I never met my father’s stepfather but he was an important influence on me in my early life. He had been in the merchant navy and it was he who had brought back from China and other countries the curios that so fascinated me whenever I visited my grandmother. A large photograph of him hung on the wall in her kitchen, opposite a smaller photograph of my own grandfather. He had a smooth round face with a heavy moustache, and his eyes looked out on the world with a calm, clear gaze. I do not know when the photograph was taken but he must have been about thirty at the time. Neither do I know when he married my grandmother or when he died. There were two children of the marriage, a girl and a boy. There was Dorothy who died before I was born, and Charles, who was ten years younger than my father and whom I knew quite well. My father always spoke of him either as ‘Dad’ or as ‘the Old Man’ and my mother used to refer to him as ‘Old Mr Boutell’. He could be violent, and it seems that when he was really angry the only person who dared stand up to him was my mother. More than once did her intervention save Charles from a beating and it was therefore not surprising that he should always have been quite fond of her.
There were times when Old Mr Boutell was drunk. Not that he liked to drink alone. He liked to drink in the company of his male friends. Every two or three weeks the big front room of the flat would be the scene of a rather rowdy party. Crates upon crates of beer would arrive beforehand, my father once told me, and on some nights there might be as many as twenty or thirty revellers. There would be a lot of talking and laughing, shouting and singing. At such times my grandmother would keep out of the way. One of the revellers was Harry Lauder, the Scottish entertainer, who lived nearby, and who may well have entertained the company with a rendering of his well known I Love a Lassie. Where the money came from I do not know.
Old Mr Boutell had no regular occupation, and he spent the whole day at home. His hobby was breeding prize bulldogs. When a pup was old enough he would tease it with a piece of rag until it became angry and clamped its teeth on the offending object, whereupon he would whirl the pup round and round in the air. If it kept hold of the rag it was a good bulldog and he would rear it. He must have hated cats as much as he loved bulldogs. Whenever one strayed into the small back garden he would catch it and kill it, burying the body at the foot of a grapevine that he was trying to grow in a corner of the garden.
Besides the curios he had collected, the Old Man possessed a formidable array of live shells of various kinds, one of which exploded when he was handling it, blowing off a thumb. After his death, my grandmother directed my father to get rid of these dangerous toys. Very gingerly he packed them in a suitcase and took them to the nearest police station, but the police refused to have anything to do with them. Chuck them into the nearest pond they told him. The suitcase must have rotted away long ago, but it is not unlikely that the shells are still lying at the bottom of a pond on Tooting Bec Common.
My grandmother got rid of a lot of other things as well. She herself once told me that soon after her husband’s death she had thrown away all the grass skirts with which the walls of the front staircase were decorated. She was tired of having to dust them every day, she declared. She also got rid of some of the other curios. One of the ways in which she did this, to my great delight, was to give them to me, sometimes as a birthday or Christmas present. In this way I came into the possession of a pair of opium pipes with jade mouthpieces, a chopstick set, and a thunderbolt. He had acquired the thunderbolt, the Old Man had once told my father, when he was in South Africa. During a thunderstorm he had taken shelter in a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof and the thunderbolt had pierced through the roof and buried itself deep in the earth not far from his feet. He had dug it up, and it proved to be two inches in diameter and quite heavy.
Many of the curios he had collected were of Chinese provenance and in this connection, too, the Old Man had a story to tell. He was in Peking (this must have been around the turn of the century), and had acquired a number of ornate jugs, basins, and other vessels, all of solid gold. These he had packed in a strong wooden box and sent home by sea, but the box never arrived at its destination. Had it arrived, he had once told my father, he would have been a very rich man.