Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ronald and Richard

I wrote this account of my father (Ronald) and uncle’s (Richard) early life in India and what is now Pakistan a few years back. It’s based on fact but embellished by fiction! The photos are of my family.

On a fine day in 1925 Ronald and Richard set sail on the Raj Patan with their parents, Alfred and Sarah, from the port of Karachi in India to return to England. This marked the very start of their adventure. Their “home” in England was not really their home, as the two boys and their mother had been born in India, and its backdrop of palm trees and brightly-coloured birds and flowers was quite ordinary and familiar to them. But to the boys especially, England lured them with a weird kind of exoticism and for weeks beforehand they dreamed of apple orchards, country churches and soft summer rain on dry, red bricks as if these were jewels from the orient.

Richard (left) and Ronald (right)

Alfred had decided to bring the family to England for the very reasons that Ronald and Richard thrived in India. The boys received no formal education and spent their days in the care of their ayah or mother, scrambling freely around the dusty garden, enjoying trips to the beach in Karachi or sailing to the nearby island of Minora in the family’s yacht. The island was magical and unspoilt, nothing but sand and an outlook to miles of ocean. After dark the moon and stars reflecting off the waves distorted the pale night-time hues and coloured the surrounding landscape an eerie shade of blue. By day, picnics on the beach were a regular occurrence. A crude canvas windbreaker would be hauled up to shade the party from the heat. They would sit for hours there, the family and their extended group of friends, their picnic spread out on a pristine white tablecloth, which soon became stained with sand and mud, sipping tea from bone china cups and saucers and mixing dates and mangoes with fruitcake and scones.
Picnic on Minora
Alfred managed a kerosene factory and another favourite trip would be down to the wharf to see the huge ships pumping oil in and out. In those days, the city was an incongruous mix of old and new. The oil business was fast expanding and the sight of monstrous tankers against the steep cliffs and immaculate sands was quite a contrast, but to the boys, fascinating.
Alfred, back row, second right, and factory staff

The house in Karachi was spacious and cool, and had the luxury of a garden where Sarah would sit in the late afternoons reading. Although the climate was almost rainless, proximity to the coast meant that it was possible, with some coaxing, to grow bougainvilleas, rhododendrons and other tropical plants and flowers, and the odd fruit or sandalwood tree, and so the air would be scented in layers, in much the same way that expensive perfumes would be put together. To Alfred, used to the more restrained English gardens, these plants seemed menacing, but to Ronald and Richard they provided perfect hiding places and fuelled their imaginative games.
My grandmother, Sarah
The garden, tropical and beautiful, was far from peaceful. Apart from the shouts of the boys as they played with the servants’ children, the supernatural echoes of nameless birds and insects would reverberate day and night. Parakeets could often be seen perched in the trees. They were far from shy, and had been known to swoop onto the veranda and interrupt afternoon tea to steal a treat. Every evening they would gather in a coven high above the treetops chattering, screeching and chanting until they tired and would settle to sleep, emitting the odd squawk as night caught up with them. 

The tropical garden
The family’s pet lemur, Felix, presided over the garden. Felix was a pet far superior to any ordinary cat or dog. He would happily balance on one’s shoulders and be carried aloft with quite a regal air. Apart from being kingly, he could be naughty too. He would snatch a banana or other treat from innocent hands and position himself on the veranda, taunting its original owner.
Felix the lemur on my grandfather’s shoulder

The boys were quite familiar with the local people who worked for the family, and Richard was especially fond of his ayah. Her husband also worked for the family and Richard would often warn him that if he didn’t look after his wife then he would take her off and marry her himself. This freedom made Alfred decide that the boys were growing wild and needed the discipline of an English education to set them up in life, and so the family packed up and headed for a more subdued climate. 

My dad as a baby
The journey back to England was an adventure in itself, and for the majority of the trip the weather remained as clement as the family was used to. Occasional stopovers would be made along the way, and Alfred would often bring back treasures from the local markets. One time, when the ship stopped in Egypt, he returned from the souk with an octagonal wooden table inlaid with brass and coloured enamel. It became a favourite piece of furniture back in England, perhaps because it always seemed to radiate warmth from the polished wood and reflect light from the metal. As the ship sailed closer to Europe, colours became more muted and the climate chillier. Arrival in Southampton couldn’t have been more disheartening. The day was cold and the fog was everywhere and nowhere, unseen but snapping at the boys’ heels and filling their lungs. Over time the sparkling colours and sounds of India faded in the boys’ memories, and the black and white photographs became even more monotone, but the unexpected heat of an English midsummer day would occasionally revive these impressions with tantalising intensity.   
Back in England

None of my family returned to the subcontinent after this, a source of much regret to my grandmother, Sarah, who spoke Hindi as well as she spoke English. That is, until my sister and I went on our own adventure to Pakistan and India a few years ago, where we found the site of our grandparents’ (long-since demolished) house in Karachi, bought a wedding dress, and shouted, “Pakistan zindabad!” at Wagah. And just to square the circle, I married a man from Karachi!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Queen of the Woods

It was a cold, sharp morning, and a tramp through the woods was prescribed after the previous day’s rain. Though tepid, the sun was eager, and the moisture conspired with the fallen leaves to produce a rich scent full of the promise of dormant life.

We were on the look-out again—this time in better conditions than The Foggy Day—and we hopefully surveyed the bare canopy above and the woodland floor below, the few fungi hinting at the occult life below the decaying leaves.

A little way into the woods and we stopped in our tracks as further down the avenue a dark form appeared, and stared and froze. We did the same. There was a long stand-off. This fallow deer was handsome and sweetly unaware of his appeal—all chocolate-brown and velvety-looking, even from a distance. He was soon joined by his companions, a handful of young, fit-looking bucks who sniffed at the ground and the air, and stopped stock-still and stared. And then another figure amongst the herd…this one a reluctant and striking beauty, as pale as the winter sun—shades of bone, ivory and vanilla layered upon one another to produce a dazzling white. She was less bold, advancing and retreating, unsure of herself, and half-hidden between the trees and the rest of the herd.

The handsome buck

The purity and beauty of these creatures is quite beguilingits easy to see why white deer have enjoyed a mythical status in history, representing a whole spectrum of powerful and life-affirming notions—good fortune, protection, a disaster averted.
The Celts believed these ethereal animals to be messengers from The Otherworld, while the Native Americans believed, and still believe, that the appearance of white animals of any description represent prophecy. Both cultures saw them as harbingers of cataclysmic changes in the lives of those who spotted them…
In Arthurian legend white stags or harts were said to lead knights into battle and off on quests. One was said to have led King Arthur himself to a magic well, and another guided the knights Bors, Galahad and Percival to a forest chapel where it transformed into a vision of Christ. Indeed, they were believed to represent man’s eternal spiritual quest as they were perpetually pursued and never captured.   
In Christianity the white stag came to symbolise Christ and His presence on Earth after the Roman soldier St Eustace converted to Christianity after encountering a white stag with a cross between its antlers.
Richard II was said to have adopted the white hart as his heraldic symbol after his huntsman was fatally wounded while defending him against such a creature in Windsor Forest. The king’s symbol was most famously depicted on the exterior side of The Wilton Diptych. (By a wonderful coincidence I have just discovered that the Diptych also portrayed Edmund, King and Martyr, subject of my last blog post!) The hart, wearing a crown and chain around his neck, sits in a grassy meadow strewn with rosemary believed to be in memory of Richard’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia. (Another delightful coincidence—see my recent blog post Pray, Love, Remember on symbols of remembrance, including rosemary!) Richard was also himself portrayed in the Diptych wearing a brooch with a white hart emblem. Association with Richard also explains the great number of pubs named “The White Hart”—in 1389 the king passed an act ordering inns to display a sign outside to identify themselves to the ale taster, and many adopted the white hart as their mark after Richard.
In literature, a white stag featured in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe—described as both an ally of the White Witch and the creature who led the children out of Narnia, so adopting a dual role. And in Tolkein’s The Hobbit a white deer startles Bilbo and his dwarves in Mirkwood Forest, while in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, just as in the legends of Arthur, a silver doe leads our hero to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.
While the white deer may be the Queen of the Woods, she’s not the only supernatural creature dwelling there…she’s attended by blue pheasants, so I’m told, each as arresting and dazzling as a flock of peacocks. And the trees are full of little owls and tawny owls, a thousand pairs of eyes watching and waiting and taking note, miniature angels and scribes who will write down your thoughts and fears and deeds.
The reclusive "Queen of the Woods"

And was it coincidence, I wonder, that only hours after encountering the white doe I was rushed to hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition…but somehow luck was on my side, disaster was averted, my suffering minimal, perhaps due to the morphine and certainly due to the elusive but real feeling that some beautiful creature, pure in body and soul, was by my side protecting me? It’s fanciful, I know, but who’s to say that my dreams aren’t reality? After all, I featured in another patient’s drug-induced hallucinations and metamorphosed into a Russian Tsarina, not propped up in bed but seated on a golden throne…and I was as real to her as the tea lady, the doctors and the porters who trooped through our ward. And I fancy I had a pure-white familiar at my side—this beautiful white deer— a silver collar around her neck, resting her soft head on my arm every now and again to remind me she was there…

Heading homewards that day, the balls of mistletoe high in the almost-bare trees reminded us of the season and what it represents—the celebration of life old and new, of hope and redemption…how fitting, then, that the Queen of the Woods chose that day to appear to us and to follow me on my challenging journey of the subsequent hours and days, her beauty and gentle presence imprinted on my memory…

With thanks to Dom Kiddell for the inspiration and photography!