You don’t choose your parents and they didn’t choose theirs. I never met Charles Royds, my maternal grandfather, who died when my mother was a child. What remains of him is memorabilia from the defining years of his life – from 1901 to 1904 – when, at the age of twenty-five, he was first lieutenant on Captain Scott’s first Antarctic expedition.
As a child I became familiar with his tales of exhaustion, frostbite, cramp and snow blindness from his journals and sledging diaries. I was fascinated by his wooden goggles with narrow cross-like slits – still lying on my desk – which failed to prevent his eyes streaming with frozen tears as the sun stabbed his eyes, while he and his team dragged heavy sledges for up to a hundred miles – comparatively easy when the weather was good and the terrain flat, but, in storms, racked by the wind and crippled by cracking ice crust, their progress became a blind stumble.
When I look down a stairwell I feel mild vertigo, yet I never tire of the mystery of why men should push their bodies to exhaustion and beyond and then go back for more. ‘Because it’s there.’ Is there any answer less adequate than this and is there any more sufficient? I admire what I am unable to do, and my grandfather’s descriptions of camping in blizzards made me whimper with vicarious dread. Pitching his tent, he thrashes against the gale like a drunk, fumbles sightlessly for poles, pegs and groundsheet. Once inside he gets cramp in his legs while he changes into his dry clothes. As he takes off his mitts to undo leggings that have become pipes of ice, his fingers grow numb and inflexible. He takes hay from inside his ski boots and puts it in his shirt to keep warm for the morning, and puts on his human hair night-socks. His pipe is frozen, his matches are damp, his tobacco is sodden and, even though he’s kept it under his shirt, his flask of water is frozen solid. He wraps himself in fur, climbs into his sleeping bag, longs for something to eat besides biscuit and, as summer night seeps seamlessly into summer day, he’s too cold and too exhausted to sleep.
Back at base, when he reads an earlier account of an Antarctic expedition, he spits indignantly at the descriptions of brooding over loneliness, weeping over sweethearts and being too tired to cut one’s hair. He doesn’t present himself or his colleagues as men without fear or without a sense of danger. For him, the wonder – if there is wonder – is in their ordinariness:
-63°F What I call pretty chilly!!! One can’t help laughing when one thinks of a sore throat and cold in England and thinking how one doesn’t dare show one’s nose out of doors . . . The winter cannot be all joy and comfort, & no one could expect it, but with the help of a little self-denial, a little tact and a cheery face most of the monotony and discomfort can be overcome. We shall act like ordinary human beings.
I marvel at this. Is it courage? Is it stoicism? Is it wilful lack of imagination? Through the inverted telescope of history I try to parse his meaning. For him being ‘ordinary’ meant a belief in duty and service, in moderation, mutual respect and self-control. It meant a determination not to whine, to whinge or to exaggerate one’s suffering – in short the characteristics of an exemplary English Edwardian gentleman, frequently encountered in fiction and rarely observed in life.
Distinctions of rank and class were intrinsic to those beliefs: my grandfather had been an officer since the age of thirteen. But, if I’m to believe his journals, during the three years of the expedition he shared living accommodation, sledging duties and danger with others without any class distinctions. Complaints about his companions were reserved for his commander, Scott. A typical entry: ‘Had a row about last night’s fire (some Dundee jute had spontaneously combusted) . . . I expected to be blamed for it and was not disappointed.’
Charles Royds was born in Lancashire to a family of bankers. He was tall – over six feet – good-looking, sporty and a gifted musician. He trained in meteorology for the Antarctic expedition and was Scott’s first lieutenant, responsible for the running of RRS Discovery, which was the last wooden three-masted ship to be constructed in the UK, purpose-built for the expedition. It now rests in its birthplace, Dundee.
He had a conventional upper-middle-class upbringing, and married, at the age of forty-two, a less than ordinary woman: my grandmother, Mary Blane. Although from a similar background, in 1904 Mary had eloped with an amateur racing driver, and decided to become an actress, which caused more grief to her parents than the elopement. She adopted the nom d’acteur Malise Sheridan – the initials MS echoing the name of her husband, Guy Sebright. Her acting career was longer-lasting than her marriage: after two years, in 1906, she was divorced on the grounds of her husband’s adultery. All three of her brothers were later killed in action in France during the Great War.
Charles Royds married Mary Blane in 1918 and my mother, Minna, was born in 1921. Charles’s naval career continued to ascend. In 1921 he became Director of Physical Training for the Navy, then in 1926 he became a rear admiral, an ADC to King George V (they swapped stamps), and was knighted. He then retired from the Navy and was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Six years later he had a heart attack during a rehearsal for a fancy dress ball in the Viennese style at the Savoy Hotel and died on the way to hospital. He was fifty-five.
My mother was eleven when he died and by the time she married – the day that France fell, 10 May 1940 – my grandmother was ill. She died soon after, and my mother assumed responsibility for the nanny who had brought her up from a baby. They were tied together for life – baby and nanny, mistress and servant, mother and children. ‘Nanpan’, as my mother called her, lived with us until her death in the 1960s. My mother was always cowed by her and lacked conviction in her maternal rights, so my sister and I were never quite certain whose authority we should defer to. On her wedding night, at the Great Northern Hotel at King’s Cross, Nanpan insisted on accompanying my mother as her chaperone. She slept in a separate room but demanded that my mother spend part of the night with her, away from her husband, which incensed my father and exasperated my mother. This, by the way, is not prurient speculation on my part: when my parents had both died I found a small suitcase full to the brim of blue elastic-banded airmail letters infused by lavish, mutual lust. They lovingly and graphically described their sex together – and with different partners – from their wedding night to the end of the war.
My mother always referred to Charles Royds as ‘Daddy’ and our house was crowded with reminders of him: his pocket-sized sledging diaries; his leather-bound journals; countless photographs and letters; cutlery and crockery specially made for the Expedition; the tooth of a walrus; a large knife in a sealskin sheath; a letter opener made from the bowsprit of the Discovery; exquisite watercolours by his friend Edward Wilson (who died on Scott’s second expedition) and – still my favourites – painted wooden cut-outs of emperor penguins, which he had made for the crew to hold the menus for their Christmas dinner. These evocative totems menaced my father, who resented the mute presence of his father-in-law. ‘Charlie boy’ he would call him, to shrink him in my mother’s eyes. His own father was an exact contemporary of Charles and was as far from being an ‘ordinary human being’ as it’s possible to imagine. He was the only one of my grandparents I ever met.
My paternal grandfather had served in the Army without distinction, retired on his Major’s pension and lived in a late-eighteenth-century house in North Devon, many of whose windows had been blocked up during the window tax, making it look as if its eyelids had been sewn together. His hair was cut close to his scalp and he always dressed in breeches with puttees, a Norfolk jacket and a shirt with a high-necked stiff collar. His Edwardian clothes echoed his living conditions: no central heating – fires were only allowed from 1 October to 1 March – and no electricity. Lighting was provided by candles and oil lamps, cooking was on a large black open coal-burning range in a kitchen with a smoke-stained ceiling and a flagstoned floor. Water was pumped from a well in the yard.
My grandfather, Hastings Eyre, presided over meals with an air of silent disdain interrupted by eruptions of volcanic severity. On one occasion my sister – then probably about ten – said that someone had talked to her on a train. My grandfather slammed his fist on the table, shaking the glasses and the cutlery, and shouted: ‘No one’s ever spoken to me in a train, thank Christ!’ He would beat my father with a riding crop for minor misdemeanours and his wife, worn out by systematic bullying, had died of a stroke when she was fifty-eight. Outside his family my grandfather’s displays of violence caused him to be bound over to keep the peace for horsewhipping motorists. ‘That’ll teach you, you bastard!’ he’d exclaim as he lashed them for the insolence of driving a car instead of riding a horse.
He taught my father to ride before he could walk, tied to a saddle before his legs could reach the stirrups. Always more at ease with animals than people, my father found it difficult to admire people who didn’t embrace his love of horses or those – like me – who had less rigorous childhoods than his. He became a naval cadet at the age of thirteen and the consistency and anonymity of the rigid military discipline must have seemed like a benediction.
My father served at Dunkirk, in the Baltic and in the Atlantic, commanded a destroyer in Southeast Asia and an anti-submarine training base in Portland, but retired in 1958 at the age of forty-two. He became a farmer and, although he worked extremely hard with only one farmworker to help him, he always wanted to be called ‘Commander’ and to be known as a ‘gentleman farmer’. He even subscribed to an organisation called the Country Gentleman’s Association.
My father, known as Snowy for his lanky blond hair, had a binary view of society: it was divided into Officers and Other Ranks or, in his words, Gentry and Electors – the latter the undifferentiated mass of people whose lack of lineage, regional accent and choice of vocabulary condemned them to an irredeemably inferior status. They were, to him, ordinary human beings – not despicable, but not blessed by birth either. It was a sort of secular Calvinism, the world divided into those who had entered an earthly heaven and those who would never gain admittance. Paradoxically perhaps, face to face with an ‘Elector’ – or indeed a gay, Black or Jewish person – he was unfailingly and genuinely charming. His charm was not so much infectious as guileless. He had a contagious energy and his enjoyment in hosting parties – fuelled by rivers of gin – was insistent. To me it seemed a sort of tyranny of fun – there was no room for dissent.
He was also physically courageous – an amateur steeplechase jockey – and to my eyes at the age of eight, a superhero. I’d stand at the edge of the racecourse at a high fence, listening for the thunderous drumming of hooves at full gallop before the horses smashed through the birch, splattering mud and shaking the earth. Once I watched him fall when he was out in front. He curled into a ball as the other horses cascaded over him, large as tanks, and crawled to a stretcher at the side, bellowing to the first-aiders not to touch him until he reached the medical tent, where a doctor pushed his dislocated shoulder into its socket as if he was forcing a leg into the seat of a chair. He was equally stoical as he almost bled to death when I was fifteen, helping him on the farm. He was putting barbed wire on a fence when the wire slipped from his hand, uncoiled like a rattlesnake and pierced an artery in his arm. Under his instruction I made him a tourniquet from his shirt and probably saved his life.
I was the first in my family on both sides to go to university and the first not to join the forces. My father didn’t appreciate my decision to read English Literature. He loved P.G. Wodehouse and Damon Runyon but was infuriated by Hardy’s novels for their opaque descriptions of sex and thought that Shakespeare was ‘absolute balls’. We disagreed on most things: class, politics, art. He was an English patriot and a Tory anarchist, and he thought my profession was pointless. He didn’t see any of my theatre productions, but he watched films of mine on TV. His fury about Tumbledown, my film about the Falklands War, was violent and visceral, almost as ferocious as when he saw me wearing a CND badge as a teenager and shouted: ‘We fought a fucking war for you!’
My sister and I fantasised that we were not of the family, that we were both changelings, but she was intransigent, volcanic, mercurial and incendiary, like our father. I’m more placid, like my mother. At times, miserable together, we would console ourselves that we’d been fucked up by our mum and dad. But the older I get, the more I wonder: ‘Didn’t we do it to ourselves and blame our parents?’ Neither of us could have lived up to Charles Royds’s criteria. We implicitly scorned his invocation to ‘self-denial, a little tact and a cheery face’ but we were children of the sixties and by then his aspirations for human behaviour had been vaporised by two world wars, Hitler, Stalin, the atom bomb and the Holocaust.
And we had lost an empire. On my desk as I write, as well as the wooden goggles, I have my grandfather’s leather-bound calendar: the day, the date and the month can be changed by turning little milled wheels. There is an inscription on the back: discovery / this was the charter of her land / rule britannia / 24th july 1901. When I was sent off to boarding school in 1951, I carried with me a new Bible that had a map of the world on the frontispiece: half the globe was coloured pink. Seventy-one years later the pink has shrunk to a small archipelago off the edge of Europe. We are no longer sure what to call ourselves, lamed by our past and muddled by our present: we are uncomfortable with being ordinary rather than exceptional.
While my father was serving in Southeast Asia, his ship visited Sarawak in northern Borneo, from where he sent me a postcard telling me he’d met a ‘remarkable chap’. The man was Tom Harrisson, ex-Army ornithologist, explorer journalist, ethnologist, film-maker, conservationist and, like my father, an enthusiastic drinker and womaniser. He shared my father’s dictum: ‘Enough is too little, too much is enough.’
Harrisson was the co-founder in 1937 of Mass Observation, an organisation which aimed to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They recruited a team of observers to study the everyday lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Britain and in doing so introduced the notion of ‘ordinary’ in the sense used to this day – the managed as opposed to the managers, the governed as opposed to the governors, the ordinary as opposed to the expert.
Like ‘common sense’ the calibration of ‘ordinary’ is elusive – philosophical rather than physiological. It’s abused by journalists, derided by sociologists and waved like a rhetorical regimental banner by politician after politician. Nigel Farage egregiously announced that Brexit was ‘a victory for common sense and the ordinary, decent, people who’ve taken on the establishment and won’. Boris Johnson talked of ordinary people as ‘the families travelling at the back of the plane’ and aimed to endear himself to those ‘ordinary’ people by scattering his speeches with buffoonish references to Peppa Pig and fourth-rate jokes about ‘wiff-waff’.
The Labour Party stakes its claim to represent ‘ordinary working people’, sounding both patronising and exclusionary. Who wants to be described by a politician as ‘ordinary’, particularly when ‘working’ doesn’t mean ‘in work’ but is a euphemism for ‘working class’? I can’t hear the word spoken without hearing a sneer, however slight, that implies that ‘ordinary’ is a synonym for ‘commonplace’. Which is to say someone not as clever or individual or special as you are. Someone, in short, who is inferior to you, the opposite of what my grandfather Charles Royds meant when he wrote: ‘We shall act like ordinary human beings.’
I’ve been working in the theatre since the mid sixties. To me a theatre production is a model society: you have to share a common aim and be bound by the same social rules, work to a mutual pulse, even if each person moves at a different tempo. You have to subscribe to a democracy of talent, underwritten by a generosity of spirit. By the end of a piece of theatre a kind of alchemy can occur: the disparate individuals who make up an audience become, for a moment, united: a community of the ordinary. Not in the sense that both my grandfathers might have meant it, even less in the sense of politicians’ descriptions of ordinary people, but in the sense that every human being is ordinary and, at the same time, exceptional. Similar but never the same. And never commonplace.
Even so, we tether ourselves to the unexceptional as if to avoid setting ourselves apart: conventional families are as rare as happy ones. A friend said this to me recently:
‘I had a very ordinary upbringing.’
‘Although my uncle had a second family that none of us knew about.’
‘My aunt used to break China cups and bury them in the garden.’
‘Then she used to chase my mother.’
Photograph © TAS50, Discovery Hut, Antarctica, near McMurdo Station, 2008. Erected in 1901 by Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition