Geoffrey Robinson

Indifferent Children Of The Earth
by Geoffrey Robinson

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Geoffrey Robinson

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Times Obituary

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Memorial Address

Hedingham Harvest

Indifferent Children
Of The Earth

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15


Hedingham Harvest was about my maternal relatives only. In this book my father and his family also enter the stage. Although totally undistinguished, they had for me the restful charm that goes with a marked lack of ambition or pretension, and I hope to convey something of my sense of the remarkable oddity and fascination of ordinary people.

The background is provincial life in mainly Edwardian times, while straying here and there over the edges by a decade or so on either side. Therefore the narrative extends beyond 1917, the date of my birth, and brings me into the latter part of it.

If I make childhood in the nineteen-twenties at the extremity of a length of ribbon development on the outskirts of the City of Lincoln sound idyllic, I do so because it was. It happened to be a good time and a good place to live for a child of lower middle class parents who lacked the money to send him to boarding school. My wife's father had enough of that commodity to ensure that she was brought up by a hired woman and ate boiled fish and rice pudding in a room at the top of the house, until she was exiled from home altogether into the hands of pedagogues for all but a few months of the year. I lived comfortably with my mother and father, ate well, went daily to school, and grew up in a warm cocoon of affection. Whether good for me or not, it was the nearest I have ever been to Arcadia.


My parents were, it must be said, an ill assorted pair. So ill assorted that their conjunction did not stand the test of time. Part of the trouble was a disparity of background, and only once did my father ever strike my mother - when she told him, in an outburst of rage against his lack of ambition, that she had married beneath her. Sentiments of that kind must be appurtenant to the estate of matrimony, but as my father's reaction demonstrated, are better left uncommunicated to the one more lowly regarded. The superiority was, in fact, marginal - but my mother had a high regard for farmers and considered that she had, in one who had come up in the world to own five hundred acres, a father a cut or two above a cost clerk in Ruston's engineering works, which was all that my father could muster.

They met at Nottingham College, where my mother May Mason had gone in 1912 for a two-year course that would qualify her as a certificated teacher. The first time she bicycled through the main gate in Shakespeare Street, the officers' training corps was assembled and they gave her a rousing and concerted welcome. And for good reason. Her oval face was framed with glowing chestnut hair, and although her features were well defined, they gave the impression of being rounded, gentle, and almost melting. Her eyes were large, brown, long-lashed, and heavy lidded - with clearly marked eyebrows. Her face was altogether agreeable and appealing, with no substantial fault to be found with it, unless one were looking for a perfection that would have denied her a firm jaw, flared nostrils, and other indications of a personality to be reckoned with. Slender, long necked, and elegant from head to toe - May Mason had been desired and pursued since adolescence.

Consequently, she was not so well received by the few women students at Nottingham College as by the many males about to die in the Great War who had saluted her. She was isolated and lonely until one day Elizabeth Greenwood sidled up after a class and proposed that they should be friends. That they became, and it was in Lizzie's company that my mother first saw my father. They were together in a corridor when "Robinson" came by and said good morning to his friend Lizzie, with his eyes on May Mason. Lizzie, noticing the eyes, was careful not to introduce him, and it was some months before they met again, but the friendship with Lizzie ripened so quickly that May took her home to Skellingthorpe for the Christmas holidays.

Although May's father was mean, the Yews farmhouse was always open, like an inn, to relatives down to second and third cousins, and to any friends his eight children cared to impose on him. Either it was a farming tradition he felt obliged to accept, or his household - which had numbered up to fourteen at times - was so large that an extra face at table was scarcely noticable. His children could offer hospitality to their friends with complete assurance that their mother would welcome them, and that their father would at least be acquiescent, or even civil. Lizzie was accordingly received into the bosom of the Mason family, and she returned the hospitality by welcoming them into hers. At least two of May's brothers claimed to have enjoyed her during that brief visit, and it is unlikely that her host neglected to take advantage of what was available so clearly to all eyes but those of his innocent daughter. Then, after the guest had departed, the very men to whom Lizzie had granted her gratuitous favours chided May for having brought what they called a prosititute into the house.

May readily accepted that the offence lay entirely with Lizzie. Within the farming community, servant girls and labourers' daughters were usually pregant when they married, but farmers' daughters were "disdainful of dishonourable intentions", and convinced that to yield a virginity before marriage was to ensure a spinsterhood. They had affairs of the heart - but not of the loins. With few exceptions, they tended to regard sex as something disagreeable to be suffered by domestic servants. Within the rural middle classes, it was the custom for girls to be pure and virginal, and without any sense of deprivation. As May said: "Very nice it was !" Therefore she was appalled by Lizzie Greenwood's depravity, and shed her when they returned to Nottingham for the spring term. This was quickly noticed. One day at gym, Dorothy Middleton approached in conspiratorial fashion, and as Lizzie had done a term earlier, invited May Mason to be her friend. If women students usually behave in this ingenuous way, I can only say that in my experience of a university, men do not. But May Mason was glad to accept the proffered heart and to join a group of girls who had been at the High Pavement School in Nottingham. They became known as "the inseparable six", and although short of money, they went every Saturday morning to the Mikado cafe in the Row to drink coffee, to eat chocolate eclairs, to listen to the string band, and to watch what they believed to be Nottingham's parade of fashion.

Of that group, Freda Uen became May's closest friend, and her sad experience of taking Lizzie Greenwood home for Christmas did not deter her from doing the same with Freda in the summer. This proved to be almost as unfortunate, but in a very different way. Freda was tall, well-built, and dark skinned, with shining black hair. She impressed May's father enormously. She could manage a horse better than any woman he had ever seen in a saddle, and this apparently innate skill, coupled with her dusky appearance and her unusual surname, convinced him that she had gipsy blood. This quite erroneous supposition and her classical build so inflamed his passion that he pestered her with his unwelcome attentions to such an extent that May suffered agonies of embarrassment for her virtuous friend, instead of shame for her unvirtuous one. Freda was of the Plymouth Brethren and later married a missionary, so May's father might as well have thrown stones at the Rock of Gibraltar as try to dent her impregnable virtue. On the other hand, Freda was not stiff and self-righteous, but very jolly and good company. She was unconventional enough to explore the Skellingthorpe woods in giant strides and at high speed with her skirts held aloft around her waist to keep them out of the damp bracken, while her friend, weak with laughter, had to run to keep up with her.

Freda married her missionary, Mr Judson, soon after leaving college, and departed to Africa. I do not remember her visiting my mother until after my parents were separated, and that was partly due to her having been away converting the natives, and partly due to my father disliking her. She was forthright, strongly opinionated, and extremely snobbish. She believed everything in the Bible and argued incessantly in support of her faith - and as for her Conservatism, it was such a parody of my father's own convictions that she made even him feel uncomfortable. He couldn't stomach her, nor she him; so my mother and Freda became close friends again only after he was out of the way. By then Mr Judson had died of his privations in the African bush, and there was now no remaining obstacle to prevent the two women from coming together again. Thereafter I saw Freda Judson frequently, and liked her. She was maddening, but that was part of her charm. She dwelt in an unassailable fortress of faith, not only in the truth of the Christian relegion, but in the worth of the English aristocracy. What Freda's social origins were I don't know, but her speech and excellent manners suggested that she came from a stratum of society that would not have sent a daughter to Nottingham College to become an elementary schoolteacher. She had gone there to become a missionary first and a teacher second, and that was something a lady could then properly do - if she was religious enough not to be content with distributing charity to the natives of Britain.

As I remember her, Freda's hair was snowy white, and her blue eyes had, except when roused, the calm of the deeply and happily religious - as well as the assurance of one who, while all else was crumbling around her, had done her duty in the station into which God had called her. She lived also with the satisfaction of having married her rather plain daughter to the younger son of a hereditary peer, who taught in a public school until he was moved to take Holy Orders. Freda was one large firm conglomeration of everything England no longer held dear, and after she came to my mother's funeral I still kept in touch with her - not simply because May had loved her since they were students together, but because she was simply lovable.

The other life-long friend May Mason made at Nottingham College, Edith Raistrick, was a very different kettle of fish. Edith was a tall, Junoesque girl, and the best scholar of her year, but she was blighted and embittered by a birthmark - a patch of red across her face. Edith was fond of men and hated her disfigurement, while being witty and ironic about it. She corrupted her names - Edith Alys Raistrick - into Edith Always Raistrick, in predicting the doom of spinsterhood she feared, and which became a sad reality. As soon as she qualified as a teacher and had earned enough money to pay for the operation, she had the patch removed - but it was too late to secure her a husband at a time when men were in short supply after the Great War. In any case, when she visited our house in Lincoln I saw that her face had, beneath the powder, a white lifeless patch of skin running across her nose where the graft had been made. So she had only been able to substitute white for red.

Edith Raistrick was one of those unhappy people who desperately want to be distinguished and rich without having the drive and application to achieve it. Consequently, she stretched her school teacher's salary to impossible lengths to appear what she was not, and often fell into debt. Nevertheless, she made a good show, and her large, high, one-roomed flat in an elegant house in Nottingham had beautiful antique furniture, Indian rugs, and an air of chic. She came to stay with us in Lincoln looking like a character in a novel by Michael Arlen. She was tall and thin, with fine long legs. Her hats were huge and floppy, and she swept about in a swirl of scarves and loose garments on high-heeled shoes, waving a Turkish cigarette in a long holder. Her hair was very dark and pulled back tightly from her forehead into a knob at the back of her head. Long ear-rings swung about her tall neck, and very thin, black, plucked eyebrows, dark-framed glasses, and a gash of lipstick emphasised the pallor of her thickly powdered face. My "Aunt" Edith always brought me a small box of chocolates, and even they had to demonstrate her impeccable taste. They were Terry's Langues de Chat - little flat dumbells of plain chocolate, sold only in the best shops, and delicious. This Nottingham aunt brought a great gust of impropriety into the house. She swore, she smoked, she drank, and her talk was dark with hints of wickedness with men while out at Melton Mowbray with the Quorn. She even purported to have met the Prince of Wales when hunting, and loose-living lords were a commonplace. Edith told most entertaining stories in any accent required, from Nottingham City to the Dukeries. However, the unfortunate realities of her life were persistent money troubles, constant quarrels with head-teachers, solitary days and nights of drinking in her fine flat, dragging illness, and finally the promise of the brightest student of her year being extinguished in a comparatively early death.

Occupied though May Mason had become with her women friends in the college, it was likely that she would meet again the Arthur Robinson whom Lizzie Greenwood had not thought fit to introduce. He lived in Lincoln, and like May, travelled by train to and from college at the beginning and end of each term. The meeting happened on a platform of Nottingham Station when they were going home for the Easter holiday in 1913. They repaired to the same compartment in a carriage painted in the maroon and gold livery of the Midland Railway Company, and were drawn by a steam engine similarly comparisoned through Newark on the way to Lincoln.

Arthur Robinson was tall and handsome, an easy talker though not garrulous, well-known and popular in the college, and a good actor - having been a succès fou as Sir Anthony Absolute in the Christian Union Dramatic Society's production of The Rivals. He sang the bass line in what was called "The College Quartette". He was a sportsman in several of the college teams, and a member of the Officers' Training Corps. Whereas May was only training to be a teacher, Arthur was reading for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and was, for many reasons, a likely candidate for her admiration; but what must, I think, have made him irresistible was his erotic charm. Until meeting him May had, she said, "felt no stirrings of womanhood". She had been attracted by many men, but only in a sexless way - or so she thought. Being confined with Arthur Robinson in a third-class railway carriage between Nottingham and Lincoln was, it seems, a new experience.

That I can well believe, because throughout his married life, and beginning within a year of my birth, one woman after another fell so readily into adultery with him that there can be no doubt of his effortless ability to attract them. A very spontaneous testimony to his charm came when he was eight-five and had recently left his own third spouse in favour of another man's wife. Expressing my surprise at the lady's willingness to take up so scandalously with a man of his advanced years, I was overheard by a young woman of thirty-five who helped in our house - where father was staying. Far from sharing my astonishment, she found the errant wife's behaviour perfectly comprehensible. "I'd run away with him myself" she said, "if he asked me !"

Wherein lay this power to attract women I find impossible to say. Some men have it, some not - and those who have are infinitely various. They do not run to type. Even women do not understand what attracts them. I knew a very pretty but Quakerish young matron in Suffolk who told me that sometimes a chance caller at her house - perhaps a postman or a delivery- man - would quite exceptionally give her a sharp stab of sexual desire, for no reason that she could, as we lay in bed together, explain. So my mother inexplicably, like many others thereafter, fell in love with my father as she had never fallen in love before. Of that journey to Lincoln she said: "So we met, and fell in love. Oh, so very seriously ! Lack-a-day ! It was no laughing matter. We were in love."

May Mason was right to speak of them both being in love, because Arthur Robinson was very taken with her, though not to the extent of being constantly and exclusively devoted. His other girl friends, including Lizzie Greenwood, were not entirely abandoned. Even so, his acquaintance with the naughty Lizzie must not give the impression that he was going to bed with any of them. He had his principles. Not only women, but men also, should go virginal to the altar. He had so high a regard for copulation that until the very moment when his first experience of it was to blaze in glory on his wedding-night, everything connected with it was to remain a "mystery". Throughout his long and immoral life, he would inveigh constantly against short skirts and low necks. Women tennis champions showing their knickers on television as they reached up to serve, disgusted him. Girls bicycling in summer in brief shorts were unpardonably destroying the mystery of their attractions. Until marriage, a kiss and an arm round the waist was the farthest he would allow himself to venture in the direction of ultimate delight, whether with the woman he intended to marry, or with any other. He was keeping himself pure for the great occasion, and until then not even a breast was to be glimpsed or touched, because it would only anticipate and erode the quality of the final consummation.

Nor did being in love with Arthur Robinson stop May Mason from having other admirers, including a youth called Harris. My mother often spoke of him, but I never heard him called otherwise than by his surname - like a Treasury Knight. He was also from Lincoln, and had done rather better than Arthur in an academic way at the Grammar School there. He was now engaged in research at Nottingham College, and his major attraction for May Mason was this greater intellectual standing, which she dearly loved. Whilst that did not quite compensate for his being small, sharp and awkward when Arthur Robinson was tall, relaxed and charming, it was a close enough thing for the two men thoroughly to dislike each other. When Rob was cool, May was warm to Harris, and when Rob was more ardent, the unfortunate Harris froze. However, even a reserve lover will not suffer ill treatment for ever. On one occasion during the holidays when May was at home in Skellingthorpe and Arthur had been neglectful, she accepted an invitation from Harris to go to his home in Swallowbeck for tea and to meet his parents. On the very day when she was due to go, she received a repentant letter from Arthur asking her to meet him in Lincoln that afternoon - so Harris and his parents ate tea without her. Thenceforth, May Mason had one less admirer in reserve.

Gilbert E. Hawker, "a golden-haired engineer and the joy of our year", was another of Arthur's rivals. He was light-hearted, smiling and flirtatious, but again my mother always spoke of him as "Hawker", and their relationship was formal. When he was fighting in France in 1915 she sent him, by way of comforts for the troops, a pair of socks she had knitted and a slab of home-made toffee. Later, on a visit to Flanders after the war, Hawker's name was the first that caught her eye on Menen Gate, and this makes his letter of thanks - embarrassingly juvenile though it is - almost unbearably pathetic and moving. Hawker's baby-talk was only a poor defence against the terror of what he knew would happen to him - as it happened to almost every one of my father's male contemporaries at Nottingham College. He once showed me a photograph of a college football team, and said that none but he had survived.

This is Hawker's letter, written on cheap lined letter-paper - it is undated, but was sent from somewhere on the Western front in 1915, the year of his death:-

My dear May,

I am attempting to answer your epistle of loving cheer under somewhat trying circumstances. I am sitting next to a rather warm stove in a dark corner of a typical Flemish estaminet. The company talks Flemish, French and English, and are kicking up an awful row. A young lady of ample proportions is ironing sundry domestic garments on my right side, six Life Guards are blessing the service to my front, and my friend is chattering vile French on my left flank.

Over all pervades the odour and noise of two small children and a dog. The usual glass of watery beer is at mine elbow, so "Here's to the fair May !" I have now gulped half a pint of water and a thimbleful of beer to you. The atmosphere is stifling hot, and I can't see the lines I'm supposed to write on, but being a soldier I'll stick to my post, and hope you can figure out the script.

May, I'm simply awfully bucked to hear from you. The people from the Coll have all turned out aces, and I absolutely love the place, 'cos it was my last link with the civilised world. The stout lady has lit a vilely malodorous lamp so I'll manage better by its dim light. The socks were charming and you must be a hero to have stuck it through the monotonous period of knitting 'em. I washed my tootsies - the socks' arrival coincided with my monthly ablutions - and put 'em on, and never felt better in my life. Considering what came with 'em I shall never part with 'em while this noble heart still works its revs per min as usual. Of course, I'm a real veteran by now, and when you've buried pals at night in a bleak rain under fire, and picked up bits of chaps, there ain't such a thing as horror. It's called "sport" by the boys who won't be killed. The fellows never get very excited about it, 'cos they're in it - and Lud ! - they may cart the corpse of G.E.H. to a convenient hedge some dark night.

The toffee was really excellent, 'cos they can't make toffee here, they are all such mercenary idiots. The thing that does really worry us is this. Who is looking after all the dear girls while we are away. It haunts me day and night and spoils my appetite. Freda, like the brick she is, writes and keeps me alive occasionally, and now May I cannot hear myself write for the row and other things. So au revoir, and for they fair sake I'll keep under the barricade. Accept the heartiest thanks and best wishes from your old friend.
Thomas Atkins (alias G.E.H.)

Hawker was, however only a very minor diversion from May's route to the altar, and early in her second year at college she introduced Arthur, with some trepidation, to her father Richard Mason. He was coolly received, but I never knew the man who treated my father with such scorn, because by the time I remember him he had changed so dramatically that my mother could only attribute the transformation to senility. I loved him in his old age as a kind and indulgent grandparent, and I could hardly believe the tales his children told of him. By that time he had mellowed almost to the point of sentimentality, although even I saw the sudden flash of anger if I relied too boldly upon his affection.

What Richard Mason looked like when Arthur Robinson first met him is shown by a photograph taken at about that time on the lawn of the Yews farmhouse. He is sitting in a deck-chair dressed in a black frock-coat with satin facings and satin covered buttons. His head and shoulders are thrust forward and he is staring with a cold unsmiling intensity at the photographer, as if he had displeased him. Richard's hair has receded to expose a large high forehead, but his eyebrows are full, tufted, and spring up at the ends, while his big heavy moustache droops over the corners of his tight mouth. The moustache was, in fact, so large that he had a special cup with a bridge across it to hold the hairs out of his tea as he drank through a gap between the bridge and the inside of the rim. The photograph shows that Richard was otherwise clean-shaven with his hair cut close to his head and well clear of his large flat ears. He has a big strong nose and a firm jowl. Character and determination are chased into his features, and latent rage lurks under his eyebrows in those sharp intimidating eyes. He is simply not the grandfather I knew, but he is certainly the man my father met on a Friday afternoon in 1913 when my mother and he were in Lincoln together.

Richard Mason had arranged to pick up his daughter in the Boultham Road on his way home to Skellingthorpe from the cattle market, so towards evening Arthur and May waited for him at the appointed place. When he arrived, he pulled in his horse and stopped - perched high up in the trap. May introduced her admirer from college, who suffered a long unwavering critical stare from a pair of cold blue eyes, weighing him up from the lofty seat. Richard did not dismount, and after a few curt words he drove off with his daughter. Even if Arthur had not found favour, he was impressed. May had painted for him a picture of a mean old domestic tyrant who drove all his sons and daughters away from home, and made his wife's life a misery with his adulteries; but Arthur tended to cherish the notion of a male role that was not dissimilar from the one Richard Mason actually played. He respected the haughty contempt and the frosty arrogance displayed from the trap, and on further acquaintance with May's father found much in him to admire - although Arthur was much too amiable by nature to be so unpleasant in practice.

Richard Mason's opinion of his daughter May's suitor was not expected to be enthusiastic - and he was indeed highly critical. Nevertheless, he was secretly relieved that May had found someone who was a marked improvement on those whom her two sisters, Carrie and Kitty, had chosen to be the objects of their affection. Compared with them, even Arthur Robinson was a tolerable proposition.



As well as the two sisters who had acquired unsuitable men, my mother had five brothers. So she had seven siblings, and since they all married, I had fourteen maternal aunts and uncles - more than enough to swamp this narrative. Therefore only my mother's sisters, Kitty and Carrie Mason, will enter the story. They must do so because they became an integral part of my life - particularly my Aunt Kitty, whom I greatly loved.

It was not so easy to love the other sister - Carrie - although a number of men made the attempt. She had a marked inclination to attract them, and did not lack the means with her neat figure, green eyes, crisp curly hair, and oval face with features satisfactory enough, but lacking the rare magic of beauty. Carrie was a good looking woman, and only those who examined her closely would read in her eyes and mouth a harshness of temper that raised an obstacle in the way of love. She had admirers in abundance, and unlike her straight-laced sisters she had made love with some of them - including Alec Scarborough, whom she would have married but for her father's scorn for his effeminate features and unpardonable occupation. Alec came of a family of well respected Skellingthorpe farmers, but had fallen into serving behind the counter of a mens' wear shop in Kirton Lindsey - and for Richard Mason that declension put him entirely beyond the pale.

The next time Carrie fell in love she defied her father and became engaged to Walter Plumtree, who was a bold, handsome fellow - with an unexceptionably manly appearance, but the morals of a pirate. He was, in short, "a rotter", and it was not long before the Masons modified his christian name to "Woter", in recognition of his affinities with the heathen Wotan and his Viking worshippers who had so ravaged and plundered the Lincolnshire coast. Where Woter's wickedness came from is a mystery, because his father was an engine driver and lay preacher of unimpeachable rectitude, and his mother was as virtuous as her husband. Both had taken the pledge and forsworn alcohol so rigorously that when they came to Christmas dinner at the Yews their nostrils twitched anxiously when the holly-sprigged pudding was brought in, and they were obliged to reject the white sauce because it had a forbidden flavouring.

Walter Plumtree's criminal career began early, and at the expense of kind-hearted old ladies. It was his practice when a little child to stand crying and rubbing his eyes beside a grating in the gutter until a passer-by stopped to ask why he was so upset. Walter then explained, between sobs, that he had been sent to the shop with a sixpence that had fallen from his hand and rolled through the grating into the drain beneath. Now he dare not go home for fear of a beating for losing his mother's money. Only the impecunious, the particularly worldly-wise, or those who had seen the performance before, could resist such an appeal, and the young Walter prospered.

He had no shame and boasted openly to the scandalised inhabitants of the Yews of other devices he employed later to defraud his fellow men. He was particularly proud of the trick he played on his customers when, as a young man, he managed a butcher's shop in Lincoln. He stuck a piece of fat under the slab of the scales on which he weighed the cuts of meat, charging every time for the unseen fat, and at the end of the day pocketing the excess takings for himself. The lack of principle extended to his sexual life. He was reputed not only to have deceived a great many unsuspecting husbands, but to have taken a plenitude of virginities - though Carrie's eluded him because she had not reserved it for her nuptials.

She was a marked exception to the generality of farmers' daughters and was extremely ill-behaved in a sexual way. She shrank neither from multiple love making, nor from incest, nor - if reports were true - from both at the same time. At the Yews she shared a bed with her sister Kitty, but left it for more interesting company when the opportunity arose. One morning after Carrie had been absent for the night, Kitty met one of her brothers on the stairs who asked pruriently: "Do you know where Carrie was last night?" Kitty neither knew nor wished to know, but she was told nevertheless: "Our beloved sister was in bed with Walter and me !" Adventures of that kind did not, however, divert Carrie's attention from lawful matrimony, and Walter Plumtree married her several years before the Great War.

Kitty Mason's unsatisfactory lover was the Skellingthorpe parson. It happened that the man she ultimately married was also a parson - although that was not the only reason why her father disapproved of him. Furthermore, Kitty had a son who became a parson, so it is apparent that she had a strong attachment to the cloth, and it was acquired in Waddingham, near Brigg, where she was born in 1888. Waddingham was an open village with no manor house and no gentry, and the man of most consequence in it was the rector, whose income from tithe rent, glebe land and other temporalities amounted to no less than one thousand five hundred pounds a year.

The rectory was a large house in its own grounds, and Mr Joseph Simpson lived there in style, with a couple of groom-gardeners, a cook, and several maids. The rector therefore implanted in Kitty's susceptible young mind a concept of the parson as a major figure in the village, and since she attached great weight to considerations of that kind, she came to the early conclusion that, of all classes of men, those in holy orders were the most desirable. Her mother, knowing parsons better, did not share those sentiments, and despised Joseph Simpson in particular for being lazy and negligent of his parish. The rector devoted what little energy he had to the business of marrying off his "tribe of daughters" - which he did by holding very grand garden parties on the rectory lawns with champagne and strawberries for all the eligible young men in the neighbourhood. He fondly described his youngest daughter, Blanche, as being "head over heels and fathoms deep in love" with one of them, and this sententious utterance became a stock family saying of my childhood, to be applied cynically to any love-lorn female creature, because we knew the unworthy object of Blanche Simpson's desperately vertiginous and oceanic infatuation - the Reverend J. Watney of Canwick.

Joseph Simpson gave so much attention to the matrimonial prospects of his daughters and so little to the heavenly aspirations of his parishioners that the Bishop of Lincoln eventually took proceedings against him and sequestered his living. An atheistic but reliable cobbler of Waddingham was appointed sequestrator and the entire income from the various temporalities was paid to him. He hired a resident curate for a few hundred pounds a year to perform the rector's spiritual duties. He paid off Joseph's creditors - who were many and clamorous because the nuptials of his daughters had proved expensive - and the balance, after the sequestrator's costs, was despatched to the rector, who lived in retirement on the south coast, still secure in the enjoyment of a major part of his rectorial freehold. The rich living of Waddingham was in the gift of the Crown, and after Joseph's death the Queen gave it to the Reverend Mr Gardiner-Smith. His son became the unbelieving Dean of Jesus College Cambridge, and I was to come across him there, unhappily, when I was an undergraduate.

Unsatisfactory though Joseph Simpson had been as a shepherd of his flock, his social position in Waddingham implanted in Kitty Mason a high regard for ministers of the established church. So when she was a young woman of twenty-three and the vicar of Skellingthorpe, Tommy Hamilton, presented himself as a suitor for her favour, her reverence for those in holy orders outweighed her ingrained reluctance to have anything to do with a married man. The parson's attentions were plainly dishonourable because he could never divorce the wife who had left him so long as he pursued his priestly calling. Kitty's love was therefore impaled on the horns of a dilemma since Tom Hamilton's major charm lay in his being a parson, and he would cease to be a parson if he divorced his fugitive wife and married her.

As for Tom Hamilton, he had sadly fallen from grace after coming to Skellingthorpe in the bright sunlight of good fortune. Born a protestant in Southern Ireland, he had entertained no thought of entering the ministry of the Church of England until he married the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer. Having read mathematics at Trinity college Dublin, he then taught maths and geography in an Irish school for several years. His qualifications to instruct in the latter subject were not a matter of academic record, but when later taxed by Kitty Mason with possible inadequacies in his second subject he replied: "Geography? Geography? And wasn't I, to be sure, knowing every tree on the banks of the Mississippi?" Tom's wit eventually won him the hand of the rich Maude Parks, who was as beautiful as Tom was ugly, and her wealth made it neccessary for her father to cast about to find an occupation for Tom that would be consistent with his wife's fortune. Who had ever heard of a rich schoolmaster? On the other hand there were, and always had been, many rich parsons.

Therefore Mr Parks paid for Tom to go to a theological college to prepare for ordination, and immediately began to search the ecclesiastical market in England for a benefice with a vicarage large enough to do Maud credit - and with an incumbent old and infirm enough not to keep her husband waiting very long before he could step into his shoes. Mr Parks, bearing these considerations in mind, settled upon Skellingthorpe and bought the advowson, which enabled him to present his grateful son-in-law to the living fairly soon after he had been ordained priest. The temporalities appurtenant to the cure of souls in Skellingthorpe included a stipend of five hundred pounds a year - modest compared with Joseph Simpson's emoluments, but princely to a farm labourer earning twelve shillings a week. Mr Parks supplemented it with a generous allowance, and in 1903 the Hamiltons moved into the village with an establishment of imported Irish maids, and imported Irish grooms to look after the carriage horses. An English nanny joined them to care for the two children.

A photograph of the new incumbent shows him reclining cross-legged on a rustic seat in the garden of his vicarage, and wearing a tall black top-hat. A long frock-coat is unbuttoned throughout its length to expose a double-breasted waistcoat with a row of buttons down each side. His narrow trousers are short - and shoes, instead of boots, proclaim that his wife has money. He is a big, white-faced man , with a wide mouth and a large flabby jowl. His ears are prominent, and his brows beetle over a pair of small humourous eyes. Being an Irish Protestant, Tom asserts his low-churchmanship by wearing a clerical collar so high that it catches him under the chin, but preserves him from any possibility of being mistaken for one of his Roman brethren.

The Reverend Tom quickly endeared himself to his parishioners, except for a crabbed few who disapproved of the new parson's extravagant way of life. His congregation was supplemented by many who came from far afield to hear his sermons, because it was impossible for him to open his mouth anywhere - even in church - without being funny. "I won't trouble myself" he declared one day from the pulpit, "to picture for you the pitiful condition of that prodigal son when he came home - for you've heard his rags flapping in many a sermonic breeze. Would you, now, have me draw breath to rustle them again?" His light touch with holy scripture extended to his handling of the Bishop of Lincoln, who caught him one market day coming out of Pratt's near the Stonebow at noon. "Hamilton !" said the bishop, "I'm surprised to find you leaving a public house at this time of the morning !" "And would your lordship," replied Tom, "have me there all day?"

Until the Hamiltons arrived in Skellingthorpe, the upper-class patronage of the village dances had been formal and disciplined, and the response of the lower orders had been correspondingly dutiful. The male Nevilles from the Manor House and the Bergne-Couplands from the Hall did a turn or two with those village ladies whom it might be gracious to notice, and the female gentry submitted once or twice to the embraces of the peasantry. Mrs Berge-Coupland was not asked to dance in the hope that there might be an occasional brushing of thighs, but when Mrs Hamilton was invited to take the floor it was a different matter. Dancing with her was said to be a stimulating and rewarding enterprise. She was described as an "an open challenge to manhood", but no-one could tell me what Maude actually looked like. May and Kitty were too scandalised by her overt sexuality to be able to describe the parson's wife objectively, and their brothers seemed to have experienced rather than to have observed her. I was left only with impressions - "tall" - "dark" - "passionate" - "flashing eyes" - "like a Spaniard".

Maude's wealth and beauty, and Tom's table talk, brought the Hamiltons invitations to dine in much grander houses than those to which a parson from a distant village would otherwise have had social access. Their coach rolled down the vicarage drive to take them out to the Monsons at Burton, the Sibthorps at Canwick, the Londesboroughs at Blankney, the Pelhams at Brocklesby, and the Tennyson-d'Eyncourts at Tealby. Time was also found for local worthies such as the Liverpools and Nevilles, and - occasionally - even for the cathedral clergy. Hospitality was lavishly repaid at the vicarage, and amongst all this social activity it was inevitable that Maude should meet another Irish charmer, a gentleman who was always known as "Murphy" - as if running away with the parson's wife made him as unworthy of a mister as the accused in a law court.

Murphy was a civil engineer living temporarily in Lincoln while supervising the construction of a water tower, which became a painfully conspicuous monument to Tom Hamilton's cuckoldry. It still is, with the cathedral and castle, one of the principal landmarks on the skyline of the City of Lincoln. Maude speedily became the engineer's mistress and bore a third child, whom gossip ascribed to her lover. Then the water tower was completed, and Murphy was ready to move to his next assignment - which happened to be in Ireland. So one Saturday evening Maude told her husband that she was leaving with Murphy the next day. All night long Tom pleaded on his knees for her to stay, but she was adamant. In the morning he steeled himself to go to church to celebrate the eight o'clock holy communion; but the service required him to recite the ten commandments, and when he came to the sixth his self-control broke down. With a gesture of despair, he swept the chalice and paten off the altar, and cried out that he was unable to continue. Immediately the news was round the village that Maude had fled. The catholic Irish grooms had taken her trunks to Lincoln when they drove into mass, and Mrs Hamilton had disappeared with Murphy.

The next development was that Maude wrote asking her husband to send the three children to Ireland in the care of their nursemaid so that she could see them. Maude promised that they would be returned, and Tom complied with her request because he hoped that the children would draw her home again. His confidence was misplaced. In Ireland the nursemaid discovered one morning that the youngest - Murphy's supposed offspring - was missing. She had been abducted by her mother and, although the other two children were sent back home, the third was never seen in Skellingthorpe again. Murphy, Maude and the baby went to live in the United States, and then a few years later Maude's father, Mr Parks, was declared bankrupt. The Reverend Tom hoped that his wife would come back to him now that her money had gone, but that was not to be. Murphy was a successful engineer, and had made a fortune of his own. He died when Maude was sixty-two, leaving her all his money, and this enabled her to retire to the South of France and into the arms of a handsome young Italian gigolo, who served her faithfully until her death. The Reverend Tom was then released from what had been for him the indissoluble bonds of matrimony - but much too late to be any help to Kitty Mason.

After Tom Hamilton's wife had left him, he engaged a housekeeper, and his two remaining children were brought up in the care of a governess. A stipend of five hundred pounds a year would stretch to that, but the grooms and maids had to be dismissed, and the carriage and the horses were sold. The parson took to a bicycle, and his social life amongst the nobility and gentry came to an end. He had blazed briefly in Lincolnshire society, only to be extinguished again in the scandal of Maude's departure. The doors of the halls, courts, and manors of the county families were closed, and the only invitations he now received were to perform as an after-dinner speaker to relieve the tedium of the mass male banquets to which business and professional institutions are still so unaccountably addicted.

Deserted, disgraced, and lonely, Tom sought solace in the society of Kitty Mason, and he was not rejected out of hand because, apart from her respect for holy orders, Kitty was herself unhappy. In my experience it is not buoyant, cheerful, well-adjusted young women, with life at their bidding, who waste their time and affection on married men. It is rather those bruised by the world, the accident prone - often the most enchanting of women - who seem obliged, compulsively, to add to their own misfortunes by their choice of lovers. I never knew the Kitty Mason who had accepted the attentions of Tom Hamilton. By the time I grew up she had become within the family a figure of almost monumental strength and stability. The past was behind her, and she had emerged into the sunlight of a place in society she regarded as prestigious and enviable. Kitty was one of the few I have known who looked backward to their childhood and youth with distaste - thankful that they were over.

She had been born, as she said, "weak and wankling", and grew up a sickly and bilious child. Her mother preferred Carrie and was not one to hide it. In a way we dare not now do, her mother allowed herself open favourites amongst her children, believing that in a world where some are inevitably more loved than others, the less loved might as well learn early to put up with it. Deprived at home of the affection she craved, and often unwell, Kitty was withdrawn and uncomfortable at school, and unloved by her teachers. As a matter of course, whenever there was a school play or pantomime to entertain the village, Kitty Mason was the wicked fairy or the cruel stepmother, while her younger sister May, my mother, was invariably cast as the sweet and lovable heroine.

It was small wonder, therefore, that Kitty was solitary and introspective, creeping away whenever she could to unused outbuildings on the farm to live vicariously in romantic novels, and to be unavailable for the rough work her mother was always ready to find for her. Carrie had the light, pleasant jobs - such as making cakes and pastries. Kitty cleaned out the fireplaces or scrubbed the floors, while her sister May entertained her by declaiming the poetry of Tennyson and Browning. When Arthur Robinson started to visit the Yews he immediately noticed the division of female labour and described Kitty's role as "galley slave" - but though sorry for her, he found her cold, peevish, and sharp-tongued. He also thought her "plain". However, at that time he was enjoying the admiration of the most nubile girls Nottingham College could offer, and was unduly critical.

The unfairness of Arthur's strictures upon Kitty's appearance is demonstrated by a photograph of her taken when she was twenty-four. Her light brown hair is parted down the middle, but instead of dropping to cover her ears it is brushed up well above them and held in place there, like a projecting canopy, with hairpins. She has a reasonable figure, and a beautifully clear complexion. Even if her nose and chin are slightly too large for her oval face, Kitty looks a fresh, wholesome, country girl. She had in fact attracted a number of men, including one of her brothers, before the Skellingthorpe parson came along. So Tom Hamilton was fortunate to find a refuge in her heart from his matrimonial disaster - although he deplored his lover's indifference to her appearance. "Kit !" he once said when she received him in an old dress he thought unworthy of the occasion, "When I came to the village you hadn't a rag to your back. And now you've nothing else !"

For several years the parson bicycled to the Yews almost every evening. There he played cards and became a schoolmaster again, teaching Kitty the arithmetic, English, history and, of course, the geography - she had neglected during her unhappy schooldays. The table talk that had formerly delighted the nobility and gentry of Lincolnshire was now lavished on the inhabitants of a farmhouse, but only one of the parson's copious fund of stories has survived. It was about a furnaceman in a pottery in Staffordshire who was moved by the Lord to become a Wesleyan minister. After he had completed his bible studies, he was given a viva voce examination in holy scripture. "Do you believe," they asked, "that Daniel was thrown into the lion's den and came out again alive?" "Most certainly." he replied. "And are you assured," they persisted, "that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but eventually with the Almighty's help emerged safe and sound?" "Yes, I am," said the man of faith. "And finally," they asked, "are you convinced that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cast into a fiery furnace - a furnace even hotter than the one you had in Staffordshire - and came out of it unharmed?" The furnaceman paused for a long time, and then replied: "No, as a matter of fact, I'm not ! And now I come to think of it, I'm not so keen on your damned old fish yarn either !"

Occasionally the parson took Kitty out, and it was usually to watch a football match. He was a devoted fan of the Imps - the Lincoln City football team, which derived its name from a cross-legged grinning devil to be found high up in the Angel Choir of the Cathedral. The medieval stonemason who carved that figure - strangely sinister and strangely cheerful - would not have been flattered to know that it would be adopted as their mascot by a team of professional footballers who played, firmly grounded by their lack of distinction, in the third and then lowest division of the league hierarchy. Tom Hamilton nevertheless loyally followed his team's misfortunes by taking Kitty by train to neighbouring towns. On one occasion, towards the end of a long day in Nottingham, he committed the gross error of asking his companion if she needed to go to the lavatory. Kitty replied indignantly that she did not. The needs of the body were scarcely to be acknowledged at all, and certainly not between one sex and the other. As my mother once told me: "Kitty and I were the utmost prudes and could not bear any vulgarity". Yet this could be consistent with their being extremely tolerant of sexual misdemeanour - having grown up in the country, with fornication and adultery the natural background to their childhood, and with rape, incest, and the seduction of minors commonplace enough to be unremarkable. Kitty was in fact so familiar with and acclimatised to the ways of men, women, and other animals that she could display at times a sort of innocence. Thus, when she was sixteen, she found her older brothers splashing about on a hot day in the pond behind the farmhouse. Bathing costumes were unknown so they swam naked, and Kitty quite naturally took off her own clothes and bathed with them - being blankly uncomprehending of her mother's anger when she heard of it.

The parson's attentions to Kitty Mason were so persistent that the village concluded that their association had become adulterous, but that was certainly not the case. Kitty had little love of the flesh. As a child of twelve she had been sexually assaulted by one of her father's farm labourers. Throughout her youth she had to fight off the importunities of a brother. She had been sickened by her father's confidences because, although unpopular with her mother, she had the consolation of being liked by her father - an advantage she could have dispensed with. He had perceived behind all her youthful lack of confidence the hard edges to Kitty's personality, and had recognised himself in her as in none of his other children. Therefore, loving to talk about his adulteries, he chose his favourite daughter to hear of them in detail. These revelations only confirmed the poor opinion of men Kitty had formed from her own direct experience. They were, in her view, "a bad lot", and she had so little inclination towards sexual adventure that those who made overtures in that direction were contemptuously described as having "tried to play me up". Anyone who gave the least indication that he had designs upon her virtue was ruthlessly dismissed, and Kitty used to tell of the ludicrous attempt of a Lincoln bank clerk, Ivor Watkin, to persuade her into fornication.

The bank clerk and the Skellingthorpe parson happened to be pursuing Kitty at the same time, and this provoked her to mock them both by singing a variant of Macheath's song in the Beggars' Opera:

"How happy could I be with Ivor
Were t'other dear charmer away !"

Ivor grew desperate when he was told by his bank that they were moving him away from Lincoln. He rushed over to Skellingthorpe and rang the Yews doorbell at ten o'clock at night and demanded to see Kitty. She appeared, and he implored her to come out into the garden because he he had something of great importance to tell her. Kitty consented, and the important news was of his departure. Time was running out. In desperation he quoted Herrick's advice "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying."

Ivor did not display the most exquisite tact in drawing sentiments of that kind to the attention of a young woman who had progressed, still unmarried, from the bloom of her teens to the near maturity of her middle twenties, and his plea for immediate action was poorly received. "I'll gather my rosebuds," Kitty told him with chilling finality, "when I'm ready !" So Ivor departed for his new posting, with passion unassuaged.

As for the Reverend Tom Hamilton, he didn't even try to play her up. Kitty dismissed him as a mere "slop-pot" - one who kissed, and that was all. Perversely, she despised the unfortunate parson for the very want of sexual drive that commended him. He provided what she most wanted - a man's admiration without the erotic consequences. But the affaire blanche with Tom Hamilton was eventually seen by her father to be destroying his daughter's remaining chances of marriage, already rapidly diminishing now that she was twenty-seven. He forbade her to have anything more to do with the parson, and barred him from the house. Undeterred, Kitty used to hang a sheet from the attic window of the Yews as soon as her father had gone out to the Trust after supper to tell her lover that it was safe for him to slip furtively into the house for an hour or so. However, Tom was so popular with the family that he gradually drifted back into being an open visitor again, and he eventually assumed the position of nothing more than a family friend when Kitty found a more suitable object for her affection.



The disadvantages of Carrie's husband Walter Plumtree and of Kitty's lover the Skellingthorpe parson made May's choice of Arthur Robinson relatively acceptable to her father, and he had charmed her mother from his first introduction. So since Arthur was generally welcomed at the Yews farmhouse May now decided that she must dispense with a Russian suitor whom, for several years, she had been keeping quietly available in the background. Hans Morse, a student of engineering at Darmstadt University had arrived in Skellingthorpe in the late summer of 1910 for a few months' practical experience in Ruston's iron works - a pilgrimage engineers then made to Britain. At week-ends he stayed at the Trust in Skellingthorpe, and May Mason met him at a village dance. Hans was tall, handsome, and distinguished. Rimless spectacles seem only to have added to his charm. For three months he courted May assiduously, coming boldly to the Yews to ask for "Mees May". Hans's mother, who lived in Odessa, had instructed him to find an English wife to enhance his status in the world, and he had found her in Skellingthorpe. His intentions were all too honourable, and May's mother was horrified at the prospect of her daughter being removed to the depths of Russia, and as for her father - he let it be known that he "would rather see her in the grave". Therefore their daughter, ever dutiful, did not accept Hans's offer of marriage. Nor did she reject it so categorically that they ceased to correspond after he returned to Darmstadt.

Their courtship had been highly romantic. One evening they walked together in Skellingthorpe Woods, and May picked a flower. Hans asked her to put it in his buttonhole, and very shyly and bashfully she did. He swore in his broken English that he would keep the flower for ever. Fifty years later my mother showed me the glade in which all this transpired, and the fence on which she wept bitterly when Hans went back to his university. He gave her his walking stick as a memento and let her know that she was his true love. Yet he did not venture kisses or caresses. Not that he was innocent or inexperienced - because he was rich and had, as May said with a thrill of excitement and before the word had acquired a new meaning, "been gay with actresses". But now that he wished to marry, propriety had restrained him from pressing even for a kiss. Romantic as all that was, May was down-to-earth enough about his wealth: "Oh ! He was so well-to-do and so beautifully dressed, with his American shoes, and sleek fair hair !"

Perhaps that is why he was kept in cold store. May and Hans continued to correspond, and he had sent her from Darmstadt, only shortly before she had decided to give him up, a charcoal drawing of her head executed from memory. She was pleased enough with it to have the drawing glazed and framed - and it still hangs in my brother's house with the date, 1913, and the love-sick artist's initials in one corner. Hans's unequivocal dismissal was sent by letter in December of that year, and May kept his reply until her death. It was written in uncertain English, and begins: "My dear May". He pleads, and seems heartbroken: "I thought I could bring you some day in my house, and now are all beautiful picture broken". But I wonder how much of it was safely theatrical. As he says: "I should not stop away for so long. I should return to England every year, and I did not". Hans insists that he will write again - but if he did, no more letters were kept. What happened to him, whether in the Great War, or in the Russian Revolution, my mother never knew.

Even though Arthur Robinson was now generally well accepted at the Yews, the complimentary meeting with his parents, who lived in a semi-detached villa on the edge of Lincoln towards Hykeham, had not yet taken place. Arthur kept putting it off for many months on one pretext or another. "Father is a dear" he said, while keeping ominously silent about his mother - of whom he was ashamed. However, much as Arthur dreaded May's encounter with his mother, it could not be delayed for ever. At last, in June 1914, May bicycled one Sunday evening to Arthur's home to await his parents' return from church.

Neither of my Robinson grandparents was, in any sense that I could discern, religious. I never heard them pray at home or say grace, and there was no talk, ever, of religion. Yet, regular as churchwardens, they went to evensong on Sunday in the little Saxon church of All Saints, Bracebridge. Not matins, nor communion, but evensong - a ritual weekly walk of a mile there and a mile back, after high tea. Harry Robinson strode along in his black bowler, wearing his best blue serge suit, and a pair of light brown shoes, highly polished by Annie, his useful wife. As he walked ahead, swinging a malacca walking stick with an amber handle and a silver band bearing his four initials intertwined in gothic script, Annie trudged a few paces behind, suffering cruelly from her bunions, and carrying the prayer books for both of them. Wherever Harry and Annie Robinson went, they walked in tandem, with Harry about three paces ahead, only troubling to toss over his shoulder the occasional largesse of an utterance to his trailing partner. He was ashamed of her too.

And rightly so in May Mason's view, because she formed a very poor opinion of that sequent spouse. "Mrs Robinson" , she declared, "was truly a shock to one's system !" The trouble was not her appearance. That was respectable enough, and was in any case redeemed by the flash of a brilliant and extraordinarily charming smile. Nor was her house dirty or neglected. It was the conversation that shocked - both in form and content. As to the form, Annie spoke a language of her own, compounded of gross distortions of her native tongue - even of her native Lincolnshire tongue. A greyhound was a "grewhound". May's beloved Mr Asquith was "Mester Hesketh" - and the Home and Colonial Stores, notwithstanding that she patronised it next after the Co-op for her groceries, was the "Eau de Cologne Stores". These and many other slovenly and quite arbitrary eccentricities of diction, such as "the Kayser" and "Zebbelin", fell heavily upon May's sensitive ears, and confirmed what Arthur's silence about his mother had suggested - that she was both lower class and uneducated.

What May found intolerable in Arthur's mother was not so much her origins as her indifference to letting them sound, and Annie's unconcern to amend her speech was curiously inconsistent with her being a staunch and lively Conservative. She loved nothing better than to consort with Mrs Woolhouse, the bank manager's wife, at branch meetings and party teas. Yet that did not in the least inhibit her from letting fall exclamations of "My Crust !" - an invocation of her Redeemer - as freely amongst the nicely spoken bourgeoisie of Swallowbeck as amongst her own family.

The content of her conversation was no better. It had two main ingredients - illness and scandal. Annie's rare indispositions were borne with resignation and fortitude, but she talked incessantly of the maladies of others - preferably those of her friends and relatives. Doctor Sharpe of Swallowbeck and Doctor Alcock of St Catherine's were the principal figures of her conversation, each contending for the honour of being more baffled and defeated than the other by patients with the most insidious, painful, mysterious and - hopefully - fatal diseases. The operating table in the County Hospital was the altar of Annie's faith in the vanity of human wishes, and the municipal cemetery in South Park was its shrine. Particularly holy were the small new graves of babies, whom she adored, cut off like young buds in a frost. May found talk of such things in the very worst taste because illness and death were subjects of conversation regarded as almost indecent in her family. The Masons preferred to live unreminded of mortality. Even so, she could have been sorry for a woman, ignorant and despised by her family, who found her consolation in the misfortunes of others, if Annie's tongue had only been careless and sad. It was also careless and vicious. You could, as May said, "fell an ox with it". Annie and her closest friend, "Ma Kerr" - pronounced as spelt, with no pretentious "Carr" variation - revelled with as much relish in the immoralities of the neighbourhood as in the infirmities, and castigated them with what seemed to May Mason, accustomed to the easy-going ways and attitudes of her own family, to be a savage and needless ferocity.

However, May's impression of Arthur's mother was very different from mine as her grandchild. As I remember her she undoubtedly took great liberties with the King's English, and I can well recall her talk of illness - but not the whip-lash of her gossip. Of course, it is possible that my young ears were thought too tender for her tongue to be loosed in my hearing. I think of her as kind and affectionate above all things, because children were her great love. I adored her, while taking every advantage I could of her willingness to serve. So my mother and I had two quite different pictures of Annie Robinson, and it is this ability of grandparents to change character in the eyes of the next generation that makes having grandchildren so desirable. They have two great advantages. Not only do they offer the possibility of redeeming one's reputation within the family, but the fair chance of one being dead before they reach adolescence.

On better acquaintance, May slightly relaxed her hostility to "old Mrs Robinson" - as she had been known from the age of forty - but she could never approve of her or even like her much, and on that first visit to Portland House the daggers were out in earnest. Annie resented May Mason as an intruder with her nose in the air, and the meeting was a disaster for Arthur, but far from the end of his humiliations.

He had devoted so much time to sport, acting, singing and other social activities in Nottingham that in June 1914, at the end of his three-year course, he failed his degree. Now he could never become a "schoolmaster" and teach in a grammar school. Without a degree, only an elementary school would have him as a "schoolteacher" - and the difference in status was huge. Throughout my boyhood and youth I always lied when asked by the socially curious what my father did, and said he was a "schoolmaster" - as if he stalked in cap and gown securely over the middle class uplands with the parsons and doctors, instead of hanging perilously by his finger nails to the lower slopes, like a chemist. Fortunately, as soon as I reached manhood, he retired early from the scholastic world with a lady of independent means, and saved me any further embarrassment in describing how he earned a living.

In an academic way at Nottingham College May Mason had done little better than Arthur Robinson. Her two-year course ended at the same time as his three-year one, and although she passed the written examination which qualified her to be a certified teacher, it had been a very near thing. Being in love with a somewhat dilatory admirer cannot have been conducive to work because she was not stupid, and at school had always performed much better in the examination room than in the classroom, because she wrote easily and coherently. So there is little doubt that she had, like Arthur, grossly neglected her studies. On the other hand her practical work was a triumph. It was not simply that she had already taught for two years and knew the trade. She was a born teacher.

It had become apparent when she was fifteen. Mr Brooks, the Skellingthorpe headmaster, started to let her hear the younger children read because he found that with her they would be quiet and attentive, so she became his unpaid assistant notwithstanding that he had terrified her into stupidity as a pupil. He taught through fear - with a long cane - and earned May Mason's eternal contempt. "Of all the people on earth who couldn't teach", she said, "I never knew one so bad as Mr Brooks !" Nevertheless, under him she discovered that when she lined the little ones up in front of her and taught, she found that teaching was an unreasonable and excessive joy - a pleasure "almost indecent in its intensity".

The passion to become a teacher took possession of her, but its achievement demanded further education - available only at the Continuation school in Lincoln which provided secondary education, usually beginning at the age of eleven, for those unable to afford the Girls' High School. Even so, the Continuation School - although in Free School Lane - charged sixpence a week and her father refused to pay. However, she had an ally as determined as she, and her mother found the weekly sixpence out of the housekeeping money she earned by selling eggs and butter. So the fifteen year old May Mason left Mr Brooks and was put into a class of girls of her own age who had already been learning French, geometry, and algebra for three or four years - whereas she was entirely ignorant of those mysteries. News of this somehow came to the ears of the Clerk to the Education Committee who, with his tiny staff of two or three people, was able to concern himself with the problem of the girl from Skellingthorpe who was unacquainted with French and mathematics. The Clerk, Mr Minton, sent for May's mother, and advised her to withdraw her daughter from the school because she had no chance whatsoever of passing the examination for entrance to the Lincoln Pupil Teacher Centre, which was only a year ahead. But the farmer's wife stood her ground, as she was well used to doing with her husband, and May pursued her apparently hopeless studies - furious with indignation that a meddlesome bureaucrat should have dared to question her capacity to become a teacher.

In the event, May Mason did in fact pass her King's Scholarship Examination for would-be teachers, and it entitled her to two years free tuition at the Lincoln Pupil Teacher Centre in Christ's Hospital Terrace. Her mother did not hesitate to draw her daughter's success to the attention of the Clerk to the Education Committee - nor did he fail to remember the impertinence, and eventually took his revenge. Then May was similarly successful in her final examinations at the Pupil Teacher Centre - having, as she said, "the gift of the gab with a pen in my hand". So her way to a teacher training college was now open, except for a troublesome problem of finance.

Her father insisted that she must train in Lincoln and live cheaply at home. On no account would he pay for needless board and lodging in another city. Her mother, however would not allow May to go to the teacher training college in Lincoln because it was run by the Church of England, and knowledge of the Anglican prayer book was a condition of entry. After a childhood under the hated rector of Redbourne, she was "sick of parsondom" and no daughter of hers was to be subjected to examination in the book of Common Prayer. So teacher training in Lincoln was utterly forbidden. May's only way out of this dilemma was to teach unqualified for a couple of years to earn enough money to be independent of them both. And that is what she did.

May found herself a job at Eagle school, five miles from her home in Skellingthorpe, and in the summer months she bicycled there and back each day, taking sandwiches for lunch. For this journey she needed a new machine, and her father was at least willing to lend her seven pounds to buy one. She paid him back at the rate of one pound a month out of her annual salary of nineteen pounds. In winter she lodged in Eagle with Miss Roe, and only went home at week-ends. Miss Roe warmed the beds each night with a copper warming pan filled with red-hot cinders from the living room fire, her food was delicious, and her heart was as warm as her sheets. Her kindness extended to befriending an ancient creature called Old Charlotte who had been a little light-footed gipsy plying her trade of fortune-telling in Lincoln until she settled in Eagle. Now she had become an old witch complete with long streaming hair, a familiar cat, and shrill foreign speech. In her broken clay pipe, black with age, she smoked such strong tobacco that her tongue was perpetually bleeding, but Charlotte was well liked in the village because she was always ready to take out the cards and advise on matters of the heart and of futurity.

At Eagle May Mason spent two years learning how not to teach. "Eagle school" she said, "was a bad school. Mr Baldock, the headmaster, was a bad man. The children were bad. Everything was bad". By this she meant nothing more sinister than Mr Baldock taught by compulsion instead of love, and that the children responded accordingly. In contrast, his young unqualified assistant inspired such devotion that a girl was reputed to have married a man called Mason so that she could have a Mason daughter to call May after her beloved teacher.

It was therefore small wonder that when May Mason was sent out from Nottingham College for practice teaching, the headmistress of the first school immediately summoned Miss Bird, a tutor at the college, to tell her of the prodigy they had in their midst. So Miss Bird moved May to the Nottingham show-school at Castle Boulevard - the pride of the Education Authority. The headmistress of this establishment was so impressed that she offered May Mason a job on the spot. It was like being invited, almost from the cradle, to take up residence on Parnassus, and May wrote home in high delight to ask her parents' permission to stay on in Nottingham. Yes.... she was now twenty-two, of sound mind, and able to earn her keep, but her parents had to give their consent. And they refused it. They decreed that she was to return home to live at the Yews and to teach again in a local school. Their daughter complied - and it was not because she was a poor mouse-like creature, but because she had been taught from infancy the stern commandment:

"Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long
in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee".

It was not easy to ignore the implied threat against disobedience when submission to parental command was still general - and it had its practical advantages. May's parents had already spared her the coming Bolshevik Revolution by disapproving of Hans Morse, and they were now to save her from the consequences of an even more rash enthusiasm.

In July 1914, she was elected to attend a Christian Union conference in Swanwick in Derbyshire as her college representative. It was an international affair, and one night the contingent of German Christians silently departed for the Fatherland to fight the Christians they had left behind. The other delegates stayed to complete the course, which was long enough for the oratory of Neville Talbot, Tubby Clayton, and another evangelist blessed with the name of Tissington Tatlow, so to ignite May Mason's ever inflammable religious zeal that she signed for missionary work in India - Arthur Robinson notwithstanding. Fortunately her father's unwillingness to pay for the extra year of study needed to acquire the rudiments of medicine, and her mother's tears, prevented May from pursuing her ridiculous intention of trying to persuade the Indians to forsake one religion only to embrace another. Instead, she obediently returned to the Yews, abandoning both the Prize School of Nottingham and the Jewel in the Imperial Crown.

On the way back she went to the house of Miriam Mason where she had lodged while at college, to collect her belongings and to suffer for the last time from her landlady's financial rapacity. Amongst her property were too many books for her to take home on the train at one go. So she had left some behind with Miriam, who said they could remain in a drawer in her former bedroom. But, when May returned to collect them a few weeks later, it was to discover that Miriam had sold them to pay for the hire of the room which May had technically continued to occupy.

It had been a condition of the parental permission for May to go to Nottingham College that she should lodge with her father's cousin Miriam, who was the generously endowed widow of a butcher, with a good house and a large garden in St Ann's Valley. Miriam was small, thin and restless, with bright eyes that darted about like quicksilver. She had a beautiful old Broadwood piano that twanged like a harp, and talked of her days at boarding school - her branch of the Mason family being prosperous. For two successive generations they had married Greasleys who, by good management and extreme parsimony, had made money in retail trade and I hope that Miriam derived her eccentricity, which was endearing , from the Masons - and her meanness, which was remarkable, from the Greasleys.

We read of misers, but May actually lived with one. Aunt Miriam hoarded her sovereigns in a strong box in her bedroom, and she could be heard counting and chinking her gold every night before she said her prayers and climbed into bed. Consequently, although she provided her niece with comfortable lodgings, the subsistence left much to be desired. May calculated, and the maid confirmed, that the five shillings and sixpence she handed over to Miriam each week more than paid for all the food that came into the house for the three of them. For breakfast they ate bread and dripping. On week-days May had to buy her own dinner in the city. Tea was bread and margarine, with perhaps few lettuce leaves in season. For supper there was a tiny piece of cheese. When Miriam bought even the cheapest fish, she was so overcome with remorse at having spent the money that she couldn't bring herself to cook it until, eventually, it was almost inedible. Once she kept three kippers until they were so nauseous that my mother and the maid refused to eat them - so Miriam, to avoid waste, consumed all three and was ill in bed, with the doctor running up bills, for a fortnight afterwards.

It was only for Sunday dinner that Miriam was willing to open her purse. Then she bought a joint of beef, and it was of the finest quality because, having worked in her husband's butcher's shop, she not only knew how to sharpen a carving knife like a razor, but how to choose the best cuts of meat. On the Lord's Day, Aunt Miriam put on her best clothes and took my mother to the Broad Street Chapel to give praise for the forthcoming dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, while the maid stayed at home to cook it. Miriam so loved meat that when she had cut a tender morsel she played with it like a cat with a mouse - tossing it up from the plate in the air with her knife and fork several times before putting it into her mouth, saying: "Oh ! It is a sweet piece of beef !" This became one of the family sayings of my childhood and, with the accompanying pantomime, invariably expressed our appreciation of the Sunday joint. Meat was not Miriam's only Sabbatical indulgence. For tea on that day she provided a thin slice of cake, but on condition that May ate bread and margarine first to blunt her appetite.

Understandably, Miriam was always hungry herself, and liked to have her wretched breakfast served early. So every morning at seven o'clock May would hear Miriam call in her Nottingham accent across the landing to the maid's bedroom: "Dorotheh ! I'm so hungreh ! Please get up !" Then the maid would shout back: "shut up, you old fool ! I'll get up when I like !" Dorothy was insubordinate because Miriam's meanness had played into her hands. Years previously the maid had been feeling unwell, and the doctor had prescribed a nip of whisky every night to help her sleep more soundly. She therefore bought herself a bottle, and it happened that Miriam was extremely partial to spirits, although much less partial to buying any herself. Dorothy's bottle was irresistible, and in a few days the mistress had surreptitiously emptied it. Thereafter, while the maid continued to perform her domestic duties, it was only with the greatest and most freely expressed impertinence. Dorothy was paid - reluctantly - at the end of each month, and since she had a mania for hats she immediately rushed off to the milliners to buy a new one. This wanton extravagence with what only an hour ago had been Miriam's own money so distressed her that when Dorothy returned home wearing yet another of her needless purchases, her mistress used to burst into tears and cry out with vexation - only to be told: "Be quiet, you silly old thing ! I'll buy what I want !"



Back home again in Skellingthorpe May did not live pining for Castle Boulevard in Nottingham. She taught in Saxilby for a salary of six gold sovereigns a month - "and it was glorious". Her parents were again vindicated. When she applied for a job in a village only three miles from her home she had no inkling that she would find there, in a headmaster with the unpromising name of Mr Brunt, a man whose teaching methods and objectives so exactly corresponded with her own that she was able to worship him well on the far side of idolatry and he thought her "the grandest teacher ever". This revelation of how a school should really be run moved May to liken herself to the Virgin Mary after the Annunciation in that she "kept all these things in her heart" for future reference.

Mr Brunt, the ideal headmaster, was small and hen-pecked by a large and terrible wife. So he spent as much of his time away from her as he could. In the school holidays he went abroad alone, spearing fish in Madeira, or travelling on a cargo boat into the Arctic Circle. He could afford indulgences of that kind because when the evenings were light he doubled his salary of one hundred and seventy-two pounds a year by bicycling round the local farms to help farmers with their income tax returns. In the winter he spent the long dark evenings alone in his schoolroom preparing lessons and marking homework, which began for the children at the age of seven because the life of the school was concentrated on a massive board lettered in gold with the names of all his pupils who had won scholarships to the grammar schools and high schools of Lincolnshire. Mr Brunt held the record for any school, large or small, in the whole of the county. The boys and girls were stuffed with education like Strasbourg geese with nourishment, and May Mason pushed it down their little throats with as much enthusiasm for the cause as her master. Children walked for miles from far-flung villages to suffer the outrage of being educated for academic success.

Years later, when May had a school of her own in Huntingdonshire, she emulated Mr Brunt and made it, in defiance of the Education Authority, the resort of the aspiring and ambitious throughout the length and breadth of that small county. Her methods, learnt in Saxilby, came in for much official criticism on the grounds that drilling knowledge and intellectual skills into the young does not encourage them to think for themselves. She nevertheless persisted in the opinion that what the generality of mankind is able to think for itself is hardly worth thinking, and that the proper role of education is to make it better informed.

What appealed most to May Mason in Mr Brunt was that, while keeping his eye always on achievement, he taught by love rather than by compulsion. Love, except between the headmaster and his wife, permeated Saxilby School. He took the children on his knee to teach them, and they were all - clever and stupid alike - almost as devoted to their demanding master as they were to his new assistant. Shortly after May arrived, little Jack Marrows started to bring her a fresh rose every morning. The whole school used to watch him deliver his daily tribute, and all said he could not keep it up in winter - but he could, because his father had a greenhouse. I have a school photograph which includes May's youthful admirer. He looks about twelve and wears a high-necked doublet with a white Eton collar and a black bow tie. He has a solemn, wide-eyed, triangular little face and his fair hair is parted down the middle and smoothed flat over his head - a strangely unromantic looking child for so gallant and persistent a gesture of affection.

While May Mason happily pursued her teaching in Saxilby, Arthur Robinson was less contented at home in Lincoln. To have failed his degree was bad enough, but it was far worse to have been rejected for military service after three years as a keen member of the Officers' Training Corps at Nottingham College. When the Great War broke out on the fourth of August and the Germans invaded Belgium, Arthur was rashly on holiday there and in danger of internment by the occupying forces. Fortunately he was managed to slip across the border into neutral Holland, where he found a ship to England. Back home, he immediately tried to join up, but he was turned down out of hand at his medical examination in Lincoln Barracks. They said that his left eye was defective, though what was wrong with it I never knew, except that it had a cast and did not always line up precisely with his right one - wandering outwards a little now and then as if uninterested in what the other was looking at. It was said to be "lazy", and certainly the army would have none of it. In vain did Arthur Robinson point out that he had excellent vision in his right eye and shut his left one when firing a rifle. No way would they have him. Therefore, without a degree and rejected by his country, Arthur had to fall back on living at home and teaching in an elementary school in Lincoln, while his contemporaries were fighting in France.

The man who at college had been worshipped by many - bestowing his favours as capriciously as Jove - was pitifully reduced in size. He was, indeed, so cast down and mortified that May Mason's compassion and Quixotism rushed to his rescue. She would stay loyal to him through thick and thin, and in witness to that determination she accepted his proposal of marriage - and they became engaged. Being sorry for Arthur was then, and thereafter, her Achilles' heel.

Then in April 1915 Arthur had a stroke of good fortune. He happened to meet a medical orderly from Lincoln Barracks who had access to the eye test chart and persuaded him to make a copy for Arthur to study at leisure with his right eye. So the next time he volunteered for military service he knew the chart off by heart, and had first class vision in both eyes. Within a few days he was a private in the 18th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers in the Universities and Public Schools' Brigade - and training for the Western Front. This was, I must emphasise, nearly nine months after the outbreak of hostilities - well after the Battle of the Marne and the consolidation of the front into the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. When Arthur first volunteered in 1914 he may not have known what he was doing. Now in 1915 he most certainly did, and the persistence with which a man, who had an honourable excuse for remaining in safety, pursued life and death in the trenches, commands my wondering admiration. I volunteered for the Second World War long before it broke out, but only to be able to choose my service, and I chose one that I thought would be reasonably safe without being utterly disgraceful - the anti-aircraft artillery. My father not only volunteered a second time needlessly, but when he had intrigued his way into the casualty-stricken infantry he volunteered again, as I shall describe later, for one of the more dangerous activities that branch of the service could offer. I mention that in passing only to point the contrast between father and son, and to pay my homage to a far better specimen of mankind than I.

Arthur's younger brother Harold was also a brave man, and this is strange in that their father was a very tame and pedestrian clerk. Harold, having served his apprenticeship as an engineer in Ruston's ironworks, not only joined the Royal Navy as an engine room artificer, but volunteered to serve in submarines to make being down in the bowels of a warship that much more dangerous and uncomfortable. On the other hand, on May's side of the family, only one of her five brothers showed any sign of what their sister Kitty called "warlike tendencies". and this admirable man was the only one who was found to be unfit for military service. Thus May's father Richard Mason, who had boxed in fair booths as a young man and maintained a ring in his granary to practise his male offspring in lawful violence, had four of his five sons intent upon preserving their skins - while Arthur's father, Harry Robinson, who never raised his fists in anger, generated a couple of sons who would have delighted the other's heart.

Walter Plumtree, the wicked husband of May's sister Carrie, had the good sense to volunteer to serve his country as a motor mechanic in workshops well behind the lines. Having deposited Carrie and his son at the Yews, Walter went off to France and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant-major. At one time he was repairing army transport in the stabling of a large French chateau, while the owner of it was away fighting at Verdun. His chatelaine remained in the house with her jewellery until Walter relieved her of it, and despatched the spoils to Carrie with instructions to dispose of them for cash to a jeweller in Lincoln. This was a mere wanton act of superrogation. There was no need for Walter to provide for his wife and child in this way, because Carrie received the married allowances appropriate to the wife of a sergeant-major, and she also worked in Lincoln. She was more prosperous than ever in her life before, and she scandalised her sister Kitty by spending her unaccustomed wealth in foolish extravagance. Even many years later, outrage and shame coloured Kitty's stories of Carrie's purchases - dozens of pairs of shoes, flamboyant sets of silk underwear, and a collection of evening dresses shimmering with sequins, that were unwearable in a farmhouse and unneeded outside it because invitations to dinners or dances never came Carrie's way. She spent her money like the profiteers notorious in the First World War - but strangely unheard of in the Second - who found such difficulty in dissipating their sudden wealth that they would buy two grand pianos when no-one in the household could play one.

Walter's light fingers could only have been in need of exercise to drive him to steal the French lady's jewellery for the benefit of a wife who did not know how next to spend the money she already had. However, several rings and other items of allied jewellery were despatched to Carrie for disposal, and nearly led to her arrest. Entirely ignorant of their very considerable value, she presented them for sale to a Lincoln jeweller who put in his eyepiece, examined them, and immediately asked how they had come into Carrie's possession. So she snatched the jewellery back and ran out of the shop, leaving the police to search in vain for one whose unexceptional description might have fitted any of a hundred women in the locality. Carrie then wisely buried Walter's treasure under a marked tree in the Old Wood to await his demobilisation.

It was in1915 that Carrie's sister Kitty abandoned the Skellingthorpe parson in favour of a man who was not actually in holy orders, but was at least intending to take them - and that sufficed. It happened that May was asked by a friend from Nottingham College to go on holiday with her to Sutton-on-Sea on the Lincolnshire Coast, and Kitty went too because her father had in a rare burst of generosity provided her with the money. The Scottish Horse were in camp when they arrived and those bold cavalrymen quickly made the acquaintance of the three young women. Soon each girl had at least one Scottish admirer and the admiration was reciprocated - except by May who was being "faithful to Arthur". According to Kitty she walked about the little sea-side town "with her eyes cast down like a nun". Kitty, however, collected two love-sick swains - Duncan McNeile and Alec Morris - and before long the competition between them led Duncan to tell Kitty that his rival was a man who "did nothing but creep about on church door-steps". That was a reference to Alec's intention, if he survived the war, to enter the Presbyterian ministry. Duncan, however, played his cards badly in hoping that Kitty Mason would look unkindly upon pretentions of that kind. In fact, if Alec's ambitions had lain rather higher with the Church of England it would immediately have outweighed her marked preference for Duncan as a man. The Presbyterian ministry alone was not enough, but it only needed Alec to reveal in turn that his friend was a mere shop-assistant in civil life to put his own fortunes clearly into the ascendant.

Even so, Kitty returned home without having come to any understanding with Alec Morris, and he was sent on active service to Gallipoli, from whence he courted her by letter so successfully that when he ultimately proposed by correspondence, he was accepted by the same means. The engagement was confirmed by the despatch of a ring, which Kitty soon lost in the pond in the paddock behind the Yews. It was her job to get in the ducks at nightfall, but being sensible creatures - mindful of foxes - they had the strongest inclination to stay out in the middle of the water. One night they were particularly obdurate, so Kitty in her annoyance picked up a stone and threw it at them. She was left-handed and the engagement ring accompanied the stone in its flight and fell into the thick mud in the bottom of the pond, never to be seen again. The ring was loose because Trooper Morris knew as little about her and the size of her fingers as she did about him and his background. In fact if Alec Morris ever later told her anything at all about his parentage, she kept very quiet about it and did nothing to resolve the mystery of his origins, which remained a source of endless speculation within the family. Even when, towards the end of his life, Alec purported to write an autobiography, it revealed nothing more than the family already knew. It told how he was reared and brought up, apparently motherless and fatherless, by his "Aunt Jan" in Almondbank near Perth. His home was a cottage as small as the means available for his upbringing, and his childhood was typical of a poor clever Scottish boy who was ambitious, and the darling of his village domine - making his way with resource and persistence out of the bleak highlands of Perthshire into the kinder lowlands of Huntingdonshire, and finding himself in the end a stall in Ely Cathedral amongst the more pampered products of Oxford and Cambridge.

Alec Morris's autobiography was so guarded and reticent that it was drained of all human interest - which, for a man who was warm, convivial, hot-tempered and more than ordinarily lustful, struck me as very odd. There was not a word about his many loves, and the only passion he allowed himself to reveal was for religion. Having known him from his early manhood to his death in the arms of an old admirer in South Africa, I can only conclude that the entire work was an attempt to convince himself that he had been very much more devout than had appeared to his relatives.

Alec claimed to have been guided in all important decisions by regular communion with the Almighty. In 1914, for example, he committed to prayer the issue whether to volunteer for the army, or to stay in Almondbank. A sense of duty to his country pulled one way, and his affection for his foster mother pulled the other because she had grown dependent upon him and was afraid to live alone. Alec tells how the question was decided:

"I prayed and prayed daily for guidance - should I go or should I stay? Eventually I had what I have always regarded as a personal message. This came from the last verse of the one hundred and twenty-eighth psalm: "Yea, thou shalt see thy children's children, and peace upon Israel !" I took it as a direct answer to prayer and that God was showing me the way - the psalmist's words were at once a promise and a challenge."

It may not be immediately apparent to those unskilled in divination which way the direct answer to prayer pointed, but Alec had no doubt that he was being told to join the army, and he obeyed - having an early opportunity to repay the Lord's kindness. In his training camp the alternative to the Sunday church parade was useful fatigue work in the barracks, so an impious drill sergeant used to dismiss those who opted for divine service with the injunction: "Fall out the slackers !" Alec was so outraged by this slur upon the godly that he reported the offending sergeant to Major Stewart - noting with satisfaction that he was given "a good dressing down." What the sergeant later gave Trooper Morris is not recorded. This tale lends credence to Duncan McNeile's suggestion that Alec was a sanctimonious humbug, and that may well have been true of him in his youth. He was brought up by Aunt Jan a narrow and bigoted Scottish Presbyterian, but marriage to Kitty - for whom religious observance was mainly a matter of social obligation - must have liberated him, because I cannot recognise the uncle I knew and loved in the picture he drew of himself.

May's husband to be, Arthur Robinson, had joined the army with more help from the friendly medical orderly than from the Almighty. His pay as a private was a shilling a day, but the Lincoln Education Authority made it up to the former level of his earnings as a teacher. With all found by the army he, too, was much better off than he had ever been and May was earning at Saxilby School. So with this joint prosperity their thoughts turned to matrimony while Arthur was training for the trenches at Clipston Camp near Ollerton. This was near enough for May to bicycle out from Skellingthorpe for ten miles, and he from camp for a similar distance, to meet half-way near Dunham Bridge over the Trent. There they decided that they should marry without further delay, but both sets of parents forbade it on the grounds that Arthur and May would have no settled home - and the disappointed pair of twenty-three year-olds dutifully acquiesced.

But by September 1915 Arthur was sufficiently trained for France and on embarkation leave. Now all four parents of the engaged couple suddenly changed their tune. A young man bound for the trenches ought to be given the chance of leaving a child behind him if the worst should happen. Therefore a special licence was obtained and on 22nd October 1915 Arthur and May were married by Tommy Hamilton in the pretty old ivy-covered church in Skellingthorpe, and the bells rang out joyfully in celebration. A white wedding dress had been hastily stitched together for the bride, and the groom accompanied her to the altar in a private's uniform. They were a handsome couple - he tall and thin, dark haired, with a high forehead, wide spaced grey-green eyes, straight nose, military moustache, and a rather sensuous but well-shaped mouth always ready to break into the fascinating smile inherited from his mother. The bride was the charming woman I have already described as a girl - as pretty as could be, soft, gentle and bashful.

The reception at the Yews was marred only by the sulking of Arthur's mother who was put out by May's refusal to spend the honeymoon at Portland House to enable old Mrs Robinson to share her son's brief embarkation leave. Instead, Arthur and May returned sentimentally to Nottingham, where they had met, and there Arthur experienced the revelation he had so abstemiously awaited. After two nights they returned, as a concession to Arthur's mother, to Portland House for the final night of his leave, but only to find her unwilling to address a single word to her daughter-in-law. The next morning, after that resentful silence, May set off early on her bicycle for Saxilby School, and Arthur accompanied her on his own machine as far as time permitted before he had to catch a train in Lincoln to join his unit for France. They had to part at Hartsholme Hall on the Skellingthorpe Road and there, with a last kiss, Arthur extracted a promise from his bride that she would not re-marry in the event of his death. He could not bear to think of the body he had so hoarded being enjoyed by another, and three nights in bed with him were to content his sorrowing widow for the remainder of her life. Of this incident, May wrote: "shall I say this? The poor lad asked for a promise that I'd never marry again if he were killed, and I gave it !"

Arthur was sent with the Royal Fusiliers to La BassŽe and went up to the front line near to the Hohenzollern Redoubt, very shortly after the Battle of Loos. His first experience of war was to see the kilted corpses of a highland regiment still festooning the barbed wire protecting the German trenches. Later, he would talk of those bare-bottomed highlanders, but tears would swim into his eyes if he were pressed to say more about the horror of the trench warfare. He found the recollection unbearable, and had almost an affection for the Germans as fellow sufferers. For him they were never the Hun or the Bosche - they were simply "Jerry". Jerry did this and Jerry did that. Jerry had deadly machine guns, and artillery almost as good as the French seventy-fives. Jerry was a fine soldier and, on the whole, a fairly decent chap.

That, however, did not stop Arthur from volunteering to specialise in grenade throwing, so that he could lob bombs into Jerry's trenches. This he did from a sap going out towards the enemy from the British front line. At the end of it, he was near enough to the Germans to toss a grenade in amongst them, but he always maintained that he was much too sensible to throw one, because the retaliation was violent and extreme. Every German within range returned the compliment upon the lonely British bombadier, who could not always get back down the sap to his own line quickly enough. Arthur said that he just sat and waited for Jerry to throw a grenade at him first - which Jerry never did. If that is the truth, it is strange that Private A. Robinson was ever sent out to do the job more than once. I cannot believe that his platoon commander was willing to allow him a continuing facility to enjoy a little solitude in no-man's land.

One of my father's most endearing qualities was that he never boasted. In fact, none of the Robinsons did. They tended rather to play themselves down, and Arthur did it with absolute confidence that he could afford to do so. There was nothing abject about his modesty - rather the reverse. He had such confidence in his innate superiority over the generality of his fellows upon earth, that he saw no need whatsoever to make it manifest in words. On the other hand, some of the Mason males were not beyond a little muted sounding of their own trumpets, but it was not until I grew up into the world at large that I heard men shamelessly praising themselves, and at first I listened with astonishment, because my ears were not attuned to the rhetoric of self-love. I now know well enough that some kinds of men - notably Scots pushing their way to the top - boast as habitually as my father laughed at himself, but I still find it a monstrous inversion of what I once thought was the natural order of things.

For May at home, awaiting the birth of her child, the news from the Front was always bad. Voluntary enlistment was not keeping pace with the losses, and white feathers were being handed out in Lincoln High Street to men not in uniform. The bereaved were asked not to wear mourning for their dead, or the whole country would have been in black. Zeppelins were raiding Lincoln. May saw them caught in the searchlights like gleaming cigars, but the greatest threat to her unborn child was the news that infant mortality rates were rising. A sermon on that very subject, delivered in Skellingthorpe Chapel by a religious spinster from Lincoln, brought - in the general joy of May's pregnancy - the first throb of fear for the faintly kicking bundle within her. However, she and Miss Addis, the dressmaker, pressed on with the preparation of the layette. Everything was made by hand of the finest materials, decorated with silk ribbons, and embroidered with exquisite little stitches. All the robes were long, and would have eventually to be boiled, starched, ironed and gophered. May was showered with requests to see the beautiful baby-clothes, and the whole village looked forward to the advent of the former Miss Mason's war baby.

Fortunately for Arthur, after the Battle of Loos Sir John French had for the time being launched enough costly and abortive offensives. Private Robinson was not asked to go any nearer to the enemy than the end of his sap. There was an occasional patrol for him at night, but he never went over the top at dawn in a general attack to face artillery, barbed wire, and machine guns. He did his routine spells of duty under shellfire in the front line throughout the winter, and in the spring of 1916 he was recommended for a commission and sent to England for officer training at Christ's College Cambridge. So many boys had been recruited from school to fight the Germans that the universities were short of undergraduates and Christ's College could house sixty officer cadets instead.

One may wonder whether it was kind of the War Office to bring a man out of the trenches and to put him in a Cambridge College for a few months before returning him a second lieutenant with a life expectancy of fourteen days - but that is what the War Office did, and my father never complained of it. He remembered with nostalgia the luxury of his own sitting room in a gracious stone court, with a separate bedroom and a little "gyp-room" or kitchen. He had loved to eat in a high-roofed hall at old oak tables set with college silver and shaded candles, and to be served by soft-footed waiters. I have a photograph of the officer cadets, those sixty fatted calves, arranged in tiers in a corner of one of the courts in Christ's College, with a background of eighteenth century pedimented doorways and Georgian sash windows - many thrown open in the heat of the summer. All that distinguishes the cadets from ordinary army privates is a white band round their caps and the privileged brown boots of an officer, instead of black. Two of the officer instructors, in breeches and clutching their walking sticks, sit on chairs in the front row alongside the Master of the College who looks, in his black civilian suit, uneasy in that warlike company. To suggest a high degree of good order and military discipline, all the seated men have their ankles crossed, right over left - and the Master, too, has conformed as if it were the least he could do to express his sympathy with those due for France while he was to remain in safety. Although I was never in any real danger in the Second World War, I was always conscious of the great life and death gulf between the unfortunates in uniform and the fortunates who were capriciously out of it, like a healthy young cousin of mine who was recruited for intelligence work at Bletchley on the strength of a second class degree. So the black-coated don in the photograph must have been an object of considerable envy, and it is good to see that he had the grace to look as uncomfortable as he ought to have done.

In the following June, while Arthur was still in Cambridge, May was attacked by labour pains when when she was alone in the Yews, but for one of her brothers. She was horrified that the baby should be coming less than eight months after the wedding. "But it mustn't !" she cried in terror of what the village would say, but nature paid no regard to month-counting. The brother hushed her cries, and helped her into bed. Then he happened to see the district nurse from the window, so he ran and waved her into the house and a tiny boy was, as May said, "all so quickly delivered." He was a very premature child, but more was wrong with him than that - he had fits. Doctor Rainbird exhausted his small repertory of skills, and the Reverend Tommy Hamilton scoured the surrounding countryside on his bicycle rounding up other doctors as well, but they could do nothing. The only effective treatment was provided by the parson, who saw that the child was baptised into the Church of England, with the names of Arthur Philip, so that he could die a Christian in his final spasm - which came as his father was walking up the roadway to the farmhouse. News of the baby's birth had been sent to him by telegram, and Arthur had obtained week-end leave from Christ's College to go and see his son, and he arrived in time to find him newly dead. As for May, her tender heart mourned to the end of her life for the little three-day child, and after her death I found amongst her possessions a bundle of letters of condolence from her college friends, tied up in a pale blue ribbon taken from one of the infant Philip's little-needed garments.

On his return to Cambridge Arthur wrote to comfort his sorrowing wife by telling her that she should not grieve too much for a dead child because there was, for a woman, "no-one like a husband". May's response was unenthusiastic. When she had recovered from her confinement, she started to teach again at Saxilby School, and Arthur continued with his course - but not for long because officers were being killed off in France more quickly than the training units could supply replacements. In July he was commissioned into the Fourteenth Sherwood Foresters, and he chose the Dirty Sherwoods because one of his uncles had served with them in the ranks, and with an utter lack of distinction. It was part of Arthur's splendid indifference to everything the pretentious might hold dear that it did not even occur to him to try to be commissioned into what might be regarded as a "good" regiment.

After receiving the King's Commission, Arthur joined his unit at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire and would, but for an accident, have been sent to France in time for the Battle of the Somme where, as a junior officer, he could almost certainly have been killed. What preserved him was a taxi which collided with him one evening as he was bicycling back to camp. It ran over his foot and gashed his thigh, and these injuries put him in hospital long enough for the Sherwoods to leave for the Somme without him. By the time he was fit again, the offensive was over and, with the approach of winter, activity on the Front subsided, and Arthur Robinson was not needed. He stayed at Cannock Chase, and saw my mother there often enough to beget me in November 1916. So I must regard myself as no more than a remote consequence of the careless driving of a Staffordshire taxi-driver. It was only the implausibility of the idea that the Almighty had jogged that cabbie's arm to ensure my arrival on earth that finally rid me of the conviction that God had - among his other preoccupations with the expanding universe - given his attention to my conception, would interest himself in my progress in the world, and finally arrange my departure from it.

When May visited Arthur at Cannock Chase she stayed in Stafford in a small hotel run by Mrs Bailey, and patronised by officers of the Sherwood Foresters and their wives. At this establishment dinner was eaten in the evening. The ladies dressed for it, and those of their husbands who could afford mess kit appeared befrogged and braided, choking at the neck, and moving stiffly about in impossibly narrow trousers with broad red stripes down the seams. Second Lieutenant Robinson, being only a "temporary gentleman" as the regular officers called his kind, was content for his batman to lay out a clean shirt. My mother was all agog to play her part and, forewarned of the requirement, she bought an evening dress - the first she had ever had - from Mawer and Collingham's, the most expensive clothes shop in Lincoln.

Furthermore, when the timing and grandeur of dinner at Mrs Bailey's hotel was reported to the family at the Yews, May's sister Kitty - who had, almost from birth, developed a keen appreciation of the social niceties - was fired to participate in this unfamiliar and belated rite. Her father was not disposed to finance an expedition to Staffordshire for Kitty to gratify a taste for high living, but she was now a V.A.D. at the military hospital in Lincoln Barracks, and could afford the extravagance herself. So she also went to Mawer and Collinghams and then, suitably equipped, accompanied her sister on her next visit to Stafford. This did not please Arthur very much because he found his sister-in-law unattractive, and she had not troubled to conceal from him her conviction that her sister could have done better for herself than to marry an elementary schoolteacher. May was, however, delighted to be able to demonstrate the ambience into which her husband's commission had elevated her, because throughout their lives the two sisters competed for social superiority -with Kitty soon to come clearly into the lead when she married a penniless parson, and not being overtaken again until May's second marriage to a man who not only wore a crested signet ring on the correct finger, but had a fair amount of money as well.

The hotel in Stafford instructed the two farmer's daughters in how to eat fruit in the evening with a knife and fork, and by day it opened their eyes to new horizons of fashion. The more adventurous of the regimental wives wore dresses that terminated at the knee instead of sweeping the ground, and the legs thus revealed were clothed in light coloured stockings, whereas Kitty and May had never worn anything but black. What is more, those pallid and conspicuous garments were necessarily woven of silk throughout, instead of the expensive material ceasing at mid-calf, as in Skellingthorpe, to be replaced by homely wool in the unglimpsed upper regions of the wearer's limbs. Thus, although born in a farmhouse, I was at least conceived in Bailey's Hotel amongst the modest chic and determined social rituals of an unfashionable regiment.



Arthur Robinson was not sent to France again until the offensive season reopened in the Spring of 1917. Then, in March he went out as a second lieutenant to join the Sixteenth Sherwoods in the trenches. His letters home were censored, but he let his wife know where he was by a simple pre-arranged code based on the initial letter of each sentence. "You..... Perhaps..... Remember..... Every..... Surely...." told her that he was in Ypres, and would have told an enemy agent so too. In his absence May did not continue to teach at Saxilby School because, in view of the fate of her first child, she was advised to rest at home pending her confinement, and my turn to enter the world came on the evening of the twenty-second of August 1917.

During the afternoon of that day I had been considerate enough to give sufficient warning of my coming for the best bedroom to be prepared for the occasion, and for Doctor Rainbird to be summoned in good time. However, the bedroom chosen to be the scene of the nativity was, for my mother, the least propitious in the house. It was where my ill-fated brother had arrived in the world and soon left it. But worse than that - it was where May had undergone the most terrifying experience of her life. Her mother had adored her own father, Thomas Dorner, and when he died in the best bedroom of the Yews in 1910 she was so distracted by grief that, after the woman from the village had laid out the corpse, May's mother raised her daughter, aged ten, from her sleep, took her by the hand, and led her protesting and crying with fear to the bedroom. Thomas Dorner's favourite grandchild must kiss him good-bye. He lay in the candlelight still and rigid in his winding sheet, with his feet strapped upright with bandages to minimise the length and expense of his coffin, and with his chin strapped to his head to stop his mouth from gaping open. May was sick with horror, but she was obliged to kiss his cold pallid lips in valediction. Not only that, but on two subsequent nights, while he lay in his open coffin before being consigned to the grave, she was required to repeat the performance - even though the smell of death hung heavily in the deeply curtained and breathless room. For twelve months May had to wear black in her grandfather's memory, notwithstanding that she was unable to think of him without remembering, as she said, "my hateful experience of kissing his dead body." For several years afterwards she woke screaming from nightmares in which her grandfather re-appeared in the white garments of death to terrify her, and it was not until she was grown into a woman that she could again recall with affection the man she had once deeply loved. Even then she was unable for the remainder of her life to enter a dark empty bedroom alone at night without a tremor of fear at what she might find inside it.

Thomas Dorner had died, and had his chin strapped up, in the best bedroom of the Yews because that was where people lay ill and recovered - or not. And it was in the best bedroom that babies entered the world for stays of uncertain periods. So it was the home hospital ward and family mortuary that was as a matter of course made ready for my reception - and it is understandable that my mother showed some reluctance to begin the proceedings. Doctor Rainbird had promptly obeyed his summons, and for an hour or so he sat in the living room whiling away the time by playing cards with his tardy patient and other members of the family.

Percival Horace Rainbird was much more than a family friend. He had been May Mason's first love. When Lincoln suffered a diptheria epidemic in l910, she caught the infection, and lay very ill at the Yews in the care of a nurse, and the local doctor. He was then a fifty year-old bachelor, and a large, bluff, handsome and amusing man. He cured the eighteen year-old girl of one fever and gave her another that she never entirely shook off. May fell in love with him, and her parents watched uneasily as she recuperated by being given rides in the Doctor Rainbird's motor car, and while he made every conceivable excuse to visit her long after she had completely recovered. There were strong professional reasons why he might not be contemplating the seduction of a patient, but on the other hand it was doubtful whether the grand doctor - with his be-peacocked Georgian house in Saxilby - would ever bring himself to propose marriage to the daughter of a working farmer.

The precedent set by his brother Laurence was not encouraging. Laurence, another middle-aged bachelor, shared the doctor's house and had "courted" - as May put it - a girl called Laura Ford from her teens. She was the pretty daughter of the publican of the Sun Hotel at Saxilby Bridge, and was Laurence Rainbird's mistress until he died, because he could never stoop to marry anyone so greatly his social inferior. Therefore May's parents regarded the doctor's attentions to their daughter with great distrust, but the question of their nature was never resolved. When the young Russian engineer came to Skellingthorpe, May recovered from her infatuation before Percival Horace Rainbird recovered from his, and the old physician was set aside. Nevertheless, that was not before he had established himself for ever in a corner of her heart. He used to give her single long-stemmed rose buds, and my mother so loved them all her life that I saw to it that she was buried with one lying on her breast.

My short-lived elder brother had foolishly come into the world too soon. That mistake was not going to be repeated, and so long did Doctor Rainbird have to wait for me that at ten o'clock he was constrained to ask, as another hand of whist was being dealt, "Kindly remind me, who is the patient here?" And at that very moment the labour began in earnest. My mother and he repaired to the sinister bedroom. Conversation below was muted and everything in the house was hushed so that the vigour of my first cries could be the better and more accurately assessed. Three days had been my brother's allotted span, and the question was whether I, who followed within a year, would enjoy a longer one. In the event, my mother and I triumphed over the baleful location of the accouchment. My arrival was accomplished without hitch, and when what my mother fondly described as my "large vivid eyes" stared blindly round the room, Doctor Rainbird lapsed into old Saxon and pronounced his verdict: "This one will live, May ! This is a wakken one !"

Accordingly - I lived, and was christened with no urgency by Tommy Hamilton in Skellingthorpe church with the names of "Arthur Geoffrey" . I acquired "Arthur" by succession, because it was traditional for the eldest son to take the name of his father, but just as my brother Arthur Philip was to have been called "Philip" , I was to be known as "Geoffrey" . It was not a family name. It was not even the name of one of my mother's early loves, such as the doctor - or I might have been "Percival" or "Horace" . The current hostilities spared me "Hans" , after the young man from Darmstadt. But there was nothing to spare me from "Geoffrey" , and such are the vagaries by which names are stamped on us for life, that I owe mine to the chance that my mother had a second cousin who was nursemaid to a family of Yorkshire wool manufacturers, and she took a fancy to the name her cousin's charge. So with my father's name, and with that of young Master Hiley of Halifax, I was baptised in the long lace-trimmed gown that had been made for my elder brother, and far from the ceremony marking my end, it was the prelude to a long life of indulgence. From the beginning of it, no less than five resident ladies in the Yews farmhouse - my mother, my grandmother, my Aunts Kitty and Carrie, and old Miriam the maid - delighted so indulgently in my rude health and robust frame, and lavished such care upon me to ensure my survival, that I felt obliged thereafter to repay them by way of a perhaps too assiduous, and sometimes ill received, affection for the female race in general.

Immediately after I was born a telegram was sent to my father in the trenches telling him of my arrival, and he wondered whether he would live to see his second child. The chances were against it because the Third Battle of Ypres had already begun. Before going into the line, the officers of Arthur's battalion gathered together in "Dicky Bush" - a village better known to the cartographers as Dickebusch - to be photographed while their unit was still intact. The old brown print shows the colonel, with a walrus moustache, and his more senior officers sitting with their walking sticks between their putteed legs, while their junior colleagues stand behind them in order of rank - Second Lieutenant Robinson, who was over six feet, being the tallest in the back row. Rough country walking sticks were an affectation of the more dashing officers of field rank, who would soon go over the top with them, as if they were taking an early morning stroll to visit friends on the other side of no-man's land.

On the thirteenth of September, when I was twenty-two days old and my mother was still lying in bed recovering from my birth, her father saw the dreaded telegraph boy in his dark blue uniform and peaked cap coming up the roadway to the Yews on a red G.P.O. bicycle. He intercepted the young messenger before he could dismount to knock on the door, and took the telegram addressed to his daughter. He read that 2nd Lieutenant A. Robinson was "dangerously wounded and not expected to live" , so he went straight down to the telegraph office at the railway station and had the telegram altered to make it sound more hopeful before he dare give it to his daughter.

On the previous night, it had happened that Arthur was going up with his battalion to the trenches, after a period of rest behind the lines, ready to go over the top at dawn in an attack directed towards a ridge of high ground from which the occupying Germans could overlook Ypres. The ridge was called Passchendaele - a name that was to sound like a funeral bell in the ears of many English families. On the way forward, Arthur was leading his platoon past a battery of field guns which was under heavy counter-artillery fire. A shell splinter intended for the gun crews struck him in the top of his left thigh, and on its way out severed the femoral artery. Immediately, with every heart beat, blood spurted from Arthur's groin like the jet of a fountain. He lost consciousness, but fortunately his sergeant-major was trained in first aid and managed to apply a tourniquet tightly enough to stem the bleeding.

On a stretcher on the way back to a casualty clearing station behind the lines Arthur regained consciousness, but felt no pain. He was only aware that his feet had gone cold and that the coldness was creeping up his legs. As the medical orderlies hurried him to the rear, he lay thinking that when the coldness reached his heart he would be dead. However, at the casualty clearing station they covered him in blankets and hot water bottles, and the chill retreated, although his teeth continued to chatter, as he said, "like castanets" . The next morning the army surgeons operated at Abbeville Base Hospital to tie up the severed artery above and below the wound, and in one of the first operations of that kind they injected saline solution into his heart to replace the lost blood. In those days either blood transfusions were unknown, or there were not enough blood donors in the whole of Britain to replace the amount spilt in France. The operation was successful, but the wound was attacked by gas gangrene which, although so called, had nothing to do with poison gas. For ten days the doctors were in doubt whether the leg would have to be amputated, but in the end the infection cleared with plentiful application of spirits of wine - an antiseptic that made brave men cry out in agony - and the leg was saved. The War Office invited the wounded man's wife to visit him in hospital at public expense, but May was not sufficiently recovered from her confinement. So Arthur's father travelled to France with a first class rail warrant and steamer ticket. He was met by staff car off the boat to be driven to Abbeville and was, he said "treated like royalty" . On his return he was able to report that his son was out of danger.

On the other hand, my mother and I were now in it. One night she opened the back door of the Yews to go cool my bottle at the pump, and saw the sky alight with searchlights, and heard the sound of approaching aircraft. The introduction of better fighter planes and incendiary bullets had made raiding England by hydrogen-filled Zeppelin airships too hazardous, so the Germans now used Gotha aircraft instead. My mother had opened the door on the beginning of a raid intended by the Kaiser to be the death of his cousin George, who had come to Lincoln that day to watch some tanks being tested on West Common. Even if no one man can claim sole credit for inventing that new weapon of warfare, William Tritton built the first tank in Foster's engineering works in Lincoln, and was knighted for his services. Nevertheless, the air raid was not directed at the factory. The Germans were after its visitor - their intelligence having picked up the information that the royal train, with the King inside, would be shunted that evening into the sidings at Skellingthorpe station so that he could have a quiet night. Everywhere the King went, his train was preceded by a light engine running ahead at a sufficient distance to give warning, by its own disaster, of any obstruction on the line. There was also a policeman on every bridge the train went under, and every tunnel it passed through was guarded. But air raids were a different matter.

Soon the throb of aircraft engines was loud over the Yews, and my mother rushed up to her bedroom. She snatched me from my cot, with blankets from the bed, and ran down again to take shelter in the cupboard under the stairs, where the beer barrel was kept. It was generally believed that a staircase was the last structure in a house that would collapse. When the alert had sounded the Reverend Tommy Hamilton was, as usual, at the Yews visiting Kitty Mason, but he immediately left her and scuttled off home on his bicycle to cower inside his large vicarage. Except for Richard, my grandfather, all the other Masons huddled under the stairs, with me well surrounded by relatives determined to die first, as the bombs could be heard whistling down and exploding, and the lurid light of fire and bomb blast penetrated inside the cupboard - with the smell of sulphur adding a tang to the prevailing reek of beer. Meanwhile grandfather, expressing his scorn for the parson, issued forth into the village to do his air raid duty while his fellow warden hid in the vicarage.

In the event, although everything sounded alarmingly near, bombing was no more accurate then than it is now. Not a single bomb fell on the sidings, and none even hit the village. They came no closer to the Yews than the nearby woods. Many trees were blasted and set on fire, but the only casualty was, they say, a robin. Furthermore there was no King in Skellingthorpe sidings - German intelligence had been misled, and the royal train was deep inside Bolsover Tunnel, a few miles further up the line towards Chesterfield. The next morning it steamed out again and into Skellingthorpe Station where George V made his breakfast of eggs and milk furnished by the enterprising Richard Mason, who for this once having supplied the royal needs, wanted to put "R.S. Mason - by Royal Appointment" on his milk float. In the end, however, he was persuaded not to trouble the Palace for an authority he would have been refused with the utmost politeness.

When he was discharged from the military hospital in Abbeville, Arthur Robinson had a brief spell under medical care in Aldershot and was then thought fit enough to be sent to a convalescent home for officers at Caythorpe Court, not far from his home in Lincoln. The army looked after its wounded very well, and the upper classes cooperated by throwing open their homes to the damaged survivors of the battles in Flanders. For several months the Yarboroughs entertained Arthur and a number of his fellow officers in their fine mansion on the ridge overlooking the Trent Valley, between Grantham and Lincoln. No doubt the hospitality, and the attractive V.A.D. nurses, were provided at the expense of the War Office, but to all intents and purposes those temporary gentlemen lived in Caythorpe Court like guests in a country house. They came down to breakfast with many different dishes set out on a long sideboard, each keeping warm under its silver dome. They spent their days wandering in the gardens with the admiring nurses, or played croquet on the lawns, or reading in the library. The lid of the keyboard of the long grand piano was unlocked to allow my Arthur's fingers to wander uncertainly over the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata while, as was his custom, he hummed a refrain of his own invention. Within the family his vocal activity while playing keyboard music was called "laldering" - a loud, cat-like, but harmonious purring, which seemed express his satisfaction with what the composer was providing.

Dinner at Caythorpe Court was a formal splendour, and then came bridge until bed time. Bridge was Arthur's passion, next only after one other, and he was very good at it. Throughout his commissioned life, even in the trenches, he expected always to be able to settle his mess bills from his bridge winnings, and up to the age of ninety-five he was still triumphing over his octagenarian juniors in the Eastbourne bridge clubs at least four afternoons a week. By then, however, he claimed only to remember every card that had been played down to the sixes - being, as I have said, a modest man.

Caythorpe Court, regarded as the apogee in Arthur Robinson's gracious living, was also the setting for his first known adultery. Now very pale and thin after his privations and looking highly distinguished as a wounded officer, he wrought such havoc in the heart of a young nurse than he was soon celebrating his recovery in her bed - and rejoicing there in his good fortune that the shell splinter had struck him an inch or so off centre. Given the nature of his injury, Arthur could hardly be blamed for falling into adultery at Caythorpe Court. His wound in the groin still needed to be dressed, and one has only to imagine the light deft fingers of the nurse straying, perhaps at first by accident, into the matrimonial territory to understand what could only have been the inevitable consequences for even the least excitable of men - and I doubt whether Arthur Robinson was ever in that category. This early lapse came to light when May was visiting him at Caythorpe. In his room one evening she hung up his army tunic, saying in jest - though probably with some instinctive prescience, for jests are seldom what they seem - "I'll be like the jealous wives in books who look for love letters !" Her husband's cry of alarm was too late. She pulled out of his inner pocket a love letter from the nurse, and the fat was in the fire. Both partners took the incident with deadly seriousness, and for a time "all was chaos and despair" . But the marriage survived, and Arthur was soon writing to his wife as his "chickey-bod" , and before long she was able to say: "It wasn't all the world and Bingham !"

Bingham was only one of the many esoteric characters who coloured the imagery of the Mason family. Sal Hatch was another. "Am I, like Sal Hatch, dressed to death?" they would ask, with a look in the mirror, before leaving the house for a special occasion. Over-baked pastry was invariably "Mrs Jones's dark brown" . It was no use enquiring who the oppressed Bingham was, or the careless Mrs Jones, or the flamboyant Sal Hatch. The family had forgotten generations ago, but figures of that kind became a natural part of my imagery, to be greeted later with astonishment and derision in the outside world of school and university. To this day I am left uncertain whether some of the ordinary sayings of my childhood, and a large part of the vocabulary - "snitter" or "podvig" or "nesh" , for example - are of general currency, peculiar to Lincolnshire, or exclusive to my mother's family.

When I was younger I used to think my father foolish and inconsiderate to carry love letters about his person - they were always being discovered. But I now see my own carefully managed adulteries as poor insipid things compared with his. Only a remarkable frenzy could have driven that nurse to pen and paper when her lover was living in the same house, with his ears constantly available to her more spontaneous declarations of passion. I had no love letters to carry about for my wife to discover - partly because I discouraged correspondence as far too dangerous, but mainly because I didn't conduct my affairs at that level of intensity. I eschewed anything approaching the dramatic, whereas my father pursued women with all his heart and soul. He fell in love, and was loved passionately in return. His lovers and he were mad for each other, and behaved like fools - and that, in retrospect, I find attractive. Of course, I still think him wrong, but rather splendidly wrong, while I was only pusillanimously and unromatically right.

After leaving Caythorpe Court, Arthur was stationed with training battalions of the Sherwoods in various places in northern England, from Sunderland to Staffordshire, but never it seems in Sherwood Forest itself. Everywhere he was sent, his wife had appeals to join him so that he would be preserved from temptation. Her presence then seemed to have that effect, notwithstanding that they were, as she said, "not properly matched - although we loved each other" . Arthur wanted his wife to be with him, but he certainly did not want me, for he would brook no rival for her affection. On several occasions my grandmother Mason looked after me to allow my mother to visit father alone, and so did my grandmother Robinson; but they soon realised that there would be no end to it, and Arthur was told that if he wanted his wife, he would have to put up with his child too. This joint ultimatum was not delivered because my grandmothers disliked looking after me. They loved it - but a principle was at stake. Young mothers should not be allowed to go gadding off without their babies, and young fathers ought to want their children. The consequence of this firm stand on the obligations of parenthood was that Arthur dispensed with his wife and consoled himself elsewhere. As May said: "He straightway fell into sin when I couldn't go" . She took a very pedestrian view of male sexuality , seeing men as heated by fierce fires of lust which generated a head of steam what had to be released regularly by a matrimonial safety valve if it was not to drive them headlong into adultery. This view denied to mens' interest in women all the higher elements that have for centuries been the subject of romantic literature. But she was right - as I discovered when my own fires died down. I no longer pursued women for any of the numerous reasons, apart from the pleasures of bed, which I had once thought impelled me to take such delight in their company. I no longer pursued them at all.

One of Arthur's postings in 1918 was to Strensall, near York, and there the charms of Mrs Wishart, widowed in the First Battle of the Aisne, provoked him to such outpourings of affection that the young woman concluded, with some justification, that he was proposing to forsake his own wife to cleave unto her instead. That was not, in fact, his more sober and settled intention, but in view of the warmth of his protestations he was unable to tell her so himself. Therefore May had to be recruited - and not for the last time - to do the job for him. For this mission her mother agreed to look after me once more to enable her to go and see the girl at an hotel in York where, as kindly as she could, May delivered the poor love-sick widow's quietus. She found Mrs Wishart a beautiful and cultivated creature and, with the solidarity of women badly treated by the same man, they parted liking each other. "In other circumstances," May said, "I should have been happy to make her my friend" .

Now Arthur was obliged to withdraw his objection to his son's presence, so May went back to the Yews to collect me and then moved into a little house in the woods around Strensall, near York, where she and Arthur lodged with a family called Gunney. The reconciliation in those sequestered groves of pine and fir left my parents with happy enough memories of Strensall for them to return with me for a holiday in the same cottage a few years later, but there might have been no child for them to take back there. While with the Gunneys I was attacked by croup, a disease that inflames the throat and voice box. The patient is fevered. Breathing is difficult and, as the name suggests, the cough is harsh and raucous. Suffocation seems inevitable. Croup now seems to have departed from the scene of childhood maladies, but it was then so prevalent that the more provident families kept available a large brass "steam kettle" with a very long spout to direct a jet of hot vapour into the congested throats of their afflicted young - and not always successfully. Even that device had failed to preserve the life of one of the choking offspring of a Mason relative in Waddingham. This my mother well knew, and to her horror she discovered that the Gunneys had no steam kettle. So she rushed off to father's nearby camp to find the medical officer, who said he was not allowed to leave his post, but in the end her pleas prevailed and the angry doctor consented to come and see me. When he found that I really was ill, he stayed most of the night and Strensall saw not only the survival of the marriage, but my own as well - and, as things turned out, for very much longer.

In the spring of 1918 Arthur was in danger of being returned to the Front notwithstanding that he had been seriously wounded only six months earlier. The collapse of the Russians into revolution, and the signature of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on the third of March brought hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers to an end. This enabled the German High Command to move thirty-four divisions from the Eastern to the Western Front, giving them a temporary superiority in numbers over the Allies. Although the Americans had by now entered the war, they had not yet been able to dispatch an army to France. It was now or never for the Germans, so Ludendorff launched a series of offensives which carried his troops once more over the Marne and close to Paris, which came under shell-fire at a range of seventy miles from special artillery brought up to Laon. Further north, the British Army was in danger of destruction, and Army Orders told the troops that they had "their backs to the wall" . Reinforcements were desperately needed and the War Office was preparing to throw in the halt and the maimed to hold the Germans until our tardy allies arrived in force. Arthur Robinson was warned to make himself ready for France, but fortunately the order to embark was never given because Foch halted Ludendorff south of the Marne and then started to push him back under the eyes of the Kaiser, who had come to watch his men forge on to Paris. Shortly afterwards a million Americans entered the field, and the war was over. The armistice was signed on 11th November, and Arthur ended his war service as a lieutenant in charge of a training company.

In January 1919 he was demobilised with a twenty-per-cent disability pension of forty-two pounds a year, tax free. On that basis, compensation for total disability would have been £210 - equivalent in modern purchasing power to a tax-free annuity of about £7,000 for life. Thus, the treatment of those wounded in the Great War was reasonably generous, and in Arthur's case it was rather more than that, because his wound never prevented him from leading as active a life as he wished. He had no limp, and was able to play tennis energetically and with competence. So the shell splinter at Ypres not only saved him from the slaughter of Passchendaele, but provided him with a useful annuity which - as it turned out - increased in value by twenty seven percent up to the outbreak of the next war against the Germans, because the purchasing power of the pound actually increased over that period. On the other hand, when thanks to John Maynard Keynes and weak governments inflation later became part of the British way of life, Arthur's pension was adjusted upwards by a still grateful nation, though at a rather desultory pace. By the time of his death at the age of ninety-five, he had drawn a total tax-free sum of many tens of thousands of pounds in compensation for the loss of his femoral artery, while resourceful nature had ensured that a satisfactory supply of blood somehow reached his leg through other channels.

Arthur Robinson might have derived even more financial benefit from his army service. There were government grants for soldiers to resume their education, and he was advised by Mr Minton, the Clerk to the Education Committee of the Lincoln City Council to return to Nottingham College for further study to retake the examinations for a B.A. degree. The city fathers still had the good sense to clothe their servants in the titles of subordination. Mr Minton had not yet become the "Director of Education" , but with a staff of only one or two assistants he managed to know everything that went on in the schools of Lincoln. Consequently the all-seeing eye had not failed to observe that Arthur Robinson had taught before the war efficiently but without enthusiasm - as a mere job to be done. He was not a dedicated teacher, so the clerk wisely and tactfully suggested that further study for a degree might "widen his horizons" .

Arthur's wife had a much bolder proposition. His brief experience of Christ's College as an officer cadet had unfolded the delights of Cambridge. With a grant he could return there to take a degree, and she would support herself and her child by teaching again at Saxilby. Arthur's parents were aghast. The wound ! A wounded hero should not be pressed into anything even remotely exacting. He should live at home, cared for and coddled by a loving wife - not pushed into exertion by an ambitious one. Of course, Arthur decided for himself. Cambridge had certainly impressed him, but he had no stomach for further study after failing his degree at Nottingham, and there was no one to tell him that it was almost impossible not to get a degree of some sort at Cambridge. So he returned to elementary school teaching at Botolph's school in Lincoln. May's sister Kitty, scornful of all who declined to set foot resolutely on the ladder of ambition, was contemptuous - but secretly delighted, because she was engaged to a man intent upon a career which with a little judicious steering might push her into the social lead.

Her fiancŽ, Alec Morris, was also now demobilised after what is called by some "a good war" . When the Dardenelles campaign had settled into the mud of trench warfare, the Scottish Horse were obliged to dismount and become infantrymen. In that capacity Trooper Morris was twice brought to the notice of his commanding officer for bravery. Alec not only rescued a wounded man under fire, but volunteered to take part in a dangerous raid upon a sniper's post. Before the major led off his six volunteers in this risky venture, he did not reduce their apprehension by assuring them that he had made provision for their dependants in his will. This was no empty gesture because he was a rich man - one of the Pullars of Perth who had a made a fortune in dyeing and dry-cleaning. Fortunately the attack was cancelled at the last moment, but Alec was promoted to lance corporal and Major Pullar promised "never to forget him" - a promise that he was to keep at a most opportune moment. Like Arthur Robinson, Alec volunteered for bomb throwing, and after showering the Bulgarians with grenades in the Stuma Valley, he was promoted to sergeant. Then early in 1918 he was recommended for a commission and sent back to Scotland for officer training - which was not completed until after the armistice in August, and he was demobilised as a lieutenant in 1919.

Alec Morris went back home to his Aunt Jan in Almondbank, where they conferred jointly with the Almighty about his future, coming to the conclusion that "since God had called him to service in his church, God would provide the means." Assistance of some kind was certainly needed because Alec was not yet weaned from the Presbyterian Church which, true to Scottish traditions of learning, demanded some knowledge of Latin and Greek in its ministers. Alec had none, so he took employment with the Army Pay Corps in Perth at a wage of two pounds seven shillings a week, and studied the classical tongues at home, intending to embark upon a course in theology at Edinburgh University in October. However, Alec's army gratuity was small, and his ex-serviceman's grant for further education was inadequate. Unless, as he said, "God had opened the door for me" , the gates of the university would have remained closed. The answer to prayer came in the form of a letter from Major Pullar enclosed an unsolicited cheque for one hundred pounds in fulfilment of the promise given in Sulva Bay never to forget Alec's bravery. So Alec went to Edinburgh University, and at the end of his first term he spent Christmas with his fiancŽe Kitty Mason at the Yews in Skellingthorpe, where she opened her campaign to divert him from the Presbyterian to the Anglican Church. Consequently, Alec's second term at Edinburgh University was the occasion for "almost daily prayers for guidance whether to go into the Presbyterian or the English Church" .

That issue was not resolved until the following June, when he was back in Skellingthorpe for the long vacation, and there "after discussions with my fiancŽe" Alec decided to train for the Anglican priesthood, "feeling sure that God's hand was upon me" . Kitty Mason's hand certainly was, and it guided him towards an ordination course at the Bishop's Hostel in Lincoln, which was reduced from two years to one year for men of Alec's military experience - an experience which, in the eyes of the church, compensate a priest for a shorter training in theology. However, like one of the early Byzantine bishops who had, according to Gibbon, to defer the ceremony of his consecration until they had despatched the rites of his baptism, Alec Morris needed to become a member of the Church of England before he could be ordained into its ministry. Therefore he was required to undertake a preliminary year's study at a college in Knutsford which catered for those, like him, who wished to leap at one go from conversion to the Church of England to preaching its doctrine.

Having needlessly eaten into his financial reserves at Edinburgh, Alec was now obliged to earn some money to pay for his new course of studies by taking work in the fettling shop of Freeman's iron foundry in Lincoln. There he trimmed the rough edges of castings from seven o'clock in the morning to five o'clock at night for a wage of three pounds six shillings a week. Board and lodging cost him nothing, because Kitty's mother was happy for him to stay at the Yews as a guest, but her father observed with a less kindly eye the protracted hospitality Alec was enjoying at his expense - and clearly expected to enjoy during all the vacations from his theological studies. In Richard Mason's freely expressed opinion, his future son-in-law was "nothing but a loafing sponger" , and one day he was complaining about the free board and lodging when his son Philip overheard and sprang to Alec's defence. He told his father that he ought to be glad to support a man who had been fighting for his king and country - which Philip had been most reluctant to do - and to show that his patriotism was more than mere words, Philip invited Alec to live with him at Caistor during his holidays from Knutsford.

Alec gratefully accepted this kind offer, but with unfortunate and far-reaching consequences. Philip was the Surveyor and Sanitary Inspector to the Caistor Rural District Council, and that appointment provided him with a youthful secretary who had been unable to resist his charm. Philip and she were lovers and Alec, temporarily released in vacations from the constraints of theology, did not ingratiate himself with his host by casting envious and competitive eyes upon his mistress. Worse still, she had a sister who fell ill and Alec, anticipating his ordination, assumed the role of sick visitor. He went to comfort the sixteen year-old girl as she lay at home in bed, but carried his ministrations so far as to slip a hand under the bedclothes to soothe her with caresses. This she resented as going beyond what was to be expected of a man still only aspiring to be a priest, and the transgression was reported to her sister's lover. Whereupon Philip turned Alec out of his house with all the righteous indignation of one who not only regularly caressed the girl's sister, but slept with her. This episode poisoned all subsequent relations between the two men and their families. If Philip was thereafter obliged to find himself in Alec's presence, he always used the opportunity to recount a few of the extremely scandalous stories about the Lincolnshire clergy he collected for that purpose. As for his sister Kitty, she plunged with characteristic loyalty into the hostile aftermath on Alec's side, and eventually took an ample revenge which contributed to the onset of her brother's last and fatal attack of angina.

Carrie's husband, Walter Plumtree, also came back to the Yews from the army in 1919, but the French jewellery lying in Skellingthorpe Wood ensured that there was no need for him to incur his father-in-law's displeasure by over-staying his welcome. Walter's offence was much more heinous. He returned from France with a large chest of army tools which he intended to use in civilian life. They were plentifully stamped with crowns and broad arrows, and readily identifiable as War Office property, so he hid them under a haystack in the Yews farmyard - presenting Richard Mason with the distasteful choice of being an accessory after the fact to larceny, or reporting his daughter's husband to the police. He decided to be an accessory and Walter's tools remained in the farmyard until he sold the jewellery to a fence in London and bought a property in Cleethorpes in which to employ the tools and to house his family. There Walter set himself up in his army trade of motor repairer, and built up a profitable business.

For his part, Arthur Robinson resumed his old business of teaching, and found St Botolph's School a sad declension from Caythorpe Court. Instructing boys was a poor thing after the command of men and there were at first complaints about the severity with which he used to cane them. Boys up and down the country must have similarly borne the brunt of ex-officers' discontent, because Arthur was good-natured and not inclined to sadism. If his right arm was a little heavy with the cane in 1919, it must have fallen pretty sharply on many other outstretched palms and taut bottoms while those recently back from the war were adjusting to peacetime reality.

At the same time, my mother and I also suffered a marked decline in our circumstances - and without any ready means of venting our displeasure upon others. I was less than two years old when I was uprooted from the Yews and moved to my Robinson grandparents' house in Lincoln. I have no conscious recollection of that dramatic change, but I am left with so persistent a nostalgia for my birthplace that it can only have originated in an infant awareness of being torn out of Utopia. As for my mother, she said of the move to Portland House: "Lack-a-day ! My world went upside down !" The upheaval in her life was considerable. She was now going to live in a three-bedroomed semi-detached villa on a stretch of ribbon development - and a villa, moreover, which already housed Arthur's father Harry, his mother Annie, their second son Harold, his wife Grace, her baby Douglas, and for good measure Harry's younger brother, Charlie. We were to join that formidable assembly - and for the teeming warren of Portland House my mother would lose the breadth and dignity of life at the Yews farmhouse - which was of a size that would ordinarily go with a holding larger than Richard Mason's one hundred and twenty acres, as in the past it had.

The house had a broad hall, winding staircase with shallow leisurely treads, square sitting room, long low dining room, large kitchen, a profusion of dairies, larders and sculleries and eight bedrooms. Even so, the Yews looked even bigger than it really was, because the eye embraced an entire group of buildings in the same architectural style - dwellinghouse, stables, coach-house, granary, cow-sheds, barns, out-house, and pig sties - all built in the eighteen thirties by the Governors of the Christian Hospice Charities, using the same scarlet bricks and the same tiles.

The total Yews establishment also included all the paraphenalia that lay in and about the farm buildings - harrows, ploughs, drills, carts, reapers, a trap, harness, scythes, hedging knives, sickles, bill-hooks, long saws with huge teeth, sledge hammers, yokes, churns, grindstones and turnip choppers with iron winding handles, piles of wicker baskets for gathering fruit, apple-trays, spring-traps, ladders, and stocks of timber for mending fences. Scores of creatures went with it as well - cart-horses, trap-horses, a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, a bull, a ram, working dogs, rat-catching cats, a farmyard full of chickens and geese, ducks on the pond, goats in the paddock, and pigeons looking down from roof-tops. All this - and two smaller farms he had let - was Richard Mason's property. He was his own master and a man of consequence in the village. To leave his roof for that of a father-in-law who worked for a wage as one of Joseph's Ruston's clerks was not an easy pill for a proud woman to swallow for the sake of an adulterous husband.

To make things worse, life in the overcrowded Portland House under old Mrs Robinson was undisciplined and chaotic. As May said: "Every mortal body did just as he liked, with no thought beyond - it was transham- scransham all the waking hours !" In contrast, her own mother maintained a well-ordered and dignified regime in the Yews. Every meal had its appointed hour, and no-one was late even for breakfast. The family ate in the dining room round a large oak table covered by a linen table cloth, snowy white, and stiffly starched. The white plates with blue concentric rings round the edges were hot and gleaming, and the steel knives and forks with bone handles shone from burnishing with abrasive powder. The food was simple, but meticulously prepared. Nothing was slip-shod - the mustard was freshly mixed, the salt-cellars were always full, and no mint sauce I have ever eaten had the leaves chopped more finely than at the Yews.

Life there was hierarchical and autocratic. Richard Mason and his wife were addressed by the servants as "Master" or "Mistress" , and were so described in the third person - "the Master's boots need cleaning" or "the Mistress wants the trap ready at two o'clock". Labourers and the maid had their meals in the kitchen - the maid at different times from the two men. The labourers were strictly segregated from the general life of the farmhouse, and spent what little leisure they had out in the village, or sheltering in the granary if it was wet. They washed in a outhouse, and were only resident in the Yews to the extent that they shared a double bed in an attic reached by a separate and exclusive staircase from the kitchen. The servants were kept so securely in what was regarded is their place that a daughter of the house could, when the Yews was full of guests, move into the maid's bed with her. Neitzsche would have approved of the imperious attitudes of May's parents - "....the chasm between man and man, class and class, the multiplicity of types, the will to be oneself, to stand out..... characterises every strong age" . I well remember how, when other English blood was running thinner, my mother and her sister Kitty retained to their death-beds this arrogance of class - modest though their youthful superiority had been. Always they held themselves apart, well above the multitude, and secure in the assurance of being the daughters of a land-owning farmer.

With Richard Mason's increasing prosperity, his wife had given up hiring fifteen year-old girls to be seduced by the sons of the house and by the master. They now had an old and better paid maid called Miriam, who was helped by Widow Quinn, a charwoman from the village. By tea-time they had done the housework, and all was ready for the evening, when Miriam put on a black dress, with a white starched cap and apron, to serve supper. Everyone had "cleaned" - which meant for the women that they had washed, tidied and changed. Then the lamps were lit and the hours until bed-time spent in reading, writing letters, conversation, cards, or music at the piano - while Richard went to the Trust and Miriam, having washed up, sat alone in the kitchen in a wooden chair beside the damped-down fire in the cooking range.

In contrast with the disciplined regime of the Yews, all in Portland House was slackness and muddle. Nothing had its place. The work-basket ? Pen and ink ? Shoe brushes ? Dusters ? No-one knew where to find them, unless the last person who had used them happened to remember where they had been left. Old Mrs Robinson had no maid, and no charwoman to help her - above all no system - and her role in life was slavishly to do the will of everyone else in the house at the very moment it was expressed. May despised her as a disorganised drudge, and on account of their mutual hostility, could not at first even be sorry for her.

Indeed, she took a poor view of her husband's family generally, and only later were they partially redeemed when it became apparent that the Robinsons had a latent asset in the form a rather better supply of genes for intelligence than the Masons. It turned out to be nothing very startling, but the fact remains that none of May's seven brothers and sisters, by their various matings, managed to produced anyone who won an open award at Oxford or Cambridge, as two of her descendants did - nor one who could make his way from a grammar school to the boardroom of a distinguished merchant bank. For that May rightly gave most of the credit to the Robinsons, and only claimed for her side of the family the contribution of a little push and ambition. However, when she moved to Portland House, such advantages as may have lain hidden in her husband's loins had not yet manifested themselves. So in 1919 life in Hykeham Road, married to a Robinson, looked irredeemably bleak, and I think the time has come to explain who those Robinsons were.



Several generations of Arthur's family had lived in Lincoln - and not in the choicest circumstances - but like many other town dwellers they had been unrooted by necessity from the countryside. His great-grandfather, William Robinson was known to have come from the village of Glinton near Peterborough, a few miles over the Lincolnshire border, and the date of his birth was recorded on the fly-leaf of a huge brass-bound family bible. It was confirmed by the parish registers, which record that he was baptised in Glinton on the 11th October 1818 - the son of William Robinson the elder, a carpenter, and of Mary his wife.

Searching parish registers is usually a thankless undertaking. The Masons on May's side, for example, obstinately refuse to reveal themselves for more than a generation or two beyond family memory, but the Robinsons are to be found in the Glinton registers, father and son, in unbroken sequence through to the reign of William and Mary. Searching for ancestors in those fruitful records was made easy because a zealous churchwarden had copied the entries in a legible hand. Indeed, he had gone further and separately re-written and classified the entries by families, so all the Robinsons could be found together. This excellent man had also added notes of his own about where people lived and their occupations, and even the surnames of mothers - whom the registers were content to identify only as "Ellin" or "Joane" . Consequently, Arthur's forebears are there, as plain as pikestaffs, back in unbroken line to Henry Robeson and his wife Judeth at the turn of the seventeenth century, with some of his relatives on the distaff side receding in the parish records to the sixteenth - such as Eilinor Walker, born in 1558.

Glinton is on the edge of the limestone belt that stretches from Lincolnshire, through Northamptonshire, and down to the Cotswolds. The combination of pale golden stone and wealth from the wool trade has given England some of her loveliest villages. Glinton is one of them. It is loosely knit around the church of St Benedict, dating from the twelfth century, where John Clare went to school in the north isle. It was in Glinton, too, that he met Mary Joyce and learned the sorrows of love.

The village has many pretty stone houses of the eighteenth century and earlier, including a small manor - but there is no grand mansion, because the village was at one time a fief of St Pega's Monastery in the neighbouring village of Peakirk. The elegance of Glinton owes much to the Robinsons, who were its joiners and carpenters. From one generation to another, unrecorded except in the parish registers, they made the beautifully proportioned sash windows, the panelled front doors, the oak staircases, the fine balusters and the moulded chimney pieces of the larger houses. Every street proclaims that they had a succession of patrons who could spend their modest wealth without ever lapsing, so far as can be seen from their surviving monuments, from a beautifully chaste and civilised sense of form. Even the cottages - if by chance they have not been improved - bear the same testimony to an English provincial culture that was assured, restrained and almost impeccable in its control of the relationship between function and design. So when Arthur's branch of the family was exiled in the nineteenth century to the back streets of industrial Lincoln, they returned whenever they could to visit their collaterals in Glinton to run a hand over the architrave of a cottage door or to slide a bedroom window between its wooden pegs, to feel seeping through their fingers the old satisfactions of their wood-working ancestors.

The parish registers show Robinsons living in Glinton as far back as the records were kept - with the lovely old English names of James, Thomas, John, Henry, William, Robert, Richard, Mary, Joane, Ellinor, Fanny, Sarah, Rebecca, Bridgit and Judeth - all dust long settled in the quiet churchyard and taken back into the earth. Only an occasional gravestone, worn with frost and rain, still stands to preserve them briefly from oblivion. The surnames of their wives, and of their wives' ancestors - Walkers, Cappits, Woodcocks, Lees, Gimbers, Griffins, Birches, and Foxes also go back in the registers to the Tudor roots of the village. The Gimbers were blacksmiths, the Foxes bakers, the Birches publicans, the Walkers small-holders, the Griffins labourers; and the registers show their families to be inextricably mixed and indistinguishable - with the male Robinson line, the thin paternal thread beloved of the genealogists, of no more significance than any other. Arthur was not descended from the Robinsons, but from Glinton - and a very nice village it was to have in his blood.

It is fascinating to follow in the parish registers the slow mating dance of a small village. It was a Paul Jones, with the partners changing from generation to generation, but taken from families already on the floor. Only a very occasional outsider came into the village to settle, because those already there could take up the available employment and fill the available houses. Glinton was in fact one large family with one stock of genes dealt individually to each new infant, but whatever the surname of his parents - be it Robinson, Gimber, Birch or Walker - all from the same pack. If this persistent inter-breeding had its genetic disadvantages, the consequences were short lived, because the weak and handicapped died young. Thirty-seven Robinsons were born in the hundred years between 1750 and 1850, and sixteen of them died before they were old enough to breed. On the other hand, with the unfit so ruthlessly weeded out, the twenty-one who survived their childhood were well on the road to three score years and ten. In fact, they lived to an average age of sixty-eight, and without much help from doctors.

It is also interesting to see that when unmarried Glinton girls found themselves pregnant, the parsons were inclined to believe what they were told about the paternity of the child. The baptismal registers almost always identify the fathers, and they also reveal that a love child was certainly no bar to eventual matrimony with another man. For example, in 1728 Sarah Robinson had Henry by Robert Meadows, and married William Gimber six years later. Her sister Mary did better. She had Thomas by James Baker in 1735, then Ann by Jonathon Croxton, and in 1738 - ever versatile and obviously attractive - she married Richard Fox. Two years afterwards, her cousin Jane had a daughter by Jonathan Culpin, who bestowed his name if not his band, and the child was christened Cardine Culpin Robinson. If Jane thereafter found a husband, it was not recorded: but her daughter Cardine grew up to be so popular in the family that, for several generations afterwards, they used the first name of that little bastard girl for many of their lawful offspring - who were numerous.

Seventeen children or more were common and, although infant mortality was high, the system was not entirely self-regulating. There were times when the balance of births and deaths was upset by short periods of comparative freedom from major epidemics, and Arthur's great-grandfather, William Robinson, was one of a generation that happened to find itself larger than the local economy could support. So his father trained him in the family trade, gave him a box of carpenter's tools , and turned him out of the village at the age of fifteen to find employment where he could.

How he fared at first is unknown, but by 1841 he had found a wife whose mother, Frances, was reputed to have brought the only element of anything approaching gentility into the family. She was the daughter of a gentleman called Rudkin of Hough-on-the-Hill near Grantham, and was foolish and wilful enough to run away with her father's coachman. Whether Mr Rudkin was in fact the Squire of Hough and not a mere farmer, and whether John Jackson was his coachman and not his labourer, may be open to question. Families tend to embroider tales of that kind. But there is no doubt whatsoever that John Jackson made a clandestine marriage in Newark Parish Church on 26th November 1812 with a young girl who was much better nurtured than he. The parish records confirm that Frances Rudkin was a minor who married without the consent of her parents, because an archbishop's licence had to be obtained - and whereas John Jackson was illiterate and made his mark, the bride signed the register in a youthful but educated hand.

One of the many offspring of that elopement married the itinerant carpenter William Robinson, who eventually found settled employment in Lincoln, and thus began the family's connection with that city. At one time he worked on the wooden bridges over the Holmes Common that brought the Midland Railway from Nottingham into Lincoln, and he was one of the workmen who were still completing a wooden bridge over the River Witham on the very day in June 1846 when the first railway engine ever to steam into Lincoln crossed over it on the Midland line from Collingham.

William's wife gave birth to ten children and recorded precise details of their births on a fly-leaf of the family bible - and it is horrifying to read her catalogue and to see the rapidity with which she bred in a little dark back-to-back cottage in Gorley's Row. The first child was born in August 1842, and the tenth was born in October 1856 - only fourteen years later. All of them survived, and there were so many children about the house that William left the door unlocked at night because he was never sure that they were all in. Even when they were, they persistently forgot to shut the door between the living room and the kitchen, so he took it off its hinges and they managed without one. Nothing else was known about William except that he died early at the age of forty of some unremembered disease. His old wooden tool chest survived him and I used to see it in Portland House at the foot of Harry's matrimonial bed, where it was used for storing blankets.

After William's death, his wife Fanny was destitute, so she took employment in the kitchens of the Saracen's Head Hotel, leaving the older children to look after the youngest, who was only two. Fanny brought home scraps from the dining room and the crusty edges that had been cut cut off sandwiches for her hungry children to eat as they stood round the kitchen table, while she solaced herself with cups of tea brewed from tea-leaves that had already been used for the patrons of the hotel. Nevertheless, all her children grew up to maturity, and several emigrated to America, never to return. They were soon lost to family record, but another child became a successful master-lighterman on the Humber and founded the prosperous Hull branch of the family, which was held in great esteem by the Lincoln Robinsons.

Fanny's eldest son George - Arthur's grandfather - left school at the age of nine, but he was already numerate, and could read and write. Until he was old enough to enter into a deed of apprenticeship he shovelled wheat in Rudgard's flour mill. Then he served his time as a moulder in Ruston's iron factory - thus beginning a sequence of four Robinson generations who worked there. My cousin Douglas was the last, and he eventually found himself working not for Ruston's but for Arnold Weinstock, and the long family connection was finally broken when his lordship made him redundant.

George Robinson, the moulder, was regarded in the family as a bad thing. He drank too much, he was too fond of women, he was feckless in a bold devil-may-care way, and he swore shamefully - but his great unpardonable crime in the eyes of his descendants was to have married a woman with money, and then to have squandered it. His first wife, like him, was penniless, and he married her in 1861, when he was only nineteen - but a wage earner, nevertheless, of ten years standing. Of this wife little was remembered except that she was called Elizabeth and that she died nine months after the wedding in childbirth - a function for which she was particularly unsuited being, as her widower explained, "as thin round the bloody waist as this 'ere walking stick" .

When he was twenty-three, George married another Elizabeth, whose father, Patterson Johnson, was a prosperous fen farmer in the village of Long Sutton on the Lincolnshire coast. He derived his unusual Christian name from the surname of his mother, a Patterson from Blair Atholl, who clearly intended that her Caledonian origins should not be forgotten. It was the Scot in Patterson Johnson that prompted him to put one of his many sons through medical school, and remote thought the connection was I used to hear our relative Doctor Johnson of Bassingham spoken of in Portland House with deep reverence and pride. Patterson Johnson also did well for his daughter Elizabeth in marrying her to a Mr Bates who owned the best glass and china shop in Lincoln. The premises enjoyed a prime site in Saltergate near the Stonebow, and with them went the right to a stall in the market across the river. Sadly, however, Mr Bates soon died, leaving Elizabeth with no children and the whole of his property - making her on both accounts a highly desirable young widow.

Now it becomes painful for me, being fond of women, to write of their follies and to add to the roll-call of the Annas and Emmas who have suffered and died in the service of passion - but it must be done if the story is to proceed. At the age of twenty-five, the pretty and much sought -after Elizabeth Bates chose out of all the suitors the very man who would be the most disastrous for her - George Robinson. Clearly no-one warned her against his bold handsome face and beguiling tongue, although he was widely known to be what was called "bad with women" . There was a tale of him walking twenty miles to Grantham to see a girl, and of his walking twenty miles back again after her parents, who had heard of him, locked the door in the face. But Widow Bates was not alerted to the danger ahead, and in St Paul's Church, Lincoln, on the twenty-first of February 1866 - many years before the Married Womens' Property Act - the Common Law of England, that supposed bulwark of English liberties, did its baleful work. At the very moment when the parson declared the eager widower and his unsuspecting bride to be man and wife, there vested absolutely, exclusively, and irrevocably in George Robinson the unencumbered freehold of the glass and china shop, the entire stock and goodwill of the business, the right to the stall in the market and - as the family always said with bated breath - "two hundred pounds in the bank as well" . It was a windfall worth at least half a million pounds in modern money.

George immediately moved into the living accommodation above the shop, and settled himself with ease and satisfaction amongst the late Mr Bate's furniture, ate with his knives and forks, drank from his glasses, shaved in his mirror, slept between his sheets, and generated children more successfully then he in the matrimonial bed. George gave up his moulding, and for a while lived graciously on his wife's money, cutting a dash by hiring horses and traps from Gadd's livery stables to drive out into the country to visit his relatives. But with George in control of the china shop the days of prosperity were brief. He was too feckless to apply himself with more than temporary enthusiasm to a commercial enterprise, and his wife was too busy having children to look after the shop herself, even if he would have allowed her. Impulsively George would give pots away to the poor and, less virtuously, to any pretty woman who took his fancy. If a customer complained about the price of his wares George would, as like as not, cry petulantly: "Well have it for nothing then !" Inevitably the business soon failed, and Elizabeth and he were ejected from Saltergate by the creditors. George was obliged to return to work in Ruston's, and he moved his wife and family to a slum cottage on Waterside South that was to be his home for the remainder of his life.

He need not have lived under those conditions. As a skilled time-served tradesman, he could well have afforded one of the five-roomed terraced houses in decent streets close to Ruston's works, where even the unskilled men lived. George housed his family in a slum because he preferred to spend his money on drink, women, and absurd displays of generosity to his friends in the Constitutional Club. George was a spendthrift, and of all that Widow Bates had inherited from her first husband, nothing survived except one item of stock - a cut-glass pickle jar that was preserved from the creditors and ultimately settled by family consent in tail male. So it is now vested in me and lies still unused at the back of my china cupboard - ringing if knocked carelessly like a passing bell for a lost fortune.

It would have been better for the second Elizabeth if, like the first, she had died young in child-birth, but she had larger hips and went on to produce a large brood of children who were bedecked with a wealth of names in baptism as if in compensation for the poverty in which they were to be brought up. One of them had four - Frances Elizabeth Rose Rudkin - and this child was intended by her christening to preserve the memory the gently nurtured Frances Rudkin, our ancestress who had eloped with her father's coachman. All the eight children, with the exception of the last, were born in quick succession, and on the occasion of each birth it was George's custom, as soon as the labour was concluded, to call upstairs to the midwife: "Is its sneck out of doors?" If it was - a sneck being a Lincolnshire door-latch - he went out happily to the Constitutional Club, having no liking for daughters, and got drunk. However, four of his six sons died young. Tom Andrew Jackson - whose third name echoed that of the male partner in the prestigious elopement - perished in infancy. Of a pair of twin boys, one was christened in extremis with the single name of Charles a few hours before he died. Then, as was customary, the survivor was named after him, but only to die shortly afterwards - as if neither of them had been given enough names to support life. The fourth son to go, William Frederick Lewis, lost his life as a youth in the frozen Witham in Washingborough. While skating at high speed on his long fenmen's skates he fell over the edge of a large hole in the ice made by someone drawing water. His momentum carried him forward under the ice on the far side of the hole, and being unable to raise his head by reason of the frozen roof above it, he was drowned. Thus, only two sons reached maturity, but both of the daughters made old bones - and both grew up amply to justify their father's disinclination to have female offspring.

George's low regard for women extended to his wives. Although he did not beat the second Elizabeth, he so terrified her by the force of his overbearing personality that everything in the house had to be done exactly as he wished down to the smallest detail. His potatoes had to be under-cooked, and unless they were served "with bones in" he would throw them out into the yard. His wife was treated as a servant - being obliged to button up his boots, fill his weekly bath, scrub his back, spread the jam on his bread, fillet his herrings, and fold paper spells to light his pipe from the fire. When he entertained a friend, Elizabeth was kept running out to the public house with a jug to fetch the beer and to keep the supply replenished. Nevertheless, so long as she remained healthy, she managed to minister both to his needs and those of her children, but in late middle age she fell ill with cancer. Then dragged down with pain, she was no longer able to look after her husband as he required, and this made him so unkind and complaining that she took herself off one night and drowned herself in the nearby Witham.

George then quickly found a new partner - also called Elizabeth - from behind the bar of the Rising Sun public house in Greetwell Gate. She was married to the licensee, but George enticed her away and installed her in his cottage on Waterside where she served as housekeeper and bedfellow until her husband divorced her. Then, after George and she had legalised their union in the register office, he invited a few relatives and friends to the cottage to celebrate the nuptials, cheerfully announcing: "I've married three Lizzies ! And when this one dies, I'll marry another !" But that was tempting providence too far, and the third Lizzie survived him.

The ability to find a third wife so quickly after the suicide of the second, points to George's dangerous ability to attract women. There can be no doubt that he had a robust and compelling charm, and I hope that it may have done something to alleviate the lot of his three unfortunate spouses. May's sister Kitty, who was not predisposed to like bold and scabrous talk, testified to the fascination of his conversation when she was taken to meet him and to learn the worst about the family May had married into. Kitty well remembered the old man's forked beard, and the liveliness of the entertainment he provided. In spite of leaving school at the age of nine he commanded an enviable range of Shakespearean quotation - often fortified by obscenity. He was a man of strong and powerfully expressed antipathies. Playing cards were "the Devil's pasteboards" . and he would not allow a pack of them in the house. He had the utmost contempt for the futility of games, and described football as "twenty-two fools chasing a bag of wind" . Kitty quite took to him and found "almost everything he said amusing" , but her sister was less enchanted and sat silently regretting ever having allied herself to such a family.



George's eldest son, Harry, was put out to work at the age of twelve, because his father was able to obtain what was called a "certificate of education" . It was to the effect that the young Harry Robinson could already read and write well enough, and could do enough arithmetic, to be allowed to end his compulsory education early - in short that he was a fairly clever little lad, and well able to start earning his own living. Accordingly, Harry left school and found employment in Ruston's offices. There he progressed to the point where, in 1891, he could afford to marry.

His bride, Elizabeth Maplethorpe, was the daughter of a labourer in Billinghay. She was a little, red-faced girl with black hair, a good figure, a brilliant smile, and a shy docile charm. Elizabeth was not known by her baptismal name, but as Annie - which seemed more homely and appropriate. I never saw Harry show his wife any affection, although he was never actively rude or unkind. He treated her as someone to whom he was committed for better or for worse, and to that extent he rubbed along with his wedding vows. They set up home in a little terraced house in Hope Street, where their first child was born in 1892 and given the single christian name of Arthur. A year later they moved to a better house in Portland Street, and there they had a second child - another boy. This time Harry progressed from Celtic pre-history to the Norman Conquest, and called him Harold.

Meanwhile, Arthur had started school when he was only three, and at the age of seven he found himself in St Andrew's Junior School, where he was later to become the headmaster. He was a bright pupil and was encouraged to prepared for an exhibition to the Christ's Hospital Middle School, which had originally been a Bluecoat School with its own charitable endowments. In the past it had taken its pupils from amongst the poorest children of Lincoln, who were boarded, dressed in blue, fed and educated until, at the age of fourteen, they were apprenticed in a "mechanical trade" . The school had its own drum and fife band which regularly paraded through the city, and the boys were held in such municipal affection that when they had their annual trip to the seaside they were escorted there not only by the entire city council, but by up to a couple of thousand other citizens as well. However, in 1880 the Charity Commissioners decided that elementary education in Lincoln was otherwise adequately provided for, so they closed the Bluecoat School and used the endowments to establish a Christ's Hospital Middle School with exhibitions open to boys from local elementary schools. Arthur won one of them when he was nine, but the award did not provide entirely free schooling and the pupils had to pay sixpence a week for their more advanced education. Then a year later, in 1902, he won another scholarship. This time it was to the Grammar School and covered everything - school fees, school clothing, and books.

There was no question of Arthur having to leave school early to start earning his own living. Harry was now relatively prosperous - certainly compared with his father who threw prosperity away, and with his grandfather who never had it. Arthur was to stay at school, and then go to college. The hope was that he should become a teacher. To comprehend the respect in which the teaching profession was then held in my family, it is necessary to understand the hunger for education of intelligent men whose schooling ended before their teens. Both my grandfathers left school when they were twelve, and both of them looked upon teachers as almost god-like possessors of knowledge that was forever beyond their reach. Even my grandfather Mason who had risen from journeyman blacksmith to land-owning farmer; who was a respected public figure in his locality; who had as much intelligence as most pedagogues, and a vastly greater capacity for putting it to practical use - even he was happy that his cleverest daughter should be a teacher, and content for her to be the wife of one.

In 1906 Harry Robinson moved from the back streets of Lincoln to a semi-detached villa in Hykeham Road he had come across on one of his long walks out into the countryside early on Sunday mornings, which took him past some houses under construction and nearing completion. The builder was Alderman Tommy Wallis - an archetypal Liberal entrepreneur, a gad-fly of the City Council, and an ardent non- conformist in religion. He was so energetic that he kept himself warm by the frenzy of his ceaseless activity, and was never seen to wear a greatcoat even on days when other mortals were muffled up to the ears and still shivering with cold.

Harry liked the look of the Alderman's new villas, and he chose one of them for its rural situation. The house was almost at the end of a tentacle of ribbon development pointing towards North Hykeham and looked out over farmlands watered by the Witham because housing had not yet crept up the other side of the road. The prospect embraced a distant view of an escarpment with the villages of Waddington and Harmston clinging to the ridge. The outlook was so attractive, that Harry bought this villa with the help of a twenty-five year mortgage from the Hearts of Oak Friendly Society, and called it "Portland House" after the street he had left behind.

Fortunately, Alderman Wallis was not a jerry builder. As an upright pillar of the chapel, he gave good value for money. Portland House was sound and well-built, of good Fletton brick and best Welsh slate, with solid cast-iron guttering and ornamental roof ridges. It was also substantial. The rooms were generous in size, and the ceilings were high and moulded. Sash windows throughout the house slid up and down at a touch, with their well balanced systems of cords, pulleys and counter- weights. Doors were wide, heavy and panelled, with deeply moulded frames. None of the woodwork was skimped - skirting boards were high, and one could have hung a vast Rubens from the picture rails. The large rectangular front bay window had panels of stained glass of various colours set in quasi-ecclesiastical tracery. The upper half of the front door, too, was glazed with stained glass in convoluted patters, but in more dense colours to prevent a curious visitor from peering into the hall while he waited to see whether the door bell, with its arrangement of wires, pivots and springs, had pealed loudly enough to be heard in the distant kitchen.

Both of the living rooms and two of the bedrooms had cast-iron fireplaces decorated with ornamental tiles - some of them Dutch, in blue and white, illustrating scenes of life in Holland; some displaying exotic lotus-like flowers; and others enlivening the rooms with highly coloured geometric designs. Perched up the roof tops was a small forest of chimney stacks because, apart from the four ordinary fireplaces, the kitchen had a cast-iron cooking range with a back boiler for the hot water system, and the scullery had a copper with a firegrate beneath it.

Unlike many semi-detached dwellings today, Portland House and its mirror image next door were sensibly designed with the front doors immediately adjacent to each other in the middle of the building. Consequently, no matter how much noise one neighbour might make in his living room, there was the insulation of two entrance halls and two staircases to make it inaudible to the other in his. One entered Harry's house by a small porch in antis, which sheltered the front door. Then came a narrow hall tiled in bold colourful patterns, with a straight staircase ahead. To the right was a living room, known as the "front room" , and behind it was the "other room" - used only for very special occasions. Beyond those rooms the house narrowed, with a short transverse passage leading to the side door, while another passage, continuing straight ahead, went past the pantry and into the kitchen. Yet further to the rear - for the house stretched backwards almost interminably - was the scullery in what had now became a single-storied part of the building. The scullery contained a sink, the copper, a gas cooker, and a "mangle" for wringing out the washing.

On leaving the scullery, one entered a small lobby which opened to the left into the "cycle house" , and to the right on to the back door which slid to and fro on overhead wheels running in an iron track. This door was the principal means of entrance to and exit from the entire house - the front door being reserved for strangers, and the side door being never used at all except in error by people like canvassers. The cycle house was a long narrow store-room serving as a garage for the bicycle on which Harry took himself to work. Even beyond the lobby and the cycle house came the coal house and the water closet - but they, although under the same roof, were accessible only from the garden. So one had to brave the elements to fetch in coal or to go to the lavatory. There was no W.C. elsewhere in the house - as if those who bought semi-detached villas on Hykeham Road in 1906 were still familiar with the smell of an earth closet and could not entertain the possibility of relieving themselves in a major way indoors. Instead, they had chamber pots under every bed for their minor nocturnal comfort.

Upstairs, Portland House had three bedrooms, and a bathroom containing a washbowl, a bath, and an airing cupboard. The water system never froze because the clever alderman had not put the cold tank up in the roof, but on a gallery over the bath. Upstairs, however, was not the end of it all. At the bottom of the garden lay another semi-detached range of buildings to go with the two houses, consisting of a pair of pig-sties and a pair of store sheds. These premises were built of the same Fletton brick, but the roofs were pantiled to give them a more countrified air. Again Alderman Wallis had supplied good substantial edifices. Each pig-sty had its open brick-walled and brick-floored square enclosure in which the pig could take exercise, or bask in the sun, or eat his swill in the trough provided. Access to the enclosure from outside was by a heavy wooden gate with thick iron bolts, whereas the animal within could wander freely between sty and enclosure through an open doorway. The interior of the sty was large enough and high enough, notwithstanding the sloping roof, to have a loft in which to keep the straw that was strewn for the pig's comfort over the floor of his excellent accommodation. Abutting on the rear of the sty was a brick and pantiled garden shed, lighted with an adequate window so that it could be used as a workshop.

The furnishings and decoration of Harry's new house reflected his move into a solid and assured lower middle class environment. Every living room and bedroom had its square of patterned axminster carpet, leaving a space about a foot wide round the edge - and there the floorboards were stained dark brown with permanganate of potash. The treads of the staircase left exposed on each side of the narrow turkey stair-carpet were painted cream, but other internal woodwork - such as doors, skirting boards, picture rails, and cupboards - were grained and varnished. Every room except the bathroom and scullery had heavily patterned wallpapers up to the picture rails. Above them the walls and ceilings were white-washed. Lighting was by gas, with fixtures either pendant in the middle of the ceilings, or in the form of brackets on each side of the fireplace. The glass shades round the incandescent mantles were deeply chased with patterns of leaves and flowers - and whereas the bracket lights within easy reach had simple taps, the higher pendant ones were turned on and off by means of thin chains hanging from them like very long ear-rings. Windows had plain cream blinds, and the white lace curtains, patterned with lush vegetation, were draped back to let in the light. The principal rooms were fitted also with dark velvet curtains, hanging from mahogany rings which slid on mahogany poles.

Furnishings throughout the house were sober and restrained. In the narrow tiled entrance hall stood a dark oak hall-stand, shallow enough for people to pass by. On the upper half was mounted a rectangular bevelled mirror with hat pegs on each side of it, while the lower half consisted of an open box-like structure into which men could thrust their walking sticks. Umbrellas went into it, too, because there was a zinc tray in the base to collect the drippings, if they happened to be wet. The only other furniture in the hall - apart from a row of coat-hooks - was a mahogany grandfather clock bought by Annie as a dowry from her home in Metheringham. It was dark and forbidding, because in the arched tympanum above the face was a sombre painting of a ruined church standing in rough untended fields against an evening sky - as if, by every tick of the pendulum, to remind humanity of impermanence.

The "front room" served as a dining room although, as in a mansion house, it was the farthest from the kitchen. In the centre of this room was a large square oak table, usually covered by a chenille cloth. Several Victorian dining chairs with upholstered seats were pushed underneath it. In the large rectangular bay window was an upholstered chaise longue, and around the tiled fireplace ran a brass fender. A snip rug protected the carpet from sparks, and a pair of basket chairs with cushioned seats were set before the fire. An upright Metzler piano stood against the opposite wall, with a rectangular mahogany piano stool which had an upholstered seat that lifted to reveal a shallow box in which the music was kept. On the fourth wall was an oak sideboard, with drawers and cupboard beneath, and a heavily framed mirror above.

The "other room" behind the front room was merely a symbol of Harry's ability to afford needless accommodation. Although hardly ever used, it was fully furnished with a three-piece suite, a mahogany bookcase, a three-tier cake stand, and several little occasional tables shrouded in lace cloths.

The kitchen had a large double-fronted iron cooking range with several hobs, an oven on each side of the fire, and a back boiler to supply hot water to the bathroom and scullery. Dough could be set to rise on the shelf-like top of a high iron fender. This room was furnished with a table in the window, a few kitchen chairs, a rocking chair by the fire, and a "dresser" - a sort of sideboard, but made of common deal, stained dark brown, and varnished. It had no mirror, and the back piece was only high enough to stop things from falling off, but the dresser had the useful range of cupboards and drawers needed in a kitchen. Today it would be stripped and sold expensively as "pine" .

Upstairs, all the beds were double, and fitted with feather mattresses - renowned for connubial comfort. The iron frames were black, relieved by decorative brass here and there. Counterpanes - like sheets and pillows - were white, and all the blankets were biscuit coloured. Each room had a wardrobe and chest of drawers in mahogany or dark oak, bamboo bedside tables and a few small bedroom chairs with canework seats. Above each bed - as if bed were the place most conducive to moral fervour - was hung a framed "text" , a small piece of embroidery worked with floral decorations and words of exhortation, such as "Fight the Good Fight" , or "Fear Ye the Lord" . Beneath each bed was the essential "chamber" for less spiritual needs.

Throughout the house, mantelpieces and other flat surfaces not used for serving meals were crowded with ornaments such as Staffordshire shepherdesses, china dogs in pairs, ornate flower vases, little pieces of white pottery bearing the municipal arms of seaside towns, and a great variety of brass knick-knacks. Enough objets de vertu could have been gathered from those shelves and ledges to have provided the entire stock of a modern antique stall, but decorative fancy had its most dramatic expression on the living room walls. Not many houses in Hykeham Road displayed large oil paintings in gilded rococo frames, as well as the more usual prints, etchings and photographs. Portland House did - because there was a painter in the family, and Harry was not only ingenuous enough to admire his canvasses, but foolish enough to pay for them, and the perpetrator of those works of art will appear in the narrative later.

With Portland House went about a quarter of an acre of land. The front garden was reasonably large because the house was set well back from the road, and the plot on which it was built was wide enough to leave room for access to the rear, whether on a bicycle or pushing a wheelbarrow. The plot then continued the same width for about another seventy yards behind the house, and reached the pig-sty and shed. That would have been the end of the property if Harry had not exceptionally been able to secure from Alderman Wallis an extension of his strip forty yards long together with a contiguous strip of similar length behind his semi-detached neighbour's garden as well. Consequently, the Portland House demesne extended beyond the pig-sties into a good wide area in which to make an orchard, and to keep ducks and chickens.

Such was the freehold that could be bought in 1906 for three hundred and fifty pounds. It represented less than one and a half times Harry's annual earnings. No-one in the family except he knew precisely what his wages as a clerk were, but they were thought to be about five pounds a week - of which an unknown proportion was pressed surreptitiously into his wife's hand every Saturday. It was a generous proportion because Harry liked to eat well, and he had not always done so as a child.

The acquisition of the Portland House estate was a triumph. It brought the first water closet and the first bathroom into the family, and as far as Harry could look back, which was not very far, no ancestor of his had ever owned anything but his chattels - apart from his father, whose hey-day with his wife's freehold had been only brief. Harry now set about to enjoy being a property owner, and to live the life of a countryman so far as his work in Ruston's permitted. Accordingly, he planted his orchard with a variety of trees - apple, crab, plum, pear, damson, and greengage. In it he built a couple of large chicken houses, each its spacious run in which a lordly cockerel trod, as the fancy took him, one of his harem of plump hens. Harry sank an old tin bath level with the turf and filled it with water for his ducks and drake to swim and copulate in - believing, perhaps correctly, that they needed to be afloat for both purposes, but thinking less of their matrimonial solace than of furnishing his table with tender duckling. Nearer the house, just short of the pig-sty, was the soft fruit - raspberries, gooseberries, loganberries, red currants, black currants, white currants, and strawberries. Next came vegetables of all the old simple country kinds - beans, peas, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, brussel sprouts, marrows, lettuces, radishes, and potatoes. The herbs were few - mint, parsley, chives and sage - because his wife's cooking was learnt at home in Billinghay, and not from books. In the light summer evenings Harry dug, planted and weeded his garden, or cleaned out the pig-sty and chicken houses. On the Saturday afternoons when there was no football match he did the same, but the garden was tended mainly on Sundays. He had no other time available because, even when Ruston's did not demand overtime, he earned the family's living on five days of the week from six o'clock in the morning until five o'clock at night, and on the sixth day until twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Joseph Ruston rested on the seventh.

In view of Harry's working hours, his wife Annie assumed all other domestic duties. She took charge of the flower garden, fed the pig, and looked after the poultry. As the daughter of a villager, she baked her own bread and cakes, made her own jam with the fruit from the garden, and preserved the plums and everything else preservable. She wrung the necks of ducklings and cockerels, and plucked them and singed them and drew them for the table. Annie made elderberry and cowslip wines, and brewed dandelion and burdock stout. She did the interior painting, hung wallpapers, and refreshed from time to time the hideously "grained" woodwork of doors and skirting boards with a new coat of varnish. Her husband earned what seemed to Annie to be a very good living, and spent most of the week doing it, so she cheerfully raised the children unaided, and did all the housework, cooking and laundry herself. On top of that she cleaned Harry's shoes, laid out his clothes, helped him to put on his tie, and acted generally as his personal servant. Her husband was, in her opinion, entitled to those ministrations, and she saw no reason why the bread-winner should stir himself in the least to do any table laying, table clearing, washing up, drying, coal carrying, or any domestic chore whatsoever.

It was, in fact, an equitable division of labour because they were both at work of one kind or another, with little respite, from morning to night seven days of the week. Whether they were happy in their toil is a question neither, I think, would have understood. Life was assumed to be work and endeavour, and it was no co-incidence that they were citizens of a country with a world empire at its peak. That gave them great satisfaction . Characteristically, Annie expressed her national pride largely in silence as a lowly, obscure, but diligent Conservative party worker. Harry expressed his satisfaction with the state of the nation in a deep scorn for all "tow-rags" - a term that swept up in two syllables of contempt the idle, the feckless, the complaining, the subversive - yes, even David Lloyd George and his reforming Liberals. Tow-rags included the French - since their disaster in 1870 - and all other peoples of the earth, except the Germans who now, since Bismark, compelled respect. Not that Harry's part in his country's achievements was limited to vocal approval. Far from it. He was working long hours for Joseph Ruston - one of the dynamos generating Britain's power and prosperity, and it is time for that gentleman to enter the narrative.

Not only did his firm feed and clothe four generations of my family, but he and his fellow industrialists represented one half of the deeply divided City of Lincoln in which I was brought up. The other was based on the Cathedral - the money-spending and not the money-making half, the stately, high-thinking and sometimes scholarly half - and sadly for Britain, the more prestigious half. Those with no interest in Joseph Ruston can easily enough skip the next chapter, carefully shielding their eyes, as they turn over the pages, from glimpses of almost naked capitalism at work, with all its harshness and all its benefits.



Joseph Ruston was born in 1835, the son of a prosperous Wesleyan local preacher who employed no less than twenty-eight labourers on his fenland farm in the Isle of Ely. Joseph's birthplace, Chatteris, was Hereward the Wake country, which so far as I know is its only claim to fame - except that after the second World War it housed a flourishing male brothel, perhaps the first since Roman times. The Chatteris establishment enjoyed a wide London clientele, but fenmen themselves seemed to be much given to sexual excess of all kinds - no doubt as some relief from the prevailing drabness and damp of the countryside. For them, incest was almost respectable, and the oldest co-respondent I have heard of to be proved guilty of adultery - in the days when it was a matrimonial offence - was a fenman of well over eighty who in all weathers hung about for hours outside the home of his middle-aged sweetheart like a love-sick boy, waiting to nip inside the moment her husband left. The conjunction in Joseph Ruston of fenland blood and the raging energy of an industrial tycoon - which so often spills over in other directions - might lead one to expect that whispers of sexual scandal would have clung to his reputation. But disappointingly it is not so. Like his father, Joseph embraced the Wesleyan faith, and worked diligently in the garden of the Lord, and not in other mens' beds.

He came to Lincoln in 1856, when he was twenty-two, intending to manufacture portable steam engines, and went into partnership with two older men - Theophilus Burton a brass and iron founder, and James Toyne Proctor a millwright. The dominance of the youngest partner was immediately proclaimed in the name of the new firm "Ruston, Burton and Proctor" . Burton stood the pace for two years and then sold out to his partners retiring exhausted to the country. Three years later the young cuckoo had Proctor out of the nest as well. It was Ruston's practice to scour the Continent, winning orders for more engines than Proctor could manufacture. The break came when Proctor was a year behind with the design for a small corn mill for France, and inadvertently explained why. He brought Ruston a handful of nails he had picked up from the floor where a workman had dropped them, saying: "This, Mr Ruston, is where our profits are going !" A partner with his mind on trivialities instead of production was of no use to Joseph Ruston, so Proctor was bought out in 1865 for eight thousand pounds - which is some indication of the firm's rate of growth, because Burton had been content with eight hundred and fifty five.

George Robinson had joined the firm as an apprentice moulder soon after it was formed, but he left in 1866 to live on his second wife's money - returning a few years later when it was all spent. Thereafter he worked in Ruston's as a moulder for about fifty years, eventually retiring with a gold watch, the firm's thanks, and no pension. Moulding was a skilled craft which involved making an accurate mould in damp sand and then pouring white hot iron into it in such a way that every part of the mould was filled. It was a dangerous occupation and, apart from more trivial injuries, George once had molten iron spilled on to his foot. On another occasion, his big toe was almost cut off, but he clamped it back on himself, and it knit together again after a fashion, although from time to time the joint became inflamed and swollen. So he kept a specially sharpened penknife with which he could puncture the swelling and let out some blood, saying: "Ah ! That's eased the bugger !"

George's working day began at four in the morning, when he had a cup of tea with an egg beaten into it and a dash of brandy. His wife had, of course, risen earlier to attend to these needs. Then George read the newspaper until the Ruston's buzzer gave a short blast to tell him that he had only ten minutes to hurry out of the house to be at work by six. In spite of its name, the buzzer was blown by steam and sounded like a fog-horn. There were other works' buzzers blowing as well, but Joseph Ruston was the most thrusting and enterprising of the Lincoln industrialists and had the loudest. In fact, during the Great War it was commandeered by the authorities for use as a air raid siren. With this device Ruston was able to carry his imperative demands into the very homes of his workpeople because all of them lived, like serfs around the seigniorial castle, in streets close to the factory. In Lincoln, when I was a boy, the hours shrieked with the sound of the works' buzzers and chimed with the striking of a multitude of church clocks - all with their slight disparities of timing. But there was always the final stroke of Big Tom to assert the authority of God over Mammon, and of the bishop over his clergy, by booming the indubitable instant of the hour from the central tower of the cathedral.

As George approached his place of work, the Ruston's buzzer started to blow again at one minute to six, filling the Waterside with men running for the factory gates. Each of them had a numbered disc, called a "check" , to be dropped into a collecting box as he entered the works. The buzzer stopped at six o'clock, and at that moment the box was replaced by another, which stayed there for a quarter of a hour. The men whose checks were found in the second box were "quarter-houred" , and lost that much pay. At six- fifteen, the second box was withdrawn and a third was substituted, which remained until six-thirty. Those men were "half-houred" . After six-thirty, the gates of the works were locked, and any subsequent comers had to wait until after breakfast before they could start work. They lost two and a half hour's pay. The late arrivals were recorded by a "check-boy" , who then ran through the works handing back each man his check before he left the premises again. Those whose checks were repeatedly found in the wrong boxes did not work for Ruston's for long. A man might feel a tap on his shoulder as he worked at a bench, and it would be the foreman telling him to go collect his cards. He did - and there was no strike to save him.

The buzzer sounded briefly again at eight, releasing George to go home for his breakfast, and he snatched a last cup of tea as the buzzer blew at twenty past to call him back to the factory at eight-thirty when the check system operated again. And so the day proceeded, with a buzzer-punctuated forty minutes break for dinner, until normal work ended at five. If there was overtime - and there usually was unless trade was slack - it began at five-thirty, leaving George just enough time to go home for a very quick high tea. Overtime on Fridays sometimes went on through the night until the next day. Thus, a man could go to work at six on Friday morning and continue until twelve-thirty on the following afternoon. Even then he could not yet go home, because he joined those who had worked the normal Saturday shift to queue for their pay packets, which were handed out by only one cashier. So a workman might have to wait until well after one o'clock before he received his money.

There was no work on Sundays because Joseph Ruston was a good sabbatarian. Christmas Day, too, was observed as a day of rest, and on Boxing Day overtime was voluntary. The only other holiday was a few days in the summer, flattered with the name of "trip-week" , when the men were given a long week-end, with the works closing from Thursday night to the following Tuesday morning. Thus, Sundays were almost the only complete days of leisure in the year, and George Robinson made the most of them. He rose early and put on his button boots, slate-grey trousers, red fancy waistcoat, black frock-coat, and bowler hat with a curly brim. Then, armed with an elegant silver-mounted walking stick, he would take his family for a long walk over the West Common. After that exercise to work up a thirst, he resorted to the Constitutional Club and drank.

Sunday drinking was a thing apart from his week-day intake, which was merely occupational. Moulding was hot work. While at it, George's body fluids were roasted out of him by the molten iron to the point of dehydration, so each of his three breaks a day for breakfast, dinner and tea included a quick visit to the Druid's Head on his way home, where the publican, warned by the buzzer, had two pint glasses of beer ready on the bar counter. With them George restored his humidity by pouring the first glassful down his throat until it was drained, and then the other. It needed only four movements of his right arm - up down, up down - and both glasses were empty, the job was done, and he was hurrying homewards towards his more solid refreshment.

Six therapeutic pints of beer a day to keep George reasonably moist were not, in any proper sense of the word, drinking. Drinking was reserved for Sundays, within the dignified portals of the Constitutional Club, and in a frock-coat. Money to pay for it was not a great problem, even for the spend-thrift George. When impoverished, all he needed was two pennies for a "sneck-lifter" . With them in his pocket he could raise the door latch to enter the club, because they would buy his first pint of beer. Once inside, he would hope to find a friend to pay for his drinks for the rest of the morning, in return for the times when George had been in funds. He could drink more than two dozen pints of beer at a sitting, so he often came back for Sunday dinner drunk - not always managing the last few steps in sight of home. He would lie in his brilliant plumage, insensible across the threshold of the cottage in Waterside South, with his family stepping over him as they went in and out, entirely indifferent to his condition and situation because there was nothing very unusual in either.

In this way George spent part of his brief leisure from Ruston's in drunken stupor and in the bliss of insensibility, but he would be up the next morning at four as usual ready for work, and fully capable of doing it. Otherwise he could never had held his job. It was not only time-keeping that was enforced with a stringency that would be the envy of a modern industrialist. Joseph Ruston's system of quality control was so rigorous that his engines chugged away for decades, pumping water into irrigation channels all over the world. If they broke down it was through neglect, because in the course of their assembly inspectors armed with micrometer gauges checked every working part. They scrapped ruthlessly anything sub-standard, and the workman responsible lost money. There was a tale of a man whose crankshaft revealed a discrepancy under the inspector's gauge. "A couple of thous !" the man protested - "What's that?" The inspector was deeply shocked: "Do you mean to say you don't know how many thousandths there are in an inch?" "Oh !" cried the man, scratching his head, "Don't ask me that - there must be millions of the little devils !" An employee who wasted the firm's material on sub-standard work might have his pay docked a few times, but if he persisted in the practice it would not be long before he felt the foreman's hand upon his shoulder to tell him to go.

Far from George Robinson's drinking disabling him from meeting Ruston's exacting production requirements, he was skilful and reliable enough to be promoted to foreman. Then he went to work in his fine Sunday clothes, and wore a bowler on the shop floor as his symbol of office. However, that glory was short lived. In 1886 there was a strike over wages. After a seven-year apprenticeship a craftsman was paid thirty shilling a week, plus piece-work earnings determined by ratefixers who could "get blood out of a stone" . According to George Robinson, the rates were "so tight that if you dropped your spanner twice in a week you were in debt". The strike was over reductions in pay which followed the depression in farming when sales of agricultural machinery at home declined, while at the same time tariff barriers were raised against British manufacturers by Germany, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, and the United States. Trade in engineering products fell off, and industrialists in Lincoln and elsewhere discharged men and cut wages.

Ruston first trimmed the piece rates, and then announced a reduction in the time rates. The men held protest meetings at which Joseph, now a Liberal M.P., told them that wages, like prices, were dictated by the laws of supply and demand. The men were unimpressed. Ruston then pointed out that, as a good employer, he was keeping his people on full time while his competitors were laying men off - but they were still unimpressed, suspecting that he was thinking less of those who worked for him than of his reputation as a radical Member for Lincoln. The strike began ceremoniously with a parade through the town, headed by the works brass band. George Robinson not only went out with the men, but allowed his indignation so to outweigh his responsibilities as a foremen that he was standing on a box in Broadgate inciting a meeting of strikers to prolonged defiance of their master when Joseph Ruston passed by and recognised him. That was the end of his foremanship, and when the men returned to work defeated, George was locked out for an additional fortnight with the other ringleaders as a further encouragement not to do it again.

What the families of the strikers lived on, I do not know. The engineering unions were not yet well established, and if there was any strike pay it would be minimal. Some of the men contributed to friendly societies for relief in times of hardship, but Harry used to speak of the wretched conditions at home when his father was short of money - whether on account of strikes, short-time working when trade was slack, or mere improvidence. Then the only meat his mother could afford was sheep's head, and for ever afterwards Harry would never allow his own wife, Annie, to buy neck of mutton - it was "too near the head" . Joseph Ruston used to maintain that he, too, suffered in hard times, and he once said when rejecting a pay claim: "I hope you'll let me get my bread and cheese out of this business" . Thenceforth he was known as "Old Bread and Cheese" and when, three years after the 1886 strike, his firm became a public company, his ploughman's lunch was four hundred and sixty five thousand pounds - or about fifteen million pounds in modern money. With part of that fortune he built a new drill hall for the Volunteers which was, or course, immediately nick-named "Bread and Cheese Hall" .

Although, up to the 1886 strike, Ruston had at some cost to himself kept all his men in employment notwithstanding the recession, he did not feel under a continuing obligation to do so after they had ungratefully gone on strike against the reductions in pay. He took back only the men he needed, and naturally chose to keep the better workers. The demoted George Robinson was amongst them, because Joseph was not one to harbour resentment at the expense of his business. However, many of Ruston's men were thrown out of work to join those laid off by other Lincoln industrialists during the slump in trade. Some small outdoor relief was available to the destitute unemployed, but the relieving officers tended to harsh and contumacious, and many families were too proud to plead for the grudging charity provided by the Board of Guardians. They would sell their furniture rather than ask for relief, and then they fell to starvation levels - being kept alive only by the soup kitchens provided by religious organisations and by groups of ladies from Minster Yard. Soup kitchens were so regular a feature of Lincoln life that when Joseph Ruston built the new Drill Hall he provided it with huge coppers and other equipment for cooking food in large quantities - stipulating that the premises should be made available free of charge for feeding the impoverished in times of distress. Nor did he forget to supply a great many folding tables, and enough folding chairs for the hungry to sit upon while they ate.

Bitter hardship and starving children were the dark side of the changeable capitalist moon that brought the ebbs and flows of prosperity to Lincoln. But Ruston had no wish to see men out of work. On the contrary, all his frenetic activity was to keep his works busy and to increase employment. He pursued business with a persistent stoat-like concentration, and there were tales of his rushing thousands of miles by train all over Europe in search of orders - even of a long sleigh ride, muffled in furs to keep out the bitter cold, across the plains of Russia to win a single new customer. Another story went back to the beginning of his career in Lincoln. He then lodged in two rooms at the corner of Norman Street and Sincil Street, and one night he went to bed after a particularly long and hard day. No sooner was he asleep than there came a great knocking on the street door. Ruston put his head out of the window, and refused to come down - telling his caller to see him at the works in the morning. "But I've come from Egypt to do business, with four hundred pounds in my pocket !" protested the visitor. Whereupon Ruston shouted: "Why didn't you say that in the first place? I'll be down immediately !"

Joseph's motives for pursuing business as he did are beside the point in looking at his contributions to the prosperity of Lincoln. Perhaps he was driven from behind by some restless demon in his personality, or perhaps he was straining for some financial goal. Possibly he was both pushed and pulled at the same time. Does it much matter why he provided work for twenty-five men when he began, and for two thousand five hundred before he died?

My Grandmother Mason, a woman of almost unfailing good sense, had no doubt that Joseph Ruston, whatever his motives, was a benefactor of the human race - if only for the reason that he provided urban employment for farm workers otherwise condemned to the country. She had been brought up in Redbourne, near Brigg - a very pretty "close" village owned by the Duke of St Albans, and ruled by the Rector as his surrogate. She remembered life in Redbourne as brutish, poverty-stricken, oppressed, and lacking in human dignity. The Rector interfered in every aspect of the villagers' lives. The girls were required to have their hair cut short like the boys for supposed hygenic reasons, and the parson even took it upon himself to ask my grandmother's father by what authority he had ventured to shoot a rat in his own garden. In Redbourne aristocratic money never provided a school. It came only in the mid-nineteenth century when the Duke's wife - a low-born woman despised by the county families of Lincolnshire - built one with money made in commerce by her first husband. The villagers in Redbourne had earth floors in their arms-emblazoned cottages, practically no furniture, and the only meat they ate was bacon - bacon hot, bacon cold, bacon fried in slices, bacon boiled in lumps. Even bread was scarce in poor harvests, and after particularly poor ones people starved. My grandmother looked back upon village life in Redbourne with abhorrence - with no regrets for the industrial revolution, nor any pity for the industrial proletariat of Lincoln living in terraced houses build around the factories, and enjoying wages high enough to buy mutton and sometimes beef.

A man in Ruston's could earn thirty-five shillings in a shorter and less arduous week than a farm labourer, who earned twelve. The latter's tied cottage and garden did not begin to make up the difference - and even if he was also given a cow, it killed his children, as like as not, with tuberculosis. Furthermore, an ironworker in Lincoln was free to defy his employer and change his job when industry was booming and short of labour - a thing for ever impossible in Redbourne without leaving it. Joseph Ruston and his kind were a fresh wind blowing away the stagnation of country life, and drawing men out of villages were they could barely survive, and seldom raise the heads, into relative freedom and prosperity. Whatever the horrors of the earlier years of the industrial revolution - horrors which must be compared with those of eighteenth century country life - when that revolution eventually arrived in Lincolnshire it brought a great surge of release and hope. If my father, for example, had been born in Redbourne, there would have been no scholarship for him to a grammar school. Of course, not all villages were as bad as Redbourne. Many were non-manorial and "open" , but whatever the social structure, people seemed everywhere ready to leave for the towns whenever men like Ruston provided the opportunity.

Ruston's Ironworks eventually succumbed to the fatal disease of British industry - gentrification. Joseph may be excused for building himself a large and extremely ugly mansion on the edge of Lincoln to house his art collection, but not for calling it Monks "Manor" . Other Lincoln ironmasters committed the same error. Joseph Shuttleworth set himself up in Hartsholme "Hall" , and Nathaniel Clayton in Eastgate "Court" . Already, in the first generation, those robust, clever, hard working men were teetering towards the gentry, and sending their sons to public schools to learn to be ashamed of their industrial origins. When, after Joseph Ruston's death, his son Colonel Ruston became chairman of the business, he gave it his monocled attention when he was not otherwise occupied in military and gentlemanly pursuits - or living in London in his town house. The Colonel was more inclined to chases foxes than customers, and by the time his son, William Ruston, became the third generation chairman the enterprise was already failing. Amongst the directors was a young Bergne-Coupland from Skellingthorpe Hall, and it was his practice occasionally to stroll through the works clad in tweeds and suede shoes. One day a machinist took his oil can and deliberately dripped oil on to that immaculate and expensive footwear. When Bergne-Coupland cried out in astonishment: "Why on earth did you do that?" - the man replied: "Well, I thought you might now just as well give me the bloody things !"

Elegant offspring of the squirearchy sauntering through the shop floor in suede shoes were smoothing the way for Arnold Weinstock. Joseph Ruston did not start in clogs, nor was the third generation quite reduced to them, but the yearning for gentrification ensured that the old saying was as apposite in Lincoln as in Yorkshire. Monks Manor and Hartsholme Hall are now demolished. Eastgate Court is an hotel, and one can look in vain through the lists of quoted securities in the Financial Times for the names of the Ruston, the Clayton and the Shuttleworth who built them not very long ago. Even so, Joseph Ruston once blazed like a comet across the sky of Lincoln - and four generations of my family lived, with thousands of others, in the tail of it.



When my mother and I were moved into Portland House amongst the Robinsons in 1919, I had until then been brought up as a Mason, having seen so little of my father that, on his occasional visits to the Yews on leave, I was not always a wise enough child to know the difference between him in his uniform and Kitty's fiancŽ, Alex Morris, in his - notwithstanding that my father wore the regalia of the Dirty Sherwoods, and Lieutenant Morris that of the Scottish Horse. As for my Robinson grandparents, I had stayed once or twice with them in Hykeham Road before it was decreed that my mother was no longer to leave me behind when she went to visit my father in camp. Thereafter I remained almost exclusively in Skellingthorpe because the Masons, even with the advantage of a horse and trap, had little inclination to social intercourse with the inhabitants of Portland House. On the only visit my Robinson grandparents ever made to the Yews - the occasion of their son's wedding - they had lamentably failed to impress. Harry Robinson and his trailing partner were found to be rather below Mason standards. Kitty immediately pronounced them "not quite our cup of tea", and her father had so invincible a prejudice against "pen-pushing clerks" that intimacy between the two families was impossible from the beginning. In fact, up to leaving the Yews, I was only once drawn closely into the Robinson orbit when, at the age of six months, I was taken to a studio in Lincoln to be photographed with my paternal forbears.

The picture is of four Robinson generations: George the moulder, Harry, Arthur, and me; born in 1842, 1867, 1892 and 1917 with twenty-five years between each generation and, if my short-lived brother can be ignored, each of us an eldest son. Had there been a title or an entailed estate in the family, it would assuredly have been mine; but all I inherited in direct Robinson tail male was a certain regularity of feature, if not of life. In the photograph George is seated - looking as wicked as his reputation, although he is dressed most respectably in a dark suit, black tie, white wing collar, and button boots. He has a forked beard, bright little eyes glinting with devilry, and a long handsome face as wrinkled as an old apple. Behind him stand Harry clothed in his customary sombre formality, and Arthur in army uniform looking tall and wan, with an armband on his sleeve to denote a recently wounded officer. I sit on George's knee in a white dress. His huge workman's hands clasp me tightly round the middle to keep me in place, and my eyes are starting from my head either in apprehension at finding myself amongst so many Robinsons, or in anguish at the constriction.

I was soon to become a Robinson in earnest. It was very much the custom for a young wife to go live with her husband's family for a few years until he could provide a home for her. The reasons were financial - even if my father had rented a house, he would still have needed enough savings to furnish it. Hire purchase was almost unknown. Even later, when I was a young man, only the feckless furnished a house before they could afford it, and the practice of buying on credit, though increasing, was still so shameful that one of the biggest suppliers of furniture on hire purchase - Drages - advertised that they delivered everything in a "plain van" so that their customers should not be disgraced in the eyes of the neighbours.

My father had his army gratuity and my mother her savings from Saxilby School, but their joint resources were still insufficient to set up a home of their own - particularly since they wanted to buy a house rather than to rent one. Mortgages, unlike hire purchase, were respectable but borrowers had to find at least a third of the purchase price themselves. So my parents went to live in Portland House for a few years, crowded though it was, to save the money they needed. For my father this was no hardship. His mother worshipped him, and was his willing slave. His father deferred to him as the outstanding success in the family - the first grammar-schoolboy, the first to go to college, the first army officer, the first wounded hero and, above all, the first schoolteacher. As a matter of course, Arthur was allocated the best of the three bedrooms for himself, his wife and me. It was the largest room in the house, extending not only over the living room below, but over the entrance hall. It had two windows enjoying the fine view of the escarpment for which Harry had originally chosen the villa - a view which Annie and he now cheerfully abandoned to content themselves with the middle room and a single window overlooking the back garden and the pig-sty. Into the little bedroom at the rear of the house were squeezed the less highly regarded son, Harold, his wife Grace, and their baby Douglas. Harold had survived his war service as a petty officer in submarines, and was now back at work as an engineer at Ruston's. He, too, was living at home while he saved to buy and furnish a house for his family.

The most lowly regarded of all the occupants of Portland House was relegated to a couch in the "other room" downstairs. He was Harry's still unmarried brother Charlie - a so much younger brother that he was only six years older than Arthur of the next generation. Harry therefore regarded himself as being in loco parentis to Charlie and gave him shelter and found him employment in Ruston's. It was easier to find Charlie a job than to save him from losing it, because he liked his bed and had to be called over and over again to get him out of it at five in the morning so that he could be at work by six. Sometimes on a cold day he declined to get up at all - shouting petulantly from beneath the blankets: "I'm not going!" Even when he actually arrived at Ruston's he was inclined to resume his slumbers there, and Harry was once summoned to see his protegŽ soundly asleep in a wheelbarrow. Yet he was influential enough in the firm always to be able to obtain a new job for his brother whenever he lost the old one, and in the end Charlie settled down to being a storekeeper.

The life Annie led as mistress of the over-crowded Portland House filled my mother with shocked indignation when she and I arrived there to make it worse. All four of the adult males in the household treated Annie as a servant because her respect for the wage-earner spilled over into a willingness to immolate herself before every man in the house, particularly her son Arthur - and that was regarded by my mother as an undesirable precedent. Also, the original provider, Harry, no longer seemed to be in need of anything like the cossetting he was still afforded. Promotion in Ruston's had lifted him out of the time office, where he had started as a check-boy, and into the accounts department where he calculated the total cost, including overheads, of making each type of Ruston product. Hours in the new job were more relaxed - from eight to five - and overtime was seldom demanded. It was now only Annie who slaved from five in the morning until bedtime on six days of the week, and found no rest on the seventh.

My mother described to me with horror a typical Sunday in Portland House in 1919. Annie was able to rise later than usual - at eight - to clean out the kitchen grate and to scatter the ashes on the garden path. The she laid and lit the fire in the cooking range, and went into the orchard to feed the chickens. Her husband rose unshaven not long afterwards, with his nightshirt tucked inside a pair of old trousers, and she fried for him an elaborate breakfast of bacon, tomato, egg, sausage, liver, potatoes, and smoked haddock - all eaten as a single course on the same plate, washed down with tea, and followed by toast and home-made marmalade. After Harry had refreshed himself and departed to dig the garden, there would be a pause in the breakfasting until about half past nine, when Harold might descend with his wife Grace and their baby Douglas. Grandmother would take care of Douglas, while at the same time cooking a similar breakfast in size and variety for Harold and Grace, with a fresh pot of tea and fresh toast. That breakfast over, the next arrivals in the kitchen would be my mother and me. Grandmother promptly took me in charge, but my mother then, as ever, ate little and a Robinson breakfast was not for her. My father rose rather later and appeared about eleven, avid for the full repast - which was willingly provided. Charlie was even more tardy, but was in turn similarly fed.

By this time the kitchen and scullery were choked with unwashed dishes, but amongst it all Annie had to start preparing the mid-day dinner on the very table at which Charlie was still finishing his hot breakfast. Nevertheless, however great the confusion, a good Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, vegetables, thick brown gravy, and perhaps an apple pie and custard, was ready shortly after one. Annie was a good cook, and her food was delicious. Consequently the men over-ate and spent a lethargic afternoon lying about in basket chairs in front of a couple of coals burning miserably in the living room grate. My grandfather Harry was not generally a mean man, but he had two idiosyncracies - coal fires and gas lights. He could not bear to spend money on either, so he would lift coals off the fire, and at bed-time turn off the gas supply for the entire house at the meter lest there should be any surreptitious reading in bed otherwise than by the light of a candle. At his funeral I heard his son Harold say: "Well! Where the old devil's gone now he won't be able to take any coals off the fire!"

The women of the household couldn't even see what fire there was in the living room, let alone feel it. Their place was off stage, where they hushed Douglas and me into our afternoon rest, so that the adult males should not be disturbed after their hard gastronomic morning. The children asleep in their cots, the three women then turned their attention to the appalling mess in the scullery. It was indescribable, because by now Annie had prepared the mash for the pig, and the corn and meal for the chickens. She was often shaking her mats and washing her kitchen floor at four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, but she could not be much later because at half past four her relatives and friends started to arrive. In the short interval between cleaning the house and starting to prepare for tea, she slipped upstairs to change her clothes - having roused her husband so that he could do the same. Annie's Sunday dress was black, with fawn lace over her ample bosom. She might sometimes sling a rope of amber beads round her neck, but she did not bother greatly about her appearance. Maybe she thought it not worth while - being small and broad and stooping. She had a round high-coloured face, with black eyebrows over hooded eyes, and a wide generous mouth. Her hair remained dark, and she pulled it loosely and untidily to the back of her head and into a bun which, with all the hairpins thrust hastily into it, looked like a pincushion.

On the other hand, grandfather devoted some care to his appearance, so I will describe it in more detail. He was a tall, well-built man, with a rather broad face, and a high balding skull which had a few thin wisps of white hair brushed over it from the side. He bitterly hated going bald, so he rubbed his scalp daily with coconut oil - persisting in the practice until his death, although it was entirely unavailing. His suits were always of plain dark blue serge, and he had them made for him at the Co-op of excellent material. His jackets were voluminous, while his trousers were very narrow and short, with big turn-ups - making him look like a Beerbohm cartoon. His truncated trousers revealed long lengths of the woollen socks knitted for him on a triangle of steel needles by the diligent Annie. The jackets were high at the neck and across his waistcoat Harry slung a thick gold watchchain and Albert, with a gold seal having his four initials engraved upon it in florid script. He carried a very large thick silver pocket watch that had to be wound up by a small brass key that doubled as a device for squeezing blackheads out of his grandchildren's ears. He wore a black bowler, and light brown shoes highly polished by his wife. Harry's shirts were of striped flannel, and the cuffs - secured by gold cufflinks - were kept from slipping too far down over his wrists by little bands of expanding metal worn above the elbow. His loose collars were white, starched, and turned own - and he wore the most extraordinary made-up ties I have ever seen. I can only explain the nature of them by asking the reader to take in imagination an ordinary tie, to put it round his neck, and to tie it. Then cut the loop round the neck in two places - each an inch away from the knot. The tie can now be removed without undoing it. Next stiffen the two short cut-off wings, embed a stud in the back of the knot, and there you would have one of Harry's ties - with a very small tight knot, and the lower part spreading out in a wide colourful fan over his chest, although most of it was hidden by a high waistcoat. These ties were worn by maneouvring the stud into the stud-holes of a collar and shirt - with the wings pushed up out of sight beneath the turned-down collar. Far from being a labour-saving device, they were extremely difficult to attach, because the stud holes of shirt and collar had to be aligned together before the stud of the tie could be slipped through all four holes at the same time. This always required Annie's help, and for that reason the ties were kept in a drawer in the kitchen so that, when Harry came downstairs to complete his toilet, his wife would be available to lend a hand.

While Annie was changing, her two daughters-in-law laid a clean white cloth over the table in the front room, and welcomed the relatives and other guests who were arriving for tea. Annie then came down to prepare it. At one end of the dining table she placed a dish of tinned salmon, to be eaten with fish forks, and knives shaped like scimitars. At the other end was sliced ham, polony, haselet, and a large pork pie bought from Curtis's - the best pork butchers in Lincoln. In the middle of the table was bread and butter - some white, some brown - a jar of chutney and a bottle of H.P. sauce. Several imitation cut-glass bowls contained tomatoes, slices of cucumber soaked in vinegar, bananas in custard, and cubes of tinned pineapple to be eaten with tinned cream. On plates covered with lace d'oyleys Annie set out home-made cakes, jam tarts, cheesecakes, plum bread, and usually a Battenberg cake with a thick coat of marzipan surrounding the pink and yellow squares. A large bowl of fresh fruit in its seasonal varieties was available as an alternative to red American cheese - and to round off the meal there was a dish filled with monkey nuts still enclosed in their wrinkled fawn pods. One or two of the men might drink home-brewed dandelion and burdock stout, but everyone else had tea - with great spoonfuls of brown sugar. The tea leaves were kept loose in a "caddy", which was a boldly painted ornamental tin with a hinged lid and a picture of the Tower of London. A brass spoon lay amongst the tea leaves in the caddy to measure out one spoonful of tea for each person and one for the pot. The spoon was round and shallow, and the short handle was in the shape of the Lincoln Imp - the medieval carving high up in the Angel Choir of the Cathedral.

After tea my grandparents walked in tandem to Bracebridge Church and on their return the family played cards or sang round the piano until about half past nine. Then Annie laid the living room table again for a supper of plum bread, cakes, pastries, cheese and biscuits from a wooden biscuit barrel with silver mountings. The drink this time was hot, sweet, milky cocoa to put everyone in the mood for sleep.

Brought up to the fastidious frugality of her own home, the Hykeham Road table seemed unspeakably vulgar to my mother who was, in any case, given to indigestion. But what shocked her most was the manner in which some of the Robinsons ate their large and varied repasts. My father's table manners were, in fact, unexceptionable and well up to Skellingthorpe standards - apart from one strange perversity. He insisted, even at table, on using his pocket knife to peel and cut an apple, and was inclined occasionally to lift a segment to his mouth on the point of the blade. Others of his family sinned in varying degrees of enormity in comparison with the Masons who adopted a cold distant stance in relation to their food. Most of the Robinsons made no bones about their fondness for the table, and sat hunched over it, arms akimbo, and did not invariably pause to complete the mastication of a desirable morsel before hastening it on its way with a gulp of hot sweet tea. They also committed the cardinal sins of talking with their mouths full, smacking their lips, drinking noisily, and holding their knives like pencils instead of tucking the handles firmly into the palms of their hands. My mother insisted so rigorously on the correct usage of a table knife and held the pencil variation in such deep contempt, that I am to this day afflicted by the sight of it even at a distant table in a restaurant - compulsively judging the offender either to have been badly brought up, or to suffer from some inherent weakness of character.

The table manners - or practices - of Harold Robinson were worst of all. Instead of holding his head elegantly aloft and raising his food upwards towards it, he bent low over his plate with arms laid flat on the table, and pushed his nourishment almost horizontally into his mouth, as if scraping left-overs into a waste bin. With arms resting from elbow to wrist upon the tablecloth, to the great inconvenience of his neighbours, Harold could only manoeuvre his knife and fork by sliding his hands down to the lower extremities, where his fingers dipped almost in the gravy - leaving long lengths of the hafts protruding upwards from his fists like the blunt ends of a pair of knitting needles. And, sad to say, he was not beyond an occasional wipe of his fingers on the white tablecloth. Somehow or other my mother managed to give me the impression that it was self-evidently and incontestably "wrong" to eat like that - and I congratulate her, because when I in turn tried to persuade later generations into the same conviction I was met with the all too familiar argument that one social custom - whether of behaviour or speech - has no more validity than any other, and that to eat like a pig or to talk like an oaf, if he so wishes, is one of the inalienable rights of civilised man.

In describing those Sunday breakfasts, dinners, teas and suppers in Portland House, I am not relying upon what I have been told. They continued into my youth, and I often ate them. In fact, my grandmother Robinson went on providing meals on that scale until I was twenty, when she died of cancer - and by a bitter irony it was cancer of the stomach. She deserved better of Providence than that savage jest. She was one of the kindest and most devoted women I have ever known - no matter how my mother found her. Her delight was in the service of others and, exploited and despised though she was, it needed something approaching a nobility of spirit to toil so unremittingly and without complaint for those she loved. Throughout her laborious Sundays, grandmother kept cheerful. She laughed with her tea-time guests, and her wonderful smile radiated over the laden table - breaking her weary, red-veined face into beauty.

It was at the Sunday teas in Portland House that my mother began to gather from small indiscretions let fall in the conversation that there was something very alarming hidden in her mother-in-law's family cupboard. The few bones she was able to collect in that way were enough to suggest a skeleton of major proportions, but it needed a determined and persistent interrogation of my father to reveal the full horror of it. He was totally disinclined to talk about his antecedents, even when there was nothing he particularly wanted to hide. From him I learned very little about the family. It was as if he had been created, like the universe, out of nothing. His childhood, too, was over and done with - an irrelevance to his present state, and apparently forgotten. He almost never spoke of it. Father was not so much ashamed of his background as self-sufficient without it. He filled the canvas himself - not with conceit, but with a sense of being a fully complete and rounded personality, with no need of a past or family attachments to supplement it. Therefore it was only with the greatest difficulty that my mother was able to extract from him what had been concealed about his maternal inheritance. It was, she said, "like getting butter out of a dog's throat", but she eventually discovered that Annie's father, Samuel Maplethorpe, had married into a family of agricultural labourers in Blankney called Wilson, who had a frightening record of depression and suicide.

Samuel's wife Elizabeth, had previously been a domestic servant, and in the course of that employment was seduced and made pregnant by a son of the house - a disclosure that did not increase my mother's respect for the family she had married into. On her side, so far as servant girls went, it was the Masons who were the predators - not the victims. Elizabeth's bastard boy was christened David and then, after marrying Samuel, she gave birth to four more children, Jack, Tom, Fanny - and the Elizabeth (or Annie) who was my grandmother. All the five offspring survived and grew up, but the husband Samuel died in early middle age, and this made his widow so miserable and distressed that she was taken into the lunatic asylum on Bracebridge Heath, where she remained until her death. Her son David worked as a cowman on a farm at Burton near Lincoln until he too suffered a bereavement. His wife and only child died, and their deaths so upset him that he killed himself by cutting his throat with a razor in a sandpit on the farm.

The next to go was Elizabeth's son Jack, who had been a smart, brisk, handsome cavalryman under General Buller in the Boer War. Unfortunately, when he left the army he married a woman who was not only so feeble-minded that she could do virtually nothing in the house, but was not even pretty. Indeed, she looked like a mongol - and perhaps was - but such are the tricks of inheritance that Jack and she were able to breed two very beautiful daughters, and two very satisfactory and stable sons. One of the daughters was so good-looking and charming that she was chosen to be the Lincoln May Queen - but that was small consolation to her father who had to do all the cooking, washing and housework, while working long hours in Clayton's iron foundry. Eventually the domestic strain lost him his job, and thereafter he earned what he could as a chapel cleaner until the hopelessness of his situation drove him to suicide by drowning himself in the Foss Dyke. Thereafter Jack's widow and her family had to manage as best as they could with financial help from my kind and dutiful grandfather Harry. A strange circumstance of Jack's death was that his daughter Ethel, who helped him with the chapel cleaning, was on her knees scrubbing away in the chapel on Monks Road when she saw an angel. Then, on going home, she discovered that at the very moment of the apparition her father had killed himself. No doubt Ethel invented the tale of the vision ex post facto, but she managed so to convince herself of its truth that she would never, for the rest of her life, go inside that chapel again.
May was appalled to learn of her husband's mad grandmother, and of his two uncles who had committed suicide. All that should have been revealed before Arthur had asked her to marry him and to bear his children. She might have been inclined not to risk the inheritance. Insanity - as even depression was then called - still tended to be regarded as it had been in the days of the eighteenth century Bedlam. Lunatics remained an object of public ridicule and entertainment. My cousin Douglas and I used regularly to amuse ourselves on our expeditions into the countryside by visiting the lunatic asylum at Harmston Hall to see the inmates taken for exercise outside the grounds in the care of their stony-faced attendants. They paraded, two by two, in a slow well-disciplined crocodile. Some were laughing, grimacing, and gesticulating - happily out of touch with reality. Others were all too heavily oppressed by it. They shuffled along in silence, eyes cast down, in fearful apprehension of the world, and Elizabeth Wilson and her two afflicted sons had, apparently, fallen into the latter and more unfortunate category.

There was no discernible pattern in the incidence from generation to generation of the Wilson melancholy. Some it devastated, and others not. Three of the mad Elizabeth's five children - Tom, Fanny and my grandmother were as cheerful and sound as bells. Tom had a son who worked in Robey's iron foundry, becoming one of those sensible and dignified working class worthies who were found indispensable to benches of magistrates and to the boards of school and hospital governors. Tom's sister Fanny - although eminently sane herself - had a daughter who was a child, "giggled at nothing" and later suffered from "nerves" badly enough to require hospital treatment. This daughter grew more and more distracted until she died in an asylum - and so for that matter did her unfortunate husband. In contrast, her brother was the most pedestrian and boring character in the whole of my family, on both sides; and he had a daughter who was quite stupifyingly stolid and ponderous.

As for another two of the mad Elizabeth Wilson's grandchildren - Arthur Robinson and his brother Harold - May was bound to concede that they showed no signs of mental instability, actual or potential. However, the devious and erratic path taken by the rogue Wilson gene in its descending path only alarmed her the more. She was outraged that what she regarded as a streak of insanity in her husband's family had been concealed until after she had mated with a possible carrier. In vain did Arthur point to a fine crop of suicides on her side as well. Her Kirby relatives were notorious for killing themselves. For example, while May was teaching in Saxilby she heard that a Kirby had come to live in the village. When she told her father, he simply said: "Oh! Then he'll throw himself into the Foss Dyke!" And before long he did - the Foss Dyke canal, cut by the Romans from Lincoln to the Trent, being a popular means of escape from life for those who sought a Roman death. But unfortunately for Arthur the Kirbys, though related, were entirely collateral and had no niche in May's inheritance.

Apart from the melancholia on Annie's side, George Robinson's second wife had also contributed to the family suicides, as I have already mentioned. But hers was different in two respects. First, she threw herself into the Witham and not into the more usual Foss Dyke - and secondly, May never heard of it. She would undoubtedly have left Portland House on the spot, and Arthur as well, if she had been told that in addition to a maternal grandmother who died in Lincoln Asylum, and an uncle who cut his own throat, and another uncle who drowned himself in the Foss Dyke, he also had a paternal grandmother who ended her life felo de se in the Witham. That secret was particularly closely kept because Elizabeth's death threw a light of a very different colour upon the reputation George Robinson otherwise enjoyed as an amiably sinful eccentric of whom the family need not feel utterly ashamed. In Portland House he was spoken of as "a character", and to the collateral Robinsons in Hull he was "mad Uncle George from Lincoln". It was proudly reported that a friend who had worked all his life in a circus as a clown could only describe him as a "rum one". May, therefore, never learned that George Robinson was not only a rum one but a cruel one, who drove his wife to her death - and I was told only when my Uncle Harold had grown too old to care any longer about his grandfather's reputation. However, I do not count Elizabeth Robinson's suicide as yet another instance of mental instability within the family, because even the philosopher Seneca, groaning under the tyranny of Nero, had no better or more rational grounds for doing away with himself than she had as the wife of George the moulder.

Ignorant though May was of the full count of suicides she knew enough to be thoroughly outraged by the inhabitants of Portland House for concealing so much before she agreed to marry into the family. She hated living with her deceivers, and spent no more time in Portland House than was necessary to preserve her husband from the temptations she feared would assail him in her absence. She slipped off home to Skellingthorpe, taking me with her, whenever she thought she could safely leave Arthur for a night or two.



In winter my mother and I travelled by train to Skellingthorpe; but in summer when we could go by day, or by the light of the moon, she took me on her bicycle. At night the help of the moon was essential because the paraffin lamp clipped to the front fork of her bicycle shed so small and pale a pool of light on the road ahead that it was useless for the purposes of navigation. Moonlight was generally so good a friend to countrymen that their grandfather clocks displayed the lunar cycle from a little window let into the upper half of their painted faces. A slowly rotating disc was geared to show, against a background of dark blue sky, a yellow moon in its successive phases - first a new thin crescent with the old moon held faintly in its arms, then waxing by stages until it appeared as the round smiling face of the man in the moon. Then he sickened and declined, the nights grew darker, and people stayed indoors until, after another weekly winding of the clock, the cycle started again. Countrymen talked most affectionately of the moon, and invariably knew the state of its health and on what day of the month it would next be full, so that they could venture out into the village again at night without a storm lantern.

The many visits to Skellingthorpe meant that I spent my early childhood being shuttled between one doting grandmother and the other either by bicycle or with the aid of the Lancashire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway. To have two fond grandmothers competing alternately for my favours made me intolerably spoilt. I grew unwilling to brook the least denial of my wishes and, if thwarted, I began to retaliate by holding my breath. The technique was, when bellowing with rage, suddenly to catch my breath and to remain open-mouthed - neither inhaling nor exhaling - as if in a fit. Many children, of course, had done this before me, but the perennial effectiveness of the device lay in the possibility that each new practitioner might really be wilful enough to push things too far. My performances were certainly very convincing. I held my breath for so long that I went rigid and blue in the face for want of oxygen - giving every indication of being in an advanced and irreversible state of catalepsy. Although my parents tried everything, there was nothing that they could do to bring me round. I distinctly remember being held, in near rigor mortis, with my head under the tap in the scullery of Portland House. They deluged me under the pump at the Yews, but nothing would avail until I consented to draw breath again in my own good time - and by then everyone had been thoroughly terrified and cowed into submission.

With success, the practice so grew in frequency that my parents were eventually driven to consult Doctor Sharpe in Swallowbeck. That shrewd old practitioner assured them that even the most determined infant did not commit suicide. No matter how long I held my breath, I would always release it again in time, and what they should do were two things. First, they must leave me entirely alone as soon as the performance began, and take no interest in the outcome. Secondly, as soon as I was breathing again they were to return and give me a good spanking. My mother told me that it was heart-breaking to spank a sobbing, exhausted child, and the job was given to my father. He did it with distaste, but with vigour, and as if by magic I stopped holding my breath. Fortunately for my parents, a highly trained paediatric consultant was not then available in Lincoln, or my reformation might have taken longer.

At week-ends my father went with us to the Yews because he was fascinated by the Mason household and its institutions after the drabness and lack of high ritual in his own home. One of the stately Skellingthorpe customs was the ceremony of "kissing father good-night". Even if the atmosphere was blue with trouble, and the head of the house in the worst of tempers, all his daughters were expected dutifully to kiss him a loving good-night before going to bed - while he sat fuming in his windsor chair, and they were wishing him to perdition. Arthur Robinson loved the Mason formalities, and his growing fondness for the inhabitants of the Yews was reciprocated by everyone in the house except Kitty, who still regarded him as a bad husband. Even his adulteries with the nurse in Caythorpe, with Mrs Wishart in York, and with several others, had not forfeited my grandmother Mason's regard, because she was not one to manufacture synthetic indignation on account of her son-in-law's infidelities when she was inured and resigned to those of her husband.

Richard Mason had found several lovers in the village, including Hannah Colley who had a fine figure, swinging hips, and a pretty round face, and had married a prosperous Lincoln stonemason. But after a while he died and she returned to Skellingthorpe to live with her parents. She was still young and became the mistress of other men in the village, as well as Richard. This he did not in the least mind. In fact he preferred to share a lover, so that she who could tell him that out of several men he pleased her best - and he was conceited enough to believe it.

Richard also greatly loved to cuckold his friends and acquaintances, and went into Lincoln on Fridays not only to visit the cattle market, but to call upon Mrs Doughty while her husband the saddler was minding his shop. One day he proudly pointed out the saddler to his son-in-law Arthur in Lincoln High Street, and said: "If I were that man, I should want to kill me - because I sleep with his wife". Then he went on to describe how Mrs Doughty used to entertain him in her husband's bed, which was the largest and most comfortable in the house. Arthur thought she might have waived those advantages to spare her husband so cynical an invasion of his most intimate matrimonial territory, but Richard found her behaviour in no way exceptional. "There's nothing they like more," he explained, "than deceiving a husband in his very sheets and preferably with his photograph on the bedside table. And when he's a friend of mine - like poor old Doughty - I must say I rather enjoy it myself". Nor was that the end of the saddler's involvement in his own deception, because Mr Doughty's baby had to be kept pacified during the proceedings. So the oak cradle, on its transverse rockers, was put by the bed within easy reach, and Mrs Doughty devoted only one hand to her lover. The other was outstretched and the sleeping child was gently rocked in time with Richard's attentions. As excitement mounted, it was subjected to a more violent motion, until eventually both mother and child cried together.

Up to the Great War, Richard's adulteries had been well managed and caused him no great trouble or expense, but there came a change when the youthful Miss Millar arrived at the farm. She was to prove very troublesome and expensive indeed. In 1917 the Government started to call up farm labourers, and land girls were sent out to replace them. Miss Millar was despatched to work for Richard Mason in Skellingthorpe, and she happened to be tall, slim, and handsome - although a little brazen. Arthur remembered her as "a nice piece", and Kitty's watchful eye soon noticed that her father was treating the land girl with a consideration and regard that was unusual in his dealings with labour. So when her mother proposed to go to Chesterfield for a few days to stay with relatives, Kitty advised her to remain at home to keep an eye on developments. Her mother nevertheless went, and on the night of her departure Kitty lay in bed listening anxiously for the sound of the creaking stair between her father's room and the land girl's. Surprisingly all was silent - until there came a great commotion from the hen house. Kitty leapt out of bed and hammered on her father's door, shouting that a fox was trying to get at the chickens. To her great relief, he appeared in his night shirt from his own room, and went out and drove off the predator - but the next morning she was told: "It was just as well that you knocked last night and didn't walk straight into my room. That girl was in bed with me!"

Before long Richard Mason made the land girl pregnant, and he arranged for her to have an abortion in a nursing home in Lincoln run by Sister Swan, who was well known within the family for the services she provided. Not only was Richard an accomplice in the illegal operation upon Miss Millar, but one of his sons was similarly involved in the case of a jeweller's wife in Lincoln, his clandestine mistress. This lady became pregnant in circumstances that precluded the possibility of her husband believing the child to be his, so she was desperate to be rid of it. Her lover therefore enlisted the services of Sister Swan, and the unfortunate wife died as a consequence of them.

How closely death lurked in the shadow of that infamous nursing home is illustrated by the story of Jane Albina Horner Quinn. She was the daughter of Widow Quinn, the Yews charwoman, and she became May Mason's closest friend at Skellingthorpe School until it became apparent that Biney was, at the age of ten, already encouraging her schoolfellows to make love. As was to be expected, things did not turn out well for the naughty Biney. She became a nurse at Sister Swan's establishment and married a doctor in the place where she worked - as nurses often do. However, after a few years it transpired that her husband had never completed his medical training, so he was prosecuted and convicted for purporting falsely to be a qualified medical practitioner. For that he was both fined and required to repay all the fees he had earned by signing death certificates for Sister Swan's unfortunate patients. He was said to have signed so many that the repayments made him bankrupt.

The unusually high death rate in Sister Swan's nursing home commended it to the relatives of her older and more troublesome patients, and she was not inclined to delay their departure if she had arranged to receive legacies on their deaths larger than the fees she enjoyed while keeping them alive. Fortunately Miss Millar was young and one of the luckier patients. Her operation had no unintended consequences, and soon after it Richard took her away to Skegness for a weekend. On his return he confided in Arthur that "it was as good as ever" - as if that were hardly to be expected after Sister Swan had been at work upon his lover's anatomy. The liason continued, and Miss Millar took no trouble to keep it secret. Eventually Richard's wife decided that the affair had gone on for long enough, so she delivered an ultimatum - either the land girl would leave, or she would. It was the land girl who went - but not quietly. Miss Millar threatened Richard with exposure of his part in the abortion proceedings, and blackmailed hundreds of pounds out of him. His daughter Kitty used to point to an entry in a surviving farm bank book for 1921 - "£80 for self" - saying that it was in fact one of her father's many payments to his expensive mistress. Nor was it by any means the last.

The more Arthur went to the Yews the more he became established in his father-in-law's confidence. He would be taken off into the seldom-used sitting room, where Richard and he could sit alone together beside the fire. They smoked their pipes and talked about the women they had enjoyed. If they drank anything it was tea. People in Richard Mason's walk of life did not keep strong drink in the house to be consumed as a matter of course. In the Yews, whisky was brought out to seal a business deal, and the medicine chest contained a small bottle of brandy. There was usually a barrel of beer in the cupboard under the stairs, and bottles of home-made wine in the larder, but they were only there for occasional parties. Richard's regular drinking was done nightly in the village pub, where he lingered for an hour over one pint of beer costing twopence, and on Fridays in Lincoln he took a glass of whisky in Pratts after visiting the cattle market.

As for the Robinsons at Portland House, it was only on rare occasions that I ever saw anyone with a glass of alcohol in his hand. If the lower middle classes drank at all, it was seldom - and their houses were largely dry of alcohol, except for medicinal brandy and an occasional bottle of sweet sherry for a party. Consequently, although I now drink wine regularly at lunch and dinner, it is still with faint sense of novelty, and a glass of gin and tonic remains a delicious extravagance. The abstinence of my parents and grandparents had nothing to do with principle. There were not teetotal - the lack of drink in the house was a matter of living standards. While comfortably off by the measures of those times, they had no money to spare for drink until after the end of the Second World War when my father and mother, in their separate ways, began to share in the general affluence - for which Harold Macmillan took the credit in more senses than one.

While Arthur grew in popularity at the Yews, May suddenly and most surprisingly found favour in Portland House. It came about because the overcrowding and disorder there became intolerable. Old Mrs Robinson could not delegate. She had to have a hand in everything, so May could only hang about the house all day helping here and there, with no clear role in the household, no clear responsibility for anything, and no time when her housework was done and she could turn her mind to other pursuits. She lived, as she put it, "like a toad under a harrow", and could not remember having read a single book after moving into the house. So towards the end of 1919 she resolved to put an end to it, and went secretly to ask the Clerk to the Education Committee whether he could find work for her in Lincoln as a teacher.

Only desperate need could have driven May Robinson to humble herself before the hated Mr Minton who had once tried to frustrate her career, but the interview was not quite so difficult as she feared. The Great War had killed off thousands of teachers, and thousands of younger men who would otherwise have trained for that profession, so the city was short of them. Nevertheless, the wily Clerk did not reveal to May that she had brought her skills to a sellers' market, and it was only after a great deal of humming and hawing, and after prolonged consultation of his records, that he was able to find a job for her - in the Open Air School. It was an establishment on the South Common for consumptive children, whose frail lungs were believed to need a superabundance of fresh air and chilling winds. They were housed in wooden buildings, like an army camp, and the classrooms had open windows and open doors throughout the year. In winter the teachers and pupils froze together. Mr Minton had not failed to remember the girl from Skellingthorpe who once had the better of him, and whose mother had been tactless enough to make a point of it.

A job secured, May hired a great strong girl, called Ethel Banks, for five shillings a week to be my nursemaid. She had expected cries of outrage from old Mr and Mrs Robinson at her callousness in abandoning me to the care of a hired hand. But no! A woman who could earn nearly four pounds a week - more than their son Harold in Rustons - was a kind of prodigy. May was now a financial asset to her husband, and her parents-in-law had no objection whatsoever to a woman with money paying another to perform for her the sacred obligations of maternity - as women with money always had. Old Mrs Robinson's heart, in fact, rejoiced at the thought of a grandchild of hers being seen by Mrs Woolhouse, the bank manager's wife, out in his pram in the care of a nursemaid. And it soon became two grandchildren, because Ethel Banks turned out to be an excellent girl, and took over my cousin Douglas as well - wheeling us both out, under the envious eyes of the neighbours, in a great black perambulator in which we were slung high off the ground between springs as large and resilient as on if our parents lived in Minister Yard.

For much of the year, conditions at the Open Air School were almost idyllic. The classrooms were built around a garden full at first of spring flowers, and then of phlox, roses, night-scented stock, and fruit blossom. In summer it was loud with the murmur of the bees which wandered freely into the classrooms. But in winter snow blew in through the ever open doors and windows, while the headmistress sat in her warm cosy office, reading the latest books and literary reviews. Miss Burcombe's father was a man of letters - the editor of a local newspaper - and his thirty-six year old daughter was intent only on being as well informed and cultivated as he. Although notionally in charge of up to fifty tuberculosis-stricken children from some of the poorest homes in Lincoln, Miss Burcombe seldom stirred from her office and was as happily indifferent to their welfare and education as she was dedicated to the improvement of her own mind. Everything in relation to the duties she was paid to perform she left to her subordinates - and there was much to be done, because the children were daily boarders. In view of their consumption and poverty, the Education Committee considered that they required not only unlimited fresh air, but three nourishing meals a day, and afternoon rest, and regular hot baths. Therefore the pupils arrived early for a school breakfast, had a siesta on school beds after a school dinner, and then returned bathed to their lessons until it was time for a school high tea. Only when that was over were they sent home to their parents for the night.

So the hours were long, and the entire Open Air School service was provided, while Miss Burcombe studied Blackwoods Magazine and the Cornhill Review, by Miss Brooks and Mrs May Robinson, who did the teaching; by Mrs Jackson who cooked the meals; and by Mrs Rheims who cleaned the school and bathed the children - who needed it. Mrs Jackson and Mrs Rheims were not expected to lend a hand in the classrooms, but the two teachers served the meals and helped out with everything else. All this they did for ordinary teachers' rates of pay. There were no extra allowances or supplements for long hours of duty. Teaching was a worthy and dignified profession and its members, like doctors, accepted the work as it came.

Accustomed to the firm but loving discipline of Mr Brunt's school in Saxilby, May was appalled by her new one and by what she described as "all the thieving, lying and deceit of the naughty children". The two teachers were powerless to suppress it, because the headmistress would neither give them any authority, nor would she deign to leave the calm of her retreat to do the job herself. Nevertheless, after the chaos of Portland House, it was bliss to find some sort of order prevailing. Blankets and stretchers were neatly stored until the children needed them for the afternoon rest. Each child had his own number, and it was marked on his brush, comb, toothbrush, blanket, stretcher, plimsolls, Balaclava helmet, and essential great-coat. May was in her fastidious element, and all the women on the staff were congenial. Even Miss Burcombe - whom May despised as a head-mistress and categorised as "fundamentally bad" - could be admired as an intellectual and so much liked as a friend that they "lived in each others pockets." May delighted in teaching the poor coughing waifs in her charge, and ranged happily with them in long walks over the South Common for the good of their lungs.

So in spite of all its disadvantages she loved the school and couldn't resist the bookish charm of its head. Mr Minton nevertheless had his revenge, because the combination of the cold and the poor institutional food, coupled with old Mrs Robinson's over-rich provision, played havoc with May's digestion, and ruined her complexion. Also, Mr Minton's choice of school for the girl from Skellingthorpe was responsible for both of her surviving sons - my younger brother and I - developing consumption in our middle age in an era when the infection had become so rare that the doctors could hardly believe that anyone could have it - let alone two brothers. Our mother was then dead - herself untouched by the disease of her former pupils - but she undoubtedly carried it, and left it to us as the Clerk to the Education Committee's legacy to her children.

The Open Air School presented May with an awkward decision. The long hours meant that she could only teach there while her husband was being cared for by his mother. Like me, he had to be looked after by someone and Ethel Banks could not do it for both of us. So if May was to prise Arthur out of Portland House, which she hated, she would have to leave the Open Air School, which she loved. Hatred proved to be the stronger passion, and towards the end of 1921 she managed to persuade Arthur to move a mere three doors away from his mother. Our new home, the Poplars, was separated from Portland House by no more than one pair of intervening semi-detached houses, and derived its name from a pair of tall Lombardy poplar trees in the front garden. At the rear of the long narrow plot on which the house was built Arthur bought more land, as his father had done behind Portland House, and this additional territory extended leftwards in a broad sweep behind the intervening pair of houses to link up with Harry's orchard and poultry runs at the back of his property. Therefore, although from the highway it seemed that we had distanced ourselves from Portland House by a few score yards and were at least that much nearer to my mother's ultimate objective - the Cathedral Close - the Poplars had an umbilical cord at the rear which still preserved the connection between the dependent son and doting mother.

To achieve even this poor compromise it was necessary for my mother to give Miss Burcombe notice, and to dispense with the services of a nursemaid who was no longer required now that her mistress could look after me herself. Ethel Banks and my mother parted amicably, but with Miss Burcombe it was not so. She was extremely put out at losing so able and energetic an assistant, and would not speak a single word to her during the entire period of her notice, notwithstanding that the conscientious May Robinson had taken the trouble to find her own replacement. She nominated her friend Olive Forrington to succeed her, largely because they had a common background. Both had taught together under the admirable Mr Blunt in Saxilby, and both were farmers' daughters. Olive's father farmed a few miles north of Skellingthorpe in a village called Stow, where only the well-informed know they can find one of the most splendid parish churches in England. It is huge, very early, and "monumental" - as Pevsner says - and is thought to have its origins in the edifice King Eigfrith of Northumberland built in 678 on the Roman site of Siduncaster to serve as a cathedral for the old diocese of Lindsey. Whether that is true or not, Olive Forrington's home lay beside a piece of ecclesiastical antiquity venerable enough to make her particularly suitable to become my godmother - although her christening present turned out to be one from which I was able to derive some far from ecclesiastical satisfactions.

My godmother gave me a delicate white bone china cup and saucer decorated with nursery rhyme pictures. On the cup was Hey Diddle Diddle, with a cat dressed as an old lady bowing her bass fiddle. A listening dog grins cheerfully. A brown and white cow, gambolling in a meadow, is jumping over the moon which rises on the horizon behind a little village, and a raffish dish in a top hat is running away with a slim lady-like spoon. It is all charmingly drawn and coloured by one of the nameless proletariat of the arts, which consists of those with only enough talent to paint china for a living, or to play in orchestras, or to write unmemorable books - one never to be included in the high aristocracy of the recorded and remembered. On the saucer is the wicked Georgie Porgie in his little short trousers and a bobble cap vigorously assaulting an alarmed and reluctant female child dressed as prettily as those who attended my infant birthday parties to be embraced in games of postman's knock with nascent passion in the darkness of the entrance hall. Two of Georgie's victims have already undergone the ordeal and they stand weeping, toes pointing inwards, and dabbing their eyes with flimsy handkerchiefs. All three little girls look demure and charming, and all are revealing beneath the hems of their dresses and around the lower extremities of their tender thighs the most tantalising glimpses of their variously trimmed knickers. I had only to lift the Hey Diddle Diddle cup to my lips to expose the saucer, and there the shameful, furtive, and compelling fascination of Olive Forrington's christening present was revealed. The china was fragile, so my cup and saucer were only used on special occasions, and for the rest of the year Georgie's weeping victims lay at the back of the china cupboard, to be extracted and gazed upon when the house was empty, and then to be put hastily away again as soon as they had recharged, for the time being, my childish store of erotic fantasy.

The consequences for my infant sexuality of inviting Olive Forrington to be my godmother were as nothing compared with the effect on Miss Burcombe's career of my mother introducing her friend into the Open Air School. After working for Mr Brunt, Olive was so astonished and outraged at Miss Burcombe's laziness and indifference that after less than a year of mounting indignation she denounced her to the Clerk to the Education Committee. Olive's report only confirmed and completed the intelligence that Mr Minton had been collecting in his files, and the Education Committee demanded Miss Burcombe's immediate resignation. It was forthcoming, and the former headmistress departed to Africa as a missionary.

That was not so extraordinary as it now sounds. My childhood and youth were littered with examples of middle-class ladies who took themselves off to a life of discomfort and disease in the colonies. On the face of it their motivation was religious, but that explanation of their conduct does not bear examination. There were more than enough heathen souls in Lincoln for Miss Burcombe to save if she had been so minded, but that would not have served her purpose. She and her fellow missionaries needed an element of high drama to sustain their sacrifice - long journeys and great tribulations. Sharp contrasts of civilisation and barbarity were required to entice Miss Burcombe out to the mission huts. At home in Lincoln even the most abject of the inhabitants would not have submitted to the force of the Christian message with the humility she could confidently expect to find amongst the nation of the Dark Continent. The disgraced headmistress went there not to hide her head in shame, but to lift it again with the arrogance of her missionary kind.

If it had taken Mr Minton a long time to gather sufficient evidence against Miss Burcombe to secure her dismissal, he had more quickly collected enough reports of May Robinson's excellence to offer her the vacant post of headmistress of the Open Air School. This was a remarkable coup for a young woman who had taught for only three of four years since leaving her training college. But May had to wait until she was forty-seven and separated from her husband before she could become a headmistress. Now that Arthur had been levered out of Portland House he needed a wife at home to cook his breakfast before he went to school, to serve his dinner when he returned at mid-day, and to pour his tea when he came in tired after a far shorter day than May would have worked as headmistress of the Open Air School. She would have left home long before him in the morning and returned much later in the evening. A servant girl could again have deputised as my mother but not as his wife, so with great reluctance and regret the bright prize so handsomely offered by Mr Minton was rejected. It was a sensible decision because, apart from considerations of Arthur's domestic ease and comfort, it would not have been conductive to matrimonial harmony for the female of the pair to have become a headmistress while the male still remained a class teacher.

The Poplars, that had been so dearly won, was certainly not May's idea of a house worthy of her, but she was prepared to settle for what she could get - being, as she said, "a hybrid - weak with others, but iron strong within". She avoided open confrontations and gained her determined ends by indirect and oblique means. At the sound of gunfire, May's objectives tended to disappear into the ground like rabbits, where they lay warm and secure until it was safe for them to emerge again, full of vitality, out of a different inter-connecting burrow, and from a different direction. The intention to move Arthur out of Hykeham Road altogether and up the Lindum Hill into the desirable neighbourhood of the cathedral had to lie low for another eight years - but in the end that is where he went.

"Needs must when the Devil drives" was one of May's favourite sayings, so in the meantime she made do with the Poplars. It had been built a little earlier than Portland House and by the same builder, but to a lower specification. The rooms were smaller. Everything was smaller and a little mean, although the house was substantial compared with what was later to creep over the fields and woodlands I once played in as a boy. The Poplars had no ornamental glass, no ornate plaster in the ceilings, no high skirting boards. There was nothing superfluous - nothing that had reasoned neither need nor cost. The entrance hall was scarcely wide enough for a grown man to shake off his overcoat without knocking his elbows on the walls, and the house had no bathroom until Arthur converted the small third bedroom at the rear of the house. Even then he only put in a bath - omitting a washbowl and a W.C., because the room was not large enough to contain them as well as a bed for me to sleep in when we had guests. Consequently, each of the other two bedrooms had a mahogany washstand with a marble top and a free-standing mahogany towel rail. On the washstand stood a set of china toiletware consisting of the washstand, ewer, washbowl, toothmug, soapdish and matching lid. Under the washstand was a slop bucket, also with a china lid - and under the bed, hidden by a while valance, was a chamber pot to save nocturnal walks down the stairs to the W.C. beyond the scullery.

All the china was decorated in the same pattern of sprigs of flowers, and it looked very pretty against the white marble top of the washstand. The ewer, full of cold water, stood inside the washbowl, and those who craved the luxury of hot water, had to fetch it from the kitchen in a large pale blue enamel jug. Over the towel rail was laid a white towel. All the towels, sheets, pillow- cases, tablecloths and napkins in the house were white. Coloured linen was vulgar. Underwear had most particularly to be white, being next to the grossness of the body, and I doubt whether Arthur could have brought himself to make love to a woman, no matter how beautiful, if it had been involved divesting her of a coloured slip or coloured knickers. Coloured sheets flapping in the wind on a clothes line signalled a household with deplorable standards. The only conceivable reason for having linen of that kind was to change it less frequently.

The move into the Poplars revealed that Arthur had more practical skills at his command than May had supposed. He turned out to be an experienced gardener, because even as a schoolboy he had rented an allotment, having found the garden of Portland House - and it was not a small one - inadequate to satisfy his passion for horticulture. Now he could excercise it in the extra land he had bought, and have an orchard of thirty fruit trees stretching from the rear of the Poplars to the rear of Portland House. Poultry, too, had been an enthusiasm of his since childhood. He purchased great quantities of timber and built two splendid chicken houses, complete with perches, dropping boards, nestboxes and spacious wired-in runs. Arthur populated his new orchard with Rhode Island Reds and White Whyandots, and mustered his raspberry canes to attention in neat ranks like guardsmen, and planted row upon row of King Edwards. He also proved to be house-proud, with unexpected skills as a painter and paper-hanger. That expertise he had learned from his mother, because Harry had never been seen to dip a brush in paint or to mix a bowl of size. May, on the other hand, had been brought up in a tradition that regarded painting and paper-hanging as a man's work, so she firmly declined to have anything to do with it, and Arthur would have done the job unaided if his mother had not trudged round to the Poplars by the back way through the orchard, with her hair tied up in a piece of old sheeting, to lend a hand. The four year-old wound in Arthur's leg still tugged at her heart, although it did not noticeably incommode him, so whereas May could allow a supposed invalid to decorate the house unaided, Annie could not.

Arthur's interior decorating was consistent with the white sheets and colourless underwear. The kitchen and scullery were entirely white. All the woodwork throughout the house was white, and the ceilings were white down to the picture rails. Below them the boldest of the wallpapers were in pale pastel tones of blue or green, with matching borders that came interleaved in pattern books from which, with anxious scrutiny, the papers were chosen for their restraint and sobriety. Far from reacting against that distaste for large areas of dense colour, I share it. To my mind, the most beautiful interior I have ever seen was in a long low house converted from a group of stone farm buildings in Provence. On the ground floor it had vaulted ceilings like a crypt, and from top to bottom the inside of the house was painted white - relieved only by an occasional bold painting or a few glowing cushions on old dark wood, and warmed by oriental rugs on pale tiled floors. Thin-blooded, maybe, but quiet and restful - and infinitely preferable, in my view, to the innocent confusion of those with no taste at all, or to the hectic sophistication of those with too much.

However, unlike the fortunate owner of the house in Provence, my parents did not relieve the pallid walls of the Poplars with the colourful drama of contemporary oil paintings. Suspended from our picture rails were framed prints of a kind that can only raise smiles of condescension now that fashion has moved on - Rembrandt's "Night Watch", Franz Hal's "Laughing Cavalier", DŸrer's "Hands in Prayer", Greuze's "Boy with a Rabbit", Holman Hunt's "The Light of the World", da Vinci's "Mona Lisa", Millais's "Angelus", Gainsborough's "Blue Boy", G F Watt's "Hope", and so on. But all that is relative. No-one can laugh at another's taste and laugh last, because there is always someone to laugh at his. When I had a house of my own the prints were different, but equally risible to those who scorn all but oils, watercolours, and drawings - originals that, in turn, would not be given house room by a rich collector.

My parents' choice of prints may now seem ingenuous, but much of their furniture was good. They combed Lincoln's antique shops and salerooms for any bargains they could afford, and of the two it was Arthur who had the better eye. In fact, in his middle age - after May had left him and he had abandoned teaching - he practised as an antique dealer from a very elegant house in Lewes. It was then that May, ever ready to reproach herself for the break-up of her marriage, wondered whether things might have been different if she had given greater encouragement to her husband's interest in furnishing and decorating his home. I think things would have been much the same. He would still have been adulterous and would still have felt inferior to his wife in energy and ambition. She would still have been less erotic than he, and more restless. In any case, a married couple cannot always be changing their furniture or redecorating their house simply to stimulate a flagging matrimonial enthusiasm.



A few months after the move to the Poplars, I embarked upon my education. The city council provided an infant school in Bracebridge - an easy walking distance of a mile towards the town centre. The building was in the usual Victorian scholastic-gothic style with work and play, even for tender infants, sharply distinguished. For the first activity the children sat in rows at long communal desks in which each individual's territory was marked only by a hole in which his own pot inkwell would later be fitted, and filled from a large bottle, when he was ready to use it. The classrooms had an ecclesiastical air to concentrate the minds of the inmates on the importance and solemnity of the business of learning to ready, to write, and to figure. The ceiling were high and beamed, and the sills of the arched, chapel-like, windows were set so far up the bare walls that nothing in the world outside, except the passage of an occasional bird could possibly distract the attention of the youthful students from their tasks. As for play, no one did that in the classrooms. Play took place outside in the walled and asphalted enclosures, one for the boys and one for the girls.

My father was firmly of the opinion that sensible parents who wanted their offspring to learn to read and write and do arithmetic sent them to serious-minded, thoroughly professional, institutions of that kind - which also had the advantage of being free. My mother had other ideas. Bracebridge was a working class suburb of the cathedral city, consisting of little narrow crowded streets of terraced tenements. The boys were rough and the girls were common. Bracebridge infants' school was not the place for me. In any case, whereas village headmasters usually accepted infants younger than five, the city schools were overcrowded and on no account was a child admitted until he had reached that age. My mother had been brought up in the Mason tradition of not having children hanging about at home in idleness if they were too young for useful work but old enough to understand a little of what they would be taught at school. So on her insistence I was placed at the age of four in the genteel educational care of Miss Moss who would have accepted me at the age of three, at a suitably reduced rate, if she had been asked. My mother, having abandoned the Open Air School, could now take me by the hand and lead me off on this new adventure down the old Roman Fossway towards Newark, with a ribbon development on our right consisting of stately Edwardian bourgeois residences looking out over farmlands, - each house having its own bridge over the Swallow Beck, the stream that lent its name to this desirable area of habitation. After a quarter of a mile came the spacious house of Mr Moss in which his thirty year old spinster daughter had appropriated the drawing room to be her school. There I joined a small coterie of infants of both sexes, either too young or too delicately nurtured to sit at desks with the offspring of the Bracebridge proletariat.

In such company I had to be appropriately dressed - fawn covert overcoat, grey felt Christopher Robin hat, brown leather gaiters buttoned to the knees, brown leather tie-up shoes, pale tussore blouse, and under it a liberty bodice from which my little trousers were suspended by short tags. Fortunately my woollen combinations were well hidden because, instead of coming as they ought to have done from Mawer and Collinghams, they had been run up at home by my thrifty mother on her sewing machine.

To my schooling I brought a lamentable memory, and an I.Q. that was later measured at a moderate 134. Both ensured that I was never at the very top of any class I ever sat in, and the latter ensured that I was never, except for a disgraceful term at the grammar school, at the very bottom. Not for me was the faintest prospect of a fellowship of All Souls, nor even a reasonable chance of a first class Oxford or Cambridge degree. So I am bound to admit that, unlike many more fortunate autobiog_raphers, I have no recollection of displaying the least sign of precocity at my kindergarten. As for the regime there, I have a general impression that it was kindly and inefficient. Only one memory stands out with absolute clarity - and that was, as ever, of a girl.

Pam Gibbons was a little blue-eyed blonde who lived in one of the more imposing houses beside the Swallow Beck, and her father owned a motor car of a size which only considerable grandees could then afford. Pam at the age of five already displayed in her demeanour and expensive dresses some of the arrogance of wealth, but what fixed her for ever in my memory was the remarkable luxury of her packed lunches. Miss Moss, like the city education committee, did not feel called upon to furnish school dinners, so her pupils brought their own refreshment. My sandwiches were fastidiously prepared by my mother with the usual commonplace fillings of scrambled egg, tomatoes, lettuce, or sometimes a very thin slice of ham. They lay neatly wrapped in grease-proof paper in a humble little biscuit tin. Pam extracted from her wicker luncheon hamper sandwiches prepared by the cook with the slices of bread gaping apart to accommodate fillings so exotic that I was usually at a loss to identify them. One, however, I could recognise - great thick wedges of breast of chicken smothered in a white sauce that not only dripped over the edges of the bread as she raised a sandwich to her mouth, but spurted in jets over her rosy cheeks when she applied her energetic teeth to the meat of a fowl that was eaten by my family only on special occasions - and even then never without the brown of the legs. Pam Gibbons, to my astonishment, took her breast of chicken neat, and the almost inconceivable luxury of that indulgence - afforded I had thought only to invalids on the point of death - was my first and most startling introduction to the ways of the rich.

My introduction to the ways of the poor came at much the same time, when I was taken to visit old George Robinson's widow. He had died in 1920, and on the day of his death he was lying ill, but apparently no worse than usual. But at noon he said to his son Charlie: "I shall be dead at five o'clock, and you'll know it because, like every other Robinson, my nose will be all over my face." Both predictions were fulfilled. He died to the minute, and his nose flattened and spread over his cheeks in a most curious way, as if only vitality had maintained it in shape. George had given instructions about his funeral, saying that on the way to the cemetery he was to be driven slowly and not shaken about, but adding "you can gallop back if you like!" When asked if his family was to wear black, he replied: "Wear what you want! Have a good time, and buy yourselves a pint!" Thus he had departed from the world with his flags flying, unrepentant and unshriven - and leaving his widow penniless. Fortunately, the pre-war Liberal Government was more considerate, and had bequeathed her an old age pension of five shillings a week - her "Lloyd George".

George's widow enjoyed her pension notwithstanding the efforts of Edward King, D.D., Bishop of Lincoln and one time Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford. He made a special journey to London to vote against the introduction of old age pensions, as an unearned benefit likely to sap the moral fibre of the labouring classes - an opinion widely shared by others in the House of Lords who invoked for the general good their own personal experience of the debilitating consequences of unearned riches. The good Bishop King stands memorialised in stone beneath the Rose Window of Lincoln Cathedral, slightly bending forward under the weight of his heavily embroidered cope, mitre on head, crozier in one hand, and the other raised as benign a benediction as might be consistent with keeping the lower orders in good spiritual discipline. But in spite of that saintly and scholarly prelate the widow had her pension of five shillings a week and lived on it with occasional largesse from her step-son Harry, on whose generosity his numerous indigent relatives made many and insistent calls.

The old widow continued to occupy the little slum cottage on Waterside South that had been George's home ever since he had spent his second wife's money. Access to the house was by a footbridge over the Witham, and as my grandmother Robinson took me across it we saw, stemming the slow dark stream, a pair of bored and listless swans - inseparably husband and wife after the manner of those birds - with Plimsol lines stained brown upon their breasts by the city's effluent. Then after a series of narrow alleys and little courts we came to a cobbled yard into which, even at noon, the sunlight could hardly intrude on account of the walls and roofs of other buildings. And there, beside a pump, was the house in which George Robinson's second wife gave birth to a family of eight, and then departed to drown herself. It had one door facing into the yard, one window downstairs, and two above. The sides of the house were party walls with the adjoining properties, and at the rear it shared a wall with a barber's shop in an adjoining court. So the house was totally enclosed on three sides. It had only a single room downstairs because the barber had knocked through and taken the second one into his shop, while leaving two bedrooms above. Occupants of the house shared the pump outside the front door with their neighbours - and in a far corner of the yard was a communal earth closet that was emptied once a week into the city corporation's night soil cart under cover of darkness.

My recollection of the interior is of a very dark room and an old woman in a mob cap sitting on a wooden chair beside a small fire in the cooking range. She was quiet and subdued, as if the spirit of her husband still lingered in the cottage, and she consoled herself from a large brown tea-pot which stood all day on the hob seething and stewing its contents to wring the last molecule of caffeine from the tortured leaves. I was offered a stimulating draught from this widow's cruse, but my first and only sip was so repellent that on the way home - intending to avoid it for the rest of my life - I enquired from my grandmother if she knew the name of the brand of tea responsible for producing that rank and acrid potion. Annie knew the brand - it was Lyons' - and since she did not explain that the stewing and not the distributor was responsible for the nauseous taste, I was fixed by that early trauma with an almost invincible abhorrence not only for Lyons' tea, but for every other product they had on the market as well. In fact, it needed several years of happy marriage in my late middle age to a daughter of the house - whose name, providentially, was Salmon not Lyons - to override my conditioned reflex on seeing that firm's logo on a packet of groceries.

George Robinson's widow provided my childhood with one of the two marker posts I used for aiming the words "poor" and "rich" at other targets. Pam Gibbon's father provided the second - largely on account of the contents of his daughter's luncheon hampers. Really solid, generation after generation wealth was entirely over my horizon. The Bergne-Couplands, whose daughter Nancy I saw in the left-hand pew in Skellingthorpe church dressed with the restrained but indelible stamp of riches, simply "had money" - like Lord Liverpool who sat in the right-hand front pew and read the lessons. That was part of the natural order of things for some, and would never be for me. Mr Gibbons, however, had "made money" - as his daughter's clothes proclaimed more noisily - and that was something my own father might have done, but had not. The reason became apparent as I grew older. My father was a schoolteacher, whereas Mr Gibbons was "in trade", and my mother left me in no doubt that activity of that kind was deeply and shamefully unworthy. Farming was permissible. It was not trade, because one farmed for "love of the land", and not for money. Of all other middle-class ways of earning a living, only the professions were a proper object of ambition. I was brought up so rigorously in the misconception that the law and medicine escaped the taint of "money-grubbing" that to this day I find myself surprised by the rapacity of lawyers who plunder human weakness, and the Rolls Royce motor cars of those in Harley Street who trade in human suffering.

My mother's distaste for the pursuit of money was nonsensical. She knew very well, for example, that the cathedral she so loved had been built on the vast and dubiously acquired wealth of the church. But it was a very charming and innocent foolishness, having nothing to do with the snobbish worship of inherited riches and the converse contempt for acquiring them in the first place. Unlike her sister Kitty, who knew precisely which noble lords were which and who was related to them, my mother was serenely indifferent to the absurd pretensions of blood and lacked the least ambition that her descendants might become gentlemen. Her itch was for them to be sound professional men - doctors, lawyers, or parsons. No reproach of "money-grubbing" was levelled at Doctor Sharpe for charging his patients enough to buy him a spacious house and impressive garden in Swallowbeck. A solicitor could properly render bills that would enable him to climb out of Newland and up to the cathedral close. Money-grubbing began after needs of that kind had been satisfied. Also, money appurtenant to public office was entirely untainted, because "one strove for the office, and not for gain." Rich bishoprics, in particular, were so proper an objective that I went to Cambridge as a potential candidate for ordination - my faith fortified by observing the gracious lives of the cathedral dignitaries, and my conscience untroubled about the origins of their wealth. Even Alec Morris, Kitty's husband, contributed to the fervour of my calling because the life he led as a parish priest was better paid, more influential, and certainly more prestigious - as Kitty never failed to point out - than my father's.

The assumption that I would not as an adult soil my hands with trade did not lead my mother to supervise my studies with Miss Moss to ensure that my academic achievements would ultimately suffice for a profession. In fact, both my parents were so agreeably relaxed about my education that when I outgrew my kindergarten, I was transferred at the age of six to the equally inefficient but even more genteel care of another spinster lady - Miss Duffield. She was middle-aged, well built, yellow haired, and heavily powdered. Miss Duffield had clearly known better days, and even if she taught nothing else, she taught the lower-middle classes a proper respect for ladies such as she, confirming her instruction with occasional applications of a cane that was both stiff and curiously long - as if to emphasise her social remoteness. My new school was in the respectable suburb of St Catherine's, about a mile and three-quarters from my home, and I was now old enough to make my own way there. The first mile to the tram terminus in Bracebridge had to be walked in all weathers because I had no bicycle, my father had no motor car, and there was no effective public transport. A man had started to run an old ramshackle bus between Hykeham and Lincoln, but it was so unreliable that I never travelled on it, and the service provided by the carrier's cart was too infrequent to be of any practical use, except for village women taking their produce to Lincoln market on Fridays.

In Bracebridge at the Gatehouse Hotel - whose name recalled a toll booth in the days when the road to Newark was a turnpike - I could board a tram for the remainder of the journey. The City of Lincoln Corporation ran their tram cars between Bracebridge and St Benedict's Square on a single pair of rails let into what used to be the Roman road. Apart from a few passing places, there was nothing but a absolutely straight and level track of one and a half miles into Lincoln, enabling those who lived in the closely packed red brick streets of Bracebridge to travel cheaply to their employment in the iron works. The rails were so level that the tramcars had formerly been drawn at an average speed of six miles an hour by docile horses which, ungoaded by whip or spur and knowing all the stopping places, spent a lifetime of one and a half miles there and one and a half miles back in a straight line. In compensation they were pampered and cosseted in the tramways depot where they and their eight cars were housed. The tramways company had its own blacksmith and a squad of grooms who brushed, combed, and curried the horses till their coats shone with a gloss bright enough for the Lincolnshire Show. The tramcars also were swept and washed nightly, and emerged next morning with seats polished, windows clean and brass gleaming. The workmen were so proud of their tramway, and the public so sorry to see it go, that the last journey of a horse tram in 1905, when electricity and the City Corporation took over, was marked by a ceremonial as solemn as a state funeral.

Tramcars need a worm's facility to travel indifferently in either direction, so they were double-ended with rounded extremities like the date boxes we had from Tunis at Christmas, while down the long flat sides below the windows ran advertisements for Zebo grate polish, Mazawattee tea, and Robin starch. Each end of the tram had its own Cyclopean headlight, and each end contained everything required by driver or conductor - a complete set of controls for the former, and a tattered old string for the latter to pull to ring a bell over the distant driver's head. Each end had its own steps for passengers, and a winding stairway up which children raced to the upper deck in hope of finding a vacant seat in the semi-circle at what, for the time being, was the front.

Open to the weather though it was, that semi-circle was the place for a child to kneel facing forward on the hard wood-slatted seats that ran round the inside of the curved end. There he could imagine himself to be the driver, swinging round the brass-knobbed arm that notched its way over a brass scale for greater or less acceleration, winding on the brakes for passengers to alight or dismount, and kicking them off again with a ratchet release at the foot of the column. He could clang his bell to clear the tracks ahead, and halt at passing places to allow an approaching tram to go by. Not for him was the tedium of the lower deck where passengers at on long wooden seats running down the sides, with nothing to do but look at each other. Nor was the enclosed part of the upper deck much better, even though one sat of transverse benches conveniently facing the direction of travel - thanks to that maid of all work, the conductor, who had run through the upper deck at the last terminus throwing over the hinged back rests with a huge clatter ready for the return journey.

The conductor had other duties too, before his tram was ready to embark upon its next journey. Power was supplied for the electric motors by an overhead wire, and collected by a long pole mounted on the roof of the vehicle. At the end of the pole was a pulley-wheel that engaged with the overhead wire because the pole had a built-in tendency to spring upwards. It had, of course, to trail behind the direction of travel. So when the tram came to the end of a run in one direction, the pole had to be put into a new trailing position for the return journey. This was done by the conductor, not by the driver, who merely strolled through the tram to take up a new driving position.

To effect the change, the conductor unclipped from the side of the tram a very long bamboo pole with a hook in the end of it, and he reached up with his bamboo to pull down the collecting pole out of engagement with the overhead wire. Then, clinging tenaciously to his length of bamboo against the upward spring of the pole, he danced on tip-toe round the tram, pulling the pole with him, and re-engaged it beneath the overhead wire in the new trailing position.

Nor was that the end of the conductor's obligations. The track was very uneven in places, so the trams rocked and jolted about to such an extent that a collecting pole was sometimes displaced from beneath the wire. Then it sprang upwards into the air and waved about in an aimless fashion, while the vehicle came to a halt and rested immobile like a stranded whale. In this predicament, the aristocrat of labour at the front merely folded his arms and lolled against his lifeless control box. It was for the conductor to unclip his bamboo, and to fish about in the air with the hook for perhaps several minutes - usually with derisive calls of encouragement from the passengers - before he could catch the errant collecting pole and re-engage it under the wire. That done, he clipped his bamboo back onto the side of the tram, climbed into the rear end, pulled on his string to ring the bell at the front, and the journey was resumed.

For me those Lincoln trams had the irresistible charm of primitive technology - like the rough striking action of an old church clock - so it was only occasionally that I would walk on from Bracebridge to Miss Duffield's to spend my penny fare on sweets to share with Connie Eastment, my more fragile love. She also was six - with fair hair, sky-blue eyes, delicate features, and graceful little limbs. She was dressed by adoring parents in flimsy silks and muslins, kept warm in costly velvet coats, and was always spick and span and terribly clean - looking like an expensive doll freshly out of its wrapping on a birthday. Brought up as flagrantly feminine as the little weeping girls on my Georgie Porgy saucer, Connie lived behind and above her father's general store in Swallowbeck, only a few hundred yards from my home. Although I had bought groceries for my mother at his shop, the revelation that Mr Eastment had a daughter of any kind came only when I laid eyes on her at Miss Duffield's - and that it should be the enchanting Connie was like discovering hidden treasure in my own garden. Fortunately she was at least a little pleased to find me, - feigning no indifference to my mop of thick dark hair, to eyes as large and brown as hers were blue, and to a sturdy masculine little frame.

So before long, although a parent took her to school, she was entrusted to my care for the return journey. From the tram terminus in Bracebridge we walked hand in hand along the grass verges of the Newark Road towards her retail home. Now and again I paid my tribute by picking for her from the hedgerow a single dog rose of a pinkness as pale as her cheeks, or a blue cornflower from an adjoining field to match her eyes. A shy pendant harebell could also be bestowed as a token of my regard, but poppies, buttercups or ragged robins were too bold and strident to express so gentle an affection. Connie Eastment and I lived in the blessed innocence of repression. We kissed only at children's parties at the knock of a postman, or in supposed forfeit. Sex was confined to fantasy in the solitude of a bedroom.

I loved Connie Eastment for all practical purposes in purity and innocence, with only an instinctive awareness that she might grow up to be of a female type that is the despair of feminists and at least the temporary delight of men - pretty, finely made, uncomplicated, open, easy, undemanding, friendly, generous, and with no thought beyond her next hair ribbon. It would be nonsense to say that they are the most desirable of women, because the most desirable of women is the woman one desires most at the moment - be she angular, sharp, intelligent, and infinitely difficult. But for erotic charm the Connie Eastments are incomparable. It if were otherwise, we should not suppose harems to have been stocked with them. Nevertheless, ravishing though women of that kind may be, they tend not to be very highly regarded. I loved the grocer's daughter painfully enough for her beauty, but the hook that was dangled by a plain but more interesting child in Skellingthorpe lodged itself more deeply down my gullet - as will appear later.



In the autumn of 1921 Richard Mason, my grandfather, retired from farming and the purchaser of the Yews farm took possession at Michaelmas as was the custom. To sell the Yews had been difficult. Farming had boomed during the Great War, but agriculture quickly fell into recession after the armistice. By 1921 there was no demand for farms, and Richard could only find a purchaser for the Yews by leaving the whole of the purchase money on mortgage. I never heard the buyer - if that is the word for him - called anything other than "Fall". He was denied the courtesy of mister not only after he had defaulted on his mortgage interest, but from the first moment that it became apparent that he was unable to find a penny of the purchase money himself and had to be lent the whole of it. Fall was from the beginning a very unsatisfactory fellow, and he turned out to be an incompetent farmer as well.

On the sale of the farm Richard retained for himself a triangular field of about twelve acres, lying between the grounds of the vicarage and the railway station. It had a frontage to the highway and was sheltered at the rear by Birds' Holt Wood. In the corner next to the vicarage Richard sank a well and built his retirement home - a square pebble-dashed bungalow with a pyramidal roof like a capped gate-post. It was a poor thing after the Yews farmhouse, and contained a living room with a cooking range, a front sitting room, three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a pantry that had steps down into it because a farmer who had sold milk could not conceive of a dairy which was not sunk for coolness several feet into the ground. The bathroom had a bath and washbowl, with waste pipes but no taps, so cold water was carried in buckets from a pump outside the house, and hot water was brought in a large enamel jug from a side boiler in the living room. Behind the bungalow was a concreted "corsey" that had to be crossed to reach a separate building containing a scullery that housed the pump, with a stone sink beside it. Under the same roof was the coal house and an earth closet, and close by was a wooden storehouse for such things as bicycles. Further away and alongside the parson's shrubbery Richard built a spacious well-lit shed with corner posts of upright railway sleepers, and in it he installed a workbench with a steel vice and anvil, and other relics of the days when he had been a blacksmith in Waddingham. His forge had then been called "the shop", and this remote retirement echo of it was given the same description - an apparently retail terminology which, as a schoolteacher's son two generations removed from productive industry, I found perverse and misleading. The connotation of workshop never occurred to me.

Richard fenced off an area of about three quarters of an acre around his new home, and called the house "Glendale" after his first farmhouse in Waddingham. It had no main water, no main drainage, no gas, no electricity, no central heating, and no telephone. In it he and his wife Fanny would live as they had always lived - with a pump, an earth closet, paraffin lamps, candles, and freezing bedrooms in winter, but without the convenience of a resident servant and a horse and trap. Whilst no great reward for a life of endeavour, at least they had around them some of the furniture they had grown old with, and most of their china and ornaments. A lawn bordered with flowers was laid in front of the graceless house, and virginia creeper was planted to cover the pebble dash. Beside the short entrance drive Richard established a bank of rhododendrons, which abounded in the local woods, and brought in flowering cherries and other darlings of suburbia, which certainly did not. Behind the "shop" were several reminders of his farming days - a huge pile of old fencing and other timber to be chopped into kindling, a dung hill on which the contents of the earth closet were emptied weekly, and a kennel for the airedale sheep-dog which Richard had brought with him into retirement. Then came a vegetable garden and an orchard. One Glendale had been grandfather's first farm, and this Glendale was to be his last home. He died in the front bedroom, and the airedale died in his kennel.

That house is where my own recollections of Skellingthorpe truly begin, and they are dominated by the sound of rooks and turtle doves in the Reverend Thomas Hamilton's shrubbery, which became the most romantic playground of my childhood. The parson provided me with trees to climb, brown squirrels to chase, birds' nests to rob, and the excitement of spying from amongst his laurels and yews upon the few remaining signs of life in the vicarage - long ago deserted by errant wife, and empty of children. The doors of the coachhouse were padlocked, the gardens were overgrown, and only fitful wraiths of smoke rose from the many clusters of chimneys. An occasional jobbing gardener might be seen cutting the grass, or old Mrs Scott, the housekeeper, trudging up the drive with her groceries. Sometimes there was even the sombre figure of the parson himself, hunched over his bicycle, as he returned from some mission in the village or from celebrating communion in his little corrugated-iron satellite church three miles away in Swallowbeck.

The vicarage was a large red-brick Victorian pile with studded doors, pointed gothic windows, and a considerable range of stabling and other appurtenances suggestive of former grandeur. The house looked tired and dispirited, but stood dignified and imposing in its own extensive grounds, approached by a long tree-lined avenue flanked by ungrazed paddocks, surrounded by once formal gardens, and sheltered on every side by belts of neglected woodland. Even in decline, it could still fill my ears with the sound of neighing horses, the rattle of carriages, and the shouts of children. I could still see, peering between the leaves of the shrubbery, the scurrying of servants and the windows of the house ablaze with light, as they had been in the days of the rich and beautiful Maude. Now the grounds of the old gloomy vicarage have been developed into a housing estate.

My greatest pleasure when staying at Glendale was to be taken into my grandmother's bed in the morning to hear tales of her childhood in Redbourne, while she tickled my back with her long delicate fingers. Grandmother was an unflagging grantor of what is not quite the most exquisite of sensual pleasures, but more difficult to come by than the one that is. It must be said, in retrospect, that her stories of the village where she was brought up were not of high quality, and were often surprisingly coarse - having regard to my tender years and her own general air of fastidious poise. But whatever the quality, Fanny's tales were redolent of village life, and funny enough to the teller to send her into gales of merriment that shook the bed as she recounted them.

Her favourite Redbourne character was Patty Walker, a poor widow who eked out a living as best she could and was always in trouble. She wore a sack round her huge waist, and waddled like a duck. The Duke of St Albans let her have a cottage for a shilling a week, but with poor relief of only half a crown and a loaf of bread, she was always short of money. One day she was passing Fanny's father's blacksmith shop and said she was going to see the "Lever" to ask for another sixpence. The Relieving Officer however, was hard-hearted and her plea was rejected. So she told him: "Well then, thank you! And you can kiss my arse for that!" Foiled in that endeavour, Patty next sought to augment her income through her son Bill, who worked for Mr Herring the farmer. She persuaded him to ask for a rise, but it too was refused, so she said: "Give me my bonnet, Bill! I'll go talk to Bloater Bugger my self!" That did no good either, and Patty then set up in business as an invalid watcher, charging a few pence a night for sitting up with the sick to give the relatives some respite from nursing. Patty's first engagement was to tend the mortal illness of Mrs Drayton, but Patty found that she had other things to do one night and silently slipped away from the house, leaving the invalid to look after herself. On Patty's return in the early hours of the next morning she found that her charge had fallen out of bed and was lying stretched out cold on the floor, stone dead. For this offence Patty was well chided in private by the Duke, and publicly reprimanded by the Rector in a sermon on the Good Samaritan.

In consequence Patty lived in disgrace for many years afterwards. She was unable to find employment and could only supplement her poor relief by selling nuts from her filbert tree to Mr Hall, a big local farmer, who paid well because he was making his fortune after the Russian War. However, Fanny's brother Tom and his friends used to steal her nuts - so she decided that the only thing to do was to employ him. She approached Fanny's father saying: "Please Dr Dorner, will you please let your son Tom come and pull my nuts for me - or the young buggers will steal the lot!"

Understandably, Patty was very jealous of the prosperity of Mrs Cooling, whose beam was as broad as her own and whose husband kept the village pinfold. He collected a shilling every time he impounded an animal caught grazing on the green, so whenever Patty saw a creature in the pinfold she used to say, lisping her r's as aristocratically as the Duke himself: "There goes another cap wibbon for old boweell arse!" The pindar was not always successful in securing his dues. A villager called Simpson had a sow which habitually fed on the green with her owner's encouragement, but at first the pindar used to catch her with the greatest of ease, by putting food in the pinfold and then rattling the trough. The old sow would, on that summons, simply rush into captivity. Simpson soon tired of paying a shilling every time his pig went out to feed, so he resolved to cure her of her love of the pindar's enclosure. The next time he found her locked up he gave her a terrible beating before he took her home, repeating the treatment every time the sow was caught, until she was so conditioned against captivity that the pindar rattled his trough in vain, and Simpson fed her on the green with impunity.

Another Redbourne character, Billy Marshall, also featured frequently in Fanny's stories. He was very tall, gaunt, and loosely slung together like a marionette, but he had one particularly bad ankle which made him swing that leg out even more than the other. He flopped about rather than walked, but notwithstanding his difficulties of locomotion, he was made by the hated Rector to sit with the labouring men in their allotted pews up near the altar, so he had to stagger his way up the whole length of the aisle, veering from side to side, puffing loudly, and clinging for support on to the ends of the pews as he went.

In spite of his infirmities Billy made what money he could by doing all the filthy jobs in the village that no-one else would undertake - such as emptying earth closets and opening blocked drains. This pained his wife, who was very refined but totally deaf, and there was little love lost between them. One day Billy's friends had to take him home from the public house in a wheelbarrow, on account of his total incapacity to walk. Outside his house they went in to fetch his wife and told her, mouthing their words to aid her lip-reading: "Your - husband's - very ill. We've - brought him - home - in a barrow". Mrs Marshall came out, inspected him as he lay supine in the conveyance, and pronounced her diagnosis: "He's drunk!" Opening one eye, Billy slowly looked his wife up and down, and replied: "I always said you was a witty bitch!"

Mrs Marshall's deafness was total and this led to a sad little tragedy. One morning Billy came down first into the kitchen and lit the fire, and let in his wife's beloved cat. Country cats were turned out at night in all weathers - rain, hail, sleet, frost, or snow - on the assumption that, being nocturnal creatures, they liked it. The oven door happened to be open, so the cat climbed in to warm himself, and Billy went out to work. When his wife came down she saw the oven door open and kicked it shut before blowing up the fire and heaping on more coal. While the cat cried in vain to his deaf mistress she prepared a rabbit pie, and when she eventually opened the oven door to put the dinner in, she found that she had already roasted the cat. The poor woman was heart-broken, but the villagers never let her forget, and "Mrs Marshall roasted the cat" became her epitaph.

Fanny's great bte noir in Redbourne was the rector, the arrogant Mr Harrison, because with the backing of the Duke he interfered in every aspect of the villagers' lives. The only work allowed on Sunday was the feeding of farm stock - even gardening was proscribed - and the bible or other religious books were the only permitted reading. The Duke owned the roof over every parishioner's head so church-going was compulsory and the Sunday programme was an exacting one - holy communion at eight; Sunday school at ten-thirty, from which the children joined their parents for mattins at eleven; Sunday school again at two; the farm workers' bible class at three; and evensong at six. The job of preparing the church for all these activities fell to the sexton, or parish grave-digger. Thirty oil lamps were trimmed weekly and filled with paraffin, and in winter the church furnace had to be brought into action in good time for the Sabbath. The sexton laid it, lit it, and stoked it with coke on Saturday afternoon. He then inspected the furnace at eight, and stoked it again an hour before midnight. The next morning he rose early to open up the flues at six ready to warm the first congregation at eight.

Magnanimously, the rector gave the choirboys an annual treat - tea at the rectory - and at Christmas the farm workers were given a rectory supper of beef, vegetables, and Christmas pudding, followed by whist until ten o'clock. Nevertheless, nothing could assuage the villagers' detestation for him, and so it happened in the middle of a dark winter's night that he was awakened by the sound of his church bells pealing for no reason that he could account for. The parson jumped out of bed, threw a dressing gown over his nightshirt, put on his slippers, and rushed across to the church with a storm lantern - only to find it still securely locked. Then, letting himself in, he peered about with his lantern and saw to his horror that the bell ropes were dancing up and down on their own accord as the bells clanged and clashed in the tower overhead. No-one could be up in the belfry for fear of being deafened and driven mad by the noise, so the rector hurried out again to fetch his curate, and the pair of them fell on their knees before the altar to ask the reason for this apparently divine manifestation. But no reply was vouchsafed, and for an hour or so the ropes continued to dance mockingly in the nave while the bells thundered from the belfry. Then the ringing stopped as mysteriously as it had started, and the rector and his curate remained in a state of spiritual perplexity until the next morning, when wires were seen trailing from the louvres of the bell-chamber to the top of a haystack in the rector's own meadow.

Whereas Fanny could tell me tales of that kind by the hour, her husband Richard had none. Nevertheless, after being the terror and dread of his children, he had become in his late sixties an affectionate and lovable grandparent. It was senility and the constriction of the arteries that had, according to my mother wrought this desirable change. The cold intimidating blue eyes had faded and become prone to soften with tears. His hair was now white and thin, and he walked - stooping a little - with a stick. He had become a little neglectful of his appearance, and there was usually white stubble on his jaws. Beneath his rough tweed jacket and woollen cardigan he wore a flannel shirt with a brass stud at the neck, but no collar and tie. They hung over a hook in the living room wall ready to be put on if visitors were expected, or if he had to go down to the village.

On such occasions, Richard first shaved - at whatever hour of the day the need arose - and his shaving was a public ritual, like the levee of a monarch, conducted in front of the living room fire. He took his cut-throat razor from a drawer in the dresser and gave it a few expert sweeps over the hard leather strop that hung from another convenient hook. While he was doing this, his wife filled a white china shaving mug, prettily decorated with rose buds, from the side boiler. In the top of the mug was a small perforated dish to hold a pat of shaving soap, and in the side of it was a wide spout through which the badger bristles of the shaving brush could be dipped into the hot water. The spout also served as a rest for the brush when, having lathered his beard, Richard put the mug down on the hob to keep the water warm while he peered into the large rectangular mirror above the chimney-piece and scraped the razor over his cheeks and throat. As the blade accumulated a froth of soap and hairs it was wiped clean on small square sheets of newspaper piled ready to hand, which were thrown onto the fire one by one after they had served their purpose. Centuries had passed in the evolution of Richard's shaving - in shaping his razor and its safety case, in moulding the facilities of his shaving mug, in settling the optimum dimensions of his strop with its handle at one end and eyelet at the other - and it was curiously satisfactory to watch him, with a lifetime of experience, manipulating those artefacts of civilisation to make himself, with the addition of collar and tie, ready to meet its social requirements.

Even when made presentable for society, Richard wore heavy black boots over rough woollen socks held up by suspenders. His thick corduroy trousers were sustained by braces with leather tags to go over the buttons, and out of doors he wore a cloth hat with a jay's feather stuck in the ribbon - a trophy derived from one of his few successes with a shotgun. Shooting was his recreation, and he kept a twelve-bore lying across a couple of bacon hooks let into the ceiling of his bedroom. With this gun he narrowly missed his wife, as many other living creatures, while she sat knitting in her windsor chair before the living room fire. Having forgotten to unload the gun before hanging it up - a sin for which his sons had formerly been soundly beaten - Richard was cleaning it a few days later in the living room, and while rubbing the stock with linseed oil he caught one of the triggers and discharged a shot into the ceiling above grandmother's head. The smallness of the square of paper covering the repair was thereafter a frightening reminder of how narrow and lethal is the spread of a shotgun at close range. Richard was horrified at his own carelessness, and he told my father that at the time of the incident domestic relations were still strained on account of the infamous land girl, Miss Millar. If the shot had entered his wife's chest instead of the ceiling he might have been tried at Lincoln Assizes, found guilty, and hung in Nottingham jail for her murder.

Now and again Richard was asked by Edward Neville of the Manor House to shoot pheasants and partridges with the local gentry, and sundry lawyers, land agents, and others of the aspiring bourgeoisie. The invitations were infrequent because Richard could not now contribute many acres to the intended slaughter, so before they set out from the Manor House, Edward Neville would press Richard Mason to a drink in these terms: "You won't have a glass of whisky, Mason, will you?"

Apart from these convivial occasions it was rough shooting only for Richard, and he used to take his airedale, his gun, and sometimes me, into his field behind the bungalow to look for rabbits. Of course, if game were put up, in or out of season, he would have a go, but he usually missed. One day, when I was about ten, we had found nothing sentient to terrify, so he handed over the gun threw up his hat, and told me to fire at it. Quite by chance the hat came down riddled with holes, and he was so delighted that he never discarded it, but continued to wear it, like an inverted colander, to impress his friends with his grandson's marksmanship.

Whatever Richard may have been to his children, he was during his last few years on earth a loving and indulgent grandfather to me. I brought him my broken tin-plate toys, and with his old metal working skills he soldered them together again. He made iron runners for my home-made wooden sledge, but of all his grandfatherly services the kindest was to commend me to his friend Mr Page, the signalman, so that I could thereafter climb the steep timber staircase to the signalbox and be assured of a welcome. I spent hours up there, sharing with Mr Page his clear view of the tracks running up towards Harby, and down through a gap in the trees towards Pyewype Junction, where our Tuxford-bound trains diverged from the Doncaster ones. In front of us black goods locomotives clanked past with a shriek of whistles, trailing smoke and steam, and rattling a long line of wagons over the points for the Skellingthorpe sidings - leaving a final whiff of smoke from the chimney of the guardsvan, where the guard was heating his dinner on his own little stove. The passenger trains, with light green engines and brown coaches, always stopped in the station, and Mr Page could slide back a panel in his front window and walk out on to a narrow balcony to exchange pleasantries with the driver and his fireman while they waited for Mr Timpson, the stationmaster, to consult his watch, blow his whistle, wave his flag, and send them on their way again.

Inside the signalbox ran a line of steel levers, almost the height of a man's chest, and painted red, blue, or white to identify their function. Attached to their lower ends, beneath the floor, were steel rods to operate the points, and stout wires to pull down the signals. The rods and wires ran out from the foot of the signalbox, with cranks and pivots where they had to change direction, to destinations sometimes more than a mile away. The wires were kept taut by heavy counterweights which held the signals horizontal unless Mr Page pulled one of them down from his box. So a broken wire could not, by dropping a signal, authorise a train to pass. Only Mr Page could do that, and while all his levers were laid back and dressed like guardsmen in an even rank, nothing could go wrong - no engine driver would enter the sector between Pyewype and Harby, and all the points were set straight ahead for a runaway train. If a lever were forward it had broken ranks and stood out as an insistent reminder that it must be put back. A point or signal, however distant, was calling out in the cabin to be returned to its safe position. Railway engineering was primitive, heavy, superbly safe and efficient, and very costly. Everything was designed to be adjusted, and everything needed to be adjusted - such as the tension in the signal wires, or the stress in the rods that threw over the points. And the greatest fascination of the technology was its transparency. The machinery was generous to a beholder. It could all be seen in action, whether in the cabin or out beside the rails, where a ripple in a wire and the rotation of a pulley wheel told that Mr Page had lowered a distant signal near the Pyewype Junction.

Although I was never allowed even to touch the signal levers, or to pull over the points, the crossing gates were less sacrosanct and Mr Page would allow me to wind them open and shut on his command. In the signalbox was a wheel of about three feet in diameter set in a vertical plane, with a wooden handle projecting horizontally from the rim, and the axle of the wheel ran into a system of gears that reduced a rapid rotation of the wheel to a slow and hesitant movement of the gates. Before I began to wind, Mr Page looked up and down the road to see that it was clear and then he pulled over a white lever to release the stops. The low gearing made my work as easy as turning a mangle or a turnip chopper. The gates swung, shuddering slightly, slowly across the road until they clicked into place behind another set of stops, and it was I who had, with authority derived from Parliament itself, halted even the doctor's car, or made a pedestrian perhaps four times my own age hurry through the little side gates with glances of apprehension up and down the line. After a train-load of coal from Bolsover, or a string of box cars smelling of fish from Grimsby, had rattled through with a grateful whistle, Mr Page pulled another of his levers to free the stops and I graciously wound my wheel in the opposite direction to allow the waiting traffic to proceed again.

The signalbox had a tall chimney and a coal fire to keep Mr Page warm in winter, with a hob for boiling a kettle to make tea, and a little oven to heat his dinner. When the traffic was slack, and all the levers were rearward and the crossing gates were open to the road, we could sit beside the fire, sipping our tea and watching a set of white dials mounted on the rear wall. They had red pointers that chattered and swung about to indicate activity in neighbouring sectors, and it was they - reinforced by the clamour of a peremptory bell - that told us when a train was approaching our bailliwick. The telephone screwed to the wall, with the earpiece hanging from a hook, was only for occasional use when information more detailed than the dials could supply had to be exchanged between Mr Page and his colleagues up and down the line.

For me the Lancashire, Yorkshire, and East Coast Railway had only one signalman in Skellingthorpe, and sometime when I approached the signalbox I would look up into the cabin and see a strange face - and go sadly away again. The one I always hoped to see was long and lugubrious with large teeth and topped with greying hair. Mr Page was tall and thin and he moved and spoke slowly with the assurance of a man deeply conscious of his responsibilities and confident of his value to society. He was an archetypal railwayman of his day, with a dignity in his calling that would defer only to Mr Timpson, the stationmaster. The railway had become part of the Skellingthorpe establishment, and had done it from nothing, as quickly as the Bergne-Couplands at the Hall had done it from brewing. Mr Page would no more have absented himself on strike from his public duty than they would from indolence have failed to present themselves in Skellingthorpe church for mattins on a Sunday morning. That being so, the signalbox had no charms for me on the Sabbath. I went to church to pay homage to the squire's daughter.

Nancy Bergne-Coupland was of my age, but more slender than I , and her face was more aquiline. Her straight yellow hair fell over the velvet collar of her covert coat from below a round felt hat, and fawn woollen stockings covered her spindly legs. She walked on long slender feet in brown leather shoes with a high-heeled gait, springing from the toes in a lilting hare-like way. Little Miss Bergne-Coupland had the expensively dressed and excessively well washed aura of upper class children, and she spoke clearly and modishly with the self-confidence that is fearless of being overheard. The discreet but insistent fragrance of assured money enveloped her and distinguished her from all other female children of my acquaintance. Connie Eastment was prettier by far, and Pam Gibbon's father may have been richer than Mr Coupland, but Nancy had the air of being set apart. Today she would have worn a brace, but in the nineteen twenties the state of dental science allowed the upper teeth even of the gentry to project over the lower ones unchecked, and this only confirmed my belief that the most gentle in the land tended to be weak chinned and over-shot, whereas the vulgar masses had heavy jowls, like boxers. Miss Bergne-Coupland's dental configuration earned her in the village the name of "Tusky Coupland", and even I spoke disloyally of my love as "Tusky" - but only to pretend an indifference to the fates of inheritance that would forever exclude me from her affection.

In referring to the Bergne-Couplands, my grandparents usually dropped the "Bergne" that had been assumed by a recent generation as it emerged from trade. It was "Mrs Coupland" who called, patronisingly, on grandmother. The hyphen needed more time to establish itself in a village which mercilessly refused to accept its self-appointed squire at his own valuation. Skellingthorpe knew, like the editors of Burke's "Landed Gentry", that the Bergne-Couplands were not in that category - just as the Nevilles at the Manor unquestionably were. But so far as I was concerned, Tusky lived in Skellingthorpe Hall, she had a governess, her vowel sounds were as pure as Lady Liverpool's, and when she rode through the village escorted by a groom she could not have looked a more genuine sprig of gentility if her forebears had lived in idleness for two centuries instead of two generations - and I worshipped her as devoutly as a royalist his queen.

A heated imagination may have invested Nancy's home - described by Pevsner as "a Greekly august house of c. 1830, one of the best of the small villas" - with a grandeur that it did not possess. But what was a small villa to the great Pevsner could fairly be regarded as rather larger than that by a love-sick boy coming from a truly small one in Hykeham Road. Skellingthorpe Hall remains obstinately impressive - and all the more so because my love was fruitless, and the course of it as thin and insubstantial as a half-remembered dream.

I was noticed to the extent that our eyes met from time to time as Nancy rode past me in the village, or as she walked behind her parents down the nave after divine service. My mother was firmly persuaded that I was favoured - being unable to believe that anyone could be indifferent to her sons' attractions. It was, she maintained, clearly out of partiality that, at a gymkhana in the grounds of the Hall, Tusky Coupland repeatedly chose to rein in her horse between events close to where I stood waiting to applaud her prowess over the jumps. Be that as it may, it was only on one occasion that I ever talked to the squire's daughter - and for that I was indebted to the indiscipline of her governess.

Miss Moore was young and very pretty and she had, it seems, a stronger sense of mischief than of duty to her employers. It was her practice to take Nancy for walks on sunday afternoons, so I was often hovering about somewhere on their route in the hope of seeing them. On one occasion, before I could even raise my cap and bid them good afternoon the governess, to my astonishment, invited me to accompany them on their way towards Stone's Place. And off we went, leaving the road by the gamekeeper's cottage to wander for a while in the gloom of a pine wood. The three of us searched beneath the trees for the largest pine cones,and watched red squirrels leaping from branch to branch. Miss Moore gaily opened subjects of conversation, Nancy was friendly and co-operative, and we all chatted together as happily as if I had been a young Neville. For an hour it seemed that Nancy and I could be friends for ever, but I was disabused when we parted at the gates of the Hall. The governess gave me a quick wry smile and an almost imperceptible shake of the head which said as clearly as if the words were spoken: "There my boy, you've had your taste of honey - and it will be the last!"

Whatever game it was that Miss Moore had played with me - whether out of curiosity, or in brief rebellion against her lot as a governess - the game was over. I never spoke to Nancy Bergne-Coupland again, and the last time I saw her was in 1942 when I was in the army and stationed near Lincoln. One evening I was sitting with some friends in the lounge of the White Hart Hotel near the cathedral, and Tusky walked in. Our eyes met and for a moment she wondered whether she knew me. Then, deciding that she did not, she disappeared with her tweeded companion into the dining room, and out of the remainder of my life. What happened to her I have not enquired, because I do not wish to know. Nancy Bergne-Coupland is still for me the girl with whom I wandered in the pine woods near Skellingthorpe. To seek out old loves is only to witness - and to demonstrate - the appalling ravages of time.



The move in 1921 from Portland House to the Poplars had taken my father a few yards away from the care of old Mrs Robinson and obliged my mother to give up her job at the Open Air School so that she, instead of his mother, could tend properly to his needs. No longer earning and unable to afford a maid my mother had, for the first time in her life, to get down to some housework, which she regarded as beneath her - having been brought up in a farmhouse where a maid was kept as a matter of course. And not only was the housework and cooking to be done, but the gardening as well. My father's "poor wounded thigh" had to be spared from digging. Even the labour of feeding the chickens, which he kept in large numbers, as his first desultory and abortive enterprise for making money, was too much for him. But what irked my mother most was the constant interference from Portland House. Her mother-in-law Annie used to weep if May bought anything from a shop other than the Co-operative Stores. The co-op dividend, a percentage paid on every purchase, was Annie's consuming passion. As a staunch Conservative, she was less than consistent in being so devoted to a system expressly designed to reduce the scope for retail capitalism, but Annie was utterly seduced by the thought of every purchase at the Co-operative Stores swelling her monthly dividend - which then went straight into the bank.

"Money in the bank" was Annie's god - and not so false a god for one who as a child had experienced the lack of it. Therefore the entire Robinson family was required to shop exclusively at the Co-operative Stores for furnishings and clothes as well as groceries, and thereby to accumulate dividends for a rainy day. May would have none of that. If old Mrs Robinson was so keen on saving, she should spend less on food. The Portland House table was the very negation of thrift. The offence was, in fact, worse than that. Prodigality on food was coupled with penny-pinching on domestic help, which could have provided leisure for higher things than housework. May suffered from indigestion, and was all for a spartan diet and less low-grade labour. On the other hand, her husband's stomach never troubled him in the least, and he was far from content with economical meals like those of the Masons, who even in the hey-day of their farming ate boiled bacon and boiled potatoes brought to the table by a maid in a cap and apron. It was the absence of a maid that upset my mother, and the plainness of the fare that displeased my father. He regarded his wife as a mean and incompetent manager, and went back home for meals to Portland House. He also joined his parents there in the evenings to play bridge - unless he was out with his father at Ruston's Bridge Club. When Arthur was occasionally prepared to be with his wife, he took her to the pictures, and this only added disgust to May's loneliness. The college education she had so highly prized had not been intended for life at this level, where the only relief from being alone, or from talking to her depressing mother-in-law, was to watch rubbish on the cinema screen.

After they had completed the decoration and furnishing of their matrimonial home, Arthur and May turned out to have only one interest in common. It was travel, and whenever they could afford it - and sometimes when they could not - they went on long bicycle tours during the lengthy holidays my father enjoyed as a teacher. One year they took their machines on the train to Liverpool, where before pedalling on to Anglesey and Snowdon, they "gloried" - as May said - in the Walker Art Gallery. On another tour they went by train to Wisbech with their bicycles, and explored the Norfolk Broads. May found Arthur an ideal sightseer and holiday companion - "he shed his cap, and we travelled light and free." Otherwise, they were largely unsuited. He was an excellent bridge player, whereas she had no feel for the game at all. She was incompetent at tennis, swinging a light-weight racquet as if her forearm were made of indiarubber, whilst he wielded a sixteen ounce one in the first team of the Swallowbeck Tennis Club, and found tennis much less distressing for his wounded thigh than heavy gardening.

One night when Arthur came in from the Ruston's Bridge Club at his usual time of an hour before midnight, May told him that life at the Poplars had become intolerable. She would rather leave him, live single, and support herself by teaching. This protest had small effect on my father, who believed that troubles would pass if left to themselves - but it had a considerable one on me, because I happened to be lying awake that night and overheard the exchange. The loss of my father would have been a minor disaster, but losing my mother a catastrophe. Thereafter I lived in terror that she would leave home - never thinking that I might be taken with her - and every subsequent upset between my parents seemed to threaten her departure. Quarrels were frequent. Also, adultery crises occurred from time to time, but fortunately, quarrels on this account were kept from my infant ears, and I only learned of my father's errant ways when as a young man I was brought into the greatest and final adultery crisis that broke the marriage. Arthur's affairs were deadly serious and May was always told that he was deeply in love. If he didn't tell her himself, his inamorata always would. Then finally it invariably fell to May to extricate her husband from the entanglement of which he had grown weary. Hearing how my mother had been dragged into all my father's affairs, I decided that I would at least have the kindness to be discreet, if denied the grace to be faithful.

In the event, my mother did not leave the Poplars, but set about salvaging her life by finding interests outside her marriage. Religion became one of them, and with her usual enthusiasm for everything she undertook, she went dutifully to Bracebridge church for eight o'clock communion every Sunday, and took me with her to mattins at eleven. We patronised mattins rather than evensong on account of its higher social standing. The upper classes never went to evensong. It ended too late for them to dress in time for dinner. Evensong was for those who dined at lunchtime and sat down to high tea at five. I was taken so often to mattins in Bracebridge church that forty years later, when I returned to it for my godson's christening, I found that I knew all the stained glass windows as if I had last seen them the day before. The most fascinating illustrated the story of Mary and Martha. The former sat, her face suffused with a smug spirituality, drinking in the Master's words, and much too preoccupied with higher things to lift a finger to help Martha who was busying herself with the provision of the Master's food, and "cumbered about much serving". Yet on reading the story in St Luke's gospel, I discovered that far from Mary being rebuked for her idleness, it was Martha who was chided for complaining of her sister's holy lethargy. Even as a child, that struck me as one of the most absurdly impractical of all the Saviour's judgements.

My mother taught in the Sunday school, and the more she came to know the fifty-year old vicar of Bracebridge, the more she grew to love him. Ernest Stafford-Smith was cut of the cloth that gave Church of England parsons a social prestige that was only extinguished when the value of clerical stipends was so eroded by inflation that young men of his kind no longer went into holy orders. He was born in Bath to parents in comfortable circumstances, and entered St Catherine's College Cambridge with a scholarship in classics. In 1902 a family connection with the Smith Ellison Bank of Lincoln secured him the presentation to the living of All Saints Bracebridge where he succeeded the patron Christopher Ellison, who had been both squire and parson. In the same year the new incumbent married the daughter of a colonel of the Honourable Artillery Company of London, and settled into the best levels of Lincoln society, while pursuing the scholarly ministry that was, twenty years later, so to impress my impressionable mother. The study in his large vicarage was lined with leather-bound books, and his sermons were embellished with fragments of latin from the Early Fathers. Ernest Stafford-Smith was not only learned, but handsome - thin, fine-boned, and elegantly long in countenance, fingers and feet. His affability bore the hall-mark of a superior upbringing. It had the marvellously relaxed quality of flowing without a ripple of awkwardness or hesitation, like a quiet stream, over every social encounter. Above all, his sentiments were as lofty and noble as my mother could have wished. She adored him with a chaste affection, and he accepted her tribute confident that this young unhappily married matron would never overstep the mark into the least impropriety or other cause for embarrassment.

Friendship with the Reverend Mr Stafford-Smith was a refreshing spring in the spiritual desert of life amongst the Robinsons, but it offered no outlet for frustrated ambition. My mother had to seek that in politics and local government. She became an active Liberal, like her father, and was soon representing the Lincoln Liberal Women's Association at the annual party conferences in London. Her intention was to become a city councillor in the Liberal interest, but it was first essential to become known to the Bracebridge electorate. So she stood for the Board of the Guardians, set up under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 to administer workhouses and to grand out-relief. After canvassing Bracebridge assiduously she was successful in the poll, and she joined her father on the Lincoln board where he was one of the Kesteven County Council representatives, having been an overseer of the poor in Skellingthorpe for many years.

Conditions in the workhouse, and the meagre allowances given to those fortunate enough to be permitted to live at home on out-relief, made May Robinson's heart overflow with indignation. With her fluent pen she wrote impassioned articles for the Lincolnshire Chronicle denouncing the sufferings of the poor, and her speeches on their behalf in the boardroom of the Lincoln workhouse were widely reported in the local press. Her eloquence could move her sentimental old father to tears, but never shift him from voting with the Tory landowners whose main interest in being guardians of the poor was to keep down the rates. The landowners and their allies were so successful in that endeavour that one Tuesday morning when the guardians were in session, large numbers of those on out-relief gathered in the gardens outside the workhouse to protest against their wretched allowances. Poverty for them was not the absence of carpets, beds, baths, running water, childrens' shoes, and other amenities of life. It was an actual shortage of food. Hunger put a sharp edge on the demonstration - although it was not quite so spontaneous as it appeared, having been organised by Labour members of the board. But the anger of the crowd was real enough, and Richard Mason would have to face it when he left the meeting. That could have been dangerous for an old man with a weak heart, so the relieving officer suggested that he should take advantage of his daughter's popularity and walk through the demonstrators on her arm. This he did, and in their enthusiasm for her articles and eloquence on their behalf, the cheering crowd opened a way for May to pass through, quite forgetting their hatred for the old invalid at her side.

Even so, May Robinson's popularity with the poor of Bracebridge and the publicity given to her compassion by the local newspapers were not enough to win her a seat on the Lincoln City Council. In an industrial town gripped by the economic crises of the nineteen-twenties, political differences had already polarised. There was no room for manoeuvre between the up-hill Georgian closes, and the down-hill terraces.. The opposing forces were entrenched as Conservatives representing the prosperous, and as Labour representing the poor. Liberals like May could only wander about in no-man's land, hopelessly exposed to fire from both sides. In so far as the Liberals clung to the old Whig doctrines of self-reliance and private endeavour, the Tory voice was louder. Liberal concern for those unable to help themselves was more stridently expressed from within the angry ranks of Labour. May had nothing to say that was not being shouted from one extremity or other of the political divide, and her quiet voice of compromise and moderation was unheard.

She also embraced another hopeless cause. The idea of salvation by collective security from a repetition of the slaughter of the Great War had for May Robionson a pious irrationality as appealing as the Christian religion itself. She therefore joined the League of Nations Union, an organisation set up in Britain to promote the aims of the League of Nations in Geneva. Her fellow workers tended to be the middle-class intellectuals of Lincoln, and May loved to associate with them because it gave her access to Minster Yard, and even took her past the footmen in the Bishop's Palace. Collective security through the agency of the League of Nations depended upon each member of the League being willing to act upon a majority vote that it should - irrespective of its own immediate interests - spend money and its nationals' lives to preserve from change by aggression whatever happened to be the current national boundary of a fellow member. As might have been expected, sovereign states were no more disposed to do that when the crunch came than Britain was later prepared to go to war against Germany over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Collective security proved to be an ignis fatuus, and May's efforts on behalf of the League of Nations Union turned out to be as unsuccessful as her efforts to revive the political fortunes of the Liberal Party. Idealistic and incurably optimistic about the nature of man, she pursued her worthy but hopeless objectives in a world which tended to be governed, if not by actual monsters like Stalin, by necessarily cynical opportunists like Stanley Baldwin.

Amongst all these public activities, my mother found plenty of time to look after me. She was an admirable parent and a particularly interesting teller of bed-time stories. Every night by seven o'clock I was undressed and washed, and ready to kneel by my bed to say my prayers. They were extremely simple: "God bless Mummy and Daddy. God bless Skellingthorpe Grandma and God bless Hykeham Grandma." Other relatives who occurred to me, with or without prompting, were then inserted before I came to my black and white tom-cat, and my entirely black retriever: "God bless Diddery, and God bless Nigger." The final plea to the Almighty was always: "And please God, make me a good boy." Such was the excellent night practice, inculcating a concern for one's family and livestock, and an awareness of the need for self-improvement. Then I climbed into bed, pulled the clothes up round my neck, and waited for the story. My mother never read to me at bedtime. She told her own stories, and they invariably featured a small group of set characters who lived in the Skellingthorpe woods. The Stealthy Fox was the villain, and Billy Bunny was the hero, with a supporting cast of Teazle the Squirrel, the Grey Badger, the Wise Owl, and a few own dramatis personae of minor consequence.

My mother knew exactly what a child wants to hear - a perpetual serial with the same well known characters night after night, and the same familiar background to their adventures. Each episode had its own not very desperate crisis and its own resolution, so that I could turn over to sleep secure in the knowledge that in spite of all the dangers of the world the Stealthy Fox had not triumphed, nor had any other serious ills befallen my friends in the woods - and assured that tomorrow's instalment would bring new and quite unpredictable fears and excitements. I inherited my mother's ability to hold children fascinated by bed-time stories, and I used the same technique of a perpetual serial built around the adventures of a local character like my William Owl who lived in a neighbouring woodland - or even around the nocturnal exploits of our own domestic cat. The tone had to be intimate and for their ears only, as if I had heard the tale in confidence from William Owl or the cat himself. Then their little eyes would open wide with curiosity, and even wider with apprehension, until their eyelids dropped shut with content as the story subsided to a satisfactory close. On no account must children be disappointed in that. We are all unable to bear much reality, and there is no place in fiction for the unsatisfactory endings of every-day life. Even so-called tragedies must leave us uplifted by illusion of one kind or another - the downfall of wickedness, the nobility of suffering, or the comfort of magnificent words.

Apart from the bedtime stories she composed herself, my mother filled my ears by day with the invention of others - Kipling, Lewis Carroll, and above all Lord Tennyson, her great love. Amongst the syringas, lilacs, and tall dense clumps of golden rod in the back garden of the Poplars, selected scenes from the Idylls of the King were re-enacted. The loves of Lancelot and King Arthur's queen did not feature, but as Sir Galahad, wooden sword in hand, I regularly rescued my co-operative mother from distress and durance. Thanks also the bard of Lincolnshire, the Charge of the Light Brigade thundered through my imagination, and so did the exploits of Sir Richard Grenville on the Spanish Main:

"Sink me the ship, master gunner!
Sink her, and split her in twain!"

Tennyson made my glimpses of the Lady of Shalott, as if in her own mirror, almost as real for me as those I stole furtively of the wife of our next-door neighbour Mr Hickforth, who was a minor civil servant in the offices of the Collector of Taxes. My father called him "Titty Hickforth" on account of his pedantic manner and air of abstraction - whereas my mother, ever inclined to make the most of anyone, believed him to be a scholar. His wife also gave the impression of not knowing quite what was going on around her, and I took advantage of it from the shelter of our useful boscage to observe regularly through her bedroom window Mrs Hickforth's rather heedless and inattentive robings and disrobings. When ultimately detected in this practice by her indignant husband, my protestations of innocence were for once actually believed, and I escaped the thrashing that was properly due. My father could not conceive that anyone, no matter how young, would trouble himself to spy upon the wife of a tax collector.

Unlike my mother, father took little interest of any kind in my upbringing, and in that he followed the general paternal practices on Hykeham Road. My cousin Douglas, and our companions from near-by villas, all had equally indifferent fathers. When I went round to ask whether a friend could come out to play, he might be confined to his home by domestic duties, but he never seemed to be unavailable because his father had taken him for a walk by the gravel pits or to the pictures in Lincoln. Nor was his father teaching him to swim or fish in the Witham, or to play cricket in Vanplugh's meadow. My friends and I taught ourselves to fish and to play cricket with what rudimentary equipment we could make at home. Swimming we picked up by trial and error, and we took ourselves off on our own long walks. Fathers were men who insisted from time to time that we should scrape the dropping boards in the chicken houses, or weed the potatoes, or cut the grass, or climb the fruit trees to pick apples. In return they provided us with food, clothes, lodging, and a penny or two pocket money a week. Occasionally they thrashed us with sticks for misdemeanours, but otherwise they hardly impinged upon our lives at all. In their view, boys could find their own entertainment - as indeed we did.

My childhood was largely spent, when not at school or in bed, roaming the countryside around my home. In retrospect, my cousin Douglas and I seem to have lived out of doors, and in fine weather - but that must be one of the illusions embedded in an old memory. Nevertheless, we certainly spent so much of our lives in the fields that we knew every twist and turn of the Witham as it meandered between Bracebridge and North Hykeham - where it was shallow enough for bathing before we had taught ourselves to swim, and where the slow current had scoured the river dangerously deep on the inside of the bends. We thought we knew where to fish, although only unwary gudgeon fell to our wriggling worms and balls of bread paste. It was the adult anglers who caught the roach and perch, sitting hunched in all weathers over their supple rods, watching their buoy-like floats so round and plump that it needed a very fine fish indeed to drag them down. Our pocket money stretched only to thin quill floats, painted red at the end which stuck out of the water - an end which all too seldom dived into the green stream as some gudgeon committed its last and fatal mistake. We watched men trailing bright metal spinners through the water hoping to deceive a sharp -toothed pike, but never saw one caught. We credited pike with extraordinary dimensions and power, and firmly believed that men who fished for them from boats in the Bootham gravel pits were towed like whalers at frightening speeds when their hooks were taken.

Swans, which regularly patrolled the Witham, were also legendary. In defence of their nests they could overturn boats, break limbs with a blow of a wing, or peck out eyes with their long thrusting beaks. We gave them a wide berth, and left them to be assaulted by older boys with access to supplies of steel ball-bearings, and the strength to sling them from powerful catapults. It was well known that swans belonged to the king and were protected by law, but that did little to save them from the ball-bearings. Pheasants and partridges too were well bombarded in spite of the law, although game was comparatively rare in the bourgeois countryside around Hykeham. Only once did we stumble upon a grassy nest full of light brown partridge eggs to be pricked fore and aft with a thorn from a hedge, and blown into light empty shells for storage in cardboard boxes lined with cotton wool.

If there was then a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, soliciting parliament for legislations against birds' nesting, we were happily unaware of it. Any bird unwise enough to build a nest that we could see and reach suffered the consequences of its folly if our collections were not already replete with eggs of that species. Thrushes, blackbirds, and hedge-sparrows were easy victims. Larks, wrens, robins, blue-tits, yellowhammers, chit-chats, and finches of all kinds were more skilful at hiding their nests, and it was a triumph to discover them. Rooks, pigeons and jackdaws built higher than we could climb, swallows and martins under inaccessible roofs, moorhens out of reach in the rushes, woodpeckers and sandpipers in holes too small or deep to admit a marauding hand, and where owls raised their young we never discovered. Our collections were modestly restricted to the eggs of Lincolnshire birds of the most prolific and least careful creations - and the most beautiful of them all was the little sky-blue product of the common sparrow.

We also caught butterflies, which abounded in our parents' gardens - the common white that preyed on cabbages, the small blue and the large fritillaries, brimstones, and the more stately peacocks, red admirals, and painted ladies. They were stalked with little cotton nets on the end of bamboo sticks, which also served for scooping minnows and sticklebacks out of the streams. Butterflies were killed in a jam-jar with a paper lid and a pad of cotton wool in the bottom soaked with household ammonia. Then the victims were transfixed with pins, wings outstretched, on sheets of white cardboard. Our collections of eggs and butterflies, once made, were then neglected - just as our interest in frogs-spawn faded long before the tadpoles lived to breathe the air as frogs. We were not budding naturalists, but small male hunters. If we had been Nevilles or Bergne-Couplands, we would have chased foxes with packs of hounds, and their cubs with terriers, and learnt to cast flies for trout and salmon. In adolescence we would have shot half-tame birds driven, with the blessing of the Royal Society for their protection, into the mouths of our shotguns. As it was, we played our predatory human role within the limits of our resources in fields, streams, and hedgerows made resplendent by the indifferent generosity of nature, and gorgeously enamelled with unsprayed plant life. Great yellow king-cups choked the ditches; warm brown bullrushes thrust their tall swollen fingers out of the reeds; poppies, cornflowers, and thistles dyed the cornfields with drifts of red, blue, and purple. In the meadows cows grazed ankle deep in daisies and buttercups.

My father began to play a rather greater part in my life after he bought a motor car in 1924 and we started to travel about in it as a family. In fact, his father Harry and he bought the vehicle jointly - a ten horse power Citroen open tourer - from doctor Sharpe of Swallowbeck. Part of the bargain was that the doctor's chauffeur would not only come round periodically to maintain it, but would in the first place teach the new owners how to drive it. Arthur quickly learned but his father never mastered the art. He lurched from one side of the road to the other, jumped the clutch, crashed the gears, and rounded sharp bends in top with the transmission shuddering in agony. There was no driving test, no need to display "L" plates, no need to be accompanied by an experienced driver. Harry could have driven that car anywhere, but he wisely capitulated and left the job to his son. As for my mother, there was no question of her learning to drive. Wives, with a few strong minded exceptions, were regarded as nature's passengers.

The Citroen was extremely elegant, with a pale blue four-door body, long sweeping pointed front mudguards, and a rounded stainless steel radiator with a filler cap and below it a little blue plaque with a pair of chevrons. There were running boards along each side of the car, leather seats, and a folding canvas hood that was a devil to put up. Starting was by winding handle, and we cruised at a steady twenty-five miles an hour through empty Lincolnshire lanes. There was a notice on the dashboard saying: "Do not exceed thirty-five miles an hour". Never have I since known such relaxed and delightful motoring, allowing us all the time we needed to look at the countryside, and with horses and carts almost the only other traffic on the roads. Hills were always an adventure, because we could never be certain that the engine, even in first gear, would pull us to the top - or that the brakes would hold us on the corners as we speeded, willy nilly, going down.

Since Harry proved to be unable to drive the Citroen it became, in effect, my father's car and he later bought his partner out. Father did not use the car to drive himself to and from St Andrew's Senior School., where he now taught. He continued to use a bicycle. A fortiori, I was not driven to and from school - I continued to walk or to use the tram. For most of the time the Citroen was locked up in a dilapidated stable at Gregg Hall, a farmhouse about a quarter of a mile from our house. Gregg Hall had lost its land to ribbon developments along the Hykeham and Newark roads, so the old stone farmhouse and outbuildings lay stranded between two promontories of housing like a whale gasping for its ocean. When the motor car was taken out of its stable, it was usually to visit relatives, and the most favoured amongst them was my mother's sister Kitty and her newly acquired husband Alec Morris.

Of all her seven siblings, my mother most loved her sister Kitty, notwithstanding that it was from her she suffered the most painful thrusts on account of the relative social status of their spouses. My father, however, was no more fond of his sister-in-law than she of him, but he tolerated her with the easy indifference that so blunted for him the sharp edges of human relations. On the other hand, he liked her husband with whom he shared a robust love of women and a brave background of recent battle. Alec Morris's religion may have been as deeply engrained as he made out in his autobiography - but to all appearances he was a warm, pipe-smoking, full-blooded man of the world. Father and he were too fond of women to have enough male cameraderie to enjoy club or pub society - but both were friendly and companionable. They addressed each other in affectionate fraternity-in-law as "brother", and my mother had no difficulty in persuading father to take us off in the Citroen to stay with Kitty and Alec. So most of my holidays were spent with them.

Alec's path into the Anglican priesthood had been direct and unimpeded once God, with Kitty's help, had persuaded him to take it. By 1922 he was approaching the end of his year at the Bishop's Hostel in Lincoln, where the regime was austere, devotional, and monk-like. The students lived in a graceless red brick building at the top of the Steep Hill, and their day began at eight o'clock with mattins and holy communion in the college chapel. By nine-thirty they were in chapel again for "meditation", followed by lectures at ten. Chapel intervened once more in the form of sext at twelve forty-five. The afternoon were either given over to study or filled with strenuous games to release the tensions of chastity and high thinking - the young men from the Bishop's Hostel being notorious on the playing fields of Lincolnshire for the savagery of their hockey sticks. The hostel day ended with compline at ten, and after that came a trappist silence until next morning. Of course, things are seldom as bad as they sound, and the Anglican church has an admirable tradition of not carrying things too far. The postulates to its priesthood were not wholly immured in the hostel, but were allowed out into Lincoln as relief from the rigours of theology and worship. Each could find there the relaxations he could afford, but Alec Morris had barely enough money to support himself at the hostel, let alone outside it. He had to content himself with such flirtations over tea and cakes as his status as a theological student, his engagement to Kitty Mason, and his financial resources permitted. Even so, the Lincoln tea shops ran Alec into debt to my generous and understanding father to the extent of a hundred pounds.

In October 1922 a telegram arrived at the Yews which read: "Hymn 254 Verse 5. Last line." Kitty took out her Ancient and Modern and deciphered the message: "Sorrow vanquish'd, labour ended, Jordan past". Alec's course was completed. Three days before Christmas he was ordained a deacon of the Church of England, and five days afterwards Tommy Hamilton married him in Skellingthorpe Church to the thirty-four year old Kitty Mason, who had no intention of allowing a fiancŽ six years younger than she to dally, still single, over high tea with the miners' wives and daughters of Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, where Alec was to embark upon his first curacy.

The Bishop of Southall had found him that post, so it fell to him to ordain Alec in Southwell Minster. My parents went there with Kitty to watch Alec kneel to hear the bishop's Jacobean exhortations and to make his own Jacobean vows. I was too young to attend, and it was not until many years later that I visited the scene of Kitty's ultimate triumph over Alec's original leanings towards Presbyterianism. Southwell is not one of the great historic cathedrals of England. Of Norman origin, it was for centuries a large minster used as a parish church - as Beverley still is - and did not become a bishop's seat, or cathedra, until 1884. The town was well chosen for this dignity, being deeply steeped in English provincial culture. Latin and Greek had been taught in the grammar school since Elizabethan times. A mayor, aldermen and corporation had trooped through the streets in mediaeval robes to church on the great feast days, or to greet the red-robed justices who came to establish one law throughout the land. Old houses have the elegant confidence of the eighteenth century, and give the impression that good books have been read in them. Little Nottinghamshire boys have for generations piped Byrd and Orlando Gibbons from the minster's choir stalls - and the world has not known a more civilised music of devotion. Nevertheless, Southwell was a modest backcloth to what was, for my Uncle Alec, the intense drama of his ordination into the priesthood. However it was a beautiful and romantic one - and it happened that his first matrimonial home in a mining village was part of an old stone manor house almost as ancient as the minster itself.

When Alec took up his curacy in Kirby in Ashfield, Kitty immediately assumed control of their finances on the grounds that Alec's debts must be paid off, and only she could manage their expenditure with sufficient frugality to do it. He was allowed a mere shilling a week pocket money for pipe tobacco and other necessaries, and although he loved a cooked breakfast he was obliged to set out in the morning on his parish duties fortified with nothing more than a shredded wheat. Then he came in for a meagre lunch furnished from the cheapest and least appetising commodities, but there was one thing on which Kitty could not afford to economise - a baby. She was already thirty-five and would soon be too old for motherhood, so by the spring she was pregnant. Mrs Smith, the vicar's lady, might be expected to have known the state of the pregnancy of the wife of her husband's curate, but having allowed the vicar to invite Kitty and Alec to dinner on Christmas Day, she was, on their arrival at the vicarage, obliged to deny them entry because the now grossly pregnant Kitty was "not a fit sight for the children" - a daughter of twenty who was a medical student, and a son of twenty-one who was a bank clerk. So Kitty and Alec trudged back home to an empty larder. The shops were shut, and they would have celebrated their Saviour's nativity with a shredded wheat had not a neighbour happened to notice their plight and taken them in to her own table.

Three days later, on the 28th December 1923, their son Sandy was born. Kitty had so long and difficult a delivery that the doctors despaired of her life, and after her unexpected recovery they advised against her having another child. This medical opinion was interpreted by Kitty as a total ban on sexual activity because contraception was uncertain. Also, her experience of childbirth had only confirmed the distaste for sexual intercourse she had acquired as a child on her father's farm when a labourer had assaulted her. Therefore Alec was put under a most unreas_onable restraint, and being blessed with the ordinary inclinations of mankind, it had thenceforth to be released with the cooperation of members of his flock in various parts of England and Africa. In this extra-marital way Alec fared very well, being attractive to women, and at least two of his lover-parishioners were, to my own knowledge, extremely desirable. Indeed, my father on a visit many years later to Alec's large stone smoke-grimed vicarage near Bradford was moved to share one of them. For the Reverend Alexander Morris, adultery was a great risk well handled, and he managed his affairs with charm and discretion over a great many years without any of his ladies, or anyone else, ever seeking to have him unfrocked by the bishop for scandalous conduct. Sometime, of course, it was with the assistance of his wife who, while accepting the general need, stepped in now and then to nip in the bud a particular association that might otherwise have got out of hand.

Although her son Sandy had caused her so much suffering - or some would say, because of it - Kitty became a doting mother in so far as the fashionable strict routine of motherhood would then permit. There was no question of demand feeding. Sandy was fed and held out to the stroke of the church clock. Kitty would sit him on her knee, with the warm bottle standing on the table in full view, waiting for the clock to strike. He would be howling for his food with a mouth as wide open as a young bird's, until on the first stroke the teat was plunged in - teaching him from birth to associate the good things of life with the sound of a church bell. Thereafter Sandy plotted an unwavering course into the ministry of the Church of England.

Furthermore, nightly after his punctual bath, Kitty told him a bed-time story. It was a recital of how Sandy did well at public school, splendidly at Cambridge, and how he was ordained, and then a few years later, consecrated. I am not sure how far the See of Canterbury featured in these childish romances, but I do know that Kitty wasted her time on the bed-time stories. Bell and bottle duly drove Sandy into the church, and with every qualification for a future bishopric - except a desire to have one.

I have only vague memories of staying with my aunt and uncle in Kirby-in- Ashfield, but I clearly remember going in the Citroen to East Retford in 1924 after Alec had moved there to become curate to the vicar of St Swithin's. The Reverend Mr Bailey paid Alec Morris two hundred and fifty pounds a year out of his own pocket, being a rich man and patron of two livings - his own and the near-by Gringley-on-the-Hill. Alec's pay was well up to the going rate for curates, so Mr Bailey insisted on his legal right to appropriate the statutory fees for weddings, christenings, and funerals conducted by his assistant priest - thus denying Alec a supplement to his income conceded by many incumbents to their needy curates. For this he was well castigated by Kitty for being "as mean as tea in a tin" - but Retford did not lack others anxious enough to relieve any clerical indigence that was brought to their attention. The poverty of the priesthood was, of course, relative. My grandparents, Harry and Annie Robinson thought themselves to be in comfortable circumstances with two hundred and fifty pounds a year. Nevertheless, week in, week out, baskets of fruit and vegetables were found lying at the door of the curate's cottage, as if for a harvest festival. Kitty had a strange magnetism for attracting gifts. Not that she asked for them - she simply expected them, believing it to be a duty of a flock to provide in this way for its shepherd. No cleric, she thought, need pay his doctor or dentist, and she would make clear the etiquette in such matters if through ignorance or bad manners she happened to be sent a bill. Alec shared this readiness to receive, but combined it with a complimentary willingness to give. He was open-handed in both senses, and so generous that even when they were better off Kitty never allowed him more than a shilling or two pocket money a week. He was too inclined to give whatever happened to be in his pocket to the first tramp who asked for it.

The outstanding benefactor in Retford was a rich old jewish convert James Abraham Hirst who lived with his spinster daughter Mary Angelina in a large Edwardian villa in an acre or so of garden - a house typical of its prosperous genre. Kitty and Alec were regularly dined and wined there, and the old gentleman lent them money and forgave their debts. Alec said that his time in Retford was "one of the happiest", not only on account of the Hirsts - Mary Angelina being an admirer - but because the Reverend Mr. Bailey was, in spite of Kitty's strictures, a very charming and lovable man. Unfortunately he died of a chill after playing tennis, and in 1925, within little more than a year from coming to Retford, Alec had to look for another job because the new incumbent could not afford a curate. Alec took the post of Organising Secretary to the National Society for the Northern Province of York, and was required to live in York, although no house was provided. Mr Hirst overcame that difficulty. He lent Alec £1,200 to buy a fairly large semi-detached house in Clifton Dale, asking for no interest but such "rent" as Kitty thought they could afford. So Alec accepted the job and moved to York and outside the remaining scope of this narrative.



My boyhood was made particularly agreeable because Portland House and the Poplars were so near to each other that my grandmother Annie's house served as an annexe to my own home. There I could eat or sleep whenever I wished. There was no difficulty in providing me with a bed. Harry's brother Charlie had married and departed, and Harry's son Harold had at last left home to the extent of buying himself a house separated from his mother by a quarter of a mile - rather than by fifty yards, like the Poplars.

For me the great charm of Portland House was the pulse of an almost primitive way of life. Most of the food eaten there was home produced. Beef and mutton were bought in Lincoln, but the potatoes had been dug by Annie out of the ground, or out of the straw-covered "potato pie" in which they were stored in winter. According to season, the vegetables came out of the back garden. In the brick-built sty a pig was fattened with potato peelings and other household swill, and was kept healthy with handfuls of coke for roughage. In the fullness of time it met its end at the hands of the Bracebridge butcher who set up a tall tripod outside the sty and suspended the animal upside down for the blood to drain into a bucket when the screaming animal's throat was cut with one expert thrust of a knife. Then Annie set to work quickly to put as much of the pig to use as she could in making black puddings, moulding pork pies, frying scraps, preparing trotters, and extruding sausages from a special nozzle on the end of her mincer. But with no deep-freezer the household could only consume a small part of the carcass while the meat was still fresh, so the butcher bought most of it.

The chickens and ducks eaten for dinner had been chased and caught in the orchard at the bottom of the garden. I watched Annie's practiced wrists break necks with one deft twist, saw the poultry plucked and singed with a taper, and the insides drawn out with bloody hands. In the kitchen I heard the spitting and sizzling of roasting fat, and smelt the browning of the outer skin. Annie's poultry farming covered the whole life cycle of her stock from conception to the dinner plate. Her ducks were impregnated by a drake in an old bath tub sunk into the soil of the orchard, and her hens were trodden by a cockerel in the chicken run. Fertilised eggs - whether of ducks or chickens - were put under any conveniently broody hen in a special maternity coop, or were hatched out in a round zinc incubator heated by a paraffin lamp. Annie brought delicate day-old chicks or ducklings into the kitchen in a wicker hamper lined with soft yellow flannel, and put them before the fire to be fed and reared away from the competition of their siblings. As her young poultry grew to maturity the males were killed off one by one and roasted, while the females were kept as pullets to replace hens beyond their prime of egg production, and whose tough old flesh was now good for nothing but a particularly long boil. Inexperienced pullets, which might otherwise have laid their eggs in unsuitable places, were induced by a clutch of pot-eggs in a nest box to deposit them in the very location most certain to secure their discovery and removal. Only feathered creatures as stupid as chickens could have been deceived by pot-eggs - which were cold, hard, inanimate, and of a uniform glossy whiteness totally lacking the fragile translucence of an egg. But even an old experienced hen would, when broody, settle upon them in a coop and sit hopefully hatching them out until more productive substitutes could be put beneath her.

Fruit from the quarter acre of land behind Portland House made Annie's larder an Aladdin's cave of jars preserving the largesse of summer for her winter table - some of it reduced to jam that had bubbled and heaved in a brass preserving pan over the kitchen fire. Some - such as the crab-apples and red-currants - boiled down to a transparent jelly- and some bottled entire in tall screw-top containers made airtight with flat rubber rings. Annie's tireless culinary activities extended to making her own chutneys, pickling onions and red cabbage, and preserving dozens of eggs in great earthenware pots of isinglas. She brewed her own beer, and made her own cakes, and baked her own bread. Dough was mixed and thumped on the kitchen table, and put before the fire in a pancheon covered by a white tea-towel as if reverently to hide the little miracle of tumescence wrought by brewer's yeast. Then, when the risen dough was transferred to baking tins and put into the side oven, there went drifting through the house the magical smell of baking bread.

In my recollections of Portland House, the most unremitting of my grandmother's activities were housework and the production of food, but it was on Mondays that she underwent the most concentrated toil of the week. In this she was not alone amongst the housewives of Hykeham Road. On a fine Monday afternoon every clothes-line in the neighbourhood was flapping with shirts, sheets, nightgowns, underpants, and tablecloths - all hung out like flags for a royal visit. Monday was wash-day to allow sufficient time for the laundry to be dried, ironed, and aired, irrespective of the weather, by the following Sunday when a change into fresh linen was obligatory for church or chapel. In the absence of refrigerators it was also the last day of the week on which the Sunday joint could safely in all weathers furnish a ready-made cold dinner for a husband who still had to be fed amidst the preoccupations of the weekly laundry.

Therefore on a Monday morning Annie rose well before six to bring in duckboards from the shed to lay across her scullery floor to keep her feet dry as more and more water splashed over it in the course of the day. Then bucket after bucket of it was carried from a shallow earthenware sink and poured into the copper - a large iron hemisphere, copper-coated to prevent rust, and fitted with a wooden lid. The copper was set in brickwork in a corner of the scullery, with an iron grate beneath it and a space below that for the ashes to fall into. Annie laid the fire with newspaper, sticks and coal, and having lit it, transferred the clothes to be boiled from the wash-tub in which they had been soaking overnight. While the copper was coming to the boil, she cleaned out the kitchen grate, lit another fire there, scattered the ashes on to the garden path, and provided her husband with his usual cooked breakfast.

Thereafter, Monday morning took its course. The scullery filled with steam from the boiling copper as sheets, pillow-cases, table-cloths, and other whites seethed and bubbled in the soapy water. Then the fast coloured went through the boil. Water slopped everywhere over the floor as clothes were heaved dripping out of the scalding water on the ends of wooden staves as if Annie were fishing about two-handed with chopsticks in a monstrous watery stew. Mere boiling was not enough for collars and cuffs where the week's dirt lay most deeply engrafted. They had to be stretched over a scrubbing board on the drainer of the sink, well rubbed with a large block of dark green soap, and then scrubbed into a great lather. A scrubbing board was a rectangular sheet of galvanised iron with horizontal corrugations and fixed into a wooden frame. These boards made rattling noises at various pitches depending on how quickly one drew a stick over them. In fact they were sometimes played in jazz bands and even had wash-day blues composed for them. Scrubbing was not light work, but it was the dolly pegs which involved the most arduous labour. They performed at a low manual speed the function of an agitator in a washing machine, and consisted of a stout wooden post, waist high, with a transverse capstan handle let into the top. The lower end ran into the centre of a stout wooden disc from which sprouted three vertical prongs , about a foot long.

The dolly pegs were used inside a corrugated galvanised wash-tub in which the clothes lay covered with hot soapy water. Annie grasped the capstan handle with both hands and twisted the pegs vigorously from side to side with a plunging and lifting motion until her energy was exhausted. Boil, dolly-peg, scrub: scrub, boil, dolly-peg: boil, scrub, dolly-peg - I do not remember the order. But for every wash-tub full of washing, until all had been though, dirty water had to be emptied by bucket into the sink, and fresh water had to be carried by bucket from the copper, and heavy wet dripping clothes had to be lifted about from one place to another. Nor was that the end of it because everything needed to be rinsed in the wash-tub in fresh clean cold water. Amongst the steam from the copper and the water slopping about on the floor, it was all a humid back-breaking nightmare. And then the washing had to be put through the mangle. It was a cast-iron contraption for wringing out the clothes, nearly as big as an upright piano, and it had two large horizontal wooden rollers that could be screwed as close together or as far apart as was required. They were turned by a handle projecting form an iron wheel at one end of the machine, and were geared to revolve in opposite directions to draw the clothes in on one side and to eject them on the other. The water squeezed out was caught in a wooden tray and drained off into a bucket beneath.

After going though the mangle, the washing was carried into the back garden, if the weather was fine, and pegged out on the line to dry with rough wooden pegs bought from visiting gipsy women. At some time in the proceedings the whites had been blued - at the rinsing stage I think - when a blue bag was dropped into the water to give the clothes the illusion of greater whiteness. And somehow amongst it all the pig, the ducks, and the chicken had been fed - and Harry had come home for his cold dinner. The next day, Tuesday, was the day for ironing if Monday had been a good drying day. In readiness for ironing, a little square pack of Robin starch had been dropped into a wash-tub half full of cold water, and sheets, pillow-cases, and what we called serviettes were lightly starched. The collars and cuffs of grandfather's week-day shirts were more heavily impregnated to meet the formalities of life in the cost office of Rustons. The ironing was done on an old blanket stretched over the kitchen table, using solid flat-irons with pointed noses. They were heated, like the kettle, on the top of the side oven, and since the handles were an iron extension of the base, a hot iron needed a little cloth muff over the handle. During pauses in the ironing, perhaps to sprinkle a shirt with water, the iron was put down on a rough iron ring, like a sawn-off piece of drainpipe, standing on end.

Finally, the clothes and linen were laid out on wooden slatted shelves in the airing cupboard over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom to expel any remaining damp of wash day. And with that the drudgery of Annie's Mondays found its reward in the satisfaction of seeing shelves stacked with neatly folded household linen, crisp and spotless, and exuding the slightly soapy fragrance of new laundry.

Laundry-maid, house-maid, cook, scullery-maid, valet, seamstress, gardener, poultry-maid, and pig-keeper - Annie was them all, and a wise woman and sick-nurse as well. Whatever ailed me, my grandmother took me into her care, and for all the minor ills and troubles of childhood she had her remedies. Toothache - oil of cloves. Sore lips - Bate's salve. Sprains - Sloane's liniment. Sore throats - salt water gargles. Swollen tonsils - Mendel's paint. Coughs - Gee's linctus, which in those days was well laced with laudanum. Congested lungs - inhalations of friar's balsam, and rubbings with goose grease or camphorated oil. Boils - bread poultices. Cuts and grazes - the versatile friars' balsam. Bee stings - the blue bag, Wasp stings - vinegar. Chills - a warm mustard bath, and then a good sweat in bed, smothered in blankets and scorched with hot water bottles. Bad breath, or furred tongue, or off colour generally - syrup of figs, or ipecauana, or Glauber salts, or ultimately castor oil. But all depended on the thermometer. If my temperature went up, grandmother deferred to Doctor Sharpe who was summoned from Swallowbeck to prescribe his own nostrums. He came as obediently as a family solicitor to the big house. I have no recollection of ever being taken to his surgery - nor, for that matter, of lying ill in my own home. It was always in the best bedroom of Portland House that the doctor wrote out his prescriptions. But fevers paid little deference to them, and lying in bed for days on end waiting for a temperature to go down, and sipping home-made lemon drink from a jug with a little muslin cover weighted down with beads to keep off the flies, was a pleasure denied to those whom penicillin and its kindred products preserve from losing even a day at school.

The degree of coddling I enjoyed in my grandmother's care when sick would defy belief, so I will give only one instance. Amongst her young Rhode Island Red cockerels there was a particularly fine specimen called "Rufus" to whom I had taken a fancy, and in so far as it is possible to make a pet of a chicken, he was one of my pets. On one occasion, when some minor indisposition confined me to bed, I had only to express a faint regret at being deprived of the society of this creature for my grandmother to go down to the orchard, catch the bird, put him in a wicker hamper, and bring him up to the bedroom. There he was allowed to strut about for a while on the eiderdown, peck up a few bread crumbs from my tea tray, and only when he had hopped on to the back of a chair to relieve himself was he put back into his box and removed from the sick room. A few months later, of course, I had him for my dinner, roasted while he was still tender.

A major advantage of life at Portland House was the interesting relatives I met there. They were not, of course, interesting in the sense of being in the least distinguished. The very opposite was the case - particularly the two daughters whom old George Robinson had so rightly held in poor esteem. One of them was acknowledged as "Aunt Frances", but Harry Robinson was so ashamed of his other sister that she was - although a middle-aged woman - known to me simply as "Fanny Dye-aigh-ner". Thus she was denied the "Aunt" or the "Mrs Brown" to which she was entitled and also, for good measure, the correct pronunciation of her second name, Diana, which had been intended by her father to sound rather grand. I was given the impression that if Danny Dyeaighner happened to be related to us at all - which was doubtful - the connection was so remote as to need no recognition. She lived with her husband, Mr Brown, in a houseboat on the Brayford, a fairly large lake lying in the lower town. On one side of it ran a stone quay with flour mills, cake mills and timber yards, served by barges which plied between Lincoln and the Humber along the old Roman canal. Mud banks formed the opposite side of the Brayford, and on them were stunted willows, piles of decaying rubbish, broken landing stages, and a litter of houseboats - not the white holiday homes of the prosperous, but the little, dark, unpainted, rotting hulks of the poor, with tattered curtains over the portholes and rags flying from washing lines like flag signals of distress. It was from one of these boats that Fanny Diana waded ashore like a Viking to raid her more comfortable relatives.

The first indication that Fanny had arrived at Portland House was the sight of an old perambulator parked outside the back door - sagging on its springs, and with wheels pointing in every direction. Fanny herself would be sitting in the rocking chair beside the kitchen grate, with a pallid but dirty bosom exposed, giving suck to the latest of her apparently endless succession of children - all of whom , in their breast-fed infancy at least, seemed to be entirely devoid of nether clothing. Whether Fanny brought her children to Portland House half naked out of mere indigence or to tear at Annie's heartstrings, the effect was the same. Little babies were Annie's great love, and flooded with compassion, she loaded clothes from her cupboards into the old pram, and money from her purse into Fanny's hungry fingers. Annie knew that the clothes would be sold for what they would fetch, but no-one with her warm and generous heart could have watched her husband's sister wheel away empty-handed his little bare-bottomed nephew in a squeaking and lurching conveyance bound for a squalid home in the mud.

Mr Brown's means of subsistence were unknown, but he brought at least enough money into the household for his wife to confine her begging expeditions to within the family. Fanny Diana did not become one of the well known Lincoln mendicants, or I should have heard of her at school. We knew them all, and the most famous of the unfortunate women who ranged the streets of the city trailing a ragged child was called "Pyewype Annie", and I must digress for a moment to mention her. She was not in fact a mendicant - although she looked like one in her cast-off clothes and she would have been offered alms if she had ever paused in her headlong distracted scurrying about the city. It was said she was looking for a lost husband, a naval officer who had deserted her. Whether that was true or not, Annie had an upper-class voice and lived with her daughter, whom I remember as a girl of about twelve, in a hut in the Skellingthorpe woods. Their shortest way on foot into Lincoln was along the banks of the canal, and past the railway junction which gave Annie her nickname.

Pyewype Annie hurried through the streets intent upon her neurotic missions, dragging her daughter by the hand. The child had thin, haughty, well-bred features, long dirty blonde hair, and old second hand clothes much too big for her. She seemed beautiful to me and infinitely romantic in the stark contrast between her reputed origins and her now pitiful condition at the heels of a demented and penniless mother. Her eyes were wild and haunted, but she had an air of superiority that no rags could smother. Nor could they suppress her mute claim not always to have lived in a hut. Do not ask what happened to that proud child, with whom I was once half in love, or to her witless mother, or to Fanny Dyeaighner and to her brood of unclothed infants. I do not know. What happens in the end to all of us, unless the history books preserve us for a while? We simply disappear, and so did they.

Harry Robinson's other sister was acknowledged because, although not one of the finest specimens of womankind, she was at least respectable. As an infant she had been given the most names of all George Robinson's plentifully baptised offspring. Frances Elizabeth Rose Rudkin Robinson was intended to keep fresh in the family's memory that foolish girl - our ancestress Frances Rudkin, daughter of the squire of Hough-on-the-Hill - who eloped with her father's coachman. If the squire's daughter had been given any say in the matter, she might have chosen a more impressive memorial than Frances Robinson turned out to be. For most of her life she was companion to a woman in Lancashire, but when that means of support expired, Frances returned to Lincoln at the age of fifty and surprisingly found someone to marry her. By then she was sickly, ailing, attenuated and asthmatic - with shrivelled cheeks, and weak squinting little eyes framed in round steel-rimmed spectacles. The hair on her head had thinned almost to baldness, but in compensation pale yellow wisps sprouted abundantly from her chin. Frances had a high, cracked,complaining voice precisely tuned to the task of describing the infirmities that kept her perpetually "under the doctor" and rendered her incapable of doing anything but suffer them in complete idleness. Yet this woman found a former butler called Frank Atkin to marry her. He had his infirmities too, which technically rendered him unfit to work, so he lived on the dole in a little terraced house off the Monks Road, with all the time in the world to look after his useless wife.

Frances was remarkable only for her complete passivity. She sat doing nothing all day - and when I say that she did nothing, I mean that she sat in a chair for hours and hours on end and did nothing else. She neither read, nor spoke, nor listened to the wireless, nor knitted. She did nothing but sit in silence watching her husband Frank doing the housework. At that he was very expert and his little house was so scrupulously clean and neat that he could supplement his state charity by doing spring cleaning and other housework for more prosperous members of the family. Frank Atkin had the deferential manner and the highly affected voice of one who had been a butler in not the grandest of houses. He held out his little finger when drinking tea, and made his points in conversation by putting his first finger and thumb delicately together and then raising his hand with other fingers outstretched like the blades of a fan. Frank suffered keenly under the indignity of drawing the dole from the labour-exchange, and in his mincing voice described the weekly expedition to collect it as a "geen to the beastleh lehbah". Now and again he worked at my home the Poplars for one and sixpence an hour, and his portly little figure, girdled with a huge white apron, used to bustle and fuss about our house armed with brushes and dusters. He also worked in Portland House, and one day he was at his household chores in a bedroom in which Harry Robinson wished to change his trousers. Being a notorious prude, Harry asked to be left in privacy. This was too much for Frank Atkin who, with his apron mops and broom, was already tender and sore enough upon the point of his masculinity. The veneer of butler's gentility was peeled off, affectation was forgotten, and with something approaching a roar of rage, he cried out: "Good God, Harry! Do you think I'm a bloody woman?"

It was one thing for an effeminate butler voluntarily to assume the role of nursemaid to a hypochondriacal woman, but quite another for Harry's cantankerous brother Charlie to do the same - one who in his regular army days had practised a ruthless male sexuality amongst subject populations and who had returned from the East having had "enough Chinese cunts to fill a bucket". Yet Charlie too became the slave of a valetudinarian wife, whom he acquired a year or two after the end of the Great War for no better reason than, as he said: "Everyone else seems to be getting married, so I might as well do it myself!" Charlie's chosen life companion was a poor, thin creature called Nellie Taylor, whose watery eyes peeped with apprehension at the world through red-tinted spectacles, and whose mewling voices was so insubstantial that it dissipated itself into the air like wisps of vapour. Therefore it was not surprising that by the morning of his wedding Charlie was having second thoughts.

Accordingly, he went up to Lincoln from Portland House on his bicycle and drank too much. Then he returned home belligerent and determined not to leave again for Bracebridge Church and the nuptials. On no account would he live for the rest of his life with "that whining bitch". If Annie had not been so highly conscious of the disgrace to the family of a churchful of guests, a parson, a bride, and no bridegroom, Charlie would have retired to bed for the afternoon and let Nellie go suck her paws. Annie, however, steered him resolutely in the direction of the church, where he was cajoled into attending his own wedding ceremony - which he did with very bad grace, muttering his marriage vows in a tone of voice that boded ill for Nellie's future happiness. And then, to everyone's astonishment, Charlie turned out to be a model husband. There are men who need the abject dependence of a dog, and Charlie happened to find fulfilment in Nellie's insatiable craving for sympathy and affection. She fed on the vitality of others, and was so hungry that when as a boy I had the misfortune to sit next to her at Portland House high teas, she grappled my young eyes to her red watery ones and appropriated my ears to the hoarse whisper of her voice to extract from me, like a bee gorging itself with nectar, the last dregs of commiseration for her supposed infirmities.

Before long Charlie's life at home became wholly devoted to Nellie's service. He did the shopping, cooking, dusting, cleaning, washing and everything else that his wife's disabilities forbade her to do for herself. And Charlie - like Frank Atkin - did them extremely well. His household regimen was unexceptionable, the garden was an example to the neighbourhood, and his little semi-detached villa in Bootham was immaculately decorated in hideous colour schemes. All these domestic demands might be expected to have made Charlie even more dilatory than formerly in his attendance at Rustons - but in fact they had the opposite effect. An instinct for survival made him set some limit to his perversely satisfying bondage, and Rustons became his legitimate refuge. Even his wife could not complain of neglect while he was away earning her living, so Charlie spent every minute in the works that Rustons demanded, and so dramatic was the improvement in his time keeping that he received what would have seemed in his bachelor days a wholly remarkable promotion.

Promotions came to the Robinson males largely unsought because they seemed totally to lack the bustle and thrust of the bourgeoisie. My mother had realised, soon after marrying my father, that he would "neither be known or noticed", and he shared this indifference to the world with everyone in his family that I ever met. Harry Robinson made his way some distance up the Ruston's hierarchy, but the only agony of ambition he ever suffered was in deciding whether to accept a final promotion over the head of a friend - and after weeks of painful indecision he declined it. His son Harold rose to be a chief inspector at Rustons, but not through trying, and his advancement left him as if it had never happened. He continued to observe the works pyramid with a sardonic eye from the base upwards, and he used to tell with incredulous detachment of a managing director of Ruston's who, whenever his motor car was held up at the Durham Ox railway crossing, used to abandon it in all weathers to climb over the footbridge and to forge on towards his office at a near run until his chauffeur, as always, caught up with him again.

The Robinsons had none of that kind of push, and my affection for their quietism was rightly seen by my ambitious brother as mere "nostalgie de la boue". Nevertheless, if there is an element of vulgarity in the pursuit of wealth and power - as those who have enjoyed them for generations seem to believe - my Hykeham Road relatives had the grace to lack it. Earlier Robinsons, too, had lived in a similar state of grace, so my father's family also lacked, with one exception, the arrogance that fructifies on inherited wealth. The sole exception was Phoebe Robinson from Hull, the daughter of old George Robinson's brother who left Lincoln when a boy to rise from bargee to master lighterman on the Humber. That brother had established the prosperous Hull branch of the Robinson family, but his sons were so enervated by an easy childhood that when they took over the lighterage business after his death, they were disinclined to rise early to catch the tides, and the enterprise rapidly declined into bankruptcy. Phoebe, being a woman, was not left a share in the business, but was bequeathed a substantial holding of two-per-cent Consols instead, and since interest on them accrued no matter what time she got up, it was Phoebe Robinson who, alone in the family, enjoyed the advantage of private means.

She was a tall, gaunt, cool, and handsome woman, who might have been mistaken for a duchess if she had carried lorgnettes. Therefore it was difficult for me to believe that anyone so stately and imperious could be nursing a painful and unrequited passion for my grandfather, Harry Robinson - but that is what my mother told me, amongst her other tales of women relatives hopelessly in love with indifferent cousins. For example, a female cousin had pined for my Grandfather Mason. Another had a daughter who was desperate for one of his sons. Annie Robinson had a niece, cursed with the baleful Wilson gene, who was hastened into total mental breakdown by an unreciprocated longing for my father. It was only female relatives who suffered in this way. In my mother's mythology only women possessed the nobility of spirit required to sustain a hopeless passion after marrying someone else - and to sustain it while giving every appearance, like Phoebe Robinson from Hull, of having found a reasonably acceptable substitute.

Phoebe's consolation was a vain and untalented painter called Tom Burn, whose father had been wise enough not to allow him to pursue an artistic career. Instead, Tom was put into the customs service in Hull, where his health failed on account of the rigour of boarding ships at the inconvenient states of the same Humber tides that had troubled Phoebe's brothers. Tom therefore retired early on a small government pension, augmented by what was left of the money bequeathed him by his father after a trustee had absconded with the bulk of it. He could now devote himself to art, and the late flowering of his talents bore fruit in a crop of very large oil paintings, all dignified with heavy gilt frames elaborately carved with scrolls and acanthus leaves. The biggest of them I well remember from my childhood. It hung over a mantlepiece in Portland House and showed a lion and his mate recumbent in matrimonial content - every hair and whisker so meticulously painted that they looked real enough to rise to their feet, stretch their legs, and wander out of their rococo frame. The canvas was prominently signed "Tom Burn" in the lower right hand corner, and it was only later, when I began to visit art galleries, that I saw an identical version of the same subject attributed to Landseer. Another very large painting, again signed "Tom Burn" but of an actual provenance still unknown to me, was of a curly-headed, pink and white female child lying on tasseled cushions in a short silk chemise trimmed with lace playing with a fluffy kitten, and displaying her plump little thighs in purported innocence but in truth with a paedophilic nastiness only matched by the extraordinary detail of the brushwork. My ingenuous grandfather paid Tom Burn handsomely for these monstrous creations, and displayed them as proudly as if the signatures were the imprimata of an original talent.

In contrast to the cold correctness of his tall stately wife, Tom Burn was a small, impulsive fellow with thick speech. Convinced that Italy had bred the greatest painters, he introduced a suggestion of the Mediterranean into his appearance by growing his hair long, dyeing it jet black, and curling it into exotic whorls and convolutions. A pair of great black moustachios drooped over his upper lip and then circled upwards over his cheeks, in two exactly symmetrical arcs. He had been born with a pair of dark flashing eyes and a mercurial temperament, so it needed only a small exaggeration of his natural attributes for him to give a very passable imitation of a warm-blooded gentleman of Verona. This he coupled with a considerable elegance in dress. Not for Tom Burn was the image of a hungry painter struggling against neglect. His cheeks were round with plenty, and his clothes were expensive and fashionably cut. Before retiring from the customs service he had bought a stock of twenty suits, and even when I knew him as an old man he had the largest and most varied collection of silk shirts I have ever seen. Large flowing cravats fell over his chest, and a brilliant silk handkerchief cascaded from his breast pocket, with another of the same colour and design conspicuous in a sleeve of his jacket.

Phoebe and the Hull Robinsons, and my grandfather Harry and the Lincoln Robinsons, were the only known lines descending from the ten children of William Robinson, the Glinton carpenter, who settled in Lincoln in 1841 and brought up his family there. All ten survived to adulthood, yet what became of eight of them is unknown. Two sisters were said to have emigrated to America, but their brother George never knew what happened to them - nor to his other five sisters. Nor to his brother Tom. They all went somewhere in search of work, but no-one knew where. Thus the large families of the urban proletariat were blown by sharp Victorian economic winds out of their native towns, with no whisper of where they had eventually found employment, lived, and died.

On Annie's side of the family, however, there were numerous Maplethorpes still alive and breeding in the locality, because her father had been a farm labourer in Billinghay and his offspring seem to have been more deeply embedded in the Lincolnshire earth. I had in fact so many Maplethorpe relatives, and so many of an almost paralysing dullness, that I will write only of Annie's sister Fanny. She was described by Kitty Mason as a "gentlewoman", and Kitty was not easily moved to commend anyone in the family her sister May had so foolishly married into. Annie, for example, was only "good-hearted" - and that was intended to convey that what one saw and experienced on the outside left much to be desired. Fanny Maplethorpe was, of course, only a "natural gentlewoman, and both she and her sweet old husband Will were in truth quite unnaturally gentle, being slow-moving, softly-spoken, kindly, patient, generous, and infallibly courteous.

Fanny had married William Milne when he was a tall dignified farm foreman in Bardney, but early in their married life he was obliged to give up his well paid and responsible job because Fanny began to suffer so badly from rheumatism that her doctor advised her to leave the damp and mists of watery Bardney. It was not easy to find other comfortable employment so Will was obliged to take work as a Kesteven County roadman, and that enabled him to go to live in Wellingore - a pretty little limestone village built on the high ground of a ridge running between Lincoln and Grantham. By the time that I knew Will and Fanny, he had retired from mending the Kesteven highways and she was almost crippled with rheumatism. I stayed with them once or twice in a little house let to them by the Nevilles - who owned Wellingore Hall as well as Skellingthorpe Manor. The house had once been two tiny cottages, each with a room downstairs and a room upstairs, but now they were knocked through into one. So Fanny and Will lived an ark-like existence with two of everything - two staircases, two cooking ranges, two pumps, two stone sinks, two strips of garden, two pigsties, two sheds, and two earth closets. The house was at the end of a wide grassy cul-de-sac which contained several other cottages scattered here and there in no particular pattern, but their pigsties, sheds, and earth closets were nevertheless, regardless of propinquity to the cottage served, grouped together under the same pantiled roof in one long low terrace of uniform design - like the detached stable block of a mansion house.

I have never felt so completely in the country as when I stayed at Wellingore. At first all seemed breathlessly calm and still, until one's ears became tuned to the background music of blackbirds, thrushes, and nightingales in the woodlands of the hall, to the glottal murmuring of turtle doves and to the distant village sounds of dogs barking, cocks crowing, horses neighing, cattle lowing, and sheep complaining. Will and Fanny Milne were old, gentle, affectionate country people with exquisite manners and broad Lincolnshire accents. If I am ever tempted fondly to imagine that the good old days of Tory paternalism once really existed in the villages of England, my temptation is the recollection of that dear old couple who seemed entirely happy and contented in their little backwater of rural Lincolnshire; with pear trees in blossom on the cottage wall; potatoes, onions, peas, beans and cabbages in their two strips of land; the two front gardens alight in summer with flowers; and pots of geraniums blocking their tiny windows. In retirement Will and Fanny were so poor that it was one of Harry Robinson's many family benefactions to pay the bill for their weekly newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle. Yet poor as they were, the spare bedroom of their double cottage was filled with relatives from Lincoln or Nottingham who came at Easter to see the spring buds burst into life, or later in the vernal cycle to taste Uncle Will's freshly dug potatoes, and his new green beans picked painfully by arthritic fingers to garnish a roasted joint of home-fed pig.



Some boys are, from the first sign of pregnancy in their mothers, entered on the chance of being male for a house at Eton. Similarly, I was intended from almost as early an age for Lincoln Grammar School. So when in my seventh year it had become apparent to my expert parents that Miss Duffield's tuition was doing less than justice to my modest capacity to absorb it, they were alerted to the possibility of having to send me to my destined school as a fee-payer, instead of a scholarship boy like my father. The prospect that he might have to pay tuition fees of six pounds a term for my higher education wonderfully concentrated his mind on how to avoid it. One way was for me to become a singing boy in Lincoln Cathedral, where the Dean and chapter did not maintain a choir school themselves. Instead, they had their choirboys educated at the grammar school, which was originally an ecclesiastical foundation of the eleventh century, and still partly under their control. Therefore, since I had a pleasant enough little voice and could sing reasonably in tune, I was duly entered for the voice trials conducted by the cathedral organist, Doctor George Bennett. It was under his baton that my mother, my father, and his brother Harold, sang in the choir of the Lincoln Choral Society. All three of them held him in the greatest reverence.

The organist was a man wild in appearance, with a great shock of untidy hair, who grunted loudly when conducting - to the distress of members of the Halle Orchestra whom he hired, regardless of expense, to stiffen the ranks of the Lincoln Orchestral Society for major concerts. Doctor Bennett was noted for his acerbity and intolerance of error. Like other professional musicians who find themselves conducting amateurs, he could not easily understand the incompetence of layman in an activity for which he had enough expertise to secure a cathedral appointment of some standing - though not enough, I notice, to secure him a reference in the Oxford Musical Directory. Bennet, John, the madrigalist is there; and Bennett, William Sterndale; and Bennett, Richard Rodney - but not Bennett, George John. Nevertheless, the doctor regarded the efforts of those he led through the Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio much as a skilled plasterer might regard the attempts of a householder to daub his own wall.

There were other reasons, too, why George Bennett was a figure to inspire a seven year-old postulant to his choir with the greatest apprehension. He was no mere poorly paid precentor's lackey. Having married a rich Ruston daughter he lived graciously in a large Georgian house in Minster Yard, hob-nobbing with the bishop, and more than holding his own in a cathedral society that no one in the length and breadth of Hykeham Road had the faintest hope of entering. The former Miss Ruston had soon died, but her fortune remained with the widower, and his next wife was a penniless governess - the Miss Bowen who had taken charge of the children Maude Hamilton left behind when she fled from Skellingthorpe vicarage with the Irishman Murphy. Although in Skellingthorpe my mother had known the Hamilton's governess intimately, she never later in Lincoln presumed on their friendship while the great doctor was alive. Only after his death when Bo - as she was called - had moved to another fine house in Minster Yard, still on surviving Ruston money, did my mother occasionally call upon her, but even then always with a sense of intruding upon Olympus.

At the voice trials, held in the cathedral Song School on the upper floor of St Hugh's south-east transept, Doctor Bennett looked as farouche and intimidating, seated at a long grand piano, as I had feared. I sang my prepared hymn with chattering teeth, and then I had to admit that I had not yet started to learn an instrument. Clearly my family was unmusical. Nevertheless, we proceeded to the aptitude tests - and discovered that I had none. To this day I cannot confidently sing the middle note of three struck simultaneously on the piano, nor be absolutely certain whether a chord is of four notes or five, and discriminations of that kind ought to come as naturally as breathing to a cathedral chorister. So I failed - the first and not the last of my musical humiliations.

Humiliations they have been, because I love music most of all the arts, and would have delighted in a natural competence. But to the wide gaps in my basic musicality revealed by Doctor Bennett must be added very dubious sight-reading, and an articulation incapable of playing anything quickly. In fact, my allotted genes allowed me only a reasonable sense of pitch, the ability to harmonise like a Welshman, and the more blessed capacity to play anything that I can play, musically. The latter may be an illusion of vanity, but I can at least claim that a professor of the violoncello at the Royal Academy of Music, who happened to hear me performing in a piano trio, was moved to give me lessons. That was not only because I needed them - for that is the need of many - but because I played the 'cello part with some understanding, of what Haydn may possibly have had in mind. However, when it soon became obvious that I lacked the fingers for difficult passages, the professor abandoned me - no more believing that practice can make perfect than that men with slow reactions can by frequent laps of the circuit become racing drivers - or as my mother used to put it, that silk purses can be made out of sows' ears. Thus the genetic lottery can deny one who might have played quite nicely the wherewithal from birth to do it, and with equal perversity bestow technical competence upon another who lacks the least vestige of musical sensibility.

However, somewhere in the family there must be a predisposition to musicality because my brother is a very good organist, and can sight-read almost anything - keeping not two limbs, but four, extremely busy with the miraculous inventions of Johann Sebastian Bach. But it has so far manifested itself noticeably only in him and in my son Tom who, in a different field, is a well known composer and performer of pop music. My parents sang a little, and had a piano on which my mother played hymns and sentimental pieces such as the Dying Swan, and the Valse from Coppelia. On that instrument father laldered his way, in the manner I have already described, through the easier parts of the Moonlight Sonata, the Sonata Pathetique, the Pilgrims' Chorus, and a transcription of the Unfinished Symphony. Such was the musical background to my childhood. It was entirely romantic, and the baroque composers were totally missing. So was polyphonic music, and madrigals were regarded as being on the same level of affectation as morris dancing.

Even so, around the piano in Portland House was centered a vigorous musical life when the Robinsons assembled on Sunday evenings after one of Annie's high teas. The old Metzler had a walnut case, brass candle scones, a fluent action but appalling tone - being brash and jangling like a hurdy-gurdy. What particularly horrified my mother about this instrument - which she would never on any account touch - was the way Arthur's brother played it. This afflicted her even more than his table manners, because Harold spread his fingers out flat over the keyboard, as if testing it for smoothness, instead of lifting his wrist to allow only the tips of his fingers delicately to caress the notes. Throughout their entire length Harold Robinson's digits lay like heavy weights upon the keyboard, and when stirred to sluggish activity they merely sank, here and there, ponderously into it.

Consequently he was even more hard pressed than my father to provide accompaniments remotely approximate to the composers' intentions for the songs the family most loved to hear. Hatton's "To Anthea", with its rapid chromatics, was particularly taxing. So was Handel's "O Ruddier than the Cherry", and none of the favourite repertory came at all readily to their fingers - "Now Phoebus sinketh in the West", "Simon the Cellerer". "the Diver", "Shenandoah", "O Isis and Osiris", "Passing By", "the Vicar of Bray" and so on. Many of the songs were from the Scottish Students Song Book, and some of them, like "Uncle Ned", had choruses in which everyone round the tea-table could join - animated and noisy in "Jingle Bells", or subdued and sentimental in "the Lancer", with its haunting echoes:

"Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket... jack-et
And say a poor buffer lies low... lies-low-ow
And six stalwart lancers shall carry me... carry-me
With steps solemn mournful and slow."

If, as the preface suggests, the Scottish Students' Song Book was compiled for the benefit of medical students of the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, it is a remarkable testimony to their taste and culture. Some of the songs require a knowledge of Greek, Latin and German. Many of the choruses demand sophistication in the singers, and several of the accompaniments assume a considerable fluency at the keyboard.

The News Chronicle Song Book, on the other hand, catered for more simple tastes and less agile fingers. When it was opened my cousin Douglas and I were brought in as trebles to float the airs of sugary part-songs, like "O Who will o'er the Downs so Free?", over my mother's warm alto and the powerful basses of my father and his brother. The third part was always missing, because the Robinson family has never, within living memory, produced a tenor. So marked has been the inclination to gravity of pitch in its males that my cousin Douglas grew up to develop a bass voice quite remarkable in its profundity and volume, notwithstanding that he is a very small man. On the stage of the Lincoln Amateur Operatic Society, Douglas could rattle the floorboards with diapaison frequencies his audience had learnt to associate only with huge black men like Paul Robeson. Indeed, in the society's productions Douglas was often, in spite of his stature, cast for the negro parts and in "Ole Man Ribber" he rumbled away like a thirty-two foot organ pipe in baggy trousers, large-checked shirts, and with the whites of his eyes staring out of a countenance as black as boot polish. I was drawn to several of the society's performances to hear my cousin's voice given its full scope and resonance in a large theatre, and thereby made the happy discovery that amateurs seemed curiously free from the ordinary restraints then imposed on public performances by the Lord Chamberlain.

Never have I seen dancing more lascivious than that of a chorus of little pubescent girls provided by a local dance school to enliven a production of "Summer Song". And later, when I had acquired a taste for amateur opera, a production in Durham of "Orpheus in the Underworld" again featured a youthful female chorus who writhed and postured with a spontaneous abandon that was infinitely more provocative than the well-schooled artifice of professional dancers. Then while the chorus undulated round him thrusting out now their little breasts for his delectation and now their trembling thighs, a large fat jolly Bacchus sat naked in the middle of the stage but for vine leaves in his hair and his sturdy genitals covered with a bunch of purple grapes. This small concession to modesty he soon proceeded to dismantle by plucking the grapes nonchalantly, one by one, and throwing them into the stalls to be caught and eaten by a wildly appreciative audience, until only the inadequate stalks were left. The public wantonness of amateur operatic societies was not a sort of provincial innocence, because they were well known for the private generation of fornication and adultery amongst their fortunate members at a time when those pleasures were much less freely available than now. I recall sitting with my 'cello in the orchestra pit for an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan production in Saffron Walden, and participating in the whispered speculation of my fellow players not only about which of the singers would next rock the boat in a chatter chorus, but about which of them - from the amorous glances being cast about the stage - would soon be sleeping with whom.

Amateur operatic societies demonstrate - if demonstration of so obvious a proposition is required - that music is the food of love. One leads naturally to the other, but what music did not lead me to in 1925 was free secondary education. My father had to think again - and he decided that if I was to win an academic scholarship to the grammar school at the age of ten in place of the choral one I had failed to obtain at the age of seven, I needed to attend a junior school where I would be better taught than at Miss Duffield's. In the nineteen twenties that meant moving out of the private sector and into the public one where teachers were rigorously selected, well trained, expected to produce literate and numerate children, and were on risk of losing their jobs if His Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools found them inefficient. Private schools in Lincoln had no educational advantages. They were patronised by parents who could not bear to think of their tender children mingling with the offspring of the urban proletariat. But despite worries on that score, even my mother accepted the need for a change, and although some distance from my home and drawing its pupils from a poor quarter of the city, Sincil Bank was my chosen destination. There were no girls in it to distract a boy from his studies, and the headmaster, Mr Prescott, was well known amongst other teachers for the efficiency of his establishment, and for winning more than his proper share of scholarships to the city's two secondary schools - the grammar school and the technical college.

Mr Prescott was a very large man with a round face of a high colour, and he gave the impression, as fat men do, of wearing shirt collars much too small for his neck. He had little bright twinkling eyes, and the sinister joviality of a Hermann Goering. In spite of his great bulk Mr Prescott moved quickly and lightly on his small feet, and my mother used highly to commend his waltzing when she danced with him, clasped at arms length to the lower slopes of his waistcoat, at the National Union of Teachers' annual dances in the Corn Exchange. At school I saw little of Mr Prescott except in the morning assembly, but that was enough to embed him for ever in my memory because it was there he played the role of executioner in the public punishments he staged from time to time. A boy who had committed some offence general enough and heinous enough to merit a caning by the headmaster rather than by his class-teacher - perhaps stealing , or lying, or bullying, or loutish behaviour in the streets - was arraigned on a dais in front of the whole school. After announcing the offence, Mr Prescott required the boy to stretch out his right hand. Idiosyncratically, the headmaster held his long thin cane by the straight end and brought the curved handle swishing down flat on to the target hand , catching fingers, the ball of the thumb, and the flesh of the palm on one swingeing blow. Then he demanded the left hand, and the right hand again, and so on until the allotted two or four strokes had been delivered. Few of the boys howled with the pain. It was a point of honour not to be seen to care, and to thrust the arm out boldly - absolutely straight, not drooping in apprehension. In fact, if an arm sagged it was knocked up smartly from below before the cane was raised.

It would be ridiculous to ask whether in Mrs Prescott's school there were any disciplinary problems. Yet while taking care not to appear on the dais - and it was perfectly easy to keep off it - I do not recall feeling cowed or that I went daily to school in dread. Most of us were beaten at home, and the stick did not seem to blight our childhoods. On the other hand, the modern view that the wickedness of man is such that no-one should be permitted to beat a child is justified by Mr Prescott's treatment of Cyril Puttergill, which was so outrageous that it colours all his otherwise beneficial disciplinary measures with the stain of sadism. Mr Prescott did not overstep the mark in caning Cyril Puttergill - it was by washing him, and in front of the entire school. Cyril was about nine years old and lumpish and dull of intellect - bumping along always at the bottom of his class. He came of poor slatternly parents and his pudgy, prematurely wrinkled face was deeply encrusted with dirt which, with an almost antique patina, spread from beneath his jaws and the fringes of his unwashed hair down into the recesses of an old woollen jersey worn high in the neck. The boundary between skin and clothing was, however, largely obscured by the sanitary neglect of both, and filthy hands and wrists merged into the cuffs of the filthy jersey, and filthy knees into the bottom of his filthy trousers and into the tops of his filthy stockings. Cyril Puttergill's unfamiliarity with soap and water, and the pungency of his clothes and person on a hot day, were quite exceptional - even amongst the boys of Sincil Bank - but Mr Prescott's demands that he wash himself were consistently ignored.

Clad in his protective coat of grime, Cyril Puttergill seemed immune to the cane, so the headmaster's limited fund of patience was soon exhausted and one morning, when we marched into assembly and stood in our appointed rows, we saw that on the dais a trestle table had been set up with an enamel bowl, a flannel, a scrubbing brush, a rectangular block of carbolic soap, and a towel laid out upon it. The stage thus set, Cyril was called forward, his sins of omission were announced, and he was required to lower his head to offer the back of his neck - which was always particularly dirty - for a token washing to show what was needed throughout the remainder of his person. Then, with exclamations of disgust at the sight before him, the headmaster wetted and soaped both flannel and scrubbing brush and set to work to clear a substantial patch of pink in the general forest of grime. That done, Cyril was dismissed with an exhortation never to appear at school unwashed again for fear of a public bathing next time. And thereafter, although Cyril Puttergill did not become the cleanest of boys, he always washed enough to avoid the threatened bath. Mr Prescott's punitive measures were effective - like birching in the Isle of Man, or the Arabian way with thieves. Only those blind to the evidence can say that deterrents, if severe enough, do not deter. The scope for argument is about the point at which we ought to accept the offence rather than apply the remedy.

When I started at Sincil Bank in 1925, a month after my eighth birthday, I was put into Miss Young's class. She was the only woman teacher, and she took the class for new entrants as if to give them a breathing space before they faced the rigours of an otherwise exclusively male council school. She was about twenty-five - pretty, kind and gentle - but she demanded instant obedience and a proper attention to the serious business of learning. I had been so badly taught at my two private schools that I was well behind the others in my class, but Miss Young was patient and understanding. Even so, one day when she called me up to her desk to show me some mistake in my arithmetic work-book I stood beside her in such fear that I wet myself and a little pool formed on the dais beside her. Fortunately it was hidden by her desk from the class, and when she looked down and saw it, and then caught my anguished eye, she simply dropped her blackboard duster over the little flood and sent me back to my place without another word. It is so easy to win the undying love and gratitude of a child, but only the very best teachers trouble themselves to do it. A year or two later Miss Young married and left the school. I hope that her husband deserved her.

The next year I was in Soapy Watson's class. He was thin, neat, and trim, with a sharp bony face and a short greying military moustache. His speech was rapid and clipped, and no one dreamed of misbehaving in his class. Like Miss Young he taught us all the subjects we studied - which were not many, because the emphasis of the curriculum was on a little basic knowledge and on skill with words and figures. There was no moving about from teacher to teacher. For a year we were with Soapy for everything, for better or for worse. And it was for better. He was a good conscientious teacher, and if I failed to get into the grammar school from his class, it was only because I had started my real education too late for Sincil Bank to pull me up to a level where I could win a scholarship when almost two years below the usual age of the successful. So I stayed for another year in the next class under Len Holden. He was milder than Soapy and more relaxed, but he caned us just as often and enjoyed it. I won my scholarship from his class and he gave me a caning before I left for no other reason than that I was going. It was a parting benediction.

The City of Lincoln Education Authority kept its eyes narrowly fixed on its objectives - literacy and numeracy for all, and a chance for the bright to shine. At Sincil Bank there were no cultural activities, no trips to museums, no organised games, no teaching of art or music. Physical training was an hour of arm bend and knee stretch in an asphalted playground to the barking of an army drill sergeant. In summer he took us once a week to the open-air, unheated, municipal swimming baths to teach us to do the breast stroke correctly. Otherwise there were no frills of any kind - no "projects", no school meals, no uniforms. The school was housed in a grim functional building. It was drab, but purposeful - with respected and well paid teachers because money was spent on the essentials and not on the fringes of education. I doubt whether my character was warped by the firm, hard, corporal discipline, though it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from that. I was not one of the more stupid children, and for that reason was well regarded and encouraged. What effect Sincil Bank had on Cyril Puttergill is another question.

One of the more memorable lessons the school taught me was what to do when bullied. My assailant was an older boy called Patcham. My mother, who never used a real name when she could coin a more appropriate one, called him Scransham. He used to waylay me when I walked home. For months I suffered his arm-twistings, hair pullings, knockings off of my cap, and general harassment. My mother was outraged, but there was no thought of reporting Scransham to Mr Prescott. As a teacher, she knew too well what that would do to my reputation in the school. Wisely she told me to hit him - and to hit him hard. It was an article of faith with her that all bullies are cowards . And sure enough, when I plucked up my courage and punched Scransham vigorously on the nose and made it bleed, he hauled off and declined to fight and left me alone in future. Running the risk that such as he might fight and triumph has always been the price of freedom from oppression.

Scransham was one of the overwhelming majority of working class boys at the school, and he probably picked on me as a pampered exception. There were only a few offspring of the lower middle classes, and amongst them was a very clever child whose father managed the Bracebridge gasworks. I went with him to the grammar school, but two other friends who were also much brighter than I chose the technical school. It was lower in the social scale for the truly British reason that the education there not only inclined to applied mathematics and the sciences, but included other subjects useful to industry and commerce. No working class children of my year went to the grammar school from Sincil Bank, and I do not in fact remember any working class children in the grammar school at all. When they won scholarships they invariably chose "the tech", so I saw no evidence for the notion that grammar schools used to provide a way up for the clever sons of the poor. But Sincil Bank and the technical college did - and it is not coincidental that the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral had no hand in the management of either.

When I arrived at the Grammar School, it still had the air of being a very outlying part of the establishment - with its tradition of classical learning, its boarding house, its mortar-boarded headmaster and its black-gowned masters drawn largely from Oxford and Cambridge. As befitted an ancient ecclesiastical foundation, the headmaster was a doctor of divinity in a high clerical collar. However, he disappeared after a year or so because the school governors discovered that the funds they were making available to the learned theologian for the upkeep of the boarding house were nourishing Doctor Moxon's own finances more generously than the boys in his charge.

Everyone had to learn latin, but greek was optional. The school was intensely orientated towards academic achievement, and those boys who won bursaries to Oxford and Cambridge colleges were held in the highest regard because the headmaster and most of his colleagues had done that very thing themselves. The names of the winners of university scholarships were displayed in gold letters on a large board hung in the school hall for all to see at morning assembly, and to keep us up to academic scratch we were examined at the end of each term. The results were sent to our parents accompanied by written reports which were far from reticent about our scholastic and other shortcomings. Not content with that, our form-masters posted in each classroom every week a notice showing how we stood in order of merit on the basis of marks awarded during that week for classwork and homework. It would no more have occurred to the headmaster to spare a boy's feelings about everyone knowing that he was at the bottom of his class, than to have made his pupils run the 100 yards blindfold so that none should know the losers.

My ascent in 1928 from Sincil Bank in the low-lying industrial areas of Lincoln to the grammar school not far from the cathedral was followed a year later by the achievement of my mother's ambition to leave Hykeham Road for the socially more salubrious neighbourhood of Minster Yard. Several factors had contributed to the eventual success of her long struggle to distance herself from her parents-in-law, and the dead hand they laid upon what little intellectual, cultural, or other ambition her husband possessed. For one thing, the Poplars, with its two and a half bedrooms, had become too small for us after the belated and unintended birth of my brother Philip in 1926 - nine years after mine. A larger house was needed, and May resumed her teaching career to help pay for it. For another, Arthur had stirred himself to acquire a headmastership and a better salary. But what finally prevailed over the hand-wringing of Arthur's mother at the thought of losing the propinquity of her beloved son was the need to preserve his health. After an attack of pleurisy, which almost cost Arthur his life, he was advised by Dr Sharpe - in collusion with my mother - that his damaged lungs needed the fresher and more rarified air of up-hill Lincoln.

So that is where we went in 1929 - to a good four-bedroomed early Victorian house within a stone's throw of the Cathedral, with a daily maid to look after my infant brother while my mother went off to teach in a genteel little private school. Up-hill at last, teaching again, the despised housework done by a maid, her husband a headmaster, and me at the grammar school, it seemed to my mother that a new life was beginning. And so it was - even if a few years later it was to end in divorce.