First Person

Everything to Learn

Giles Auty died in September, just short of his eighty-sixth birthday. He had been a valued friend and contributor to Quadrant ever since he arrived in Australia in the 1990s to write for The Australian. This memoir is the last of a series of three that he wrote for Quadrant this year; the previous installments appeared in the May and July-August issues.


All I ever wanted to be was an artist—or a painter, to be more exact. That was possibly a wartime bonus for my mother, who could set me highly complex subjects to draw or paint while she got on with the more essential tasks which befell a housewife during the Second World War.

For example, vast formations of distant enemy aircraft were often visible from any elevated point in our garden in East Kent—such as the semi-circular top of our recently constructed outdoor air-raid shelter. I could thus make an attempt at rendering the appearance of these formations, which often seemed to fill large parts of the sky above the adjacent Thames estuary; or as an alternative, visible in rather greater close-up, planes from the inadequate-seeming squadrons of Royal Air Force fighters sent to intercept them, which often passed by quite close overhead. The aircraft of both nations were often visible simultaneously.

Schoolboys of my then age—seven, say—prided themselves on their skills at aircraft recognition, which could even be life-saving at times. Towards the end of the war I made my only obvious mistake when I waved enthusiastically at two squadrons of German Focke-Wulf 190s as they flew low and fast over our house while on their way to bomb and strafe the nearby city of Canterbury, whence my mother had not long departed to watch the film Gone with the Wind. The German fighter-bombers closely resembled the new pride of the Royal Air Force: the Typhoon. Having quickly realised my mistake from the aircrafts’ markings, my father, sister and I waited with considerable anxiety for my mother’s return. In the event, what had angered her most about the German attack was the sight of a man helping himself to the handbags of the prone women who had sensibly flung themselves to the ground. Did he suffer subsequent pangs of conscience?

As the war continued, our garden yielded two more unrepeatable aerial sights. First, a great fleet of towed gliders plus escorts on their way to the major, partly disastrous drop of paratroopers at Arnhem in Holland. There was no television in those days, so we had no idea until later of the sad slice of history we had witnessed.

Last but not least was my first sighting of a V1 or “doodlebug”. The time was late afternoon and I was alerted to the smallish jet-propelled object in the sky, flying quite low, by the loud rattling of a nearby paling fence in response to the engine’s vibrations. I had never seen its like before as it flew straight over our family garden at Faversham. Within a week I learned that when this freakish flying object’s engine cut it could cruise for a further two miles before falling finally to earth with a mighty explosion. The V1 which I had witnessed and the later V2 rockets which were basically invisible until they exploded on landing were Hitler’s last desperate weapons in a war which was already practically lost for his side. The house my parents, sister and I lived in lay between the main London-to-Dover road and the main London-to-Dover railway. Both were regular targets for conventional German bombers during the war, and as D-Day approached, the road was also the main conduit for convoys of military personnel and equipment heading for our ports. Often these vast convoys would take half an hour to pass through and would seriously delay local children such as my sister and me who were attempting to cycle to school.

As the war drew finally to a close, the question of my future schooling arose in my parents’ minds as a matter of priority. During the early years of the war my sister and I had been evacuated twice—to North Devon and then to Buckinghamshire—but had then returned to an excellent local preparatory school in Kent. By the age of nine I was thought to have outgrown the latter and spent a year at the local grammar school at which my father taught. Unlike all but a few children today I had already been learning Latin and French for some while before I reached ten and possibly gave the impression that I would have little difficulty passing the entrance examinations to some fairly prestigious private school or other.

The nearest such was King’s School, Canterbury, from which the brilliant future writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor had managed to get himself expelled. The sole obstacle to my going there as a day-boy or weekly boarder was however a rather older cousin with whom I habitually and rather seriously fought, generally when our unfortunate parents were trying to play bridge. His father was then a senior army officer and when my cousin and I were finally caught engaging each other somewhat violently with his father’s ceremonial swords it became accepted that if Richard were accepted by King’s School then I should be sent elsewhere.

In the event he was accepted, and I effectively left home at the age of ten, having achieved a scholarship to a school in another county at which my father had once been a pupil. From his schooldays onwards my father proved himself an excellent scholar. His final job was that of principal reader for the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, to which he contributed some 26,000 original entries.

Post-war Britain was a time of considerable shortages such as those of food and fuel—indeed rationing of some foodstuffs continued until the mid-1950s. The total absence of fuel for heating at my boarding school caused a high percentage of boarders—including me—to fall ill with respiratory complaints. As a rather skinny child I was possibly lucky to survive a couple of severe bouts of bronchitis or bronchial pneumonia which was treated at my school in those days with medicinal creosote, which happily did not turn me in later life into a fence. Antibiotics had yet to appear.

My school, Bancroft’s, was in essence the Drapers’ Company school. There were two day houses with about 600 pupils between them while the sole boarding house accounted for exactly 100 boys. Perhaps because we had little else to do and were forbidden to use public transport, the boarders, who were each allocated a personal number, so excelled at inter-house sports that for various such we were divided further into odds and evens. I passed an examination called “matric exemption” at fourteen and also so dominated under 15 or colts’ cricket that I progressed directly thence into the school’s First Eleven as its youngest member.

The school lay on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex and our local member of parliament was Sir Winston Churchill, who used our school hall sometimes for political meetings as it had the largest auditorium in the area. The school boasted an excellent library, so in my leisure time I made inroads into the best of English, American and French literature.

Following a painful sports injury which immobilised me for several weeks, my kind mother sought to compensate me for the rigours of boarding school life by taking up the gracious offer of a local artist in Kent to initiate me into the procedures of a professional painter’s studio during my holidays. My mother had kept a portfolio of my often immensely complicated drawings from early childhood onwards. My older sister had, in the meantime, lived comfortably at home, attending an excellent local school.

Jack Brown, who had lost much of his right hand in the First World War, had subsequently taught himself to paint left-handed, an accomplishment which left me in awe. The large hole in his right hand’s palm was brilliantly employed as a receptacle for spare brushes—a habit to which I never became entirely accustomed. His house and studio, which lay half an hour’s cycle ride from our home, were surrounded by ravishing and picturesquely named countryside: Old Wives’ Lees.

Vast trees, immortalised by Lord Tennyson as “immemorial elms” dotted my regular cycle route (but sadly fell victim many years later to an imported disease). I was often so moved by the countryside, in fact, that I could scarcely keep control of my bicycle. The glories of our local countryside in my immature years bore for me the unmistakable stamp of God’s creation. How many children in rural Australia, where I live now, feel such an uplifting sentiment today?

Also, during the long summer school holidays I stayed twice with notable French families north-east of Paris and at Macon where the director of the famous hospital there educated me a little in the wonders of French wine. At Houdan I stayed with significant land-owners in a glorious French mansion of which I made a reasonably accurate painting in oils. After playing tennis with their athletic younger son at local courts he raced me on his bicycle to show he could beat me at something. Tragically, on a beautifully hot day, the driver of a massive truck fell asleep and thus killed Gerard—who was far ahead of me—rather than Giles. This was my first experience of a random death in peacetime and led me as an adult to be especially wary of French drivers and French roads.

My own surname is basically French and stems from a chateau and village in south-west France near the city of Montauban. The original ancestors of all men of my name can be traced back to Huguenot times and expulsion from France in 1685 following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Like my father before me I was appointed cricket captain of Bancroft’s, but did not take up my appointment, since a moment came when I simply could not bear an exclusive boys’ school for a moment longer. Twentieth-century American literature was probably overwhelmingly to blame for my impetuous desire to go out and “see the world”, but I got no further than working on the London docks and noting the exotic ports of origin of various visiting vessels when military service intervened. Many years later I read those two wonderful travel books written by Patrick Leigh Fermor who set off from an indifferent clerical job in London one autumn day with very little money, with the aim of reaching Turkey on foot. Patrick was perhaps seventy by the time these books were published, having been a hero during the Second World War for his bold and ingenious capture of a senior German officer in Crete. I do not share Patrick’s talent as a writer nor his extreme resourcefulness in unrehearsed means of travel, but my basic ambition was similar.

In my childhood and youth the normal expectation of most pupils at schools such as Bancroft’s would have been to go on to university but in my case my sister was already there. My father’s schoolmaster’s salary would not have begun to cover the needs of two children at university. I needed to win a major scholarship, which I unfortunately failed to do. The so-called playing field was also far from level between the genders in my day because all fit young men of my time were due for two years of compulsory military service after leaving school. Feminist notions of absolute equality had rather wisely yet to appear. In certain circumstances this military service could be postponed, but I found myself posted after recruit training to 231 OCU RAF Bassingbourne in Hertfordshire, where air crew were “converted” from flying Mosquitoes to more modern, jet-engined Canberras. OCU stood for Operational Conversion Unit.

My relatively undemanding tasks there were to draw each day’s weather chart for the information of air crews and to run the camp’s classified intelligence section, which dealt with such matters as maps of hostile airfields and “escape and evasion” equipment whereby uniform buckles could be rapidly dismantled to form compasses, say, which are the most vital item other than food when escaping from overseas locations.

Like many such, my commanding officer was utterly bored with peacetime life eight years after the war had ended yet found a source of unlikely amusement in me. Was I any good at running, and if so what were my best times? The station’s sports day was a mere month away and bored officers often wagered quite large sums on the contestants. I was taken in secret to the edge of the airfield and timed by stopwatch over a measured mile. I was quite a decent middle-distance runner already, and sharpened myself up during the hours off given me in secret for serious training. I duly won the mile race in record time as a “dark horse”, to the considerable benefit of those who had been shrewd enough to back me. I briefly became a kind of substitute racehorse.

I was lucky to be posted to RAF Bassingbourne, but five days before Christmas 1953 I was posted to Germany. I continued my athletic ambitions by running for RAF Buckeburg against adjacent teams at cross-country. Our course of 13.5 kilometres went up one side of a mountain and down the other with a few fairly wide streams thrown in. In a reversal of my previous good fortune, the time off I was given for training so irritated my commanding officer that I received a “grudge posting” to a remote camp on Luneburg Heath between Hanover and Hamburg.

The camp was defended against the extremely adjacent Russians by 118 Squadron of the RAF, also known as the “rock-apes” for their defence of Gibraltar during the war. I seemed to be the only member of the squadron who did not come from West Glasgow. Visits to nearby towns were forbidden to parties of less than ten owing to the hatred engendered against the RAF by blanket bombing raids of North German cities during the war.

A friend and future fellow journalist, Barry, nevertheless persuaded me to accompany him to the nearby town of Uelzen where he had a German girlfriend, whom we met up with at a local dance-hall. Halfway through the evening the locals somehow realised that we were RAF personnel in civvies and we were strongly advised to flee. Barry was rather drunk so I locked him in a ladies’ lavatory from which I exited via a small window and climbed an adjacent tall tree.

Someone had alerted the international border police, who came and bashed the men still at the dance-hall with outsized batons. After a sensible wait, I climbed down from my tree, retrieved Barry and felt grateful that we were both still in one piece. We later strolled peacefully that night beside the canal which was all that separated us from the Russian forces.

When military service ended I bided my time in a number of jobs and locations and saved money with the objective of painting full-time if any viable chance ever arose. I had an older, somewhat eccentric cousin called John Peace, a much decorated hero in the war, who lived at St Ives in Cornwall, which in those days boasted a flourishing international arts community. After a couple of exploratory visits I went to live there and paint full-time around the time of my twenty-fifth birthday.

One of the first artists of note I met there, at a local pub named The Sloop, was Francis Bacon. After a long lunchtime chat about Pierre Bonnard, he invited me to share a glass or two of the expensive crate of whisky sent him for Christmas by his new gallery, the Marlborough. Francis was staying for Christmas in a rented studio, where we continued our amiable and instructive chat. However, at about five o’clock the door opened revealing a handsome, muscular youth ostentatiously fingering the belt of his jeans.

“You about ready for your frashin’ yet, Francis?” he said.

Clearly I had much still to learn about the world of art and its practitioners.

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