The other day I found myself missing a few books I’d boxed up, so I drove over to my storage unit and dug happily amongst my books until I found them. Two of the books I brought home are Mrs. Miniver, which I like to reread every year around this time, and Jan Struther’s collection of sketches, Try Anything Twice. Both books are delightful and, more than that, shareable. I can’t read either without wanting to share selections with friends. And so here is a snippet from a school visit to her son. If you can’t find a copy locally, you can read the whole book online here.
After lunch you drive out to the school. In the distance you catch sight of a small figure in grey shorts and a grey felt hat sitting on one of the gate-posts.
“There he is!” you exclaim, and begin waving wildly. The figure on the gate-post takes no notice at all, and as you draw near you perceive that he has sandy hair, pale blue eyes and rabbity teeth. Disconcerted, but hoping that your gestures may have been mistaken for road signals, you sweep past him up the drive. Round the front door there clusters excitedly a shoal of grey sardines. At this point, by all the rules of art and literature, a magical current of mother-love should flash instantaneously between you and your child, enabling you to pick him out in a moment. But instinct, as so often happens, lets you down, and it is really quite a long time before you can discover under which particular dome of grey felt your son’s face is concealed. Even when you have done so you are in a quandary. Your inclination is to kiss it, but you have heard dark rumours that this is not done. Like a parvenu confronted with asparagus you glance furtively around you. Other parents are now arriving thick and fast; with a swift gull-like movement each of them swoops down upon its appropriate sardine, and in nearly every case there is an unmistakable kiss. Times must have changed, you reflect gratefully, surrendering to inclination and hugging your own sardine.
Throughout the afternoon he sits wedged between you on a garden seat, watching the match with unflagging seriousness. You yourself are more occupied with watching him; he is close beside you, yet a thousand miles away; he is still living in an alien world. “Played!” he says at intervals; and “Oh bad luck!” dutifully, when somebody misses a catch; and once he calls his father “Sir” by mistake, and does not notice it. Only twice during the afternoon does he make any remark unconnected with the game. The first time is when an immensely fat boy of about twelve walks past.
“I bet you don’t know what his nickname is.”
“My gosh!” he exclaims respectfully, “However did you guess?”
He is still a little remote to begin with, a little inclined to answer ever inquiry with an automatic “Yes, thank you, Mummy”; but he soon becomes perfectly at his ease. Leaning back against a sand-dune, you try to look at him dispassionately. He is certainly much plumper and browner than he was six weeks ago; his manners have improved and he is more independent; he is, in fact, a very nice little boy of nine: and if his chief interest in life seems to be food and his small-talk consists entirely of age-old riddles and verbal catches–well, little boys of nine are like that, and you may as well accept the fact. And if you once thought that he was something a little out of the ordinary, that he had imagination, that you could talk to him as though he was a contemporary, then you were deceived, the victim of a wish-fulfilment; and a good thing too, you reflect, or he would be having a bad time of it at school.
At this point you notice that he has stopped chewing and is gazing curiously at the half-eaten jam-puff in his hand.
“What’s wrong?” you ask. “Isn’t it a good one?”
“Mm,” he replied, “But I was just wondering, Do you ever think things aren’t really there at all–only inside your mind?”
“Good Lord! Have they been teaching you about Bishop Berkeley already?”
“No. But I asked Rupert Smith-Twissington that once, and he said he’d often thought of it too.”
Baffled again. Inscrutable, delightful sardine.