The High Path is another of the lovely pocket hardback editions of memoirs published by Slightly Foxed. I’m collecting the memoirs but, of course, have only read about half of them so far. Slightly Foxed Editions are another reason why I don’t think e-books will ever totally replace the physical book. They are such beautiful, tactile objects. The size is perfect for slipping in a bag or coat pocket & the paper is the same creamy paper used for the Slightly Foxed quarterly journal. Subtle gold blocking on the spine & a ribbon bookmark complete the perfect book package.
Ted Walker was a poet & it’s obvious from this book that poetry was his natural language. The High Path tells the story of Ted’s childhood in Sussex until he goes to Cambridge in 1953. Ted’s father moved from Birmingham in the early 30s looking for work. Soon he was able to encourage his brother, Jack to join him & he was able to marry Winnie, his girlfriend back in Birmingham. Ted was born a year later &, after the tragic death of a sister, Ruth, his mother was told she shouldn’t have more children so Ted looked set to be an only child. The Walkers lived in a flat that backed on to the high path of the title & soon, Ted’s father’s family moved in to the flat upstairs.
Ted led the self-contained life of an only child, so much so that his early experiences of school & other children were quite a shock. Schooldays in general were not happy & he’s scathing about the quality of the teaching staff at the Grammar School he attended as a scholarship boy. Only a few of his teachers are remembered with affection, most memorably Miss Miles, a stand-in teacher,
I wish I could meet Miss Miles again. I should like to tell her that she taught me more about the entrancing power of words in that quiet lull during the Battle of Britain than any teacher subsequently did…She related the story of Romulus and Remus with such narrative and descriptive skills that I was left with the most vivid sense of having been actually suckled by the she-wolf, of having handled every rough block of stone built on the seven hills of Rome, of having not only sharpened the knife and stabbed Remus but also of having been Remus himself, dead by my twin brother’s hand.
That mention of the Battle of Britain is typical of the casual way that the war is mentioned in the book. The main consequence of the war to Ted is that the beach at the back of his house is off-limits as it’s been covered in barbed-wire & landmines to fend off the German invasion that was expected at any minute. The joy with which the beach was reopened when the war ended is obvious,
The tide was just out, the sun was just setting. There were hundreds of people strolling, their faces lit with pink delight. This, then, was what Peace was: to stand and gaze at the unsinister sea; to pick up a streamer of bladder-wrack and watch it lift with the wind… We paddled, kicking the water, testing the salt on our lips. And when it began to get dark, I walked back up the shingle and sat for a few minutes on my own, looking at the silhouettes of breakwaters that had not been repaired or replaced for six years.
There are many stories here about the embarrassments & agonies of childhood. I felt for young Ted in the tortuous combination of underwear & straightjacket that his mother made him wear. Then there were the homemade boots that curled to one side & the awful remedies his mother tried on him to cure his constipation. The Walkers weren’t poor but they were careful. Ted’s father divided his wages into different tins every week, including one tin he called Ted’s Start-Up tin with the money for Ted’s future career. Ted was always a loner, especially at school. Even the birth of his brother when he was ten didn’t change that. As he says, “If you are ten before you have your brother, you remain an only child.” He was too old to feel jealousy & his brother grew up to be his best friend.
His closest relationship is with his father. They play a mad game of cricket where the idea wasn’t to make runs but to see how many ways they could hit the ball so as to make the both fall about laughing. His father decides that Ted should learn French so they both go along for the initial lesson with Mr Jupp. The first lesson is nearly a disaster as Mr Jupp’s frantic gestures at the window as he repeats C’est la fenêtre & father & son look through the window at the passersby & try to work out what he means. Eventually they get it & run home gesturing at every window they see shouting C’est la fenêtre . Mr Jupp teaches Ted from a book depicting the life of a well-to-do family & their servants.
I, who sat in Mr Jupp’s wizard parlour in my curly boots, was supposed to identify with the monied crowd, clapping my hands to attract the attention of Mr Jupp, who played the eternal lackey. I would summon him (a waiter swatting imaginary flies with an imaginary towel) to bring me an aperitif; command him (a fawning tailor in the Rue de Rivoli) to make me a redingote. Ever-present was the lady whose invisible form by the passage door was to be bowed to before we practised the third person singular.
The memoir ends with Ted on his way to Cambridge. Ted has started writing poetry & destroying it all. He writes to T S Eliot & gets a kind reply. He spends his holidays as a builder’s labourer or falls on his feet helping a rich couple travel around Europe with his French learnt from Mr Jupp. He has met Lorna, his first serious girlfriend who will become his wife, & they are miserably contemplating years apart while he studies at university & then does his National Service & she goes to training college. The High Path is a quiet memoir told with humour & affection – & occasional anger & frustration. It’s another lovely addition to the series of Slightly Foxed Editions.