T his week I’m going to the Hayon-Way literary festival to
take part in a discussion following the showing of a documentary made for BBC4 by Charlie Russell. It’s called The Last Year of my Life. Mine, that is. It was filmed over the past three years, and began because I mentioned that my parents, my grandparents and my aunts all died at the age of 71. I said I wouldn’t last much longer. Obviously I feature throughout, cigarette mostly in hand, and once seen falling over at a Foyles ‘do’, but that, I protest, was because my lovely friend Bernice Rubens had died the day before. It’s a very good film. Charlie Russell is my grandson.
One day last week I opened something called a Flower and Angel Festival at St Pancras parish church near Euston. It’s the one up on a hill with the railway running behind. Father Bruce Batstone showed me round its beautiful interior and its dazzling displays of heavenly flowers. The site has been a place of worship since the 4th century, and there’s even a stone fragment on the altar believed to have belonged to the building that stood here two centuries later. During the civil war St Pancras was used as a barracks for Cromwell’s troops. At the front of the church there’s a room in which the congregation can meet, swap stories, dispute, drink tea. It’s decorated in keeping with the interior of the church. The day I visited there were many flowers and quite a few angels, albeit rather small in stature, and an even smaller one who sank into sleep while on the breast. You don’t see many angels out for the count while drinking.
Some years past I wrote a novel about Captain Scott’s journey to the South Pole accompanied by Birdie Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson, Petty Officer Evans and Captain Lawrence Oates. Evans died coming down the Beardmore glacier; Scott, Wilson and Bowers were found frozen to death in their tent 11 miles from safety. Oates, nicknamed Titus, a cavalry officer in the 6th Inniskillin Dragoons, had been badly injured in the Boer war. The extreme cold had opened his wounds and, hideously suffering from frostbite, he asked Wilson for the opium secured in the medicine bag: he hoped it would slide him into death. Wilson, being something of a goody-goody, refused, on the grounds that it was wrong for anyone but God to take a life. Scott intervened and gave him some. Oates lay down thinking he wouldn’t survive the night. He did and, in the early hours of 17 May 1912, his 32nd birthday, uttering the words, ‘I’m just going outside and may be some time,’ he walked out into the blizzard and was never seen again. All this is because three years ago I read about a school in London where a girl called Kit had been educated. It said she was the ille gitimate daughter of Captain Oates. Then, this Tuesday, talking to Professor Dowdeswell of the Scott Polar Research lnstitute (as one does), I mentioned this fact, and he said he’d make inquiries. He has, and it appears Oates did have a child, though it should be stressed he apparently never knew of either its conception or its birth. The thing that makes this story beyond the merely interesting is the age of the mother. All the letters written by Oates and the opinions of those who accompanied him to the Pole, make him out to be a gallant soldier, a gentleman he was educated at Eton, though he never mastered the use of the comma — less tormented than Scott and an all-round caring sort of chap. The fact remains, the mother of Kit was 12 years old.
Last Sunday morning, come seven o’clock, I walked to St Pancras church to wander round the graveyard. No traffic, the sun diamond-bright, the sky cornflower blue. Thirty years ago I came here and the earth was studded with tombstones. There was one inscribed with the names of four victims of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and another of a seven-day-old infant called Mulberry, offspring of Alice, third wife of Joseph Mulberry, who, it said, would await judgment — the child, not his dad. And there was another stone engraved with the words, George Thomas. He died of the Shakes.
Now, following the notion that such memorials are possibly upsetting, the graveyard is simply an oasis of greenery overhung with trees, save for the family tombs of William Godwin, whose wife was the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sir John Soane. A tree bears a reference to the poet Thomas Hardy, who, as a young architect, came here in the middle of the night to supervise the shovelling up of the dead to make way for the railway.
Ihave a dear friend, Cecil Todes, devotedly cared for by his wife, Lillie, who has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for the past 30 years. His brain works, but his body has given up. The latest breakthrough in medical and scientific research, however Orwellian in its mingling of human and animal stem cells, could apparently put an end to this dreadful illness. In an age when the world is hell-bent on the invention and production of weapons that kill, surely time could be spent on putting an end to the Shakes.