Wednesday, 12 July 2017

On having one's chairs at home

There is (or used to be) a saying in the north of England that someone who had their wits about them - typically an older person who might be expected to be failing mentally - had "all their chairs at home".  I've always liked the homeliness of this expression, suggesting as it does the possession of all one's mental furniture as a metaphor for continuing sanity.  For the first time in a while, I've got two rather special chairs of my own at home, and trust the pleasure of possessing them will keep dementia at bay for a few more years.  I'd like to tell you their story.

It concerns two men. The first is the Rt Hon Sir Philip Sassoon Bt GBE CMG: born in his mother's mansion (she was a Rothschild) on the Avenue de Marigny, Paris in 1888. He was a gay, Jewish baronet, millionaire, MP, Government minister, mover, shaker, top-drawer socialite, and cousin of the WW1 poet, Siegfried. The other is Reuben Ridley: born to working-class parents in Clarissa Street, Haggerston, east London in 1902.  He was a lorry driver, and my maternal grandfather.  The two men never met and had, on the face of it, nothing in common.  Except some chairs.

Sir Philip Sassoon
Sassoon lived from 1923 until his death from influenza in 1939 at Trent Park, a country house in Hertfordshire just to the north of London.  It was, according to Robert Boothby, one of the houses of the age, "a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf... Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting... while Philip
Trent Park House today
himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived..."  During WW2, the house was used as a centre to extract information from captured German officers (which activity was the subject of the Stephen Poliakoff drama Close to the Enemy, premiered last year on BBC TV) and then as a rather luxurious prisoner-of-war camp for captured German generals and staff officers.

Reuben Ridley
By rather sharp contrast, my grandfather spent all his working life as a driver and then as transport manager for a hardware wholesaler, Osmond & Matthews, of Curtain Road, Shoreditch. One day (I assume after the war) he was called to make a delivery to Trent Park House and was en passant offered a number of dining chairs from among a variety of items of furniture from the house which were being discarded.  (This may have been in preparation for the house's conversion to a teacher training college in 1947.) He agreed to take four, and took them to his house in Leyton. Where they stayed, for years. One got destroyed, somehow; but of the three that remained, one was given to me as a teenager by my grandparents for my bedroom, suitably re-covered in a jazzy 1960s material; and I inherited the other two, by default, on my grandmother's death in the 1980s. 

Sometime later, I was visited at home by a colleague from the government department in which I then worked.  He was an antiques buff, and asked about the chairs which were dotted around the house and which I had long since stopped noticing. I told him the story.  Did he think they were very old?  "Late Regency", he said, "No later than 1830."  I was suitably impressed.  Apart from a George III penny of 1806, they were the oldest things I owned, and I found a new respect for them.  But they were not much use except as bedroom chairs, and in a poorish condition. I pretty much soon forgot about them again, and for 20 years until a few months ago they were stored in our vicarage attic.

I thought of them again when, in 2016, we bought the little house on the Essex coast which is our retreat and to which we plan to retire.  I got them down from the attic.  They were predictably filthy, and in an even worse condition than I'd remembered.   But they were part of my family history and I wanted to rehabilitate them. Our neighbour recommended a local furniture restorer who came round to collect them.  We agreed that, given their condition, he would cannibalise one of them with the aim of restoring the other two.  He brought them back this week, and here they are:

To say that I am delighted with them doesn't cover it.  I am absolutely cock-a-hoop, over-the-moon - "made up" (as they say in Liverpool).  They are elegantly simple in form yet finely turned, carved and ornamented; and perhaps now almost as good as they were when they were hand-made the best part of 200 years ago.  If I am right to assume from their age, quality and such provenance as I have that they did indeed grace the grand, glittering household which Sassoon created in the 1920s, who knows who may have sat on them before me? WSC, GBS, royalty?
Yet I cannot look at them or sit on them without thinking of my Cockney grandparents and their terraced house in Leyton, one of the chairs next to the single bed in which my brother and I would lie awake, top to tail, listening to the eerie clangs and hoots from the adjacent Temple Mills marshalling yard.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if they were still being sat on in another 200 years?  Against that possibility, I am setting down what I know about them - while I still have all my chairs at home.

I would like to thank Jeremy Soames of J.Soames Upholstery of Brightlingsea, Essex for his careful and sensitive work on restoring the chairs, and to commend it to others.

The contemporary picture of Trent Park House is by JulesFoto. The estate became part of the University of Middlesex in the 1990s, and was sold to the Berkeley Housing Group in 2015. As far as I can determine it is not currently in use, though the park is excellent for dog-exercising and picnics.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Child of the Universe

I went to a corporate summer party in the City of London, and found myself sitting next to a man in his 30s.  We chatted about this and that as strangers do: work, home, life in general. I noticed his wedding ring and asked if he had a family.  He replied: "Well, I will do from Sunday".  I assumed this meant his wife was about to give birth; but he explained that, in three days' time, he and his wife would assume the care of his 7-month old great-nephew. The man's niece, the child's very young mother, was unable to care for her son, so a family decision had been made to hand him over to his childless great-uncle and his wife, to bring him up as their own son.

This information was delivered in such a matter-of-fact kind of way that I briefly wondered if I had understood correctly. "So you and your wife are going effectively to adopt your niece's child?"  He confirmed this impassively. They realised how much this responsibility would change their lives; but they had previously and inconclusively considered adopting, and were now being drawn into it naturally (as it were), by circumstance.

I was unaccountably moved by this, and it was not until later that I was able to think about why.  The man and his wife had no children of their own, and this was a matter of regret (I put it no more strongly than that - childlessness is not necessarily a tragedy, and he did not not appear to regard it as such).  But their desire for a child had been answered unexpectedly, indeed rather suddenly, and without the immediate need for official sanction. The boy would not be "theirs",  but would be a blood relative of his adoptive father.  If not the ideal circumstance for the boy's upbringing, it was as satisfactory a solution to the situation as might be devised.

It occurred to me that such arrangements were probably much more common and unremarked upon in the past (I had a "great-uncle" who was not my grandmother's brother but who had been taken in by her family when he was abandoned by his own parents) when they were an obvious and normal way of dealing with parental absence or inadequacy.  There were no official channels to be gone through, no social workers: just a child who needed bringing up, and relatives or others who, whatever their existing burdens, recognised a familial-social duty when they saw it, and made a space for it in the family circle.

A priest must always examine his own motivation; and I reflect that my own childlessness is also a matter of regret, and that, to me, an eventuality such as this would once have seemed like a gift from above, or at least a vocation. I am not sure that is how the man himself saw it: for him, it was just a circumstance that had arisen to which a potentially satisfactory solution had been found.  But I could not escape the strong feeling that God was present in it; and, as we said goodbye, I instinctively raised my right hand in blessing.  I sensed him recoil all but imperceptibly, and so simply (but unobtrusively) traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, and left.

I shall probably never meet him again, nor hear anything of his family's progress in their new life together. But I do pray that God will bless him, his wife and their little boy.  For, whether they know it or not, they are doing what the Lord asks of them.