The Autodidacts

In our family, as far as we are concerned, we were born and what happened before that is myth. Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forebears vanish into the common grass. All we could get out of mother was that her grandfather had once taken a horse to Dublin; and sometimes in my father’s expansive histories, his grandfather had owned trawlers in Hull, but when an abashed regard for fact, uncommon in my father, touched him in his eighties, he told us that this ancestor, a decayed seaman, was last seen gutting herrings at a bench in the fish market of that city. The only certainty is that I come from a set of storytellers and moralists and that neither party cared much for the precise. The storytellers were forever changing the tale and the moralists tampering with it in order to put it in an edifying light. On my mother’s side they were all pagans, and she a rootless London pagan, a fog-worshipper, brought up on the folklore of the North London streets; on my father’s side they were harsh, lonely, God-ridden sea or country people who had been settled along the Yorkshire coasts or among its moors and Fells for hundreds of years. There is enough in the differences between North and South to explain the battles and uncertainties of a lifetime. “How I got into you lot, I don’t know,” my mother used to say on and off all her life, looking at us with fear, as if my father and not herself had given birth to us. She was there, she conveyed, because she had been captured. It made her unbelieving and sly.

A good many shots must have been fired during the courtship of my parents and many more when I was born in lodgings over a toy shop in the middle of Ipswich at the end of 1900. Why Ipswich? My parents had no connection with the town. The moment could not have been worse. Queen Victoria was dying and my mother, young and cheerful though she was, identified herself as the decent London poor do, with all the females of the Royal Family, especially with their pregnancies and funerals. She was a natural Victorian; the past with all its sadness meant more to her than the hopes of the new century. I was to be called Victoria, but now surgery had to be done on the name, and quickly too, for my father’s father, a Congregationalist Minister in Repton, was pressing for me to be called Marcus Aurelius. The real trouble was more serious.

On my birth certificate my father’s trade is written “Stationer (master).” An ambitious young man, he had given up his job as a shop assistant in Kentish Town and had opened a small newsagents and stationers in the Rushmere district of Ipswich. He did not know the city and had gone there because he thought he had a …

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