When I read Memories and Gardens by Marion Howard Spring I wanted to renew my acquaintance with her husband.
He was Robert Howard Spring, known professionally as Howard Spring, and he was a very popular novelist in the mid to late twentieth century. I remember reading one of his books, Fame is the Spur, a long time ago, on my mother’s recommendation, and I liked it very much. But I didn’t pick up another and he fell out of fashion and out of print.
It was only a few years ago the I learned that the Springs had moved to Cornwall, fulfilling a long-held dream, when his success gave them the means. And that many of his later novels were set here.
I picked up a few elderly paperback editions but I must confess that because they were rather hefty and the print was rather small I hadn’t begun to read when I came across Memories and Gardens.
Once I had read the wife’s memoir I thought I should read the husband’s. His comes in three parts, the first being this childhood memoir, Heaven Lies About Us.
It wasn’t conceived as a memoir. Not long after he became a published novelist Howard Spring was asked to speak at a fundraising event in his home town. He spoke about his childhood and his first steps as a writer and, some years later, his lecture became this little book.
He opens with recollections of boyish escapades to draw his audience in. Tying lengths of string to door knockers, tugging on that string, and then running away at top speed. Tricks played on the owner of the local sweetshop, who proved himself able to give just as good as he got. And, maybe best of all, a wonderful tale from the school playground:
“Mr. Flegg, the headmaster, had made a rule that when he appeared on a balcony overlooking the playground and blew his whistle, sound and motion must on the instant cease. On the second blast, everyone must fall into his own rank in front of his teacher. It need hardly be said that watchful eyes were on Mr. Flegg as soon as he appeared on the balcony. The raising of the whistle to his lips was the signal for monstrous attitudes to be assumed, and when the whistle had sounded the schoolyard took on the appearance of a vast lunatic asylum struck to petrification. Mouths gaped open; fingers were pushing noses into strange distorted shapes, boys lay flat on their backs, or standing upon their hands, had their feet against a wall; couples were engaged in grotesque wrestling attitudes; or, caught in the middle of a run, remained with one leg lifted in the air. Mr. Flegg never knew that the whole schoolyard was a howling derision; it seemed to give him a god-like sense of power to be able, with one expulsion of his breath, to strike life suddenly into the silence and immobility of death.”
But there was much more here than entertainment. There was the story of a family that tempered the perception of childhood with the understanding of adulthood.
Howard Spring was the son of the jobbing gardener. He’d had a difficult life and was often remote, but he loved his books and that was what drew him and his children together. He read to them from the Pickwick Papers, and his youngest boy was entranced. Howard decided that when he grew up he wanted to be a writer like Charles Dickens.
But when he was just twelve his father died and he had to leave school. He became a butcher’s boy and he hated it. Much better, he advised, to work for a greengrocer. His mother, who worked so hard to keep her family together, who in later years would find it impossible to stop working, even getting up early to tidy the house before the maid her family employed for her came to work, was horrified when he quit.
Howard fell on his feet. His parents were not church goers, but they told their children that they must go somewhere on a Sunday. Howard fell in with the Plymouth Brethren because they offered trips to the country and the seaside. He loved that, he was less sure about the rest.
His love of the country, the sea, the open air really shone when he wrote of those trips, and of wonderful outings with his brother and sisters.
“In the long school holidays we would be up early and away into the dewy fields which lay then much nearer to the city than they do now, and we would seek mushrooms, though I do not remember that we ever found one, or gather the flat bunches of elderberries that stained our fingers an exciting purple, and from which our mother concocted wine. Or, making a whole-day job of it, we would set out with a few slabs of bread and butter and a bottle of water; and in those inexacting days these simple provisions answered to all that we knew by name of dinner. We took with us a book on natural history, and discovered much joy in identifying this and that; and in a stream at Fairwater, crossed by a railway bridge whose embankment was at time like a long snowdrift, so thickly the dog daisies grew there, we would fish by the hour, tirelessly turning over the stones in search of millers’ thumbs.”
One of Howard’s friends from the Plymouth Brethren found him a job as an office boy and he was on his way.
The book lost its way a little there, moving quickly to bring the story up to date and the lecture to a close.
I didn’t mind because I knew what the future held. The office boy would rise to become a reporter. The reporter would be sent to London, and he would meet Marion. She had spent childhood holidays there, and when she took her husband back to the places that held so many happy memories he fell in love with them too. Moving to Cornwall became a shared dream, and when the reporter became a novelist, when the novelist became a great success they were able to make their dream come true.
I knew the end, and I am so pleased that have learned a little more of Howard Spring’s beginnings from this book.
It’s very short, less than one hundred pages, but there was enough there to allow me to understand the man he became a little better.
That was very simple, and very lovely.
Just one more thing I must add. The title comes from a poem by William Wordsworth and it suits both book and author perfectly. It’s too long to add to this post and so you’ll find it on my Tumblr instead.
Isn’t it wonderful where books can lead you?!