Memories of Peter (1)

Peter’s brother, Hugh, shared the following memories of Peter’s childhood at the memorial on 6 Jan 2016:

My earliest memories of Peter are when he was four years old, in our tropical bungalow in Livingstone (now Zambia)—within sight of the plume of spray from the Victoria Falls. We each had an African minder and a pet: Richard a sulky eagle owl chained to a stump; Pete a mongoose which nipped our heels but was meant to deter snakes (Dickie, our Dad, named it Ricki-Ticki-Tavi after Kipling); I had an armadillo which was singularly unresponsive to affectionate stroking. We bathed in the Zambezi protected from crocodiles by wire mesh fencing and had picnics in the dry season on a rock right on the lip of the Falls.

Richard and Peter swimming, 1932

There was a lot of travelling. We travelled to and fro—a gruelling three day journey—to Plettenberg Bay on the South Coast of South Africa for the hot weather and then to England (three week’s voyage in a Union Castle steamer) to meet our English grandparents. We eventually settled as refugees in our grandparents’ house in Painswick after our father died.

I’m a bit confused about the chronology but for several years we lodged with our Hyett Great-Aunts in Painswick House, a small dowdy but beautiful Georgian mansion in a huge wild garden with romantic Rococo follies half hidden in the undergrowth. For Peter it was heaven. Aunt Lucy knew much of Shakespeare by heart so there were yearly productions of Shakespeare on the Bowling Green in which Peter always had a part. Julian Slade lived in the village so he was of course the lead! There are many echoes of that lost world in Peter’s books. In a production of Alice, Richard was the Mad Hatter; Peter the March Hare. I was the Dormouse.

Peter and his brothers, 1937

Of Peter, my most vivid memory is of him sitting with his head in a book anywhere he happened to be: on the stairs, under the billiard table, behind the Library sofa; on any vacant bed, with his thumbs stuck in his ears to exclude all exterior distractions like urgent calls. The only way to get his attention was to grab the book and run. One winter evening he didn’t turn up for lunch. We weren’t too surprised because time was a flexible dimension in his world; but when it started to get dark our mother began to get worried and I heard anxious grown-up whispered conversations:”What shall we do?”

When it became too dark to read, the ten foot high double doors to the drawing room were pushed open (the room was seldom used) and a rather bleary-eyed boy came out to ask if it was lunch time yet. Our mother was uncharacteristically cross with him—I think she had been really frightened.

“Peter, What have you been doing? We’ve been calling for you for hours!”

“Oh, sorry Mum, just been finishing Macbeth and Hamlet.”

Peter, 1937

He had an extraordinary memory for poetry. At our prep school we had to memorise a poem each week and recite it on demand. Peter learned Chesterton’s “Lepanto“, admittedly in weekly chunks, but could still recite most of it years later. I remember him chanting in a gale on Painswick Beacon:

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships…

Hugh, David, Nan & Peter, 1938

Our mother loved Housman’s poems and used to recite them to us on our long cross-country drives in our ancient Morris 8. Peter came to know many of them by heart and as I sat beside his bed in the week before he died we recited several together nudging each other’s memories. I have chosen the last poem he spoke.

From there Peter went to Eton as a King’s Scholar. It was a family tradition of several generations that “going to school” simply meant going to Eton. He was remarkably uncontaminated by the experience and seldom talked about it, perhaps because he got terrible reports for idleness and carelessness, but his natural intelligence got him an Exhibition to King’s College, Cambridge, initially to read Classics but moving over to English as soon as he could. Our ways gradually separated (I was spared the family tradition) but when we met we always picked up our voluble conversations more or less at the point when we had last left them. Richard used to complain that we talked simultaneously and much too noisily.

Peter at 18

He did two years National Service in the Royal Signals—in the course of which he managed to mislay four army trucks which were never traced. He told me that a kindly Sergeant quartermaster added them to his own inventory of mislaid equipment for which he was court-martialled. It sounds a bit like a novel. But that is hardly surprising.

One final snippet. Peter loved limericks and invented a new verse form called a ‘Bishopric’. There were strict rules: there had to be a Bishop in the first line and another clerical office mentioned in the third.

The Bishop of Joppa
Grew moss on his topper.
He said to his curate
“My wife will manure it,
I wish you could stop her.”

The Bishop of York
Ate his soup with a fork.
“My Lord,” said his vicar,
“A spoon would be quicker,
And allow us to talk.”

The Bishop of Bude
Used to bathe in the nude.
“My Lord,” said the Dean,
“Wear a hat, lest you’re seen
On the beach by a prude.”

But it was to Housman that his mind drifted back at the end. Tess is now going to read one of his favourites which seems apt today:

Peter’s niece, Hugh’s daughter, Tess, then read A.E. Housman‘s ‘Smooth Between Sea and Land’.

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.