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Authors: Julian Mitchell

A Disturbing Influence

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A Disturbing Influence

JULIAN MITCHELL

In 1945, just as the war was ending, my family moved from the middle of an iron-age camp in Essex to an Arts and Crafts house in a Cotswolds valley, five miles from the nearest town. The furniture arrived on VE Day, a week after my tenth birthday. It had to come down a narrow lane from the village, then across a field (with Sam the donkey, who came with the property) and down again to the house, which was almost enveloped in the beech woods that covered the steep slope to the stream. The village itself had the telephone, but no electricity or mains water. However, we had a smelly engine which puffed away all day to give us light and heat, though my mother complained that the damp was so great, if you left a pair of shoes in a cupboard they would come out green in a fortnight.

The whole area was owned by the local lord, which made it profoundly old-fashioned, almost feudal. And though my father worked in London, we had a couple of cows, a couple of pigs, various hens and ducks, and a snake in the compost heap. All but the snake, I think, were a fraud on the exchequer, somehow making us into an agricultural holding to be set against tax.

I loved the place at once, and when, a year or two later, after various minor illnesses, I was taken away from my horrible prep school for a term and given a pony to help me get better, I rode for miles around, till I felt the whole district was mine. As a result, though I have lived most of my adult life in London, I still think of myself as essentially a countryman.

Half a mile away from the house there was a vast park which stretched all the way to Cirencester and was full of eighteenth-century follies – King Alfred’s Hall, Pope’s Seat and so on. Cirencester itself had once been Corinium, and the Roman amphitheatre was just next to the maternity hospital. There was also a glorious medieval church, and a huge high hedge behind which the lord’s family lived, invisible except at meets of the hounds, when we children had to go and take off our hats to his mother, who had broken her back in a hunting accident before the war. She continued to follow the hunt in a chauffeur-driven Jeep and was supposed on occasion to give a lead to anyone having difficulty persuading his horse over a stone wall. For the rest of their lives my parents never lived more than a few miles from the town, but as children we were not encouraged to go there. The cows and pigs and hens and ponies were there for us to grow up with good food and fresh air at a time of austerity and rationing, and we were allowed to go to one of the two Cirencester cinemas only once a holidays (usually for a Marx Brothers picture).

We never had regular pocket-money, only what we could keep from the change when we were sent on an errand. (My younger brother, later a successful businessman, was very disappointed to discover that Monopoly money wasn’t legal currency.) Nonetheless my mother had to go into ‘Ciren’, as we called it, on ordinary shopping trips, and usually took one or more of us with her, and when I came to write the first story in
A Disturbing Influence,
it was Cirencester which was the model for the town that I had first wanted to call Carterton. The name, I hoped, would suggest Britain’s past as an import–export country, based on a large merchant navy, now sadly dwindled. I don’t think anyone ever got that idea, but young writers should be ambitious. It turned out there was a real Carterton, so I had to change it to Cartersfield. The story was published in 1960 in a Faber and Faber anthology called
Introduction.

By then I knew Cirencester like the back of my hand; that is to say, its surface appearance only. There was a shoe-shop with an X-Ray machine in which we could put our feet and watch the bones wiggling in an eerie green light; God knows what Health and Safety would say about that today. There was the fishmonger, owned and run by Charlie Barnett, who opened the innings for Gloucestershire and England, and whose children were in the Pony Club with me. There was the Corn Hall, where the local tailor would measure us for our sports jackets. There was the independent local brewery where my father would buy the pint of ale which we boys were allowed to drink at dinner. And there was the garage where we filled up with petrol, when we had the coupons, and where I would gaze longingly at the new cars in the window. All the shops of Cartersfield are modelled on those I knew in Cirencester, but removed forty miles or so to the A4, somewhere between Maidenhead and Reading. I suppose this sort of transformation is completely ordinary among novelists. Why invent a town when there is a perfectly good one to draw on?

But if I knew the shops, I didn’t know the shopkeepers or their customers – in fact I hardly knew the people of Cirencester at all. Yet its branch of W. H. Smith provided me with some of my earliest literary influences. There were, for instance, cheap editions of Dorothy L. Sayers in the primrose and purple uniform of Gollancz; so for a while Lord Peter Wimsey was my hero. And I could also, occasionally, get a copy of the
Saturday Evening Post,
ordered for an American airman at Fairford, I assume, and never collected. What I most liked about the
Post
at first was the advertisements. They suggested a world of dazzling wealth and colour, especially those for exotic cars like DeSotos and Nashes and Packards. Then I began to read the stories, and though I can’t say I remember any of them at all, I think they must have created my first desire to go and see the American wonderland for myself.

I read very little fiction while I was at Oxford, partly because I preferred to read poetry, and partly because I worked quite hard at History, and there seemed much less time for ‘pleasure’ reading than there had been during the tedium of national service. But then I began writing short stories which were published in the
Isis,
the more literary of the two undergraduate magazines. I found they came quite easily – more so than poems – and was soon writing one a term. ‘The Schoolmaster’ was probably the last of these. I had been deeply impressed by a photographic exhibition about the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And though I never actually joined CND – I am not by nature a joiner – I went on the Aldermaston March at Easter 1959, and of course wanted to write about it. The creation of a basically conservative schoolmaster who helps make the march pass through a town which (more ambitious symbolism) had been bypassed, may reflect my own uncertainty on the issue.

That autumn I started two years in America, which turned out to be very unlike the
Saturday Evening
Post
, though the tail fins of the cars were even more flamboyant than in the 1940s. Travelling from library to library, I began to read American novels, and, thanks to a Harvard professor, started on William Faulkner, who became something of an obsession. More of his influence can be found, perhaps, in the breathless style of one of the narrators in
Imaginary Toys,
but when I started writing stories again, the idea of peopling a small world like his Yoknapatawpha County was very much in my mind.

The schoolmaster had been based, at a very long distance, on one of my own masters, and I used him again when I wrote ‘The Brigadier’ – I didn’t need a particular brigadier to model mine on, Gloucestershire was full of them. I may even have imagined the schoolmaster as being the narrator for other stories, just as the sewing machine salesman is the narrator of so many of Faulkner’s. But as the book developed, I realised he was too limited for my purposes. So I created a troubled vicar, not based even at a distance on anyone I knew. The girl who worked for him and had an illegitimate baby, though, was someone who had worked for my mother, but I’m sure if she ever read fiction – which she didn’t, as she went to the cinema twice a week and could never remember the plots – she would not have recognised herself. The young man scattering gravel as he imagined himself as Stirling Moss was, of course, myself, obsessed with motor-racing for a few months in my teens and perhaps not very kindly recreated here. The man who operates the petrol pumps in the long final story was based on the man who did just that in Cirencester. But when I say ‘based on’, I didn’t actually know him at all except to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Fill her up.’ He was simply a familiar figure, about whose life I knew nothing, a starting point for my imagination. The magical yew avenue was taken from a house near where we lived.

I very much enjoyed writing the new stories, but having invented Cartersfield as a stand-in for Britain, I wanted to show it under threat, as I felt Britain was, feeling it even more strongly perhaps now I was in America. So I began the long story which made up the second half of the book, in which the rather comfortable, even cosy life of the first, is challenged. I thought of the disturbing influence himself as looking like Elvis Presley, without having any idea that this would be quite prescient. The book came out in 1962, the year of The Beatles’ debut single; great changes in society, accompanied by pop music, were just beginning, and many people were to be disturbed, usually for the best. Whether or not
A
Disturbing Influence
is really a novel I’m not sure, given the way it developed. But I don’t honestly care. I still have great affection for it, and if I had gone on writing fiction, I like to think I would have used Cartersfield and its imaginary inhabitants over and over again.

Julian Mitchell
March 2013

T
HAT
was a beastly winter—my wife was very ill and I was
distracted
by many things. There was a good deal of work in the parish, and twice a week I went to London, where I was the unpaid secretary of an organization raising money for the relief of flood victims in Burma. Altogether I was working very hard and not getting any younger, and I found myself exhausted by the end of the day. But a vicar’s work is in his own parish or it is nowhere: a priest’s first duty is to his people. And that winter I was failing in my duty to the people of Cartersfield. Day after day of icy wind and rain kept me at my desk—where there was plenty to do, in all conscience—and for a month or two I rather let things slide as far as the town was concerned. Local gossip has always been one of my chief means of measuring my success as a vicar. Everything gets to one eventually in a small place and moral failings are usually quick to be reported. But through January and February I wasn’t really listening.

Thus it was not until March that I registered that Lindy Badham was beginning to be talked about. Lindy was a good girl—a regular member of Sunday School when she was a child, and later a useful if not very tuneful member of the choir. She was cheerful, and, though not very bright, she did her best: and how I wish I could say that of men and women with better mental equipment. Lindy, however, had one failing of which she and everyone else was extremely conscious. She was ugly. Not merely ugly—though even as a very young child she was never pretty—but painfully
ugly, for she had a terrible scar on her face, the result of an accident when she was six years old. She had run out across the street after a ball. In those days we had no by-pass, and the main road ran through the middle of the town. A heavy lorry ran over her. It was not the driver’s fault—he had braked as hard as he could, but she was under his wheels almost before he saw her. The poor man was very upset indeed about it, and of course completely exonerated. But no amount of regret could save Lindy’s face. She was taken to the hospital, where they did what they could, but the cut ran from her chin to her temple, and it was not a clean cut, but a series of gashes, gouging across her cheek. From the left side her face looked like a field torn apart for a building site. Nothing could be done to conceal it, for in those days plastic surgery was in its infancy, and anyway the Badhams could not possibly have afforded it. On top of this misfortune, Lindy wore glasses, and they had broken in the accident, cutting her cheek still further and badly damaging her left eye. As a result, Lindy’s usual expression was one of pleasant vacuousness, as she smiled blindly and lopsidedly at whomever she spoke to. Yet, as I say, marked out as she was from her girl friends, she remained cheerful and popular. Though her popularity did not, of course, extend to the boys.

In a town like Cartersfield this might seriously be considered a moral advantage. As everywhere else, it is extremely difficult here to keep boys and girls away from each other between the age of thirteen or fourteen and the time of their marriage.
Fornication
, I regret to say, is not uncommon among mere children, (for how else can one consider such young people?) I have had many discussions with the schoolteachers of the town as to what can be done, but the general consensus of opinion is that the answer is nothing. And though I strongly opposed the introduction of classes on so-called ‘sexual education’, I now think I may have been wrong. It is better, surely, that the children should be fully aware of what they are doing, biologically speaking, than doing it anyway in the dark, as it were. And though I am fully aware of the moral
decadence
this implies, I am grateful that contraceptive devices do at least save such children from the full consequences of their acts—though their acts remain, I must insist, wholly reprehensible. Of course it is only a small minority that begins to indulge in sexual activity so young. But this minority remains a constant threat to decency. Some years ago there was a great deal of scandal at the Grammar School when a girl became pregnant, and she and the boy had to leave. I have never been able to make up my mind whether the scandal served to increase or decrease the amount of immorality. The example worked both ways, in a sense. But in either case illegitimate births are very few, though the number of babies born less than nine months after their parents’ marriage is significantly high. Here, as elsewhere in the British Isles, lip-service is paid to morality, but little else.

Lindy was not, as I have said, a girl much sought after. In fact she was never sought after at all. Being ugly and half blind, it was not, perhaps, very difficult to be virtuous. But if her belief in God was simple we should remember what Christ said about suffering little children to come unto Him, and that Lindy’s faith was genuine. She was, too, a great help to me in many ways. She was always ready to volunteer for any little chore that needed doing in the church—she arranged the flowers, clumsily but adequately, she swept the church once a week, she looked after the younger ones on church picnics, and she never complained that life had cheated her by giving her an ugly face. Lindy was very willing. Her mother, Mrs Badham, while not a churchgoer, was a good woman in her way, too. She was large and strong, and her physical appearance, accompanied by a loud voice, gave her an air of authority. She worked for Mrs Hobson, supplementing a widow’s pension, her husband having been killed in the war. Lindy was an only child, and Mrs Badham spared nothing to have her well dressed and neat, and to give her those small things which are luxuries to a child and which make childhood a pleasure to look back upon.

Thus it was that I was surprised by the rumour. They were
building the by-pass that spring—it took them something like six months to complete, in all—and Mrs Badham gave bed and breakfast to a man of forty or so: William Johnson, who worked on the construction. He came from the north of England, and had a wife and three children. Very often he would go home at weekends. There are many such men, I believe, moving from one big labouring job to another, earning excellent money, usually far from home, and boarding out near their work. Others live in caravans. There was a small caravan village established on the other side of Chapman’s Wood, in fact, while the by-pass was being built, and when the job was finished a few caravans stayed there, the men, having found work locally, deciding they liked the neighbourhood. We have been making efforts recently to get this hamlet of caravans—it is very small now—removed or destroyed as insanitary, but so far we have been unsuccessful.

William Johnson, however, preferred the small comforts of Mrs Badham’s semi-detached villa to the more adventurous life of the caravans, and he moved in about the end of February. Johnson was a big man, broad-shouldered, with large hands and an appearance of great physical strength. He would have made a splendid partner for his landlady. But he seemed very quiet and respectful, in fact a thoroughly decent working man. He was, I was told, a foreman. But within a month I began to hear rumours.

It is traditional, I suppose, that a lodger should make advances to his landlady’s daughter, and even if he doesn’t that he should be suspected of doing so. Thus, when Miss Spurgeon came up to me after Matins a Sunday or two before Easter and asked for a private word, only to tell me that she had reason to believe that Lindy and Johnson were misbehaving together, I felt inclined to be short with her. Miss Spurgeon was inclined to exaggerate the faults of others and to minimize her own.

‘Come now,’ I said, ‘we mustn’t gossip, Miss Spurgeon.’

‘I am not gossiping, Mr Henderson,’ she said. ‘You know me well enough, I hope, to know that I detest gossip.’

‘But you haven’t given me a shred of evidence.’

‘Sometimes one can sense things, Mr Henderson. And I tell you that I sense that something is going on between Lindy Badham and that Mr Johnson.’

Miss Spurgeon’s senses frequently told her that Something Was Unquestionably Going On.

‘I don’t think you should go round spreading a rumour like that, Miss Spurgeon, unless you can prove it. And I think you might try to be a little more charitable towards your neighbour.’

‘I am only telling you what I suspect,’ she said. Her features were set, unforgiving, and confident of rightness, if not righteousness. Miss Spurgeon is an old lady, and argument is wasted upon her.

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘But I’m afraid I must ignore what your senses tell you, Miss Spurgeon. It is my duty to guard the morals of my parishioners, you know, not to encourage tittle-tattle.’

‘You are the best judge of that,’ said Miss Spurgeon. ‘But I know what I’m saying, Mr Henderson, and if you really wish to guard the morals of the parish you will listen when you are warned of goings on.’ She walked away with great dignity, leaning on an elegant black stick. All conversations with Miss Spurgeon tended to end like that. Both of us thought we had authority: I as vicar, she by virtue of her age. We sharpened each other, I think. But as a gossip she lacked consistent accuracy, being correct only about once in ten times, and even when I thought she might be on to something I made a point of telling her that I would ignore whatever it was she had newly ‘sensed’.

And this time I did ignore her. I glanced once or twice at Lindy during Evensong, and she seemed as demure as ever, sitting placidly in her choir-stall with her normal expression of contented blankness. With her scar and her ugliness and her glasses it was difficult to know what she might or might not be thinking, but I felt sure that she was not lusting in her heart after Mr Johnson while she listened to my brief sermon on the Wise and the Unwise Virgins.

Some days later my wife, who was now a little better and came
down after lunch every day, entered my study and said: ‘Raymond, I think you should have a word with Lindy.’

Lindy, I should have said, worked for us, coming in every morning to help Isobel clean the house and get the lunch. Since Isobel’s illness we had come to depend very heavily upon her.

‘What is it, Isobel?’

‘She’s been late every morning this week. She’s never done it before. I wonder if you would mind having a word with her. I really don’t feel up to speaking to her myself.’

‘Of course. I’ll see her tomorrow.’

Isobel went and sat by the window. ‘Thank God the winter is nearly over,’ she said.

‘I hope we’ll have you out and about by the middle of May,’ I said.

‘So do I.’

Isobel looked wan. Her illness had been obscure and dangerous, one of those slowly wasting diseases that doctors don’t like to talk about, since their tests fail to show anything actually wrong. Yet the patient grows sicker and sicker. In spite of specialists—who had been extremely expensive—we still didn’t know what was really the matter with her, though both of us feared, without ever saying so, that it might be cancer. But she had picked up a little, and we hoped that a warm summer might put her right again.

‘If you’re not better by July,’ I said, ‘I’ll send you off to your sisters. There’s no telling what a change of air might do.’

‘I don’t expect Farnham’s air is very different from this,’ she said. ‘I should love to go abroad again. To Switzerland, say, to see the flowers.’

‘You know we can’t afford that.’

‘Yes, I know. But there’s no harm in thinking about it, is there?’ She thought for a moment, then got up and said: ‘But perhaps there is. I thought it might be nice to go and post the letters, Raymond. Do you have any?’

‘You’re not supposed to go out yet.’

‘I know. But I hate being cooped up like this, day after day. It’s not very far.’

‘I’ll come with you.’

We wrapped up well, for though it was fine, it was cold and crisp, nearly April, but with a threat of frost in the air. The
post-box
was only a few hundred yards away, but even that distance was an expedition for Isobel.

On the way we met Evangeline Hobson, who stopped us to complain about the by-pass tearing up one of their fields. We expressed our sympathy, though we did not really feel it, delighted as we were at the prospect of living without the thunder and danger of lorries day and night. Then she said: ‘I don’t want to seem nosy, Raymond, but all these labourers do represent something of a threat, don’t you think?’

‘I don’t even know what you mean, Evangeline. Just because many of them seem to be Irish there is no danger of my parish turning Catholic.’

She laughed. ‘I didn’t mean that. I was thinking, frankly, of the parish’s morals rather than of its denomination. The girls have never been so popular, it seems. What with all these men with nowhere to go in the evenings.’

‘I’m sure the local youths can handle that,’ I said.

‘Mrs Badham has been telling me that they’re furious. The labourers are getting too much attention.’

‘A change of faces can’t harm anyone,’ I said.

‘Mrs Badham seemed to think it was funny, I don’t know why.’

‘I agree with her,’ said Isobel. ‘It is quite funny. It should put all the boys on their mettle.’ Then she added: ‘I wish I could see a few new faces sometimes.’

The two women discussed Isobel’s illness and convalescence. I wondered briefly whether Mrs Hobson might not have a point, but soon dismissed the idea. It wasn’t as though the labourers were an invading army, after all.

When we got back to the vicarage Isobel felt tired and I helped her to bed.

‘It’s so silly,’ she said, when she was settled with a hot-water bottle. ‘Here I’ve been lying all this time, listening to the radio for months and months, and I can tell you exactly what’s being talked about in
Mrs
Dale’s
Diary,
but I seem to have lost all touch with Cartersfield.’

‘I’m a little out of touch with it myself.’

‘Mrs Badham,’ said Isobel, and laughed. ‘What a splendid woman she is. She could scrub kitchens all day and still be ready for a little weight-lifting.’

This was hardly fair. Mrs Badham was big and strong, certainly, but hardly a giantess. I said as much.

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