Saturday, September 18, 2021

18 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

I realize, belatedly as usual, that it’s time to acknowledge what has become obvious even to your stubbornly obtuse son! Time to give up the original conceit that these letters are about me trying to get to know you. The truth is the opposite, it’s about wanting you to get to know me. The “tell me who you are” turns out to be reversed. But you probably understood that from the start.

From the time I left Cambridge and strode out—with a quite few stumbles yet to come—onto the world’s greater stage, I had very little contact with you, other than what I have lately discovered to be a remarkably extensive correspondence. The actual time we spent together was quite brief. Even in the previous years, my being away at boarding school for the better part of the year meant that I’d had less contact with you than most boys do with their fathers. After Cambridge, though, I spent only two years more in England, in the big city, and then left England for good. For the rest of your life, I returned only for short visits. I moved first to Germany for two years, then to Canada for another two before arriving here in the United States, I spent four years in Iowa City at the Writers’ Workshop, then moved out to California in 1968. I have lived here ever since. In short, the progression of the years put an ever further geographical distance between the two of us.

It was not long after I left England that you retired—I think in part for reasons of poor health. There were recurrent headaches, bronchial problems, a sometimes severe depression. The remainder of your days, and Peggy’s, were spent at Glenview, that little cottage by the Cardigan Bay in Aberporth, where Peggy’s parents lived, too, until their death. You set up your woodshop in what had been the garage and worked for many years at your lathe, a minister-turned-craftsman, while Peggy took care of the cottage and the cooking. You had your pub within walking distance, and when walking became difficult you took to a nicely decorated wooden cane to help you up the hill. With that, and your French beret, you became a familiar sight in the village, something of a local institution on your daily trips up to The Ship in the middle of the day.

We’ll talk more about our visits there, and the grandchildren’s, in due course. In the meantime, it’s good to have arrived at a greater clarity about my purpose. You have become, curiously, perhaps perversely, your own son’s confessor!

With love, Peter  

Friday, September 17, 2021

17 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

At the end of my three years at Cambridge I was headed out into the real world without the first idea what to do with the rest of my life. Just like you, Harry. I know that much. You had your degree in psychology. You would have made an excellent psychotherapist—a familiar path these days but not an obvious one in the 1920s when you graduated. Back then the career paths in that field would have been either psychiatrist, with a medical degree, or psychoanalyst, with a couch. I can understand that neither one would have appealed. Alternatively… you had been involved in amateur theatrics at Cambridge, and you were tempted by the dream of a career in acting. I believe I mentioned earlier that Peggy told me this. But I suspect your father played a part in your rejecting this path, whether consciously or unconsciously: a practical man, a scientist, an inventor, a businessman, he would never have approved.

And then there was the ministry, the path you chose.

As for me, I was a poet. I had been writing poetry since the age of twelve, and it was at that age, Peggy told me, that I announced my intention to become a writer. I had been writing poems in my student days at Cambridge—pretty maudlin stuff, I could well imagine. Still, it could hardly escape my attention, as I reached that time to leave the sheltered world of academia behind and set out into the real world where a “job” was needed, and the livable income that went along with it, that poets are not known to make a lot of money. That they are, in fact, lucky if they make anything at all.

There was, too, another factor that had to be considered: National Service. I had deftly managed to postpone the requirement by heading off to university, but now the obligation loomed once more. I had this somewhat romantic poet’s notion of joining the RAF to become a pilot, where I could leave the mundane earth behind me and drift ecstatically among the clouds in the cockpit of my Spitfire. I even showed up for the aptitude test, which put an ignominious end to that aspiration. It proved me to be singularly lacking in spatial perception—a quality obviously essential to a pilot. (It also helps to explain that deficiency in sports I mentioned earlier, that I was never able to locate a ball in space).

What, then? Did we consult together about this? Did we have a serious family discussion about my future prospects? If we did, I don’t remember it. But there was another option into which I more or less stumbled without clear intention—one that would, to coin a phrase, conveniently kill two birds with one stone. I learned that teachers employed in the state school system were spared the necessity of National Service in the military, and that I could earn myself a further deferment by enrolling in a year at a teacher’s training college.

A teacher’s life? It would be ideal, I easily convinced myself. Not much work, really. Short days, long holidays. I would have plenty of time to spend on my poetry!

From what Olympian heights did I condescend to look down upon a world awaiting nothing better than the flowering of my genius!

How wrong I was.

Your ever self-deluding son, Peter

Thursday, September 16, 2021

16 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

Phew! We can happy to have finally passed that milepost.

Considering how kind she had been to me—and how kind she would continue to be, so long as I knew her—I was as shamefully cavalier in the way I treated Debbie as I had been with Jeannine. We did continue to go out together, sometimes for dinner at one of those inexpensive Indian restaurants where you could get a delicious, spicy, satisfying meal for no more than half-a-crown. I don’t know what that would be in today’s money, maybe something like a couple of dollars.

Or we’d go to the flicks. Perhaps it was with Debbie that I saw “East of Eden”, the first time I saw James Dean, and the first movie that he made. After which, before he died in a car crash in his Porsche at a remote California crossroads, there were “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” the one about the Texas oil man in which the (for many, eternally) young actor aged, none too successfully, into a nasty, rich old drunk. I mention James Dean because like so many other young men at the time and at that age, I identified so keenly with both the actor and his roles; with the easy, boyish surface charm that covered a hornet’s nest of insecurities and anger; with the lost, mumbling man-boy, so anxious to please the father for whom he was never good enough and earn the love of the mother he could never reach.

I was James Dean. Well, a self-conscious, reedy English public schoolboy version of the same.

How many of us James Deans were out there on the streets with our nervous tics, mumbling away and grinning quick, angst-filled grins, and brushing nervously at our hair? We were, as they say, legion.

You of all people, Harry, with your love of Freud, would doubtless spot the Oedipus lurking in our psyches. But then I can be sure you never saw any of those films I loved so much. You were never a serious movie-goer, as I recall, and in any case their whole ethos would have been “too American” for you and Peggy.

For what it’s worth, my favorite line from a James Dean movie is this one: “Well then there now…”

Riddle me that, you wise old man.

Your son, Peter

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

15 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

It took a patient, sweet, kind-hearted, and easily exploited girl—the girlfriend of a friend’s girlfriend, to ease my awkward and self-doubting self out of my virginity. I was 19, nearly 20! From what I hear, that would seem laughably retarded to today’s young people, who apparently “hook up” with random others with barely a second thought. I wish you were around to tell me about your first time! I imagine things were still more restrictive in your day. I could quite imagine, if you shared that reticence I’ve been describing, that you were still inexperienced when you married Peggy. (Okay, I’ll admit this might seem tasteless and intrusive, but frankly I’m long since done with being timid. I’m long since done with being the good boy you brought up!) Was the wedding night the first time for both of you? Were you as clumsy as I was?

You likely would not remember my friend Paul from Venezuela, though I’m pretty sure you met him. Dark hair? Wavy? He was one of those friends I’d bring home with me because he had no family to go home to in England in the shorter holidays. A year behind me at Caius, he was far ahead in the kind of experience I lacked—and sorely needed. His pretty, cheerfully promiscuous girlfriend at the time was Mickey, and on more than one occasion he prevailed on me to help free up the flat she shared with her friend Debbie, to allow him to enjoy an afternoon of undisturbed libidinous pleasure with his inamorata.

So I took Debbie out—to the cinema, perhaps—and we became friends ourselves. Sort of. I’m ashamed to say I may have considered myself a cut above this good person. May have? No, I did. Paul and I were university students, after all, and the girls were town girls, with jobs in local stores. (I’m aware, of course, that attitudes of this kind do not speak well of the privileged young man I was). There came a time, however, when Paul—and Mickey too, I suspect—decided it was time for their friend Peter to grow up and they conspired to invite me over for a cup of tea one afternoon, and shortly afterwards announced they had evening plans, leaving me and Debbie free run of the flat. It was pretty obvious to both of us what was expected.

We sat on Debbie’s bed. I took courage in both hands and began a fumbling exploration of her body. She seemed perfectly willing to allow it, unhitching her bra beneath her blouse and allowing me, too, to kiss her as I fumbled further. Breasts. Had I ever touched a woman’s breasts before? Jeannine’s? Would I have dared? The result of this delight was predictable in my nether regions, Harry, and Debbie’s fingers proved skillful in further stimulating the arousal. Then, with much awkward wriggling and repositioning of bodies, she guided my fingers into the mysterious triangle of silken hair between her thighs and opened herself to a breathless adventure into that unknown territory.

By now a tangle of body parts and half-discarded clothes, we fell back on the bed and Debbie squirmed out of her panties, dumping them over the side of the bed as she spread her legs for me to lie between and slip myself into that now moist and beckoning interior. And I lost it. My recently rampant cock went suddenly limp as a wave of self-doubt and lack of confidence surged up and disempowered me, along with a flood of shame. There she was, this patient, lovely girl, all ready and willing, eager, even, for me to enter into her most private sanctum… and I couldn’t do it.

“Sorry,” I said. “Oh, my God, I’m sorry.”

And Debbie said, “It doesn’t matter. Honestly, it doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “It happens all the time.”

Which was kind of her, but it did nothing to relieve the intensity my embarrassment and shame. What mattered was that it had happened not to other men but to me. Incredibly. I had been so hot with desire, oozing, literally, with the urgency of that long imagined, long craved moment and then… nothing.

Well, Harry, as an old man now myself I can readily imagine that the same thing does happen to a great number of young men on their first attempt. I wonder even, since we’re being totally honest here, if it might have happened to you? I wonder, too—I know, sorry, this is totally inappropriate—if Peggy was your first time? And what had you done with all the sexual urges you must presumably have felt before, since puberty, as I had done?

Might as well say it here. I only ever saw your penis once, by accident. You were standing naked in the caravan and I burst in unexpectedly. I was probably no more than eight or nine years old and I was shocked by the size of it, the dangle, the thicket of hair. The startling image froze inside my mind and haunted me, even though you covered yourself quickly with a towel. So it was no more than a glimpse. But it is strange, isn’t it, that I remember this image so clearly even today?

Anyway, to get back to my story: I’m happy to report that the disaster with Debbie was quickly followed by recovery and triumph. Debbie's kindly ministrations proved exactly what was needed to regenerate what I’d lost, and she managed to guide me gently into that place I had so lusted after for so long. Virility restored, I buried myself joyfully inside that tunnel of love and ploughed away like a real man till I was done. Which was probably much too soon for Debbie—I’m sure I had as yet no idea that a woman, too, could have an orgasm. But I was relieved and grateful beyond words, as you can imagine, to have finally endowed her with my unwanted virginity. The door—if you’ll forgive the rather crude image—was open. It would never close again.

Your son, Peter

Saturday, September 11, 2021

11 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

This is a bleak and solemn day in American history. Had you survived a few years longer than you did, it would have been late afternoon, early evening in Wales when it began to happen. News time. I’m sure you would have been watching; you always did. You would perhaps have missed the first terrible event, as I did, here in Los Angeles. But your news sources would have switched to New York in time for you to watch in horror as that second jet airliner, filled with passengers, slammed into the second of the two World Trade Center towers at the southern end of Manhattan. And the third, into the Pentagon in Washington, DC; and the fourth, crashing into an open field in Pennsylvania.

I’m sure the hijackers of those planes were praising their god as they met their fate, along with the nearly three thousand innocent human beings whose lives they took with them that day. Among them was the brilliant young son of one or our oldest, closest friends.

You would have been appalled as I was, Harry, as was every other sane person on the planet, that fanatical belief in any god could have inspired men to commit such a hateful, devastating act. It seems sometimes that religion, unhappily, paradoxically, has engendered as much evil in the world across the centuries as the good it claims to foster.

Unhappily, too, there was nothing but vengeance on the mind of the American President, the American Congress, the American people. I have to say that it was on my mind too. It became the national obsession to kill—to kill the man deemed responsible, to kill his followers, and to kill all those who helped them.

Twenty years have passed since that terrible day. Twenty years of killing, of misguided warfare, leaving many thousands of our own as well as many thousands of our purported enemies dead. We have finally come to a recognition of the futility of the effort and abandoned it. Our achievement, after twenty years of slaughter? Ironically, we have left the chief intended target of our wrath, the Afghan Taliban, even stronger than the day we first attacked them.

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, your God, Harry. We would have left done better to leave it to him. My own religious inspiration is the Buddha. He would, I’m sure, have counseled otherwise.

In grief, today, your son,

Peter

Sunday, September 5, 2021

4 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

It’s Saturday. I’m looking forward to sitting out on our balcony this afternoon and lighting up my weekly La Gloria cigar.

It’s a treat that I allow myself. You’ll be pleased to hear that I finally managed to give up smoking cigarettes in my fiftieth year—a few decades sooner than yourself. I had been trying for years. Had tried everything, from patches to nicotine chewing gum to hypnosis. Nothing worked. Until I decided to take a positive approach. I stopped telling myself, No, shouldn’t, mustn’t, can’t and so on, and tried giving myself permission to light up but choosing, instead, the benefits that came with not smoking: the ability to climb a flight of stairs without panting for breath, for example, and having clothes that didn’t stink of stale tobacco. The list was long. It didn’t hurt, too, that Sarah, from her earliest years, kept nagging me insistently to stop.

Like you, I was addicted. But I managed to quit. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since 1986.

A while ago, however, I gave myself permission to enjoy the occasional hit of nicotine with a cigar. Just for the pleasure of it. I don’t believe I ever saw you smoking one of these. The cigarettes you smoked were mostly those you rolled yourself. I say “rolled,” but you had all kinds of ways of making them, all kinds of little intricate machines. I think the making was as much a part of the fun for you as lighting up and smoking, but you were happy to kid yourself that the shredded tobacco you used was less harmful to the health than store-bought cigarettes. Still, I’m sure they did you no good. I’m glad you had the good sense it took—and the love!—to quit the nasty habit when you understood that it was harming Peggy.

Knowing of my addiction, I ration myself to one a week—though sometimes, I’ll admit, I manage to sneak in a second one if no one else is counting. No smoking in the house, of course, these days, but the weather here in Southern California is rarely a deterrent. I slip out onto the balcony or the patio behind the cottage and enjoy my smoke as I complete a New York Times Sunday crossword. (That was never one of your addictions, was it? In that we differ…)

Am I addicted? Maybe. Bust a little. Is that like being a little bit pregnant? Maybe. But I figure, well, at this stage of my life it won’t kill me.

See you out on the balcony, then, Peter

Saturday, September 4, 2021

4 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

I hate to say this, but that timidty still paralyzed me when I went up to university.

You met Susan, because I brought her home to the Vicarage on at least one occasions. Susan was the Girton girl I fell in love with the first time I sat down behind her in a French Romantic Poetry lecture class. (Ever the opportunist, I ditched Jeannine unceremoniously. Having written her a pile of yearning love letters, I wrote her one last time with at least a pretense of regret for the geographical impossibility of our everlasting love. Susan was, well, closer to hand). I eventually overcame my timidity enough to ask her out. We became friends, but it took a long time for me to find the nerve to invite her up to my college rooms for tea and I think I was taken by surprise when she accepted. This was my moment, I promised myself. I could declare my love, kiss her, maybe even… I scarcely dared to think.

When the day came, I was beyond nervous. For hours before, my heart was already beating wildly with anticipation. I arranged with my roommate, Jerry, to be out for the afternoon. Unlike myself, Jerry was a sportsman, a rugby football player, and I had to hide his smelly wet socks and ,jock strap from where he’d left them out to dry in our communal sitting room. The jock strap particularly, with its in-you-face evocation of the male appendages, would have been acutely embarrassing. I bought chocolate-coated McVities to accompany the tea. Added a shilling to the meter to ensure the gas fire would hold out.

She arrived! I “sported the oak”—closed the outer door to indicate the need for privacy. Made tea. Served the McVities on the best plate from our rudimentary kitchen. We made small talk.

Once the tea was done, there was nothing for it but to make my move. I took the seat beside her on the sofa, in front of the gas fire. Put a tentative arm around her, drew her closer, and noticed with growing panic that she did not resist. Seemed even to welcome it. Snuggled in. And raised her face to mine…

If only the magnitude of my desire could be translated into the confidence and courage it required to respond to her readiness for a bit of smooch. She was so close, so feminine, so utterly desirable. So… well, so available. Not in a bad sense, she was just plainly eager for a kiss. For more than a kiss. Was I wrong in thinking that she actually mouthed the words, Come on?

And yet there I was, behaving like the English public schoolboy that I was, so lacking in self-confidence about my ability to perform that I was paralyzed into inaction. I loved this girl. I wanted her more badly, more immediately, more urgently than anything ever in my life. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t even kiss her. I did not know how. I was not man enough, no match for the woman in her, the woman she had already grown to be—while I was still a boy.

Not man enough. I remember, Harry, when you challenged me with those words, years later. “Are you man enough for her?” you asked me, many years later, when my marriage was falling apart.

I was not. But that’s for another letter. Suffice it for now to remember, with some pain, some sadness, and not a little shame how emotionally stunted I was as I embarked upon my life as an adult. It is perhaps too easily self-exculpatory to blame my immaturity on those protected years at school. But it’s my suspicion that I was not too much unlike you, at that time in your life. Did you share that paralyzing physical, emotional and, yes, sexual timidity? Was your libido as fierce as mine, and your fear as deadening?

The result of this conflict about my manhood was, for me, an inner rage—a toxic rage that I refused steadfastly to recognize, let alone express.

More of this still to be revealed, I fear. Meantime I am, as always, your son,

Peter

18 SEPTEMBER, 2021

Dear Harry, I realize, belatedly as usual, that it’s time to acknowledge what has become obvious even to your stubbornly obtuse son! Time...