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Reading Between the Lines

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

THE FIRST WRITER I KNEW WAS my grandfather, and he was the reason I never wanted to become a writer myself. The author of more than 300 books, he died in his 90th year, bankrupt and heartbroken shortly after my grandmother ran off with a man who first proposed to her when she was 17. His story has continued to haunt me. Thankfully, the second writer I met was Jorge Luis Borges, and he was the reason I wanted to become a writer. One of his beliefs was that every writer invents his own precursors.

My grandfather's name was Stuart Petre Brodie Mais, but everyone knew him by his initials. He was the son of a Derby-shire clergyman and a snobbish mother -- "an abominably stupid woman" -- who was over 40 when he was born. She didn't like babies and farmed off S.P.B. to her brother, Horden Tamlyn, an enchanting but profligate Devon landowner who had played tennis with the Kaiser and who rattled between his two estates in a high dogcart. Tamlyn became in S.P.B.'s words "my boyhood hero." In his third volume of autobiography, All Change, S.P.B. wrote of him:

He was a very generous, kindly man who was forever giving large parties at which champagne flowed freely, and he cultivated the odd habit of hurling the empty bottles through the dining room window, with the result that the lawn outside became littered with pieces of broken glass.

Tamlyn was a critical figure in S.P.B.'s development. He paid for his university education and passed on a taste for extravagant, reckless living.

My first recollection of S.P.B. I am 9. He's come to take me out from my Oxford prep school and arrives sooner than expected, dressed in a deerstalker hat with a number of scarves draped around his neck -- each a different color. ("He was fanatic about time," says my mother. "He had to be everywhere, always -- and always early.") He wears all the way up both arms a number of Rolexes, which he later pawns, and a billowing black coat, which I inherit, and conducts himself in a manner that is gruff, intolerant and rather terrifying. Afterward, ä42

he writes me a letter, the handwriting so minuscule and jerky I can't read it.

His handwriting was the only small thing about him. To a child he filled the room, as if he'd rambled in not from the bus station but from the pages of the stories I was reading: Greenmantle, Mistress Masham's Repose, The Prisoner of Zenda. It doesn't surprise me, for instance, to discover that after coming down from Oxford he claimed to have received "an offer from Sir Eyres Mansell, who wanted me to become king of Albania. I should have liked that, but my mother, in spite of her snobbishness, could not bear the thought of my going so far away."

Instead of a Balkan king -- a role that would have suited him since he was terribly overemotional, overdriven and excited -- S.P.B. became an English schoolmaster, teaching English literature at Rossall, Tonbridge, Sherborne. He was by all accounts a remarkable teacher, practicing in 1913 what only became common in the 1960s: a kind of student-based philosophy. He threw the set texts out of the window in the manner of Tamlyn's champagne bottles and divided his class into debating teams to champion the merits of Wordsworth, say, over Byron. Pupils taught by S.P.B. did not forget the lesson. At Sherborne, he became mentor to Alec Waugh, Evelyn's elder brother, and encouraged him to publish The Loom of Youth -- a novel that resulted in Waugh's expulsion and in which S.P.B. is caricatured as always rushing about with an armful of books.

In 1917 -- "to my great surprise and dismay" -- my grandfather was himself sacked from Sherborne after Chapman & Hall -- the firm managed by Waugh's father -- published S.P.B.'s novel Interlude, about a married public schoolmaster who elopes with a shop girl. Obliged to stop teaching, he fell back on his pen. He went to work for the Daily Express and then as fiction reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, also contributing regular broadcasts to the BBC. He had a rich, irate voice and was famous for his broadcasting, especially during the Second World War -- in 1940 he was getting between 400 and 500 letters a day.

As his fame grew, so did the number of visitors to his home in Sussex. My mother remembers Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, H.G. Wells, John Betjeman and the novelist Henry Williamson ("He didn't like beds and slept on the floor"). I used to wonder if she wasn't guilty of inflating S.P.B.'s reputation, but then Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess would later tell me that they too had made the pilgrimage to Southwick. A scourge of old fogies, he'd been kind to them when they were young writers and they felt a genuine gratitude.

 

S.P.B.'s personal life came to track that of his risqué novel Interlude. In 1913, he married Dorothy Snow, a cosseted girl with a taste for schnauzers, sweet biscuits and dry gin. Having threatened to kill himself when she tried to cancel the wedding, for their honeymoon he took her to his uncle's haunts -- and "on foot almost every day" compelled her to follow the Devon and Somerset staghounds. Neither had a clue about sex. After two years he sought enlightenment from a doctor, and then Dorothy ran off to Paris with a stammering gossip columnist.

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.

In 1999, at the age of 42, I settled at last. I met a girl named Gillian whom I wanted to marry and found the first house I wanted to own. It was built of Canadian cedar and looked out over the Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania's east coast. I knew nothing about Tasmania: I had no friends here, no family connections, no reason to linger. But this was where I wanted to be. Directly facing the South Pole and 13,000 miles from England, it seemed as far away as I could get from Bliss House, Lindfield.

Except that, of course, it wasn't.

A few months after taking up residence with my wife Gillian, I discovered in S.P.B.'s first volume of autobiography, Buffets and Rewards, this reference to his boyhood hero, Horden Tamlyn. "He was so reckless and so generous that in the end he went bankrupt and had to emigrate with his family to Tasmania."

Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of Bruce Chatwin: A Biography and The Dancer Upstairs: A Novel, both available from Anchor Books. The film version of Dancer, directed by John Malkovich and starring Javier Bardem, will be released next year by Fox Searchlight.


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