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.

     Mr Watson, that otherwise kindly man, felt immoderately about cricket. His ambition, it was said, to father enough sons to make up an eleven. When his wife, in the Indian foothills, gave birth to a third daughter, he telegraphed: “Better luck next time”.

     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.


     The place we went to most often was Windrush, Ursula Watson’s home at Inkpen below the Berkshire Downs. We could ring up the Watsons at 5.45 and by running all the way to Paddington Station catch the 6 o’clock to Reading, change trains and get to Kintbury by 7.30. This loveliest of all country stations is hard by the river Kennet. On the farthest bank the Dundas Arms, a fisherman’s Inn, sleeps in late sunlight. A moment’s pause on the wooden platform to take in the river smells, shadowed, reedy, trout-harbouring waters. Then down to the level crossing where awaited Jingle, an ancient Austin Seven covered in faded raspberry fabric, or if there were more travelers a large hardly less venerable open Austin driven most likely by Ursula herself.

     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”.

     Mrs Watson was the heart and centre of Windrush; Mr Watson, a genial, scholarly man, presided benignly over her creation. Since his retirement from the Indian Civil Service, he had worked for the Save the Children Fund. I never called them “Dorothy” or “Hubert”, not just because of convention, rather they symbolised parents, part of the security of the place.

     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