Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer


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Its effect of smallness was enhanced by the erections in the neighbours' yards on either side.

On one hand was the yard of Mr. Munday, the haberdasher, who had put up a greenhouse and cultivated mushrooms, to nourish which his boys collected horse-droppings from the High Street in a small wooden truck; and on the other, Mr.

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Cooper, the tailor, had built out a workroom in which two or three tailors sat and sewed. It was always a matter of uneasiness to my mother whether these men could or could not squint round and see the necessary comings and goings of pots and pans and persons to the closet.

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The unbricked part of our yard had a small flower-bed in which my father had planted a bush of Wigelia. It flowered reluctantly, and most things grew reluctantly in that bed. A fact, still vividly clear in my mind across an interval of sixty years, is that it was the only patch of turned up earth accessible to the cats of Mr. Munday, Mr. But my father was a gardener of some resolution and, against the back of the house rooting in a hole in the brickwork, he had persuaded a grape vine not only to grow but to flourish. When I was ten, he fell from a combination of short ladder, table and kitchen steps on which he had mounted to prune the less accessible shoots of this vine, and sustained a compound fracture of the leg.

But of that very important event I will tell a little later. I dwell rather upon the particulars about this yard, because it was a [24] large part of my little world in those days. I lived mostly in it and in the scullery and underground kitchen. We were much too poor to have a servant, and it was more than my mother could do to keep fires going upstairs let alone the price of coal. Above the ground floor and reached by an equally tortuous staircase—I have seen my father reduced to a blind ecstasy of rage in an attempt to get a small sofa up it—were a back bedroom occupied by my mother and a front room occupied by my father this separation was, I think, their form of birth control , and above this again was a room, the boys' bedroom there were three of us and a back attic filled with dusty crockery stock.

But there was stock everywhere; pots and pans invaded the kitchen, under the dresser and under the ironing board; bats and stumps crept into the "parlour. Everything was frayed, discoloured and patched. But we had no end of oil lamps because they came out of and went back into stock. My father also dealt in lamp-wicks, oil and paraffin. We lived, as I have said, mostly downstairs and underground, more particularly in the winter. We went upstairs to bed.

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About upstairs I have to add a further particular. The house was infested with bugs.


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They harboured in the wooden bedsteads and lurked between the layers of wallpaper that peeled from the walls. Slain they avenge themselves by a peculiar penetrating disagreeable smell. That mingles in my early recollections with the more pervasive odour of paraffin, with which my father carried on an inconclusive war against them.

Almost every part of my home had its own distinctive smell. This was the material setting in which my life began. Let me tell [25] now something of my father and mother, what manner of people they were, and how they got themselves into this queer home from which my two brothers and I were launched into what Sir James Jeans has very properly called, this Mysterious Universe, to make what we could of it.

My mother was a little blue-eyed, pink-cheeked woman with a large serious innocent face. She was born on October 10th, , in the days when King George IV was King, and three years before the opening of the first steam railway. It was still an age of horse and foot transit, sailing ships and undiscovered lands. She was the daughter of a Midhurst innkeeper and his frequently invalid wife.

His name was George Neal born and he was probably of remote Irish origin; his wife's maiden name was Sarah Benham, which sounds good English. She was born in Midhurst was a little old sunny rag-stone built town on the road from London to Chichester, and my grandfather stabled the relay of horses for the stage coach as his father had done before him. An uncle of his drove a coach, and one winter's night in a snowstorm, being alone without passengers and having sustained himself excessively against the cold and solitude of the drive, he took the wrong turning at the entrance to the town, went straight over the wharf into the pool at the head of the old canal, and was handsomely drowned together with his horses.

It was a characteristic of my mother's family to be easily lit and confused by alcohol, but never subdued to inaction by it. And when my grandfather died he had mortgaged his small property and was very much in debt, so that there was practically nothing for my mother and her younger brother John, who survived him.

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The facts still traceable about my grandfather's circumstances are now very fragmentary. I have a few notes my elder brother made from my mother's recollections, and I have various wills and marriage [26] and birth certificates and a diary kept by my mother. He married Sarah Benham on October 30th, Two infant boys died, and then my mother was born in After a long interval my uncle John was born in , and a girl Elizabeth in It is evident my grandmother had very indifferent health, but she was still pretty and winning, says my mother's diary, at the age of fifty-three, and her hands were small and fine.

Except for that one entry, there is nothing much now to be learnt about her. I suppose that when she was well she did her best, after the fashion of the time, to teach her daughter the elements of religion, knowledge and the domestic arts.

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I possess quite a brave sampler worked by my mother when she was in her eighth year. It says, amidst some decorative stitching:. Sarah Neal her work. May 26, When my grandmother was too ill to be in control, my mother ran about the inn premises, laid the table for my grandfather's meals, and, as a special treat, drew and served tankards of beer in the bar. There was no compulsory schooling in those days. Some serious neighbours seem to have talked to my grandfather and pointed out the value of accomplishments and scholastic finish to a young female in a progressive age.

In he came into some property through the death of my great-grandfather and thereupon my mother was sent off to a finishing school for young ladies kept by a Miss Riley in Chichester. There in a year or so she showed such remarkable aptitude for polite learning, that she learnt to write in the clear angular handwriting reserved for women in those days, to read, to do sums up to, but not quite including, long division, the names of the [27] countries and capitals of Europe and the counties and county towns of England with particular attention to the rivers they were "on" and from Mrs.

Markham's History all that it was seemly to know about the Kings and Queens of England. Moreover she learnt from Magnell's Questions the names of the four elements which in due course she taught me , the seven wonders of the world or was it nine? But she never really mastered the names of the nine Muses and over what they presided, and though she begged and prayed her father that she might learn French, it was an Extra and she was refused it.

A natural tendency to Protestant piety already established by her ailing mother, was greatly enhanced. She was given various edifying books to read, but she was warned against worldly novels, the errors and wiles of Rome, French cooking and the insidious treachery of men, she was also prepared for confirmation and confirmed, she took the sacrament of Holy Communion, and so fortified and finished she returned to her home An interesting thing about this school of Miss Riley's, which was in so many respects a very antiquated eighteenth century school, was the strong flavour of early feminism it left in her mind.

I do not think it is on record anywhere, but it is plain to me from what I have heard my mother say, that among school mistresses and such like women at any rate, there was a stir of emancipation associated with the claim, ultimately successful, of the Princess Victoria, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, to succeed King William IV.

There was a movement against that young lady based on her sex and this had provoked in reaction a wave of feminine partisanship throughout the country. It picked up reinforcement from an earlier trouble between George the Fourth and Queen Caroline. A favourite book of my mother's was Mrs. Strickland's Queens of England , and she followed the life of Victoria, her acts and utterances, her goings forth and her lyings in, her great sorrow and her other bereavements, with a passionate loyalty.

The Queen, also a small woman, was in fact my mother's compensatory personality, her [28] imaginative consolation for all the restrictions and hardships that her sex, her diminutive size, her motherhood and all the endless difficulties of life, imposed upon her. The dear Queen could command her husband as a subject and wilt the tremendous Mr.

Gladstone with awe. How would it feel to be in that position? One would say this. One would do that.


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I have no doubt about my mother's reveries. In her latter years in a black bonnet and a black silk dress she became curiously suggestive of the supreme widow For my own part, such is the obduracy of the young male, I heard too much of the dear Queen altogether; I conceived a jealous hatred for the abundant clothing, the magnificent housing and all the freedoms of her children and still more intensely of my contemporaries, her grandchildren. Why was my mother so concerned about them? Was not my handicap heavy enough without my having to worship them at my own mother's behest?

This was a fixation that has lasted all through my life. Oh, she's coming. If only I could see!

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Take off your hat Bertie dear,"—deepened my hostility and wove a stout, ineradicable thread of republicanism into my resentful nature. But that is anticipating. For the present I am trying to restore my mother's mental picture of the world, as she saw it awaiting her, thirty years and more before I was born or thought of. It was a world much more like Jane Austen's than Fanny Burney's, but at a lower social level.


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  5. Its chintz was second-hand, and its flowered muslin cheap and easily tired. Still more was it like the English countryside of Dickens' Bleak House. It was a countryside, for as yet my mother knew nothing of London. Over it all ruled God our Father, in whose natural kindliness my mother had great confidence. He was entirely confused in her mind, because of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, with "Our Saviour" or "Our Lord"—who was rarely mentioned by any other names.

    The Holy Ghost she ignored almost entirely; I cannot recall any reference to him; he was certainly never " our " Holy [29] Ghost, and the Virgin Mary, in spite of what I should have considered her appeal to feminist proclivities, my mother disregarded even more completely. It may have been simply that there was a papistical flavour about the Virgin; I don't know. Or a remote suspicion of artistic irregularity about the recorded activities of the Holy Spirit.

    In the lower sky and the real link between my mother and the god-head, was the Dear Queen, ruling by right divine, and beneath this again, the nobility and gentry, who employed, patronised, directed and commanded the rest of mankind. On every Sunday in the year, one went to church and refreshed one's sense of this hierarchy between the communion table and the Free Seats. And behind everyone, behind the Free Seats, but alas! My mother was Low Church, and I was disposed to find, even in my tender years, Low Church theology a little too stiff for me, but she tempered it to her own essential goodness, gentleness and faith in God's Fatherhood, in ways that were quite her own.

    I remember demanding of her in my crude schoolboy revolt if she really believed in a hell of eternal torment. Except of course the Old Devil. And even he, being so to speak the official in charge, I think she would have exempted from actual torture. Maybe Our Father would have shown him the tongs now and again, just to remind him.

    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
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    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
    Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer Memoirs of a Chicken Sniffer
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