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Goodbye to All That, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Of my father’s mother, a Cheyne from Aberdeen, I have been able to get no information at all beyond the fact that she was ‘a very beautiful woman’, and daughter of the Physician-general to the Forces of Ireland. I can only conclude that most of what she said or did passed unnoticed in the rivalry of family conversations. The Cheyne pedigree was flawless right back to Sir Reginald Cheyne, Lord Chamberlain of Scotland in 1267. In later times the Cheynes had been lawyers and physicians. But my father is at present engaged on his autobiography and, no doubt, will write at length about all this.

  My father, then, met my mother some time in the early nineties. He had previously married one of the Irish Coopers, of Cooper’s Hill, near Limerick. The Coopers were an even more Irish family than the Graves’s. The story goes that when Cromwell came to Ireland and ravaged the country, Moira O’Brien, the last surviving member of the great clan O’Brien, who were the paramount chiefs of the country around Limerick, came to him one day with: ‘General, you have killed my father and my uncles, my husband and my brothers. I am left as the sole heiress of these lands. Do you intend to confiscate them?’ Cromwell is said to have been struck by her magnificent presence, and to have answered that this certainly had been his intention. But that she could keep her lands, or a part of them, on condition that she married one of his officers, Ensign Cooper. Jane Cooper, whom my father married, died of consumption.

  The Graves family were thin-nosed and inclined to petulance, but never depraved, cruel, or hysterical. A persistent literary tradition: of Richard, a minor poet and a friend of Shenstone; and John Thomas, who was a mathematician and contributed to Sir William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions; and Richard, a divine and regius Professor of Greek; and James, an archaeologist; and Robert, who invented the disease called after him and was a friend of Turner’s; and Robert, classicist, and theologian, and a friend of Wordsworth’s; and Richard, another divine; and Robert, another divine; and various Roberts, Jameses, Thomases, and Richards; and Clarissa, one of the toasts of Ireland, who married Leopold von Ranke (at Windermere church), and linked the Graves and von Ranke families a couple of generations before my father and mother married. (See the British Museum Catalogue for an eighteen- and nineteenth-century record of Graves’ literary history.)

  It was through this Clarissa-Leopold relationship that my father met my mother. My mother told him at once that she liked Father O’Flynn, the song for writing which my father will be chiefly remembered. He had put the words to a traditional jig tune The Top of Cork Road, which he remembered from his boyhood. Sir Charles Stanford supplied a few chords for the setting. My father sold the complete rights for one guinea. Boosey, the publisher, made thousands. Sir Charles Stanford, who drew a royalty as the composer, also collected a very large sum. Recently my father has been sent a few pounds from gramophone rights. He is not bitter about all this, but has more than once impressed upon me almost religiously never to sell for a sum down the complete rights of any work of mine whatsoever.

  That my father is a poet has, at least, saved me from any false reverence for poets. I am even delighted when I meet people who know of him and not me. I sing some of his songs while washing up after meals, or shelling peas, or on similar occasions. He never once tried to teach me how to write, or showed any understanding of my serious poetry; being always more ready to ask advice about his own. Nor did he ever try to stop me writing. His light-hearted early work is the best. His Invention of Wine, for instance, which begins:

  Ere Bacchus could talk

  Or dacently walk

  Down Olympus he jumped

  From the arms of his nurse,

  And though ten years in all

  Were consumed by the fall,

  He might have fallen farther

  And fared a dale worse…

  After marrying my mother and turning teetotaller, he is said to have lost something of his playfulness.

  My father resisted the family temptation to take holy orders, never rising higher than lay-reader; and he broke the geographical connexion with Ireland, for which I cannot be too grateful to him. Though much harder on my relatives, and much more careful of associating with them than I am with strangers, I can admire my father and mother: my father for his simplicity and persistence, and my mother for her seriousness and strength. Both for their generosity. They never bullied me, and were grieved rather than angered by my default from formal religion. In physique and general characteristics my mother’s side is, on the whole, stronger in me. But I have many habits of speech and movements peculiar to the Graves’s, most of them eccentric. Such as finding it difficult to walk straight down a street; fidgeting with bits of bread at table; getting tired of sentences when half-way through and leaving them in the air; walking with the hands folded in a particular way behind the back; and being subject to sudden and most disconcerting spells of complete amnesia. These fits, so far as I can discover, serve no useful purpose, and tend to produce in the victim the same sort of dishonesty that afflicts deaf people who miss the thread of conversation – they hate to be left behind and rely on intuition and bluff to get them through. This disability is most marked in very cold weather. I do not now talk too much, except when I have been drinking, or when I meet someone who fought with me in France. The Graves’s have good minds for such purposes as examinations, writing graceful Latin verse, filling in forms, and solving puzzles (when invited, as children, to parties where guessing games and brain-tests were played, we never failed to win). They have a good eye for ball games, and a graceful style. I inherited the eye, but not the style; my mother’s family are entirely without style. I have an ugly but secure seat on a horse. There is a coldness in the Graves’s which is anti-sentimental to the point of insolence, a necessary check to the goodness of heart from which my mother’s family suffers. The Graves’s, it is fair to generalize, though loyal to the British governing class to which they belong, and so to the Constitution, are individualists; the von Rankes regard their membership of the corresponding class in Germany as a sacred trust enabling them to do the more responsible work for the service of humanity. Recently, when a von Ranke entered a film studio, the family felt itself disgraced.

  The most useful and, at the same time, most dangerous gift that I owe to my father’s side of the family – probably more to the Cheynes than to the Graves’s – is that I am always able, when dealing with officials, or getting privileges from public institutions which grudge them, to masquerade as a gentleman. Whatever I happen to be wearing; and because my clothes are not what gentlemen usually wear, and yet I do not seem to be an artist or effeminate, and my accent and gestures are irreproachable, I have been placed as the heir to a dukedom, whose perfect confidence in his rank would explain all such eccentricity. Thus I may seem, by a paradox, to be more of a gentleman even than one of my elder brothers, who spent a number of years as a consular official in the Near East. His wardrobe is almost too obviously a gentleman’s, and he does not allow himself the pseudoducal privilege of having disreputable acquaintances, and saying on all occasions what he really means.

  About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.


  MY mother married my father largely, it seems, to help him out with his five motherless children. Having any herself was a secondary consideration. Yet first she had a girl, then she had another girl, and it was very nice, of course, to have them, but slightly disappointing, because she belonged to the generation and tradition that made a son the really important event; then I came, a fine healthy child. She was forty at my birth; and my father forty-nine. Four years later she had another son, and four years later still another son. The desired preponderance of male over female had been established, and twice five made ten. I found the gap of two generations between my parents and me easier, in a way, to bridge than a single generation gap. Children seldom quarrel with their grand-parents
, and I have been able to think of my mother and father as grand-parents. Also, a family of ten means a dilution of parental affection; the members tend to become indistinct. I have often been called: ‘Philip, Richard, Charles, I mean Robert’

  My father being a very busy man, an inspector of schools for the Southwark district of London, we children saw practically nothing of him except during the holidays. Then he behaved very sweetly, and told us stories with the formal beginning, not ‘once upon a time’, but always: ‘And so the old gardener blew his nose on a red pocket handkerchief….’ He occasionally played games with us, but for the most part, when not busy with educational work, was writing poems, or being president of literary or temperance societies. My mother, kept busy running the household and conscientiously carrying out her social obligations as my father’s wife, did not see so much of us as she would have liked, except on Sundays or when we happened to be ill. We had a nurse, and one another, and found that companionship sufficient. My father’s chief part in our education was to insist on our speaking grammatically, pronouncing words correctly, and using no slang. He left our religious instruction entirely to my mother, though he officiated at family prayers, which the servants were expected to attend, every morning before breakfast. Light punishments, such as being sent to bed early or being stood in a corner, were in the hands of my mother; the infliction of corporal punishment, never severe and given with a slipper, she reserved for my father. We learned to be strong moralists, and spent much of our time on self-examination and good resolutions. My sister Rosaleen put up a printed notice in her corner of the nursery – it might just as well have been put up by me: ‘I must not say “bang bust” or “pig bucket”, for it is rude.’

  We were given very little pocket-money – a penny a week with a rise to twopence at the age of twelve or so – and encouraged to give part at least of any odd money that came to us from uncles or other visitors to Dr Barnardo’s Homes, and to beggars. A blind beggar used to sit on the Wimbledon Hill pavement, reading the Bible aloud in Braille; he was not really blind, but could turn up his eyes and keep the pupils concealed for minutes at a time under drooping lids, which were artificially inflamed. We often gave to him. He died a rich man, and had been able to provide his son with a college education.

  The first distinguished writer I remember meeting after Swinburne was P. G. Wodehouse, a friend of my brother Perceval. Wodehouse was then in his early twenties, on the staff of The Globe, and writing school-stories for The Captain magazine. He gave me a penny, advising me to get marshmallows with it. Though too shy to express my gratitude at the time, I have never since permitted myself to be critical about his work.

  I had great religious fervour, which persisted until shortly after my confirmation at the age of sixteen, and remember the incredulity with which I first heard that there actually were people, people baptized like myself into the Church of England, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity. I had never met an unbeliever.

  Though I have asked many of my acquaintances at what stage in their childhood or adolescence they became class-conscious none has ever given me a satisfactory answer. I remember how it happened to me. At the age of four and a half I caught scarlet fever; my younger brother had just been born, and I could not be nursed at home, so my parents sent me off to a public fever hospital. The ward contained twenty little proletarians, and only one bourgeois child besides myself. I did not notice particularly that the nurses and my fellow-patients had a different attitude towards me; I accepted the kindness and spoiling easily, being accustomed to it. But the respect and even reverence given to this other little boy, a clergyman’s child, astonished me. ‘Oh,’ the nurses would cry after he had gone, ‘oh, he did look a little gentleman in his pretty white pelisse when they took him away!’ ‘That young Matthew was a fair toff,’ echoed the little proletarians. On my return from two months in hospital, my accent was deplored, and I learned that the boys in the ward had been very vulgar. I did not know what ‘vulgar’ meant; it had to be explained to me. About a year later I met Arthur, a boy of nine, who had been in the ward and taught me how to play cricket when we were convalescent together. He turned out to be a ragged errand-boy. In hospital, we had all worn the same institutional night-gowns, and I did not know that we came off such different shelves. But I suddenly realized with my first shudder of gentility that two sorts of Christians existed – ourselves, and the lower classes. The servants were trained to call us children, even when we were tiny, ‘Master Robert’, ‘Miss Rosaleen’, and ‘Miss Clarissa’, but I had not recognized these as titles of respect. I had thought of ‘Master’ and ‘Miss’ merely as vocative prefixes used for addressing other people’s children; but now I found that the servants were the lower classes, and that we were ‘ourselves’.

  I accepted this class separation as naturally as I had accepted religious dogma, and did not finally discard it until nearly twenty years later. My parents were never of the aggressive, shoot-’em-down type, but Liberals or, more strictly, Liberal-Unionists. In religious theory, at least, they treated their employees as fellow-creatures; but social distinctions remained clearly defined. The hymn-book sanctioned these:

  He made them high or lowly,

  And ordered their estates…

  I can well recall the tone of my mother’s voice when she informed the maids that they could have what was left of the pudding, or scolded the cook for some carelessness. It had a forced hardness, made almost harsh by embarrassment. My mother, being gemütlich by nature, would, I believe, have loved to dispense with servants altogether. They seemed a foreign body in the house. I remember the servants’ bedrooms. They were on the top landing, at the dullest side of the house, and by a convention of the times, the only rooms without carpets or linoleum. Those gaunt, unfriendly-looking beds and the hanging-cupboards with faded cotton curtains, instead of wardrobes with glass doors as in the other rooms. All this uncouthness made me think of the servants as somehow not quite human. Besides, the servants who came to us were distinctly below the average standard; only those with no particularly good references would apply for a situation in a family of ten. And because we had such a large house, and hardly a single person in the household kept his or her room tidy, they were constantly giving notice. Too much work, they said.

  Our nurse made a bridge between the servants and ourselves. She gave us her own passport immediately on arrival: ‘Emily Dykes is my name; England is my nation; Netheravon is my dwelling-place; and Christ is my salvation.’ Though calling us Miss and Master, she used no menial tone. In a practical way Emily came to be more to us than our mother. I did not despise her until about the age of twelve – she was then nurse to my younger brothers – when I found that my education now exceeded hers, and that if I struggled with her I could trip her up and bruise her quite easily. Besides, she went to a Baptist chapel; I had learned by that time that the Baptists were, like the Wesleyans and Congregationalists, the social inferiors of the Church of England.

  My mother taught me a horror of Roman Catholicism, which I retained for a very long time. In fact, I discarded Protestantism not because I had outgrown its ethics, but in horror of its Catholic element. My religious training developed in me a great capacity for fear – I was perpetually tortured by the fear of hell – a superstitious conscience, and a sexual embarrassment from which I have found it very difficult to free myself.

  The last thing that Protestants lose when they cease to believe is a vision of Christ as the perfect man. That persisted with me, sentimentally, for years. At the age of eighteen I wrote a poem called ‘In the Wilderness’, about Christ greeting the scapegoat as it roamed the desert – which, of course, would have been impossible since the scapegoat always got pushed over a cliff by its Levite attendants. ‘In the Wilderness’ has since appeared in at least seventy anthologies. Strangers are always writing to me to say how much strength it has given them, and would I, etc.?


  I WENT to several preparatory schools, beginning
at the age of six. The very first was a dame’s school at Wimbledon, but my father, as an educational expert, would not let me stay there long. He found me crying one day at the difficulty of the twenty-three-times table, and disapproved of a Question and Answer history book that we used, which began:

  Question: Why were the Britons so called?

  Answer: Because they painted themselves blue.

  Also, they made me do mental arithmetic to a metronome; I once wetted myself with nervousness under this torture. So my father sent me to King’s College School, Wimbledon. I was just seven years old, the youngest boy there, and they went up to nineteen. My father took me away after a couple of terms because he heard me using naughty words, and because I did not understand the lessons. I had started Latin, but nobody explained what ‘Latin’ meant; its declensions and conjugations were pure incantations to me. For that matter, so were the strings of naughty words. And I felt oppressed by the huge hall, the enormous boys, the frightening rowdiness of the corridors, and compulsory Rugby football of which nobody told me the rules. From there I went to Rokeby, a preparatory school of the ordinary type, also at Wimbledon, where I stayed for about three years. Here I began playing games seriously, grew quarrelsome, boastful, and domineering, won prizes, and collected things. The main difference between myself and the other boys was that I collected coins instead of stamps. The value of coins seemed less fictitious to me. The headmaster caned me only once: for forgetting to bring my gym-shoes to school, and then gave me no more than two strokes on the hand. Yet even now the memory makes me hot with resentment. My serious training as a gentleman began here.