The Spy, the Royalist and a Last Farewell
When I walked away from the remnants of my bookshop venture I was head over heels in debt and somewhat inclined to curse, like Thenardier, the wretched place ‘where they all had such royal sprees and I devoured my all like a fool’, not that the All came to very much, and I had enjoyed myself at times. I had never been able to shake off the legacy of the 374 Monster and by the time I had paid off its debts those of the bookshop had mounted.
For months I had been stunned by the tragic death of Evie, with whom I had a long association. She crashed her car in Wales returning from a trade show in Manchester, after the usual hospitality that goes with such affairs.
Some ten years later, I met her last boss by chance at a filling station. He got out of his chauffeur-driven Bentley and came across to me, reproaching me for never going to see him or his wife after Evie’s death, assuring me how much everyone in the trade appreciated her and how keenly they felt her loss. In the true, sincere and authentic voice of fashion business, he told me how they missed her, “You can’t begin to think how much money she made for us”, he assured me, tragically.
Though we had moved into a good flat after leaving St. Pancas, and giving up a decent place at a rent one could afford was the most idiotic thing financially and socially one could do at that time and since, that was what I did. I could not bear to live in it nor even to talk about Evie. I felt so emotional about it that Joe Thomas, who came with me to the funeral, warned people from talking to me either about Evie, or even about the flat.
Unlike the 374 Monster, it wasn’t easy to give the flat up. Though everyone was crying out for flats, the landlords wouldn’t transfer the lease. I let someone else move in provided they paid the rent direct. They ran up seven months rent when the landlord got a court order and evicted me and them without my knowing. I learned this later when sued in the county court for the balance of the rent owing after distraint. But fate always frowned on my landlords. True, nothing much happened to Miss Rowntree, but her devotion to the cause of peace and international understanding certainly never had any luck.
The solicitor for the 374 landlords having been burned to death, the bookshop’s landlord was drowned on a holiday cruise to the Canaries. The flat’s landlord was killed crossing the road from the car park to the court, and as his barrister did not understand at the time why his client failed to appear to instruct him, which annoyed the judge, I got a couple of months reprieve, by which time I had gone from the only address they knew. Alternatively Pharaoh’s heart had been softened by the omen, since I never heard of the case again.
Soon afterwards Audrey Charity, whom I had known for years, returned to England. She and I had an on-off relationship for years as she every so often abandoned the attempt and returned to a comfortable life-style in California, always returning just when it seemed all was at an end between us. Even before my leaving the bookshop venture, which had lasted five years, she kept pressing me to concentrate on my personal affairs rather than worrying about lifelong political commitments so many had abandoned long before my age, now pushing forty and knocking it over. She did not think much of honest poverty and all that. I did not think too highly of it myself, but it was all I could manage.
We were at opposites politically. She said she was a Royalist-Republican, which was to say a royalist in England and a Republican in California, and as such was a devout groupie of Charles II. We re-fought all the battles of the Civil War in our weekend journeys round the country. She got on very well with my parents, with whom she often stayed. Sid always jokingly called her ‘Baby Doll’ and Rose called her ‘Lady Jane’, which she regarded as the height of cockney humour. This time it almost seemed as if we would marry. But it never came off, though we always reckoned we might eventually shack up instead of having what we laughingly called our perpetual holiday romance. She wanted too much of life and I too little, everyone told us.
Within a year of coming back she thought she had cancer. Afterwards the doctors explained it was an eye complaint affecting descendants of North Europeans in California. She took her own life. She was always merry and so used to being complimented on her blonde beauty that she concealed her secret fears of illness and old age, neither of which she was to experience. Coming only eighteen months after Evie’s death, I felt emotionally shattered and drained.
A last fond and despairing look at the charming Welsh spy and the lovely American royalist! I lived alone for the next thirty years, and it would seem now certain, for the rest of my life.
The freedom of the press
While I was still on the dreary round of looking for work and finding inexplicable refusals I went with one old friend, Dave Kinsella, for a job on London Transport. He, like me, had been one of those excluded from the army for years. In his case it was the Irish republican connection — he was Lancashire-born but in the Connolly Club. When they had finally came round to telling him he had been ‘enlisted’ some months before, he had been at sea in the merchant service. He still faced a court-martial on his return but a fairer court martial than Captain Le Strange could conduct listened to his evidence and decided, even though not admitting the truth about the mysterious call-up so long delayed and then coming out of the blue, that the accused could hardly have left ship in Murmansk to respond even if he had known about it. It would have been an offence in itself.
However, he was less lucky than I in the long run since, once in the army, he got a five year prison sentence (he served two) for assaulting an officer, in circumstances which would not have caused more than a frown from a magistrate in civil life, and in circumstances more justified than in my case. How many got the same two years? Was it a mandatory penalty upon dissenters? I would still like to know, though it now makes no difference. It did not bother Dave. What irked him was that we were still turned down, and for such a lousy job, on the grounds of our ‘prison records’ yet they were recruiting former members of enemy forces who might have had criminal records, for all they knew, and in some cases might well have been guilty of war crimes, but that did not go against them.
At the suggestion of Joe Thomas, who was by then working for The Guardian, Dave and I applied to join the print union Natsopa. The union promptly fixed me with a job as a copytaker at the Daily Sketch and him as a driver at another daily. Such were the restrictive practices denounced as being a restraint of the freedom of the press-lords to decide who should work and who shouldn’t that the management was not consulted as to our political reliability and the only test applied was whether we could do the job or not. This type of abuse of the employer’s natural rights was later held up by Tory propagandists as an example of union power at its worst. Mrs Thatcher came to liberate industry from that threat.
Just when I was packing up the bookshop, I received a last admonition on my folly. A would-be Conservative councillor on the St. Pancras estate was a young man in a hurry named Andrew came in to see me and analyse my financial follies, of which I was already well aware and did not need to have explained kindly.
George Plume, who worked for the municipality but had died two or three years before, had introduced him to the bookshop in the first place. Among the accumulated stock of Simpkin Marshall were some several dozen copies of a painting of Hans Christian Andersen, which George helped flog him on the basis of their being of Benjamin Disraeli, a likeness I had never before noticed. Thereafter he occasionally called on the look-out for portraits of other Conservative heroes, and he never failed to berate me politically and explain how well I could do on the other side of the fence if I only “looked after No. 1.”
He came round for the last time just as we were packing it all in, and met two Turkish Cypriots who occasionally bought indiscriminate stacks of books. They were after the non-books that had been left. They were not readers, but landlords.
Books were still a cheap method of claiming the furnished rooms they let had furniture over a certain value. Some types of non-books can be bought and sold cheaply, but who is to say what they were worth on the prices then charged? The bed and chairs in a ‘furnished bed-sit’ might be worth a couple of shillings, the wardrobe a pound or so, but the ‘library’ brought the furniture up to the valuer’s assessment. I hated dealing with them, and they sensed this. They generally came when I was out and dealt with my colleague who appeared to them much more reasonable.
Their belief in free enterprise coincided with Andrew’s and they got on famously. They invited him to join their jewellery import firm and use his charisma and ability to manage the office, insisting that as an Englishman he was ideal as managing director. He was delighted, took over, boasted to all and sundry of his sudden rise to a directorship. He sat giving orders to smiling Cypriots, which he never realised were never carried out, as they were for a fictitious operation. Meanwhile he drew a salary commensurate to his presumed standing, until one day the police raided the firm. The ‘workers’ pleaded they knew nothing of handling stolen property or long term fraud, which is what the company was really about. They only “took orders from the boss” who would no doubt have a suitable explanation. A warrant was out for his arrest and he left for Australia hurriedly. So ended my acquaintanceship with yet another person who assured me always “I was foolish not to look after No. 1.” and would do well if I did.
Old Flame and New Floods
It was a few years after the tragic loss of both Evie and Audrey that I met with Roz Shepherd once more. We had parted after the war when she decided to return to her husband, though their married life previously had been brief. He had taken the opportunity of being called up for military service to avoid a domestic battle, being able to go away without confessing he had another home to which to return, and to break with his wife by post from France. After the war, feeling herself getting too old for stage work, and with the variety theatre dying anyway, Roz felt the need for ‘security’. When he was demobbed, having broken with his war-time love (somebody else’s wife), he proposed resumption of the marriage, and she accepted.
I had barely the opportunity of holding our daughter in my arms before Roz reunited with her husband. I never saw her grow up. She did not know of my existence until just before she married, and for conventional reasons kept it as her secret. When we met, and I detected the strong likeness to my mother’s family I must admit I regretted lost opportunities, at least of not having had other children. As one grows older one tends to feel bitter about such matters, though I hope I haven’t. It hurt for a time and I never discussed it. Many friends have assured me I would have been a good father. I suppose some foes have regarded me as a Godfather. I met Roz sometimes and she put on my door a medallion of The Good Shepherd, which was the name Audrey jocularly gave her. It has fooled many a doorstep missionary. I met her husband only once before his death. He had been working at County Hall where he was a senior clerical officer until for some reason he retired early on an inadequate income. He came up to me in the coffee room and greeted me effusively, though I had not the faintest idea who he was (he knew me from photographs). Perhaps he thought I had some importance, as I was surrounded by councillors, but I hadn’t. The reason I was sitting in the County Hall coffee room was that I had met Ellis Hillman in the street. I had known him for years. He was a scientific prophet of doom and was now a Labour councillor which was doom enough to be going on with. We had a common interest in reviving public attention in the works of F. A. Ridley which is what we went in to discuss.
Ellis had entered electoral politics as a Trotskyist ‘deep entrist’ like three-quarters of the County Hall Labour councillors and not a few Tory ones who had gone in so deep they came out the other side. Indeed he told me of a mixed committee of Labour and Tory Opposition councillors he once chaired, prefacing his remarks with the statement that it was a trifle bizarre as all concerned happened coincidentally to be former members of the same Trot group.
They crowded round to hear his latest theory of disaster, that given the right combination of tide and wind, London could face a worse disaster than Venice, with the added possibility of the Underground being flooded. It sounded like science fiction, even more bizarre than his committee meeting. Most were more amused than disturbed and when he stood for a Hackney municipal election, his Conservative opponents used it extensively for ridicule to show the constituency what sort of mad ideas the Socialist member had. The Conservative Government issued a statement calming down undue fears, pointing out that the Thames Barrier would prevent this once they got around to building it and meanwhile a major disaster was no doubt possible but unlikely. They granted Mr Hillman’s premises, but explained only a few named London districts could be affected anyway — disastrously for the local Conservatives, as Hackney was one of them.
Even Roz, who lived in Hackney, phoned me anxiously to ask if she should get out with her daughter, and how soon. I told her it would be quite a while, if ever. Now the Thames Barrier is built, and Roz lived just long enough to see the new attraction. As I did not by then live far away from it, she called on me for tea just before it was completed and laughingly recalled her former fears. “You were always too damn cautious,” I remarked.