through life together towards the promised land. Unfortunately in these times it can’t be like that and you can never amount to anything in the world if you don’t go to boarding school.’
I thought to myself that the old testament way sounded nice, whereas the present way was horrible.
My father said he was reminded of how ancient knights must have felt before leaving for a crusade. He sang;
‘My charger is champing his bridle and chain,
The moment is nearing, dear heart I must leave you.’
He had himself been unhappy at school at Marlborough, a far more vicious place, when he was there, than any I experienced. I believe he never really recovered from the bullying he received there.
My sisters, Antonia and Juliet, would later be bullied at their school, Lawnside, in Malvern. Yet at that time it was believed that the children of the privileged classes must be sent away to boarding school.
‘It’s like taking a lamb to the slaughter house,’ my mother muttered as the Jaguar went all too fast down the roads to hell. She cried out, ‘Look, the Malverns,’ as we crossed Bromyard Heath, ‘Aren’t they looking lovely?’
I looked back at her glumly.
Learning, as opposed to schooling, had not been difficult. I had spent my pleasantest times with a governess my parents employed, who taught me in a grey room called the schoolroom. There was a wonderful time during which my father taught me. We sat at a round table in the great parlour and of those times I remember best a poem which had the refrain;
‘... then our songs will be heard on the echoing green.’
Another poem which I had occasion to remember with deep sorrow many years later went;
‘Four ducks on a pond,
A green bank beyond,
What a small thing
To remember for years,
To remember with tears.’
My mother complained that whenever she looked in, my father and I were not studying at all but instead sitting, overcome with laughter. It was her view that so much laughter must be hindering my proper education.
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