Copyright image - family 2001The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met
by Jan Struther

Published in the Readers Digest, American edition, September 1945, and now corrected.

Prologue 2000
by Robert Maxtone Graham

In 1945, when my mother was asked by the Readers Digest to contribute an article to their series "The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met", she said that she would like to write about her father. The editor replied that far too many contributors had written about their fathers and insisted that the subject should be changed into an uncle. Jan agreed, and invented the name "Uncle Torrey". In the copy below I have deleted "Uncle Torrey" and have substituted "Father", thus restoring the truth.

Henry Torrens Anstruther, M.P. died in 1926.

Although my [father] died nearly 20 years ago, hardly a day passes without my thinking about him. [Father] was what is known as a Character: but, unlike many Characters, he never played this part deliberately. I can see now that he was both the product and the victim of the rather rigid social system into which he was born. He was the second son of a Scottish baronet, and he spent his childhood at the family home, a beautiful old house famous throughout Scotland. [Balcaskie, Pittenweem, Fife] Like many younger sons, he went into politics. At the age of 27, when he was considered one of Westminster's most promising young men, he married a handsome, witty and fascinating girl who was clearly cut out to be the wife of a Cabinet Minister. But as the years went by it became obvious that [Father] would never, after all, rise to the top of the political tree; and his wife was not the kind of person to be content with anything less than the topmost branches.

Eventually, at her wish, they separated. [Father] had by that time retired from Parliament, and for the last ten years of his life he lived alone. I used to spend many weekends and part of every school holiday with him, and I got to know him really well. He was an odd mixture. On the one hand, he was a gentleman of the old style, a man of the world who had been closely associated with all the most outstanding personalities of his day. On the other hand, he was a born handyman. He could have earned his living - and led, I think, a far happier life - as a jobbing carpenter.

There was nothing [Father] loved so much as mending things, and the more finicky the chore was the more he seemed to enjoy it. If something in the house got broken, he would groan loudly. "Why in the name of God's holy truth," he would say (it was his favourite piece of profanity), "can't people take better care of things?" But all the same there would be a glint in his eye, and you knew that he was going to spend a happy afternoon repairing the damage. If there was nothing to be mended, he would clean something instead, preferably something made of leather or metal.

I can see him now - a smallish upright man of about 60, with blue eyes, bushy brows, a hooked nose and chin like Mr. Punch, and fingers prematurely gnarled by arthritis - standing at his workbench, and putting an exquisite polish on an old brass candle-snuffer or a pair of riding boots. He would probably be wearing riding breeches and leather leggings, and the sleeves of his fine blue flannel shirt would be carefully rolled up to exactly the same level above each elbow. His lower lip would be thrust far out - a trick of his when he was concentrating. As soon as the object was gleaming brightly enough to satisfy him, he would hold it up with a proud smile for me to admire, and then he would look around for some other congenial job.

If he could find nothing to mend and nothing to polish, he would get out a small oilstone and put a yet keener edge on all his favourite tools - the horn-handled pruning-knife, the chisels, and the miniature two-bladed pocket-knife. He changed for dinner every night of his life. After dinner, when the oil lamps had been brought in and the coffee cups cleared away, he and I would sit and sing songs to the guitar. That is to say, I would hold the guitar and finger it - his hands were too stiff - but it was he, usually, who told me what chords to play. He had an unerring instinct for harmony, and he was patient, though profane, over my mistakes.

After I had the whole thing worked out to his satisfaction, we would sing the song, with me taking the melody and [Father] supplying the tenor and bass parts in alternate verses. We sang all kinds of things, mostly folk songs: "Drink to Me Only," "Annie Laurie," "O Bay of Dublin", "All Through the Night"... We sang "Abide with Me," "The First Noel," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "The Old Folks at Home"...But the ones we sang most often were the Jacobite songs: "Charlie Is My Darling," "Wae’s Me for Prince Charlie."

As the evening wore on, we would both work ourselves up into an orgy of sweet sadness over the long-dead cause of the defeated and exiled prince. I remember thinking how strange it was that we should feel so deeply about it, considering that our forebears had been Lowlanders, and had been mixed up scarcely at all with those bloody and romantic shenanigans. I asked him about this once. He thought it over slowly - he never answered questions in a hurry - and then he said with a rather wry smile, "Well, you see, the lost causes always produce the best songs." This was undeniably true: but so far as he was concerned it was not the whole truth.

I realise now that the main reason why the Jacobite songs appealed to him was because his own life - particularly his private life - had been something of a lost cause. When he sang "Will Ye No Come Back Again?" I know now that the image in his mind's eye was not of Charles Edward Stuart but of a witty, pretty woman playing the hostess at the other end of a long dinner table, with the sound of Big Ben booming out every quarter hour behind the talk and laughter.

Some evenings, instead of singing, we would just sit and talk. The great thing, from my point of view, was to head [Father] away from genealogical trees, a subject which bored me as much as it fascinated him. If I happened to mention, for instance, that I had met a red-haired boy named Tom Cunningham at a party, it would start him off. "Red hair? Must be one of Frank Cunningham's boys. I was at school with Frank's father - old Tom. Nice fellow. Married one of the Frisby girls. I don’t remember her name, but her mother was a Lane-Pontifex ...".

[Father] was not a snob. This was to him a kind of game; it pleased his orderly, pattern-loving mind to unravel a tangled skein of family relationships and roll them up into a neat coil; and it lessened his loneliness, too, by keeping alive memories of people he had known.

Etymology was another of his pet topics. And, come to think of it, that wasn't such a very different topic, after all: it just meant delving into the family history of words instead of people. We would vie with each other in collecting odd bits of lore about derivations, and we would exchange them eagerly whenever we met. I shall never forget the time I discovered the origin of the word "posh," a piece of slang which meant elegant, snazzy or chic. It appears that experienced Anglo-Indians, when booking passage on a P. & 0. steamer, would shrewdly specify that their cabin space should be "Port Out, Starboard Home," thus making sure that they would be on the cooler side of the ship in each direction.

The very next day [Father] met me at the station in a high two-wheeled buggy (to the end of his life in 1926, he refused to give up his dogcart in favour of an automobile), and we went spanking homeward between primrose-studded hedgerows.

I saw a perfect opening. "You’ve got some new driving gloves," I said casually. "They're posh."

As I expected, he winced at the loathsome adjective. "For the love of God," he begged, "don't use that word."

"Aha!" I said triumphantly. "I used it on purpose. Just listen to what I've found out . . . ." He didn’t, of course, relax for a moment from his customary driving position (back straight as a ramrod, bowler hat set squarely on his head, keen eyes watching the road beyond the horse's ears), but a delighted grin spread slowly over his face.

"That," he said at last with the deliberation of a connoisseur, "is epic."

At intervals throughout the week-end 1 would hear him muttering to himself, "Port Out, Starboard Home ... P - 0 - S - H. Beautiful!" He couldn't have been more grateful if I had brought him a ripe Stilton or a bottle of Chateau Lafitte.

[Father] had little to do with my formal education, but it seems to me now that nearly all the most interesting and enjoyable things I know were learned, directly or indirectly, from him. He taught me to ride and drive horses: and in this, as in everything else, he was a strict, thorough and infinitely patient teacher. He had no use for the kind of rider who merely wants to go out for a good gallop, and who brings the horse home in a lather of sweat. Most of his neighbours kept five or six expensive hunters, went to a fox-hunting meet by automobile and were met again by their chauffeurs at the end of the day. Not so, [Father]. He had but two old Irish hunters which were as much at home between the shafts of the dogcart as they were in the hunting-field; and however far away hounds might meet, we always rode out and rode home "on our own backsides," as [Father] delicately - and sometimes less delicately - put it. Often we would arrive home by starlight, tired and aching. We would help each other off with our mud-caked boots, have warm baths with a handful of mustard in the water and then sit down to reminisce happily about the day over a roast pheasant and a cheese soufflé.

What [Father] enjoyed even more than hunting, however, was hacking - the pleasant three-hour rides, trotting or cantering through pastures golden with buttercups, watching the sights and sounds of country life, and stopping every now and then to chat with a hedger or a road mender. He was scrupulous, and he trained me to be scrupulous, about such things as uncut hay, newly sown crops, and the shutting of gates. He could manipulate any kind of gate without dismounting, and he would spend hours teaching me to do it. Halfway through the ride we would usually drop in at a village pub for a drink - beer for him, milk for me, water for the horses.

When I think about those rides, what comes back to me most vividly is a medley of scents saddle leather and tweed and warm horseflesh, hawthorn and meadowsweet and the foamy tang of cow parsley. He taught me all that I know about carpentry, and most of what I know about the mechanics of writing. He was an excellent critic, with a delicate ear for the rhythm and weight of words. As for the finer intricacies of grammar and syntax, he was meticulous and, 1 think, infallible in his judgment. I remember the expression on his face when I showed him a letter from a friend of mine in which the last sentence ran: "I should have loved to have come." "I hope," said [Father] grimly, "that you're not seriously thinking of marrying that young man." I honestly believe he would sooner have seen me married to a jailbird than to a man who would make use of a double perfect.

His battle against slipshod language was waged because of his deep sense of the beauty of order. He knew that clarity and simplicity of expression are the outward signs of a writer's inward integrity. By tirelessly pointing out my verbal ambiguities, he made me aware of, and repentant of, the looseness of thought which had caused them: and that is a valuable piece of training.

Many of the lessons [Father] taught me are bound up with the small ordinary things of everyday life. I think of him whenever I smell hay, get buttercup-dust on my shoes, or see a two-wheeled buggy go by along a country road; whenever I drink red wine; whenever I weigh two synonymous words in my mind before setting one of them down on paper; whenever I shine my shoes, or run my hand over polished wood.

I realise now that the memory of [Father] is not only in my eyes and ears but in my very bones. It strikes me once more, for perhaps the thousandth time, that the most valuable lesson of all was one which he never set out to teach: how comforting and clarifying, in times of loneliness and perplexity, is the companionship of inanimate objects, the touching and handling of wood or stone; and, when larger problems seem insoluble, how steadying to the nerves, how infinitely soothing to the troubled heart, is the painstaking performance of small, familiar, manual tasks.