Butcher’s Boy

butcher's bikeI must have been fourteen when I started working as a Saturday delivery boy for a butcher in the medieval village of Old Bexley. I can still remember the day I first entered the shop, the pungent smell of raw animal flesh, the bloodied clumps of sawdust over the floor, and the three butchers with their traditional blue and white striped aprons, wielding their knives, carving and chopping meat as they chattered amongst themselves.

I’d been taken there by Peter Murphy, who was the son of my godfather, Jimmy Murphy. Our fathers had been friends since their childhoods and both had attended the same secondary school, St Joseph’s Academy, in Blackheath. Jimmy Murphy was originally from Arklow in Ireland, where my paternal grandmother was born. As with my own family, there were three boys and three girls in the Murphy family, and I was closest to Peter, the eldest of the boys, who was probably five or six years older than me. Peter attended St Mary’s Grammar School in Sidcup, and when I started there in September 1961, my parents had asked him to take me to and from school. So each morning he would call for me on his way and we would walk down to the Black Prince pub where we would catch the bus. Similarly, he would wait for me at the end of the school day.

Always a jovial character, it was not difficult to get on with Peter, but the age difference was significant, and after a couple of months, we both tired of the arrangement. At the end of the day I’d give Peter the slip and go off with my friends to play football in the park across the road from the school. This was undoubtedly a great relief to him.

My memory of all the circumstances is a bit hazy, but I assume Peter had been working for the Bexley butchers for some time; so when he decided to move on to better things, he asked me if I was interested in replacing him, which of course, I was.
       I was a scrawny looking lad in those days and as I walked into the shop beside Peter, the manager eyed me up as a rather unpromising piece of meat before reluctantly agreeing to give me a trial.
       That first Saturday, Peter showed me the ropes.
       The delivery bicycle was one of those old-fashioned affairs with a very large basket at the front. It was extremely heavy, even before the basket was loaded, and quite high, so that even when the saddle was adjusted to its lowest height it was still so high I could barely touch the ground with the tips of my toes.
       “And watch the brakes,” Peter warned me. “They’re very poor and you need to slow down well in advance if you want to stop.”
       “Couldn’t you ask them to do some maintenance on it,” I asked.
       Some questions in life can be answered silently, with just an appropriate facial expression: that was one of those occasions.
       Notwithstanding, we eventually left the shop and loaded the basket. I had my own set of wheels with me, a cycle which I’d cobbled together over months from parts I’d found abandoned in the street at different times. Peter led the way on the delivery bike and we spent most of the morning distributing quality cuts of beef and lamb and a few boxes of eggs to some of Old Bexley’s finest.
       There were a couple of very steep hills on the round, one in particular on Parkhill Road which ran down to the Blue Anchor pub.
       “This one is treacherous,” Peter warned. “Remember, with the weight of the bike and a loaded basket, the brakes are useless, might as well not have any. So you need to be especially careful.”
       I nodded, but felt sure I could handle anything.
       “And,” he added. “If you need to turn the bike around be sure to make as wide a turn as possible or the handlebars will lock and the bike will slide from under you. Next thing you know, you’ll be lying in the road with your meat and eggs scattered all over the ground.”
       On a later occasion I had cause to wish I’d paid more attention to all the sound advice he had given me: but such is the folly of youth, full of confidence until the cropper comes!

Dorothy Squires and Roger Moore.JPG-pwrt3
Dorothy Squires and Roger Moore

But this piece is not about the cropper. The incident I wish to describe took place after I’d had several uneventful Saturdays working for the butcher’s, and it concerns the second wife of the actor, Sir Roger Moore, the former Saint and seven-times James Bond who is currently doing the rounds promoting his one-man show in London.
       At the time of this story, he was living in Bexley, having just married the popular Welsh singer, Dorothy Squires: not that I knew this when I saw the name of Dorothy Squires on the list the butcher handed to me a few Saturday mornings into the job.
       Dorothy lived at The Mount, a large detached house in Wansunt Road just off Vicarage Road, the continuation of which led to Dartford Heath. The house was actually the last of the addresses on my round that day, and by the time I reached the front door I was feeling rather pleased with myself. No accidents on the bike, not an egg broken, no sweat. It was a beautiful summer’s day, the air was full of honeysuckle and lavender, birds were singing and I would soon have a little money in my pocket once I returned the delivery bike to the butcher’s.
       I remember a long gravel path curved down to the house which to me looked more like a palatial mansion. I leant the bike against the wall and took out the package of meat. Then I rang the bell. I waited for an answer. And I waited. One minute, two minutes passed. But nobody came to open the door. Beginning to feel a little impatient, I rang the bell again, twice. Suddenly I heard the clump of footsteps, then the sound of a chain being loosened, the sound of a key turning in a lock, twice. The door opened just enough to see a blonde lady in a flimsy nightdress and dressing gown. It was Dorothy, I’d seen her on TV. She scowled at me when she noticed the package I had thrust towards her. She didn’t take it.
       “Don’t you know,” she said in a lilting, rather posh Welsh accent, “that there’s a tradesmen’s entrance at the side of the house, boy? You’re not supposed to ring here.”
       I looked down at the ground and shook my head, and felt my freckled cheeks flush with embarrassment.
       “No,” I muttered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
       “Well you do know now,” she said. “So remember next time!”
       And with that she snatched the meat from my hands and slammed the door in my contrite face.

Years later I read a description of a similar occurrence, in William Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom Absalom, in which the doomed hero, Thomas Sutpen, suffers humiliation, as a fourteen year old, when a black butler refuses to allow him to enter the mansion of the planter Pettibone by the front door. The young Sutpen vows after that incident that one day he will be the owner of a similar mansion, set in a similar plantation with blacks working for him. And it is the psychological damage caused by this childhood snub that motivates Sutpen to achieve immense material success and leads ultimately to tragedy.
       Happily, the rebuff I received from Dorothy Squires failed to leave such a pyschological scar!  


In the extract below from Absalom Absalom, by William Faulkner, the use of an ethnic term which has now become offensive is retained:

And now he stood there before that white door with the monkey nigger barring it and looking down at him in his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes and I dont reckon he had even ever experimented with a comb because that would be one of the things that his sisters would keep hidden good-who had never thought about his own hair or clothes or anybody else’s hair or clothes until he saw that monkey nigger, who through no doing of his own happened to have had the felicity of being housebred in Richmond maybe, looking-” (“Or maybe even in Charleston,” Shreve breathed.) “-at them and he never even remembered what the nigger said, how it was the nigger told him, even before he had had time to say what he came for, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back. “He didn’t even remember leaving. All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house, and not toward home. He was not crying, he said. He wasn’t even mad. He just had to think, so he was going to where he could be quiet and think, and he knew where that place was. He went into the woods. He says he did not tell himself where to go: that his body, his feet, just went there-a place where a game trail entered a cane brake and an oak tree had fallen across it and made a kind of cave where he kept an iron griddle that he would cook small game on sometimes. He said he crawled back into the cave and sat with his back against the uptorn roots, and thought. Because he couldn’t get it straight yet. He couldn’t even realise yet that his trouble, his impediment, was innocence because he would not be able to realise that until he got it straight. So he was seeking among what little he had to call experience for something to measure it by, and he couldn’t find anything. He had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand, who had sprung from a people whose houses didn’t have back doors but only windows and anyone entering or leaving by a window would be either hiding or escaping, neither of which he was doing. In fact, he had actually come on business, in the good faith of business which he had believed that all men accepted. Of course he had not expected to be invited in to eat a meal since time, the distance from one cooking pot to the next, did not need to be measured in hours or days; perhaps he had not expected to be asked into the house at all.

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Early memories II

shed

In this photo, which I’ve used in a previous post, I am sitting in my highchair, aged eighteen months. Behind me you can see the door to the shed where my father kept his gardening tools, especially the lawnmower, along with some of the army debris he brought back with him when he was demobbed, his collapsible canvas camp bed, for example. There were boxes containing spares for his motorcycle, spark plugs, replacement lamps for his headlights. His Wellington boots always stood just inside the door and I would often take them out and totter around the garden wearing them even though they came up to my thighs. The shed has lots of memories. It was lit by a single bare electric light and it was always damp inside. It had been built in 1947, at the same time as the house we lived in, but the builders had rushed the shed and forgotten to put in a damp course which meant that humidity rose up through the bricks and the door frame was rotting and hinges were rusting. The shed window consisted of four panes of glass, two of which on the part of the window that opened, were cracked ever since I could remember, and were never replaced.

The flowerpots on the sill are testimony to my father’s abiding passion, which was cultivating his garden. He grew vegetables, beans, tomatoes, as well as roses and a whole variety of seasonal and perennial flowers. He loved to sit in his garden at the end of a long day and smoke his pipe in silence contemplating the handiwork of his green fingers. Gradually, over the years, the garden evolved, as the family’s financial circumstances improved, but he never stopped adding new features, a watercourse, a greenhouse, new varieties of rose. It was his principal relaxation.

Bramleys apples
Bramley apples

You can barely see it, but behind the pram on the left of the photo there is a door to another part of the shed, which was a separate storage area. It had several wooden shelves inside and there my father would store the apples from our many fruit trees and which we would consume in the course of the cold winter months. The most productive tree was a Bramley which bore beautiful, huge, slightly tart apples which were ideal for apple pies and crumbles, two of my father’s favourite desserts and which my mother cooked to perfection.

The pram itself is interesting: if I was eighteen months old, my brother Michael would have been a baby and was therefore somewhere in the house in his cot at the time of the photo. When we shopped with my mother I would sit in the pram with Michael and she would wheel two miles up Gravel Hill to the nearest shops in Bexleyheath. We went there to buy cheese and meat which was still rationed after the end of the Second World War until rationing was finally abolished in 1954. There was also a sort of community hall behind Christ Church, an Anglican church on the Broadway, where families with young children went to collect their free concentrated orange juice. When Mark, my second brother was born, my mother would sometimes take all three of us in the pram, but eventually I was big enough to walk by her side, holding on to the pram handle. Large-wheeled, well-sprung prams went out of fashion when the Maclaren stroller or foldable buggy was invented in the mid-1960s, but nowadays fashion has changed and these beautiful, sturdy, hand-built wooden prams are once again in demand. When Mark was a baby he would often sleep in the living room in the pram during the day and when he woke he would find a way to rock the pram so that it travelled the length of the living room and back. I can remember the living room walls were deeply scored by the knobs on the side of the pram.

When I was a little older I would often keep tabs on my father who at certain times of the year would disappear into the shed for hours. One evening in mid-December, I put a chair outside the shed window so that I could climb up and peer in. There I saw my father working away at a wooden fort or stockade that he was building for my brother Mark as a Christmas present; it was his own design, the pieces of which he had shaped with a tenon saw before gluing them together. When he noticed me, he called me into the shed and made me promise not to say a word to my brother. The next time I saw the fort it was being unwrapped on Christmas morning.


The Old Man and the Sea

Hemingway_book“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

I first read the opening lines from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, in 1963. My father had come home from the school where he taught English and handed me a brand new copy of the book. He said: “John, I think you’re going to like this. Give it a read.” I still have that book (pictured) and have read it many times since, and it is a text that never ceases to bring me great pleasure. It is the last book Hemingway wrote and quite different from any of his previous work. It has the stature of a book from the Bible.

Hemingway tells the tale of Santiago, an aging fisherman who, having gone for such a long time without landing a big fish, has lost all credibility in his community and all faith in himself. Fishing all alone one day, he does finally hook a huge marlin. After a fierce struggle, he defeats the fish and lashes it to the side of his boat, but he then has to battle the elements and ward off the attacks from predatory sharks that wish to feed off the fish. By the time Santiago reaches the harbour, little more than a carcass survives, though the head, the backbone and the tail remain as testimony to the immensity of his catch. The following day, Santiago’s fellow fishermen congregate around the skiff to applaud his achievement.

There are many ways to interpret this parable of persistence, but to me the novel has always been about Hemingway’s struggle as a writer, the struggle against writer’s block, the struggle to defeat the blank page and to land a big book that could stand alongside his earlier successes.tribe

By coincidence, in August 2003 I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Passo Fundo in the south of Brazil during a weeklong literary festival. I chose to talk about the inclusion of women in literature, focusing briefly on the writings of Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys. On the coach trip taking various participants in the festival from the city of Porto Alegre to Passo Fundo, a Brazilian academic came up to me and introduced me to the writer, John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest. In the course of the week we spoke very little, but on the return coach trip we sat together and in a journey of three hours, we became very good friends and have remained so to this day. John wrote a magnificent memoir of his relationship with his father, Gregory, entitled Strange Tribe. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the Hemingway clan.

Following our first encounter, I did not see John again until I caught up with him in the first week of July this year when I travelled to the San Fermín festivities in Pamplona. But more of that further down the line.

Tomorrow I will post a story I wrote in 1996, centred on the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

Early memory

shedThe photo I always use as wallpaper on all my computer screens was taken by my father, one summer’s day when he decided we would all have a picnic outside instead of eating in the dining room. I’m sitting in a high chair close to a table where my three sisters are patiently waiting for their lunch. In the background, the old brick shed and the old pram which saw such good service, there being six of us children in total. I must have been eighteen months old at the time, as you can probably tell from my lack of hair. Looking a little fed up and probably hungry, Shevaun is sitting on the side of the table closest to me, and opposite her, smiling, are my two other sisters, Annette, the eldest, and Mary. Mary is in the foreground, closest of all of us to the photographer. She is wearing a short summer dress, undoubtedly home-made, and she has turned in her chair to look straight at my father. For me this picture is particularly poignant, given Mary’s eager posture: she is the only one of my siblings to have already died, and it is almost as though she is leaning slightly forward to say bravely, “I will go first into that unknown country.” I keep this wallpaper so that every day I will remember her and she will know she is loved and missed now as much as ever. Although my father always treated us equally, Mary, his youngest daughter, was probably the apple of his eye.

The photo is also important to me because it captures the first real and vivid memory of my childhood. My father was standing at the bottom of some steps, which led up to the space where he had laid out the table, and then to the right, the garden beyond. Behind him was the back door into the kitchen where my mother was preparing lunch. The table had been made by my father. He found the legs somewhere and a large rectangular piece of flat wood to make a top; you can tell this simply by looking, because the colour of the surface is different from the stained legs. There is a cloth on the table, which heightens the suggestion of a picnic. We rarely ate outdoors, but this was an exceptionally warm day. So there is novelty in the situation, an improvised gesture of parental creativity which was typical of my father, his trademark in fact.

On that day I clearly remember my father disappearing after telling my mother he wanted to take a picture, and when I heard this I began to get upset. I’m sure I bawled out something like: “No time for photos, I want my dinner.” But probably my words were far less articulate than that and more strident. My right hand is hidden by Shevaun’s head but in it I was holding my spoon and I kept banging the spoon on the tray of the high-chair as I shouted out, demanding that my dinner be served. We always used the word dinner for lunch when we were small. My father returned shortly after, brandishing his Kodak, and with a broad grin, told me to calm down and to sit still for the photo. “It’ll only take a minute, John. Lunch won’t be long.” I was not easily appeased in those days, I remember, not where food was concerned.

But that cherished minute has long gone! Only the photo remains.