My grandfather Jack Mackenzie-Stuart was a man of immense learning and eclectic tastes. He collected eighteenth-century French drawings, loved jazz and hated opera. He gave me hardback editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and on my eighth birthday offered me a £10 bribe to learn by heart sonnets by Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats. He took me to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to teach me about perspective in front of Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest and he kept a video of Meet Me in St Louis in his study for family emergencies.
The Christmas I was 11 he gave me an audio cassette of Joyce Grenfell reading her autobiography, Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure. I didn’t know who Joyce Grenfell was and showed it to my mother in some puzzlement. She wondered aloud if he’d meant to give me a cassette of Joyce Grenfell performing her monologues. I was already a fan of Flanders and Swann – whose recordings my grandfather had given me a year earlier – so this seemed possible. Monologues or no monologues, the post-Christmas car journey from Edinburgh back to Oxford was still six hours long and the time had to be filled somehow. So I slotted the first tape into my Walkman and heard Joyce’s crisp tones saying this:
The background to my mother is light. All the rooms she lived in were light. Pale rooms with notes of strong colour: geraniumpink, ‘lipstick’-red, chalk-blue, saffron-yellow. No top lighting; pools of light from lamps with wide white shades painted pink inside, to her order; pools of light on tables. Low bowls of massed, solid-coloured flowers: geraniums, primroses, gardenias, roses.
Joyce took me all the way from Edinburgh to Oxford that Christmas. In the process she also transported me to 1920s Cliveden and wartime London and across the Middle East. I found half her references incom
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