I was, I suppose
I was, I suppose, a most pretentious lad. Soon, when I reached the University of Oxford, this pretentiousness would be in full flower. Quite strongly influenced by what I was reading at the time, I felt able to write to a friend; ‘You say that you envy my happiness. Yes, I am happy. But if only, oh, if only I could have your belief in a future life, for that I would give you all my joy. My happiness is like the old and famed Greek blitheness, and what is that blitheness but a pathetic and tragic striving to do and be all things before it is too late?
‘And sometimes it seems to me now as if the old Pagan joy is only a despair, a false joy. It is for us who cannot believe in anything else to feign happiness, to tell ourselves endlessly that this is the only life for us to make what we will of it. And God knows make poor enough use, most of us. If it were the privilege of each of us to design our own heaven, mine would be a place where feeling, sensation, would be real and lasting, instead of existing only like flashes of light in a night of cloud and mist.’
I detect the influence of Walter Pater, amongst others, on my journals of this period. ‘The time of mists is come,’ I wrote, ‘a great cloud white as lime lies over the country, the mist whitens the fields, isolating trees and buildings. This great house through which I wander is hemmed in away from the rest of the world. I feel lonely. The silent rooms cry for music, the lawns and trees cry for colour and people, these floors and these couches for visitors, and these books, in their leather volumes, for readers.
‘Yesterday I went through blowing clouds and mists to a hill top, stormy, dour, and the weather hurled tattered pieces of mist at me. I sat on an out-jutting rock in the face of the rain and on an antique pipe played wild music for the elements, and for the ponies and sheep that wandered in the bracken that clustered below the jumble of fallen stones.’
Though much of all this was based on reality, some was fantasy and I find it hard at this later date to disentangle which was which; ‘On the lake in a boat we cut the cold waters in a tempest, among islands hung with mist; and you the only warm colour, so utterly warm above the black water, sitting with me in the bottom of the boat. The halyard stiffened and the sails braced and the dark waters came over the gunwale. And the trees on the shore leaned themselves to a frenzy as if they envied us. Then, on the bed, beneath the garret-roof, while the storm outside lifted tiles and dashed straw and leaves across the lawns, we lay together.’
Who was this ‘you’ lying with me in the boat, and did they really exist? This was a question which I believe troubled my mother when she surreptitiously read my journals, as I now believe she did. Since she had read them secretly, she could not confront me directly about the identity, or lack of identity, of the people I wrote about in it. There was one of the maids that my parents still employed at this time, with whom I had secret meetings. Gwen was enthusiastic about my endeavours and, I believe, about me, although her feet were placed more firmly on the earth than mine and she sometimes, understandably, became confused when I enthused on such subjects as the importance of burning with a gem-like flame. On our first outing she told me of a conversation she had with Judith, another maid. ‘I fancy Master Jeremy,’ said Gwen. ‘No hope there, he’s queer,’ said Judith, and then added, ‘Well, if you look at him with a smile like the one you just looked at me with, perhaps you’ll prove me wrong on that one.’
I would light candles in the attic room with dormer windows where I used to meet her. She had red hair and freckles. Looking back on those days, I remember the view of the church tower, twenty yards or so away through the window. I remember the huffing and hooting wind outside, snug memories enacted on the stark black painted bedstead that creaked and wheezed.
Sometimes I went, on horse back, to meetings with her in the woods around Croft Castle or by the lakes there. Gwen travelled, by a different route, on her bicycle. At a place we called the Haunted House we climbed to the top of the hay in a barn and looked out at a dark lake that glinted outside it, and the woods, and the distant hills. Beyond this, we’d climb through groves of stunted trees to Croft Ambry’s grassy summit whence you could see, beneath a veil of mist, the Black Mountains, and dark frisky horses galloped up sometimes from the valley to investigate us.
In the exotically bound volume that I used as a journal at this time, I wrote; ‘This afternoon I lie beneath the darkening renaissance ceiling, fingering the strings of a mandolin. That old ash outside the window is inky black. The cows call sadly. You came in a short while ago and handled a mandolin for a moment, then went out again suddenly, like a shadow. Now I can think of nothing but you.
‘And now the bells are ringing from the church tower, they shout clamorously, imperiously. And yet they seem to me insipid and banal, these rites to which I am called by the bells on the church tower, rites of the churchyard with its plaques and tombs.
‘The bells have finished now. I rise from my bed and set out to find you. Secretly we go out to the church and climb the narrow stone staircase up the church tower. Far away lies Clee Hill, clothed in snow. We climb further, past crumbling masonry and up an iron ladder into the smaller tower. The gale comes to my face fresh and cool here and an old weathercock creaks overhead. As we climb up the last section, up into the smaller tower that is built above the larger one, part of the masonry machicolation gives a lurch and almost goes crashing down into the churchyard below. The wind is wild and Gothick. The weeping ash on the lawn underneath is like a wild thing.’
If for no other reason, I know that some of what I wrote about my life at this time was fantasy because I can recognise, or think I can recognise, passages translated and transcribed from classical authors;
‘O leave, leave the tender game before it is too late. But how can I leave it when, so many mornings at dawn, lying in your arms on the bed or on the floor, I forget everything else in the world beside the charm of your fair face?’ This is followed with a stern admonition; ‘Don’t take the lives of others from them. Don’t dabble in wantonness lest it take up all your time; or lest it destroys them.’ A knowledge of Latin which enabled me to translate such sentiments from Catullus, rather than a knowledge of life, inspired them. With hindsight I can appreciate how disturbing my mother may have found passages like these.
My parents were evidently away on another day when ‘we harnessed two horses and galloped abreast down the valley till we reached George’s plantation. The sun cast long shadows as we rode on towards the lake. Her face was flushed with exultation.’
‘She was wearing a hood with a purple lining. As we galloped thus, our legs collided sometimes as the horses came close. I had an almost unbearably keen perception of living. On we went past the lake, under oaks, out onto the hill. On along a narrow path, through the wood. I remember the picturesque effect of the young beech trees and she as if from the pages of some missal on the white pony. On we went till we could see Kimbolton Church from a neighbouring hill. But the ecstasy wasn’t repeated. That galloping abreast was the focal point of the day.
‘We rode back in darkness. The wind excited the horses and they galloped wildly beneath the ink black oaks of the park. The water of the lake was wild, agitated, and cattle scattered ahead of us.’
So steeped was I in classical literature that typical Herefordshire farm labourers turned into classical herd-boys. ‘At dawn the sun lit up the cherubs and fruit of the ceiling of my room. Starlings, curlews and rooks, a herd-boy outside calling the cows. For some time I lay beneath the green satin eiderdown, in a mist of contentment.’
I detect another influence at work in this part of my journals. That is a book called ‘Au Chateau D’Argol’, a gothick romance that I now can no longer find in my bookshelves. ‘Oh, night of perjured rest and spoilt sleep, pent agony of almost painful bliss, of bliss at dusk and at first light renewal of bliss. Oh, the flagrant invitation to worship that shines through her clear eyes, her curving lips, her parted teeth. I am almost too much alive. Sometimes when I wake at night the pulse of life through my veins, the vastness of desires to which I can give no name is overwhelming, making sleep or even thought impossible.’
The desires to which I could give no name were nothing more than common lust, tinged perhaps with a dash of romantic love. ‘I should like to grasp the whole earth in my outstretched arms, or render myself prisoner to the limitless power of the ocean. That is why storms attract me, and the riding of only half tamed horses, the feel of tree-branches swaying beneath me, the texture of sand to the foot or foam to the body.’
With a touch of complacent self-congratulation, my journal continues; ‘I am disconcerted at my own vitality. Is it that I have tasted of some forbidden fruit, miraculously kept from the taste of other folk?’
After supper with my parents in the ‘oak-panelled dining room lit by a ten-armed candelabra’ and the ‘mellowed lights from behind the panels shining up at the ceiling, the plaster wreaths and apples and pears, while in the vast grate a fire smoulders’, I did not, as they thought, go to bed. Instead, ‘climbing metal fire escapes and a drain pipe in drowning rain, at length I reached her room’.
I whispered; ‘Are you asleep?’
I climbed into bed beside her. Lying across her body in the bed I held her in my arms and for some time neither of us spoke. She seemed half asleep. I could just feel her heart beating. Then she directed at me the intense blue of her eyes and drew her breath in sharply. Her body became rigid and I felt as if time had stopped. For a moment she lay quite still.
‘How I wish you didn’t have to go away. Ever.’
‘Never mind. It won’t be too long before we’ll be together again.’
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