By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Meanwhile, over a lunchtime grapefruit in the Savoy Grill, S.P.B. had met a beautiful 17-year-old Irish model, Gillian Doughty. An enthusiastic rambler, he ä invited her to see the total solar eclipse on top of Mount Snowdon. Soon she moved in with him. She was my grandmother.
I only discovered much later -- when she moved out -- that they had never married. Part of the reason was financial: The BBC, on which he depended for a vital source of income, refused to employ divorced people. Consequently, S.P.B. was reluctant to seek a divorce. And so, in order to live with him under the guise of being his wife, my grandmother changed her name to his by deed poll. Gillian Mais.
For the next 51 years S.P.B. battled to ward off penury and bailiffs while Gillian nurtured a simple desire: to be married properly and so give legitimacy to their two daughters, the eldest of whom is my mother.
Nowadays his might seem a coveted lifestyle, but in the 1930s he was paid a pittance. Frantic to support his new family, he supplemented his income by writing books, sometimes six a year. I remember the shock with which I came across one of them in a secondhand-book shop. It was titled Some Books I Like. This seemed self-indulgent until, a yard along the shelf devoted to his works, I discovered its sequel: More Books I Like. Apart from books on books he liked, my grandfather wrote novels, children's stories, school texts. None of his novels sold more than 5,000 copies. His most successful book, An English Course for Schools, sold 21,000, while the most he earned from any book -- for I Return to Scotland -- was £850.
By the time I came to know S.P.B., his rambling days were over and his principal income derived from leisurely travel books. Every summer his publisher dispatched him on a different cruise around the world. The result was an interminable series with titles such as Australian Cruise Holiday, South African Cruise Holiday, South American Cruise Holiday. These cruise books never made him much money (about £100 each), but they made him all he had to live on. And this, I suppose, was the principal reason I was put off by his profession: the poverty of his circumstances.
MY LAST IMAGE OF S.P.B. IT'S THE school holiday and I'm visiting him in Bliss House, Lindfield, a retirement village where the Samaritan Housing Association has offered him a tiny first-floor flat for £4 a week. The man who could have been king of Albania sleeps with my grandmother in bunk beds. There's no room in the kitchen for more than one of them at a time. Furniture is stacked on top of the fridge, including a child's chair for me.
A description he wrote in the Guardian tallies with my recollection: "The living room measures 12 ft by 14 ft plus a small alcove, and this room contains three desks (two of them mine), a large inherited chest of drawers which holds my sweaters, socks and underclothes, a glass-fronted bookcase containing my remaining first editions, some glasses and decanters . . . Add to this our beloved miniature dachshund and painfully thin walls so that the widow below bangs with a stick every time he dares to play with his tennis ball and the fact that I do not sleep very well." The article concludes: "Do you wonder that we get on one another's nerves?"
I couldn't wait to leave. Nor, it turns out, could my grandmother.
When it happened he went roaring through the village: "My wife has left me for another man." She'd always wanted to be married. Her chance came in 1974 when their mutual friend Dudley Carew knocked on the door. He was depressed following the death of his second wife. His doctor had told him to get out, meet friends. He thought: "Huh, Petre and Gillian, I'll go and see them." Whereupon the two old ducks fell for each other. They married and Carew bought a home across the road. Gillian would cook their dinner and then take a dish through the hedge for S.P.B.. He died of a shattered heart -- still deeply in love with her.
A FEW YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, I DIScovered that S.P.B. had dedicated one of his books to me. It was called Mediterranean Cruise Holiday and had been published when I was 10 months old, using a nickname I never knew I had: "To Slogger Shakespeare, in the hope that he too will sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars."
Well, S.P.B.'s wish for me came true. My father being a diplomat, I was brought up all over the world: in France, Cambodia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Portugal, Morocco. At first, I reveled in this life. Only in my late 20s did I come to realize the downside of having lived west of the sunset. Although I'd been born and educated in England, I did not feel at home there. I began to understand that I'd left parts of myself all over the world. And bit by reluctant bit, I discovered that one way to retrieve them was to retreat into my grandfather's cramped study and to use writing as a form of suitcase.