Uncle Patrick used to arrive at my grandparent’s house on a Lambretta scooter with Aunt Margaret riding pillion.
If I knew they were going to be staying at the house my walk home from primary school would be more of an excited run than a leisurely walk along lanes and hedgerows in anticipation of seeing Uncle Patrick. He worked on board the passenger liners that travelled between Britain and the Far East stopping at all major ports on the way. Places like Gibraltar, Alexandria, Suez, Colombo as it was known then, Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth and Sydney. All the places that would appear in my geography and history lessons during my later school years.
Quite often when they were staying at my grandparent’s house I would be invited to join them on day trips to places like Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. Patrick always took time to explain about the collections of art and military equipment.
One summer his extended leave coincided with my secondary school summer holidays. He and Margaret took me for a week’s holiday with them to their house in Kent. By this time they had progressed from the Lambretta to a family saloon.
I remember walking into their home with my small suitcase and being overawed by the quantity of books. Shelves seemed to be crammed into every spare space to accommodate them replacing wall paper. In the dining room was a tall dark wood bookcase packed with large books on weaponry and the military.
On the landing was another bookcase full of pocket books. All of them were either Penguins or Pelicans and strictly non-fiction. Patrick said I could help myself to any book to read for the holiday. I chose a Pelican history book about the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign and the Battle of Waterloo which were briefly described on the back cover. The short description of the Peninsular Campaign matched one of our set books at school; The Gun by C S Forester.
Every day of this week’s holiday was sunny.
On the first morning while Margaret did some picnic shopping in Maidstone, Patrick took me rowing on the river. It was my first trip in a row boat. While Patrick rowed and talked about the history of Maidstone I took the helm controlling the rudder to steer us upstream from where we glided back downstream to the jetty where Margaret was waiting with the supplies.
The whole of the week was planned with day trips mainly to the Cinque Ports along the south coast of England. The most impressive of these was Dover Castle where there seemed to baronial halls whose huge walls were covered by hand weapons arranged in circular patterns. The question held in my school boy mind was ‘If they needed those weapons quickly, how would they get them down from the walls?’
After one long day sightseeing Patrick took me to see a movie starring Norman Wisdom in the evening. He had a very low laughter threshold and would be crying with laughter at some simple act of physical comedy. He vehemently disapproved of smut and innuendo; just pure slapstick visual comedy was the trigger for his laughter. My laughter would come more from watching him laugh than what was happening on the screen.
When we got home that night he showed me a jar of thick black liquid with lumps about the size of dice in it. He took out one of these lumps, let the brown liquid drain from it and gave it to me to eat. I popped it into my mouth and was immediately hit by a dry spicy heat. I swallowed and felt the heat go down until it warmed me up from the inside like a wood burning stove. Sweat broke out and Patrick laughed at my condition. Once again he demonstrated his low laughter threshold but this time at my expense. He had given me fresh ginger that had been soaked in his rum ration and sugar on board ship for a couple of years in his cabin.
Regardless of where we had been during the day each one finished with a retreat into books and newspapers for all three of us after supper. The book I chose on the first Sunday was my retreat. Every night I would follow Wellington and his army across Portugal and Spain. Patrick would be engrossed in a book on weapons while Margaret would work through the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Even when I went to bed I would keep the bedside light on and continue to read about Lisbon, Zaragoza, Madrid, San Sebastian and Brussels for as long as my eyes would allow me. When I woke up in the morning and the sunshine lit my room I would pick up where I left off the previous evening quietly reading until I could hear Margaret and Patrick get up. I did finish the book in the week. It culminated with the Battle of Waterloo and a victory ball in Brussels. At least in my memory it does but I am certain if I went back to it now the ending would be different.
I am convinced that reading this one book was the slow burn fuse that ignited my interest in history which continues today.
Years later when I took up the pastime of hunting in bookshops for something to read I would go through the shelves of Pelican books looking for that one volume. Whenever I saw something that looked like it I would skim the synopsis on the back cover but nothing I found sparked the flame of recognition and interest. Even when I went to Patrick and Margaret’s house as an adult I would scour the book shelves in the hope of finding that one volume but without success. Then in one of those unexpected turns in life I found it. I held it in my hand, flicked through the pages, considered buying it and then decided not to. I had found the book and its title but was scared that the price of ownership would be the loss of crystalline memory. I put it back on the shelf for someone else to buy to build memories on.
The book was ‘The Age of Elegance’ by Arthur Bryant.