Monday, 20 May 2013

You may call them coincidences

The Bonfiglioli ABC (continued)

It may be a good idea to start with an apology.

The man of the title, Kyril Bonfiglioli, was the subject of the first nine posts of this blog, from 31st March till 20th May 2013.  This is the last of those. You'll need to track back through those posts to read the rest of my memories of his exploits and escapades, the scandalous and scurrilous, the comic and dangerous.

C:  Correlations.   Conclusion.


Knowing more about Bonfigs life after he left Aberdeen, I have been intrigued by certain correlations in our lives, some commonplace, others more unusual, some in which I found a strange comfort.  Only one was neither commonplace nor comforting. 

     Our family homes each took a direct hit from the Luftwaffe; we both survived. Each married a Margaret.  Each fathered two boys in our first marriages.  We both loved words and loved to play with them, though I would hesitate to try to sneak on to his podium.  He taught me to fence with foil and sabre; now I teach Chinese sabre exercises to my students in tai chi chuan.

     Only once in our time together did I see Bonfig in a vulnerable moment.  I suppose the hurt was still fresh in his mind.  He told me his first wife Elizabeth had died in her sleep; he woke to find her dead beside him.  More than once - no, many times more than once - in my 45 years of marriage, I lay quiet in bed, listening for my wifes breathing. 

     Fifty years after Bonfigs Elizabeth died, my first wife Margaret died beside me.


       Kyril Bonfiglioli (29/5/1929 - 3/3/1985)

  Margaret Bonfiglioli's book, The Mortdecai ABC, has rounded out the articles and mini-biographies about Bonfig that I found on Google and Wikipedia.  Most of the conflicting hronology and the misinterpretations have been resolved, though not all.  

     The granite city and the schoolie sergeants get their rightful mention; the barrack square coat-of-arms gets its correct colours and tinctures (I was going to say 'proper' but he would quibble at that); and his theatrical telling of long and dirty jokes links an Aberdeen Sergeants Mess with an Oxford drawing-room.

     Quibble?  Did I say 'quibble'?  Bonfig didn't do 'quibble'.  He'd more likely haunt me, with an ethereal light-sabre in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.

     Clearly, Kyril Bonfigliolis short time in Aberdeen was as colourful and quirky as any of his adventures even some of the fictional - yet to come.  Things happened around him or he made them happen.  This was no quiet backwater of his life.  The preparation for his success, as novelist, humorist and storyteller, had begun.  

     I'm not one for regrets but if I had met him again later in life, I would have been able to fence with him, both physically and verbally, to better effect than I could manage as a 19 yr old.  I still count myself fortunate to have known him.

What am I going to write next?

     I've told all I can about Bonfig and I've received a few kind comments from his family and some people who knew him or love his books. Some well-known figures have admired his work,too, Stephen Fry, Miles Kington, Susan Hill, Craig Brown (not the former manager of Aberdeen FC, the other one) - where are you?
     My 'page view' figures tell me I've had 48 readers in Indonesia today, 16 in Russia and only one in the UK.  Would you trust these statistics?  I shall continue to believe that Stephen Fry et al are holidaying in Indonesia at this moment.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Arrogance, haute cuisine and appropriate dress

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued)

C: Career, university

Around Bonfig, life was sometimes scary, at times embarrassing, at others inspiring, but never less than edgy.  His influence in my life (a few months) ranks with that of Mr H C Todd, English master at Slough Grammar (five years or more) and of Arthur Mees Childrens Encyclopaedia (1940 to date).  

My friends from school, Brian Pearson (L) and
Peter Leech,in their first year at Oxford.
     When he told me hed got into Balliol on the strength of a thesis on heraldry, I resolved that that was the college I would go to.  I had good A level results, best in the school, and a County Exhibition to defray the cost. (Were there student grants in those days?  I can’t remember.) 
     Many of my schoolmates, who had opted for Uni first and National Service second, had already completed two years at Wadham and other colleges of that rank One, I found out recently had gone to Balliol.  By 1954, when I applied, Balliol had had so many applications that year that I had to sit another exam.  Eventually a letter, complimentary but crushing, told me that the standard was extremely high that year and I had not got a place.
     With the arrogant stupidity of youth, I decided if I couldnt go to Balliol, I wouldnt go to any other college.  Daft, or what?

     Bonfig had that sort of effect, on me and I believe on many others. Now and again, I still catch myself wondering what, in some situation or other, he would have thought or said or done. 
     Even now.    

     Im seventy bloody eight years old, for Petes sake!

     Exceptional food and expensive clothes are lovingly and wittily described in Bonfiglioli's novels. He lingers over them like no other thriller writer I've read - and he gets away with it.  Yet these necessities of life (leaving aside the adjectives) are but two of the contradictions which not only abounded in Bonfig's life but almost defined it. 

     In his novels, Charlie Mortdecai dines on caviar ('the real Grosrybrest, ; Jock . . . spurns Beluga and Ocietrova') or partridge breasts in jelly, casserole of pheasant or 'a medium-sized hen lobster, split and broiled with a great deal of butter'.  The author's tastes were much more prosaic.  His wife   (and who would know better?) writes, 'Despite the elaborate references to food in the books, Bon liked quite humble dishes and had developed a repertoire of hearty, tasty food to encourage his Balliol friends round.'

     Only once did Bonfig and I eat out together.  It was in a basement cafe just off Union Street, Aberdeen's main thoroughfare.  The meal was plain to the point of ugliness, a fried fillet of haddock on an ungarnished plate, served with bread and butter and a cup of tea.  Bonfig tried to talk it up, extolling the virtue of simplicity and the Aberdonians' empathy with the sea and its creatures.  Was he having me on?  I'm still not sure.

     On the subject of dress, Charlie Mortdecai assumes the status of arbiter of correctness for the occasion. Contrast that with Bonfig's all-too-obvious relief at the limitations of Army dress codes.  When my friend of the mountains, Irene, invited me to partner her at her sister's wedding reception, Bonfig's enthusiastic support and advice was almost comparable to that of best man for groom.                                

     'Ah, you'll need to wear your No 1 Dress uniform.  That's the great thing about the army: the correct dress is prescribed for every occasion.  You can't go wrong.'

     He was right, of course.  No 1 Dress is a smart, very dark blue suit, with  contrasting piping in your regimental colours, brass buttons a-shine and a natty peaked cap.

     I looked great in it.  Must track down that picture.

Next week:  Correlations.  Conclusion.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Vicarious sex and heraldry

The Bonfiglioli ABC   (continued)

C:  Concupiscence.   Coat-of-arms.    


To a 19 year old virgin (please don't snigger; it was the early 1950s) Bonfig's explicit revelations of sexual adventure were a world away from my experience, a little uncomfortable but exciting.  I had only recently left an all-boys school and my weekend activity tended to be healthy and outdoor, mostly climbing in the Grampian Mountains.  Even a midnight bivouac at 3,000 feet near the summit of Braeriach, snuggled under a groundsheet with Irene and a half-bottle of rum, failed to stir what I later came to recognize as a healthy response.  I must have been at that time much younger than my years.

     Bonfig's lurid tales, much relished in the telling, included his greenstick seduction by the family housemaid, his cuckolding of a fellow NCO and a brief affair with the wife of a well-known poet.  

     My reaction may have appeared calm and non-committal but only because I really didnt know how to react.  My affectation of coolness drove him to tease me with yet more erotic tales.


Bonfig and I left our mark on the Bridge of Don Barracks. 

     Did you know, sir, he said one day to the Company Commander, that your coat-of-arms above the square is painted in the wrong heraldic colours?

     How do you know? said Major Brown.  Are you an expert on heraldry?

     As a matter of fact, I am, sir.

     In that case, youd better get hold of some paint, fix up some scaffolding and paint the damned thing right!’    

     Only later did Bonfig plead vertigo and volunteer me for the job.  So it was that Sgt Ginger Ross and I did the jobbing painter work under Bonfig’s ground-level supervision (no matter how odd that may sound), changing lions’ tongues from sanguine to gules and carefully lettering the motto scroll.  I hope subsequent painters followed the colours we laid in so painstakingly. 

     I realize now that Bonfig’s description of a terrified Karli in All the Tea in China (for me, his best novel) ‘clinging limpet-like to any rope or spar above twenty feet’, may well have been based on a very personal fear.