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Authors: Adam Mars-Jones

Kid Gloves

BOOK: Kid Gloves
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Adam Mars-Jones
KID
GLOVES
Contents

Kid Gloves

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For Ebn, Chloe, Holly and Ella

 

Guy Holborn was kind enough
to send me a transcript of the appeal hearing in
O'Sullivan & Another v. Management
Agency & Music Ltd & Others
. Jill Evans gently pointed out that my ignorance of
the law was greater even than I knew.

Parts of this book have appeared in different
form in the
London Review of Books
.

 

This may be a memoir of my
father but I didn't set out to write one, more of an account of a particular time, though
necessarily having shreds and slabs of the man scattered across it. I informally moved in with
my parents while my mother was dying of lung cancer, something she did with self-effacing
briskness in little more than a month. After she was dead, in January 1998, it made sense for me
to stay in place to look after the survivor.

My father had been casually described by medical
authority as demented, though not officially diagnosed. He was likely to lose his bearings if he
had to adjust to a new environment. In fact this was never really something I considered. As an
under-employed freelance I had time to spare. Dad had a good pension and his rent for a large
flat in Gray's Inn Square was low, thanks to the oligarchic machinery of the Ancient and
Honourable Society of Gray's Inn. As a retired High Court judge, ex-Treasurer and bencher his
status in its rankings was high. There was money to pay for a certain amount of care, so that I
could continue to be present from Tuesday to Friday at the school gates in Dulwich Village when
my daughter Holly, six, finished her proto-academic day.

I didn't feel I had a duty to look after Dad, or
if I did I preferred to hide it behind a more libertarian formula. I had a right to look after
him. I had first dibs, I could play bagsie. It wasn't that I was bounden, merely entitled. My
brothers might play a part, but Tim (the older) lived in Gloucestershire and was tied to Dad
mainly by the bonds of rejection – a
phrase I found in Richard Sennett's book
Authority
and tried to persuade Tim was a productive way of describing his experience.
Matthew (the younger), though based in North London, had a fuller workload than I did. I was
free to look after Dad and no-one could override my claim. If I was going to end up doing it
anyway, it was sensible to surround myself with the most selfish possible arguments. Then I
could never make out I had somehow been railroaded into filial duty.

Dad's mental state seemed, to us laymen, closer
to withdrawal than any lamentable state of confusion, delusion, vacancy. He could follow
conversations without taking an active part, in the time-honoured, head-swivelling fashion of
the tennis spectator, happy to watch the interplay with no presumptuous thought of raising a
racket himself.

There had been a time when he would smash back
everything that came over the net towards him, but he must have forgotten it. Dad had retired as
a judge at seventy-five, and in the five years-plus since then he had done nothing remotely
active, unless you count listening to Rachmaninov's symphonies. He was a half-serious Celtic
fundamentalist who would adopt anyone or anything he admired into the ranks of the faithful, and
even lugubrious Rachmaninov (described by Stravinsky as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl, and hardly
an obvious candidate for recruitment to the ranks of undersized charmers) could be made over as
an honorary Welshman.

Dad wasn't professionally Welsh, if that means
any sort of caricature, but he was serious about his Welshness. His English intonation was
standard, perhaps modelled on the radio voices he heard in his childhood, before regionalism was
a virtue rather than an obstacle to progress. It's true that he deviated from the received
pronunciation to say ‘sandwich' as ‘sangwidge', making it sound like ‘language', but that was
his only deformation of spoken English. When he spoke Welsh,
though, there
was an extra vitality detectable, almost a roguishness, as if the character that expressed
itself in his first language was less thoroughly moralized than the public figure and even the
family man.

Welsh people were better – or maybe they just had
better names. Osian Ellis the harpist. Caradoc Evans the writer. William Mathias the composer.
Clough Williams-Ellis the architect of Portmeirion. Kyffin Williams the painter (rhymes with
Puffin). Every sound was firmly enunciated by Welsh speakers, taken care of at both ends,
launched and landed.

Welsh tongues held on to every part of the word,
even in the case of a straightforward place name like Bangor, separating the syllables but
somehow leaving the
g
on both sides of the chasm, rolling the final
r
. Welsh
speakers didn't positively give it two stressed syllables, they just couldn't bear to cheat
either part of the emphasis that was its birthright. It was as if the natives, unable to defeat
the
saesneg
invader on his own appropriated turf, him with his second homes and his
gleaming Range Rovers, became interior emigrants, finding a refuge in the living rock of the
language, and clung to every craggy inch.

Even when speaking English Welsh speakers
pronounced words lingeringly. Dad remembered a preacher from his youth whose version of the word
‘phenomenon' was like a four-gun salute. ‘A cow in a field,' he said, ‘is not a phe-no-men-on,
and nor is the moon in the sky. But when the cow jumps over the moon …
that
is a
phe-no-men-on.'

In retirement Dad could seem vague because his
attention tended to be de-centred. His hearing was very acute, and even his vision (despite
alleged macular degeneration) could be disconcertingly sharp, picking out window-cleaners at
work on the far side of Gray's Inn Square when he wasn't near the window himself.

He might comment on something
on the radio that no-one else was listening to, which could give an impression of disconnection.
A couple of years earlier, when he had been mildly feverish with a kidney infection, I had slept
in his room for a couple of nights so as to help with the management of the pee bottle in the
long watches of the night. Once I was drifting off to sleep, with the World Service dimly on the
radio in the background. The programme was about mountain climbing. I was woken by his voice
softly calling out to me. ‘Adam?'

‘Yes Dad, what is it?'

‘Have you ever worn … crampons?'

If I hadn't made the connection with what was on
the radio, I would have thought he was away with the fairies, not up on the peaks with the
alpinists of the airwaves.

It hadn't even seemed certain that he'd be able
to take in the fact of Mum's death. His routine the morning after she had died was standard,
with a carer arranged by the council helping him along the corridor to the bathroom, but from
that moment on the day's routine would be taken apart. I had the feeling, hearing the splash of
water in the bathroom and the chatty coaxing, that he was being prepared for execution.

I didn't know what I would do if at some point he
asked, ‘Where's Sheila?' once he'd been told. Would I have to keep on breaking the news, or
would it be better to come up with a story about her being out shopping – away on holiday, even
– and hope he wouldn't ask again?

In fact, once he was installed in his bedroom
chair and the carer had left, he took in the information fully and cleanly. He said, ‘Oh God,'
but then after a deep intake of breath turned the exclamation into the beginning of a hymn,
singing, ‘Our help in ages past, our hope in years to come.' He wept and I held his hand. He
never lost sight of the fact of her death,
never deluded himself. When, weeks
later, I apologized for the fact that he had been given no warning, he seemed surprised, as if
it was the most natural thing in the world for his wife of fifty years to slip away without a
word.

Sheila had said that she didn't want him to know
what was happening. I had just finished telling her that her dying belonged to her and that she
shouldn't consider anyone else's wishes, so I could hardly overrule this decision even though I
disagreed with it. She said that she could cope with everything except the thought of his life
without her, and so we kept him in the dark.

They had stopped sharing a bed when he came home
after his stay in hospital with the kidney infection, and his lack of mobility meant that they
wouldn't run into each other. They would each call out, ‘Good morning, darling,' when the carer
was helping him along the corridor to the bathroom. Sheila did her dying only a few yards away
from him, but towards the end their connection had dwindled to this ritual exchange. She had
uncoupled the marital train and left her husband behind in a siding.

Her last public appearance had been on my
birthday, in late October. We had gone to the ENO to see Janáček's
From The House
Of The Dead
. It's an uplifting piece of work, if you like your uplift very bleak indeed.
My taste rather than hers, though she seemed to enjoy the evening. Her illness hadn't shown
itself, still wore the mask of health. She had a cough, but nothing out of the way in a
late-October audience. In fact her discreet style of coughing, never disrupting the music, was
more like the stylized enactment of symptoms the heroine gives on stage, in an opera of a lusher
type, to give formal notice that she is mortally ill. Sheila, on the other hand, had enough
energy to walk most of the way home, up St Martin's Lane and then Monmouth Street to where we
intersected with
the bus routes running along New Oxford Street in the
direction of our homes.

Dad took in the fact of Sheila's death cleanly,
but didn't ask for details. He may not have realized that her body was still in the flat at the
time. When the undertakers came to collect it later in the day there was a potentially awkward
moment. His bedroom (not the marital bedroom but what had once been his study) lay immediately
inside the flat's front door, and it wasn't usual for his door to be closed. But it wasn't too
artificial a piece of behaviour for me to slip into his room and distract him with chat, keeping
the door closed behind me, while the undertaker's men passed in through the hall and then back
out with their load.

Dad's days were more or less the same before and
after his widowering (if that word exists). After his assisted shower he would be based in his
room for the morning, with the radio on. Towards lunchtime he would move to the sitting-room and
watch television. There was a convention in force that Dad was strongly interested in the news,
a fan of rugby no matter who was playing and involved almost on a cellular level when a Welsh
squad was on the pitch, but in practice the gaze he turned on the screen was neutral, if not
slightly mystified.

I could leave Dad on his own for a couple of
hours with a clear conscience, long enough to go to the gym or meet a friend for coffee. I'd
tell him when I'd be back, and he was never anxious. I don't know that he actually remembered
when I'd be back on such occasions, or even who it was that would be returning. Dad's egotism
was deep, though not cold, and he didn't need an acute short-term memory to know that he was Sir
William Mars-Jones, and therefore the sort of person who would in the natural order of things be
looked after. It would never have occurred to him that he might be restricting my life, and this
was as it should be. If family history had
played out differently and I had
been looking after my mother, things would have been much more difficult, although her
personality was much more open and tender, in fact for that very reason. She would have worried
obsessively that there were other things I would rather be doing, actually should be doing, and
would automatically have characterized herself as a burden. Dad could never be a burden, in his
own mind, which was a factor in allowing him not to be one. He didn't obsessively enter other
people's thoughts.

It's part of my psychology, not perhaps the
deepest part but part of what I work up and perform, to take things in my stride, to make out
that nothing slows me down or drags me off course. I tell people that as long as I have ten
minutes to myself at some stage, the day feels as if it belongs to me, and saying so makes it
more likely. Nevertheless there are hazards to behaving in this way. Like any other policy of
believing your own publicity, it can invite the collapse it refuses to consider.

On the other hand, I gave up remarkably little.
There was for instance a piano in the flat, an upright Monington & Weston, lacquered in a
Chinese style, which my parents had seen on the pavement outside a music shop and decided they
had to have. This was the instrument I had learned on, and Dad had learned to blot out the
sounds I made in my earliest, most ham-fisted years. I remember him inspecting the sheet music,
when I was about thirteen, and asking politely what the marking ‘
pp
' meant. ‘It means
very quiet indeed,' I explained. ‘Fancy that,' he said neutrally, but I was slow to take the
hint. I was having a Debussy phase at the time, but the
Cathédrale Engloutie
from his
first book of Preludes wasn't going to stay submerged for long while I was on hand to pump it
up.

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