15 December 2009


Kathleen. Now there was an excellent fellow. In 1968 he was aged about 65 or 70: maybe he had been born with the century. In youth he must have resembled Dan O’Herlihy (possibly a distant relative of mine, and, it must be said, a fine figure of a man). Existence had left him a bit bowed, and his legs, somewhat bandy, inadequately filled his flapping bags. His shock of white hair would not submit to the comb; his ample white moustache bore traces of nicotine; and his spotted hanky was stuffed just anyhow in the breast pocket of his jacket. One could not say that he didn’t make an effort with his grooming, but the result was bohemian, louche.

His name was not really Kathleen, though everyone knew him as such. He spoke with a faint Irish accent. The fascia of his antiques shop in Boscombe bore the name, painted in a pleasing script. The shop may formerly have been a hairdresser’s or haberdasher’s. He couldn’t be bothered, or couldn’t afford, to engage a signwriter. Much of his stock was junk, picked up at auctions.

The chief attraction of a visit to Kathleen’s shop, besides the insidious charm of the man himself, were the outrageous lies he told. A perfectly ordinary education-authority desk, with hinged lid and inkwell, perhaps thrown out with 300 others during a refurbishment, had “imprisoned the young Winston Churchill himself” while chafing against authority at Harrow School; those tortoiseshell-framed spectacles had been worn by “the Emperor Napoleon” so that he could see to write his memoirs; the ornate, one-bar electric fire Kathleen risked his life to switch on and demonstrate (he turned off the lights, the better to appreciate the glow) was confidently dated as “Jarjian”.

He had a little white dog, a terrier called Suzy, who had, he said, cancer. The only other living thing on the premises was Mrs Kathleen, whom one never saw but only heard, issuing querulous complaints and enquiries from a back room: these Kathleen often pretended not to hear, sometimes even tiptoeing out of the shop and into the busy street, bringing his customer with him, so that the sales spiel could continue uninterrupted.

When he made a sale his joy was a delight to see. When three items of furniture were purchased at once, he said it was “like VE Day”. He delivered in person, driving a black Humber estate car, vintage 1954 or so, which may well once have been a hearse.

I remembered him yesterday. Back then people were all individual and different. Britain was a land of harmless eccentrics; it was a land of free speech and free thought.

We shall not see his like again.

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