Read The Balliols Online

Authors: Alec Waugh

The Balliols

BOOK: The Balliols
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Balliols



“To build a sanctuary you must destroy a sanctuary”














Book I
The Balliols
The Balliols

I had not meant this to be a novel.

A few weeks ago I became thirty-five, and though it is absurd, patently, to say on any one morning “I have now lived half my life,” it is impossible not to regard one's thirty-fifth birthday as a landmark; as an excuse for stocktaking; for looking back and looking forward; for comparing the world as one found it with the world as it has become.

On the surface it is a very different world. At the beginning of the century not only were there no aeroplanes in the sky but there were no motor-cars upon the streets. There were no tubes. Londoners travelled smokily by the underground or slowly in horse-drawn buses. Rooms were more often lit by lamps than gas jets. The telephone, except in offices, was an unusual luxury. The gramophone was a nursery nuisance. The radio-set had not been prophesied, even in the scientific romances of Mr. H. G. Wells.

The immaterial differences are even greater.

Divorce carried a social stigma. Bridegrooms demanded inexperience. Women could not plead in court nor sit in Parliament. Ireland was under British rule. France was the only European republic. Communism was the creed of a few unwashed malcontents and an abstract subject of dispute among intellectuals in Chelsea. Catholicism was the hereditary handicap with which the worldly ambitions of certain families were burdened. Income tax was at a shilling.

Mrs. C. S. Peel in that classic of social history, “A Wonderful Hundred Years,” has recorded the windings of the stream of change across the ample landscape of nineteenth-century England. To-day that stream has become a torrent. The war telescoped events: achieving in five years changes for which a normal process of effect and cause would have required fifty; so that we who have lived through that period are only conscious of the speed and distance we have travelled at some such arbitrarily selected date as an uncle's
death, a nephew's birth, a coming-of-age dance, a sister's wedding; when we reverse the panorama and, looking back to 1900, exclaim, “At this rate where on earth shall we find ourselves in 1960?”

It was in such a mood, pausing at the half-way house of thirty-five, that I decided to draw up a survey of the period—not in the manner of a list (1906, the first taxi. 1910, Bleriot flies the Channel. 1913, the Hobble Skirt. 1918, Votes for Women. Not that. Other people have done that)—but a record of the way in which, in the midst of external change, men and women lived their ordinary lives; of how they thought, dreamed, acted, while history was happening about them.

That is the book that I had planned to write, that I began to write: the kind of book which is catalogued in public libraries under the amiably misleading label of “Belles-Lettres.” But the storyteller is interested not in groups, but individuals. His instinct is to avoid generalizations, to take an instance that seems typical, to say of it, “That is how this one man, this one woman lived at such a time. Study their lives and you can guess at what the world was like.”

But as I began my search for those typical, concrete examples, I found myself more and more turning to one family, of whose fortunes I have been occasionally the sharer and consistently the spectator. So that when I wanted to write of the family businesses that in 1910, seemed unassailable but are now struggling to declare dividends, it was of Edward Balliol's directorate of Peel & Hardy's that I thought first; when I wanted to write of the suffrage movement; of the pre-war débutante now a matron; of the unemployed ex-officer; of the young men, too young to serve in the war, who were brought up in the shadow of the war, who are as much a part of the war generation as their brothers; of the post-war girl, rudderless, on the tide of freedom; it was of Lucy, Ruth, Hugh, Francis and Helen Balliol that I first thought. So typical indeed is the Balliol family of upper middle-class life in London during the last thirty years that I had not written many pages of my book before I knew that I was on the wrong track, that if I wanted to tell the story of the last thirty years in terms of individuals, I had better tear up what I had written, start again, and tell the story of the Balliols.


The Balliols entered my world in the spring of 1907; when my father decided to leave the West London street where I was born, and build a house on the northern heights of Hampstead, on the edge of the new Heath extension.

At that time such a move was an adventure. For centuries the fields had run green to Hendon. Against the red-brick, stucco-crested tide of expanding London the high wind-swept hill of Hampstead had stood like a breakwater, protecting with its gorse and heather the narrow valley between itself and Highgate, diverting the streams of asphalt towards St. John's Wood and Swiss Cottage, so that late into Edwardian days the Brent moved placidly between flower-fringed banks, the gibbet elm brooded over the deep-cut lane that Pitt had watched beside in his last dark days and a sign-post beside a pond marked the junction of the old Finchley Bridle Path with the Great North Road down which Dick Turpin had cantered to meet death: North End called itself a village.

So slowly indeed had the encircling sea trickled northwards towards Child's Hill, swelling eastwards up the hill to Frognal, that the estate agent who persuaded my father into the purchase of a half-acre field below the Bull and Bush was able to convince him that the North End Road would remain bounded by fields in perpetuity. Out of the hill a few hundred yards below us would emerge during that summer the extension of the Hampstead Tube. Who would want to build a house whose foundations every few minutes would quiver to the roar of trains?

It sounded a reasonable contention. And it was with a feeling of some outrage that we watched during the autumn and the spring a mushroom growth of two-storied villas scamper to the hill's very foot; to be welcomed there by such an efflorescence of shops that the tube officials decided to run every other train straight through to Golders Green instead of, as had been their first intention, stopping three in every four at Hampstead.

It was with considerable irritation that my father watched the village atmosphere of North End engulfed by this suburban tide; but it was with the most reverential awe that I, a boy of nine,
watched the slow, majestic growth across the road, of a house fully twice the size of ours. From the morning that the first sod of the first trench was dug I watched with an avid curiosity. I had paced out the foundations of our own house: I had listened to my parents' discussions of measurements and heights. I knew that the extra yard of length that looks so negligible when a house lies, marked out by trenches in an open field, makes an immeasurable difference when that space is enclosed by walls. From the first pacing-out of the intruder I returned home, hot-cheeked with excitement.

“It's going to be huge,” I said. “There's a room running the whole length. It's thirty-five feet long and twenty wide. Then across the passage there's another, only it's smaller: twenty feet long; and beyond that it's built out a lot. Perhaps the kitchen. The hall's as big as our dining-room. Isn't it funny, though there aren't going to be any bay windows; just flat. I do wonder who's going to live there. I wonder what the garden'll be like. It might be big enough for cricket. I wonder if they're nice.”

That curiosity persisted.

Just once it happens to almost everyone to know another family or group of persons so well that one sees their story as a consecutive piece of narrative. One has talked of them, one has heard them discussed so often that one forgets when or where one learnt this or that particular incident; how this or that gap in one's knowledge was filled in; in the same way that one cannot tell how a jigsaw puzzle was put together. One sees it at the end complete. One remembers certain motifs and passages that were difficult. In consequence the narrator of such a story is not forced to protrude himself except where he shared the action. He is absolved from the responsibility that ordinarily rests upon a narrator telling his story in the first person, of explaining how he knew what happened on occasions when he was not present; or what certain characters felt at certain crises. To explain such things in such a story would be as unnecessary and as tiresome as to footnote in a history book the authority for such statements as Magna Charta, 1215.

Edward Balliol, when I met him first, was on the brink of forty. I thought of him, that is to say, as an old man. He seems no older now. But I cannot imagine that in 1907 he can have appeared even to his contemporaries and seniors as anything but advancedly middle-aged. It is not that he was grey-haired or bald or fat. On the contrary, his figure was slim and tall and straight; while his hair was of that yellow flaxen lightness that conceals the white
streaking round the ears. It was his manner, not his appearance, that was elderly. He had a slow, precise, slightly mannered way of speaking more fitted to a highly-placed official in the treasury than to a wine merchant. He had constant resort to inverted commas; to such explanatory parentheses as, in the description of an umbrella, “that article which the contemporary slang of my youth misnamed a ‘gamp'.” He also brought to each subject under discussion an equal measure of concern, suggesting that he was not personally involved. You could not imagine him being excited. He had none of the boyishness that many men retain to their last day. At the same time, because he was interested in nearly everything, he was an interesting companion. The feeling he always gave that in the last analysis he did not care two-pence either way prevented him from ever making a close friendship. But his capacity to be interested ensured for him a large and affectionate acquaintance. To a schoolboy such as myself he had the great appeal of being able to discuss my interests without patronizing them. He definitely did want to know what I had been doing.

Jane Balliol on the other hand does not even now seem an old woman. Though she walks with a stoop, slowly, though her hair is white, there is still, in her slight stammer, in her vagueness, in the occasional look of bewilderment that comes into her grey-blue eyes, not girlishness—that would be tiresome—but a capacity to be surprised; a suggestion that she has not yet completely focused a world that is new and strange to her. Married at seventeen, she stepped straight from the schoolroom into the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. She had no girlhood. It is possibly this suggestion of a search for something lost long ago that keeps her young.

Not even when I was a child did I think of her as old. I did not realize then, as I do now, that she was beautiful.

Occasionally there is a potential, a dramatic look in a person's face; so that you feel as you discuss with him some matter of impersonal interest that he is not there at all, that his real life is somewhere else, yet at the same time he seems more alive than the people whose entire attention is fixed on the matter you discuss. “Something's happening to that man,” you think. Occasionally it is like that. But very much more often you get no inkling that the man with whom you play a round of golf or argue about international tariffs in your club over a glass of sherry is the victim of an emotional typhoon. When later he gives you a hint of the kind
of experience through which at that time he was passing, you recall with surprise the calm he then displayed. He had given no suggestion that that round of golf, that glass of sherry, was the half-hour of calm at the typhoon's core. During the summer of 1907 I had no idea that the impressive couple who came evening after evening to watch the walis of their new home rise within the scaffolding were passing through a crisis.

BOOK: The Balliols
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Playing Knotty by Elia Winters
The Academy by Emmaline Andrews
The Guardian by Carey Corp
Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston
The Power of Love by Elizabeth Chandler
Progeny by E. H. Reinhard
...O llevarás luto por mi by Dominique Lapierre, Larry Collins
Vampires 3 by J R Rain