We had lived ever since I was nine years old in the upper storey of a Victorian house, a short walk away from my new place, in Carlton Hill: literary associations there are worth a mention. I never asked how this absurdly cheap accommodation had been negotiated but I suspect it was through my aunt Pamela Frankau. The house belonged to Rebecca West’s son Anthony, dwelling on the ground and first floors, keen I dare say, to supplement an income supporting a wife, Kitty, and two children, Edmund and Caroline. Pamela had been a source of great comfort to Anthony ever since schooldays at Stowe when the illegitimate son had been shuttled back and forth between mother and father, H.G. Wells, a lover by then sent about his business. Anthony was later, to Rebecca’s displeasure, to portray her maternal neglect and autocracy in his novel, Heritage. Rebecca complained to Pamela about this, as she saw it, gratuitous spite, to which Pamela replied, attuned to her friend’s constitutional viperishness: ‘All they that take the pen shall perish by the pen.’
The Wests’ offbeat, almost hippie ménage – writing, painting, children running wild – was completed by the presence in the basement of an unmarried couple, Richard and Bobby Carrington, the former an authority on the African – perhaps the Indian – elephant on which he wrote an authoritative and best-selling manual. He was a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society which in those days provided members with a book of tickets giving free admission on Sunday mornings to the Regent’s Park Zoo – closed to the public until the afternoons – of which in the school holidays I took full advantage.
Literary links were not altogether severed when the Wests, moving to the country, sold the house (with my mother and myself still on board) to Ruth Howard and her mother, a gentle old lady, undeservedly nicknamed Witchie. Ruth’s niece was the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, [see Elizabeth Jane Howard under Literature & Writers] whose frank conveyance of adultery in The Long View upset Witchie. It was a matter for speculation whether her great-niece’s literary frankness affected Witchie to a greater or lesser degree than the irregular union conducted by her basement lodgers.
The Howards were ‘musical’, an epithet of some opprobrium on the Frankau side of my family, who shared Nabokov’s opinion of music as ‘an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating noises’. Ruth had been an early pupil of Dame Myra Hess, a regular visitor to Carlton Hill accompanied by her entourage of two women, Marjorie Gunn with the deepest voice of any woman, my aunt included, I have ever heard, and her sister ‘Saz’. A grand piano in the drawing room tinkled daily under the Howards’ expert fingers. Lovers of classical music find it unthinkable that people exist in the world, people that is with any claim whatsoever to manners, taste, education, who are unresponsive to the Orphean transcendence of spirit experienced the moment an orchestra pipes up, a soprano trills; and it was this incredulity I suspect which prompted the Howards one day to invite my mother to a recital given in Bernard Miles’s Mermaid theatre, situated in those days in his St John’s Wood garden. A female singer had been the star attraction, in my mother’s words to me in a letter at school ‘some sad little European refugee who was, I suppose, doing the best she could’. A second urgent corrective letter underlined the full extent of the Frankau musical crassness. The singer had been Kirsten Flagstad.
From the book:
The Times Deceas’d: The Rare Book Department of the Times Bookshop in the 1960s by Timothy d’Arch Smith
Teitan Press, York Beach, Maine, USA in 2011