In a Christmas Day broadcast in 1947, he recalled how his nanny, Hannah Wallis, a simple and loving soul, had bought him a toy for a present, a toy which he wanted and for which she’d had to save up. In the excitement of unpacking his stocking, he trod on it and broke it. He didn’t let on, hiding the debris in his room, saying nothing to her lest he should hurt her feelings. Later, [after] Hannah tidied his room, he found the broken pieces put in the waste paper basket. Neither of them ever mentioned it. It’s a good job childhood is at the beginning of our lives; we’d never survive it if it were in the middle.
This is an episode from the childhood of John Betjeman, recounted in Alan Bennett’s Poetry in Motion. The sentiment of his last sentence is absolutely spot-on. I am accustomed to think of myself as having been a sensitive child, but as an adult there are so many more tiny details I notice which, if I were more emotionally demonstrative, would make me collapse in tears.
A case in point: last week I took delivery of an order of four toner cartridges for a printer at work. On unpacking them, my colleague discovered a bag of Maltesers at the bottom of the box. How kind of them, was my first reaction. Then she suggested that they had probably been left behind accidentally by the driver. Yes, that’s it, I thought. Some poor man somewhere, having completed his morning round of deliveries, has just turned to his passenger seat to look for the snack he bought from the newsagent that morning, and has found nothing there. Why should I feel such a melancholic sadness at this (on the face of it) inconsequential separation? It’s not as if the man’s lost his son or daughter. And it’s not just because I hold chocolate in such high esteem either, though if the story has a moral it’s clearly that one should eat all chocolate immediately, preferably before leaving the shop. I think my consciousness that the smallest thing can have the greatest effect may be relevant.
Later, I catalogued a book we had bought. This one was unusual in that it had been dedicated by the author:
On your birthday, with
best wishes and the encouragement
to pursue your interests in Middle
31 March 2004
Silly to get worked up about it, really. Maybe the author wouldn’t care that this book had ended up in a library. How can one be sure? But 2004 isn’t so long ago, and I wondered what had happened in the meantime to make the book surplus to requirements. Perhaps Rebecca died – or her interest in the Middle East did. Or maybe all she wanted for her birthday was a packet of Maltesers.