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Basil Street Blues Extract | ‘What shall we do with the boy?’

Michael Holroyd

‘What shall we do with the boy?’ That cry comes back to me whenever I think of my early years at Maidenhead. As if to answer the question, my father, in the intervals from his career in France, would turn up at Norhurst with some devastating present – an air rifle, chemistry set, conjuring tricks or even golf club – and after a few flourishes and gestures, a few words of encouragement and a laugh, leave the fine tuning of my tuition as rifleman, chemist, magician or golfer to my aunt while he returned to fight the Germans or encourage the French. My aunt did her best, but I remember thinking one rainy day as we quarried out some lumps of ice to put on her forehead while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, that we shouldn’t have chosen the dining-room to play cricket.

Most of these events passed my grandfather by. He got little sleep at night and would catch up during the day with a series of ‘forty winks’. Besides he had his own disasters to occupy him. The post would arrive, he would shake his head and on the backs of the envelopes begin a sequence of calculations that never seemed to come out well. Distracted, he would suddenly stand up and crash his poor head against some unexpected corner of furniture and then, blaming the government and all its works, stick on another piece of Elastoplast.

This Elastoplast, like the impasto of an expressionist painter, covered the dome of my grandfather’s head which, because he was bald and somewhat bent, he appeared to be accusingly presenting to us all. His face too, with its changing surface of bumps and bruises, was something of a battlefield largely because of his shaving habits. He was not a skilful shaver. His chin and cheeks, as well as his nose and neck, were sometimes dotted with tufts of cotton wool and crossed with thin red lines like alleged Martian canals. Late in life my father gave him an electric razor. After some experimentation in the privacy of the garage, he found this gadget easiest to use while standing on the seat of the upstairs lavatory from where he plugged its dangling cord into the overhead light. In the darkness the whole operation lasted nearly half an hour, for he sometimes submerged part of his kit in the cistern. It was impossible for the rest of us to use the lavatory over these periods. My aunt, my grandmother, Old Nan and myself would line up outside, rattling the door handle and crying out in exasperation. But he felt protected by the comfortable whining of his machine. Occasionally he would shave the same side of his face twice since there was no soap to guide him. But over a week things would even out.

From time to time, amid panic and pandemonium, my grandfather was required to travel up to London for a meeting of the Rajmai Tea Company, and once or twice I went up with him on the train. When he arrived at Paddington he would hand up his neatly folded copy of The Times through the smoke of the hissing engine to the train driver who touched his cap and nodded his head as he took it. My grandfather always came back looking worried from these days in London, and the dogs themselves would sneak into the corners of the rooms.

Part of his difficulties arose from increasing deafness, though this also afforded him protection from the perpetual squabbling that filled the rooms at Norhurst. As a child I had the double experience of my parents’ marriage that had unhappily broken up, and my grandparents’ marriage that had been unhappily kept going. At one point I was to make an attempt to run away from Maidenhead to join my mother in London; at another point, I attempted to run back from London to Maidenhead. The family was baffled: but I do not feel so baffled.

Slightly Foxed Edition No. 29: Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues
© Michael Holroyd 1999

Basil Street Blues Extract | ‘What shall we do with the boy?’

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