Three Excerpts from The Sunlight on the Garden

My memoir The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness was my second full-length book, published in 2007. It tells the story of the effects of war, mental illness of one sort or another, and the great upheavals in society in the 20th century, through the stories of my own family – and, of course, my own story of what is usually called the "fight" against depression. (Anyone who has ever been seriously depressed will know that "fight" is quite the wrong word. One of the characteristics of depression, one of the first things it does, is to take all the fight out of you.)

These three short extracts are set in The Round House, the magical and isolated cottage on the banks of the Thames at Inglesham, near Lechlade, Gloucestershire. Various members of my family lived there until ten years ago and it was, in a way, the central character in our lives. So, too, it's a central character in the book.

1: The mid 1930s

Stacks Image 0
“The family usually spent their holidays in Gloucestershire, in their country cottage, with its small tower and acres of wild countryside on the banks of the narrow Thames at Lechlade; the cottage standing at the highest navigable point on the river. It was somehow appropriate: it was not a place of no return but a place from which you could go no further. A backs to the wall sort of a place. It had been built as a smithy and warehouse for the Thames-Severn canal and converted at the turn of the century. It was to serve the family well. Generations would use it for clandestine rendezvous, for loud parties, for quiet, if illicit, indulgences, for recovering from ill-judged emotional excursions. Here they amused their London friends, seduced their wives (the tower was strangely aphrodisiac in this respect; something about the disorienting lack of corners or the three rooms piled up on top of each others, or the almost vertical stairs between floors which had their prey trembling and gasping at the wide view of the river the water meadows and the distant spire of Lechlade church from the top floor, where the bed was; or simply at the all-pervasive cold and damp which inclined visitors to stay under the covers). At the Round House one escaped scenes. Where a trip abroad could not be swiftly arranged, a trip to the cottage could be almost as effective.

Stuart holed up there with Wife 2, his writer, while she was still, inconveniently, but somehow alluringly, someone else’s Wife 1. His father had threatened to cut off his allowance (again) if he was named in any divorce petition but for now there was no impediment to love. She left her small son and bought sufficient bazookas to settle into rural life with equanimity. They punted up stream. He caught a trout. He painted her naked in the garden. It was the life. What more could any man ask for?

England, oh England. Sheltered at first from economic and political realities, everyone, well, everyone, except for Geraldine of course, back in Rhodesia, and Alfred, trotting the beat on his horse in British Columbia, and getting his man, was at home as the 30’s sent them on a new, and as yet invisible, journey.”

2: Winter 1939/40

Stacks Image 1
“Britain battles with the weather rather than the Germans in the winter months of 1939/1940. Blizzards immobilize the whole country. The temperature continues to fall after Christmas and record figures of more than 20 degrees below freezing are recorded in the last week of January. An ice storm shrouds the west; the Mersey, Humber and Severn freeze over and the Grand Union Canal is solid all the way from Birmingham to London. The sea freezes at Bognor, the harbour mouths at Southampton and Folkestone are impassable and the Thames turns to ice for eight miles between Teddington and Sunbury.

At the Round House the whole world is white and still. Frost glazes the inside of the windows and, outside, the Thames, almost at its source, is motionless under the crystallised branches of overhanging willows. The burden of ice causes telegraph wires to snap and birds, unable to fly, die in the hedgerows. Beyond the river snow-covered pasture fades into a misty horizon and when the sun sets the fields, river and sky are lit with a fire that is without heat.”

3: In my own childhood...

“The Round House was wonderful and it was scary. It had a tower and a cottage which stood so close to the Thames that you could fish out of the downstairs window or jump in. If you were a man, it was supposedly possible to pee out of the upstairs widow and hit a duck. Lots of people had done it. Everyone else went in the basin because the lavatory was so far away downstairs in the coldest part of the unheated house. On the way you had to go under a huge head of a pike with an open mouth and teeth mounted on the wall. Two Jewish friends of my grandfather’s now rented the tower. All their family had died in the war my mother said quietly and looked sad. By day the cottage was the most peaceful place in the world, by night it was soothingly mournful. It was never quiet in the darkness: if it rained the drops pattered on the water and the tall trees always roared in the breezes coming off the river. Trees had been planted to mark the births of my grandfather and his brother and two sisters, and they had been planted for my mother and her siblings and now they were planting a new generation of poplars. Mine was the oldest and my name on a belt round the trunk, and as it started to grow, my grandfather’s generation of trees crashed to the ground in a series of summer storms.
Stacks Image 2
In early evening my grandfather or my uncle or my father or their friends, or much later, my brother, would wander off to fish in a haze of midges and cow parsley. When they left the house it was always a ripe summer’s day and various children would tag along until they got bored, but by the time the anglers returned they were reduced to unidentifiable silhouettes coming alone along the river bank under a darkening sky. In the evening flights of duck and geese honked as they returned to roost in fields by the water. Somebody told me their cry was the baying of the Gabriel hounds, foretelling misfortune hovering over the occupants of the house below. I never considered the misfortune might be allotted to me so they simply seemed harbingers of a dangerous parallel existence from which I, under my worn blankets, was protected.

The Round House was a damp, green world where water was more evident than earth. Even the sounds were wet; dripping, splashing, ducks skimming to a landing, oars cutting into the Thames, rain falling in tiny circles on the water surface.

The house stood at the confluence of three waterways. The derelict Thames-Severn canal crossed the garden and another river – quite different from the muddy eddies of the Thames – joined it here.

The Coln was the loveliest river in the world. It was shallow and the gravel on the bottom reflected the sunlight. Long strands of soft weed trailed in the current like mermaid hair. Willows hung over it and every so often tore away with a cracking noise and fell into the stream making a leafy perch for moorhen and ducks. Every year angry swans nested on a step bend and water rats plopped in and out at the river margin and occasionally there were kingfishers.

Under the old wooden bridge the water was deeper and swirled around the stone stanchions. Here lived the wiliest of trout, long and thick-a dark shadow of alert inertia. On the shallower bends, a flickering shoal of tiny fish would scatter if a leaf fluttered down to the water.

Here cows turned the sides to mud where they came down to drink and on July days, rust brown flies hovered and had a nasty bite, but we could swim here too. The gravel was firm and not slimy under foot. We would strip off and step unsteadily down the bank. However hot the day was the water was always shockingly cold.

We had always swum without anything on in the Coln - it was only us, and it was often impromptu - but my grandfather’s gravel pits were another matter. Nude swimming was one of the ideas he had got off his father. He would no more have swum, naked or clothed, himself, but he had made my mother and now he made me.

I was the embodiment of his anti-bourgeois principles. He could come it with the car and his chauffeur, with his shooting parties and his fishing cronies and I could go naked to show his heart was in the right place. This meant I had to swim bare when everyone else - all the friends, the old reactionaries who came to visit - swam in their costumes. By the time I was eleven I noticed this included boys. Normally, like everyone else, there was only one place I would enter the water: where the sandy side sloped very gradually and frequent use kept the bottom free of weed and there was a small island not far from land to swim to.

Now I was forced to get in anywhere as long as it was away from the others. Down steep stony banks where red ants stung my bottom; into shady coves, the water thick with rotting leaves, where I had to leap in to avoid putting a foot on the slimy bottom; too near the sunken boat and mass of dead willow trees in the middle, where everybody knew it was possible to be bitten by a pike or entangled in underwater horrors and drown.

Then I had to stay in until I was purple-grey and wrinkled as a corpse and only when everyone else had had their fill of swimming could I emerge muddy and unnoticed.”