Header overlay

Another Self | Chapter I: Tobias and the Angel

My world was the only real world. Nothing about it seemed incongruous; and those events which happened in it were never inconsequential. Its relation with the great outside world was tenuous. By which I do not deny that a few of my notable fancies were sparked off by momentous contacts with the unreal, outside world. For of course they often were. A riveting story or a glamorous present might do the trick, and set the magic working. On the other hand the pattern of events in my world was often outrageously disturbed by trivial demands made by the unreal world, such as to eat tapioca pudding, to wash my teeth, or to go to bed when I felt disinclined. With time I learnt how to condition these extraneous demands, and prevent them from totally dislocating the even flow of the true inner existence. In other words I learnt to master them.

On the whole how very satisfactory the real existence was. Instead of being the victim of circumstance, which I have ever since been, I was its creator. I could make it take any turn I liked. I am at a loss to explain how I managed this, because the power to do so left me quite half a century ago. The closest parallel to the experience is the siesta dream. On a hot drowsy afternoon on the Mediterranean after a heavy luncheon with red wine I can still lie down and actually conjure up my own dreams. By an imperceptible process of thought I can spin them into whatever shape I want. I daresay that certain drugs are even more conducive to these results than filet de boeuf and two glasses of Médoc consumed at midday in the height of summer. But I have reason for knowing that many will invoke even nastier dreams than those that come in an ordinary night’s sleep, dreams over which we have no control at all.

My siesta dreams, like so many experiences of my inner life before the age of ten, when this particular life began to disintegrate, are, I now recognize, part of the eternal search which I still conduct with ever decreasing success. I mean that the goal for ever recedes and is becoming so blurred as to be hardly recognizable. But when I was a very small child it was quite distinct, and only barely out of reach. My persistent ‘day dreaming’, as my poor parents called it, was a serious worry to them. Just as some children cannot co-ordinate their thoughts in words, and some their words on paper, but are otherwise normal, I could not for a longer time than usual concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. I repeat the word ‘supposed’, because I could perfectly well concentrate upon and carry out whatever I set myself to perform. My mother, hoping that I would ‘grow out of it’, made excuses for me. My father was quite certain I was mad, and used to explain why to anyone who was interested enough to listen.

I was a deeply religious child. I am a religious sexagenarian without, I am afraid, being consistently devout. Why I am so I have no idea, because my father’s attitude to religion was perfunctory. My mother’s was at first indifferent, and in her middle and old age positively hostile. God, she would declare before the last war, was no better than a nuisance; and during the war indistinguishable from Hitler. In nursery days therefore religion was never thrust upon me. On the contrary it was, if not exactly withheld, certainly not fostered. And had I for instance expressed an ambition to take holy orders, both parents would have been profoundly shocked and discouraging.

Notwithstanding my parents’ sentiments on religion, church played an extremely important part in their early married life and in my childhood. In the first place our church happened to be plumb in the middle of the manor garden. Secondly, attendance at divine service was a universally recognized means of giving vent to that community spirit, which before the First World War was very compulsive in remote country districts. Everyone who was anyone in the village automatically assembled once a week, and offered up his and her praise and thanksgiving as much to the prevailing social system as to the Almighty. Our family was no exception in rejoicing that the happy state of the world was what it was. So my parents did not regard spending one hour a week glorifying the status quo as too great a sacrifice of their leisure moments.

I cannot remember a stage of my life at home when I did not go to church. Before I could walk I was carried there by my nurse, dumped on the floor of the pew, and allowed to make castles out of hassocks and prayer books. The ritual was always the same. Mrs Hartwell began pealing the bell a quarter of an hour before service. She was sexton, verger and cleaner combined. She was an aged widow who gallantly brought up an orphaned brood of undisciplined grandchildren. She was tiny, about four foot nothing, with skin and sinews creased and stretched like the parchment leaves of a family bible. Her face was remarkable for an expansive smile sewn from one ear to the other, and watery blue eyes which she constantly wiped with a duster. She was never to be seen – but once – without a huge hat which practically concealed her like an umbrella. The brim was covered with leaves and cherries of purple celluloid, which her grandchildren would pop during those brief intervals when she dozed off in her pew. But for most of the service she was scuttling to and fro like a minute, friendly rat, in one hand her duster, in the other a broom whose bristles were worn away to memories. She smelled of linseed.

Although really far too old and frail, Mrs Hartwell refused to relinquish the bell rope with its fluffy stripes in red, white and blue, called I believe the ‘sally’. She regarded the pulling of it as her sacred duty, which she would surrender to no one, until the breath, as she put it, was out of her body. The act was sometimes attended by alarming manifestations. For bell ringing, even with one rope, necessitates a sense of rhythm in the ringer. Mrs Hartwell lacked this sense. Occasionally she would pull too soon, or too late. The rope thereupon gave a jerk and if she failed to let go – it was not in her nature to let go of things – she would be swept up the belfry. When this happened she would either cling to the rope until it came down again, or she would swing on it until her feet touched a ladder kept permanently fixed to the wall to enable workmen or builders to go up the tower. With astonishing agility for a person of her years she would scramble down the ladder and resume ringing as though nothing had happened.

Once, having been carried upwards, she failed for some reason to swing across to the ladder. Owing to the unusual velocity of her ascent the whole mechanism of the bell became dislocated, and the rope did not come down again. Mrs Hartwell was left clinging to a small fraction of the fluffy part which was stuck in the hole of the ceiling some thirty feet above the ground. She looked like one of those medieval saints in a state of levitation. Beneath a voluminous skirt and petticoats her button boots could be observed going through the motions of someone trying desperately and ineffectually to swim. The impact of her poor head against the ceiling had dislodged the purple umbrella of cherries, which floated pathetically to the floor. Yet no cry of alarm escaped her. The congregation anxiously gathered under the tower and began shouting contradictory directions how she was on no account to let go. With much presence of mind the Vicar ran to fetch Haines, our chauffeur, to come to the rescue. My mother, whose behaviour in a crisis was unpredictable, called loudly or a grappling iron. ‘Whatever’s that, m’m?’ somebody asked. ‘I don’t know,’ was her answer. Determined, nevertheless, to offer encouragement, if nothing else, she kept repeating, ‘It’s all right, Mrs Hartwell. You’ve nothing to worry about. I’ve got your hat,’ which was scant consolation to a septuagenarian clinging to an inch of rope for dear life. Eventually Haines, when found, was able by climbing through the trap-door in the ceiling to release the rope, which had got jammed in the wheel of the bell. Slowly Mrs Hartwell was lowered into the font. Quite undeterred by this mishap she shook herself, put on her hat and began pulling the rope all over again.

Extract from Chapter I
Plain Foxed Edition: James Lees-Milne, Another Self © 1970, 1988 Michael Bloch

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.