|Extract from "I meant
to marry him" a personal memoir by Jean MacGibbon
(Victor Gollancz, 1984)
in the garden among the fruit and vegetables, producing trugfuls of new potatoes, baskets of strawberries, mounds of raspberries to be eaten with thick cream. There might be twenty or more of us to feed.
When we came
upon her she would stop to listen, birdlike, her head on one side,
interested in whatever we had to tell her, laughing, it seemed, from the
pleasure of having us all about her. Her cheeks were veined, like a
Beauty of Bath apple. At night, in the drawing room, tired by her long
open-air day, she often fell asleep like the animals at our feet,
lamplight on the fair plaits coiled about her head.
I recall, as I write, the long polished table in the dining room reflecting candle flames from the candelabra; men in boiled shirts, girls in long dresses. The talk turns on former holidays. Two subjects never came up in converstion: sex and money. Only recently I learned, to my surprise that the Usbornes were not well heeled, indeed what might have been thought of as badly off. Dick told me he gave little heed to where the money came from. They all worked hard when they came down from university. But somehow money was found to get them there and to fund a pleasant though more carefully economical life than seemed obvious. Good things there were in abundance, plain delicious food, books, music and above all else travel. But clothes, especially the girl’s were serviceable rather than chic. For occasions such as weddings and the Harrow and Eton match an expedition was made to Elliston and Cavell in Oxford. London was avoided anyhow because the place made the girls ill. One day in the metropolis and the 6 o’clock from Paddington found them drained, asphyxiated by London’s fumes.
It is curious that, of that very “English” family, all but three married married husbands and wives from abroad. Mrs Watson may have had something to do with it. She was an enthusiastic traveler herself, and never happier than when seeing her offspring en route for international holiday camps, walks in the Bavarian Alps, bucketing about Greek islands in a cargo-boat.
Mrs Watson was a rebel at heart. She it was who first introduced us to socialism, saw to it that we were put on the right path when she stayed with us in London and took us to a meeting addressed by Sir Stafford Cripps. I don’t know that we had ever met anyone who voted Labour. During the General Election of 1924, when we were at Hall School. Ursula Watson had astonished and rather shocked me by turning up with a red Labour rosette. At the time I doubt if I distinguished “Labour” from “Bolshevism”, brought up on the Daily Mirror cartoon in which a “Bolshie” called “Popski” figured, always with a smoking round bomb like a plum pudding.
Post script: In
the spring of 1937 Jean and her publisher husband, James, already
members of the “Left Book Club”, joined the Barnes branch of the
Communist Party. In a 12 page affidavit written in 1996 James
admitted that over
a three-year period, from 1942 to 1945, he passed to Stalin details of
British war plans and German troop movements, convinced that the
Russians, as allies, deserved to have the information.
Mrs Watson, her mother, had brought off a remarkable feat of family engineering. When her brother’s children were left without parents she and her husband, with four children of their own had bought a white Georgian house that looked along the Berkshire Downs and there amalgamated the two families, her three girls and a boy, and the Usbornes, four boys and a girl, most at difficult stages of adolescence. There may have been casualties, as in ordinary families, but the scheme worked.
This was the family I should have chosen to belong to. And in some sort
felt I did. To be adopted by the self-sufficient Watson-Usborne tribe
was a perpetual surprise. Not long ago I asked Dick Usborne if they
hadn’t found me an
oddball. “No”, he replied, “We were such oddballs ourselves”.
From the front door, across a gravel sweep, a lawn swept round trees and shrubberies like capes and bays. At the far end were two grass courts where tennis parties were held, with jugs of real lemonade. And, over all, the long chalk-backed Downs.
The possibility of war was still far from our minds. How could we have forseen that some of the players in their white flannels would, in five or six years’ time, be dead? (Yes, some people did forsee catastrophe: but we did not).
Having unobtrusively settled affairs within doors Mrs Watson spent most
of her time