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Still Life | Starting from the one-storeyed wooden shop . . .

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Grove Hill

Grove Hill, later Grove Hill Road, another way up to my home, on the contrary, had a great deal to offer, starting from the one-storeyed wooden shop – little more than a shed, with a flat roof covered over in some sort of tarpaulin – of R. Septimus Gardiner, Taxidermist, his window displaying his skills: red squirrels on their hind-legs eating nuts against a background of branches and foliage; sinister-looking pike, with whisky-drinking eyes, submarine colours and scales, the Terror of the Deep, lurking against a background of yellowing rushes and trailing pale green river-weeds; a woodcock with little glass eyes – R. Septimus Gardiner took a great deal of trouble over eyes; a gaggle of humming-birds on little branches and protected within a house made of white shell, artificially ruined, like a Salvador Dalí palace; a yellow-eyed buzzard against a back­ground of cloud and threatening sky; congeries of owls, in all shapes and sizes, and facing all sorts of ways, rather crowded, and all in the same glass-fronted box: recalling those group-caricatures, of musicians, poets, actors, politicians, novelists, a varying display of hair, beards, collars, spectacles, stocks, of the 1860s charivari, or the Victorian equivalent; stuffed foxes, stoats, badgers, weasels, dogs – for once silent and harmless and acceptable, like the dog with a money-box on its back that used to reside, in its case, on Portsmouth Marine or Central – cats, lizards, even bats.

The shop was so shallow that the taxi­dermist had to work right up against the window, surrounded by his beady-eyed masterpieces, as if they were anxious to find out about the identity of the newcomer to the club, just as, from outside, and having placed my satchel on the ground, I sometimes watched the dedicated artist at work. He never looked up but he must have been aware of my presence, my face right up against the glass, at the level of the top of his head, and, a few years later, well above it. He was a balding, rather scruffy man, with a lot of dandruff on his shoulders, and a check waistcoat, with two buttons missing, and that did not match his coat. He did not look at all prosperous, but I think he did quite well. All the inhabitants of his cases had been done to order. Of course, his confined premises must have imposed an upper limit on the full range available to him. He could only do small animals and fish; the big beasts would not have fitted in, so that cheetahs, pumas, tigers and all the big cats were denied even a temporary residence on Grove Hill. I thought his long, shallow, single-storeyed, glass-fronted shop looked like an enlargement of one of the many cases. It would have been appropriate if, when the time came, his own remains should have been stuffed and preserved immobilized in the midst of his many triumphs. He was a kind and gentle creature, and an artist in small things, a committed miniaturist. Alas! his little shed-shop was pulled down years ago. I don’t know what became of him, perhaps orders ran out as fashions changed. For, already in the mid-Thirties, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I used to talk regularly to an elderly man who occupied the seat below the bastion of the city wall in Merton gardens (on sunny days it was an ideal sun-spot); he, too, it appeared from his conversation, which was quiet and without a trace of bitterness, had seen better days, when he had filled the common rooms of half the male colleges with great rearing beasts; it was the war, he said, that had killed off the demand. Happily, I still possess two examples of the work of the seventh Gardiner: a stuffed woodcock and a stuffed white partridge, inherited from my grandfather, and a reminder of one of my favourite stopping-places on the way up the steep hill.

One down from the taxidermist’s was another wooden shack-shop, equally shallow, and painted, like a gypsy caravan, in bright green and scarlet, picked out with yellow piping, with the name ‘Love, Fruit & Vegetables’, in flowing yellow letters with black edges on one side to give them relief. The likeness was probably not entirely fortuitous, for old Mr Love and his son had blue-black hair and very bright dark eyes.

Young Mr Love had married my nanny, Kate Scurrell, after courting her for some time, standing up in his little wooden cart and talking to her at night through her bedroom window, invitingly open, and which faced on to a lane that ran behind the house in Cumberland Gardens. My mother had declared herself distressed at the mésalliance, saying that Kate, a very literate girl, had deserved something better. It might have been so, but it would be hard to reach any formal conclusion. Kate was a no doubt typical example of the borrowed mobility, like the borrowed accent, of the domestic servant. She was a typical hybrid nanny, wrenched out of her native Essex and her exten­sive, and no doubt loving, Scurrell relatives (still thick on the ground in North Essex and South Suffolk) and put down in Kent, a deportation at first sight brutal and unfeeling. But per­haps one should not exaggerate the attachment to birthplace and to kin felt by members of the landless rural population in the nineteen-hundreds and the nineteen-twenties. Ronald Blythe has suggested that the men were willing enough to exchange the land and Suffolk for the hazards of the Boer War and the adventure of August 1914 with hardly a pang. So was this such a cruel thing? What was there, in Great Holland or Little Holland, or Thorpe-le-Soken, for the seventh or the eighth child – and a daughter at that – of a small farmer from the Hundred of Tendring? Surely Tunbridge Wells offered bet-ter prospects than Clacton-on-Sea, better even than middle-class Frinton? Was it just exploitation? If so, it was readily accepted. And a nanny was not quite a servant; the longer Kate stayed with us, the posher and the more ladylike became her accent. She had already been literate, making the most of the little a Church of England school in Great Holland would have to offer. But being a nanny-cum-general-maid was a sort of education, too. She taught me my letters and my numerals and, in doing so, she may have picked up something au passage. She read to me a great deal – rather more than my mother did – and some of this – Dickens especially – must have rubbed off on her own retentive mind. By the time she got married – in 1924 or 1925 – it must have seemed to her that her opportunities were running out; if she had come to us at 18 or 19, replacing my sister’s nanny, Rose, who had died of Spanish influenza, in 1919, she would then have been heading for 26 or 27, and may have felt inclined to take on the first firm offer. There had been others. I had been aware of a khaki presence, or of several khaki presences, as a sort of blur at eye-level beside my pram and moving along with it, in 1919 and 1920, both in Frinton and, above all, in Colchester (where there was an abundance of that pungent colour), but khaki would have no serious appeal to a farmer’s daughter who, coming from North Essex, would know about soldiers in any case. There had been others – not in khaki, but in dark blue suits with red faces – but it was hard to know whether they had been well-intentioned ‘followers’ – they may have been just on the look-out for any easy pick-up on the Common – and this was certainly one of the functions of the Common, though not one of which I would have been especially aware. I was knowing enough, however, never to mention the regular appearance of the red men in blue – one even had a name, he was called Nick – to my mother, on returning from the walks with Kate. There grew between Kate and myself an undefined, yet aware, complicity.

Kate was an ambivalent being in every way, not part of the family, yet very much of the family. Her affection for myself was genuine, and so was her rather embarrassing gush, as if she had been grateful for her association with my early fortunes and mis­fortunes. She had been the first in the field as far as I was con­cerned, was irreplaceable, and indeed, was never replaced, so that I went on belonging to her, in a number of unstated but mutu­ally understood ways, long after she had changed her status and become Mrs Love. It sounds rather monstrous, but I think she was prouder of me – and of ‘Miss Diana’ (I remained ‘Richard’) – than of her own children, whom she tried, pathetically no doubt, but again quite sincerely, to model on us. Kate was ambi­tious as well as deferential – a combination common enough in the blurred and ambivalent hierarchies of domesticity and semi-domesticity. Had she held on, she might have been pro­moted to the dubious rank of ‘companion’ or of governess, her purely domestic duties being delegated to a daily. I have no doubt that all this was put to her – perhaps not in so many words but by hints and allusions – by my mother when her engagement to Love was being debated; and of that debate even I was aware. For Kate herself, it must have been a matter of fine calculation. Certainly she did not rush into marriage, as certainly, she was unhappy to leave us – indeed, for years and years she endeavoured in every way to cling on to us, enquiring of our health, our schooling, our achievements (she was too intelligent to enquire about our failures), and still attempting in many ways to live through us, perhaps also as an escape from what turned out to be the rather sordid realities of greengrocery at the Love level.

Such relations are very difficult to write about, if only be-cause one of the parties will never be completely candid, even with herself, and will above all never write about them. So we have to make do with the children’s view of them, and this, like a child’s sense of size, space, height or distance, will always be wildly out of proportion, though, like a magnifying-glass, bringing out the detail (what I most remember of Kate is the worry and anxiety that always seemed to be in her eyes, also the fragile bones that stood out in her very thin neck). Certainly, my knowledge of and my affection for Kate made me early aware of the sheer complication of relations that hovered on the borderlines of class and personal. Indeed, to my eyes, Kate could not be categorized at all in terms of class; she was classless because she was Kate, not Mrs Love or the former Miss Scurrell – a form of address denied her by her semi-domestic status though I am sure that she much preferred to be the more famil­iar Kate. There was in fact nothing insulting about the regular use of the Christian name, and had she been a real servant, she would have been addressed as ‘Scurrell’. Kate was very import­ant to me, too, in quite a different way. She represented the continuity between Frinton, Colchester and Tunbridge Wells, she carried with her to the Kent and Sussex border something of her own and my own native Hundred of Tendring; even the Essex twang survived, intermittently breaking through the careful overlay of middle-class speech as mirrored, and slightly distorted, from the kitchen and nursery. Kate never had meals with us (save during picnics on the beach, when such niceties were abandoned – she could hardly have sat apart, eating on her own, a few yards away, in an imaginary kitchen), yet she knew me much better, indeed knew much more about me – in-cluding my guilty secrets (and I always had quite a few of these) than anyone who did have meals with us. At this period, it was my mother, rather than her substitute and stand-in Kate, who appeared to me somehow at one remove. When Kate went, I was just left that much more on my own. I don’t think I minded this, for I always found plenty to occupy me and plenty to observe; but I had lost a companion and an accom­plice, and never found another one so close.

Extract from Chapter 5, Still Life by Richard Cobb © The Estate of Richard Cobb 1983


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