I thought I was the only person in this country who roams through a lost house in Kew when they cannot sleep, but now I find that another insomniac, living not all that far from me, does it too, and in a house very close to mine. Maarten Asscher describes this in his book Een huis in Engeland; he has a lot more trouble sleeping than I do and he also remembers – or reconstitutes – much more of that house than me, but otherwise so much of what he writes, the names and the places, is so familiar that reading his book I felt as if he had written part of my autobiography.
It is only the years that I spent in Kew, until the age of ten, that he writes about, but he knows exactly what they were like: in Kew Gardens almost every day, trips to Whipsnade Zoo, Wimbledon on television, taking the Underground into London: oh, the names of the stations: Gunnersbury, Turnham Green, Stamford Brook, Ravenscourt Park! They could not be more suburban but they sound like battlefields; I went through them every day on my way to school in Hammersmith. The difference is that while I was growing up there, Asscher was on holiday, staying for a few weeks every summer with his Dutch grandparents, who had moved to England after the war. He was almost next door to us, they lived at 34 Pensford Avenue, less than twenty minutes’ walk from our house at 4 Pagoda Avenue. Perhaps we saw each other in Kew Gardens, walking round the pagoda and wishing it was open, or waited for the train at Kew Station, which – I was there two years ago – has not changed in the last sixty years. The pagoda, on the other hand, has finally reopened.
There is something special about staying with one’s grandparents; we did that too, also in another country, and in a place, the village of Kilcoole in Co Wicklow, that has imprinted itself on my mind in the same way as Kew has on Maarten Asscher. The landscape, the colours, the different – better – taste of the food, the small disagreements between one’s grandparents (his quarrel about English, which his grandmother has a better grip on than her husband; I can hear my grandmother snap at my grandfather, and see my great-aunt, who lived with them, restoring the peace), the gentle routine of a house inhabited by old people, so different from the boring school and homework routine of home.
There is a secret at the heart of his book, which he does not reveal until the end, and which casts a different light on this paradise. It concerns the war, and his Jewish family; he did not know it himself at the time, children were not told much about what happened in the war. My parents hardly talked about it either, and the only thing I remember my grandfather, who was in the army in France in the First World War, saying about it was when I asked him if he had seen the Angels of Mons: he couldn’t have, he said, they were only seen by those who died. At the time, a child with a very literal mind, I was very impressed by this reasoning.
As a child, therefore, you do not know the things that the adults know, but I wonder how much that matters. Asscher was certainly better off not knowing the family secret, although perhaps in a way he did know it, or anyway knew there was something. Just after I had finished his book I read something Philippe Sands wrote about grandparents: ‘There is a singular form of communication that exists between grandchild and grandparent, not necessarily in a spoken form. It was finely explored by Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, two Hungarian psychoanalysts who sought to understand how secrets skip a generation and are transmitted from the first to the third generation. “What haunts are not the dead,” they concluded, “but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”‘
In the meantime, eyes closed, I shall go on entering the front door of 4 Pagoda Avenue, turning left into the hall, and left again into the kitchen. There is Timmy the budgie in his cage; I have brought him some groundsel. We are back from a walk in the Gardens, through the Lion Gate, then turning to the right, the path du côté de chez Oliver, my childhood friend, who lives in Ennerdale Road, his house making a triangle between mine and Maarten Asscher’s. It is almost time for tea.