England. I had no real concept of what England was like, my whole world was Montevideo and Uruguay. Lincoln, Shropshire, Hampshire, Romney Marsh and Southdown--breeds of sheep routinely slaughtered in my father's frigorífico were what my country meant to me. One more memory. After my lessons with Roderick we would go sea-bathing at Pocitos (where Roderick had to keep his bathing suit on) and would take the number 15 or 22 tram to reach the resort. Our treat was to order sorbets and have them served to us in the gardens of the Grand Hotel--gardens full of flowers: stock, lilac, orange, myrtle and mimosa--and then rattle home in the tender dusk to find my mother in the kitchen shouting at the cook, my father on the terrace smoking his quotidian cigar.
The Mountstuart family home was in Birmingham, where my father had been born and raised and where the head office of Foley & Cardogin's Fresh Meat Co. was to be found. In 1914 Foley's decided to concentrate on its meat-processing factories in Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia, and the Uruguayan business was sold to an Argentine firm, the Compañía Sansinena de Carnes Congeladas. My father was promoted to managing director and summoned home to Birmingham. We sailed for Liverpool on the SS Zenobia in the company of 2,000 frozen carcasses of Pollen Angus. The First World War began a week after we made landfall.
Did I weep when I looked back at my beautiful city beneath its small, fort-topped, conic hill and we left the yellow waters of the Río Plata behind? Probably not: I was sharing a cabin with Roderick Poole and he was teaching me to play gin rummy.
The city of Birmingham became my new home. I swapped the eucalyptus groves of Colón, the grass seas of the campo and the endless yellow waters of the Río Plata for a handsome, Victorian, redbrick villa in Edgbaston. My mother was delighted to be in Europe and revelled in her new role as the managing director's wife. I was sent as a boarder to St. Alfred's (where I briefly acquired the nickname "Dago"--I was a dark, dark-eyed boy) and at the age of thirteen I moved on to Abbeyhurst College (usually known as Abbey)--an eminent boys' boarding school, though not quite of the first rank--to complete my secondary education. It is here in 1923, when I was seventeen years old, that the first of my journals, and the story of my life, begins.
THE SCHOOL JOURNAL
10 December 1923
We--the five Roman Catholics--were walking back from the bus stop up the drive to school, fresh from Mass, when Barrowsmith and four or five of his Neanderthals started chanting "Papist dogs" and "Fenian traitors" at us. Two of the junior sprats began weeping, so I stood up to Barrowsmith and said: "So tell us what religion you are, Barrowboy." "Church of England, of course, you dunce," he said. "Then count yourself very fortunate," said I, "that one religion at least will accept someone as physically repulsive as you are." Everyone laughed, even Barrowsmith's simian crew, and I shepherded my little flock together and we regained the purlieus of school without further incident.
Scabius and Leeping* declared I had done work of sub-magnificent standard and that the encounter and exchange were droll enough to deserve entry in our Livre d'Or. I argued that I should have a starred sub-magnificent because of the potential risk of physical injury from Barrowsmith and his lackeys, but Scabius and Leeping both voted against. The swine! Little Montague, one of the blubbers, was the witness, and Scabius and Leeping both handed over the honorarium (two cigarettes each for a sub-magnificent) with goodly cheer.
*Peter Scabius, LMS's closest friend from his schooldays, along with Benjamin Leeping.
When we brewed up after second prep I hatched a plan for the Martinmas term. It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of magnificents to happen--we had to initiate them ourselves. I proposed that we should each be presented with a challenge: that two of us, in turn, should think up a task for the third and that the endeavour would be documented (and witnessed as far as possible) in the Livre d'Or. Only in this way, I averred, could the ghastly rigours of next term be survived, and, after that, we were on the home stretch: summer term was always more agreeable and could take care of itself. There were the School Certificate and scholarship exams and then we'd be free--and of course we hoped Oxford would be waiting (for me and Scabius, at least--Leeping said he had no intention of wasting three years--of what was bound to be a short life--at university). Scabius suggested the raising of a fund to privately print and publish a deluxe limited edition of the Livre d'Or if only to preserve the iniquities of Abbey for all time. "Or as a terrible warning for our offspring," added Leeping. This was unanimously agreed and we each deposited one penny into the new "publishing fund," Leeping already pondering weight and weave of paper types, embossed leather binding and the like.*
Excerpted from Any Human Heart by William Boyd Copyright© 2003 by William Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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