Whenever I find myself at the pergola on the West Heath I find myself immersed in the 1930s. By the 1930s, I of course mean Rupert the Bear, Tiger Lily and autogyros, those bizarre hybrid flying machines that were the precursors of helicopters. For me, those two characters and that one machine are pretty much the heart of the matter where the 1930s are concerned. Don’t ask me why.
At the far end of the pergola you look out onto the intricately patterned bark of a gnarled old tree standing ten feet or so from the balustrade and if you’re in a certain sort of contemplative mood, you can stare at the patterns in this bark for hours. They are like the sweepingly precise pencil drawings of smokeflow or turbulent water torrents. They’re frozen and yet they course vigorously, grown from the seeds of time.
And then you look to your right and there is the pond. Rectangular in shape, its surrounds paved, it’s the centrepiece of an ornamental garden… or rather it’s the sort of pond that could well be designed to be the centrepiece of an ornamental garden. Along one side there’s a sort of municipal shelter type structure that somehow hints at art deco. But despite this hint of south coast seaside, there’s a slightly oriental feel to the place. Maybe it’s something to do with its peacefulness. And also to do with the fact that the pond is a lily pond and sometimes there are koi carp in it.
Yes, obviously the lilies are important.
Shanghai too, obviously. I say obviously but I haven’t a clue why Shanghai. Except maybe that sometimes thinking of Tiger Lily makes me think of Shanghai. A place of oriental intrigue.
I don’t know. The decline of the Gold Standard. Flying machines — not just the autogyro but Zeppelins and speed record machines like the Supermarine, the aeroplane that was to evolve into the Spitfire. All sorts of fast machines. Trains and cars too. The Queen Mary.
Art deco and Poirot. Baggy suits, kipper ties and Raymond Chandler. The Wizard of Oz. All sorts of Hollywood camp in garish colour. Walt Disney cartoons.
Dan Dare, frozen peas, the planet Pluto.
And uncle Tom. Definitely uncle Tom.
Uncle Tom more than my father, though father was born in 1929 so the 1930s were his first decade. He had a fort and tin soldiers and a clockwork motorboat as streamlined as a Supermarine Spitfire. So father has always been wreathed in the faintest of wisps of the 30s.
But yes, uncle Tom more than my father.
Saddling Mahmoud by Sebastian Bell, chapter five