What drew me down there, I wonder, to the edge of the garden? I remember the summer light – the trees, the bushes, the grass luminously green, basted by the bland, benevolent late-afternoon sun. Was it the light? But there was the laughter, also, coming from where a group of people had gathered by the pond. Someone must have been horsing around making everyone laugh. The light and the laughter, then.
Or was it some perverse wish that I wasn’t in fact a girl, that he didn’t want to have a daughter? Was that why he tried to kill me later, I wonder . . . ?
I was in the house, in my bedroom, bored, with the window open wide so I could hear the chatter of conversation from the guests and then the sudden arpeggio of delighted laughter came that made me slip off my bed and go to the window to see the gentlemen and ladies and the marquee and the trestle tables laid out with canapés and punchbowls. I was curious – why were they all making their way towards the pond? What was the source of this merriment? So I hurried downstairs to join them..
And then, halfway across the lawn, I turned and ran back to the house to fetch my camera. Why did I do that? I think I have an idea, now, all these years later. I wanted to capture that moment, that benign congregation in the garden on a warm summer evening in England; to capture it and imprison it forever. Somehow I sensed I could stop time’s relentless motion and hold that scene, that split second – with the ladies and the gentlemen in their finery, as they laughed, careless and untroubled. I would catch them fast, eternally, thanks to the properties of my wonderful machine. In my hands I had the power to stop time, or so I fancied.
BOOK ONE: 1908–1927
1. GIRL WITH A CAMERA
THERE WAS A MISTAKE MADE on the day I was born, when I come to think of it. It doesn’t seem important, now, but on 7 March 1908 – such a long time ago, it seems, threescore years and ten almost – it made my mother very cross. However, be that as it may, I was born and my father, sternly instructed by my mother, placed an announcement in The Times. I was their first child, so the world – the readers of the London Times – was duly informed. ‘7 March 1908, to Beverley and Wilfreda Clay, a son, Amory.’
Why did he say ‘son’? To spite his wife, my mother? Or was it some perverse wish that I wasn’t in fact a girl, that he didn’t want to have a daughter? Was that why he tried to kill me later, I wonder . . . ? By the time I came across the parched yellow cutting hidden in a scrapbook, my father had been dead for decades. Too late to ask him. Another mistake.
Beverley Vernon Clay, my father – but no doubt best known to you and his few readers (most long disappeared) as B. V. Clay. A short-story writer of the early twentieth century – stories mainly of the supernatural sort – failed novelist and all-round man of letters. Born in 1878, died in 1944. This is what the Oxford Companion to English Literature (third edition) has to say about him:
Clay, Beverley Vernon
B. V. Clay (1878–1944). Writer of short stories. Collected in The Thankless Task (1901), Malevolent Lullaby (1905), Guilty Pleasures (1907), The Friday Club (1910) and others. He wrote several tales of the supernatural of which ‘The Belladonna Benefaction’ is best known. This was dramatised by Eric Maude (q.v.) in 1906 and ran for over three years and 1,000 performances in the West End of London (see Edwardian Theatre).
It’s not much, is it? Not many words to summarise such a complicated, difficult life, but then it’s more than most of us will receive in the various annals of posterity that record our brief passage of time on this small planet. Funnily enough, I was always confident nothing would ever be written about me, B. V. Clay’s daughter, but it turned out I was wrong . . .
Anyway, I have memories of my father in my very early childhood but I feel I only began to know him when he came back from the war – the Great War, the 1914–18 war – when I was ten and, in a way, when I was already well down the road to becoming the person and the personality that I am today. So it was different having that gap of time that the war imposed, and everyone has since told me he was also a different man himself, when he came back, irrevocably changed by his experiences. I wish I had known him better before that trauma – and who wouldn’t want to travel back in time and encounter their parents before they become their parents? Before ‘mother’ and ‘father’ turned them into figures of domestic myth, forever trapped and fixed in the amber of those appellations and their consequences?
I started the engine and drove on home to the cottage, strangely exhilarated.
The Clay family.
My father: B. V. Clay.
My mother: Wilfreda Clay (née Reade-Hill) (b.1879).
Me: Amory, firstborn. A girl (b.1908).
Sister: Peggy (b.1914).
Brother: Alexander, always known as Xan (b.1916).
The Clay family.
THE BARRANDALE JOURNAL 1977
I was driving back to Barrandale from Oban in the evening – in the haunted gloaming of a Scottish summer – when I saw a wild cat pick its way across the road, not 200 yards from the bridge to the island. I stopped the car at once and switched off the engine, watching and waiting. The cat halted its deliberate progress and turned its head to me, almost haughtily, as if I’d interrupted it. I reached, without thinking, for my camera – my old Leica – and held it up to my eye. Then put it down. There are no photographs more boring than photographs of animals – discuss. I watched the brindled cat – the size of a cocker spaniel – finish its pedantic traverse of the road and slip into the new conifer plantation, promptly becoming invisible. I started the engine and drove on home to the cottage, strangely exhilarated.
I call it ‘the cottage’, however its true postal designation is 6 Druim Rigg Road, Barrandale Island. As to where numbers 1–5 are, I have no idea, because the cottage sits alone on its small bay and Druim Rigg Road ends with it. It’s a solid, two-storey, thick-walled, mid-nineteenth-century, small-roomed house with two chimney stacks and one-storey outbuildings attached on either side. I assumed somebody farmed here a hundred years ago, but all that’s gone, now. It has mossy tiled roofs and walls of concrete cladding that had aged to an unpleasant, bilious grey-green and that I had painted white when I moved in.
It fronted the small, unnamed bay and if you turned left, west, you could see the southern tip of Mull and the wind-worked grey expanse of the vast Atlantic beyond.
I came in the front door and Flam, my dog, my black Labrador, gave his one glottal bass bark of welcome. I put away my shopping and then went through to the parlour, my sitting room, to check on the fire. I had a big stove with glass doors set in the chimney recess in which I burned peat bricks. The fire was low so I threw some bricks on it. I liked the concept of burning peat, rather than coal – as if I were burning ancient landscapes, whole eons, whole geographies were turning into ash as they heated my house, heated my water.
The cottage on Barrandale Island, before renovations and repainting, c.1960.
It was still light so I summoned Flam and we walked down to the bay. I stood on the small crescent beach, as Flam roved around the tide rack and the rock pools, and I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon, listening to the sea’s interminable call for silence – shh, shh, shh.
When I was born – in Edwardian England – ‘Beverley’ was a perfectly acceptable boy’s name (like Evelyn, like Hilary, like Vivian) and I wonder if that was perhaps why my father chose an androgynous name for me: Amory. Names are important, I believe, they shouldn’t be idly opted for – your name becomes your label, your classification – your name is how you refer to yourself. What could be more crucial? I’ve only met one other Amory in my life and he was a man – a boring man, incidentally, but unenlivened by his interesting name.
When my sister was born, my father was already away at the war and my mother consulted with her brother, my uncle Greville, on what to call this new child. They decided between them on something ‘homely and solid’, so family lore has it, and thus the Clays’ second daughter was called ‘Peggy’ – not Margaret, but a straightforward diminutive from the outset. Perhaps it was my mother’s counter to ‘Amory’, the androgynous name she didn’t choose. So Peggy came into the world – Peggy, the homely and solid one. Never has a child been so misnamed. In the event, when my father returned home on leave to greet his six-month-old daughter the name was firmly established and she was known to all of us as ‘Peg’ or ‘Peggoty’ or ‘Peggsy’, and there was nothing he could do. He never really liked the name Peggy, and was never wholly loving to Peggy as a result, I believe, as if she were some sort of foundling we’d taken in. You see what I mean about the importance of names. Did Peggy feel she had the wrong name because her father didn’t like it, or her, particularly? Was it another mistake? Was that why she changed it later?
As for Alexander, ‘Xan’, that was mutually consented to. My mother’s father, a circuit judge, who died before I was born, was called Alexander. It was my father who shortened it instantly to Xan and that stuck. So, Amory, Peggy and Xan, there we were – the Clay children.
He would do a handstand and say, ‘I look at you girls hanging from your feet like bats and I feel sorry for you, oh, yes, in your topsy-turvy world with the earth above and the sky below. Poor things.’ No, no, we would shriek back, no – you’re the one upside down, Papa, not us!
My first memory of my father is of him doing a handstand in the garden at Beckburrow, our house near Claverleigh, in East Sussex. It was something he could do effortlessly – a party trick he had learned as a youngster. Give him a patch of lawn and he would stand easily on his hands and take a few steps. However, after he was wounded in the war he did it less and less, no matter how much we implored him. He said it made his head ache and his eyes lose focus. When we were very young, though, he needed no urging. He liked doing handstands, he would say, because it readjusted his senses and his perspectives. He would do a handstand and say, ‘I look at you girls hanging from your feet like bats and I feel sorry for you, oh, yes, in your topsy-turvy world with the earth above and the sky below. Poor things.’ No, no, we would shriek back, no – you’re the one upside down, Papa, not us!
I remember him coming back on leave in uniform after Xan was born. Xan was three or four months old so it must have been towards the end of 1916. Xan was born on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the battle of the Somme. It’s the only time I recall my father in his uniform – Captain B. V. Clay DSO – the only occasion I can bring him to mind as a soldier. I suppose I must have seen him uniformed at other times but I remember that leave in particular, probably because baby Xan had been born, and my father was holding his son in his arms with a strange, fixed expression on his face.
Apparently he had left precise instructions about the naming of his third child: Alexander if he was a boy; Marjorie if a girl. How do I know this? Because sometimes when I was cross with Xan and wanted to tease him I called him ‘Marjorie’, so it must have been common knowledge. All family histories, personal histories, are as sketchy and unreliable as histories of the Phoenicians, it seems to me. We should note everything down, fill in the wide gaps if we can. Which is why I am writing this, my darlings.
During the war, the man we saw most of, and who lived with us at Beckburrow from time to time, was my mother’s younger brother, Greville – my uncle Greville. Greville Reade-Hill had been a photo-reconnaissance observer in the Royal Flying Corps, and was something of a legend owing to the fact that he had stepped unscathed from four crashes until his fifth crash duly broke his right leg in five places and he was invalided out of the service. I remember him in his uniform limping around Beckburrow. And then he transformed himself into Greville Reade-Hill, the society photographer. He hated being called a ‘society photographer’ even though that was exactly and evidently what he did. ‘I’m a photographer,’ he would say, plaintively, ‘impure and not so simple.’ Greville – I never called him uncle, he forbade it – set my life on its course, unknowingly, when he gave me a Kodak Brownie No. 2 as a present for my seventh birthday in 1915. This is the first photograph I ever took.
In the garden at Beckburrow, spring 1915.
Greville Reade-Hill. Let me call him to mind then, just after the war, as his career was beginning to take off, unsteadily but definitely upwards, like a semi-filled hydrogen balloon. He was tall, broad-shouldered and good-looking, real handsomeness marred only by a slightly too large nose. The Reade-Hill nose, not the Clay nose (I have the Reade-Hill nose, as well). A slightly large nose can make you look more interesting, both Greville and I have always agreed – who wants to look ‘conventionally’ handsome or beautiful? Not me, no, thank you very much.
I can’t remember a great deal about that first photograph – that momentous first click of the shutter that was the starting pistol that set me off on the race for the rest of my life. It was a birthday party – I think my mother’s – held at Beckburrow in the spring of 1915. I seem to recall a marquee in the garden, also. Greville showed me how to load the film into the camera and how to operate it – simplicity itself: look down into the small limpid square of the viewfinder, select your target and press down the little lever at the side. Click. Wind on the film and take another.
I heard the laughter in the garden and ran to find my camera. And then scampered across the lawn and turned the lens on the ladies in their hats and long dresses strolling down towards the beeches at the garden’s end that screened the pond.
Click. I took my photograph.
But my remaining memories of that day are more to do with Greville. As he crouched by me showing me how the camera worked what has stayed in my mind more than anything else was the smell of the pomade or Macassar that he put on his hair – a scent of custard and jasmine. I think it may have been ‘Rowland’s Macassar’ that he wore. He was very fastidious about his clothes and grooming, as if he were always on show in some way or, now I come to think of it, as if he were about to be photographed. Maybe that was it – as someone who photographed people in their finery he became particularly aware of how he was looking, himself, at any hour of the day. I don’t think I ever saw him tousled or dishevelled, except once . . . But we’ll come to that in good time.
We were happy there, the Clay family, or so it seemed to me as I was growing up. Even when Papa came home after the war – thin, irritable, unable to write – nothing really seemed to have changed in the place’s benign enfolding atmosphere
Beckburrow, East Sussex, our home. In fact I was born in London, in Hampstead village, where we lived in a rented two-floor maisonette in Well Walk just a hundred yards from the Heath. We left Hampstead when I was two because my father became temporarily rich as a result of the royalties he received from Eric Maude’s dramatisation of his short story, ‘The Belladonna Benefaction’. He used the financial windfall to buy an old house in a four-acre garden half a mile from the village of Claverleigh in East Sussex (between Herstmonceux and Battle). He had a new kitchen wing added with bedrooms above and installed electric light and central heating – all very newfangled in 1910. Here is what The Buildings of England: Sussex had to say about Beckburrow in 1965:
CLAVERLEIGH, a small village with no plan but considerable charm below the South Downs. One winding street ending at a small church, ST JAMES THE LESS at the S end (1744, rebuilt in 1865 in a limp, mongrel version of the classical style) . . . BECKBURROW ½ m. E on the lane to Battle, a good capacious C18 tile-roofed cottage with attractive materials – brick, flint, clunch – and remains of timber framing at one gable end. The small mullioned windows of the old facade give an air of immense solidity. Sober neo-Georgian additions (1910) with a heavy-hipped roof. Inoffensive, a home to be lived in rather than an exposition of taste. A good weatherboard BARN.
That was what I always felt about Beckburrow – ‘a home to be lived in’. We were happy there, the Clay family, or so it seemed to me as I was growing up. Even when Papa came home after the war – thin, irritable, unable to write – nothing really seemed to have changed in the place’s benign enfolding atmosphere. We had a nanny, two housemaids, a cook (Mrs Royston who lived in Claverleigh) and a gardener/factotum called Ned Gunn. I went to a dame school in Battle, driven there and back by Ned Gunn in a dog cart, until we acquired our own motor car in 1914 and Ned added ‘chauffeur’ to his list of accomplishments.
When my father came home, in those early years after the war, the only real pleasure he seemed to take in life was long walks to the sea, over the Downs, to the beaches at Pevensey and Cooden. He strode out, leading his children and whatever friends and relatives we had with us, like some slightly demented Pied Piper, urging us on. ‘Step we gaily, on we go!’ he would shout back at us as we dawdled and explored.
My mother joined us later with the motor and we would be driven home at the end of the day to Beckburrow. However, once we arrived at the beach, it was immediately obvious how my father’s mood changed. The high spirits of the walk gave way to taciturn moodiness as he sat there smoking his pipe staring at the sea. We never gave it much thought. Your father was born moody, my mother would say, always brooding about something. He’s a writer who can’t write and it’s making him fractious. And so we put up with his interminable silences punctuated by the odd demonic rant when his patience finally snapped and he would stalk the house shouting at everyone, bellowing for ‘Just a bit of peace and quiet, for the love of Jesus! Is it too much to ask?’ We simply made ourselves scarce and Mother would calm him down, leading him back to his study, whispering in his ear. I’ve no idea what she said to him, but it seemed to work.
Your parents, however strange they may be in actual fact, always seem ‘normal’ to their offspring. Indeed, the slow realisation of your parents’ defining oddness is a harbinger of your developing maturity – a sign that you are growing up, becoming your own person. In those early years at Beckburrow, from our move there until the mid-1920s, nothing seemed much wrong with our little world. Servants came and went, the garden flourished; Peggy appeared to be some kind of infant prodigy on the piano; baby Xan turned into a somewhat self-contained, thoughtful and almost simple boy who could amuse himself for hours creating elaborate patterns with a handful of sticks and leaves or damming the stream at the bottom of the south lawn, conjuring into being a little empire of rivers and lakes and irrigation channels, setting small balsa-wood rafts off on minuscule voyages of discovery. It would keep him occupied an entire day until he was called in for supper.
What about our Amory? What about me? So far, so run of the mill. After the dame school in Battle came the secondary school in Hastings. Then in 1921 it was announced that I was going away – to be a boarder at Amberfield School for Girls near Worthing. When I left for Amberfield (Mother accompanying me, Ned driving) and we pulled away down the lanes from Beckburrow it was the first time in my life that I registered the full level of hurt, injustice and disappointment that amounted to a betrayal. My mother would hear nothing of it: ‘You’re a lucky girl, it’s a wonderful school, don’t make a fuss. I hate fuss and fusspots.’
I came home in the holidays, of course, but, as the one absentee, felt I was something of an outsider. The barn had been converted into a music room for Peggy, wainscotted, painted, a carpet on the floor and furnished with a baby grand piano, where she was taught by a Madame Duplessis from Brighton. Xan mooned about the garden and the lanes around the house, a solemn boy with a rare, transforming smile. My father appeared to be spending most of the week in London, looking for literary work of some sort. He was given a part-time job as an editor and contributor to the Strand magazine and was a reader for various publishing houses. The pot of money from ‘The Belladonna Benefaction’ was running out. A 1919 production in New York closed after a month but cheques continued to arrive in the post, the mysterious enduring legacy of a once successful play. My mother was quite content, it seemed to me, running her big house, or sitting on the bench of the magistrate’s court in Lewes, or initiating and organising charitable works in the East Sussex villages around Claverleigh – fetes, tombolas, bring-and-buy sales.
And Greville would come down occasionally from London. Only Greville was my friend, I felt, and he taught me how to take better photographs, changing my Box Brownie for a 2A Kodak Jnr, with an extending lens on a concertina mount and, one mysterious afternoon, he blacked out the pantry, unpacked his trays and pungent bottles, and showed me the astonishing alchemy involved in taking images trapped on film and, through the application of chemicals – developer, stopper, fixer and washes – turning them miraculously into negatives which could then be printed into black and white photographs.
I still felt this nagging sore of resentment at my banishment, however. One day I generated enough courage to confront my mother and asked her why I had to go away to school when Peggy and Xan could stay at home. My mother sat me down and took my hands. ‘Peggy is a genius,’ she said, breezily, ‘and Xan has problems.’ And that was that, an end to the matter until my father finally went totally insane.