When Vivien Whelpton kindly sent me a copy of the second volume of her commendably assiduous biography (which I name as RA2) of my uncle Richard Aldington, I started to peruse it from its Part Three. I did so because, apart from receiving the occasional food parcel sent by him from the US during the wartime 1940s, my sister Jennifer and I had very little knowledge of his whereabouts or activities until the mid-1950s (RA2, p. 311). Our contact began as an occasional exchange of correspondence between my sister and him which eventually led to our visiting him together with our mother, Moira (his former sister-in-law, long-since divorced from his brother Tony) at Sury-en-Vaux, in early September 1961. This was shortly after my return from a 33 month tour of service in what was then still Tanganyika, which Vivien also notes. There we experienced his kindness and unexpected cooking ability, the latter hardly surprising as by then he had been looking after himself, and Catha too at times, for a decade or more with the departure of Netta. But then we were not aware of that.
I remember him with his still thick, grey hair cut en brosse but not too severely, sitting in front of the kitchen stove wherein was roasting a chicken or something, with a glass of wine to hand, laughingly bemoaning the fact that, due to financial constraints, he could no longer afford the more expensive wines, let alone champagne, of former times. However, Alister Kershaw’s house, Maison Sallé, was comfortable and we lived well but simply. He had a sedate Simca saloon car to move around in which we had to use if we travelled together because my little Austin-Healey two-seater car could barely accommodate us three let alone with the still quite robust Richard. I remember him making some contemptuous remarks at the driver of a Parisian car, recognizable by its 75 number plate, which had rudely ignored his right of way. However, we did not wish to impose too much on his hospitality and so often went off to visit the environs of Sury and the nearby river Loire while leaving him to his work.
At a distance of now nearly 60 years, I have no recollection of any deep intellectual intercourse between us but there was much to catch up on concerning family affairs on both sides. In particular, my sister and I wanted news about Catha who was quite close to us in age and whom we had not yet met: we were to do so a few years later and amusing company she became. Catha was closer to age to us than we had estimated (RA2, p. 119), being born in France in 1938 rather than in the US in 1940-41. I do remember inspecting Richard’s impressive library, impressive both in size and what I perceived to be in quality: my more knowledgeable – in this respect! – sister confirmed the latter.
Years later, being by chance in its vicinity, accompanied by my French wife, I visited Maison Sallé again. It was then housing Kershaw’s second wife, Sheila, whom I had already met and who kindly showed us around the then newly re-arranged building with Richard’s library well ensconced, perhaps even better than before. She also told us where we would find his impressive grave, situated in a nearby public cemetery.
One final insight on our earlier family visit to Richard marked our departure, also noted by Vivien (RA2, p. 311). We had arranged to stay with him for a week at most but had left the actual date open. There would be no problem in driving up to Calais and getting a ferryboat to Dover as our visit was out of the main tourist season and we lived then at Folkestone, adjacent to Dover. If I remember correctly, it was about four or five days after our arrival that he informed us that he had just received news that an ‘old friend’ of his was ill in Zurich whom he wished to visit as soon as possible. Yet he gave no name. Of course the ‘friend’ was H.D. whom we had never met and who was to die within the month. We readily agreed to leave the next morning and we spent an affable evening together. Yet it seems strange that he did not mention her by name. In any case, it was none of our business and we left on the best of terms.
I was to see uncle Richard once more before he died, as Vivien notes (RA2, p. 321). It was in the early summer of 1962 so less than a year since my previous visit. I was facing a dilemma. Now a year after my return from Africa, I had lost, and willingly so, my job as a trainee salesman of agricultural machinery for a firm in western England, to work in Colombia of all places. I say ‘willingly’ because, like my employer, I had come to realise that I was not a salesman. So it was something of a relief too. Yet I had started to learn Spanish, needed to work even if I had some financial resources, and wondered if I should not try to resume my studies before it became too late: I was then 26. Also, there was an idea growing in my mind of writing a book on my experiences gained from my tour of work in East Africa in 1958-61. Feeling disillusioned with Great Britain – as I do now but for different reasons! – I decided to pass a few weeks of camping in Europe – it was a time of camping then – with my little car, to think about it all.
I decided to start with Spain to practice my still primitive Spanish, perhaps passing through southern France on my return. I spent about two weeks on the Costa Brava but my return trip through southern France was shortened by a severe storm. This damaged my feeble tent and brought about an attack of malaria probably awoken by the sudden change in climate. Fortunately the French chemist I visited was well acquainted with the term ‘paludisme’ and gave me the correct treatment. So I headed home northwards in a rather chastened frame of mind. On the road, I realised that if I took a route to Calais, the appropriate ferryboat port for Dover, that avoided Paris, I would pass close to Sury-en Vaux, Maison Sallé and uncle Richard. Why not try to visit him? I selected Cosne-sur-Loire with its municipal camping site and adjacent to Sury-en-Vaux, as my initial destination.
I cannot recall how I contacted him as mobile telephones did not exist then but I must have done so somehow and not just turned up. Anyway, he welcomed me and we were soon enjoying a glass of wine together. It was towards the middle of July 1962 and he had just returned from his trip to the USSR accompanied by Catha, at the invitation of the USSR Writers’ Union. Vivien, writing about it in RA2, regards this trip as being a triumph for him and I suppose it was too. However, he admitted to feeling very tired and he realised that perhaps he had over-enthusiastically participated in the notoriously famous rites of Russian hospitality. However, I remember that he gave me the impression of being very pleased with his and Catha’s experiences which was a pleasure to witness. He invited me to dine with him and even to stay the night but I desisted because of his recognizable tiredness and also that I had left my tent and belongings on the camp site at Cosne.
We chatted for a while, especially about his USSR visit, but during our chat I explained to him my idea of writing a book on my African experiences, that had further developed during the previous few weeks of relative solitude while camping. I even went so far as to express an interest in possibly earning a living from writing. At this remark of mine he metaphorically exploded and adamantly urged me NOT to even contemplate doing so. His reaction surprised me at the time but certainly not now following further reading of Vivien’s RA2! In fact he did me a very valuable service because during my nearly completed camping expedition, I realise now that I had been slowly shifting towards the – what I had perceived to be – softer option before me in pursuing a career of sorts, that of earning a living from writing rather than the more challenging – as I perceived it – attempt to resume my studies.
Richard’s spontaneous interjection was a tectonic plate shift of a sort. I much needed that, lacking as I did any fatherly advice following my father’s departure from the family back in 1940-41 when I was 4-5 years old. Perhaps I did not realise this service at the time but now, nearly 60 years later, I wish to put on record my gratitude for his insight. Also it must have been fate that had induced me to visit Richard at this particular time that proved to be such a small window of opportunity between his return from the USSR and his death. I knew that he was an entertaining conversationalist but for me our meeting marked a turning point towards a career different to one I had been contemplating. In fact this career did lead eventually to much writing and editing, but of technical reports and documents which, at least, I did try to make readable. This is not always the case.
Leaving Cosne, on my journey northwards home that culminated in the white cliffs of Dover rising before the advancing ferryboat, I had revised my priorities. Yet, so soon after I had returned to the rather miserable apartment in Folkestone my family occupied at the time, we received the terrible news that Richard had died. So our physical relationship with him, if I may term it as such, had lasted for less than a year. But it had been an experience well worthwhile for me and my sister too. The outcome was that I applied to a selected university for entrance in a following academic year and even had an interview regarding it which appeared to have gone well. I would have to await for some months for an answer.
At the same time, I began to write my book that meantime had been struggling to emerge and completed it in less than two months, greatly helped by an aunt, Moira’s sister, with her lending me a room in her nearby apartment where I could bang away at my portable typewriter in solitary peace. I gave it a name, Tanganyika Tour, and then set it aside for what was to become a hibernation of more than 50 years. It was published in September 2018. As an aside, Tanganyika was not a British colony nor a protectorate but a territory administered by the British. It gained its Independence at the end of 1961 a few months after I had completed my contract with the British Crown Agents. It was a time when Britain’s colonial experience was rapidly unwinding.
To end on a lighter note, yet beyond the scope of RA2, at the end of 1962, in fact between Christmas and the New Year of ’63, I managed to meet Alistair Kershaw and Sheila, in Paris. I had committed myself to resuming my studies, if possible in the following October but as a form of ‘backstop’ – although this term currently has become weighted with much greater significance! – I had decided to go to Spain to study Spanish in Malaga: a) to retreat from another winter (my second since returning from Africa) in northern Europe which, in fact, proved to be a severe one; and b) to improve my Spanish so that, should my university application fail, possibly I could depart for Colombia and try my luck there but not as a salesman of agricultural machinery! Also I found that I could pass a few months in Malaga at that season of the year relatively cheaply.
Installed overnight in Paris for I was travelling by train having sold my little car, I contacted Kershaw and we three dined together in a modest Parisian restaurant. He recounted some anecdotes relating to Richard, one of which I remember as being particularly amusing. It must have taken place in the late 1940’s after Richard’s return from the US. Richard was with a group of friends, including Alistair, recently arrived from Australia I presume, drinking at some bar, presumably in the south of France. The drink was, of course, champagne. As the evening proceeded, one by one, members of the group tottered off to their respective homes leaving Alistair as Richard’s sole companion drinker. Finally, even he, Alistair, had had enough or more than enough, to drink and excused himself. As he retreated through the door, he heard Richard call “Garcon, une autre demie si vous plait.” That was dear Richard. He endured a life that was truly difficult at times but he also enjoyed some pleasurable times as well.
I much appreciated Vivien’s conclusion to her biography of Richard, particularly its very last paragraph based on Randall’s insightful and sympathetic observations on him (RA2 p.325). Of course Richard had some faults but who does not?