Saturday, February 27, 2016


The doorbell rang, and outside stood a nearby, Chinese neighbour in “all of a twitter”. He was in urgent need of help, and needed me right away. What terrible matter had occurred?
Outside his front door and hiding beneath the drip was a toad – a smallish one and in a state of semi-hibernation. Could I deal with it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   The neighbour rushed to stand on the other side of the road from his house with his eyes closed behind shielding hands, and stood there until I had taken the toad away.
I have always been fond of toads, ever since we, as children, were friends with one who lived in a hole outside a wood by a path to the Roman walls of Silchester. We took it flies to eat.
I placed the toad on a hand, which must have been very warm to this cold, hibernating creature, and took it to our small garden where there are lots of flower pots resting close to each other on the ground and on oculoni (?) – those hollow, hyporcaust bricks that the Romans used for central heating, and are still available in Italy.
I found it a dark and damp place, out of the reach of predators that might disturb its winter rest.
Toads eat flies, grubs, worms and suchlike. And there are plenty of those in our spring and summer garden. So future food supplies will not be a problem.
Returning to view its resting place an hour or two later, it had gone – gone, I had hoped, to find good cover and safety for the rest of the winter months.
Although not visible, it is lovely to have a wild, ground-living pet in the garden to share with our local birds. But we will now have to be careful where we tread.
Mr or Mrs Toad we don’t know, but it has been christened Bufo – part of its true Latin name. And we will presume it to be male until otherwise indicated.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

My Uncle Waller

Waldron Smithers married my Aunt Marjory. He was part of a well-known Stock Exchange family. It was thought that his brothers funded him to become an MP (for Orpington, I believe) to keep him out of their city company’s business.
Uncle Waller was a giant of a man. In cricket for the Commons versus the Lords at Lord’s Cricket Ground, he smote a ball high into the pavilion. As a boy I handled his bat and could barely lift it, let alone wield it.
Being made master of the hunt for one day, he sent an athlete at crack of dawn to form an aniseed trail around the Kent countryside. No fox was seen that day, but many remembered it as a magnificent day’s hunting.
As a young boy, he and I would tussle. And because he was so strong and unaware of his strength, I always succumbed – in pain. That was, until I discovered his Achilles heel – or rather his ears. So in a fight I would grab an ear. Then he would become as putty in my hands. At last I had the measure of him. 
Shelleys, where he and my aunt lived, was a cultured house. Artists, musicians and opera singers would stay. Music was important. My brother and I, as young boys, were known by Uncle Waller as “the vile jellies” (Macbeth). We were not musical. But we had a house song. “Out vile jellies, on your bellies, down the road we’ll go (Shelleys was on a hill). On our bellies we’d pass Nelly’s (Nelly was the secretary who had a house nearby), going too and fro”. It was not what you would call a cultured song.
The family were very kind in allowing me to spend time in their house as part of my recuperation from TB when I had been invalided out of the RAF as a young pilot (there was no cure for the disease at that time, rest and being submitted to a large needle between the ribs to allow air to fill a gap between lung and rib cage being the only treatment available). I was friends with the gardener, Smith. Whereas the house had to prepare whatever produce he cared to provide, for me he would fill my little car with vegetables before I would return to London, motoring back to two small Council rooms in Pimlico.
There was a curiosity in the house. This was a “Whorling Spray” prominently on display on a shelf in the bathroom. It was a douche with a black shaft and a red rubber bulb. Was it for pleasure? Was it for bowels? Was it the house method of birth control? I never knew. Nor did I ever ask.
When Uncle Waller needed a rest from politics he would cross the road from Parliament to St Margaret’s Westminster and play the organ there. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was his speciality, so we always asked him to play it whenever we were with him and he had access to a church organ.
He was a truly altruistic Member of Parliament, stopping his car at any opportunity in his constituency to talk to pedestrians of any political persuasion. So driving with him took time. In town no taxi driver would charge him a fare as he was the motive force in getting cabbies enclosed in their taxis. Before that they were separated from their fares, unprotected, and subjected to the elements.
He was known in the House for asking more questions than any other MP – presumably questions that the Conservatives wanted to answer. He aspired to be The Father of the House, but one MP outlived him.
Knighted, my aunt, her Ladyship, was not changed by her elevation. After some “do” or other, she was known to roll up her sleeves to help clean up in the kitchen. She was that kind of person, gentle, fun, a brilliant mimic, and much loved.

This was an age and a society that I was so lucky to have been part of as a child and then a young man. In looking back it was grand, yet simple, casual, natural, and all very friendly and hospitable.