THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON
We flew to London on July 20th. Catherine's parents drove us up to the
Baltimore/Washington International Airport and dropped us off there to wait for
our flight. Coincidentally, a long
drought broke that day and it rained incredibly heavily. I remember the anticlimactic feeling we
had sitting in the Airport for five hours waiting for the weather to clear and
for our flight to be rescheduled.
Apparently, America did not give up its inhabitants so easily.
My brother Phil was waiting for us at Gatwick when we finally
arrived the following morning. He and
I hadn't really spent much time together since I'd left home about twenty five
years before. But we've always
basically liked one another and it was a great reunion. He seemed older and grayer but then so did
England and so did I. It definitely
felt as if I was a stranger in a strange land, not having lived there for so long. Not surprisingly, the weather was dismal
which reminded me of one of the reasons that I left the country in the first
place. In mid-summer, we found
ourselves wrapped up in jackets and sweaters and still feeling somewhat
cool. My mother had moved since I'd
last been in England and now lived in East Sussex down on the South coast in a
little old fishing village by the sea called Rye Harbour. So Phil took us down on the train to
Hastings, then onto Rye and we soon found ourselves by the slate gray English
Channel. I loved Rye Harbour
immediately for it struck some long lost chord in me. This was the England that time had almost forgotten. There were a lot of little boats, yachts
and fishing boats near a boat house, three or four little streets of small
houses and a caravan park by the sea.
There was a fantastic early nineteenth century Martello stone tower, in
ruins now but originally built during the Napoleonic Wars as a coastal defense
installation. There were at least two
pubs. I'd forgotten how important beer
and pubs were to the British and it seemed as if every street corner had one or
even two pubs. There was a very nice
walk across reclaimed land to the pebble beach and the sea. Best of all, there was a large bird
preserve with a pond and blinds to watch the birds from in easy walking
My mother, Joy (although she liked
to be called Nina these days), lived in a little house near the end of a string
of little houses joined together in a short street called Coastguard
Cottages. Newly built warehouses
obscured her view of the sea. She seemed
smaller and was white haired now but smoked cigarettes as furiously as
ever. When I hugged and kissed her
upon our arrival and told her with some feeling that I loved her, she pulled
away and commented on how "Americanized" I'd become. I thought to myself that it was probably
quite reasonable to tell your mother that you loved her, especially after not
seeing for so long. But I wondered if
I used to tell her that I loved her twenty-five years before. Had I become "Americanised",
whatever that meant? It seemed to hint
at long held anti-American prejudices and a general British uptightness that
I'd forgotten about over the years.
Now it seemed quite normal to tell people that I was close to, that I
loved them. In West Virginia I did it
all the time. But here, the English
kept a firm grasp on their emotions.
To express them too freely was an exposure of self and of feelings that
was apparently unacceptable. Poor
Brits, how they must suffer!
Generally, however, it was a nice
family reunion considering the length of time that had passed since we had all
spent any time together. My sister
Kate lived in Hastings and came over to visit while Phil, who lived in Hackney,
London, came to visit for a day or two.
My parents divorced many years ago and my father had remarried. He was now retired from his life of
academia and lived not far away near Lewes.
So Catherine and I continued to
explore both our new locale and family relationships cautiously and made trips
to look around Hastings and the nearby ancient town of Rye. Hastings gave one a strong sense of both
ancient and recent history. There was
a ruined castle high on the cliffs, which overlooked the town on one side and
the pebble beach on the other. There
was a small fishing fleet and an area of the town with lots of fish and chip
shops as well as fishermen's' bars and fresh fish shops. The whole town smelt of fish and salt. There was a long promenade, which stretched
from one end of the beach to the other, and a dilapidated pier ran a hundred
yards out of it into the sea. This had
been both a crucial defensive town and Southern port a thousand years ago. For decades, Hastings had also been a
resort and vacation center for the English.
Now I had a feeling that the town had lost its way and its
identity. I saw a lot of boarded-up
buildings and houses for sale and half the hotels along the front looked to be
either closed or struggling. Still one
got a strong sense of England's heyday past and with its little winding
backstreets and antique shops, Hastings was a fascinating town to walk
The town of Rye was one of the old
"Cinque Ports" of East Sussex and the river reached all the way up
from the sea at Rye Harbour to just below the town where it was possible to
moor quite large boats. There were
still cobbled streets, lovely old early Tudor buildings and a thriving local
community. It was within walking
distance of my mother's house and Catherine and I started to escape the
intensity of familial scrutiny by making long walks to look around the
town. We looked in the bookshops, the
backstreet antique shops and ate cream teas in dusty cafes. We even found a really nice gallery where
Catherine, the artist for a change, left a collection of the hand beaded
earrings that she had been making in her spare time. They all sold really quickly and Catherine was invited to
participate in the Gallery's Christmas Show later that year.
Joy's house was really small and the attention that she paid to us
was often pretty intense. I suppose
that she just wanted to catch up on her son's life as quickly as possible but I
even found her following me into the bathroom on several occasions, which felt
a bit claustrophobic. My mother is an
intelligent and versatile woman who has dabbled in various artistic
fields. But she has somehow never been
able to fully commit herself to any one art.
She went to Art College in London and I remember her painting in oils
when I was a kid in Africa. At the
same time, she had also been the Head Mistress of the local European school
there. Later she wrote short stories,
won a competition run by the BBC and published several of her efforts. She had become involved in local theater
production and designed and made stage clothes for many plays. I shall always remember her painted Easter
eggs and the linocut Christmas cards that she'd come up with every year. Her house was always full of hand painted
mirrors and decorated picture frames and other examples of her work. After she broke up with my father, she'd tried to go into business
with a friend but somehow lacked the push and the discipline necessary to make
any money out of her art. Once I'd
heard her say that she'd had a rotten life.
I was always sorry that she hadn't been able to really take control of
her life and find more satisfaction and happiness. I realized that I had inherited my mother's creativity and
versatility but had been able to channel it into one field. My father's discipline had come in handy.
Catherine and I found ourselves
needing to escape from that familial scrutiny more and more often during those
first days in England. We would walk
out along the beach to the bird preserve every day. We'd huddle inside the cool bird blind and watch the ducks,
geese and moorhens for hours on end. It
always felt very soothing and somehow far away from the real world of
relationships and demands and noise.
Phil had invited us to come and stay
with him in London in a few days. We
had already decided that the best way to enjoy the family was in short
concentrated doses and that we should stay mobile and keep moving around. But for some reason, he dropped out of sight
for several days leaving us stranded in Rye for a little too long. Tempers became a little frayed after too
many days spent in too small a space.
Eventually Phil showed up again and we said good-bye to Kate and Joy for
awhile and took a train up to London.
Phil's council flat in Hackney was in what I considered a pretty rough
area of town. He wasn't around when we
got there but Catherine managed to climb through a small window without too
much trouble. It transpired that Phil
was deeply involved in a local community issue. The local borough council under Margaret Thatcher had decided to
close down the local branch of the public library. Phil and his Trotskyite comrades were occupying the library in
defiance of the council's order. They
had kept it open and functioning for some months already. Phil was working the night shift and
sleeping on the floor of the library each night so that we were able to take
over his bed at his flat. His was a
noble but ultimately futile effort for eventually the police reoccupied the
library and arrested Phil and his supporters who were all charged and
fined. The library was closed down and
the books literally burned. Shades of
We stayed at Phil's council flat for
a few days but were never terribly comfortable there. The area around was a very broken down slum area and the nearest
Subway station was quite a long walk away.
But we went out to his local pub with him a couple of times where we
started to get reacquainted and heard some good music. There was a canal running right behind his
block of flats and we took long walks along path running beside it.
We went out into Central London most
days and managed to run down my old friend Bill from Ibiza. He had a lovely third floor flat just off
Portobello Rd. and was working in a flower stall just down the road. As always, it was easy to slip back into a
relationship with Bill and we spent a pleasant afternoon catching up on each
other's life. Little seemed to have
changed for him, he still dreamed of travel, talked about Ibiza but seemed very
rooted in his very localized life around Notting Hill Gate.
We celebrated Catherine's twenty
third birthday rather belatedly with an Indian curry meal followed by a
wonderful concert of African music at the Town and Country Club. The band was Mory Kante from Guinea who
played heavily electrified African dance music using a stringed instrument
called the kora as its central sound.
The show featured exotic dancers and had a curious blond couple, a man
and a woman playing jazz saxophone riffs in unison who somehow added an
underlying eroticism to the show. They
wouldn't have seemed out of place in a strip club, doing the same act. It looked like half the African population
of London had turned out for the gig, all dressed in traditional garb and
dancing as hard as we were. That week,
Mory Kante's single "Yeke Yeke" had just entered the Top Ten records
chart in England and the band was hot.
At the end of a rather exciting and
busy week, we took the train back down to Rye for a couple of days and then went
over to nearby Lewes to visit with my father, Maurice and his wife, Patty. I hadn't seen Maurice in many years,
probably fifteen or sixteen and then only for a very brief stay at his house
near Exeter in Devon on one of my few visits to England with Marie Luz. I remembered that Marie Luz had sulked and
stayed in bed most of the time too.
Because she was small and pretty and her English language was very
limited, Maurice had slipped into the foolish habit of talking to her and
treating her like a little girl which Marie Luz had deeply resented.
So Maurice and I had a lot of
history and time to catch up on and I had high hopes of making a good
connection with him. But it wasn't
going to be easy. We had never been close
when I was a child growing up. My
father had been the consummate academic, an English Literature professor who
specialized in the works of Shakespeare.
I had once heard him say that he would rather throw a baby out of the
window than Shakespeare's plays and that offhand remark has stayed with me all
my life. He and my mother had got
married very precipitously in wartime England and I seemed to have heard them
arguing all my childhood. They fought
over me often. Fundamentally, I
believe that Maurice was always jealous of me. He had gone off to fight in the Second World War, which had
broken his education in two and which he had hated. When he returned, he had found baby Jonathan as the new apple of
his wife's eye and he had never really got over it. He always seemed to be busy with his passion, his Literature and
spent his academic holidays marking Oxford and Cambridge exam papers to earn
extra money. When he was around to
participate in the family, he seemed to criticize me continually. My school results were never quite good
enough and I knew early on that I did not have a real intellectual bent. I felt like I was forced through the
education system until I finally emerged with a degree at the end. School was miserable for me until I joined
an outlaw band of like-minded, anti-authority friends and got some kind of life
together outside of the classroom. I
had chosen to study Botany as a science subject and got to hang out in the
school greenhouse where my friends and I would smoke cigarettes and talk about
girls. I think that I spent the only
happy hours in my entire school career in that greenhouse or on study trips to
the country or the seaside.
Maurice sneered at me when I started to groom myself as an
adolescent boy trying to attract girls and humiliated me when I started to
shave and use the cologne after-shave that my mother bought me. Ironically, years later when I'd had a
beard for years and both our lives had changed beyond recognition, he had sent me
a bottle of aftershave for my birthday, demonstrating his complete lack of
empathy or understanding of me and my ways.
On the positive side, I had inherited some of his brains and his
discipline, although it sometimes tended to border on compulsion. He made sure that we saw a good deal of the
world while I was young. In spite of
myself, he made sure that I got a good education though whether that was worth
the accompanying misery, I'm not sure.
He was a clumsy pianist but I probably got my deep love of music from
him. And he was pretty liberal all in
all and never got in the way of my early social and sexual adventures.
When I was in my first year away
from home, he revealed that he was having an affair with Patty, one of his
fellow lecturers in English at Aberdeen University. He moved out of the house and got a job at McGill University in
Montreal for three years until his divorce came through. In spite of their deep incompatibilities,
this turn of events was devastating for my mother. Joy was in her forties by this time and never really got over
the shock, the loss and the private and public humiliation. She always claimed that after all the years
of conflict, she had just become accustomed to the relationship and its limits
and had committed herself to seeing it through. She maintained this attitude and the accompanying bitterness for
the following thirty odd years and had never married again. My brother Phil got married almost
immediately at the age of seventeen to a girl he had made pregnant. Of course that relationship didn't
last. I have never seen my sister Kate
with a man and fear that ultimately she was the hardest hit by the breakup of
the marriage. My father had been
closer to her than to either my brother or I.
Maurice went on to marry Patty, who broke
up her own marriage and family too.
They seemed to have lived idyllically happily ever after. My generation was the generation of easy
and multiple marriages and divorces but my parents' rather ugly divorce, citing
infidelity and correspondents, was the first one to occur in my family. I suppose the results are still to be
observed all these years later in the surviving members of the family. Curiously, I ended up being the only one to
forgive my father and to have a reasonable relationship with him. I think that Maurice, after sixteen unhappy
years in his first marriage, had a chance of happiness and went for it.
I'm very happy that it worked out
for him and might have done the same thing myself. We weren't so dissimilar, my father and I. We had the same drive, the same need to
overachieve and the same hairline. My
hair lasted a little longer than his did.
I realize that I never saw him with much hair and he must have lost it
in his early twenties. Ultimately, the
qualities that I most like in myself, creativity, versatility, sociability and
strong sense of intuition seem to have come from my mother. But without my father's drive and
discipline, I might not have been able to make much use of them.
Meanwhile, both Patty and Maurice
had now retired from their teaching jobs and had bought an incredible old house
somewhere amongst the leafy lanes of Lewes.
This was almost the England of legend, certainly of an era almost past,
far from the noise and activity of the city or even the town. This was a countryside where time seemed to
be measured by the seasons and where the only sounds were the buzzing of the
bees and the whirring of the hay cutting machines.
house, the Toll, was a huge and parts of it were said to have been built in the
fourteenth century with further additions made later. Here Patty and Maurice lived in a sort of timeless splendour,
visited only by a few old academic friends and occasionally by family. Maurice was working on a new Penguin book,
an edited version of Shakespeare's narrative poems, but spent all the time he
could in his extensive gardens. There
he cultivated fabulous flowers and a large vegetable garden, which was his
pride and joy. He must have told me
six times on that first visit to the Toll how a rabbit had eaten all the new
young shoots off the plants in his strawberry patch and how he had finally
waited with a gun and shot the wretched sacrilegious creature. Patty too had her study and was working on
some literary project. She was as
immaculately coiffured, made up and dressed as I remembered her to be. They seemed very happy together, always
talked together in low intimate tones and did housework and the cooking
together. I remembered Maurice as
being virtually unhousetrained, untidy and sloppily dressed but he had
obviously made giant steps in those areas in the past twenty-five years. Good for him I thought.
They were obviously nervous to see
me and to have me stay with them with my new girlfriend. At first, conversation was pretty stilted
and formal. Each meal was a major
production and a major ordeal for me.
I've always associated formal meals with the desperately uncomfortable
family meals of my childhood. These
were the times that my poor dysfunctional family was forced to sit down
together and actually deal with one another.
There were inevitable rows and recriminations and my father was a
stickler for everyone finishing everything on his or her plate whether we liked
the food or not. In fact, any uneaten
food was served up again and again until it was eventually unhappily
digested. The discomfort of these
agonizing meals has never really left me and I've always preferred the
informality of picnics and snacking.
Left to my own devices, I would rarely cook only for myself and tend to
eat standing up at my batik table or hunched over my writing desk. These meals at the Toll were pretty painful
at first, with Patty trying too hard and not knowing what to feed us. Somehow we got through them, made small
talk and stayed away from emotional or controversial issues. Catherine and I escaped into the endless,
winding, high-hedged lanes of East Sussex and would walk for hours, exploring
every twist in the road, every church we encountered, every tiny path we came
across. All the lanes looked the same
and we got lost a couple of times.
Maurice had to drive out to rescue us but we got a good taste of the
surrounding countryside. Towards the
end of that first visit, communication got a bit easier, Patty and Maurice grew
a little less tense and we got the opportunity to talk about ourselves a
little. Catherine's ready smile and
amiable nature, coupled with her considerable intellect, went down very well. One day, Maurice said that he thought that
I wasn't doing too badly in my life. I
think that he envied me my freedom and my globetrotting. I had gone from being the black sheep of
the family to a more favoured position.
I felt intuitively that all talk about the past and feelings were
strictly off limits. When in a
subsequent phone call, I told Maurice that I loved him, he was acutely
embarrassed and spluttered "Righto! Jolly good!" or something of the
sort. Not exactly open,
"touchy-feely" folk, my family.
Soon it was time to take the train
back to London and for us to go to Phil's again. We had to get ready for our trip to Ibiza. We all felt good about our visit to the
Toll and promised to go back there later on.