ESSENTIAL NON-FICTION - MOSTLY NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE ELSE

THE GLASS FOREST (1)

WE CAN DRAW A CLEAR LINE AT THE POINT WHERE LIFE BEGINS. The expulsion from the womb marks our entry into the world. Where a life-story begins is less clear. So mine will open with the Tea Vision. The Tea Vision marked a first awareness that I enjoyed an interior life apparently not communicable to others.

I was three years old. Our living room, high above our shop, had large windows and comfortable window seats, from which one could look out at the people coming and going in Norwich Street. Opposite was the grocers, Kingston & Hurn. In the upper windows, my `Aunt' Nellie Hurn could be glimpsed occasionally, living out her life in velvets, playing patience behind her clicking bead curtains.

In the shop windows below, Nellie's husband installed an advert for Mazawattee Tea, based on Alice in Wonderland characters. There sat Alice, at the head of the table, pouring Mazawattee tea from a huge red pot into cups which the Mad Hatter and the March Hare were holding. Beaming with pleasure, they lifted the cups to their mouths to drink. When they lowered the cups, the cups were immediately refilled. No pause in the action was permitted. In those days the design would be solidly made of three-ply and worked off the electric mains.

Passers-by in the street watched the advert for a moment, smiled and walked on. I was its captive. I could not stop observing from my window. The pleasures of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare never dimmed. Their smiles never grew less. The teapot never emptied. They never had too much Mazawattee Tea.

Only in the early morning, before Kingston's opened at 8:00, were they still, Alice with the teapot poised, the others smiling in anticipation.

I truly feared the Mazawattee Tea advert. It introduced me to metaphysical horror. I `knew' these creatures could not have feelings. And yet - why not? They had movement, smiles, appetites, the appurtenances of feelings. Who knew I had feelings?

From such infantile questionings, much follows. I always wanted to find out, always wanted to know the truth.

Our shop - the shop known in bold lettering facing up Norwich Street as H. H. Aldiss - is gone. We left it long ago. Yet it is there that everything must begin. All the trails lead back to H. H. Aldiss.

When my Aunt Dorothy died in the late spring of 1984, she had delivered back much of my life to me. A life story cannot be said to start with birth or end with death. Mine is a jigsaw which might as well continue with Dorothy's modest funeral.

Dorothy Aldiss left her last wish in my wife's and my care. She wanted to be buried beside her husband, who had died back in 1937. No one could have been more devoted to a husband's memory than she; and through her I had come to love the tough old man.

Auntie lived near us in Oxford. The family grave lay across the country, in East Dereham, in the dull heart of Norfolk where I had been born. From long distance, Margaret and I arranged gravediggers, parsons, undertakers, and a firm of stonemasons to heave the marble cross off the mouldering remains of my grand- father and his first wife and to prepare for a new incumbent.

But my aunt was no blood relation. She was my grandfather's second wife. They married in 1930, when he was seventy and she some thirty years his junior. The family was furious; they saw their inheritance threatened

The funeral was private. I said a few words of valediction. I had become the head of our small family. We then ate lunch in Dereham's one acceptable restaurant, after which we left the town forever - or forever as far as I was concerned.

Dorothy was ninety-five when she died. She had a dry sense of humour and never told a story twice. She remained compos mentis until the last fortnight of her life. She wished I was the son she never had.

The man Auntie married late in his life was Harry Hildyard Aldiss. He hailed from Horncastle in Lincolnshire, where my father, Stanley Aldiss, was born. As a young man, H. H. went to Dereham and bought an ailing draper's business. He was a stocky man of great force of character. No one trifled with him, but he was just and had a quick wit. He was respected by his staff, which numbered nearly fifty as the firm prospered. His sons called him `Guv'ner.'

H. H. became a big name in East Dereham, and a J. P. He was a devout Congregationalist, so that Congregationalism became the creed we all followed. We had our own family pews in the William Cowper Memorial Church in the market square, and were not allowed to look at the stills outside the nearby cinema when we escaped from the church services. God was not in favour of Hollywood, or card-playing, or drink, though he made, in His mercy, an exception for elderberry wine.

My grandfather's success in business probably owed much to his teetotalism - not a noted characteristic in the Aldiss family. Indeed, one etymological dictionary derives Aldiss as a corruption of 'Alehouse,' which says much about our ancestors.

The Aldisses have been in Norfolk for many generations. . When I was bookselling, I came across a slender pamphlet detailing the names of those who had contributed to the Defence of the Realm Against the Spanish Armada. One John Aldis, yeoman of East Anglia, had contributed a sheep and a farthing. For centuries, the family fortunes have scarcely varied, sandwiched between peasants and the squirearchy, neither dying out nor overrunning the county, as rabbits did in my boyhood. Ours are the middle parts of fortune. Her privates we.

My grandfather was the son of a seventh son of a seventh son. All the earlier sons went to sea. One, I know, in the middle of last century, caught a fatal fever aboard ship, and was buried at sea off Newfoundland. My grandfather stayed on dry land. But every Christmas we gave him a book on his hero, Scott of the Antarctic, if a new study was to be found.

One day travelling home to Dereham on the train from Norwich, H. H. got into conversation with a man who was trying to sell his house. H. H. showed interest. The man described it. `I know the place,' said H. H. `What do you want for it?' The man told him. `Is there anything wrong with it?' `No.' `I'll buy it.' They shook hands there and then. The deal was done before they alighted at Dereham Station.

Thus `Whitehall' passed into the family hands, a fine villa in the Italianate manner, with a tower, ground floor windows reaching almost to the ground, much stained glass, and excellent grounds. Now demolished. In `Whitehall' H. H. lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and their servants, gardener, dog and cats

Elizabeth lay abed when I knew her. It was a fashionable thing then to be a permanent invalid. She was placid and fed visiting small boys on grapes. She died before I was five.

Three sons, as in a fairy tale, were born to H. H. - Nelson, Gordon and Stanley. Stanley arrived on March 12th, 1896. Nelson died of a neglected appendix at his public school, Bishop Stortford, but that didn't stop H. H. despatching his other two sons there.

Stanley, my father, knuckled down under his father, as boys did in those days, and ran the men's outfitting department of the Aldiss shop. His brother ran the furnishing department.

When the first World War thundered across Europe in 1914, my father joined the Royal Flying Corps. He saw action in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Gallipoli, recorded on stacks of sepia photographs now in my care. When the war was over, he married a young lady from Peterborough, Elizabeth May Wilson, nicknamed Dot. I, their only son, was born on Tuesday, 18th August 1925, in an odd humour.

We lived in a spacious flat over the shop. My first memory is of the decorations on the walls. There were paintings of camels, framed certificates to show that father was twice mentioned in despatches, and a photograph of him looking jovial in pierrot outfit. He had a taste for fun in those days. Nor did he appear to take religion very seriously, despite all his good work for the church. 'Hail, smiling morn,' he would sing when he got up on rainy days. Many hymns were turned laughingly to subversive use.

Father was an athlete. We went to see him swim, run, and hurdle. Once he won a tortoiseshell clock for swimming. He was a handsome man. I admired him greatly. Hero-worshipped him, in fact.

What a paradise for a child was that conglomeration of Aldiss shops. Beyond description. Gormenghast was no more inexhaustible than the property of H. H. Aldiss. There were cottages, where staff had `lived in' in the old style, now decaying and stuffed with inscrutable objects, brass bed heads wrapped in straw, wicker bath- chairs, dummies, wardrobes, the makings of wash-hand-stands, boxes of this, boxes of that. There was a factory, so-called, crammed with carpets and lino and coconut matting, very abrasive to a boy's bare knees. There were dark passages leading to fitting rooms or stores or cabinets full of empty boxes. There were two enormous underground stoke holes, where furnaces were fired which kept the whole organisation heated. There were also stables and attendant outhouses, including tack-rooms, presided over by a ferocious being, enemy of all living things under the age of ten, called Nelson Monument. The horses stomped out from the yard wearing black sables, for H. H. Aldiss also did funerals. The firm would see you safely from the cradle to the grave. In various nooks throughout this rambling territory, one stumbled on little bands of people doing whatever they did. Tailors sitting cross-legged, making up suits. Milliners, presided over by a hostile fat lady, making hats. Dressers, carpenters, removal men, dressmakers. Busy men, idle men with pencils tucked behind their ears, men with pins in their lapels. Each a world in itself, where one was greeted with various degrees of interest, affection, or derision. The perfect playground, until my father or grandfather appeared, wrathful, to larrup you round the legs with a yardstick for interrupting the great Congregationalist God of Work.

Upstairs in the hat department was a young lady with whom I was enchanted. How beautiful she was. I loved her desperately. She sat me on her knee and would tease me unbearably. Yet I endured it because sometimes she would hug and kiss me. The scent and warmth of her were enough to burst my heart with excitement.

In this environment, I thought myself the luckiest of boys. I could run wild. Nobody knew where I went. I used to rove at large beyond the shop, exploring the back alleys of the country town, sometimes being allowed into people's houses. I was always curious to see how others lived. Sometimes I could get our terrier, Gyp, dear faithful Gyp, to come with me; but his absences were noticed more easily than mine.

I was tremendously happy and yet desperately insecure.

My maternal grandparents, the Wilsons, had four children, three sons and then a daughter, who was to marry my father. The sons grew into cheerful men, my uncles Allen, Bert, and Ernest; I loved them all greatly, my Uncle Bert best of all. My mother shared in the family love of fun, but she had in addition a vein of melancholy which went deep and was reinforced by what befell her early in married life.

When we buried my Aunt Dorothy in East Dereham, I went to the council offices to pay for the gravedigger. I took the opportunity to enquire if there was any record of a daughter being born to my parents and dying soon after birth.

The clerk found nothing in the burial record. Unexpectedly, she wrote to me some months later, to say that she had found the information I required by accident, while looking through the old register of funeral fees. On 17th February 1920 my mother had given birth to a baby girl; since the child was stillborn, it was buried in unconsecrated ground without a funeral. The grave was unmarked. Such was the custom at the time. Thus, in 1984, a ghost was laid which had haunted me for over half a century.

One feature of the story is particularly poignant. When telling us about this dead daughter, my mother always insisted to my sister and me that the baby lived only six weeks, and that she was the prettiest little thing.

The record showed that the child had been born dead. That remission of six weeks remained my mother's consoling fantasy. 'I understood the child was deformed,' Aunt Dorothy said once, with a certain stately relish.

Hardly had I learned to understand speech before I was aware that my arrival in the world profoundly disappointed my mother. She was still mourning the daughter who had died five years earlier. There was no room in her heart for a boy.

'Your sister's with the angels.' Avenging angels, I thought.

Mine was the complete unquestioning love for my mother with which all children are born. But I soon learnt how conditional was her love. If I did anything `wrong' - which is to say deviated from her instructions through ignorance - she would threaten that she would never love me again. I lived in terror of this threat. With it went the reinforcing threat that she would run away and leave me.

Sturdy child though I was, such menaces had an intense impact upon me. Every time they were uttered, I suffered a `bilious attack.' Whether my mother comprehended cause and effect, or cared, I know not. Every attack was dosed with bitter medicine. Then I would recover and disappear into the warrens of the shop. I longed to be dead. Living was too great a pain.

Something else. Even now, the admission comes hard. Mother would threaten me with her imminent death. ‘I may be dead tomorrow,’ she would say. I would wake in the night in a sweat, wondering if she was still alive, listening for a sound.

It is difficult to reach back to the feelings of that terrorised boy. My one comfort was that, if things got too bad, I could tell my father and he would be on my side, would surely set everything right. I never put it to the test. My much adored father beat me regularly; I never questioned that I deserved what I got. Worse than being beaten was the way he made me shake hands with him afterwards to prove that we were still friends.

Such early experiences are always echoed in fiction, either consciously or unconsciously. It was with considerable interest that I read - many years after the death of my parents - what one perceptive critic, Joseph Milicia, wrote about my novel, Hothouse, for the Baen Books edition:

In an adventure tale without a home-world, the atmosphere of dream may be no less intense; in fact it may be intensified by the disturbing sense that there is no place to wake up to. This is the case in Hothouse, where home is an easily invaded village that must in any case be abandoned after childhood, and also in Aldiss' first novel, Nonstop (Starship), where `home' itself is a subject for questioning and exploring. In either situation, the comfort of home disappears and the sense of alienation, frighteningly felt as a waking nightmare, permeates the narrative.

It is a perceptive piece of criticism, which needs to be read all through.

Mother would say prayers with me, both of us kneeling, at bedtime. We prayed to our Congregationalist god that her next child would be a little girl. How we prayed! Mother grew larger; she took longer rests after lunch; she wept more. I got whooping cough.

There's the touch that transforms these mean anecdotes into history. Nowadays, whooping cough scarcely exists; in the early thirties, it was still a killer of young children. My attack was serious; I became a stumbling block in the path of the procreational process.