Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Fifth Commandment

On Friday night the Eagle came around for supper. Her career has taken flight in recent weeks. However she finds it hard to believe that anyone can genuinely be happy for her success, used as she is to a highly competitive and antagonistic working environment. I said I was only too pleased to hear good news for once, the more so since a number of my friends are not in the best of health at present. Besides, the Eagle and her partner are firm admirers of my culinary skills and have said they would be prepared to set me up in a tea shop if ever I decided on a change of career. At the rate the Eagle’s career is soaring, it won’t be long before she can afford to employ me as her personal chef.

We talked at length about family relationships. The Eagle finds my background fascinating, especially my relationship with my mother, whom she described as “barking,” an epithet she also applied to her own mama. She finds it astonishing that I am so forgiving about my late mother’s foibles. I certainly disapproved of my mother’s parenting skills or rather the lack of them. Fortunately, I was sufficiently well grounded to be able to fend for myself by the time I went to live with her on a permanent basis. We enjoyed a far more cordial relationship once I had left home. In the last year of her life I did what I could to ensure that her final months were as comfortable as possible. As a result, I was never subject to any sense of guilt following her untimely death. Whilst she was still alive, she would say things from time to time that were unnecessarily hurtful and provocative. Nevertheless, her friends later attested that she was always very proud of me. One of these insights proved a particular blessing in retrospect.
The day before my mother died, I had taken her along in her wheelchair to Clissold Park. Once the private pleasure grounds of a Georgian mansion, the park has been opened to the public for over a century, after a vigorous campaign by local Victorians to save it and the house from being redeveloped. The original 18th century house was built in the 1790s by Jonathan Hoare, the Quaker and prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery. The mansion still retains it grand stone Doric portico. Part of the building has been turned into a café. There has long been talk of restoring the rest of the house, which is in a somewhat dilapidated state. Thankfully, a long battle by local residents in the 20th and 21st centuries has resulted in the mansion and grounds finally winning lottery funding for a wholesale programme of renovation.

Even in its previous decline, the park was still a delight when my mother and I last visited it together.
“You are far too private,” my mother grumbled as we drank coffee together on the terrace. Normally, I would have shrugged off such criticisms but her death less than 24 hours later would have imbued her words with a far greater significance than they would otherwise merit. Then I received two letters. One was from my mother, written only days before her death and posted by a friend of hers, in which she praised my qualities as a daughter. The other was from another friend of my mother’s. I had only met the latter once before when I was a child. I recall that she had lived in a farmhouse, one that still formed the heart of a working farm. Consequently it was untidy and functional rather than the luxurious pristine show-house many similar buildings have been transformed into today by their wealthy occupants. Oblivious to the interior of the farm house, I only had eyes for a large doll’s house that was on display. In her letter, the farmer’s wife deeply regretted the fact that she arrived back in England too late to be able to attend my mother’s funeral. She then reminisced about her earliest memories of my mother. She said my mother had always been great fun and extremely sociable, but from the very beginning had tended to compartmentalise her life and was inclined to be very secretive about parts of it, even to those closest to her.
“The cheek of it!” I thought half in indignation and half in amusement as I remembered my mother’s last words to me.”

Whatever the ups and downs of the relationship with my mother, it never reached the depths of animosity shown by the Hanoverian royal family towards one another. As I recalled earlier(Making a grand entrance (hall),  the death of Frederick the 18th century Prince of Wales occasioned a droll epigram by the 19th century novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. The novelist viewed the Prince as the best of a bad lot. His own mother, Queen Caroline, regarded her son and heir as "the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast, in the whole world, and I most heartily wish he was out of it." His father, King George II had heartily detested his own father King George I. The sustained ill will between King George I’s son and grandson might have stemmed in part from the fact that Frederick spent much of his childhood apart from his own parents. Even imminent death did little to mitigate the hostility. Frederick was not allowed to visit his mother’s deathbed in 1737. Legend has it that his dying mother opined at the news: "At least I shall have one comfort in having my eyes eternally closed - I shall never see that monster again."
If Frederick wanted to get away from parental bickering, he could escape to his beloved Kew, where he did much to establish a collection of rare and exotic plants which would form the core of today’s Botanical Gardens. In a painting by the artist Philipe Mercier circa 1733 and now to be found in the National Portrait Gallery, whose restaurant I am somewhat partial to, (Dim Sum) Frederick is depicted alongside his sisters making music together. In the background is the pink 17th century Dutch House or Kew Palace as it is known today. I intend to return to the subject of my own wanderings around Kew Palace later .