GUESTS IN MY FATHER’S HOUSEfrom Family Legends
Guests were a necessary evil and my father put up with them, in his fashion. The house continued to be ‘run around him’: his nocturnal studies and daytime sleeping were not to be disturbed. Dons from Oxbridge were the most regular, external examiners at the end of June, male to a man. Amongst them Herbert Butterfield, Brian Wormald, Michael Oakeshott. On and off, writers and politicians giving lectures in college stayed overnight. Hilaire Belloc, Sean O’Faolain, Lord Pakenham (Longford), Ernest Blythe. l can’t remember wives accompanying any of our guests. In the fifties men were more independent than now, perhaps. The guests were mostly serious people with a need for their own peace and quiet, and so the absence of my father did not cause offence. Some must have wondered if he went to a hotel while they were staying. Observant ones would have noticed the light on all night in the front room, and the blinds drawn during the day on the floor above.
Sleeping arrangements were changed so the guest could occupy the new wing. My sisters doubled up in bedrooms in the old building. The house was spacious enough, but the rooms were small, and the landing between the two wings was a cross between a handball alley and a valley of tears. The only toilet was where the two stairways met. So in the quiet of the night its muffled flush could be heard. But I don’t recall meeting a guest in the dark of the stilly hours. The house was surrounded by trees - high firs around the garden and in the guest bedroom the window was brushed by a giant laburnum. The rustle was soporific. Mercifully there was never a guest staying during a storm, and the whiplash reached breaking point. Men from the village had to be called to rope back branches from falling on the house.
My father and mother went on evening walks as usual when guests were in residence. Negotiating the front gate without being spotted was a delicate manoeuvre. The guest was lured by a child into the back garden, blocked off from the road by thick hedges and the fir-trees. Our parents could pass unnoticed. We entertained him with a tour of the orchard, which, though rudimentary, yielded buckets of raspberries, gooseberries and apples. There was a giant pear-tree with a swing attached. When it was in full bloom, falling blossom added to the pleasure. The fruit was hard and bitter, and curled like a sneer.
I once taught a don how to play hurling. He must have been in his forties. But looked old before his time. In a long gray raincoat and heavy tweeds, he could have been an amateur fisherman expecting the worst of Irish weather. Even when it was warm and sunny he kept his raincoat on. Cadaverous with a lank fly-like figure, he was an unlikely athlete. Hurling is a swift and brutal game of awkward elbows and light steps. He took to it like a dancer, executing his every move with precision and panache. His mastery of the stick after a brief demonstration suggested to me a childhood memory of cricket. In no time he was hitting the leather ball, the slither, into the raspberries, and retrieving it himself.
The front garden had a spacious lawn, so we moved there, sidling our way through the undergrowth of the hedge at the side of the house. I would have much preferred to be showing off my tennis skills. Hurling, though I loved the bend and whip of the ash, could be regarded as an insular peasant sport. His enthusiasm made me forget my snobbery. I was awed by this stooped crow of a man with a funny accent - as though a milk bottle had damaged his upper lip when he was a baby - buckleaping boyishly around the lawn, avoiding the flowerbeds with deft pivots.
I now know he was Michael Oakeshott, the historian of law linguistics and ‘conservative thinker’, who nevertheless refused a knighthood from Mrs Thatcher. His buttoned-up inner self was released in a stick dance of joy, a game of Irish cricket, escaping the tedium of reading a thesis on Mother Mary Aikenhead and the Crimean War.
When we were exhausted, he sent me down to Ballintemple for ice-cream, and I ran all the way like a rabbit, or Ronnie Delaney, bringing them back before they melted. Two water-ices (cream ices were not then known in
Oakeshott was not embarrassed. Raincoat open and the sleeves tucked up, he waved to my father with the hurley, and didn’t get up. ‘Gone native’, my mother said, laughing. Then my father reminded him of another of his sporting exploits. Oakeshott had written a popular book in the thirties called How to Pick the Derby Winner. Their talk of various betting systems was above my head. But my father’s interest surprised me. I’d forgotten his family had horses and one even finished the Grand National.
When I told this story to my brother, the historian, he was not best pleased, and said that it was he who gave Oakeshott lessons in hurling. I don’t know what to think. The memory is graphic, and the details convincing (the ices, particularly, and Ronnie Delaney, the surprise Olympic champion, 1956, makes me thirteen). Maybe Edmund was there too, and one of us was hiding behind the hedge?