He was not an uncle, but as my grandmother’s cousin had somehow acquired such a status. A fussy, effete man, he would advise my grandmother when he and his wife would be coming to visit her, and expect my grandmother to have prepared everything as he specified. It seemed not to occur to him that his stipulation of dates of arrival and departure and his list of required foodstuffs might not have been convenient for his host.
In Somerset, the food he requested would not have been easily available. For breakfast he always insisted upon Force flakes. The packet, with its Sonny Jim figure on the front seemed something from history. There was a fussiness about what he would and would not eat, he had theories about which foods were beneficial and which were detrimental to one’s health. In the home of my grandmother, a woman who grew in her own garden much of what was set on the table, his ideas seemed like London fads adopted to make him sound more sophisticated than those of us who lived in a simpler place.
In my younger years, his wife seemed the more interesting character. He insisted that she suffered what he called “schizophrenia.” I would sit and watch her, imagining that there might be a sudden moment when she became someone else. With the passing years, I realised that the only change that came was that she would become very quiet and withdrawn. He would complain that she might spend hours sat watching out of the window at the front of their London home. The description seemed more that of someone suffering depression than someone suffering the type of mental illness that he imagined.
In my undergraduate days and in the years of my ordination training, he would write to me, sending me clippings from the Daily Telegraph and other publications he read. The articles were invariably those critical of anything he regarded as liberal or progressive. When I did not respond to one outpouring of prejudice, he wrote to my grandmother and complained at my bad manners. His opinions on the Church of England seemed odd, given that he claimed to be a Quaker.
It was his Quaker beliefs that had allowed him to avoid military service in the Second World War, he registered as a conscientious objector.
Visiting my mother on the day that would have been my father’s birthday, she recalled family memories.
“You know Uncle Alec was a Nazi?”
“Yes, after he died they found he had a collection of Nazi books in his house, along with stuff about his visits to Germany in the 1930s.”
“So much for him being a conscientious objector,” my sister commented. “He simply supported the enemy.”
It was hard to reconcile the fussy old man in his neat clothes and dietary obsessions with the vileness of the Nazi regime. Had I known forty years ago, the letters may have been very different.