Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books,
and Songbooks by clicking here, or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
 

Letter from Lotusland

May 2015

I have been keeping a journal since 1972, the reason why I cannot tell. I only missed a few days at the very beginning. I do sometimes consult the bulky copies (the originals are archived at The Huntington Library) and they make hard and regretful reading. The opportunities missed, the friends I took for granted or took fancied slights from. But there are great stories from certain friends—one whose dinner tales were so rich I’d excuse myself for the bathroom so I could jot it all down before evaporation. My journal is not just a habit, it’s an addiction. My day isn’t complete without an entry. These days I’m the only one who can decipher it. Maybe some future researcher will be able to break the code.

       Years before, in the early 1950s, I kept a diary for a short time at prep school. It was mostly short and brutal. For example: “TDM in bate”—meaning one of the masters was in a foul temper so watch out! I don’t know why I stopped. Laziness I suppose. The funny thing is you’d think that rereading would, like a time machine, zoom you back to the past but that’s not always so. There staring at me, like graffiti, is the written record but for the life of me I can’t climb back into that day, even though I get an uneasy feeling I’m there again.

       My diary and journals are full of feelings, reactions, rejections. They are self-serving efforts towards immortality, their only saving grace being the possibility that they are amusing the songs of a fool.

       Sitting beside me is a little blue pocket diary, a fraction the size of the big hardback journal with my name stamped on the cover. This diary simply has a small “1962” stamped on the cover. It’s my father’s last diary, the year he died. The imprint is that of the Tunnel Portland Cement Company of London. He worked in his younger brother’s building supply business.

       Inside is a ballpoint record not of his thoughts but of his appointments, the family ones. He lived for us. My brother’s rugger fixtures are all here as well as his weekly outings to the golf course on Hankley Common which he calls “Hankers”. How he loved those games with my mother! She was a good golfer and an all-round decent sportswoman. The golf was a strong cement in their marriage. Not that there were any visible cracks.

       Fortunately my mother kept some of the letters they wrote to each other, starting in the 1930s when they were married. As Eileen Burningham she had had a poem published in the school magazine in 1926. It imagines stars as watchful angels and goes further at the end, painting a grand picture: “Can it be the cracks of heaven/makes each tiny light on high? / And when one begins to twinkle/ is it God who walks on by?”

       The day before her wedding, April 24 1936, she wrote a poem, in beautiful blue ink, to my father, bursting with chivalric romance: “I dreamed I was the Maiden/ I dreamed you were the Man/ I dreamed you came on horseback/ and asked me for my hand.”

       He scales her castle and off they speed, through magic pathways where no goblins can harm them, to a castle built in the air. They climb upon a moonbeam where he whispers in her ear—“That we had reached our kingdom and I was princess there”. The next line is a “PTO”: on the back of the thick green paper she writes that the dream has suddenly fled. However she knows that tomorrow he’ll be her “fairy prince” on their wedding day.

       That same April 24 my father wrote to her from London. He had been taken to the theatre for his pre-marital treat—a Charlot revue at the Palace.” This is the last letter ever to be written to a certain charming spinster by an adoring bachelor. Good! Yet somehow, despite the prospect of a change that I know will be simply marvellous, I feel a little pang of regret at leaving the engagement days. We’ve had a wonderfully good time, darling, really, haven’t we?” He goes on to say he wants to make her future days happy and then confesses, “I realise now what a sacrifice you are making and I do hope we shall be happy and friendly and stand by each other. I will do my best for it’s my fault about the little differences we have. I am sorry”.

       They must have been unimportant differences because the marriage turned out be a sturdy one, resulting in three children, Suzanne, Ian, and Robin. My father was a wing commander in the RAF stationed in Scarborough, Yorkshire. I was born in July 1941 between the first London Blitz and the entry of America into the war.

       The war and its aftermath—a drab beaten-down Britain—took a toll on my mother, as on everybody. While my father toiled in London in the building business my mother took care of the family in the village of Thorpeness on the Suffolk coast. We lived in a house by a small man-made lake while up the road her father lived in a mock Tudor house backed by a windmill and a golf course. He also owned a few farms, recommended as therapy by his doctor, following a breakdown.

       He had made a lot of money in the family oil company.  It sounds like the basis for a comfy life but housekeeping was difficult for my sensitive mother. I also think she felt it hard on my father being married to a rich man’s daughter when he himself had little money of his own, his father, once a millionaire, having died bankrupt in 1941. My father, on his weekends in Thorpeness, was uneasy in golf club society with its clannishness. He didn’t feel a member of the gang my mother had grown up with since the 1920s. However, he kept his own counsel, being naturally quiet and shy, a man of few but well chosen words.

       For me the war years in Thorpeness were dream days—boating on the lake, exploring the castle and lairs dotted around there, paddling on unexploded bombs, taking our dog Panda in search of Rupert Bear’s hometown, Nutwood.

       In 1946, my father, spending the week in London at work and visiting us at weekends, wrote letters to my mother from the National Liberal Club where he stayed. In answer to a particularly loving one he replied, “To say I am a lucky bloke is to put it more than mildly”. He went on to express his love: “I fall short in showing it but I do so very much love you”. As I said he was a man of few words. But, he was moved by her letter: “As you know, I do not, as a matter of principle, keep correspondence. But this I must keep; it is so nice, darling”. I wish I had that letter.

       Eventually he found us a house to rent in London (we always rented, never owned a house, for some reason). We moved to Wimbledon, to a house with a long sloping garden. From there went to a service flat in Wildcroft Manor, two blocks of “luxury” flats built in the 1930s in the neo-Tudor style.  And there we remained. My father died there in 1962 but my mother stayed on and I joined her in breaks from my California career. Always in her bedroom was her box of letters and my father’s last diary.

       Unlike my discursive, prat-filled and ultimately ludicrous journals, my father’s 1962 diary was a sensible record of appointments including some figures relating to taxes at the back.  I’d like to have read his account of the books he so liked— “The Mystery of The Little Yellow Room” by Gaston La Somebody; of how he’d lectured me on my departure for boarding school—“Don’t let any boy touch you”—yet he never instructed me on sex and so I had to learn about it, disgustingly, from other boys who reckoned, “You see, the man pees into the woman and that’s how babies are born”; of the art of carving a roast beef Sunday joint of which he was so proud; of the making of “Mr. Nobody” the 1927 film where, as the hero, he had to drive a car off a pier, while the imported American director slept off a liquid lunch in a poppy field.

       Instead he notes the golfing days at Hankley, the school rugger fixtures of my brother, a nasty bout of bronchitis, a hundred pounds as my 21st birthday present. I had the nerve to scrawl in my book recommendations—“Ring of Bright Water”, whatever that was. In August his car was stolen from outside Waterloo station. On Monday, December 3, he came back from work and told my mother and his visiting sister that he felt tired and would nap in the bedroom. He’d join them later for a pre-dinner cocktail. Within an hour he’d died of a heart attack. His diary says I’d be back from Trinity College, Dublin on Saturday. I have never really recovered from his sudden death at 58. I wish I’d spent more private time with him.

       The same year, 1972, that I started my journal I bought a black “dream book”. The first entries are accounts of terror: men creep upon me in a house by the sea and I shout “No More—the game is over!”; an R&B show in our sitting room turns violent and my brother is carried out streaming blood. Years later I meet Hitler at a garden party and he turns out to be a ukulele fan; just as his nurse is about to take him back to the nursing home I say he must have heaps of interesting things to remember. “Yes—and an awful lot to forget!” he replies as he’s wheeled off.

       Last week I was back at Wildcroft Manor where a merry moveable party is climaxing in the kitchen as my mother Hoovers up the mess in other rooms. Bob Dylan has agreed to sing the finale and he chooses “We’ll meet again”. My mother rushes in as he’s in mid–growl to stop him. “Please don’t. That song has too much to do with absent friends and death”. I tell her that we’re all safe and immortal here. Why, there’s my father polishing his best walking shoes and there’s Uncle Jack with his whisky.” Well I’m blowed!’ they all cry in chorus and evaporate.

        A day ago I had a series of odd dreams all in one night. Could they have been triggered by my stroke?  At any rate, we begin with Christ in a stone coffin and me loitering around in the crowd. I discover a porthole on one side and I kneel and talk through it. “Will you be getting up soon?” A hoarse whisper replies, “I rise in three days. Please be patient. Don’t spoil everything!”  Next I am performing “God Bless, America” to an audience that includes Irving Berlin. He scowls at me and when I catch up with him he berates me for playing the wrong chords on the accordion. But what are the right ones? “Jesus! How should I know? You’re the one in the know!” Finally I’m Richard III lying in an abbey on a comfy silk-lined tablet which is slowly making its way to a cave-like incinerator. I recognize that this means curtains for me but I welcome the end because soon I’ll be saying hello to those who said goodbye. Rollo the dog said his with a kindly, knowing look.

       I think that’s quite enough for now.

      

       The photo is of a happy holiday in 1953 at Felpham-by-the-sea. It shows my father, my mother, and myself.

 

             

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books,
and Songbooks by clicking here, or by going to ianwhitcomb.com