Vol. 11 No. 9 · 4 May 1989

Too Close to the Bone

Allon White: Fragments of an Autobiography

12,266 words

Faust, despairing of all philosophies, may yet drain a marsh or rescue some acres from the sea.

Edward Dowden

Passionate art, the drowner of dykes ...

W.B. Yeats

Isuppose this is my biography, my life. Fragments of memory. Perhaps even a memorial. Except that I don’t believe in biographies and advise you to be especially sceptical about this one, written, one has to say, under the stress of illness and in extreme haste. Self-perception is distorted enough in the healthy, God knows what it is like in those gripped by terminal illness. Don’t ask me: I’m terminally ill.

I am 36 years old, a teacher of literature, and I am dying of leukaemia. I have fought the thing for two years, I have had two bone-marrow transplants from my sister and more chemotherapy than anyone should ever have to endure. But it seems I am losing the battle now. Flaccid, diseased cells are swarming and swelling inside my bones and I have little time left. Of course I’ve waited too long before writing this and now it is late, probably too late. Like beginning to write at twilight with no lamp as the darkness falls. And there is no light now. There was some a little while ago and I should have written then. I also had some within me, a deep blue light the colour of Iris which now and then I could see far inside my body and which glowed and gave me great comfort. But it is really dark now, my blue light has deserted me and it is getting very late.

An Old Novel

Several things still puzzle me. I will tell you about the novel and you will have to see what you think – I know that a central knot of my life and unconscious world is tied up in that abortive fiction, but I cannot quite touch it myself. Perhaps the roots of my illness are there in that early attempt to write a novel. Certainly it now seems like it, years later.

It was when I was breaking up with my first wife. One night I was in my room in Norwich (I had been teaching away from home at the University there) and, pained beyond endurance by the break-up, I suddenly began to write – in extremis, you might say (it seems it takes cataclysm to get me to write anything other than scholarly articles). I began to write fast and fluently, pages of the stuff, and though my eyes were full of tears and I normally write with pedantic care and exquisite self-consciousness, this time a coherent story sprang from the end of my pen already-formed, the fictional names and the narrative all in place without my conscious mind having any idea that all this had been waiting inside me. In fact, this story, or another story of which this was a strange and displaced version, had been waiting thirty years for its expression, but I was not to discover that until much later. At the time, all I knew was this plangent ecstasy of automatic writing in which a clear, sad story poured out of me, one which I had never known was there.

Even now, as I resume the story for you, new connections come to mind, but they will have to wait a while. The plot was a double-braid: one strand was set in the 17th century during the Civil War and concerned an obsessive, self-absorbed mystic called Nicodemus; the other strand was set in the late 1950s in Sardinia and concerned a hydraulics engineer called Lucas Arnow employed by the Ford Foundation to drain the malarial swamps of the Sardinian coast as part of the world-wide effort after the last war to eradicate malaria. God knows where these names and characters came from, but they wrote themselves immediately onto the pages in front of me and I was surprised to meet them. I knew immediately that they were dissociated and egoistic bits of myself split by time and place, but they were also bizarre and unexpected, complete strangers to me. I didn’t even know I knew about the Ford Foundation project, but evidently I did because it is perfectly accurate – I must have read it somewhere and ‘forgotten’. I think this kind of forgetfulness, this false forgetfulness where things are lost but not destroyed, hidden but perhaps not for ever, is what this unconventional biography means by ‘memory’. Not so much memories as things forgotten and found again. Remembrance.

Anyway, Nicodemus, my 17th-century religious fanatic, was making his way from the Midlands to the Fens – to Ely, in fact, because he had a vision that the fenland marshes were the place of salvation. He had concocted a bizarre and idiosyncratic theology, rather like the wonderful Miller in The Cheese and the Worms, but in his case it was marshland, and particularly the reeds, which played the central part. The reed is one of the symbols of the Passion, for, on the Cross, Christ had been tendered a vinegar-soaked sponge on the end of a reed. The reed also represents the Just, who dwell on the banks of the waters of Grace. And it represents the multitude of the lowly faithful (‘Can the rush grow up without mire? Can the flag grow without water?’). The Evangelists wrote with reeds upon papyrus, another kind of reed bearing the words of God. And the Red Sea (actually Yam Suph, the Reed Sea) had parted to lead the way to the Promised Land. From these and other scraps of insignificant material Nicodemus had stitched together his passionate, crazy faith, and it was now leading him on a pilgrimage, amidst the carnage of the Civil War, to Ely and the Great Fens.

His half of the story was thoroughly picaresque. It was farcical – a bit of a carnival I would say now, but I hadn’t read about Bakhtin and the carnivalesque in those days (it was 1977). Nicodemus gradually accumulated a motley gang of misfits and outcasts on his slow pilgrimage, including Widow Joan, a vast and wonderful creation, who, in one episode, shows her contempt for a local vicar (who has objected to their overnight stay in his parish) by baptising a huge, squealing pig in the village pond. I forget the other details of this 17th-century part of the plot, which essentially creaked and reeled from one improbable village adventure to another until Nicodemus, having lost all his friends and hangers-on, arrives alone at the Great Fen just outside Ely.

It is evening. Two things have happened which Nicodemus could not have known, and I am unsure whether they could have happened together historically, but they appeared together as the nemesis of his life in the novel. What he beholds when he at last gazes out over the marshland, the goal of months of wandering and years of fervent, private communion, is not the wilderness of the sacred marsh but a drainage channel straight as the arrow of God, leading to the horizon and surrounded by regular fields, ditches, dykes and every sign of new agriculture and hydraulic engineering. A Dutch landscape, in effect, humanised, orderly, patiently raised from the fenland broads by the Dutch engineer Vermeyden and now turning the lost Medieval world of the fowlers and fishermen into farmland.

The other thing which Nicodemus could not know about was the iconoclastic destruction of the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral, the figures of the Saints and the Evangelists and the Virgin having been smashed and broken and hurled into the waters of the Fen years before. But with the draining of the Fen, the lowering of the waters and the shrinking of the peat beds, on that particular summer evening as Nicodemus falls to his knees at the collapse of his dream, the evening sunlight reveals the broken form of a cathedral statue nearby, half-submerged in the mud of a reed-ditch. Nicodemus does not recognise it for a statue, of course, ripped out from the Cathedral. He sees only the figure of Christ, and with this impoverished illusion (the Christ has only one arm and one eye, but Nicodemus does not notice this in his joy) the homely secular landscape of the new engineering is plunged back into a spurious Medieval enchantment. It is a moment of treacherous epiphany, at once plangent and ridiculous, returning the world briefly to the darkening, pathless wastelands of Nicodemus’s curious vision.

Set over against this Medieval and extraordinary mystic at the threshold of the New World, with its technical domination of the hidden places of the earth, there was the other half of the novel. This half concerned a modern Vermeyden figure, the modern hydraulics engineer Lucas Arnow working in Sardinia. I have never been to Sardinia. Come to that, it is only since my leukaemia began that I have developed a passionate interest in the 17th century. So I was breaking the first and elementary rule of the novelist – write about what you have experienced and know about. But then, someone inside me did know this strange fiction, with its names and settings and narratives. It came from my pen with thoughtless fluency. I felt a mere scribe, a copyist.

The second half of this novel which I scribbled out all through the night those years ago in Norwich has a horrid prescience about it now which hurts me to even think about. Lucas Arnow dies of the malaria which he has come to eradicate. He brings the cure to the local people but dies of the disease in the process. Now malaria isn’t leukaemia, but the more I begin to unravel this cathartic fiction of mine from the past, the more connections I feel and understand even if it is too late now. Malaria, leukaemia. My novelistic descriptions of Arnow’s physical suffering were entirely fanciful at that time, purely imaginary. But since then I have lived through them all. And now, like him, I am dying of a terrible disease. But it is too late now, of course. Too late altogether.

Lucas Arnow is a professional engineer draining the stagni, or foetid coastal marshes in which the malarial mosquitoes breed. For many years I have treasured a quotation from Walter Benjamin which may have helped spawn the character of Arnow or, more likely, contributed something further to a figure already compounded of many memories and unconscious sources: ‘The slightest carelessness in the digging of a ditch or the buttressing of a dam, the least bit of negligence or selfish behaviour on the part of an individual or group of men in the maintenance of the common hydraulic wealth, becomes, under unusual circumstances, the source of social evils and far-reaching social calamity. Consequently a life-giving river requires on pain of death a close and permanent solidarity.’ Lucas Arnow, never having heard of Walter Benjamin, is nevertheless on the side of the common hydraulic wealth. A man of modest and sincere social conscience, a man of technē, of the scientific rationalism and practical reason which were so much a part of Fifties optimism and post-war expansion, he works for the common good and with a revulsion against the evils of the marshland – its disease, its mire, its stagnant dangers. He believes strongly in clearing up mess. The foetid pools and malarial reedbeds of the marsh represent, for him, all that civilisation has had to struggle against in order to emerge from the primeval slime. It was the humble digger of irrigation channels, the builders of bridges and dams, who first released mankind from inundation, flood and chaos, not Noah. Human life only really began to flourish in the deltas and swamps of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, in Kaneh, in the Holy Land of Cane and Tall Grasses when the mud and filth of the yearly floods were tamed with the measuring rod and the simple shovel. Nothing had really changed, according to Arnow’s way of thinking. It was still the sewers and ditches, the reservoirs, waterpipes and dams connected and hidden in one vast, intricate network beneath the earth, which held civilisation safe from chaos and disease: the common hydraulic wealth.

I must confess that there was little more to Lucas Arnow than this, and he appears a little small and dry when set beside the fanaticism and inner visionary power of Nicodemus. When I think of Lucas Arnow I see a worthy and anxious man with little humour and even less authority. Even now, by quoting Benjamin and so forth above, I have endowed him with more passion and cosmic vision than he had in the original fiction 11 years ago. Not a particularly attractive person to sustain half a novel – there is something rather abstract and programmatic about him. Indeed, in retrospect, I am astonished at the political symmetry and opposition of these two men, one at the beginning and one at the end (?) of the great arch of bourgeois science and technical control of the world. And what a gulf of time and space I put between Nicodemus the visionary anarchist and Lucas Arnow the progressive rationalist. Three centuries of history and half the length of Europe. This was not a consciously planned or controlled decision, and if I can discover now the links and distance between the two halves of this schizoid fiction then I think I shall have learned something important. Certainly, at the time, the two halves of the novel would not coalesce. They remained obdurately separate and opposed. It was the failure to integrate the two stories satisfactorily into one fiction which eventually prevented me from finishing it. Written in such rhapsodic haste, it just stayed as it was, resistant to any attempt at revision. Its incompleteness has haunted me ever since. Perhaps now, as I go on, I shall be able to finish with it. Finally.

What obsessed me at the time of writing, however, was not Arnow’s mind but his death alone. Very little else got sketched in. I called the unfinished novel Gifts and it began with Lucas receiving one of the workmen from the marsh into his office. The workman had discovered the rare plant Erba Sardoa, the Sardinian herb which, when administered as a poison, produces a horrible rictus upon the face of the victim who is convulsed with ‘sardonic’ laughter. This ‘gift’ (in German, this also means poison) which opens the novel is a portent of Lucas’s end. For he is poisoned, not so much by the malarial swamp, nor even by the interminable delays of machinery and parts which in Fifties Sardinia mimic the stagnation and decay of the marsh itself – though both these natural and institutional evils drain his strength and will. It is really within himself that the poison develops. His entirely laudable but quite limited petit-bourgeois sense of purpose and identity are no match for the miasmic forces welling up inside him. It is precisely the absence of magical vision and rage within him, or at least their deep and irrecoverable repression, which cankers his soul. His dykes and dams hold back more than the insidious destructive power of nature:

Soon, soon, through dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
and, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

                 Auden, ‘A Summer Night’

Lucas’s death, which terminates his half of the story and which is paralleled by Nicodemus’s epiphany on the margin of the Great Fen, was the most intensely-wrought part of the novel. Lucas had been waiting all day for a vital piece of hydraulic equipment (a Bernoulli meter) to arrive from Rome. He is suffering a bad malarial attack, and throughout the long sultry day he drifts in and out of full consciousness, through hallucination, memory and daydream. He becomes superstitiously convinced that his own survival is bound up with the arrival of the Bernoulli meter from Rome. Time and again he asks about it. Towards nightfall he becomes more feverish and ill, and the friend who has been by his bedside in his villa, and his housekeeper, decide that he must be ferried across the bay to the doctor in Muravera (his villa is on a promontory across from the small town, close to the edge of the marsh but also looking out over the sea). The Bernoulli meter has not arrived. As darkness comes, he is carried out to the small fishing boat which also doubles as a local ferry and the boat sets out on the short journey across the bay to the town. Lucas dies before the boat has got half-way across. Strangely, I felt his death in metaphors of communication, a language too modern for Lucas, but that is how it came out:

  Lucas was slumped half sitting and half lying in the bottom of the boat. It was warm even out here on the sea. The sky was cloudy and the air thick as if miasmic fingers of bad air had floated out from the marshes onto the surface of the sea in lethargic pursuit of the small boat. Lucas was on his left side with his knees drawn up tight and his hands pushed down between his thighs. A grey blanket was pulled up over his shoulder. He shook his head to clear it and opened his eyes once to look towards the lights of the town. It was useless. His thoughts drifted again. His head began to fill with noises even though the boat was sliding almost silently through the water with only little waveslaps clapping against the bow now and then.

  So this was dying. Nothing peaceful about it. Lucas struggled to stay in contact with the boat and the sky and the water but there was that terrible noise. What was it, that crackle and interference which made everything so far away now. Lucas moved his head from side to side very slowly trying to clear his head filled with shapeless and indistinct noises. It was becoming so noisy, so busy. Like a city rush hour. So very noisy and busy. Then there was a final subsidence of all clarity and sharpness into a sea of unfathomable sounds, a voice receding just beyond intelligibility like a radio station fading away in the night. And it was getting louder. Lucas groaned in panic. Something seemed to split and slither deep within his belly. It’s not silent not silent at all but loud. There was a rush of pure sound through the air like a wind becoming louder and louder crowding out and pushing through him and over him. A gleeful confusion of bugs and babble tumbled and fell upon him like insects swarming in the darkness. Mosquitoes came, filling up his nose and his mouth until at last his mouth, stuffed with the deafening noises, stiffened into a final rictus of defeat.

But Lucas does hear something just before he dies. Across the empty water of the bay a young boy and his father are fishing from a boat anchored near the shore. The young boy is trailing a line from the stern of the small boat and their voices carry clearly across the surface of the waters. As Lucas dies, there is a sudden disturbance and a splash which Lucas hears like an echo from far off. The last thing that Lucas hears, clearly now, with a preternatural clarity, is the excited voice of the young boy in the darkness. ‘Look Papa. Look. Look. A fish. I’ve caught a fish.’

The Village

Cranfield, the Bedfordshire village in which I was born and grew up, is an unappealing place. From very early on I knew I disliked it and wanted to get out. Essentially, it is a nondescript straggle of houses sandwiched uncomfortably between the vast London Valley Brickyard in the Marston Valley on one side, with its hundreds of sulphurous chimneys, and the airfield on the other side, a leftover from the Second World War which has since become a college of aeronautics.

When I was a boy, the village reeked of sulphur for much of the year, whenever the wind blew up the valley from the brickworks chimneys. The sulphur withered the leaf on the trees, especially the elms, and it gave me chronic catarrh. I have a poor sense of smell and blame it on the brickworks. What perfunctory nasal education I received as a child came from my visits to my aunt in Grimsby – at least there the indescribably noxious stink of the Humberside Cod Liver Oil factory, one whiff of which made me vomit, formed something of a counterpoint with the smell of sulphur. In consequence, my olfactory discrimination as an adult splits the whole wonderful subtle world of scents and smells into the codliverish or the sulphurous: reading Proust for the first time I wept in envy and disbelief.

Despite my innate dislike of Cranfield, it is, like my leukaemia, in my bones. It is also, in the most oblique and obdurate way, in my novel, though at first glance the village could not seem further removed from the 17th-century Fens and Fifties Sardinia. But weaving backwards and forwards between childhood memory and recollections of the unfinished fiction, under the duress of my present illness with its closeness of death, I unearth, here and there, bits of understanding and connectedness. It gives me a luxurious sense of indulgent self-archaeology. It also helps to keep me alive, like refusing to die because I haven’t heard the end of the story. My Scheherezade.

Cranfield is geographically not the South, nor the Midlands, nor East Anglia – it sits uncomfortably on a small plateau between the three areas, pulled in all directions and blandly unsure of its identity. It is not horribly ugly, which would at least give it a kind of unlovely value. It is indeterminate and forgettable, straggly and ad hoc, like so many of the towns and villages which just fail to be part of the gritty Midlands and also fail to be part of the desolate beauty of East Anglia. Corby, Northampton, Leicester, Kettering – they all appear part of this grey and undistinguished part of the country, and they all give me the same desperate feeling as Cranfield.

There is something lopsided and one-dimensional about the village, caused by the perimeter fence of the airfield which runs its full length and cuts off its northern side. The airfield was built in 1937 and covered Perry-field, Leanfield and Stillipers, a large area which had once been the common land of the village. Undoubtedly the MoD impoverished and diminished the village with its barbed-wire perimeter far more effectively than the centuries of enclosure had managed to do. Naturally the airfield required the flat land for runways and so took most of the small plateau on which the village is built. The result is that Cranfield feels as if it has been shouldered to the very edge of the plateau and is about to slither down Marston Hill into the valley.

So: to the north the barbed-wire perimeter fence of the airfield; to the south the steep slope of the valley ending in the brickworks. There was nowhere to walk to any more. If now you want to wander around, you are forced to parade up the High Street and back, past the numerous new little housing estates which have filled in the spaces where the farms used to be along the village main street: Moat farm, Glebe farm, Washingleys Manor, Orchard Way, Walkhouse. And of course the Old Rectory, a splendid Edwardian monstrosity the decaying and empty rooms of which I used to explore as a boy, has now become a very smart little estate of ‘neo-Georgian’ houses overlooking the Church. The builders did leave the Cedar tree which used to stand on the Rectory lawn, but it has to be said that it has lost its lordly splendour and seems a trifle embarrassed now, surrounded by a dozen neat neo-Georgian family homes. Too grand and expansive for its surroundings, the cedar is humiliated by its size, an arboreal Gulliver towering above the Lilliputian privet and suburban forsythia.

When I was a young boy, however, this rather spiritless village had one wonderful compensation. Have you noticed that children, wherever they can, make their own secret pathways and tracks around their neighbourhood by following ditches and waterways, often inaccessible to adults. Waterpipes with nasty spiked collars at each end, stretched across rivers, often prove more popular crossing points for children, especially gangs of young boys, than the bridge down the road. Ditches, streams, ponds and pools, culverts under the dual-carriageway or the railway line – these places form a semi-secret network of tracks, hiding-places and dens which adults half-notice but never see in the way children do.

Cranfield had a rich hinterland of such waterways, particularly old moats and ponds, running through fields and back-gardens the whole length of the village. They were alternative, secret byways for the children of the village. Adults rarely strayed there, yet especially during the school holidays the hedges and ponds and ditches were alive with children. This was my world. I seem to have spent much of my childhood playing around these places, trekking from one to the other, building secret camps in the willows, constructing dams and bridges, catching newts, tadpoles and sticklebacks, venturing out onto the ice in winter. One time we built a raft from old oil-drums, and, too afraid to sail on it ourselves, we tethered one of David Luck’s hapless chickens to its deck and sent it on a squawking unhappy journey downstream. Another time we constructed an elaborate camp on a small island in the middle of a pond with a rope drawbridge worked by discarded bell-ropes from the Church.

I only learned recently that Cranfield has a unique local history in respect of the moats and ditches which were strung along its length. There were dozens of them and the local archivist remarks in his history of the village that ‘numerous ponds have long been a common feature of the Cranfield landscape.’ In addition to the many natural ponds there are the curious Cranfield moats dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Evidently most of the farmsteads in the parish were moated or rebuilt within their moats as late as the 19th century and show a remarkable historical continuity from Medieval times. Wood End, Moat farm, East End farm, Boxhedge House, Eyreswood farm, Broad Green farm, Perry Hill farm – all had moats, and some of these remained up to a few years ago. The Parish Survey records in 1722 the ‘Messuage in Cranfield built by Dr William Aspin, with the moat round it and groves of trees adjoining’. There is no clear explanation for the existence or indeed the survival of these moats, since no other local parishes appear to have them. Moat farm was still completely encircled with water when I was a boy, and almost every old house in the village had a pond or part of a moat somewhere nearby. As children, we could make our way clear from one end of the village to the other by trailing from one pond to another, and they were often connected up with ditches and drainage channels. Our own house, dating from the 1800s, had a curious bridge built into one side-wall, spanning a marshy piece of land, probably too boggy to support the foundations.

It is only now and in the light of my old novel that I see how my childhood imagination was formed in close and unconscious connection with the odd, moated history of my village.

Its abandoned moats and watercourses were a secret domain which filled my days. Concealed by copses of willow, bullrushes and overgrown hedgerow, there was a magical calm and concealment about this marshy realm. There was also something melancholic and a little frightening, too, since the water never flowed. All these ponds and moats were green and stagnant, as still as death. They had long since clogged with weed and flotsam, the drainage pipes smashed and the interconnecting ditch dammed up here and there with mud and undergrowth. And the ponds were a common dumping-ground for village refuse: piles of old bricks, rusting bicycles, even one or two old cars. Whatever their original purpose, as the years went by these moats and ponds were filled-in and built-over. So in one sense it is clear that Nicodemus, on his slow pilgrimage from the Midlands to the Fens, was in search not only of God and the reeds, but of my own vanished childhood.

As time went on these ponds and pools which so fascinated me as a boy disappeared one by one. The moat system which had lasted from Medieval times to the 1950s was buried in less than ten years, first under rubble and landfill, then under new housing and tarmac. Each summer holiday there were fewer and fewer ponds and pools. I felt very sorry for the frogs and the newts crushed beneath the tons of broken brick and earth. These trivial deaths really bothered me. Only a few years ago I wrote a strange and not very good poem about a poor frog, again, at the time, unaware of the origins of my concern. God how the gloomy enchantment of those stagnant places held me in thrall. Yet it was only four years ago, at the age of 32, that I began to learn why these marshy moats and stygian pools have exerted such an exorbitant grip upon my unconscious throughout my life.

I came to learn that the most important single event of my childhood was the death of my young sister, Carol. Without the least suspicion, I had lived, worked and loved in the shadow of her death. Its hold upon me had been as complete as it was unsuspected. Certainly, when I wrote the novel my drowned sister never entered my head. But all those marshes and swamps, the Great Fen and the Sardinian stagni, Nicodemus saved and Lucas Arnow dead, how clearly now they seem displacements of my childhood mourning and terror, my obsessive lingering at the pool’s edge summer and winter all the years of my growing-up. But I did not know it then, I thought it was about other things – which it also was, as I shall describe in due course. But I know that the death of my sister Carol was the secret kernel to my marshland fiction.

For it was in one of these village ponds that Carol drowned. It was 1956, and I was five years old. Carol and her twin sister Debbie were three. It was summertime and very hot. Carol simply wandered off down the overgrown garden and squeezed through a hole in the hedge, disappearing within seconds. Her body was recovered the next day when they dragged the pond. The pond had been covered in Canadian pond weed from edge to edge and looked just like a beautifully smooth lawn. She probably walked, or ran, straight into it, thinking it was a garden.

A Screen Memory

I was playing on the back lawn. It was a really hot July afternoon and I was five years old. There was a small sand heap on one corner of the grass not far from the garden swing and the old plum tree. I was a bit bored and listless. I had a white sunhat on and I was idly shovelling sand with a small tin seaside spade, red with a wooden handle. Carol was a bit further down the lawn away from the house. Gradually she began to wander down the garden further and further away from the house and away from me. I knew that she shouldn’t go that far down the lawn, and I knew that she would get into trouble, but I didn’t say anything. I just watched without speaking, a small boy motionless and silent, no longer digging, but watching his little sister waddling off down the garden into the long grass. I watched until she had disappeared. I knew that she was doing something bad and that she might be hurt or become lost. But I stayed quite still and silent, calling neither to my mother nor to Carol. This memory, carrying with it the full burden of guilt for my sister’s death, I experienced with unbearable clarity. I was responsible. I could have stopped her. I knew she was going to lose herself in the perilous forbidden places at the bottom of the garden, but I said nothing. I wanted her dead. I hated her. So I stood silently in the sunshine, five years old, making one or two idle marks on the sand with my seaside spade, watching her go.

This memory, etched into my mind with the clarity of total recall, is false. I was not in the garden at the time when she wandered off. According to my mother, I was elsewhere, playing with a friend in his garden. I couldn’t have seen her go. It was impossible. I was not there.

The Realm of Estrangement

Since I contracted leukaemia my father and I have been much closer. There is no chance now of being unfinished with one another. He has held me to him. He cares for me. And after a fashion, we talk to one another about important things. Believe me, it hasn’t always been like that. Like so many of my friends, I have spent most of my life feeling estranged from my parents in some vague and indefinite way. And the old clichés about lack of communication and parents just not understanding and children not caring all seemed justified. Up until my illness I felt more and more alarmed that as my parents got older they would die before we had said how much we cared for each other, before we forgave each other. I wanted family closeness and for us all to talk openly to each other. Of course it never quite entered my head that it was not my parents who would die, but me.

It is impossible to say whether my illness is connected with the death of my sister all those years ago. Perhaps, as I sometimes think, it is pure biological malignancy quite unrelated to my spiritual life, a random incident at the level of genetic material and swarming cells as far removed from my unconscious and my history as some galaxy remote in the heavens. Yet the prescience of my fiction disturbs me. Malaria. Leukaemia. Disease of the blood. A life which, at every crisis, turned broodingly to images of shady ponds and stagnant waters, death by drowning. I remember one afternoon not too long after Carol’s death when I was wandering aimlessly around the old greenhouse at the bottom of the garden. Again it was a hot summer’s day. At the back of the greenhouse there was a waterbutt filled to the brim. I could only just see over the edge. Waterlilies floated silently on the warm still water. It was preternaturally quiet, the day held in suspension by the heat and stillness. I was quite alone and I stood on tiptoe grasping the edge of the rusted butt staring at the water’s reflective surface of thick green liquid. Movement came only from one or two mayflies skating back and forth between the lilies. I seem to be held there for ever, even now, peering into the depths of the water, trying to get down beneath the surface, amongst the coiled stems of the lilies and the shoals of tiny white wireworms wriggling and disappearing into the green depths.

In the early days of my leukaemia two years ago I was convinced that this death wish, this identification with my drowned sister, was responsible for my illness. Three things, tangled up together but separate, seemed involved. The first was identification: inside me somewhere Carol actually constituted a part of my being, she was me. Not as a part of my personality, but as something much more physical, an hysterical body, a violence which terrifies me even when expressed as mere words here on the page. I can hardly begin to approach this level of my being: Here Be Monsters. Nothing can be held steady enough for language in this place, things flicker and slide, shapes loom and melt away. There is none of that elegiac lyricism of drowning and summer afternoons here – gentle kaddish for the dead. Here it burns and hurts. It is violent, spasmodic, monstrous. There is no wholeness. I am not myself here. I can bear to stay here no longer.

But there is a second thing, a second way in which Carol’s death is inside me – less exorbitant, a little more approachable, perhaps. I took upon myself, at the age of five, complete and sole responsibility for her death. It hardly matters that in fact so did everyone else in the family, each one of us taking up the burden alone, never dreaming that we had all done the same. Nor did it matter that I didn’t ‘understand’ death at that age. I understood enough to know that a terrible crime had taken place. There were policemen standing awkwardly in the kitchen, anguished tears from my mother carried sobbing round to Grandma’s house, whispers, knots of people gathered outside the house, groups of men from the village coming and going throughout the day late into the night. How a child takes on the guilt of death and separation I don’t know, but before the body had been found something inside me had already decided that I was responsible for the crime, that I had a dreadful guilty secret that I would henceforth carry with me unknown to myself for thirty years. And like the scene of seduction in Freud, the truth or falsehood of the matter was utterly irrelevant.

The third element in Carol’s death was the childhood puzzle of death itself and my unresolved mourning for her sudden, permanent disappearance. I did not attend the funeral and until last year she remained somehow unburied for me. I could not ‘put her away’, too many unfinished and importuning emotions remained.

The fact of my leukaemia intervened across all this with an extraordinary new possibility of resolution. After some months of acute illness it became clear that the only thing which might save my life was a bone-marrow transplant. This still remains the major hope of cure for most people with the disease. Sadly, it requires a closely matched donor for the marrow, and by far the most important group of donors are siblings – the brothers and sisters of the victim. The chances of a sibling possessing a suitable marrow are about four to one. This means that, taken with those patients who have no siblings, less than 15 per cent of leukaemia sufferers will have a marrow-donor.

There seemed something marvellously providential when we discovered that my sister Debbie was a perfect match. A real prospect of cure was suddenly available. My sister would save me. She was delighted. She was proud and happy to be able to help fight for my life. Always somewhat distant from each other in the past, we were suddenly brought really close. We laughed at the curious fact that the transplant would change my blood-group to hers, that we should indeed become blood relatives.

Remember that Debbie was Carol’s twin sister. They were identical. Gradually the symbolic force of it all began to dawn on me. The marrow of twins is perfectly matched. If, somehow, my morbid identification with Carol were in some complicated way connected to my falling ill, then how perfect that her marrow, her blood, in Debbie, should be used to save my life. It could not fail. I felt no religious redemption involved, but the poetic logic of it was overwhelming. I felt joyful and confident that such a pattern had emerged. It just seemed impossible that it would not work. Debbie would give me life just as Carol had threatened to take my life away. Carol had made me ill, Debbie would make me well again.

I passed the summer months before the transplant in a largely confident and happy mood. I set about trying to settle the account with Carol. I needed to rid myself of all that stagnant water and muddy morbidity, shake it off once and for all. I needed to be able to bury her at last, peacefully and permanently. I needed to let go of her. I went to a therapist and worked through all that I have told you and I slowly and carefully tried to find good ways of ending her mournful tyranny over my life.

When the twins were born, my father had planted two lovely juniper trees either side of the path in the garden. Tiny saplings, they had been intended to grow with the twins as they grew up. When Carol died, either my father deliberately dug up one of the trees or it died: in any case, only one tree was left, Debbie’s tree, after Carol’s death. It remained on the left-hand side of the pathway guarding the way down to the bottom of the garden and the orchard. In one of my therapeutic sessions I had a clear and purposeful vision of Debbie’s tree, now very tall and straight, over thirty years old, and I knew that it symbolised life and hope for me. I also knew that I should replant Carol’s tree, a new tree in the position of the old one, and that this, too, would give me life and strength. I also felt that, at last, I should be able to symbolically bury Carol for myself in the planting of this tree. And it was not enough merely to have this vision. I must actually do it, actually buy a juniper sapling and go back to the old house and plant it as it had been.

My brother-in-law thought I was crazy, Debbie said she understood but had her doubts, my parents seemed to think that anything which helped was all right. So I planted the tree. I dug the hole in the earth, but before I put the tree into it I placed a small wooden box beneath the roots with a rose inside it and a short prayer to Carol asking her to help me. The tree looked beautiful. Shortly afterwards I went into hospital and had the transplant, which seemed a great success. For six months I grew strong again until the following May when, suddenly, I relapsed. The leukaemia was back. The transplant had failed.

Great-Grandma and the Well

The Whites have lived in Cranfield for at least two hundred years and for most of that time the men of the family were village artisans and craftsmen. The family business seems to have covered a variety of skilled trades, but for most of the 19th century the Whites were gunsmiths and watchmakers. By the turn of the century my great-grandfather was also running the local post and telegraph office as well as selling and repairing bicycles, making and repairing guns, clocks and watches. Omni-competent, occupying sprawling premises in the centre of the village, by the time of the Great War the Whites were a village institution, one step down in importance from the Vicar and one step up from the local farmers and other tradesfolk. However, when my great-grandfather died, my great-grandma did a curious thing. She took all the guns and clocks which he had in his workshop, all the spare parts and bits of mechanism which he had needed for his trade, and she threw them down the well in the back yard. From that moment on, the family gunsmithing and watchmending were at an end.

It gives me a most peculiar feeling to imagine that moment when the guns and clocks, pendulums, cogs, and tiny fragments of mechanism, were hurled into the well. They must all have rusted to nothing by now deep beneath the back-garden. My father says that great-grandma did it because she was afraid of the guns in the house, but that doesn’t account for the clocks and the bits and pieces. She certainly didn’t want her son following his father’s trade, that’s for sure. From that time on, the post office and a heavier kind of engineering – agricultural vehicles and such – became the mainstay of the family.

Indeed, the skills and abilities of the Whites closely followed the technical and engineering developments of the century: from guns and clocks to bicycles and early farm machinery in my great-grandfather’s time, through to lorries and finally cars in my father’s time. By the time I was born ‘Allon White – Son’ had been moving quietly with – or just behind – the times since before the First World War and was a small but modestly successful village garage. A quiet local business, it was as ready to mend bicycle punctures and pull farm tractors out of ditches as it was to sell Morris cars, repair lorries and taxi Mrs Malsher to hospital on the third Thursday of every month. The post office and the garage were run side by side. Between the wars great-aunt Tess used to run the village telephone switchboard where each phone had a jack-plug of its own and the operator listened in and personally relayed every call (there is a splendid and hilarious example in the Ealing comedy Whisky Galore). Every Saturday morning great-grandfather used to open the back-parlour as a barber’s shop. He bought a special barber’s chair with a high back and neck-rest which swung down for shaving, and each week men from the village would gather round the back of the house for a haircut, a shave and a gossip. I don’t know exactly when the Whites ceased to be village barbers – probably on the death of great-grandfather along with the gun and clock repairs, I suspect. The post office and the garage became more and more important over the years. Practical, hard-working, unpretentious, without wide ambitions, the men of the family from great-grandfather down to my own father carried the business on generation after generation.

A certain timidity and caution marked these men despite their innovations and diversity of skills. They kept out of controversy just as they seem to have kept out of the pubs (of which there were at least nine in Cranfield in great-grandfather’s time). The family had some status in the community and was well respected, partly because of the very centrality and diversity of its functions, partly because of a reputation for scrupulousness and fair dealing, and partly because of its long history in Cranfield. Despite a near hegemonic monopoly on every village activity – post and telegraph, barbering, agricultural machinery and blacksmithing, taxi and car repairs, guns, clocks and watches – the men had an unassuming and down-to-earth quality which well-suited local people.

I think the women of the family have always been somewhat more ambitious and class-conscious than their husbands. In part, this is because they have come into the village from outside – and my mother’s story is an extreme case of this which I shall come to presently. But grandfather married a bit above himself when he courted my grandma – at least so she was fond of hinting to me as a child, and indeed she was of gentry stock and introduced a new level of social accomplishment into the family. She had studied music in Paris, spoke some French, played the piano extremely well and tirelessly corrected the rustic manners of her husband, children and grandchildren. In the Thirties grandfather briefly became the owner of a Rolls-Royce, which he hired out for all the local weddings and used as a taxi to ferry local people to Bedford on market day. In the Fifties my father’s sister married the Vicar’s son and a little later the other sister married an Air Force officer; grandfather was chairman of the Harter Trust which administered the almshouses.

My great-grandfather was called Allon White and I am named after him. The family firm has been called Allon White – Son since just after the Great War – indeed I have a photograph taken in 1920 of the post office and bicycle shop with ‘Allon White – Son’ displayed boldly across the front. This shop sign tells two stories, one about the distant family past and one about myself.

The first story is just a speculation of mine and there is no one left alive to confirm it or deny it. However, I possess an even earlier photograph than the one I have mentioned. This earlier photograph was taken around 1910 or 1912 and the whole family stands informally in the garden in front of the post office: great-grandfather with his full-length white apron, my grandfather aged about twelve sitting on the fence beside his brother Alwyn, aged about fourteen; great-grandma in a full-sleeved silk blouse and her two daughters; finally the two village postmen in their uniforms holding their bicycles, with Tinker the dog sitting alert and watchful in one of the front baskets. Between the two photographs the First World War intervened. Uncle Alwyn, grandad’s elder brother (14 years old in the picture), was called up for active service and contracted TB in the trenches. He was invalided home and, since it was thought that fresh air was helpful for TB, lived and slept either in the washhouse or in a tent in the back-garden throughout the winter. He died in 1919. Since my grandfather was two years younger than Alwyn he only got called up at the end of the war (he always maintained that he was the last man in England to go into the Royal Flying Corps – the day following his enlistment it became the Royal Air Force). The second photograph was taken about a year later, about 1920, and whereas the shop sign before the war read simply ‘Allon White’, the sign after the war has added ‘– Son’. There was only one son left now, my grandfather, and he is taken up onto the shop sign very shortly after Alwyn’s death – in defiance, or pride, or compensation, who knows: ‘Allon White – Son’.

The second story concerns me. My name is Allon White. Throughout my childhood and growing up it was my name on the sign over the garage and over the post office, on the letterheads and the envelopes. From long before my birth I was enchained in that Allon White – Son as thoroughly as young Paul in Dombey – Son. It was as if both the past and the future were already firmly in place, me to replace grandfather, my son to replace me in an endless, pre-ordained chain of signifiers. My prescribed destiny seemed written up on the housefront for all to see. How cruelly, how closely the convention of ‘... – Son’ can bind business and genealogy together: the old family firm. If you had wondered where all those engineers were coming from in the novel, it should now be apparent. Lucas Arnow the hydraulics engineer was in part the man I should have been had I not broken with my own ‘proper’ name. The novel was not simply about my attempts to escape from Carol and the miasma of marshland and drowning. It was also about my breaking away from a pre-ordained class and family history, which in my case meant ending that history since I was the only son, the final son, and the history carried my name. In retrospect, I see that this wrench away from my ascribed place in the chain of names was both more protracted and traumatic than I realised at the time. But this came gradually. At first it did not weigh upon me.

The Garage

As a boy I loved the garage. It was a magical place. The English, unlike the Americans and the Italians, have never understood the romance of the garage. To understand what ‘Allon White – Son’s’ garage looked and felt like when I was a young boy in the Fifties you have to go to Italian or American films – to that dusty village garage in Visconti’s Ossessione, with its one tall petrol-pump and piles of old tyres and rusty parts and a lorry jacked up waiting to be repaired. Or you have to go to those lonely gas-stations in the Midwest of the Hollywood ‘road’ films, miles from anywhere, with a line of telegraph posts disappearing across an empty plain to the horizon. Of course I’m romancing a bit, but garages have changed so much since the Fifties that they have become completely transformed and it is hard to imagine what they were like just after the Second War. Now they tend to be full of new things: brightly-coloured pieces of machinery, lifts, Krypton testers, the noise of high-technology machinery competing with transistor radios. They have to be busy now, and rather colourful like shops (they become more and more like little supermarkets every day, or they perish).

Colour and pace are relatively recent in garage life. The garage of my boyhood was like a wonderful, quiet museum. Everything was old. There were two large workshops, several store-rooms, attics, a few sheds and an office. The whole premises were crammed with parts and tools and spares going back decades, much of it completely out of date. Valve radios, blacksmithing equipment, anvils, even bits of old tack and harness. Boxes and boxes of curious ‘things’ stored everywhere, of no conceivable use any longer but never cleared out. The place was a secret store of fascinating, inexplicable bits and pieces to play with. Old engines and gearboxes were stored in the pigsty. An orchard surrounded the workyard at the back and lorries sometimes broke branches of blossom from the apple trees as they were wheeled in for repair.

Even with four or five mechanics working there it was usually peaceful with only occasional bouts of rhythmic hammering or the revving of a motor. There was an old red air-compressor in the corner of one workshop and it was switched on at eight every morning. It had an uncannily human bronchial condition and began each day uncertainly with an impersonation of chronic whooping-cough. For the rest of the time it intruded rather quietly on the day and then only at long intervals. The pace was very, very slow. Each mechanic usually worked alone, and so for most of the time, absorbed in separate tasks under cars or lorries, rarely spoke. My father and grandfather, as well as two uncles, worked alongside the other mechanics in their oily overalls, and I suppose it was because they were there that I was allowed to spend so much time in the workshops even as a small child. An old brown bakelite radio played away, apparently to itself, in one corner of the main workshop everyday.

I remember my father’s dirty, oily hands. They are calloused and cracked, with the grime deep black in the cuts and grazes round his knuckles. His hands are so large and dirty. I am very small. They are rough and smelly when he touches me. I don’t want hands like that. I never want hands like that. Dirty and oily. He puts his fingers into a Dundee marmalade pot which he keeps on the kitchen window sill. It is full of a slimy red oil-jelly to clean off his dirty hands before lunch. The oil-jelly smells of paraffin. His hands have black cracks all over the palms.

Nevertheless I am gradually drawn into the world of the workshop. Little by little, imperceptibly moving from play to errands and small tasks and then to work. At first I squatted beside a car or sat on the anvil and played with welding-rods or a huge box of old motorbike spokes stored in the corner. The petrol-pump attendant was a young woman called Janet and she used to look after me. On sunny days I could play with my matchbox toys on the dusty forecourt between the petrol pumps. So few cars called for petrol in those days that I could trace out elaborate roadways in the gravel and play all morning there without having to move out of the way for customers. Most days I returned home covered in oil. I can remember one summer day when I was sitting on the kerb in front of the garage so covered in grease and dirt that all the village women who went past laughed and told me that I’d be for it when my mother saw me.

Sometimes the garage frightens me. Horace Riddy is trying to lever a punctured tractor tyre from its rim. The rear wheel of the tractor, orange and covered in mud, is huge and takes three men to wheel into the workshop before they let it roll forwards on its own to crash down on the floor. I like Horace. He stands on the wheel and drives a great steel ram again and again into the edge of the tyre to break the seal. I put my hands over my ears but he continues, smashing the ram against the steel rim. It is winter, and his breath hangs white in the air. There is ice round the hub bolts. Horace has skinned the flesh from his hand with the ram, but he continues to pound at the unrelenting tyre.

As I got older, I began to run small errands for the mechanics. Their morning tea-break was at ten and they used to send me down to Sampson’s grocery to buy them fruit pies: Lyons fruit pies at sixpence each. These pies came with a bewildering number of different fillings and the mechanics were very particular about this, specifying and listing with great care who was to have which filling – apple and blackberry for Sam, apricot for Ken, blackcurrant for Paul, and so on. Time and again they would make out the list and slip in a request for some quite impossible fruit filling which they had concocted, warning me that I really mustn’t get it wrong. Off I would trot down to the shop clutching a handful of sixpences in one hand and diligently running through the list in my head. ‘And Sam wants a plum and marmalade pie.’ I would say to the shoplady, who was in on the conspiracy. ‘Well, we’re out of those love, but why don’t you just run back up to the garitch and tell him we’ve got a fresh batch of damson and peanut – lovely they are.’ So back up the High Street I would run, perhaps half a dozen times, willing and completely unsuspecting, chasing imaginary fruit pies with impossible fillings throughout the day – a fruitless task.

The same thing happened with errands to the spares department. It didn’t take me long to cotton on to dire warnings that the screws had to be ‘left-handed and headless half-inchers’. But I spent many an hour scouring the shelves for a ‘Vauxhall Vicar’s Rubber Gaiter (screw thread only)’ or some other such marvellous spare part.

The mechanics increasingly adopted this playful and teasing attitude towards me as I became more involved with serious jobs in the workshop. In some ways it was the beginning of my political education. I was the boss’s son, bright, innocent, and definitely not one of the workshop mechanics however much I tried to please. None of them was ever cruel, and indeed often they were friendly and generous, but there was at bottom a mistrust which I could never appease. I was compromised. They sometimes let me know, with a broad wink, that they were ‘borrowing’ a gallon of oil or some tool or other for home. They knew that I wouldn’t betray the theft and they also knew it made me feel awkward and ashamed. They took advantage of my youth to revenge themselves upon my grandfather, father and the firm itself. At dinnertime my dad would sadly and bitterly recount how this or that was missing, how he knew that someone was thieving. I felt his hurt and hated the theft but sat silently, unable to betray the men for whom I was now a kind of occasional apprentice.


Ken had pale, slate-grey eyes and his forehead sloped back severely so that when he stared at you it looked as if his head were thrown back in contemptuous laughter. His teasing was more violent than the others’ and yet he fascinated me. He taught me dirty. ‘Go and tell your mother to “fuck off”,’ he would whisper to me, winking at the other mechanics (did I? I don’t remember). He put on little acts of deliberate vulgarity: excavated his huge nose with his oily fingers crooked like crow’s feet, his strange pale eyes rolling and his teeth gritted in a manic grin. He could fart prodigiously and at will – sometimes it was his only contribution to a conversation and invariably the last word. Sometimes if I asked him for something he would look at me slyly and give a long, thin fart as his only reply. He would drink Tizer and belch magnificently. I could do neither. His scornful play lives within me still: he suddenly arches forward and ambles towards me, rounding his shoulders and dropping his knuckles to the floor, neanderthal now, grunting and staring, cigarette smoke billowing from his nostrils as he chases me shrieking round the workshop. He taught me to swear and I still do – his sinister, hilarious lessons in fuckpissshit have become an unstable, eruptive substratum to my cultured university language. He used the grotesque and the lower body and dirty orifices and taught me all the Bakhtin I know.


My father said, ‘I can weld spiders’ webs,’ and I believed him. No one could weld like my father. I loved working late in the darkened workshop beside him, holding a clamped piece of metal or a lamp. At the core of the oxy-acetylene flame there was a tiny cat’s tongue of liquid silver which had to lick the metal. It was the hottest part of the torch, sheathed both by a violet spear and an outer orange plume of flame. My father would slowly play the different colours of the flame against the metal until suddenly it would sigh and fuse with itself, the crack gone, the gap filled. I often stood by his side watching him do this, filled with excitement and envy. Perhaps there was also a kind of oedipal longing, for welding was a man’s job in the garage and learning to weld was a rite of passage – one which I never accomplished. And I really regret that I never learned to weld: it remains for me a kind of alchemy mixing the magic of the workshop with childhood time with my father. It might even have made a man of me. But by the time I was old enough and strong enough to wheel about the huge gas cylinders of oxygen and acetylene I had already begun to lose interest in the garage.

The Bernoulli Meter

I have been reflecting on that piece of equipment – the Bernoulli meter – which Lucas Arnow was waiting for in the novel. It flickers in and out of his consciousness during the long day of malarial fever and becomes a sort of talisman or fetish, connected in his mind with his own illness. If the meter arrives then he will live. By the early evening the fever clears a little and he wakes to find his friend Fabrizio beside his bed:

Lucas awoke suddenly. The flood had subsided within him and the swelling of his upper arms and mouth seemed to have gone. He rubbed his hand across his forehead and felt the drying salt of his sweat sticky against his palm. He felt thirst, but calm at last. He could move his head. Fabrizio still sat beside the bed in the twilight waiting for the return of Marietta with the doctor. As the light faded, the mosquitoes on the marsh rose up in silent clouds to greet the darkness and began softly to invade the margins of the shore. Fabrizio flicked down the netting around Lucas’s bed and sat back, shifting his weight in the wicker chair which creaked once.

– Fabrizio?

– Yes Lucas.

– The fever has left me. Now I am alone.

– You’re not alone Lucas, I am here, over here, look at me. Marietta is fetching the doctor. You are all right.

Lucas turned towards his friend and attempted to raise himself on his elbow but his arm would not move properly. He did not smile.

– But I am alone Fabrizio.

Fabrizio did not know what to say. There was a long silence. The mosquito netting shivered and shifted silently with the last exhalation of the day.

– Yes Lucas, you are alone.

– And the Bernoulli meter did not come?

The rate of flow will not be determined the valve will not be connected and the measurements will not take place. Bernoulli’s theorem, upon which the simple and highly efficient measuring device of the meter is constructed, will not, here on the coast of Sardinia, find its place in the hydro-metric control of the world. Stagni stagni stagni. Let them die. Lucas turned back to stare across the dark bay. Fabrizio leant forward and covered his shoulder with the sheet patched damp from the fever.

– No the Bernoulli meter did not come, Lucas.

What disappointment of desire, beyond mere superstition, is imagined in that Bernoulli meter? It is precisely a measuring device, the measure of all desire, inflated by Lucas’s desperation into a symbol to ward off not only his death but the entropic degeneration of the earth. But that’s not the half of it. In reflecting on the novel so closely over these last days I have discovered an over-intensity of connectedness to the Bernoulli meter which astonishes me. Of course it shouldn’t surprise me at all: for years I have taught my students about Freud’s theory of condensation, in which every symbol condenses within it not one but a number of different contents. It has an unconscious economy which brings different desires or fears into one concentrated image. And so indeed it proves with the meter.

The science of hydraulics was born in 1738, when Daniel Bernoulli published his Hydro-dynamica. The Bernoulli meter as such does not exist, and at first I called it a Venturi meter, which was invented in 1887 by an American, Clement Herschel, for measuring the flow of liquids and was named in honour of the Italian scientist Venturi. The Venturi meter depends upon Bernoulli’s theorem for its operation, and I changed the name from Venturi to Bernoulli to celebrate and retain the symbolic history of hydromechanics from its origin. It is interesting in view of what follows that both names signify a certain ‘Italian-ness’, which is relevant to my story.

What was the Bernoulli meter doing in the novel? Last week it suddenly occurred to me as so obvious that it made me laugh out loud. Throughout my youth I had listened, day after day, to a single lament from my father: why hadn’t the – arrived from Bedford yet? The – was some spare part or other needed for the completion of a job in the garage, a carburettor cable or a clutch plate or a tyre or valve spring or something without which the job remained unfinished. Day in, day out, lunchtimes and teatimes, my father would ritually butter his bread whilst intoning his litany of frustrations, this job held up, that job pushed aside, because the distributors hadn’t delivered such-and-such a spare part. Or, as happened with unbelievable frequency, they had delivered the wrong part (sometimes three or four times) which had to be returned costing yet more delay. The customers complained and got angry, jobs drifted on for days, sometimes weeks, and my father drifted into migraine and depression.

So, the Bernoulli meter was the condensation of a thousand spare parts spread over a decade and a half which had worn my father down with their delays and confusions. Its very triviality as a small measuring device was significant. Trapped between the large distributors and irate, impatient customers, my father suffered acutely from these minor travails. A quiet and gentle man, he hated ‘scenes’, and whenever there was a delay he could sense impending trouble and shrank back. Like so many men worried at work, he brought his anxiety back to the privacy of the family dinner table and turned it into a set narrative, automatic after a while, which I must have heard hundreds of times. It confirmed me in my hardening decision that I would never work as he had done, that I would never suffer the same helplessness and frustration, that I would never work in the garage. This became obvious to both of us as I entered my teens and he began to look around for other people who might take my place in Allon White – Son.

The finest mechanics by far whom my father had employed were two Italian brothers, Giuseppi (‘Jo’) and Louis. After the war thousands of Italians had been brought into Bedford and the surrounding area on work contracts at the brickworks. They had to work for about four years and then, if they wished, they could take other jobs. Most of these Italians came from the Mezzogiorno around Naples and stayed on – Bedford has the highest number of Italian immigrants in the country and even has an Italian consulate. I grew up with the second generation of the original migrant workers and Jo and his brother were a few years older than I was. At school several of my friends were second-generation Italian and by the Sixties Bedford had a thriving Italian sub-culture.

Jo in particular was an outstanding mechanic. He started work in the garage when he was about seventeen and quickly proved to be a better mechanic than Sam the foreman. After some years he was ready to set up a workshop on his own but lacked the capital. Meanwhile my father was becoming more and more convinced that I wasn’t going to join the firm and began to think that he would take Jo into partnership, which he finally did in 1965. Jo effectively became my substitute, my replacement, and I felt a mixture of guilt and relief at the arrangement.

At first the idea worked well. Jo was able to persuade many Italians from Bedford to make the ten-mile journey out to Cranfield to have work done on their cars, and so the number of customers at the garage grew. Jo became foreman/manager and my father largely ceased manual work in the garage and took to his office to run the expanding business.

One day my father came down from his office to discover six large cases of Chianti in the middle of the workshop. For some months the accounts had been going awry and the Chianti was the first ominous sign that another mode of exchange than the official one might be taking place. ‘Non ti preoccupare, Eric,’ smiled Jo with an airy wave of his hand, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s from Roberto, for the worka we done on the Jaguar.’ My father did worry about it. As the weeks went by, two separate and competing economies grew up in the garage side by side, one rooted in the exchange-and-favour system of Southern Italy, the other rooted in the scrupulous petit-bourgeois accountancy of the English Protestant ethic. The accounts were chaotic. Half of the work passing through the garage now had no paperwork to it at all: Jo kept a note of it in his head to exchange against present or future ‘favours’. We started eating Italian bread. Strange Italians would arrive unexpectedly to do plumbing jobs or mend the fence. Hundreds of tins of tomato puree would suddenly appear from nowhere.

I think the crisis finally came during the wine-making season. By the late Sixties the Italian community in Bedford was importing lorryloads of grapes from family back in Southern Italy so that they could produce their own wine locally – which they did, in abundance. That year it seemed as though most of it ended up stacked in the workshop of Allon White – Son in payment for services rendered. We had our own wine lake. My father was in despair. Money – real money – had dwindled to almost nothing despite the large increase in trade. The garage began to resemble a customs warehouse at Villafranchia or Torino, full of unidentifiable and perishable Italian foods. ‘Mozzarella,’ my father would moan into his dinner plate at night. ‘We haven’t got any,’ replied my mother. ‘Haven’t we though,’ said my father. ‘Haven’t we though.’

The partnership was dissolved amicably and Jo went back to Naples to set up his own garage there. He returned to Bedford a few years later having been driven out of Italy, so he said, by violent demands and extortion. ‘Perhaps the mozzarella was a blessing,’ murmured my father.

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Vol. 11 No. 11 · 1 June 1989

I have just read Allon White’s fragments in the London Review of 4 May. The beauty and power of his writing made it an extraordinary experience – a mixture of pain, pleasure and bitterness. I don’t know whether it was a difficult editorial decision to publish it as you have, but I am very grateful to have had the chance to read his work and I imagine many readers would like to thank you for publishing it.

George Wickham

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London Review of Books
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