My Uncle George
The house of my uncle and aunt, Ann and George Dannatt, is inextricably linked to my own childhood, and like the books one reads at that age, whose vividness, whose spell can never be recaptured in any later reading, always seemed as much an imagined chimera of perfection, an ideal world now never to be recaptured, as actual place. Tucked away on an overgrown steep lane which no traffic took anyway, seemingly invisible from every angle, protected, nestled in its own sleepy hollow and so shielded by heights on either side, guarded by thick foliage and impenetrable bushes, here truly was the enchanted domain. And as in any fairy tale, I was never sure as a child whether I might not find some sort of despotic king or egocentric emperor, reigning over his private fiefdom within.
This house seemed as much a literary construct, a work of what might be modishly deemed meta-fiction, as a real building, not least because I knew that my uncle and aunt had specifically chosen to live in this area because of the writings of Thomas Hardy, and to a lesser extent John Cowper Powys. To determine the location of one’s country house due to a love for various novels, short stories and poems seemed both very grand and very fantastical, as if refusing to acknowledge those banal boundaries between art and life. Likewise, I even imagined a curious connection with the equally fabled house of Jay Gatsby, located at West Egg as opposed to East Hatch – like an egg which hatched – though at Gatsby’s everybody was always welcome and the host never seen, whilst at East Hatch it was hard to secure an invitation and the host was omnipresent.
Yes, this house was built of books, was full of books, each room with its own packed bookcase, where they read books all the time, books about people like themselves living in houses just like this one, reading their own books (Image 2). The life of these two aesthetes, and ascetics it should be added, living in their hidden house lost in the deepest English countryside was a novel waiting to be written, or rather a novel they were already writing themselves just by their continued existence, by the sheer artistry of their being. To what sort of novel did they belong? Here was a perfect parlour guessing game for all who knew them, some proposing Powell, others C.P. Snow or Ivy Compton-Burnett, or could it be Henry Green or Dorothy Richardson? Surely the ‘master’ himself Henry James was notably close to their own concerns, the life of the mind and controlled emotions, the life of perfect taste, of faultless furniture and objets d’art, but James was pitched at a slightly too lofty class, a social stratosphere of the oldest aristocracy and richest new wealth, and he was anyway still faintly tainted by Americanness.
Instead, the obvious choice was the author who filled an entire section of a bookcase upstairs, namely Virginia Woolf, whose work they read and re-read and annotated and noted and cross-referenced and read once more. And these books of Woolf are full of impossibly sophisticated, neurasthenically literate writers and artists and musicians and editors, living their cultured, self-consciously aesthetic lives in their lovely, perfect houses in which they read and re-read and annotated other novels. Yet the house of George and Ann was absolutely nothing to do with ‘Bloomsbury’; they openly loathed the entire decorative whimsy of the Omega Workshop and reserved particular scorn for the cozy flourishes of Charleston, a place they frankly felt should be pulled down rather than preserved for the nation. And perhaps the novel of English high-modernism, as opposed to high-amateurism, has yet to be written, the exceptionally refined visual code of their own house rejecting Colefax and Fowler as much as Fry and Grant, refusing both classic ‘country house living’ and bohemian muddle, establishing instead a touchstone for an equally Anglo-Saxon abstract aesthetic.
According to Cocteau real style is ‘to refuse’ and George in his many refusals — of popular culture, of current fashions in art or music, all the debased coinage of our times — proved himself an arbiter of some ultimate high style, that rare individual who knows categorically what is right and what is not, what is good and what is bad, brooking no midway. George, who was unique in his resistance to all aspects of ‘masscult’, instinctively loathing anything from America, from advertising to ‘pop’ music, mainstream journalism and most film, television and commercial media, came to seem heroic by these singular standards. In our easy world of ‘everything’, of unthinking inclusion rather than selective exclusion, nobody was willing to say ‘no‘ other than Uncle George and a few other lone figures of defiance such as Pierre Boulez or the filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Thus though his life seemed entirely English there was also something of the Continental European in the sheer hauteur of George’s high culture.