In the Devon village where I grew up, the main cultural event – in fact the only cultural event – was the Women’s Institute Drama Competition. It was held in the summer holidays, in the town hall of our local market town, and it went on for two or three days. For a child who had never been to the theatre the whole affair was magical, and excitement in the audience was intense as local WIs competed with one another in scenes from Shakespeare and, very often it seemed, in one-act plays by someone with the strange name of Mabel Constanduros. She seemed to be as much part of the whole thing as the hard wooden chairs, the interval tea and cakes, and the bus ride home through the summer-scented lanes, and I sometimes wondered who she was – a question I never pursued but which was recently answered for me in an unexpected way.
Not long after we launched the Slightly Foxed Editions, we came across a little gem of a book, first published in 1948 and long out of print, which we decided we must reissue. My Grandfather, as its title indicates, is a portrait of the author’s maternal grandfather, who, though surviving sturdily into the reign of George V, was to his grandson a character from the ‘warm, gas-lit, stable-smelling past’ of the Victorian age. With delicate and affectionate humour it brings to life not only its central character, but also the world in which he lived and which he surveyed with genial content from the windows of his spacious home in Kensington Gore.
The book was so delightful, so pitch-perfect in every way, it made us curious to know more about its author, Denis Constanduros – the aforementioned Mabel’s nephew as it turns out – and at this point we made an exciting discovery. There was, we learned, an unpublished companion volume, Father, Dear Father, which, like My Grandfather, had once been read to much acclaim on Radio 4. We decided to publish both together for the first time, and to include some of the author’s previously unpublished drawings. Father, Dear Father fills in, in an equally diverting way, the story of Denis’s childhood in the shadow of the other important male figure in his life – his father.
The two could hardly have been more different. Grandfather symbolized, in his person and his habits, everything that was convivial, straightforward and reliable. His was the very spirit of an age in which, as the author says, ‘Life was simple and clear-cut. There were no complexities and half-tones.’ His son-in-law Stephanos (‘Steph’) Constanduros, on the other hand, was flamboyant, melodramatic, full of grand ideas for solving his perpetual financial problems ‘at a stroke’, and inclined to take refuge from unpleasantness in ill health.
The son of a Greek political émigré, Steph had initially charmed his future father-in-law – and his future wife, who was then only 15 – with his fine voice, his singing of sentimental songs and his careless insouciance. (Once, while in full song, standing under a lighted gas jet, his hair caught fire but he continued singing ‘undisturbed’. Grandfather, always susceptible to the power of music, had spontaneously clapped his hands and cried ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ – a gesture of approval which, as his grandson observes, he must have regretted for the rest of his life.)
In appearance Grandfather himself was ‘short and round, with a face that was cherubic in its benignity’. He seemed, to his grandson, a compound of Mr Jorrocks, whom he read, admired and quoted, and – most strikingly – his great hero, Mr Pickwick. ‘As he stood at the window, chumping his false teeth slightly and perhaps whistling under his breath “Oh Rest in the Lord” or a favourite air from The Beggar’s Opera, the likeness was remarkable.’
Grandfather’s household in Kensington was certainly Victorian in its size and composition. Grown-up children had flown the nest, but Grandmother’s unmarried sisters from Croydon were regular guests – Aunt Maria, ‘a stolid, black, unlovely figure’ engaged in a perpetual game of Patience; and Aunt Pem, who was given to laughing immoderately ‘until the veins on the side of her fragile head stood out in blue relief. She laughed immoderately, not because she was particularly amused, but because it was the only way she could show emotion.’
Below stairs were to be found old Lucy, haunted by constant thoughts of impending disaster (she it was who decided that a purple bath mat was too bright for Grandfather – she feared the sight of it, as he rose suddenly from his daily cold bath, might bring on a stroke) and fat, jolly, carefree old Ellen the cook. The household was completed by a ‘young girl’, Jonzen the deep-voiced Swedish parlourmaid, and Parsons the chauffeur, who drove Grandfather to Epping every Wednesday where, much to everyone’s consternation, he rode to hounds with his old friend Mr Fitch.
Images summon up that distant time: Grandfather, his feet stretched out cosily before the fire in Mr Fitch’s farmhouse after a good day’s hunting; stumping on his short legs through the hushed galleries of the Royal Academy to admire a favourite painting; resplendent in silk top hat at the Richmond Horse Show; perusing the obituary columns of ‘The Times Newspaper’, or pouring a glass of what he called ‘sherry wine’.
And sounds too: the early-morning cacophony of ‘trilling sopranos, thumping pianos and scraping violins’ that daily reached the household from the nearby Royal College of Music; the evening tolling of the park keeper’s bell and the cries of ‘All out!’; the secure and comforting sound made by the closing of the house’s heavy front door – My Grandfather is much more than a marvellous evocation of an endearing yet tough and sometimes perverse old character. Nothing dramatic happens in it, yet everything happens – it is a meditation on an age and has the texture of life itself.
Father, Dear Father, Denis’s account of his own childhood, is much more like one of those comedies for which his Aunt Mabel was later to become famous. Doors (usually of down-at-heel rented houses) open and close; characters enter and exit, and, as the action speeds up, often collide dramatically. Among these, in no particular order, are Steph’s brother Athanasius (‘Uncle Ath’), a contrastingly Pooteresque, hardworking and solvent character who had married another of Grandfather’s daughters, the not-yet-famous Aunt Mabel; ‘Mac’, the glamorous but sinisterly controlling air ace who, after the First World War, became the family’s lodger; his wartime buddy Oscar, who was studying to become an operatic baritone; and a series of tutors employed to teach Denis and his brother – most notably Captain Wilson, who had no more interest in teaching than the boys had in learning, and who was a great practical joker and rather too fond of the bottle. The main background to this tragi-comedy – which is what the story turned into – were two hideous adjoining houses in Sutton: ‘Melton’, finally purchased for the family by Grandfather after Steph – a practising but possibly unqualified architect – ran out of money; and ‘Belhaven’ in which resided Aunt Mabel and Uncle Ath.
Steph was a keen gardener and in summer Captain Wilson, a first-class bluffer and anxious to curry favour since his position was always precarious, would stand behind Steph’s deckchair secretly consulting a rose catalogue, and engage him in conversation, throwing out knowing remarks about the roses (‘Caroline Testout is a lovely climber I always think, don’t you sir?’), the benefits of a dressing of bone meal and the importance of ‘disbudding’. Steph was in raptures. Bluffing was a tendency shared by vivacious Aunt Mabel. If the vicar called she would be overheard earnestly discussing the efficacy of prayer, though she never went to church. ‘I always give my fruitcakes a good hour and a half in a slow oven’ she would tell women callers, though she never went near the kitchen.
But the greatest bluffer of all was probably Steph himself. Father, Dear Father is a wonderful study in self-delusion. Returning in the evening from his office in the City and sinking into the nearest armchair he would make some dramatic pronouncement.
‘Well,’ he would say, ‘how would you all like to go to South America? A chap came into my office today and said “I want to see Constanduros – the expert. I don’t want to see any of the others.” He’s got some big scheme to build a huge hydro-electric dam in Bolivia. If it comes off it’ll be something important for all of us.’
Unfortunately the reality was very different. In hock to his bookmaker, Steph had, as his son writes, ‘a natural affinity’ with all bankrupts. ‘If he didn’t seek them out they sought him. And some, who were financially normal when he befriended them, at once became bankrupt, as though simply to conform.’
This was a household in denial. Nothing was ever mended. ‘The system in our house’, Denis remembers, ‘was that anything that was likely to bring my father face to face with the reality of our situation was to be stowed away out of sight.’ Games of all kinds, in which everyone but Denis’s long-suffering mother took part, became a kind of displacement activity. The house and garden rang daily to the sounds of table tennis, a strange game called Puff Billiards which was played with ‘a thing like an old-fashioned motor horn’, an even stranger one called Wibbly Wob, and Hoicky Hockey (played on the tennis lawn with a football and walking sticks). As relations became more strained and the financial situation grew more desperate, so the action became more and more manic, like a speeded up film.
It couldn’t last, and eventually the whole farrago collapsed in a way that was both ludicrous and poignant. Fortunately, we learned from Denis’s daughters, in real life there was a happier sequel. Like Aunt Mabel, with whom he initially collaborated, Denis built a highly successful career for himself as an illustrator and a writer for radio, stage and screen. How pleasingly paradoxical that such a chaotic and rather desperate childhood should have given rise to two such elegant and light-hearted little books.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Hazel Wood 2012
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 20: Denis Constanduros, My Grandfather & Father, Dear Father