Monday, January 21, 2019

WAGBAI: The Rectory

            We moved south for my father's health. He was offered a living (the Anglican Church jargon for "a job") in the village of Aspley Guise, a few miles from the county seat of Bedford in the diocese of St. Albans. The Rectory, directly across the road from the church of St. Botolph’s, was a huge, redbrick Victorian, set on a slope uphill from the church. I say huge because that was how it seemed to me, in my early years. Returning, years later, I was surprised by the fact that it seemed much smaller than I remembered; and years after that, on my last visit to Aspley Guise, it had disappeared altogether, the house with its front lawn and the orchard behind replaced by a development of small tract houses. Only the ghost of the Rectory stood there, in my memory.
            Still, it was a large house. The ground floor consisted of a spacious drawing room, my father’s study, the dining room—which in later years became his wood shop—and the kitchen and pantry area. It was not only the drawing room that was spacious, though it was perhaps the largest room in the house; every room on the ground floor could be described with the same word, as indeed could the dark cellar beneath, with its dusty bins of coal partitioned off from the multiple racks where we stored potatoes and fruit from the garden—an important source of food in the war years.
            From the (yes, spacious!) front hall, a grand flight of stairs led up, first, to a landing with a great window looking out to the orchard, then on up to the second floor. The smooth banisters were excellent for sliding, and the carpeted stairs provided a good slope for sledding down on the tin trays our mother kept--not for that purpose!--in the kitchen. Gathered around the large second landing were the bedrooms. My parents occupied the largest. Across from their room was the nursery, where my sister and I slept until we were old enough to deserve rooms for ourselves. The nursery became my sister’s room. Mine, later, was the tiny room that lay between the two. The other room off the main landing was a guest room, large enough for two double beds.
            From the landing, a long, narrow corridor led past the bathroom and the head of the back stairs, down to the far end where there was yet another large bedroom—I remember the twin beds with their orange and yellow counterpanes where the Bletchley girls slept (more about them in due course)—along with the heated linen closet and the laundry room. The back stairs led further upward to an attic floor, with a small apartment at one end that must once have been maid’s quarters, in the days when Rectors could afford to have maids, and probably had several, but which my parents now rented out to various couples over the years.
At the other end of this top floor was the attic proper, with its circular, unglazed oriel looking out from the façade down over the plains of Bedfordshire below, through which a barn owl used to fly for many years at night to make its nest in the rafters. To our delight, as kids, when we dissected them, the big bird's expectorations were filled with the brittle bones of mice and other small animals.The attic otherwise was a mysterious, ill-lit place where we kept odd, unused pieces of furniture and trunks overflowing with old stuff, including the clothes we used for dressing up. You had to be careful, up here, to step only on the struts, or risk falling through, we were often warned, to the floor beneath.
Out front was the long, curving driveway that led past the big front door to the garage where my father parked his Austin 10—and later, his prized Armstrong Siddeley with its "pre-selection" gear system, an extremely early version of the automatic transmission in most cars today—and adjacent to it, the chicken run, home to the dreaded rooster that flew at me with sharp talons and beak when I fulfilled my chicken-feeding chores. Beside it, a sandy path with treacherous roots from a great pine tree led down to the street. It was down this path that my father strode each day, his black cassock swinging at his ankles, on his way to the church for prayers or services. Behind the house was the orchard, with its apple trees—Blenheims for cooking, Cox’s Orange Pippins for great eating—and its Williams pears and Victoria plums, and an assortment of berry bushes: raspberries, red and black currents, gooseberries… The blackberries grew wild further up the hill, and we picked them there.
So this was the Rectory. This was where my parents lived to the first ten years of my boyhood, and where I spent my own first six very happy years before heading off to boarding school. But that, as they say, is another story.

Thursday, January 17, 2019


I was reminded last night of a project I have had in mind for years--the story of "a very English Childhood." I wrote a few lines this morning...

My earliest memories are not actual memories at all, they are memories of images in the family album that, aside from being the vicar’s wife, was for many years my mother’s primary passion. It was a huge, oversized tome with a dark blue cover and a glossy red spine, containing seemingly hundreds of pages—many of them filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, birth certificates and such, and many of them blank, awaiting further family news. It was a special treat to sit with her from time to time, turning the pages and listening to her stories. This, along with treasured moments in the big rectory kitchen, was perhaps the closest I ever came to knowing her.
There are three images that stand out in my memory of those moments. The first is a sepia tone photograph, a little faded, of my sister Flora and myself posed on our grandfather’s knee. I am perhaps a year and a half old, and my sister three. She is wearing a pretty smock dress, and her dark hair is bunched in loose curls around her head. I am in shorts and a white shirt. We are both wearing “smile please” smiles. My grandfather is the picture of elegance. He wears a tweed suit and a wing-collar shirt, with an ascot fastened by a pearl pin. His walrus mustache is neatly trimmed, and his eyes are smiling in harmony with his lips. Being now a grandfather myself, I understand the look of grandpaternal joy that his face and his body posture as well as his embracing arms express.
This is my father’s father. He died quite soon after posing for that picture, a few months later, of a heart attack, I think, on a business trip to New Zealand. He was a distinguished electrical engineer, mentioned in a professional journey alongside Marconi and nine other prominent innovators as one of the greatest pioneers in harnessing of electrical power for industrial and domestic use. I never knew him.
I never knew my father’s mother, either. She died long before I was born, when he was only thirteen years old and, as the oldest of three brothers, he and his sister Nancy were left with a bereft father—and responsibilities far beyond their age. My grandfather remarried. The grandmother I knew for just a few years before her own death was Granny Murcott, so named after the grand house she occupied at the far end of the village in my father’s parish, where our border collie, Hank, would run to fetch us children bags of sweets…
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The second image is another photograph which does indeed feature Hank. He was a handsome and strikingly intelligent dog—witness his long trots to the other side of the village to bring us sweets!—who was a friend and guardian to my sister and myself in the course of our earliest years. I think to remember the time before I could walk, when Hank was taller and stronger and far more mobile than myself, reaching up to bury my little hands in his soft fur. That could be so. Here I am, in this picture, lying on my belly on a blanket in the garden of the vicarage in the small village of Holywell, just outside the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne where I was born, and Hank is sitting upright right beside me, standing guard.
(As an aside, I note that I have always been inordinately proud of being a “Geordie”—a person born Tyneside, as a Cockney is distinguished by being born within the sound of Bow Bells. Having left the city with my family at the age of two, my claim is perhaps tenuous, and if I have the temerity to introduce myself as a Geordie to anyone from my native England, it will not be long before they point out that I lack the distinctive northern accent, largely unintelligible to anyone but other Geordies. I excuse myself with the joke that my accent, after many years in the United States, has finally made it halfway across the Atlantic.)
The third image is a newspaper clipping from the local Newcastle newspaper, dated somewhere around 1936, the year of my birth. It features a picture of my father, then a curate at the parish of St. Cuthbert’s, where I was born, bent over a treadle fretsaw, working on his lifelong hobby, working with wood. Trained as a pattern-maker in his pre-college days, he never lost his love of making things, often as gifts in the days when money was scarce and the generosity of gift-giving was a more personal expression than it is today. Here, intent on his work, he is wearing his clerical cassock with its narrow white dog collar—a token of his status as a “high church” Anglican. The wider the collar, in those days, the lower—i.e. the more Protestant—the church.
The caption in bold letters above this image reads “Hungry, Desperate, for Want of Two Shillings and Sixpence a Week”, and the article is about my father’s dedication to the needs of the poor people in his parish—mostly coal miners and their families suffering from severe deprivation in post-Depression days. My mother used to joke that it was Harry, her husband, who looks hungry and desperate; and indeed he does seem gaunt and harrowed. He was already suffering from the stomach problems that plagued him for his entire life, and for which no diagnosis ever discovered the cause. None of the many doctors he consulted—one of them in distant Switzerland—was able to provide relief, and my sister and I grew up with a father who was in constant pain.
(Another aside: my father, who had studied psychology at Cambridge, was a big believer in psychosomatic symptoms, and I have always wondered whether his skeptical mind was in conflict with his profession of religious faith. I know he struggled with his belief in the God he dedicated his life to serve, and suspect a spiritual torment at the root of his physical distress).
But again, I get ahead of myself. Bottom line, it was concern for my father’s health that led the doctor’s insistence that he leave the coal-dusty air of Newcastle and head south for better air.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


You can almost hear the Earth breathe a sigh of relief as she soaks in the rainfall from the last few days, and continuing today and (so my iPhone says) into tomorrow. Is it enough to end the years-long drought that has left us panting for hydration? I suspect not. But am still grateful to look down from our windows over the city of Hollywood and watch the next storm approach. A gift from the universe. Well, at least from Mother Nature!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


I was Dean at Otis Art Institute in 1978, the year that California's Prop. 13 was approved by voters. My daughter, 6 years old, was enrolled in a Los Angeles School District elementary school, She was at the time a year or so younger than her son is today; he is enrolled at the same school as she was then. Yesterday, his teacher was among the thousands who went out on strike.

Like many who ardently opposed Prop. 13 back in 1978, I foresaw the rapid degradation of what was once perhaps the best education system in the country. Since then, as was entirely predictable, our schools have been increasingly strangled by the paucity of funds. In the 1990s, along came the charter schools--affording a way out for those who could afford the "choice" and, not incidentally, gobbling up the increasingly scarce resources of the school system. As an op-ed piece by Miriam Pawel in today's New York Times suggests, the current teachers's strike results from the damage charters have inflicted.

It's not quite "privatization", but it's related. You could even claim that it's privatization in disguise. No matter how well-intentioned, the charter schools benefit the privileged--the well-educated, the affluent, those with the social, cultural and political advantages that drive their expectations for their children's education. For the poor, the brown, the black who share their aspirations, that social and political platform is less well-established, less attainable. Already eroded in consequence of Prop. 13 and the ethos that it fostered, the resources for a public school system that is meant to serve all the citizens of Los Angeles are siphoned off to benefit a few.

It's a sad spectacle to see an education system that was once the envy of other states now ranked so low. My sympathies lie with the teachers. I believe they are striking for much more than the personal advantage of a salary increase--which they richly deserve. They are striking for a fair shake for every young person in this city and a restoration of our schools to their former prestige. We have been short-changing our next generation of Americans for too long, and the results have become painfully evident in the form of an increasingly poorly educated, poorly informed electorate. It's not a record to be proud of.

Monday, January 14, 2019


Here's the question that has been lately on my mind: Am I done with writing?

It popped up again this morning in meditation and I mulled it over without coming to any clear conclusion. It's a deeply troubling question because it's how I have defined myself since... well, since the age of 12, when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. When people ask me, noting the indisputable evidence of my now advanced years, whether I'm retired, I have always responded--and not solely in jest--that writers never retire.

And yet... and yet... The part of me that's missing these days is the part the feels the urgent drive to write. It's something that every artist, every creative person will recognize, that feeling that if I'm not doing it, something is not right. It's not guilt so much as a sense of incompletion, an un-ease, a sense that I have not done today what I was meant to do. But in recent days it has begun to feel more like guilt--and guilt, in my view (along with near its cousin, self-pity), is one of those negative emotions that need some serious internal debate.

A contributing factor, surely, is my recent experience with an essay I agreed to write that turned out to be a great deal more demanding than I had expected--and, eventually, deeply unsatisfying. My initial mistake was to jump to a conclusion as to what was being asked of me, and to work long and hard toward that goal; a misjudgment that was compounded by my obsession--especially over the holiday season--with a deadline and my impatience to get ahead with the project before receiving all the information that I'd need.

I have had a similar experience only a couple of times over a long professional career, when what I have written in response to a commission has disappointed the expectations of the person who requested it. It's the worst of feelings, and in this instance I was left with the determination never again to accept a commission unless it was clearly defined in advance as something I myself felt driven to do, and certainly, least of all, for the promised fee--even though that was not the motivation in this case. I need to pay more attention to the hunger of my ego, which has been perhaps too easily seduced by the flattery implied such requests.

But I'm still left with the bigger question. Am I done with writing altogether? In the past, there has always been something that sets me off--an art show, a book, a movie, a political event, or merely something in my personal life that needs to be addressed. Demands it. Those who know me well are familiar with--perhaps even tired of hearing--the adage that I cite on every possible occasion: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say? Writing has always been my way of coming to understand myself and the world around me. It's not just a matter of "self-expression", but rather a much more existential challenge to define experience, to find out who and where I am in the world at any given moment.

This essay is evidence, of course, that this impulse has not totally abandoned me. But I have been noticing that it requires a greater effort to find it--and a still greater effort to respond. I could, for example, have perfectly well spared myself the review I posted a few days ago about the book by Michelle Obama. Few people in the world--well, actually, no one other than myself!--would have noticed its absence. I was much moved yesterday at Disney Hall by the Phillip Glass symphony, "Lodger," conducted by the composer John Adams with an extraordinary performance by the African singer Angélique Kidjo--but I can live without feeling the compulsion to write about it, as I might have done in the past, in order to "know what I think."

It seems, then, that I no longer feel the pressing need to process my experience in the act of writing. Or am I simply being lazy, I ask myself? (If it were just laziness, I respond, then surely the guilt would be kicking in--but I don't feel it...) And the next existential question, as yet unanswered is this: If it's true that I'm done writing, then... what's next?