Meeting the Family

I was halfway across Victoria Embankment when a motorcycle cop pulled up and stayed me with his gauntleted hand. I could see his steady blue eyes looking at me through his visor. How had I offended? Jaywalking? Isn’t that an American offence? Then I realised he was the outrider of a convey. It swept past, a dozen vehicles long: motorcycle cops, black 4WDs with tinted windows, two big grey windowless Mercedes vans, more cops on bikes. None of the vehicles showed any insignia; there were no flags on bonnets, no royal or government crests. Nothing to say what kind of convey this was nor who was riding in it.

I interrogated the possibilities. Clandestine royals? Some foreign dignitary who did not wish anyone to know s/he was in town? A high level military delegation, on its way to confer with politicians at Westminster? Black ops? Or were the vans transporting terrorists to Wandsworth Gaol? Common criminals wouldn’t receive such lavish treatment. I remembered that Kings and Queens of England had taken this route in their carriages before, with their mounted equerries slashing the poor folk out of their way. I heard the cries of peasants and workers going under the hooves of antique tyrannies. Ghosts of the downpressers haunted the grey afternoon air.

The Thames didn’t care. The brown river slid slowly by, cleaner than when last I saw it, immemorial in its blank acquiescence to whatever took place along its banks. I gazed at the flow, letting my mind drift; then walked along until I was opposite Middle Temple Lane, where I re-crossed the road, without incident, and entered the Inns of Court. A yellow building on my right might have been where lawyer and politician John Platts-Mills had his rooms. I passed Temple Church, where he and his wife, the painter Janet Cree, married in 1936: built by the Knights Templers 800 years before, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it wasn’t open that day.

Out of the murk and roar of Fleet Street, a dragon came writhing. Rampant, mouth open, wings spread and clutching in its fore-claws a shield bearing some obscure device. This too looked like something out of the far past; but the Temple Bar Memorial is less than a century and a half old. It was designed in 1880 by Horace Jones to mark the place where once one of the gates to the City stood; the bronze sculpted by Charles Bell Birch. Monarchs on their way to the Tower, after whipping away the poor, used to pause at the gate before entering the City. Sometimes the Mayor would be there to offer up his sword and his keys.

I was going towards The Strand but had some time on my hands. On the other side of the road was a church: St Dunstan-in-the-West. The cacophony of the street faded. A pale grey octagonal nave, with burgundy pillars and a vaulted ceiling painted a cloudy blue. Gleams of gold in the roof-timbers. Coloured light falling through stained glass windows. I heard the sound of choirs singing, far away. Dunstan was the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of London in the last decades of the first millennium, before William’s conquering Normans swept over in 1066. He is the patron saint of gold and silver smiths because he is said to have made his own plate for the churches where he officiated.

This was not the church St Dunstan built, however; that was demolished in 1829, when Fleet Street was widened. This one was made in the early 1830s over the graveyard that stood behind the old church; by two John Shaws, a father and a son. The octagonal construction imitates the shape of a lantern; some bits of the old building were incorporated in the new. I ran my hand along a wooden communion rail, carved by Grinling Gibbons a few decades after the poet John Donne was vicar of St Dunstan’s in the 1620s. Next to the altar was a wall of Byzantine icons screening a chapel; their opulent gold leaf surfaces, purple skies and staring eyes, seemed incongruous in that otherwise austere Anglican interior.

When I went to go, the door was locked. A robed young woman came from the vestry with a ring of keys to let me out.

We close at 4 o’clock, she said.

Why is the chapel next to the altar closed off like that? What is that wall of icons?

It’s called an iconostasis, she said. Basically, a screen. It comes from a monastery in Bucharest. People from the Romanian Orthodox Church worship here too. This is one of only three Anglican churches in England where they can.

~ ~ ~

Michael Trapp is Professor of Greek Literature and Thought at King’s College, London. I met him in his long, narrow, book-lined office with its single window looking out over The Strand. He is the elder of two sons of Joseph and Elayne Trapp, née Falla, New Zealanders who moved to England in the early fifties and lived near Reading, where Joe had a job teaching English at the university. He was a librarian at heart, however, and in 1953 took up a position at the Warburg Institute; and rose through the ranks until, in 1976, succeeding the eminent Ernst Gombrich, he became its Director. He retired in 1990 but continued to write and publish until his death in 2005.

Joe Trapp was an authority on the English Humanists, particularly Thomas More; upon the history of the pre-Gutenburg book; and upon representations of the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. After his death one of his colleagues described him as the nicest man I ever knew. I asked Michael what he thought about that. He smiled. The niceness was—discretionary. My father did not always show what he felt or thought, because it was often not politic so to do.

That reticence was of long standing, it went back to childhood, and was apparent in his early days at Reading, where he would hesitate to deliver an opinion for fear of making a mistake or of being taken for a fool. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have strong views; quite the opposite. He was just careful about how he expressed them. If you come from a small town like Carterton, on the other side of the globe, and penetrate to the very heart of the British scholarly establishment, as Joe Trapp did, you would need to be able to show a bit of discretion, wouldn’t you?

Michael, an exceptionally nice man himself, agreed. He brought up a couple of photographs on his laptop screen. The first was of a children’s Christmas party at the Warburg Institute in 1957. There was a long table where a straggle of kids wearing paper hats and festooned with crepe streamers sat before plates of ice-cream and jelly. Joe was over to the left of the image, bending over; near the centre, a woman—the estimable Gertrud Bing—held two babes in arms. The one on the right was Michael; the other was his friend, Michael Kaufmann, who became Director of the Courtauld Institute. The two Michaels.

The second photograph was a solo shot of Joe—the same age as I am now, Michael remarked. That is, about 60. He is sitting at a desk, turning in his chair to look at the camera. Thick black-rimmed glasses, a big nose, slightly bulging eyes; a formidable presence. The look is challenging, perhaps even suspicious: what do you want? Or even: what are you looking at? He resembled my own father in his headmaster days. The image, emblematically, faded to grey as our conversation proceeded.

A more complex picture emerged. A man of great learning and prodigious memory who nevertheless was uninterested in, or actively sceptical of, theoretical considerations; one who did not have a grand hypothesis to prove and was not engaged in the writing of some big book; preferring to follow certain individual threads to see where they led and how they got to where they were going. His interest in representations of Petrarch, for instance, initiated by Italian colleagues on one of his many visits to their country, was of this kind. He was an able administrator as well as a consummate scholar; and, despite the busy public career he followed, managed to satisfy his own intellectual needs. He was not, Michael said, a disappointed man.

In politics he remained an egalitarian socialist. This wasn’t just an ideal. Part of what sustained him through all those years at the Warburg—effectively half a century—was a belief in community. The basis of the Warburg’s collection was assembled by its founder, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), art historian and independent scholar, in Hamburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the 1920s, it became the home of a group of eminent researchers. Their interests were both eclectic and esoteric and, once the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, the library, the institute and its scholars, many of whom were, like Warburg, Jewish, came under imminent threat.

The collection, along with most of the scholars, was transported to London; the books, the photographs, the shelving, even some boxes of pen nibs, crossed the North Sea in two little steamers. The institute has been in England ever since; and, despite vicissitudes, survives today. Much of what Joe and Elayne did, Michael said, especially in the early days, involved looking after these aging and increasingly frail German scholars; but they were also intimately engaged in the work of ensuring that the library had a future.

There’s always a point in these conversations, which are also interviews, where I feel called upon, perhaps unwisely, to explain myself. I said this was, precisely, my interest in his father: as a conservator of culture, one of those obscure or unsung people who do the work that must be done to keep a tradition alive. In that sense, I was as interested in the Warburg as I was in Joe. The Warburg, I said, seems to me to be about tracing continuities and identifying methods of change, especially in visual symbology; a means of recording, maintaining and extending traditions founded in antiquity, persistent until today and viable in the future too—if we have one.

Michael was looking a bit alarmed. Yes, I had come on too strong. We changed the subject. He had spent the afternoon engaged in work towards preserving an historic site on university land: the Strand Lane Baths, allegedly a Roman survival but actually the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to feed a fountain in the gardens of old Somerset House, then a Royal palace: the private preserve of Anne of Denmark, wife to James I. The cistern, after a period of neglect, had been brought back into use in 1770 as a public bath; the Roman speculation seems to have begun in the 1820s, as an advertising gimmick.

That sounds like something that would have interested your father, I said. Wasn’t he concerned with tracing the history of misunderstandings or misattributions? The ways in which the past is as much an invention or a fiction as it is a record of fact?

Michael had another relic to show me. It was a Greek grammar, a small grey soft-back which belonged to Joe’s older sister Phyllis and then to him. Both their names were written in the front, first hers, then his. There were annotations to some of the exercises; and a date: 1943. Phyllis, who was fluent, had taught Joe Greek while she was a staff member, and he a pupil, at Dannevirke High School in south Hawkes Bay. In 1943 he was turning eighteen and about to go down to Victoria University in Wellington to study.

My father didn’t think his Greek and Latin were good enough to embark on a scholarly career, Michael said. But he did find himself teaching Latin grammar to students at the Warburg in the early days. They were evening classes, they were compulsory, and when he came home afterwards, he would invariably say that he had been setting people on the wrong path again. That, too, was characteristic: a genuine modesty expressed as ironic self-deprecation.

~ ~ ~

The Warburg Institute is housed in a squat, square, five storey purpose-built building on Woburn Square. It’s been there since 1957 and, although many complain of its ugliness, I liked its proportions. I was early so I wandered around outside for a while, trying to pick up traces. Virginia Woolf’s perfume perhaps. Leonard’s aftershave. I hadn’t been in Bloomsbury before. A fine rain drifted down from a grey sky but it wasn’t cold. The grass in the small rectangular park was wet, there were muddy puddles, the trees were bare, yellow and purple crocuses were beginning to push their way up into the February air. Most of those passing by looked like students heading for class—the Warburg, like King’s College, is part of the University of London.

My meeting at ten was with Jill Kraye. Chicago-born, but in manner more like a New Yorker, she studied at Columbia University before joined the Institute in 1974 as Assistant Librarian; and has been there, in various capacities, including Librarian, ever since. Most recently, as Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy. She was intense, engaging, as she took me from reception up a wide, generously proportioned marble staircase with polished wooden banisters and along a corridor to a small office at the end: not hers, that of Charles Hope, a former Director. He was a suave fellow, an Englishman, with impeccable manners; inadvertently, or perhaps advertently (how do you tell?) intimidating. I spent about an hour with them, listening rather than talking, as they held a conversation, for my benefit, about Joe Trapp.

And much else besides. The Warburg has been in crisis over the last few years because the University of London, allegedly, was attempting to sell it; or rather, sell the building it is housed in, after merging its collection—350,000 books, a like number of photographs, a unique, hundred year old archive—with that of the Senate House library in nearby Malet Street off Russell Square. In this scenario, the Institute as a home for scholars and students would, presumably, wither gradually away then disappear.

So would its character as an open source library: you would have to request items, probably online, rather than find them on the shelves, as you can now. The plans, whatever they actually involved—the UOL denied any intention to sell—were greeted with outrage. Petitions were drawn up and signed; letters were written; there were editorials and news articles published. Charles Hope abandoned his scholarly work and dedicated himself, over a period of seven years, to coming to a precise understanding of the legal position of the Warburg vis à vis the University of London.

The Institute and the UOL ended up going to court to seek a determination upon the legalities of their relationship. Money was of the essence: the cause of the dispute was the university’s decision, in 2007-08, to increase the so-called estates charge on the Institute. They said this ‘space charge’—which somehow rose from £8,000 in 2006-07 to £643,000 in 2007-08—was in line with normal full-economic cost principles used by other universities. In other words, the UOL was massively inflating the rent they charged the Institute for the use of its own building. Along with concurrent funding cuts, this would have left the Warburg in serious financial difficulty. That, too, in the way of such things, would have been used against it: see, it’s not economically viable, we need to do something about that.

The founding document, the Trust Deed, was signed in November 1944 by the UOL and a great nephew of Aby’s, Eric Warburg, then a major in the US army, and a descendent of one of Warburg’s American banker brothers, on behalf of the whole family. It was typed up—courier not pica—on a single sheet of cheap wartime paper, using both sides of the page; listed the contents of library as about eighty thousand books and a large collection of photographs; and stated that the University will maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity in accordance with this Deed and will keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit.

What could be clearer than that? The High Court, in its wisdom, ruled that the university did indeed have an obligation to keep the Institute equipped and staffed. Mrs Justice Proudman also said the levying of space charges is not, to my mind, permissible. The imposition of university-wide space charges flies in the face of this provision as it merely treats the Institute as a constituent part of UOL without regard to its special character or its position as an independent unit. The UOL was, however, given leave to appeal certain elements of the judgment; which, inter alia, it claimed as a victory. Why a university might choose to levy ‘space charges’ on one of its own colleges is a conundrum. It looks like a creative accountant’s method of simultaneously cutting costs and inflating income.

Charles said that, although the Institute had successfully fought off this attempt to vary the terms of the Trust Deed (judgement was brought down in November, 2014), he wasn’t confident that was the end of the matter. He expected further efforts would be made to undermine the Institute which, people say, may end up crossing the Atlantic to find a safer home at some American institution. The Getty Centre, in Los Angeles, has been mentioned. Others have speculated it might return to Germany, perhaps even to Hamburg itself. Wouldn’t that be peculiar? The Deed was signed while V1s and V2s were exploding into the streets of London; now, the UOL seemed determined to accomplish what the Nazis could not: destruction of the Warburg.

Jill took me along to her own office, where she gave me a small book, elegantly designed, with a pale blue paper cover: Joseph Burney Trapp 1925-2005—A Commemoration (2007). It gathers together seven talks given at an event in December, 2005; and includes a comprehensive bibliography of Trapp’s writings. Among the contributors are Charles Hope and Jill herself; David Chambers, whom I would meet later on in the day; Michael Kaufmann, the other baby in the 1957 photo; and literary critic Frank Kermode. Frank had been at Reading University when Joe arrived, the pair lived side by side, with their respective families, on houseboats down by the Thames, and became lifelong friends. I opened Kermode’s essay at random: I used to think, rather selfishly, that an afternoon in the Library with Joe would save me weeks of work, for he seemed to have everything by heart.

Jill confirmed Joe’s extraordinary knowledge of the contents of the library, as well as the alacrity with which he bounded around the stacks. She allowed that she was in awe of him when she began at the Warburg in 1974 and never really lost that feeling, even after thirty years. Isn’t that an uneasy fit with his legendary niceness, I wondered? But no, perhaps not, first because his modesty was as genuine as his accomplishments; and second because, although he might not say it or show it, errors pained him to the core, as if they were an indication of a flaw in your character rather than in your education or intellect or memory. Joe, Jill said, was the last person truly to understand the Prussian Instructions of 1899, an arcane set of rules for alphabetical cataloguing, long defunct on the continent, but used at the Warburg until computerisation arrived in 1991. You can still see the codes printed on the ends of the rows of shelves.

In the afternoon a young Irish woman, Nessa Malone, newly appointed Assistant Librarian, gave me a tour of the premises. There is the Reading Room on the ground floor; in the basement, the Archive, which I did not see, along with Periodicals; then four identically constructed floors above—I mean their physical disposition is identical, not, of course, their contents. That content is deeply idiosyncratic and follows, ascending, Aby Warburg’s original four-part dispensation: Image, Word, Orientation, Action (though some dispute that this is in fact the original order; out of a suspicion that Orientation should be first, not third). It’s an open shelf library; meaning (almost) everything is available to a casual browser.

Indeed, that is the principle upon which the library is built: the law of the good neighbour, which states that the book you need may not be the one you know about, but the one next to it, which you don’t—yet. Jill said Joe was a master of such arrangements. His decisions were so intelligent and, at times, inspired, that he raised this activity to an art form. Sections of the library reclassified by him are so well structured and organised that they guide readers effortlessly along the shelf to the right book. Sometimes there is a touch of sly humour, as in the El Greco section, where monographs are divided into three categories: general, specific topics, and nutters.

My regret, not a small one, is that I was there to research the biography of a librarian, rather than make use of the library itself. It was frustrating to pass before shelves of rare, mostly unknown, books—like those from Frances Yate’s collection—and yet to have no time to stop and investigate further. We descended, by lift, to the ground floor and Nessa found for me, in the Reading Room, something I could look into before my next appointment: a special issue of the journal, Common Knowledge, published by Duke University Press in Durham, North Carolina, and dedicated to The Warburg’s Library and its Legacy.

I read the Introduction, by Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, and found therein a cogent summary of the basis of the Institute: Warburg rejected the traditional view that the classical tradition was a simple, purely rational Greek creation, inherited by modern Europe. He argued that it was as much Mesopotamian as Greek in origin, as at home in the Islamic as in the European world, and as often irrational as rational in its content—and on the basis of this rich vision he devised brilliant new interpretations of medieval and Renaissance symbols and ideas. 

I flicked through the body of the book, looking for any mention of Joe Trapp. I found him in an essay called Dromenon by Christopher S. Wood. Dromenon—‘the thing done’—is an alternative word for Action, used to describe the contents of the fourth floor; and Wood’s essay is an examination of what that term might signify: ritual, as much as politics; the pattern-making that keeps chaos at bay. In a brilliant passage, he likens the Warburg Institute to the planet Solaris in Polish author Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi classic of that name: Lem’s ocean-planet was an organic plasma that ‘remembered’ humankind. Solaris archived the contents of human imaginations and then projected those contents back into the human sphere, provoking but ultimately confusing the efforts of cosmologists and astronauts to grasp the planet-mind as a whole, objectively.

Solaris was not a merely passive or reflective cognitive instrument, but rather active: ‘Not, it is true, according to human ideas—it did not build cities or bridges, nor did it manufacture flying machines. It did not try to reduce distances, nor was it concerned with the conquest of Space. But it was engaged in a never-ending process of transformation, an ontological autometamorphosis.’ Wood continues: The Library-user submits to the pull of the brain. The Library reaches inside you and materializes your memories in the form of the books it generates through you and then, in turn, absorbs back into its shelves. In this way, it mimics the imaginations of its reader-participants. To use the Library as it is meant to be used, moving sideways from book to book, is to retrace the circuitry of an externalized but still plastic memory.

Wood engages with Trapp about two thirds of the way through the essay, on the subject of the fictions which lie buried, perhaps immanent, within the facts of history. Joe had, Wood notes, published several ingenious essays about the fictive tombs of ancient poets. Trapp’s basic insight was that erudition in the Renaissance generated its own peculiar forms of credulity, freakish projections of the historical imagination into the very formats devised to stabilize the past: the tomb monument, the epigram, the treatise. Trapp’s line—which he obligingly confirmed for me viva voce, in his Warburg Institute office—[was] that the unscrupulous manipulators of tradition were often the very scholars who best understood the powers and limits of book-to-book transmission.

~ ~ ~

At the appointed hour, I sought out the office of art historian Jennifer Montagu, where we were to be joined by her colleague, Medieval historian David Chambers. The winter light was fading fast outside and the darkening, south-facing room—a simulacrum, almost to the point of parody, of an absent-minded professor’s cluttered, untidy yet richly populated nest of obsessions—was extremely, not to say soporifically, well-heated. I felt as if I had somehow entered the dwelling of an owl; an impression augmented by Jennifer’s large brown eyes behind the lenses of her thickly-glassed spectacles.

She was an iconoclast too; with a paradoxical and distinguished family history. Her father was Ewen Montagu, lawyer, judge, writer who had, as the Naval representative on the Twenty (XX or Double Cross) Committee during the war, along with the secretary to the Committee, an eccentric RAF officer called Charles Cholmondeley, conceived Operation Mincemeat. Acting on the basis of the famous Trout Memo—likening organised deception in wartime to fly fishing—written in 1939 by Ian Fleming, the British, in 1943, arranged to have a dead man, dressed as an officer in the Royal Marines, dropped into the sea from a submarine, HMS Seraph, so as to wash ashore on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain.

He had a packet of official papers in a water proof briefcase chained to the belt of his trench coat. The papers included references to plans for the imminent, though fictional, Allied invasion of Greece, the Balkans, Corsica and Sardinia—as opposed to Sicily, where the actual invasion would and did take place. In the briefcase there were also proof copies of a (real) official booklet—Combined Operations, 1940-42—to which General Eisenhower was to be asked, for the American edition, to write a preface.

In the fiction, the dead man was a courier carrying these things from London to a meeting of Allied generals in North Africa; a passenger in a plane shot down somewhere over the ocean. His papers identified him as Captain, acting Major, William Martin, a name and rank chosen for their ordinariness. There was a single black eyelash affixed to the envelope of official papers, so that, when it was returned to the British by the Spanish, as they were obliged by their neutrality to do, the Brits would know whether or not it had been opened.

In the so-called pocket litter—a photograph of Martin’s fiancé, two love letters, a receipt for the purchase of a diamond ring, a letter from his father, bills, stamps, theatre ticket stubs, a silver cross, cash, a St Christopher, cigarettes and matches—given the dead man, Montagu and Cholmondeley manufactured a life history for the mythical Major; whose body was in fact that of a Welsh itinerant called Glyndwr Michael who had died in St Pancras hospital on January 28 that year and was kept on ice for three months or so. Glyn had been living rough, sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, where he got so hungry he ate crusts of bread baited with toxic paste to kill rats; and succumbed to liver failure consequent upon phosphorous poisoning.

Phosphorous, unlike arsenic, decays in the body; the corpse could plausibly be that of a man drowned after the aircraft carrying him on his mission crashed into the sea. Major Martin’s body was duly recovered by local sardine fishermen near Huelva on the Atlantic shore, the German secret service, the Abwehr, was informed, the contents of the briefcase, the packet and the pocket litter read, scanned and evaluated by them before being returned (without the eyelash on the envelope flap) to the British. The Major, a Roman Catholic, was buried with military honours in the local cemetery. This improbable deception, which reached up the Nazi chain of command as far as Hitler himself, was entirely successful.

Ewen’s younger brother, Jennifer’s uncle, was a character too. He was the film maker, communist, table tennis champion, wild life conservator and spy, Ivor Montagu, who in 1959 was awarded the Lenin Prize for services to socialism; but is better remembered as an innovative and dedicated worker towards the establishment of a genuine British film culture. He was variously a movie critic, a screen-writer and, in the 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock’s producer. The Montagu boys were scions of a wealthy family of Jewish bankers which was awarded the Baronetcy of Swaythling in 1907.

Jennifer had studied political science at Oxford after the war but, because of her interest in sculpture, gravitated towards the Courtauld Institute, where she became a protégé of Ernst Gombrich, who pointed her in the direction of French artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), about whom she wrote her dissertation. Did you know, Gombrich asked her, sounding very Warburgian, that there is a history of facial expressions? Le Brun had lectured in Paris on the subject.

I am very unfaithful to my artists, Jennifer said, but I always keep them as friends. I like lesser-known artists, those who raise interesting problems, more so than the famous or popular ones. I am the sole survivor of the Society of the Enemies of Bernini, which I founded with Anthony Blunt.

David Chambers, who joined us later, was a quiet, civilized, modest man with a razor sharp wit which he kept mostly hidden. He had come to the Warburg as a reader in 1968: A tall figure sped into the Reading Room and bore down on me. He introduced himself as the librarian and said that he had liked my book—a slim volume boiled down from a thesis. I was struck dumb, first to meet a librarian who read books, and second to meet one who had noticed my book and could bother to come and find a mere new reader to say something nice to him. David went on to remember Joe’s abiding love of Italy; and recalled the times he spent there traipsing alone by train with an empty suitcase, making personal contacts and collecting rare publications or periodicals to exchange for the Journal. He was, as the Italians say, un uomo generoso.

After David left, Jennifer and I talked on, about many things, including her uncle. Ivor, she said, was definitely a spy. As for her father, she said that his book—The Man Who Never Was (1953)—wasn’t as good as Operation Mincemeat, the more recent (2010) account by Ben McIntyre. She was one of those people with whom conversation flows in a pleasurable manner without leaving discernible memory traces behind. It was as if, over the twenty odd years that separated us, we were flirting, albeit decorously, with one another. I would have liked to have stayed for longer; but the room was so hot I was beginning to fall asleep. I stood up to go.

It’s a curiosity, perhaps a perversity, of biographical research that, when you come across someone who has no real interest in discussing family matters, it is impossible not to admire them for it. I told Jennifer this; we shook hands; and then she gestured towards the dark window. 

I think, she said, I will go out now and smoke a cheroot in the car park.

And after that? 

After that I will come back here and work until late. I do my best writing at night. 

A night owl, then. She was 84, almost 85, years old. I kept thinking of her, puffing away down there in the car park, or writing in longhand in a tiny space cleared on that magnificently cluttered desk, as I made my way, in the cold evening air, back to Lisson Grove.

~ ~ ~

Next morning I took the Central line out to East Acton. Michael Trapp had recommended I call ahead from White City. I did and his mother, Elayne, said she would meet me at the station. Sure enough, there she was, a small woman with her white hair cut in a bob at the wheel of an immaculate hatchback. I crossed the road and climbed in the passenger side.

How did you know it was me? she asked.

You look like a New Zealander, I said; and we laughed.

Michael quoted a remark of his father’s: My family is small. Joe, a keen rugby player and a cricketer, was tall but Elayne was not; and this was made poignant by the way she had to reach up to put her key in the lock set high in the front door of the house in Vyner Road where they lived together for half a lifetime; and where she still lived. I had a fleeting impression of a child at the entrance to a giant’s castle.

Once inside, Elayne made coffee and set out a plate of biscuits; we sat at a small table before a window looking out to the back garden. There were grape hyacinths. Yellow crocuses. The trees still bare, and the sky that gloomy shade of English grey, threatening, but not delivering, rain.

Yes, she said, my husband was tall but not robust or muscular or even very strong; he was lightly built, with a great deal of energy.

That feeling of inauthenticity: it was real and went deep. They’ll find me out, he used to say, in the early days at the Warburg. It was too good to be true. He said something similar in his farewell speech when he retired in 1990. You didn’t find me out! It was a love of literature that drove him, Elayne said. Both poetry and prose. He never wrote poetry himself, he knew it was beyond him. His own prose was intricate and highly wrought. A developed style. His ideal was expressed by Erasmus: the establishment of a world culture.

The Warburg took us unreservedly in. Like family. These mainly German refugees, with their wide culture and learning, accepted us both, without question. Whatever Joe’s doubts about his abilities, the Warburgians understood that he was a genuine scholar. We always meant to go back to New Zealand but it wasn’t possible to turn our backs upon these people. It would have been the wrong thing to do. And so the Warburg became our life too. We did go back to New Zealand, twice, so the boys could see it. But once Joe joined the Institute, returning there to live became impossible.

After we’d had our coffee, she asked if I would like to see his study. It was at the front of the house, with windows looking out to the street. The desk sat at right angles to the windows, facing a wall of books. Elayne used it still—there was a small silver-grey Apple notebook open on the desk—but otherwise left it as it had been when Joe was alive. She said she did not know why she would want to change it. That was poignant too; but I didn’t want to ask about what she might feel after the loss of her life companion more than ten years ago now.

She probably sensed the question anyway, because when we went back into the sitting room, she began to talk about their early days together. They had met at Victoria University of Wellington when Joe was teaching there and she was studying; in an Introduction to the Classics class he took. They fell in love and made their commitment; but she didn’t join him in England until after he had finished at Reading, because she was completing her own degree in English. She was also going to become a librarian.

They were apart for eighteen months and when she did come over, Joe was living in a boat, a converted barge, down by the Thames, next door to Frank Kermode. Frank and his wife Maureen Eccles called their beached landing craft by the Joycean name Anna Livia; Elayne and Joe’s was christened The Unfortunate Lady, after the poem by Alexander Pope about the suicide of friend. Pope used to visit the Blount sisters at nearby Mapledurham House, and attached to the church was a Catholic chapel where the poet is said to have worshipped.

Joe and Elayne were married in that church—though not in the chapel—in 1953. The wedding party was about a dozen strong. Her mother, Elayne recalled, could not be there, and very much minded missing out. The reception was a picnic on the grass beside the river, where the house boats were moored. It was a beautiful day. There were swans on the water.

That was a free time, she said. We used often to go up to London to see a play or an opera. When Joe started working at the Institute, we took a flat in town, in North Kensington. The Warburg had a couple of floors in the grand old Imperial Institute Building in South Kensington, near the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the British Library. That building is gone, demolished, years ago now.

Elayne played piano—there was an upright, open, with sheet music upon it, against the other wall. She went to an opera night each week, locally, usually a lecture given by another New Zealander, a gay man named Alley who fled the country in 1979; homosexuality was illegal there until 1986.

I garden too; when I can, she said. People thought it strange when we bought out here in 1959, so far from town. But it was affordable and we liked the neighbourhood. We had friends here, the Kaufmanns.

There was a church nearby. Like the one in Fleet Street, it was a St Dunstan’s. Most of Acton was once the property of the Goldsmith’s Guild; at the other end of Vyner Street stands a pub called the Goldsmith’s Arms. Much had changed, though, since 1959. An Islamic school replaced the old state institution; subsequently, many of the houses were bought by wealthy Arabs and rented out to families whose children went to the school. These houses tend to be overcrowded and run down, their gardens neglected.

After lunch―an omelette and an apple, washed down with Evian water―Elayne took me upstairs to see the rest of the house. I looked along the spines of all of the books, save those in the bedroom, where I did not go. It was a wonderful library: poetry, art books, the classics, majestic editions of the works of the early humanists: Thomas More, John Colet, Desiderius Erasmus. There was a shelf of books by Frank Kermode and, next to that, a shelf of books by Harold Bloom. When Elayne and Joe went to Yale for six months in 1960, Bloom and his wife Jeanne Gould were there as well, the two couples met and became lifelong friends.

I was surprised to find two of my own books there: The Autobiography of my Father (1992) and Zone of the Marvellous (2009). And one of my mother’s: Hot October (1989). Elayne said they were sent over by a friend in New Zealand but she didn’t say who that friend was. It was strange to see them there. Joe was a few years younger than my father but an exact contemporary of my mother; he must have read both autobiographies with interest. But Zone of the Marvellous: no. It was published after his death. I felt relieved—I had treated therein scholarly matters, with which he was acquainted, in a manner he would certainly have found unscholarly. And therefore painful. Another echo: Joe’s copy of W B Yeats’ Collected Poems was the same edition my mother had given me, in 1970, as a present when I was leaving home to go to university.

In the hall were two small Goya prints from Los Caprichos. Both featured owls, or owl-like figures. Exiles from the parliament of scholars perhaps. Next to them was a Rembrandt etching of a drunken and disreputable Christ. It was lying around at the Institute, apparently ownerless, so Joe asked if he could have it. Of course you can, the Warburgians said. On the wall along the staircase, ascending, hung half a dozen water colour landscapes, family heirlooms. A Trapp ancestor, William Mein Smith, was Surveyor General in Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company and these were his paintings.

It was time to go. I had a train to catch. We’d been talking for six hours, 9.30 am to 3.30 pm. On the drive to the station, near Henchman Street, I saw the walls of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Elayne parked then got out of the car to shake my hand. She thanked me—formally, unnecessarily—for taking the trouble to come to see her and for the conversation we had had.

It means a lot to me, she said. And we have talked about so many things!

We had: her father, Robert Falla, was an eminent scientist, museum keeper and ornithologist; it was Elayne who told me that the bird I’d seen in Regents Park was Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. Her mother, Molly Burton, had written a book for children about penguins. I promised to send her a draft of the piece about Joe, when it was written (I did), she thanked me again and we said goodbye. I watched her car beetle up the road. The last thing I saw was the white bob of her hair as she turned the corner past Wormwood Scrubs.

~ ~ ~

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Meeting the Family

  1. cherbro

    Beautiful. Lovely scene setting.

    A fascinating collection of familiar NZ names and connections.

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