A book such as The Miner and the Viscount is, as much as anything, a coalescence of memories. Of course each individual’s bank of memories is impossibly complex and for all intents and purposes, endless. Only a slight percentage of my memories of Cornwall made it into the book, which is a blessing, because if all that I remember had been included, The Miner and the Viscount might have taken up thousands of pages and weighed several stone.
Yet my memories are rich and varied, and I wanted to share them with the curious, as well as with those who have read my book and want to know more. So I have added this page, Memoirs While Memory Lasts, where I will post some essays that I have written over the years. I trust they will add context and deeper perspective to The Miner and the Viscount.
A new Memoir While Memory Lasts!
The weather in England is always officially perfect in the last week of June and into early July. That is because it is Wimbledon fortnight. And when you play tennis on grass courts (used at other times for intensely competitive croquet matches) the weather must cooperate, not like those horrid artificial modern surfaces.
I played tennis at school, largely because I was not much good at cricket. I lacked superlative coordination of hand and eye. My highest score as a batsman was 23 not out and my slow bowling was an invitation to mayhem. I did manage to be selected to represent School House in the tennis matches, playing for the third pair with a devastating game at the net compensating for my proclivity for double faults when serving.
However, my study mate Paul Sochor was a star—not only at tennis but also squash, raquets and cricket, representing the school at any sport involving a ball and an implement to hit it with. His parents had fled Czechoslovakia after the rise of Hitler and got into manufacturing printed fabrics in Belfast. His mother had risen to become Czech national women’s champion on the strength of her backhand. Paul evidently inherited his mother’s genes and by the time he arrived at Clifton at the age of thirteen he was junior tennis champion of Northern Ireland.
Incidentally, I had a business trip to Belfast a few years later and visited Paul. He had plenty of time on his hands because my visit coincided with an official state visitation by the Queen Mother. The police took the precaution of locking up the known republican trouble makers for the duration. Several workers at the Belfast Silk & Rayon Company were among them so the factory simply closed down for a few days.
Anyroad, the summer we left school Paul played in the West of England tennis tournament in Bristol and roped me into umpiring. We got to know several players including the Czech left hander, Jaroslav Drobny, who was fancied to win Wimbledon that year. He and Paul conversed fluently in their native tongue while I listened in awe.
Tennis was still an amateur sport in those days and the players were an interesting international set, and they all dressed on the court exclusively in impeccable white. I got to know a delightful chap called Nobby Clark. He was from Bristol and had been an executive in the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. He made a lot of money on the side in partnership with the Shah importing large American cars for use as taxis in Tehran. He was an average tennis player but somehow had wangled a place as a member of the Persian Lawn Tennis Association official delegation. He arranged for me to become a member too and invited me to join him at Wimbledon where we sat in the competitors’ gallery on Centre Court. This was above the baseline at one end of the court opposite the royal box.
Nobby also arranged for me to stay at the very tony Dolphin Square where he had a flat. It was also the location of the Rockingham Club, which I had never heard of but soon learned more about than most young men from rustic Cornwall.
At Wimbledon we came and went as the whim took us. Once I found myself sitting next to Frank Sedgman, one of the talented Australians who dominated tennis in that era, along with the likes of Ken McGregor, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver (whose left fore arm was almost twice the size of his right). It should have been a glamorous star-studded moment but Sedgman suffered major halitosis. I moved into the row behind him and set next to a non-athletic fellow who turned our to be David Tomlin, star of the light comedy The Little Hut, no tennis star but very jolly. He later had a role in Mary Poppins.
Drobny was seeded second and was playing well in the third round against Britain’s Tony Mottram. But Drobny’s girlfriend showed up during the second set and he lost his concentration and the match. It was the American Dick Savitt who possessed the fortitude to maintain his form throughout the tournament and went on to become the gentlemen’s singles champion.
I found the tennis fascinating but it dawned on me that Nobby Clark was more interested in the players than the play. He was particularly focused on Keith, an extraordinarily handsome young South African who had been part of our group in Bristol. It turned out that Keith was staying at Dolphin Square too, also in a room arranged by Nobby.
We would spend the evenings in the Rockingham Club. It was tastefully furnished and decorated, with a white grand piano at which a handsome dark man played sophisticated standards. The Mexican ambassador was there late every evening looking rather dissolute and staying to the end. Nobby said that he drank two bottles of gin every day. Apparently every afternoon he had his chauffeur drive him from the embassy into the country to spend time with sheep, to whom he was very attached. Nobby encouraged me to acquire the taste of gin and tonic, served in the authentic British fashion without ice, which allowed the flavor and the aroma to come through.
Being observant, I noticed by the third evening that all the club staff and patrons were men; there were no women to be seen. Quite different from village pubs in Cornwall. Light was shed on this by a middle of the night phone call. Keith was distraught, in tears. He demanded to know where Nobby was. He had seen him leave the club with an attractive young man and he had not come back. Keith was in love and needed comforting and hinted that perhaps I would welcome him to my room. I told him I had to go back to sleep and might see him at breakfast.
When I caught up with Nobby in the morning he was uncharacteristically irritated and seemed to be thinking that Keith was not such a great idea. I must say, however, that Nobby always behaved like a perfect gentleman with me and I continued to enjoy his friendship from time to time that summer after getting back to Bristol.
Nowadays whenever I watch Wimbledon on television I feel nostalgic for the much more vivid and intimate view I once had in the competitors’ box. But whatever the venue, an unmistakable tickle of gin and tonic tantalizes my nostrils.
Richard Hoskin July 2016
My first memoir is an essay I wrote several years ago. It’s about discovering my ancestry. I believe that understanding where we came from helps all of us answer those age-old questions about the purpose of our existence, why we were put upon earth — and where — and why we have the personality, and the quirks, that we do.
I hope you find something in it that deeply appeals to you.
Why do we want to know about our roots? What is interesting about our ancestry? It has to do with our need to address the eternal questions about the purpose of our existence, why we were put upon this earth, what makes us tick. Perhaps it helps to reinforce our sense of self-worth, even of self-importance. If our forebears were people of great birth, fame, wealth, or accomplishment we could better understand ourselves – at least those parts that were influenced by our genetics and our talents, and on which hopefully our environment and acquired skills have built. We could even indulge ourselves in basking in the reflection of their glory, and encouraging others to admire us.
There is, of course, the risk that fame would turn out to be notoriety, and that our forebears were thieves, vagabonds, idlers, debtors, drunkards or worse, whose careers could best be left to ignominy. This possibility presents a conundrum. To seek out our ancestry or not? The answer lies in never delegating the task of research but keeping it in the family.
Of course, if you have a family member, like my wife, who has a painstaking ability to dig out obscure information and utilize technical knowhow, you are fortunate indeed. But when such skills are combined with a wicked sense of humor then you have to watch out. You may indeed end up with a fascinating family tree that is accessible on the web, complete with not only names and dates but also photographs, birth certificates, school reports and obituaries. But if you are an older sister who was a tease in childhood, then you may suffer affectionate but embarrassing revenge in the form of information that appears to challenge your most Waspish prejudices about the purity of your genes. In the case of my own family, my eldest sister started the research, digging among family bibles, parish records, tombstones, and registries of births, marriages and deaths at Somerset House. After her death, our middle sister finished the job with her characteristic conscientiousness and tact. She assembled by hand complete family trees comprising multiple branches while preserving the flattering legends.
We sprang mostly from solid yeoman and artisan stock, self-improving and respectable Non-Conformists, people with positions and continuity in the Cornish villages and small towns of their birth, who insisted on educating their children. They prospered as small businessmen. We do know that our surname was derived from the Cornish language word “Os” for osier, or willow twig. So our ancestors were apparently the “kin” or people who dwelled by the reeds, and possibly were basket weavers – entrepreneurs long ago.
There were also legends of genteel blood supported by ancient photographs of great grandparents with refined features. But these may have arisen from visitations on the other side of the blanket not recorded in official documents, and so they were buried with their bones.
I am personally gratified to have passed my middle names on to my grandson, the seventh generation called John Collins. Now, apparently, the Collins on my father’s side were somehow connected to the Runnalls on my mother’s side, which led to the introduction and eventual marriage of my parents, despite growing up in towns twenty-four miles apart. We are not sure of the connection, and it remains undocumented.
One of the myths is that the dark-haired and brown-eyed Runnalls family, like many in Cornwall, intermingled with survivors of the Spanish Armada. Lo and behold, an early parish record turned up by my sister showed their surname spelled with the Spanish squiggle over a single “n”. Now that may not be proof to a genealogist, but it’s certainly enough to perpetuate romance.
Things turned out less romantically (depending on which way you look at it) with my great-uncle, Harry Oke Hoskin. His silver pocket watch passed down to my father. It had a handsome engraved face and a little key which wound it up and adjusted its hands. He was a missionary, and we grew up believing that he had been boiled and eaten by cannibals in Africa while steadfastly proclaiming his faith.
Unfortunately, my brother-in-law was a professional historian. He researched the records of the Methodist Missionary Society and discovered that Great Uncle Harry had in fact served in the Caribbean. He died at sea when a lady missionary in his party fell overboard. He dived in to rescue her with more gallantry than sense, since he could not swim. She struggled to resist his efforts and he drowned. She survived, borne up by the pocket of air trapped in her voluminous crinoline skirts. It was a romantic end in its own way, although not quite as compelling as bravely enduring in the devoted service of his Lord. Great Uncle Harry typified the enthusiasm of many of our family, and indeed many Cornish people, to seek excitement around the world. I have distant cousins everywhere, from New Zealand to Canada, from Africa to America, and even some who emigrated to Australia – actually under their own steam.
One of the traits that I also inherited from my ancestors was entrepreneurialism. The first manifestation I remember, albeit in microeconomic form, was at the early age of seven. The circus came to our small town offering the allure of wild beasts and wilder performers – from lion tamers to bareback riders, from sword swallowers to knife throwers, from tight rope walkers to acrobats, and of course the clowns.
They arrived when I was at the bottom of the garden, performing my customary summer service of checking the ripeness of my father’s raspberries. I watched the colorful wagons drive into the field behind our house. Soon a gaggle of children stood fascinated as the performers set out their caravans and arranged the traveling cages of the lions and tigers into a colorful menagerie. The climax was the roustabouts putting up the big top with the help of their intelligent and beautifully trained elephant. “Sir Robert Fossett’s Famous International Circus” entertained the townsfolk and enthralled its children for three days. Then it was time to move on to the next town. We kids were allowed to help, as long as we didn’t get in the way. Too soon it was all over and a sense of letdown followed, but not for long.
In the corner of the field where the elephants had been lay a HUGE pile of manure, sparsely decorated with partially digested bamboo leaves. I spotted a business opportunity. I went and got my barrow and borrowed my father’s garden fork. I energetically filled the barrow with this golden bonanza. I was used to being up close and personal with cows so it was not a particularly unpleasant task. I tugged my barrow along to our neighbor’s house. Mr. Oliver was a keen vegetable gardener and it took mere moments of visualizing unprecedented fecundity to persuade him to invest a penny a forkful in this exotic manure. Encouraged, I repeated the success with several neighbors until my supply ran out. All went well until a few days later. Mr. Oliver’s entire patch of new cabbage plants turned yellow. They unmistakably were on their way to the great compost heap in the sky. He was kind enough not to ask, but I felt I had to give him his money back. I avoided seeing what had happened in the other gardens. My dreams of a national chain of elephant manure suppliers rotted away. All was not lost, however – there were lessons to be learned. Regarding your family tree: it is important to keep in mind the purpose of the enterprise, which is self-glorification and the preservation of selected myths. Do not sacrifice flattery on the altar of accuracy. And never entrust the research to an expert; and keep the creation and publishing of the tree firmly within the family.
Regarding entrepreneurial ventures: it is vital to research your product before going to market. And be wary of the temptations of choosing large units of production just to expand your manufacturing. You may end up magnifying your mistakes. Guard against unbridled enthusiasm. Finally, never offer a money back guarantee, even when your asking price is low.
© March 2009. Richard Hoskin. All rights reserved.
Richard, Your entertaining writing style with its wit and undercurrent of irony allows us to be informed while we are entertained. Is that what is called Brit-Wit? I prefer Great Uncle Harry’s real demise to the myth. Better to die a hero than an entree. I look forward to the next episode.