I have no idea how my father became friends with Francis Huxley. But I do know that Francis was intrigued by my father’s charismatic personality. Francis believed that my father had shaman-like qualities, and that he could transform people’s lives. To me, my father was more showman than shaman, although he was also a deeply spiritual and altruistic man,too.
Born in 1908, my father was thirty-one when the 1939-45 war began, and was selected to be an officer in British Intelligence. Like many men in the same position, he was to work for M16 for the rest of his life. He often hinted at the somewhat shady world of ‘safe houses’ and general intrigue that he inhabited. I could never quite grasp how his world operated, and began to see him as a rather dubious sort of John le Carre figure; the ‘perfect spy’, and I never knew if his place in the world was part-fantasy, or not. The Official Secrets Act forbade any explanations.
His ‘cover’ was to be a graphologist. An unusual occupation, but a subject that he was passionate about.He also moved within an interesting circle of friend, which included Karl Haas, conductor of the London Mozart Players, Dame Ruth Railton, the founder of the National Youth Orchestra, and her husband, Lord Cecil Harmsworth King, head of the Mirror group of newspapers, and other people connected to them.
Dad was especially close to Cecil and Ruth, and I was taken to meet them both at their beautiful house in the grounds of Hampton Court. The visit didn’t go down to well, as Ruth, quite rightly, was appalled that I smoked cigarettes constantly.
Anyway, Francis wanted to learn more about my father’s shaman-like attributes, and asked if he could meet me . A meeting was arranged.
On February 6th, 1972, I wrote the following note in my diary:
‘I am standing at a bookstall near Baker Street tube station. The loneliness of London overwhelms me. Francis Huxley is standing beside me, looking haggard and tired. He is grey, ill. I tell him about the peacefulness of Bruges ( where I have been living recently); and the power and beauty of Oslo (seen by me on a recent visit). He both agree that we must never despise this life’.
Such a strange and random diary entry needs further explanation! I had, in fact, just happened to bump into Francis at the station by chance that evening, although we had met formally a year before, when my father had introduced us. The brief exchange had some relevance, as we had discussed the delights of travel at our first meeting.
Francis, the son of Julian Huxley and nephew of Aldous, died on 29th October 2016, aged 93 in California. In his obituary in the Guardian newspaper he was described as ‘an anthropologist and author who was ‘fascinated by shamans, myths and religious rites’.
Most notably, he set us Survival International with Robin Hanbury-Tenison, an NGO, devoted to protecting the rights of indigenous peoples world-wide.
On January 29th, 1970, with the late poet, George Macbeth, I took tea with Stevie Smith, at her humble, but legendary home in London: 1, Avondale Road, Palmer’s Green.
I was twenty-five, and an aspiring poet: Stevie had just won the Queen’s Medal for Poetry; and had only one more year to live.
It had taken some weeks to set up this rendez-vous. Stevie’s diary was full. At the zenith of her literary career, she was very much in demand. Richly-deserved glittering prizes were now hers for the taking.
George drove us both from the BBC to Palmer’s Green in his louche Reliant Scimitar ( his current passion), almost as special to him as his growing collection of Japanese samurai swords. It was already dark, as we snaked through the wintry London streets for our appointment with Stevie at four o’clock.
Stevie answered the door and asked us in with much warmth and enthusiasm. She seemed so pleased to see us.
I have a few mental snapshots of the day. Stevie: her wide, dark eyes, with their alert and intelligent gaze; straight grey hair, cut in a shiny smooth bob. Her slender frame and the grey, pinafore dress with its ‘Peter Pan’ collar that she was wearing.
I recall her intense, eager interest in us both. Her delight in everything, especially literary gossip. Her elegant laugh.
I had bought Stevie a present. An illustrated Edwardian ‘Book of Friendship’, dated 1923. Stuffed with anecdotes about friendship. I felt that she appreciated it very much. I hoped that it would mark the beginning of our friendship, too.
She then showed me where she kept many of her books: inside her piano!.
We then asked her if she would show us the medal she had just received from the Queen.
Excitedly, like a child, she unwrapped it, and we all admired it, like a rare stone. I was designed by Edmund Dulac, whom we all revered. Stevie then regaled us with dry anecdotes about the Queen. She wasn’t entirely sure if Her Majesty had read much of her work, if any, but she was still thrilled to have received this prestigious accolade, and had enjoyed her visit to the Palace.
We talked animatedly about our literary likes and dislikes, discovering a shared admiration for Angus Wilson. I was reading everything by him at the time.
Then, Stevie made us tea, served with delicate, little cakes, and took us into the kitchen, where she showed us a table covered with a thick, grey blanket.e
‘This is where I write’, she told us.
We stayed and talked for over two hours . Lively chatter about food, love, life, writing and people. I observed her cosy sitting room closely. The large portraits, in oval frames, of family members. The heavy, dark furniture. Sideboards and a mantlepiece covered with bric a brac and invitations to literary events. Lacquered boxes.
Later, in the car, George told me that our meeting had been a success. Apparently, Stevie had taken to me; she had liked me.
Days later, I received a pleasant letter from her. We had planned to meet again.
The three of us were going to have tea at the Ritz; then go on a picnic by the Thames, when the spring came.
But Stevie died of a brain tumour on March 7th, 1971 in Ashburton hospital, Devon. I was never to see her again.
On January 29th, 1970, accompanied by the late poet, George Macbeth, I took tea with Stevie Smith at her legendary home in London: 1, Avondale Road, Palmer’s Green.
I was twenty-five and an aspiring poet, dressed in the fashion of the day: a long, black coat with a wide-brimmed hat over long, honey-coloured hair. Stevie had just won the prestigious Queen’s Medal for Poetry; and had only one more year to live.
It had taken some weeks to set up this rendez-vous. Stevie’s diary was full. At the zenith of her career, she was much in demand. Richly-deserved glittering prizes were now hers for the taking.
George drove us both from the BBC to Stevie’s home in his louche Reliant Scimitar ( his current passion), almost as special to him as his growing collection of Japanese samurai swords. It was almost dark, as we snaked through the wintry, London streets for our appointment with Stevie at four o’clock.
In the the New Year, Lance painted with a renewed energy. He relished the life drawing classes at the SAC on Monday evenings, where all his fellow artists and models also enjoyed the company of his lovely dog, Kit, who was frequently drawn as well.
Whenever there was a warmish day, Lance would be at Falmer, Stanmer or in Alfriston, painting churches.
On February 12th, he painted a superb view of the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’ at Alfriston. He invited me to accompany him on this outing, but I was unable to join him that day.
Little did we know, that this would be one of his last paintings. Because in the hours of Tuesday morning – February 27th – our dear friend, sadly died.
His death was a tremendous shock to us all. He had been a little unwell, on the Monday, with a slight cough, but was feeling positive about a trip to the Gambia that he was planning. In fact, he was meant to be leaving from Gatwick in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Of course, he never made it.
At his funeral, On March 14th, his family asked me to read a eulogy about the six months that Lance spent in Sussex, which I was honoured to do. It was also read by one of his daughters, at his Memorial service in Street, Somerset, on April 19th.
I looked after Kit on that poignant day.
There is now a framed cartoon drawn and painted by Lance hung on one of the walls at the Seaspray cafe, which we are happy – and sad – to look at every day. A sweet reminder of our personal and all- too -short memories of dear Lance.
When Lance returned to the cafe, feeling bruised by his serious bout of ‘flu at Christmas he told us that he had been reluctant to take antibiotics for his bronchitis, but his doctor had advised him to do so. He felt fortunate to have survived. He was really shaken by how ill he had been. We also learned that he had had a serious operation on one of his legs at the Lister hospital, shortly before his move to Sussex .
His family life, too,was turbulent. He told us that he and his wife, Ying, weren’t speaking to each other; and that he had moved downstairs at the family home. His three daughters seemed to be acting as ‘go-betweens’.He had bought a Baby Belling to cook on, and I and others, were worried about his health, and how fragile he looked.
One Sunday, I accompanied Lance to the ‘Coach’ pub in Rottingdean, where he watched an international rugby match on television there. Lance really loved the game, and had been a fine player in his youth. He had been chosen to play for Bath, I believe. I didn’t watch the match, but I had a meal with him afterwards. A delicious fish supper. It was good to see him eating properly; and we gave Kit some scraps from the table, which he loved. Once or twice, I would make breakfast for Lance ( at my flat) and would encourage him to eat more. He also loved eating at the ‘Star’ Inn at Alfriston, especially the excellent breakfasts , whenever he went painting in the village. We had planned to eat at a fish restaurant in Newhaven,too, but it was not to be.
I would give him cans of soup and oranges to take home with him; and he started to buy various provisions from the local Tesco. At least he seemed to be looking after himself a little better.