I promised you all (both of you?) a leisurely relating of the five romances which make up my life story and so I shall start today. Heavens knows when I shall finish. But en bref the whole opus consists of five medium sized books split into anything from 12 to 21 chapters and totalling probably some 450,000 words in all. Each book bears a girl’s name in the title for reasons that will become obvious. The 2 or 3 postings per week will be under the heading of ‘Tutte Amanti Mio 1.’ (then numbered accordingly as the work progresses
TUTTE AMANTI MIO – (1) [all those I have loved]
by Anton Wills-Eve
Ho peccato e amato, ma ogni giorno ho pregato Dio. Io sono solo un essere umano.
Shshshsh …whisper this among yourselves if you must but no public acclamation yet please. Read it first. But read what? The Italian above? Heavens no, that is my epitaph. I just thought I would slip it in while I am still around as, if this work goes on for as long as it could given my current state of health, I may not end it in time to let everyone know what I would like on my tombstone. Cheerful so far, isn’t it? Never mind here comes the bombshell.
You will all be glad to learn that I have at last decided to take the bull by the horns, ignore all familial advice and write – well tidy up and finish – my version of my life story. Now don’t all pant and leap out of your seats at once, page 364 is actually rather boring. But, as all our lives are basically monotonous, to make out that I had lived nothing but an extraordinary life of non stop exciting, funny, romantic, frightening, enjoyable, spiritually glorious or sinfully repellent episodes for more than 70 years would just be stupid. But, on the other hand, I can claim to have been incredibly fortunate to have known both the depths and the peaks of human experience in five languages on five continents, and had both my spiritual and physical courage and powers of survival tested to the limit in a variety of ways that seldom fall to one person. And to have done this from a genuinely unusually young age has definitely marked me out as an anomaly. But why does this make me feel it is worth recording? Quite simply because such a very large number of people have said to me, about so many different events and times in my life, “you should write a book about that, you know.” So I have. Five books in fact each centred round a romance. After all I’ll be seventy five next May so I had better do it while I still can.
For a start I am definitely not a Saint, a sinner most certainly but I like to think a pleasant one. I would hate to be remembered for being in any way vicious. And before going any further I do have to make this important point. A lot of the autobiographical works that have appeared in my stories, poems, blogs and articles over the years have always contained exaggeration, changed names and humorous asides which have suggested happenings which perhaps did not occur in exactly the way I have related them. Therefore I am NOT going to write stories that can be checked out on every page of Google or Wikipedia. Apart from anything else, three key people have insisted that they do not appear unless I change their names. So I have changed them. If that is the price of doing what I wish, so be it. But where this work will, and does, differ from many of my memoirs over the last fifteen years is in the degree of truth in it. Everything I recount happened. Only the names of some people, and some institutions here and there, have been changed. Oh, and some of the family sources I have relied upon may well have been badly inebriated when providing me with key anecdotal material. Also my own tendency to hyperbole has not been totally overcome. Far from it. So where should I begin? With my birth? Yes, why not. It was as eventful as most things that have happened to me. And anyway it is the obvious starting point.
I was always told that the ambulance that rushed my mother to the maternity ward where I was born did so by dodging German bombs and such like at the height of WW2, but I have always known that was an enormous exaggeration. It is true that a German plane returning from a raid over London got lost and jettisoned its bombs near our home at Bourne End, on the Thames in Buckinghamshire, but I also know that my mother and the nursing home near High Wycombe were never in any danger. But mama always told every story to gain the fullest dramatic effect she could extract from it, so everyone thought that I was lucky to be born alive. This must have been untrue because, while I may have been five weeks premature, my difficult birth was due entirely to her playing golf that afternoon against doctors’ orders and hooking her drive at the par three eighth. This apparently put me, literally, in an awkward position. And her too I assume as she took a six. She told me she fired her caddy – lucky chap. But the nursing staff at my birth must have done a good job because I was delivered, eventually, just after midnight in the early minutes of Sunday May the tenth, nineteen forty two. Those few minutes were to have an enormous influence on my life, indeed still do.
I returned home with my parents, dad having managed to get down from London to greet me when I was a day old, and was taken into the huge bosom of my polyglot and poly-devotional family. We had two houses next to each other with gardens running down to the river, sharing a large boathouse. In all there were 48 rooms in which we housed my mother, father, fifteen months old sister Michèle and both my grandmothers. Then there were my mother’s two sisters and their husbands, her elder sister’s two sons, ten and eleven years older than I, and my great grandmother on my mother’s side. She had her ninetieth birthday on the day I was born. Both my grandfathers were dead and mum’s mother died just before I was two in the spring of 1944 so I cannot in fairness claim to remember her, save in photographs of us together. Actually my sister was the only female born in direct line to either side of the family by that time. We have one lovely picture of her on her second birthday with her mother, two grandmothers, and ninety year old great grandmother. My mother’s Scottish brother and his wife lived in Kent but had come up to the Thames valley as mum’s waist measurements increased. In addition to our relations we had seven more friends living with us then, all in the theatre like my mother, aunts and uncles. Some of the males were on military assignments as well so our houses were used basically as a place of safety for the ladies during the war. Dad was a war correspondent and had in fact been blown up and thrown right across a London street, in 1941 just after my sister was born that February. He was quite ill for a few months and insisted the family stay as far from danger as they could.
I was talking earlier about the significance of my birth date. Well as I just crept into May the tenth my mother had to keep a promise she had made, more probably to herself than anyone else, but made nevertheless. She had to give me the name of a male Saint on whose feast day I was born. The choices for May the tenth were not very large or included names she would normally have chosen. But she did see that one of the Saint’s celebrated that day was Antoninus, archbishop of Florence in the 1450’s, and someone whose name could remain in Latin for a Baptismal certificate but be Anglicised to Anton for a legal birth certificate. Ergo sum he chi je suis.
Nevertheless, we had a problem in our family at that time which had nothing to do with the war. Alcohol was accepted as a perfectly normal diet for everyone over the age of 20 and was consumed in large quantities, especially by my great grandmother who still downed a bottle of whisky a day in 1947 aged 95. I have often thought she must have been a very unfortunate role model for her younger relations. But then she was Scottish, as were all her grand children, so I suppose that explains it. Also my two American Uncles were acting in films while also serving in the US air force. Thus we had access to PX rations and limitless booze, our own pigs and hens, a large amount of fruit and vegetables from our gardens together with food parcels from my father’s brother and relations in Australia, when they managed to reach us. Now, if you add to this the fact that we were extremely wealthy, all the adults were earning enormous salaries acting and entertaining, and the Fleet Street side were all in top newspaper jobs. But the worst thing was that of all the people living in our houses at least three quarters were instantly recognised whenever they set foot in any public place. So I can honestly say, as I start my story, life really was totally abnormal for my sister and me. Also, as you may begin to appreciate, war for us was anything but hell. Well until I was two years old. Then things changed in so many ways that I must also change this from a prologue to the narrative and start of my Books. The first is entitled
Chapter One (part 1)
I had just had my second birthday in May 1944 when dad came home one weekend for thirty six hours rest and told the assembled family and friends that as the bombing of Germany had now stepped up so much he would at least be spared ever having to go to Berlin, the one place he said he would really hate to visit. Mum told him not to make rash assumptions which he might not be able to keep and he laughed. His great friend, my godfather Walter Cronkite, who worked with him and lived with us at that time with his wife Betsy, also laughed but looked anything but certain that Dad’s hopes would be fulfilled. When both of them were assigned to cover the D-Day landings a couple of weeks later and then stay with the troops, Walter the US, dad the British, all the way to Berlin, the war really came home to me for the first time. I had lost the closest person to me and was just old enough to be scared that the loss could be for ever.
As we grew up mum always made the children in the family say their prayers every night and now dad was added to the list of people God had to keep safe or the world might as well end. He’s a lovely God and did look after him, but not without some scary moments before the awful conflict ended in Europe a year later.
Probably the most exciting event at that time was when I was two and a few months in 1944 and a buzz bomb nearly killed my sister, three years and seven months, and me as my grandmother raced for our house pushing our pram as we just beat the German monster. Well, obviously, this story gets better every time I tell it but we did get a shock from the explosion and my mother being very well known at that time she rang a London national daily newspaper editor and recounted my story, warts and all, even if there weren’t any warts, thus gaining me my first national front page byline before I was three. Even at that age I was clearly paparazile.
Fortunately dad was returned to us as the war ended and the lovely houses by the Thames slowly shed their motley crew of entertainers, celebrities and writers. But it was a wonderful first three years of life, always full of multilingual laughter and devotion. It was a strange way to begin wondering about all one was told about God. The people close to us followed all creeds and denominations, while being mostly drunks or invalids like mum, who many thought was dying. Yet we were all constantly filled with a feeling of hope and certainty that everything was going to be alright. The greatest thing about those ‘house guests’ was that I could never dislike them just because they were different to me. Jews laughed and played with me, homosexuals would lift me up and maybe kiss me on the cheek – I was young enough – but they were never malicious or threatening. The drunks and adulterers I know now, looking back, lived lives totally opposed to everything I was later told was how they ought to behave, but I cannot ever remember a day when I did not love them as friends of us all. No, even at three and four my sister and I disliked what many people actually did, but somehow we could always separate the sins from the sinners despite being so young.
Before leaving Bourne End and its lovely leafy, quiet dreamy part of England in August 1945, possibly three of the four most important things in my life happened to me within a couple of weeks of each other. The first was shortly after ‘the day peace broke out’, to use my mother’s first father in law’s famous line, and happened unexpectedly in our huge drawling room overlooking the long lawn down to the river. I was sitting with my face screwed up in anger as I tried to make the lovely rosewood grand piano do what I told it.
Of all the really great tunes that I have heard in my life, pop, classical, country and western, operatic arias, ballads et al it has always been the catchy – ‘want to sing or whistle it again’ – quality that has made me put it in my favourites. There are many songs and tunes that set me going, foot tapping or rushing for the nearest piano if there is one, to join in and enjoy myself. But there I have mentioned the luckiest, loveliest thing in my physical life. My mother’s half of the family were all well known singers, actors and entertainers so of course I was brought up with a piano in the house. I loved sitting trying to make the keys play a tune from as early in my life as I can remember.
My father, who was a journalist and nothing to do with the theatrical side of the family was a modest pianist himself and it was he who first spotted in me the natural ability to pick up a tune and reproduce it. I must have been about three and few months because it was just before we moved to East Sheen near Richmond in London, that mum was playing arias from the Marriage of Figaro on a 78 record player. Records in those days, were not of the acoustic quality of today, but never the less the wonderful soulful yet bouncing melody of Cherubino’s Aria ‘voi que sapete’ really turned me on. I listened to it about fifteen times through and then went to the piano and tried to find the right notes to play the tune. It was as I was on about the fifteenth attempt and getting to the stage where I wanted to smash the piano to bits that my father came in. He just looked at me and said.
“Do that again. No seriously, it sounded just like one of the Arias from Figaro. But you couldn’t have taught yourself!” I couldn’t, and didn’t believe him. I thought he was joking. so I played the same notes through again to the end of the sixteenth bar. Then I looked at him inquisitively. All he said was brief and to the point. “You were playing ‘voi que sapete’, in the wrong key, the wrong tempo and with one or two notes of your own, and an inability to finish it. Also your feet don’t reach the pedals. But if you taught yourself to do even that and it must have been all imitating and experiment, but I had finally got somewhere near the basic melody.” He was so impressed all he said was, “Right, when we move to our new house in July or August that piano is coming with us. I don’t care whose it is we’re taking it and you’re going to have proper piano and music lessons. You obviously love playing and have a gift for it. Go on trying anything you like in the meantime. Your aunts and I will get you started on the basics. I was amazed at his reaction and from then on started trying to play more melodies, even though they were beyond me. I especially loved the duet La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni and asked mum what the words meant. She did not know but my aunt told me it was the evil Don Giovanni trying to kiss a pretty peasant girl called Zerlina and she was trying to fend him off. I remember seeing a reflection of a very pretty face in the lid of the piano when I was trying to play the tune and thinking if she was that pretty anyone would want to kiss her.
The second really important event occurred at the end of the week when I first tried to play music. Our local Catholic parish church was across the river, St. Joseph’s in Maidenhead, where I was Christened. The Catholics at home were intermittent Mass goers and I was actually three years and five weeks old before my Australian grandmother took Michele and me to a Sunday Mass there for the first time. Mum had told us that as we grew up we should go to Mass on Sundays but could not receive Communion until we were about eight or nine. Combined with this was a very confusing version of what was right and wrong, a sin or not a sin, but fortunately always done with the sole purpose of telling us how much more God loved people who were good or did not sin. At that age the worst thing either of us ever did was occasionally copy the grown ups’ swear words, but apparently this sent one straight into God’s bad books and also embarrassed my parents in front of their friends. My mother never did manage to explain which offence was worse. But apparently swearing was OK for grown ups.
Anyway that Sunday, the first in July 1945, Nana, we always called her that, took us to Mass. I was almost struck dumb by the atmosphere in the church and instantly felt completely at home. But the high point came at the consecration. I stared at the altar, the priest had his back to the congregation in those days, and as the altar bell was rung I actually saw God standing before me, facing me, at the foot of the altar steps. His hands were held out towards me and my heart literally thumped at the piercing stab of love that totally consumed me as I looked at Him. I could not describe Him to you then, I cannot now. All I know is that it happens every time I receive Holy Communion and God’s love is completely reciprocated. It is the only reason I have never even considered not being a Catholic and have shed o many, many tears when dear or close friends have lost their faith or doubted what they once believed. It doesn’t matter two hoots to me what type of Christian, or good person of any sort one is as long as they let God love them and love him back. It is a gift which I have been given which transcends anything else I have ever experienced or ever could.
The third thing to happen just before we left Bourne End was a chat Michele and I had under a tree in the orchard one hot afternoon with mum. She decided to tell us the life story of a particular saint, something she often did even if she got it wrong or hammed it up dreadfully. But this day she told us the story of a fifteenth century Italian lady who had a very difficult marriage, her husband was killed then her sons died of disease and finally she spent her last years as a nun praying for and looking after people in almost hopelessly depressing situations. She is Saint Rita, of Cascia in central Italy, and is now the patroness of all hopeless causes and known in some places as the advocate of the impossible. I had an overwhelming feeling when I heard her story that I too was going to have an almost unbearable life. There and then I asked her in a very short and childlike prayer never to forget me. She has never left my side since that day despite everything you might read here if you carry on with my tale. Doctors insist she is just in my head, but get very confused when I tell them I agree. It’s that part of my head I call my soul.
And so we moved to our new home near London that August. I never found the silver spoon that so many of my friends thought I had in my mouth when I was born, but for several years something akin to it was definitely spoon-feeding my life. My family had access to considerable wealth and many of them were very famous actors or entertainers. From May 1942 to April 1956, my sister and I lived in a mixture of fairyland and Heaven. I am just thankful that Heaven is still a possible final dwelling place. But Oh, were we the anomalies of our age. Let me give you a flavour.
I spent the years aged three to fourteen in the most beautiful suburb of London, in a thirty seven room Georgian mansion which we almost had to sell to pay the bills we ran up over ten years. The bank knew we were good for them. It was worth £2.5 million by early 1957 so you can imagine how beautiful it was. And the location! Richmond Park and Sheen Common, bordering our house with Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, etc all a few minutes drive along the beautiful banks of the Thames where Surrey made it so attractive. Also only fourteen minutes on the train to the very heart of the city.
Our house was totally secluded from prying neighbours with an enormous ten foot high wall and holly hedge round three quarters of the estate which also included an orchard of six different types of fruit trees, four summer houses, a pond and huge elm tree in the 3 acres of garden plus a separate walled rose garden. You get the idyllic picture. My sister and I went to an expensive, private school from the ages of three to eight (she’s fifteen months older). BUT we weren’t allowed to play with any children except our vetted school friends. You would only believe this if you had known my mother and her side of the family! Not snobs, no, far worse. Content to be different, recognised and obeyed. In fact we were too young to realise what an incredibly prejudiced world we lived in.
So, given the setting, what in life could not possibly be very pleasant when all the rooms in the house were huge, superbly decorated and especially the living room with a bay window and door onto the rose garden and a grand piano where I spent eleven years learning and playing at least three hours a day. Dad even had to have it sound proofed without spoiling the decoration or the superb Adam fireplace which burned whole tree trunks. At one end was the sliding glass door to the huge conservatory with real grape vines and a marble fountain which was turned off at Christmas to accommodate the twelve foot Christmas tree? So where was the prejudice?
I never saw a coloured person, any colour other than white, in the area I inhabited for the first thirty years the family lived there. In the late nineteen forties there just were none. At the local pub some fifty regulars from our incredibly select road, the most sought after in South West London, met each Sunday lunch time for drinks and they agreed never to talk religion or politics at the bar. Unfortunately mum’s notoriety as a famous entertainer let her get away with murder and insult whomsoever she chose. Dad was accepted as her pleasant, Australian, other half who had one of the top jobs in British journalism. As bars closed at 2.00pm on Sundays in those days we usually had about 20 people back to our house for drinks and finally had lunch around 4.00pm. That house swam in booze every day I.
So who were the baddies, ie those not accepted by our ‘clique’? WelI, everybody who did not know any of us. If they came in expecting to buy a drink, as they would in any pub on a Saturday night or Sunday, they were simply ignored totally by staff and customers unless they were guests of the set. Most gave up and walked out dejected after recognising most of the people in the pub. But even within the accepted drinkers there was a hidden class of stereotyped prejudice that would have made you sick. They all smiled and laughed together but detested, in order of priority, first and foremost socialists, then Catholics or any non-conformists, then Jews but worst by far the thought of an American tourist ever being let near the place. Not famous Americans like three of my family members among the regulars whom they had got to know, but the conviction that ordinary US citizens only came to London to gloat over how they had won the war for us after raping all our virgins. Quite seriously, in that environment that was a prejudice which lasted until the Conservative government was returned to power again in 1951. The American presence in Britain towards the end of the war left a horrible anti-US feeling of pure jealousy because they were, to use the famous quote of ‘Mr. Average Brit’, “over sexed, over fed, over paid and over here!” My uncle in the US air force reserve had a PX card, though we never told anyone.
But my sister and I just led a strangely unique and unreal life until I went to the most expensive Catholic boys school in London and again mixed only with my school friends. Fortunately we had all colours and races in the school, mostly sons of foreign Catholic diplomats, rich businessmen and 60% of the upper school from the age of 11 were on totally free scholarships gained through the state scholarship system. Thank heavens for this because the only way I ever have met ‘ordinary’ people was through my school.
Yet even within this strange mix of a world when we were ten and eleven the Catholic/Anglican/Jewish divide was huge. Many of my family’s clique were Jews, we were Catholics and in every case it was humour that saved the day and calmed things down. Naturally being Irish was not acceptable either, but Irish, Jewish and Catholic jokes were the backbone of the pub conversations. Imagine this scene. A Jewish fellow who owned a company the equivalent of Hertz in the States, with a lovely French titled wife, once teased my mother; she was excused the politics and religion rule on account of her wit, “Vel, yor Jesus voz a Jew? Vozn’t ‘e?”
To which mum snapped back in millie seconds, ”Yes, Bernie, but we were taught that out of humility He chose to come to earth in the guise of the lowest form of humanity known to man!” What response would that have got anywhere in the western world today? The whole pub, Bernie most of all, just creased with laughter. But that was 1949. There was no malice, just relief that you could laugh in peace and honestly no offence was taken by anybody.
Are you all wondering what my sister and I were doing in a pub barred to kids when we were that age? Well at least nine other children our age of members of the set were also there most weekends because the pub owner wanted his customers money and could not give a fig for the licensing laws. Catholic priest and Jewish Rabbi jokes were also all the rage because the Anglicans laughed at every opportunity to see the absurd side of Catholicism and Judaism. One such joke that went down very well was told by a Catholic Irish crooner who lived four houses away from us and was never off the radio. (Is the awful hypocracy coming through?). I heard this one when I was ten and took a few minutes wondering the meaning of a word when the loud mouthed, blousey wife (?) of a member of parliament whispered the meaning in my ear. You’ll spot it.
“Der wass dis priest on a bus and who should sit next to him but de local Rabbi? Dey smiled and de priest said,’Ah god bless ye’z Rabbi, now isn’t it a lovely day for me to be covertin’ Jews?” They laughed.
“Not me, fadder,” the rabbi replied. At the next turning the bus skidded into a ditch and turned on its side. Nobody was badly hurt as they scrambled off, but the priest stared in disbelief as he watched the Rabbi place his right hand on his forehead, then his stomach, then his right breast and then his heart. A miracle! He was blessing himself. But the rabbi smiled and, shaking his head, said,
“Sorry, Fadder, bud I alvays do dat after an accident just to check. Spectacles, testicles, vollet and votch.” Again total collapse of all present and the story teller was bought several large libations. But these were not snobbish people, just totally self satisfied. There were two occasions only before I went to my final school when I felt the heart stabbing horror of the only prejudice that directly affected me. The first was at the age of seven when the son of my parents’ best friends was getting married in the local Anglican Church just two roads away from us. Our own parish priest would not let us attend the church service because we were Catholic. In those days (1949) catholics still prayed for the conversion of England to Rome. The reformation was still alive and kicking. I prayed for weeks to try to understand, but eventually got my own back by first marrying a Buddhist in a Catholic church in Saigon, and after she was killed, my present wife who is a Liverpool Anglican. But we go to each other’s churches, so the world is a lot better than it was.
My second horrible experience of religious prejudice was aged eight and one month, when, on the day I had made my first Communion that Sunday morning I did not go to the pub, but one of those ‘regulars’ mentioned above, said to me back at our house after the usual exodus from the boozer,
“Here, Anton. Have a coke and get that awful taste out of your mouth!” He was rich, influential, forty seven and I hit him so hard he lost two teeth. I was ushered from the room and was obviously never going to apologise. He made no fuss, but never spoke to me again. I also broke a finger.
Well, My last example of early 1950’s prejudice was also my first brush with racial prejudice. In the summer of 1952 my mum’s sister and her American husband, were starring in a very popular revue at the Piccadilly Theatre . The vaudeville show had been packed out for eighteen months and one of the hit turns was a young American half coloured half Hispanic singer. She was 22, a real poppet and my sister and I loved her. As mum was in hospital after major surgery, (my sister asked the surgeon if mum was having her gin and tonic removed), and dad was on an assignment in New York we asked our aunt and uncle if we could ask our friend back to spend the weekend at our house. They agreed and so we all went home after the Saturday night performance. My American uncle was by far my favourite relation. He taught me baseball and I taught him cricket when he was starring in the West End production of Damn Yankees. He supported the Pittsburg Pirates and I still do. Anyway, to the terrible bit. Perhaps my life’s main introduction to just how awful some people and groups of people can be.
As my uncle was well known at the pub he suggested we all go down for a drink at lunchtime as usual. My Aunt pleaded a headache. We had just started the first round of drinks when the pub owner came up to my uncle and took him aside. He said he did not want to upset him but no way was he allowing a coloured girl, however much a friend of ours, to drink in his bar. He would lose all his customers. I won’t say what he said to her but the singer just smiled and told my uncle it happened all the time in London. She understood and told the three of us we’d better go home.
My Uncle, God bless him, never entered that pub again. My drunken, cowardly aunt did not even warn us but did at least tell us she had telephoned the pub owner during our five minute walk round there to say who was about to arrive.
So, like a pleasant encore at a piano recital I shall finish with an encore on the subject. But a nice one. My grandmother made two little woollen dolls for my sister and me when we were five and six. They were black with big smiles, fuzzy hair, and E.P.Christie minstrel outfits. We loved them. They were called Golly and Sambo and we took them to bed with us every night. As we grew up we never lost them and both of us still have them and love them. But we can’t call them by their names in front of other people. So, out of love and respect, we don’t.
However I am slightly jumping the gun here because the fourth important thing in my life happened just eighteen months after we moved to Sheen. I had my first really dreadful attack of agoraphobia which I will describe next in some detail. But with it will be the introduction of Alexandra Jane to my life as a fellow six year old infants school pupil. Only a month younger than I, she humanly saved my sanity as my mind could not cope with irrational fear.
(but that, dear readers, is for tomorrow and the next day)