Exclusive: ‘Major Christian’ by Jonathan Meades

Exclusively for The Dabbler, here is a glorious extract from Jonathan Meades’ new memoir An Encyclopaedia of Myself. Sign up to the free Book Club at the bottom of the piece for a chance to win a copy…

Dabbler editor Brit recently described ‘An Encyclopaedia of Myself’ as having a ‘perfect balance… of hilarity, horror, charm and pathos’ and as ‘quite possibly the most enjoyable memoir I’ve ever read.’ This extract, in which Meades recalls a sadistic schoolmaster, gives an idea why…

MAJOR CHRISTIAN

He rode his bicycle home along Harnham Road as though pedalling through invisible lard. To protect him from mud, segments of engrimed translucent nylon were stretched over the back wheel, a device more usually associable with women’s, crossbarless bikes: Miss Ellaby, Pammy Bacon and Rene Bowns all had different configurations of this arrangement but so too did Sid the Butcher’s forest-green Raleigh. A forlorn flaccid saddlebag, made of cracked naugahyde and canvas that had lost all its dressing, hung like a crone’s tit. He wore a service beret, khaki patchily faded to sand. When he removed it the line of its band was incised fuchsia across his forehead. His fangs were sensationally uneven, misshapen, discoloured as though plundered from dentists’ waste. His face was several hues of wan, crosshatched with razor cuts and relieved by clusters of grey stubble that he had failed to see and to shave.

Twice a week before lunch Major Christian bellowed: ‘Press, press . . . Fling!’ We were lined up, on a wide gravel path between swathes of sacred lawn, in four ‘sections’, Wilkes, Vaux, Holgate, Kingsbury – each named after a dead cleric. The door to the cloisters was to our right. The Chapter House was behind us. Major Christian stood in front of us. The big yew tree was over his shoulder. His repertoire of exercises was invariable. Stretching here, bracing there, running on the spot, bending, star jumping, shadow boxing. There were a hundred and twenty of us so it was only by chance that he’d spot a slacker. But when he did there followed a villainous pantomime entertainment. He would hurl himself towards the miscreant, skidding to a halt among flying gravel. He’d scream till his temple veins looked fit to pop. Then he’d turn away shaking his head incredulously. He was often like this, struggling to fight back rage. Equally, he was often struggling to fight back tears. The two states were virtually indistinguishable. What horrors had he experienced? The Second World War brain-injured two generations of adults who resolved that it was us who should pay for their lost years.

December 1955, the last week of school term: I awoke to the first snow of the winter. Outside my bedroom a fringe of icicles hung from the thatch. The road was a lesson in monochrome. There was untouched snow as white as whipped albumen. There was shiny metallic snow where traffic had compressed it. There was snow turned into tiny glacial boulders. There was a bank of snow in the gutter outside Mr and Mrs Coleman’s where one or other of them had swept the pavement. I shivered as I dressed beside the immersion heater. It was deemed too cold to walk the mile to school. My father drove me in his new Morris Minor. The roads were neither salted nor sanded. Cars skidded on the impacted snow, they drifted gently into kerbs. The marginal slope up to Harnham Bridge became hazardous.

In classrooms we huddled round radiators.

In the blindingly white world outside, the ‘lake’ froze. It was actually an artificially widened stream. It would be crassly filled in the mid-1960s under the regime of the wretched Dean Haworth in order to provide yet more sports pitches. In the Fifties it remained a delightful vestige of picturesque landscaping and, in such weather as this, a de facto ice rink for those who dared. I never did. I didn’t want to get cold or burnt: ice could, supposedly, burn. I didn’t want to discover if that was true so I watched from the tribune of the grand Venetian-windowed room called Big School. In the foreground epic snowball battles were fought. White boughs were petrified lace against the cruelly blue sky. There was a ruff of crenellated wall in the distance. On ice scored like pork rind, boys were sliding and tumbling gauchely in dark blue macs that billowed and deflated. They wore unsuitable shoes and shorts that afforded little protection. It was all a fleeting dance made of Balla, Breughel and Start-rite – with English pastoral décor. In John  Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Ground (1823) cows are drinking from the lake’s western extremity. It was so cold that even the most hardy skaters gave it little more than ten minutes.

The sports pitches were under snow. There was no possibility of playing rugby. We anticipated an afternoon’s free time.

Major Christian had other ideas. He announced that we were going to go on a run. Even to a group of eight-year-olds this seemed a surprising decision. But we unquestioningly obeyed his order to get changed. Of course we did. Fear overcame prudence. Cotton shorts, plimsolls, rugby shirts. I added an outsize cricket pullover, a hand-me-down from one of my mother’s friends which I was to ‘grow into’. And off we went, sheep in the wake of a short-fused goat.

Our destination was the Race Plain, three miles distant. The pavements were treacherous. The streets were deserted. The few cars had chained wheels which turned them into weapons of ancient warfare. One crept along St Nicholas Road making bone-grinding sounds. The meadows’ frozen leets were dazzling. As we passed it I looked longingly at my parents’ house, snug beneath its crystalline carapace. We ran up the hill past the lane leading to the wartime bunkers where stinking tramps lay in wait for children who dawdled. After Harnwood Road and the swollen Bayko-ish telephone building much of the way was along tracks across bleakest downland, along declivitous troughs whose high white walls were hedges in hiding, whose smothered ruts and ridges were booby traps. The route of the Old Shaftesbury Drove was not invariably obvious. Snow had drifted high along it. We ran as fast as we could to keep warm and to mollify Major Christian. But the weather was against us, the wind bit and whipped, it hurled stinging powder at our little blue legs. And Major Christian was implacable. He screamed exhortations. He drove us on across unseen ditches, buried banks and gleaming dunes which crumbled beneath us so that we fell on blackthorns and flints. We were failing him. He had suffered and so shouldwe. We reached the Race Plain. The racecourse was signalled by its railings and its grandstand, barnacled with lean-tos with lean-tos of their own. There were intimations of dusk. Major Christian set us to exercising. ‘Press, press . . . Fling!’ Our frozen limbs were reluctant to respond. Our frozen limbs insulted him. He denounced them. Spiteful crows cackled at our discomfiture.

Whilst the red lamp at its summit shone, the rest of the distant spire began to disappear in the valley’s crepuscular broth: the dog’s a wolf, the wolf’s a dog. It occurred to him as an apparent surprise, an afterthought, that he had to get us back to school. We retraced our tracks, approximately, for fresh snow was hurrying to beat us to them, to cover them for ever, to forge a blank labyrinth. This infinite eiderdown would consume us. The hour and the bladderish cloud combined belligerently. We could hardly move. Major Christian screamed. Mike Speak asked if he could share my pullover. It was so large it fitted us both. We turned into a freakshow specimen with two heads, two arms and four legs, we dragged and checked each other, and lurched all the way back. This was exciting. We were putting on a show. And we were snug, warm: at least, warmer.

The troop of frozen boys was widely witnessed. Mrs Dear, Mrs Sadd and her Bedlington, the Blakeleys and the Beatons, Sid the Butcher Who Missed Nothing, the Goddard twins – they all watched us pass by as though, in Mrs Sadd’s and her Bedlington’s words, ‘The little mites were off to the salt mines’. Some parents complained that we had been subjected to a sort of torture. Not mine, who thought it was a hoot. They had heard about the shared pullover even before I was home from school: Mrs Dear had popped across the road from St Leonard’s to tell them. They were indignant when Major Christian was dismissed at the end of that term.

He never found another kindred job which allowed him to give rein to his particular gifts. He worked as a jobbing gardener. I’d dutifully greet him but he failed to see me or didn’t want to. Too preoccupied or too ashamed. His bicycle was now  unbalanced by hoes, rakes, shears, trowels and a webbing kitbag, the tools of his enforced trade, which was a step down from teaching (perhaps not the word), which was itself a step down from soldiering.

Eight years after he was sacked my mother was bemused to receive a phone call from Mrs Christian inviting her to tea. Although they lived somewhere nearby, my parents knew them merely to say hullo to and never had any social contact. They would improbably have known each other’s Christian names and, even had they, would certainly not have addressed each other by them. Tea had turned out to be Marmite sandwiches and stilted conversation. Just the two of them. Why my mother had been asked remained a mystery. She described the Christian home in some detail.

I was soon to see it for myself: a week later Mrs Christian issued another invitation. This time I was included. Neither of us wanted to go, but nonetheless on the appointed afternoon we walked along Harnham Road with the tennis courts’ mesh and cries high above us up the sheer bank on the left. Past the boastful, florid, tile-hung late Victorian houses with their curling drives, wellingtonias and cedars. Past ‘The Crematorium’, the flat-roofed pale-brick double-cube Dr Duff had recently built in the grounds of one of them, Harnham Croft, a nursing home whose acrylic rooms I never dreamed I would one day be obliged to visit. We turned up the slope of Folkestone Road whose gravel aggregate showed through the worn metalled surface. More late Victorian and Edwardian houses, most of them semi-detached. No drives or specimen trees here, merely skewed wooden garages, alopeciac hedges failing to mask front windows, doorsteps harlequined in artificial stone, salt-glazed flowerbed edgers moulded to imitate tarred rope.

I looked up at the attic room where Ham’s father had unsuccessfully hidden his copious library of Solo, Health and Efficiency, QT, Spick, Span, Kamera, Avec Plaisir, Ici Paris etc. At the age of sixteen I was already nostalgic for my childhood self, for thesummers when I had been ten and eleven, knowing they wouldn’t come my way again: those days of sunbeams, of Swinging Shepherd Blues, The Mudlarks singing ‘Lollipop’, of two boys poring over monochrome models whose heavy nipples, the most tempting fruit on earth, promised so much more than kisses sweeter than an apple pie.

Major Christian opened the door of his bungalow. He staged a well-rehearsed festival of dental caries for my mother. Then he addressed me, surprised me:

‘Dick Christian!’ He stuck out a hand which I somnambulistically shook. It was as though he had never previously encountered me; if it is accepted that a sixteen-year-old adolescent is merely the same human rather than the same self as an eight-year-old boy, then he hadn’t. After brief consideration, he pretended to punch my shoulder, clumsily, playfully, man to man, bonding. This was astonishing, but not so astonishing as his attire.

He wore what was clearly his best – a waisted jacket, just discernible as a sometime item of dress uniform which would have had a Sam Browne strapped across it. It had been subjected to a lavish range of alterations, dressmaker’s bricolage, in an attempt to render it apt for Civvy Street and operetta. It had also been dyed. The aim, no doubt, had been to turn garrison khaki into mahogany. The result was a garment which might have been rescued from a fire, scorched but intact. Or it might have been bodged from rare camouflage, adaptively coloured for the darkest forests, a map of blacks, browns, swarfs and char-coals that represented the thing’s folds when in the dye tub. The nap was greasily iridescent. His merely faded cycling beret was nowhere to be seen.

Their home was a long, narrow, oxblood brick bungalow with a wooden verandah that would have been confidently labelled ‘artistic’ when it was new, circa 1905. Now it was rotting. It was the last building in the road, a cul-de-sac which culminated in a high hedge with a wood-framed, lintelled aperture in it. Beyond this aperture, which had worried me as a child becauseit was so obviously missing a door or gate, was the cinder foot-path that ran along the bottom of Harnham Hill. I realised that I knew my hosts’ garden. I had often peered from the path through the ragged hedge at the chaos of jerry cans, compost piles, lawnmower blades, wire bales, dog rose, water butts, wringers, hairy twine, formerly galvanised bits, charred planks, burlap-lagged pipes, oxidised buckets, damp sacks, collapsed cloches, troughs, sheaves of cracked panes, enamel stained with dried algae, crippled chairs, glass canines grinning from crumbly putty in window frames.

The interior of the bungalow was also brown. It was the work of the same hand in different materials. Browning newspapers, dun cushions, skeins of shiver-making oatmeal wool tight as a spinster’s bun, wicker knitting baskets armed with protruding needles, dark wood tables clambering over crazed leather armchairs, corrugated sisal matting, silt-coloured lino, shelves spilling foxed books and spineless books, earthenware porrons and meerschaum pipes, family and regimental photos in varnished frames, ragged Medici Society prints of plough horses, chipped Staffordshire dogs, teetering shoe boxes on a paraffin heater. A greedy monochromatic obsession was being sated at jumble sales, bring-and-buy sales, in junk shops, in Biggins’s father’s junk hangar. What wasn’t already brown was getting brown – the colour of oldness, fatigue, shit and middens, rot, rust and ener-vation: adults were forever complaining that they were browned off.

But not Major Christian, not today. Nor Mrs Christian. He was gruffly matey. She was cosy and dumpy with a plump fringe to match and a cough-linctus-colour dress. He asked me how my swimming was going. Training was tiresome. I had perpetual, stinging pink eye. I had just suffered a humiliating defeat by a man mountain barely a year my senior. I mutely resented that, at the age of sixteen, I was still defined by what had been my sole prowess long ago, in childhood. I told him it was going well. I had to hang on to something.

As we walked home after an hour and a half of conversational cul-de-sacs, well-meant smiles, forced chuckles and desperate cakes, my mother wondered out loud why these probably harmless oddballs should suddenly have decided that we should be their friends. What were they up to?

She received the answer within a few days. This time in the post rather by telephone. White card, copperplate print. Major and Mrs Richard Christian request the pleasure . . . the wedding of their daughter Alexandra . . . to . . . April . . . at Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral! Salisbury Cathedral. The cynosure of a bride (or groom’s) socially ambitious parents. (Socially ambitious in south Wiltshire.) This was a prize craved by many, granted only to a privileged few. Because he had ‘taught’ so long at the Cathedral School Major Christian could not be denied it. The invitation was for my parents and me. Again my mother wondered why. She discovered the answer when on a blustery Wednesday afternoon she went alone to the service (my father and I having invented pressing appointments which precluded our attendance). The fifteen or so guests on the bride’s ‘side’ (of the nave) were outnumbered by the clergy and vicars choral. With a handful of exceptions they were of the bride’s age. Among that handful were some acquaintances of my mother. They too had been courted with cake and sandwiches by the Christians who, having no friends to invite to their girl’s great day, had had to muster some. It was apparently a joyful, untroubled occasion which my mother relished for its felicitous oddness. Major Christian was the very picture of paternal pride, beaming madly. I regretted not having been there.

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5 thoughts on “Exclusive: ‘Major Christian’ by Jonathan Meades

  1. Richly entertaining.

    I have a modest theory that the cultural subversion of the 20th Century was inspired, to some extent, by a reaction against public school tyrants. Perhaps among the people one must credit for Mr Meades is the major.

  2. an hour and a half of conversational cul-de-sacs, well-meant smiles, forced chuckles and desperate cakes

    ‘desperate cakes’ is masterly.

  3. skeins of shiver-making oatmeal wool tight as a spinster’s bun. What can one say, sublime, this could be the selfie to end all selfies, the supreme selbstbildnis. An audio book follow up would add icing.

    • Yes, you can’t really read J.Meades without hearing his deadpan delivery in your head, can you? An audiobook version would be ace