As I have literally hundreds of books offered to me for review I have had to force myself to be honest and say that I simply can’t review until my TBR has reduced somewhat.
Today I am featuring one of those books that I so wanted to accept and read; Charley’s Woods: Sex, Sorrow and a Spiritual Quest in Snowdonia. I think this autobiography by Charles Duff and published by Zuleika sounds absolutely riveting and if the extract I have to share with you is anything to go by, I’ll be adding Charley’s Woods to that mountainous TBR very shortly, despite my best intentions!
Charles Duff grew up in many worlds at once. Like an enfilade, one led into another, but each was distinct and self-contained. At his family’s country house, Vaynol, Royalty mingled with eccentric relations and glamorous socialites, supported by a colourful ensemble cast of cooks, nannies and butlers.
In London, Charley met his father’s boyfriends and his mother’s lesbian lovers, as well as leading artists, musicians and directors. Through the theatre, he discovered his vocation in academia and teaching.
But these worlds did not co-exist in harmony. As the estate faced ruin and his parents’ marriage fell apart, Charley’s relationship with his family festered. He was known to be adopted, and speculation about his identity fanned rumours that many still believe today. This exquisitely vivid memoir draws a detailed and unidealised picture of the fascinating spheres Charles Duff has inhabited. But more than anything, Charley’s Woods is the moving account of the personal and spiritual development of an adopted son: a touching meditation on class, culture and the search for a sense of belonging.
An Extract frof Charley’s Woods
My mother’s lover, a one-time actress called Audry Carten, had given my father miniatures of my mother and myself by an eminent miniaturist. On receiving them, my father had separated the portraits. The first he put on the mantelpiece of one of the two fireplaces in the drawing room; the other, into the drawer of a desk in the small toile-de-jouy-lined morning room. Also in the drawer was a torn piece of paper, on which was written in ballpoint pen, ‘Charles David Duff’. The boy in the portrait: me. I was a solitary child in a big house, and solitary children in big houses know where things are. Solitary children in big houses wander, and they learn the contents of drawers and cupboards.
There was another piece of paper with my name on it in the drawer of a small occasional table in the morning room, and yet another in the more ornate desk in the hexagonal white and gold room next door. I was seven years old and I knew quite well to whom the handwriting belonged.
The occasions were rare that I had any contact with this very tall man with a stutter, ‘Daddy’, who seemed most unlike anyone else’s daddy.
Once, when I was tiny, he and I went for a long walk (or a walk which seemed long because it was so awkward) over the sands of Red Wharf Bay. I kept up a babble of infant chatter: firing questions to get answers, and answers indeed there came, bored and increasingly irritated. Once, he and my governess Moussia had come to see me play Mr. Badger in a scene from Toad of Toad Hall at Hill House pre-prep school, but by the time I had taken off my badger costume and gone out among the audience, he had left.
The only time I had been alone in a room with him was when I was five or six, ill in bed at Vaynol, our large, white, featureless house in North Wales. My mother was in London, and he had come into my bedroom with a glass of brandy which he suggested I drink: ‘Always good for tummies.’ I did and it was.
That year too I had been bought an ashtray (as if there weren’t enough of those already at Vaynol) to give him as a present for Easter. I was dispatched to hand it to him as he talked to guests in the rose garden in the spring sun. He had looked at me coldly, then turned his back and continued talking, leaving me still holding the ashtray.
Only once did he appear at, or was he invited to, my mother’s house, 56 Paultons Square, Chelsea. He came up to my nursery and sat on the piano stool, wearing his overcoat – had he just arrived or was he just leaving? I imitated his stutter, which seemed to me a friendly way to reach out to him, and he went white with anger while Moussia went red with embarrassment.
‘Never make fun of Daddy’s stammer,’ he said. Somehow I sensed that this was it. A line of no return had been crossed and I would never be forgiven.
Audry Carten (thirteen years older than my mother, not as beautiful but bursting with artistry, with a long face like a foal’s, fluffed-up brown hair and pale blue understanding eyes behind thick horn-rimmed spectacles) must have spent a considerable amount of her little money to commission the portraits. As my mother’s real partner, she always strove to maintain a good feeling with the nice queer man who had become the other point of the triangle. Michael told everyone that he had had no idea of Audry’s existence when he married my mother Caroline in 1949, but this, like much he said, was untrue. All the rest of their world knew. They had been together for fourteen years, since my mother was twenty-one and Audry thirty-four. Audry tried to play her part in the unconventional set-up with tact, hence the present of the portraits.
I took out my picture from the drawer and placed it on the mantelpiece next to my mother’s. Within hours it was back in the drawer again.
My father’s intention was not clarified until my teenage years, when I read Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and learnt of Uncle Matthew’s belief in the consequence of putting names in drawers. But I remember thinking then, with a gut-twist of shock and misery, ‘Why does this man wish me dead?’
(Do you see what I mean? Isn’t this the most engaging start to an autobiography?)
About Charles Duff
Charles Duff was born in 1949. His first book, The Lost Summer, was a history of the West End in the 1940s and 1950s. He is an actor, a lecturer in Shakespeare and theatre history, and a contributor to the national press on arts-related subjects. He has lived between Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tangier and he is now a Brother of the London Charterhouse.