ncle Jamie's wedding present to our parents, Janet (his sister) and Pat Rance, was generous, elegant and supremely practical. It was a dining table which, when fully extended, could seat 12-15 people. In a house of seven children, their friends, frequent house guests and helpers from the cheese shop in Streatley, the dining table held a central place in life at Jessamine Cottage.
As very young children we were quite fascinated by Uncle Jamie's beard. He knew this fascination and played on it magnificently. He would 'allow' us to touch it sometimes - but only on special occasions, such as Christmas - and he was a regular house-guest at Jessamine Cottage at Christmas time. However, whilst he enjoyed, no doubt, the adult company for the season and Janet's delicious cooking, he seemed to find us children a bit noisy. In fact, his nick-name for the house was "Decibel Cottage" and, Victoria recalls, he used to offer a prize for the quietest child.
One year, he supplied the Christmas crackers. Not just any crackers of course. He secretly opened them up, carefully removed the feeble jokes from inside and replaced them with jokes that were considerably more 'adult' in style. He must have thoroughly enjoyed the moment when those around the table began to realise that this year's cracker jokes were somewhat more risqué than normal. It was a brilliant practical joke and quickly entered family legend.
Uncle Jamie was a writer and supplied the American adult magazine market with articles on a variety of serious subjects and he kept a well-ordered collection of his published work at his house. We recall sneaking sometimes into nearby Pound Cottage where he lived - doors never seemed to be locked in those days - and I think I can safely say we verified (and often re-confirmed) the source of some of those racy jokes.
Another joke played in Jessamine Cottage went thus: Jamie trained me - and I could probably only just talk then - to say "Winston Churchill" in answer to any question he might ask. When some unsuspecting house-guest was present he would say how good at history his little nephew Jamie was and pose a complicated historical question to which I would answer correctly "Winston Churchill" to the amazement of the guest. In a variation of the joke, Victoria, just a bit older, was trained to answer "Queen Victoria". However, Jamie's idea of mischievous fun was to hold one of us with outstretched arms over the river Thames from the height of the bridge by the Swan Hotel and then toss the victim up into the air and catch him or her - mercifully with success every time - but this, for us, was quite terrifying.
There was another side to him of course; one year when he had discovered, or perhaps, re-discovered, the joys of woodworking, he made us a large wooden cube big enough and solid enough to sit on. On each side there was a board game - chess, scrabble, backgammon, felt for cards -- and so on. Never before, or since, has the world seen anything like it. It was a lasting treasure and so well used. We loved Uncle Jamie's frog game too when we visited him. It featured metal frogs mounted on an oak table. You had to throw metal discs into their mouths; it was great fun. Years later, I saw a postcard featuring a photograph - taken in South America - of men playing this same game. Above all, this magnificent object reflected Jamie's love both of games and of the eccentric.