When I was a child in the 1950s, my father's reputation as a writer had passed its peak. He was one year older than the century and his great fame had come in the 1930s and 1940s with a succession of best-selling novels beginning with 'Juan in America' and ending with 'Private Angelo.'
Nevertheless his reputation remained sufficiently powerful to breed in me a distinct expectancy of recognition. In the company of strangers voices above my head would say 'This is Eric Linklater's boy' or a face would duck down to my level and assert brightly, 'So you're the great man's son,' and I would feel the spread of a wider penumbra than a small boy could throw. To be Eric Linklater's son then seemed no hardship.
With my father on hand, however, the expectancy was shot through by a fearful apprehension that something might go wrong. Like some infant Duke of Norfolk superintending a coronation, I felt it imperative that his importance be acknowledged by those around him. My worries reached a peak when he appeared in public – on a local 'Matter of Opinion' panel where he was bound to be contradicted, or on the radio where the interviewer would surely fail to catch his jokes, or on television where the camera would reveal him, as indeed it did, with his flies undone. To be his son in those circumstances was to feel his dignity threatened at every turn.
To some extent these were the natural misgivings of any child seeing his parent perform in public, but they also had a source in Eric's own apprehensions. Beneath his exuberant exterior ran a layer of uncertainty. My father disliked his physical appearance and emotional inhibition, and from adolescence had fought to overcome these shortcomings, as he perceived them to be. Anything which reminded him of them was liable to provoke a fury quite disproportionate to its overt cause. There was a manner in which people should
behave and in a way in which things should
be done, and it was crucial that the people or things around him should measure up to the standards he had set himself. Thus my Norfolk-like concern for appearances echoed in some degree that of the monarch.
From our different standpoints we were both familiar with the ideal. It came when he was in the company of men he admired, for the most part those who added writing to other accomplishments: soldiers, such as Robert Henriques or Bernard Fergusson; a doctor such as OH Mavor (James Bridie); and above all Compton Mackenzie whose additional guises defy brief description. With them he became the person he wanted to be, extravagant in affection, hospitality and discourse.
When they came to stay the house swelled in sympathetic grandeur. The dining-room table grew in length, the cellar was harvested of bottles, and dark corners of the hall sprouted sheaves of roses, lupins or gladioli. From a mingled sense of drama and terror the butcher produced his best mutton, my mother her best cooking, and the four children their best behaviour. It was a pleasure to be present on such occasions, and to offer a second helping of carrots was to stand on the edge of glory.
Eric then made a splendid companion. His conversation was served by a Jacobean wit and a prodigious memory crammed with reading and experience, but most importantly admiration unstoppered his feelings so that his friends were bathed in their warmth. Driven by the gale of his personality their talk grew boisterous and its direction unpredictable. Allusion served for explanation, personal experience stood in for definition. A quotation from Racine comprehended France and war was caught in the memory of a battle. Like wizards they leapt from some conversational peak to another, and wherever they landed an entire mountain of knowledge was assumed to stand beneath their feet.
There was something of Cinderella in this gaiety and the departure of the guests represented the chimes of midnight. Then the saddle of mutton turned to rissoles, the claret bottles became a water-jug, and in place of the glittering talkers sat four bespectacled, unattractive children. I surmise that nothing reminded Eric more forcibly of his secret faults than his children, for he strove repeatedly and angrily to mould us to a less irritating form.
In memory these attempts have their focus on the long-polished table in the dining-room from one end of which he sat facing the window so that its westerly light illuminated the pink, imperial dome of his bald head and made his spectacles gleam like mirrors. Meals took place in an atmosphere which I recall as being so charged the squeal of a knife on china or the slurrup of soup on lip could trigger an explosion. 'If you can't eat like a civilised human being,' he bellowed, 'you can finish your meal at the bottom of the garden.' At his most irritable, he had a habit of addressing us through my mother as though she were the NCO of a slovenly platoon he had to inspect. 'Marjorie! Have you seen this boy's tie? Does he have to come to table looking like a slum child?' or, on the occasion I first tried to carve a chicken, 'Marjorie! What's that bloody boy been doing? The bird looks as though it's been attacked with a Mills grenade.'
When he shouted, his voice had a percussive force at which I usually cried, as much for my own failure as his anger. Despite straining every Norfolk nerve, things could not be prevented from going wrong. There were sudden unannounced purges against the smell of peeled oranges or grapes pulled from the stalk, and if these were avoided, paralysing interrogations exposed my ignorance about people, places and dates.
The other children, being older, had presumably run this gauntlet before me, and our collective failings must have seemed part of a conspiracy against him. For all his shouting, deficiencies continued to appear on every side. Plates were served cool when they should have been hot, drinking water was tepid instead of cold, and spoons were dull instead of sparkling. There was, in consequence, no mistaking who was at the centre of the conspiracy – the woman responsible for plates, spoons, children and, most infuriatingly of all, for boiled potatoes which either dissolved to flour or split as crisply as apples. 'Good God, woman, look at this!' he bawled in disbelief. 'After 23 years of married life you still haven't learned to boil a potato.' And despite the years, he would still be goaded into slinging the potato at my mother, though either because she was only a silhouette against the light, or out of good manners, he usually missed.
The emotional drama left no one untouched, and viewed on the distorting screen of memory, meal-times have a decidedly operatic quality. Conversations are shouted arguments, unforgivable accusations are hurled across the table, people break down and cry, exits are made to the sound of slammed doors – my elder sister once exited with a slam which dislodged a full-length portrait of my maternal grandmother from the wall and two painted plates from the sideboard. Acknowledging a force as elemental as himself, my father relapsed briefly into silence.
I do not present this as the whole truth – the sunnier moods are absent, and as we grow older and tougher, and thus more acceptable, they often predominated – but it is accurate as to the intemperate quality of his frustration. For a child it was impossible to understand that the violence of his emotions was inseparable from his writing, and that what enraged him in life could become comedy in fiction. In fact I remember my embarrassment at the age of seven when I first read 'The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea,' a book which he wrote for my brother Magnus and me. There for all to see was my father in the person of the ferocious pirate, Dan Scumbril, who terrified half the North Atlantic with his blazing temper and loud voice. 'Split my liver with a brass harpoon,' thundered Dan Scumbril, and I quailed, not with fright but shame that my father's rages should now be known to everyone. When, so far from being thought the worse of, he was congratulated on the creation of an exceptionally comic character, I logged it as one more of those bewildering quirks of existence which had to be accepted even though they made no sense.
As it happens, it is more complex than most childhood matters to understand how fiction transforms reality. In my adolescence and early twenties, I found – as did most of my contemporaries to judge by reviews and comments – a lack of sensitivity in his resort to comedy. It was too obviously the right thing to do, not to take the world very seriously – even his nightmare of service on the western front in the first world war was presented in 'The Man On My Back' in comic form.
Yet, when I read his books today it seems to me that what underlies his writing is not an absence but an excess of feeling. A violent sentiment runs through his most extravagant comedy so that it dances on the edge of blackness or slips abruptly into tragedy. The variety of his approaches to fiction which once irritated his critics – the rollicking of 'Juan in America' followed by the gut-spilling 'Men of Ness', the macaroni jollity of 'Private Angelo' and the sombre 'Roll of Honour' – now appear much more a piece. A word which he likes was inenarrable, or untellable, and what strikes me is the persistent attempt to convey the inenarrable exorbitance of his feelings.
Had he been born with a poet's head, with tragic brows and an aquiline nose, he would have had a mask to suit his inner being. As it was, the sergeant-major's jaw was surmounted by a massive skull and a nose which he explained as the outcome of 800 years of peasant ancestry exposed to the bulbous gales of Orkney. The physical ideal was subverted before he began, and his spirit met a similar stumbling-block in the weighty Victorian values instilled by his parents. It was little wonder that he raged so furiously, sometimes to be free of the encumbrances, sometimes to make sense of them.
They bred in him a lust for beauty – for the sense of liberation which it conferred and for the model which it offered of the way things should be. No moment exposes him more clearly than when in wartime he found himself alone in the room where Botticelli's 'Primavera' had been stored for protection, and stretching up on tiptoe he pressed his lips to those of Spring. He married a beautiful wife, he built and bought houses for their views rather than their suitability as homes, and he purchased pictures even faster than poverty required him to sell them. He kept Highland cattle for their shaggy grandeur, and allowed a succession of elegant, self-possessed Siamese cats to step with impunity across his writing-paper. Even the aggressive pattern of his tweed jackets I suspect of answering some aspiration which he felt to be bold and carefree.
His laugh was always loud and in old age his tears grew copious. He cried at memories of soldiering, at a pipe tune or a reading of 'Danny Deever'. Perhaps they sprang in part from an old man's sentimentality, but I also remember the remark made by a neighbour, Donald MacGillivray, a supreme piper and teacher of piping. When he played 'The Lament for the Children' Eric was not the only one moved to tears, but it was for him in particular that the piece was performed. 'I always like playing for your father,' Donald said. 'You see, he has the soul for it.'