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(From Tresco to Dodanduwa)
by Maurice Cardiff © 1996
In the autumn of 1967 I was transferred from Belgium to Thailand. On my first weekend in Bangkok I went to look at the temples by the river in the old part of the city. In the precincts of one of them I stopped to look at a bookstall which displayed an assortment of Buddhist texts translated into numerous languages. The monk behind the counter asked me what country I came from. When I told him I was from England, he picked up one of the texts and handed it to me announcing that it was the work of an Englishman. Its title was ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’, a translation from the Pali Canon by Ñanamoli Thera. Opening it I found on the inside cover a biographical note on the translator. ‘Ñanamoli Thera’, I read, ‘was born in England in 1905 as Osbert Moore.’ The note concluded: ‘His premature death in 1960 was a great loss to the Buddhist world.’
Astonished, I exclaimed that Ñanamoli had been a friend of mine. The monk, hardly less surprised, told me what a great man he had been and how deeply revered for his scholarship and dedication to the monastic life. I bought the book, not in the hope of being enlightened by its contents, but because the note about its translator had revived memories of more than thirty years before when I had been an undergraduate at Oxford.
I had just finished my first year so the lunch party must have been in the summer vacation of 1934. William Buchan, a school friend, had a room in Elizabeth Bowen’s house in Clarence Terrace. She had been intrigued by his description of Beckley Park, a house a few miles from Oxford near the Buchan’s home at Elsfield. He had arranged the invitation, in which I had been included, for her to have the chance of seeing it.
I woke with a sore throat, first symptom of an emergent cold. When I arrived at Clarence Terrace, the rain, only a few drops as yet, had already started. William had a bullnose Morris with seating for driver and passenger in front and, in the “dicky” behind, a foldback bench open to the weather. The prospect of a fifty mile drive in the “dicky”, if the rain were to continue, was daunting; but the pull of Beckley, although I knew it well already, was strong. Elizabeth’s husband, Alan, was generous in lending me a rainproof hat and a heavy raincoat.
Driving out of London the rain became more persistent. It thinned a little over the Chilterns but, as we dipped into Oxfordshire, it turned to a drenching downpour. The mile long drive to the house, less drive than track, was full of potholes from which water splashed into the “dicky” and seeped into my shoes. Though otherwise protected by Alan’s coat and hat, I was shivering with the damp and my sore throat had developed into a head-stifling cold.
It was not the best of days for seeing Beckley but, whatever the weather, its hold over me never failed. An early sixteenth-century hunting lodge, it had been built on the site of a medieval castle with a triple moat. Tall and narrow it had fine leaded windows with stone mullions set in walls of red brick, rose-pink in sunlight, but now turned to a darker almost purple shade by the rain. Plunging through the deluge under umbrellas we crossed the narrow bridge which arched over the moat between the drive and the house. At the front door we huddled in the porch as William tugged at the iron bell-pull. In response to a remote clang, Susan, daughter of Mrs Feilding, who owned the house, came out to welcome us and help us dispose of dripping coats and umbrellas.
The door led directly into a partially timbered, high-ceilinged hall which, with the pouring clouds outside, was deeply shadowed. It had a large, open fireplace with plain stone chimney-piece. Though midsummer, a concession to the inclement weather, a massive log smouldered between fire-dogs on a bed of ashes. Mrs Feilding, short but foursquare and formidable, stood to one side of it.
She wore, as always, a coat and skirt of a material which closely resembled hessian, and a hat seemingly modeled on a man’s bowler. Though reputed to have been a great beauty in her day, she had clearly let her looks go, particularly in regard to her teeth of which one yellowing survivor was permanently and prominently visible. The daughter of an American father and a German mother, and brought up mostly in France and Italy, she had a slight foreign accent, and there was a touch of continental formality in the manner in which she received us. It was evident, too, when she turned to introduce a tall young man who, standing in the shadows at one end of the hall, was so obscurely present that he might have been confused with the figures in the tapestry on the wall behind him. Now he stepped forward but stopped short of the circle round the fire, responding with a slight bow to her bald statement — although her guest of some years she had never been known to address him other than by his surname — “This is Mr Moore.”
Despite the smouldering log the hall was chilly. As long as I had known the house one of the lower panels in the window on the opposite side of the room had been jammed open, as on this occasion, with a piece of antler. It was rumoured that Mrs Feilding’s passion for fresh air, even in winter when the fog rolled in from the nearby Otmoor marshes, had been responsible for her husband’s early decease. Still shivering from the drive, mopping a running nose and stifling sneezes, I had moved close to the fireplace both to avoid the draught from the window and to take what warmth I could from the glowing log.
Remarking on my all-too-evident condition, though not commiserating with it, Mrs Feilding stated that she had never had a cold in her life. She attributed this to her practice of keeping a clove of garlic in her shoe. If I wished to try it for myself, Mr Moore would obtain a piece for me from the kitchen. I begged her not to put him to such trouble. Fortunately the parlor maid entered at that moment to announce in a strong Irish brogue that lunch was ready.
The dining room had been the original kitchen of the hunting lodge. It had a vast open fireplace with an ancient spit with weights for turning it. The present kitchen, a cross between basement and cellar, was beneath the hall. When it flooded, as it frequently did in winter, the maid would emerge from it in white cap and apron and wearing Wellington boots which left wet footprints on the floor. Only colleens from the Irish bogs could be induced to put up with such conditions.
As we took our seats round the refectory table, Elizabeth remarked to Susan on the beauty of the needlework on the high-backed chairs. Mrs Feilding, sharp-eared, informed her that the chairs had been a present from Mr Moore. They had been in bad condition. He had embroidered the tapestry on the seats and backs himself.
“But it must have taken years!”
“No, only months,” Susan said. “And he’d never done any embroidery before. He copied the designs from old materials and worked them straight on to the canvas.”
Elizabeth’s astonishment and admiration were acknowledged by the embroiderer with a modest bow.
I remember no details of the conversation over lunch, but, as usual at Beckley, whenever a name or a date or a fact needed to be recalled or confirmed, or a divergence of views remained unresolved, Mrs Feilding would announce: “We will ask Mr Moore. He will tell us.” And Mr Moore, hitherto silent, would provide with quiet assurance the correct answer to the question put to him or settle, rationally and beyond dispute, the controversy, however abstruse the subject.
After lunch when we had returned to the hall for coffee, Mrs Feilding announced: “Mr Moore will now play to us on his harpsichord.”
He had bought the harpsichord — early eighteenth century in a splendid walnut case — six months before. His friends had been astonished as he was not at all well-off and it had seemed an uncharacteristic extravagance. Besides, though known to be knowledgeable about music, he had never studied the piano or any other instrument. Confident that he could teach himself, he had learnt to play remarkably quickly and with considerable skill.
He kept the harpsichord in an oak-paneled parlour adjoining the hall. Even with the door open the music could only be remotely heard in the hall, itself. But now, as if to ensure that it would be quite inaudible, as soon as he started to play, Mrs Feilding began talking very loudly and without stopping, until the piece was finished. She then coolly thanked him.
As it was no longer raining William suggested that he should take Elizabeth to see the garden. It was still gloomy and damp outside so I decided to stay by the fire. I had picked up a book to read when I was seized by yet another sneezing fit. This reminded Mrs Feilding of my reluctance to try her garlic cure-all. Insisting again, she had the maid bring me a whole garlic on a saucer. Under her instructions I removed a clove from it and put it into my shoe. It pressed uncomfortably against the sole of my foot.
Returning from the garden tour, Elizabeth exclaimed enthusiastically about the topiary work. “Especially the bear. It must have been extremely difficult to clip it to such a realistic shape.”
Almost the whole garden was topiary, architectural or geometric in design, except for the bear, which was certainly its masterpiece. It stood twelve feet high settled in a comfortable bell-shape on its haunches, its head, with ears pricked, convincingly modeled, its forepaws indicated by deftly clipped protuberances emerging from its body.
“My husband planted all the yew and box,” Mrs Feilding said, “when we first came to live here. My son, Basil, and Mr Moore have clipped them into shapes following my husband’s intentions. Mr Moore, however, is wholly responsible for the bear.”
It did not rain during the drive back to London, but by the time I reached the house at which I was staying, my cold was so much worse that I decided to go to bed. Mrs Feilding’s cure-all had failed to be of any help. When I took off my shoe I removed it and threw it out of the window.
The forest began a short distance from the outskirts of Kandy. There had been a drought on the island. Although the trees still gave a welcome shade, dried-up leaves covered the path to the Hermitage. I had sent a letter to the Venerable Nyanaponika but doubted whether he would have received it. Happily we found that he was expecting us. The Hermitage was a simple wooden hut, but its one room resembled a scholar’s study rather than a monk’s cell. The walls were lined with books and there were more books among the papers on the desk from behind which he rose to greet us.
Nyanaponika was in his eighties. He had come from his native Germany to Ceylon, as it then was, as a young man drawn by his interest in Buddhism. He had joined the island monastery on the lake at Dodanduwa and stayed on to become its abbot.
In 1982, the year of our visit, he had been long retired to his Forest Hermitage where he worked with the Buddhist Publication Society of Kandy on the publication of Buddhist texts and translations. I had corresponded with him some fifteen years earlier when I was living in Bangkok. Shortly after my arrival in the city I had become friends with a Thai publisher and owner of a bookshop specializing in books on Buddhism. When I told him I had known Ñanamoli well in his lay life, he had asked me to write an article about him for Visakha Puja, a Buddhist quarterly. Nyanaponika had read the article and had written to ask my advice about the publication of certain posthumous papers of the late Venerable Ñanamoli. As they were not directly concerned with Buddhism, the expense could not be met by the Buddhist Publication Society. He wondered if I knew of any friends of Ñanamoli who might be prepared to subscribe to their publication. I gave what help I could. A year later he had sent me a copy of the papers collected under the title, A Thinker’s Note Book.
We spent an hour with Nyanaponika. He told us, gesturing towards his desk, that he was still working on manuscripts left by Ñanamoli when he died. He extolled his exemplary life during the eleven years he had lived in the monastery and the naturalness with which he had taken to its austere simplicity. He considered him to have been, in his field, the outstanding scholar of his time. His profound knowledge of Pali, acquired only after his arrival in Ceylon, had made it possible for him to elucidate in his English translations some of the most difficult texts of the Theravada canon. His industry had been tireless, but, though producing a remarkable body of work in so short a time, the meticulousness and accuracy of his scholarship had never faltered.
He spoke, too, of his personality, of his detachment — so much at one with the teaching of the Buddha — which seemed to have been inherent in his nature; but, also, of his compassion, evident in the friendly smile he had for all who approached him. He had lent ready and effective help in practical matters when called upon and had been generous in giving advice and guidance to the younger monks in their studies.
He told us how privileged he felt to have known him (a framed photograph of Ñanamoli in his monk’s robes hung on the wall opposite his desk) and how deeply he had valued his friendship and regretted his premature death. Having read my article in Visakha Puja he was anxious to hear anything else I could tell him of his early life.
Before leaving I asked him for an introduction to the present abbot at Dodanduwa. He wrote a note but as he handed it to me he had a sudden doubt. “I hope you haven’t come out here because you intend writing a book about him. It would be very wrong not to respect his wishes.”
He picked up a copy of the Thinker’s Note Book and handed it to me open at the first page of the editor’s preface. He had headed it with a quotation from the Note Book, itself.
‘I shall never be able to compose my biography: but let no one else have the presumption to do so; for this would amount to theft. — Don’t worry, no one will think of it.’
It was ten years after our visit to Sri Lanka that I decided to write a sketch of Osbert Moore’s life. He was such a remarkable man I had always felt that some account of his life should be written. This sketch falling far short of a biography could scarcely be considered disrespectful to his wishes.
For circumstances of his early years and army career I relied upon what his friend, Basil Feilding, told me in the many talks we had before he died, and the letters he wrote to Basil’s sister, Susan, during the war. I had no qualifications for assessing the value of his contribution to Buddhist scholarship while at Dodanduwa. For his life there I had what I learned from Nyanaponika and the monks remaining in the island monastery to draw upon, together with the further letters he wrote to Susan from the Hermitage which, with the wartime letters, the Feilding family kindly lent me.
The first I heard of the Feildings, though not by name, was when staying with the Buchans, as William’s guest at Elsfield. Beckley was only a few miles away. Due to some quirk in the telephone system their line frequently became crossed with that of an unknown neighbour. On picking up the receiver, they would hear a woman’s voice with a foreign accent ferociously berating whoever had called her or to whom she was making a call. Though frustrated, the Buchans were intrigued. By the time I went up to Oxford a few months later, they had got to know the owner of the voice and her family and had fallen under the spell of their remote and beautiful house. It was when William took me to meet Basil Feilding in the antique shop he then owned in the Broad, that I met Bertie Moore for the first time.
Basil’s maternal uncle, Christopher Brewster, had married the daughter of von Hildbrandt, the distinguished German sculptor who as a young man had bought a beautiful and extensive property in Florence within easy walking distance of the Duomo. On visits to his aunt and uncle who had inherited San Francesca, Basil developed a serious interest in painting and an enduring aspiration to become a painter, himself. He also picked up enough Italian for him to choose it as his principal subject when at Oxford. Neither a gifted linguist nor dedicated scholar, he was helped in writing essays in Italian by Bertie Moore, a fellow student, who spoke and wrote the language fluently. On discovering that they had other interests in common including a predilection, amounting in Basil to a passion, for old master paintings, old furniture and, in general, antique objects remarkable for their craftsmanship, oddity or uniqueness, they decided, after leaving the university, to open an antique shop together in the Broad.
The two partners could hardly have been less alike in appearance, personality or background.
Basil was tall, handsome, with fair hair and a high colouring which gave him a rather bucolic look. He might have been taken for a young farmer which in a desultory way he was, living after his marriage in the home farmhouse at Beckley, keeping sheep on part of the land which went with it and letting the rest for grazing. He had had a conventional public school education but life during the holidays at Beckley with its most un-English emphasis on art and literature, and its lack, apart from a little rough shooting, of the traditional diversions and sporting amenities, was far from that of the orthodox county house. Nor did the old hunting lodge, itself, have any affinity with the great, grey barracks of the county families; but beautiful and sequestered and filled by his parents with fine old furniture, it was to have a strong, lasting and, ultimately, restrictive hold over him. Inheriting comfortably from his father, it was for the opportunities it offered to add to its treasures, rather than as a business venture, that he started the shop. Lacking the necessary patience and persuasiveness, he was not temperamentally equipped to be a succesful dealer; but as a collector, buying on his own behalf, he was unfailingly discerning and astute. While far from being indiscriminately gregarious by nature, he had a disarmingly naive charm and was warm and open in the company of his friends. Chronically flirtatious, his response to the presence of any pretty girl who attracted him, was blatantly enthusiastic, sometimes to the chagrin of Peggy, his young and beautiful wife.
Had I the presumption of the biographer against which Bertie (the name could hardly have been less suited to him) wrote so strongly, a visit to the Scilly Isles at an early stage would have been essential, since it was there that he was brought up. That much, and most of what follows; for reticent in most things, I never heard him speak of his early life, I learned from Basil in whom he minimally confided, and who once spent a brief holiday with him at his home on Tresco.
His father had been an explorer who was reputed to have discovered a hitherto unsuspected range of mountains in Africa. Out of prejudice against education in principle, or possibly because of financial considerations, he did not send Bertie away to be educated, leaving him to make what progress he might in the local schooling available. Whether adequately taught or not, obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge from an early age, he supplemented what he learned in the classroom by frequenting the public library where he delved into books on any subject which interested him, remembering almost every word of what he read. He had a particular gift for languages and had made such good progress in Italian and French that he managed to persuade his father to let him try for a place at Oxford. He was successful and entered as a modern languages student at Exeter College. He took up rowing and rowed for the first college eight at Henley. Perhaps because he gave up too much of his time to this activity, or because Basil distracted him from his studies by persistent demands for help with his own, when it came to a degree he obtained only an undistinguished third.
It is understandable that the two should have become friends through the Italian connection, but how, living in the Scilly Isles, Bertie had acquired the knowledge of pictures and old furniture which made him such a valuable partner in Basil’s antiques enterprise, is more mysterious.
It was in the shop that I met him for the first time. Basil was discussing a delivered piece of furniture with Leonard Huskinson, a large and ebullient friend. Between them they seemed to be taking up most of the premises’ limited space. Not until Leonard turned to ask for his opinion did I become aware of Bertie’s presence, standing, as he was, silent, motionless and as much into the background as was possible. This state of withdrawal, this all-but-absence, habitual to him, arose as I was to learn, partly from shyness but also because, contemplative by nature, he felt most at ease as a detached observer of a situation or as a listener-in — rarely participating unless pressed — to a debate.
In appearance he was tall and, perhaps from rowing, gave the impression of being strongly built. His dark hair was worn rather short and tidily brushed. His complexion was pale and his mouth in repose firmly set. His eyes, thoughtful but giving little away of what he was thinking, expressed, with his overall bearing, an alert but guarded intelligence.
Now, in response to Leonard’s appeal, he came forward and bending over the piece of furniture, gave a verdict on its date and authenticity, so authoritative, if mildly expressed, that it was accepted by the others without further question. But it was not only his expert knowledge or even his rare finds, such as a Durer drawing come-by in a country cottage, but his eye for the unusual which helped to give a special character to the shop in the Broad. Objects of a mechanical nature particularly appealed to him. Among these were eighteenth century barrel organs; for one of which (retained by Basil for his collection) he composed on a paper roll a fugue on the national anthem; and early automata, then little regarded, on which he tested his ingenuity in putting their mechanisms in order. Two such were kept at Beckley for a time while being repaired: the one a monkey shoe-black which polished another monkey’s boots; the other, a clock set in an off-shore storm complete with revolving lighthouse and ships rocked by waves.
This last may have had a special appeal for him since he had a love of the sea from his island upbringing. According to Basil who had experience of it when staying with him at his family home on Tresco, it brought out an unexpected, dare-devil streak in his character. In weather blustery enough to make Basil apprehensive, Bertie and his father took him for an outing in the Moore’s sailing dinghy. Clear of the harbour, the sea proved to be rough and grew steadily rougher as the wind strengthened. Undeterred, with Bertle growing more exhilarated as the waves rose higher, his father — described by Basil as a ‘kind of retired buccaneer’ — headed the boat so far out that when they turned round, the land was only dimly in sight. But worse was to come. As they neared the harbour, the wind drove them towards some rocks. The closer they approached to disaster, the more elated Bertie became as he and his father struggled to head the boat out to sea. Their last minute success, followed by perilous tacking to regain the harbour, left Basil severely shaken while for father and son it had evidently been no more than an invigorating and challenging adventure.
On one of his annual visits to Tresco Bertie decided, out of boredom, to try painting in oils for the first time. The subject he chose would have been daunting for most beginners but in the two canvasses he brought back with him he had succeeded in representing, with near photographic effect, single waves at the moment of breaking.
Since becoming a partner in the shop he had lived at Beckley. When Basil married and moved to the farmhouse, he stayed on as a guest with Mrs Feilding. It was a time which he described in his one brief autobiographical note as a ‘very pleasant and mainly graceful rock-pool’, adding that ‘the financial insecurity beginning in 1937 and the outbreak of war in 1939 silted the pool up’.
The insecurity coincided with and may have been partly caused by Mrs Feilding’s death. She had made herself ill by insisting on going out in the worst of Otmoor weather to feed the numerous cats which haunted the topiary. Reluctantly forced to take to her bed and still wearing her man’s bowler — for this and what follows I rely upon the account given me by her daughter, Susan — her condition so deteriorated that, despite her protests, a doctor was sent for. He diagnosed pneumonia, prescribed medicines and advised that her bedroom window, which she always kept open, should be shut. As soon as she was left alone she picked up a large book from beside her bed and hurled it at the window breaking some of the leaded panes. The Otmoor fog, once again in its role as the angel of death, rolled in and while the family were playing cards downstairs in the hall, she died.
Her death did not have an immediate effect on Bertie’s situation. For the next few months Susan, never over-anxious to rejoin Hugh, her military husband in India, divided her time between Beckley and her London flat. Although devoted to each other, Susan and Basil had very different temperaments. She lacked his easy going charm and generally (on occasion he could be provoked into spectacularly ferocious outbursts) amiable disposition. Feline both in appearance and character, her attraction lay as much in her high intelligence as in her rather hard-featured beauty. Whereas Bertie’s friendship with Basil was cemented by shared interests and mutual respect for each other’s very different qualities, a relationship developed between Bertie and Susan on an intellectual level to which Basil had no pretensions.
While Susan was at Beckley, Bertie stayed on. Encouraged by her, he was no longer, as in Mrs Feilding’s day, so withdrawn as to be confused with the figures in the tapestry or so restricted in conversation as to be little more than a purveyor of encyclopaedic knowledge on request. Now, in response to Susan’s bright talk and that of her weekend guests(1), when a subject discussed sufficiently drew him, joining in, though modest as ever, he would inadvertently astonish with the range and depth of his intellectual resouces. It was the period which, on looking back, he may well have thought of as the rock-pool at its most graceful; but it did not last. When Basil decided to leave the family house and move with his family into Beckley, Susan withdrew to London and Bertie departed into exile in a rented room in Oxford. The antique shop had come to an end. If his financial position had already been insecure, it must have become even more so.
While staying in Oxford some weeks later we spent an evening with him. After the surroundings he had been used to at Beckley, reduced to a small, drably-furnished room and bereft of friends to whose day-to-day company he had been accustomed for so long, we might have expected to find him despondent. But this was not the impression he gave. He seemed, if anything, more deeply at ease with himself, as if a restricted, solitary existence was better suited to his contemplative nature than his former life with its many distractions; the old house, and the fine things it was filled with, and the talk and comings and goings of its inmates. He made no hint of complaint about his changed circumstances and spoke of Beckley and the Feildings with affection but without nostalgia or regret.
Inevitably we discussed the ever-increasing threat of war and what he should do if it broke out. He told us that he would join the army with the intention of staying in the ranks. We agreed that while there were obviously many other reasons for wishing to come out of it alive, it was tantalizing to think one might be denied the knowledge of what happened when it was over.
Noticing how little there was of his own in the room, apart from a few books, I asked him what he had done with all his possessions, for I had imagined that the harpsichord was not all that he owned of the many objects which he and Basil had collected and kept at Beckley. He replied that he had left the harpsichord in the Oak Room; other than that he had no possessions to bring with him “except these”, he added, bringing a small leather bag out of his pocket. After undoing the strings at its neck, he turned it upside down to let a miniature hoard of gold, paper-thin, medieval coins pour out on to the table in front of him.
Some months after our visit war was declared and the rock-pool finally silted up.
Bertie joined the army in the ranks as he had said he would, and was drafted into the anti-aircraft regiment. Finding time passed slowly beside his gun when not in action, he took to knitting stockings in elaborate patterns including, according to Basil, a pair with white rabbits round the tops. Like all recruits he had to fill in a form stating his qualifications. Naively; for he was quite happy with his gun and had no wish to be taken away from it; still less to be considered for a commission; he put down all the languages he knew, including Turkish which he had learnt out of a book before going on holiday with Susan and a party of friends. On arrival at Smyrna he had stepped off the boat speaking the language and being understood and, still more remarkable, understanding it when spoken to. Someone reading his forms at the War Office was sufficiently impressed by them to have him summoned for an interview. At the time there was a shortage of Italian-speaking officers to cope with the large number of Italian residents who had been interned. His fluency in the language, when tested, resulted in his transfer to an Intelligence Corps officer-cadet training camp in Surrey. As I happened to be an officer-cadet myself at Sandhurst, nearby, we wanted to meet for lunch at a hotel midway between the two establishments.
Officer-cadets had to put up with the indignity of wearing a forage cap, a silly enough headgear in itself, but made even sillier and more conspicuous by having a broad white band stitched round it. However jauntily I tried to wear it, it made me feel, as, I noticed, other cadets looked, extremely foolish.
I arrived at the hotel before Bertie. As it was a fine day I settled myself at a table in the garden. I saw him approaching before he saw me and was struck by how, doubtless without giving a thought to it, he had hit upon a way of wearing the wretched cap so that it seemed to have nothing to do with him. Instead of making him look foolish it was the cap, itself, which was shown up as an extraneous absurdity.
Over a rather muted lunch we exchanged news of our mutual friends, now all dispersed. He spoke little of his army life except to complain of its boredom. I felt that it had the effect of making him draw deeper into himself. It was an autumnal occasion and a melancholy one. It was several years before I was to see him again.
In February 1941 Bertie was posted as assistant intelligence officer to a large camp for Italian internees on the Isle of Man. His early letters to Susan from the island are mostly short and hastily written. He makes unfavourable comments on the islanders, the climate of perpetual rain and the Victorian architecture of the boarding houses in Douglas. Though not yet at ease and frequently overwhelmed by his work at the internment camp to which he is attached, he counts himself lucky in his superior officer, Geoffrey Dennis, whom he finds congenial and ‘someone he can talk to’.
Although in his rented room in Oxford he had seemed reconciled to exile from the ‘rock-pool’, now so much further removed from it, he continually and urgently asks for news of his Beckley friends, is worried that he may be out of favour with Peggy and anxious about Basil who, totally unsuited by temperament to army life, is for ever having his applications for a commission turned down. Each letter ends with a plea for an early reply.
For the first few months his morale is sustained by the help he receives from his superior of whom he writes, when Dennis is summoned for consultation at the Foreign Office: ‘I miss him as a friend, supporter and chief’. Towards the end of 1941 Dennis is transferred to the BBC and Bertie is promoted senior intelligence officer in his place.
Following Dennis’ departure and left with no one on the island with whom he has ‘the smallest inclination to associate’ his letters become longer with comments on the books he has been reading and with a growing tendency to introspection. He quotes in one letter a couplet from Pope’s Essay on Man.
‘But when his own great work is but begun
What reason weaves by passion is undone.’
He goes on: ‘… which brings me back to the iron-hard doctrine that unremitting self-control is the only thing that matters, plus patience, of course, and the contemplation of the virtues’.
Having arrived at such a conclusion it is not surprising that when Susan was to ask his advice on an unsatisfactory emotional involvement, his response is a tough one which, he admits, it is unlikely that she will be able to bring herself to follow. ‘I think X has taken you for granted and so is treating you rough. The only thing is to treat him rough and if he does not react he is not worth bothering about. It only needs a little strength of mind … I think you ought to start by having the telephone cut off.’
One of the books which has impressed him is J.W. Dunne’s New Immortality. ‘After reading it I have become convinced of what I was already almost sure of, that the infernal question of time is at the root of most of our difficulties and that it is, in fact, only by scrapping the whole idea as nothing more than a sensory illusion that we can hope, so to speak, to clear away some of the metaphorical soil and find out what the metaphysical roles are made of.’
Later in the same letter: ‘Passion and morality, right and wrong, justice and injustice are sticking in my gizzard at present, and I can’t somehow hook them into the mechanical-mathematical half of the scheme. It is like oil and vinegar: put them together in a bottle and shake them as you will, they will never mix, but employ the yolk of an egg and with care you have the perfect mayonnaise. The truth is I have no egg yet.’
A few months on (it is now January 1943) he reads two books about Yoga, The Inner Reality and The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga by Paul Brunton, which he finds ‘rather Interesting’. Perhaps an understatement for later he writes: ‘I am adopting the practice of meditation, i.e. concentration on the infinitesimal, and I find it rather absorbing. Having no one to talk to favours introspection. I have also found my appreciation of music has grown enormously. Also it is about three years since I quarreled with anyone — this must be a record and gives me a pleasantly detached feeling.’ And finally: ‘I think the mayonnaise is beginning to mix, though too much oil or vinegar at once still unmixes it and one has to begin again.’
In his next letter, dated 16th February, he writes ‘I am submerged in work and have written over two hundred reports already this year. Words simply pour off my pen… It is sometimes rather tiring but I don’t think I want to change. I have learnt more since being on this island than in the whole of the rest of my life. Study of human nature and philosophy at the same time seem to go well together and act as a counter balance.’
By the autumn, with the advance of the allies in Italy, he is unsettled by the possibility of a transfer. Early in 1944 he is moved to Rotherham and sends a brief note to give his new address. It is the last of his letters written while still in England.
If Bertie’s uprooting from the quiet haven of Beckley to become, within a few months, intelligence overseer of Italian internees on the rain-sodden Isle of Man must have been an extraordinary experience for someone of such a retiring disposition, the role in which he found himself cast on being transferred to Italy was so astonishingly improbable that he was to write of it some months later: ‘If anyone seven years ago had foretold what I should be doing now I would have dismissed it as fantasy.’
What that role was he hinted at in the first of his Italian letters written six months after the note he had sent from Rotherham. After promising to try to get news of Mrs Brewster, Susan’s aunt who had stayed on in Florence during the war, he describes a meeting with an Italian saboteur: ‘a most elegant young man with a black beard and singularly delicate hands.’ And then later: ‘I had to appear sometime ago as a witness to a spy trial and was four-and-a-half hours in the box. I was referred to as Captain X (such a thrill!) and by Italian witnesses as Captain ics, which got translated back into English as Captain Hicks.’ If spy-catching was the pursuit in which he was principally involved, as subsequent references to similar trials in his letters seem to infer, what he had learned on the Isle of Man of human nature, particularly in respect of its Italian bent, must have made him a formidable operator in that murky world which he was to describe as ‘resulting from the passing of armies — poverty, corruption, unscrupulous exploitation, plotting, denunciation and, worse than all, enjoyment in these things.’ But however deeply he was drawn into it he never abandoned that pursuit of the elusive philosophical mix, proof against ‘unmaking’ of which he had written while on the Isle of Man. After his reference to the spy trial he went on to describe visits to Perugia, Assisi and Gubbio, all three of which had been undamaged in the war. ‘Perugia is lovely and Gubbio quite fascinating — somehow that other world which is behind the mountains or round the corner, seemed nearer in Gubbio than I have ever known it.’
In another letter a brief glimpse of Basil’s partner in the Broad re-emerges when he mentions buying ‘a perfectly fascinating miniature Venetian chest-of-drawers, about 1700, made entirely of glass and mirrors and glass flowers, about four inches high and on the outside looking like a piece of needlework.’ But, generally, he finds little of interest in the antique shops and everything very expensive.
The longest letter of the Italian series, dated March 1945, is the only one in which he writes about himself. Looking back he considers how much his wartime experience has changed him, reflects on the extent to which he has been affected by, his present work and reveals how the development of his inner life has led him through philosophical speculation to the study of mysticism.
‘I have now been five years in the army. What untold and nameless horrors the word army used to raise in my mind in time gone by. My first existence came to an end with the beginning of the war. The first year served to destroy — I am beginning to realize now — all the illusions and most of the complexes to which I was previously a prey — even the inferiority complex gone — and all the constructions built on them razed as flat as Cassino. Out of the ruins has come something quite different. For the last two years I have become increasingly absorbed in philosophy and mysticism, especially the latter, the former being a kind of blueprint or map. The sensuous world is receding more and more rapidly into the background. I have the feeling of being swept down some great river in a canoe. I have no doubt that I shall end in the infinite ocean.’
Of his work: ‘I am lucky in having become as detached as I am. Sometimes the world seems so universally and increasingly sinister that if it still represented reality to me, which it does not any longer, I should be swamped. As it is I can regard it quite objectively, though it occasionally requires a slight effort. Even the stinking morass of corruption, exploitation and hatred that seems to be in prospect for Europe for the next fifty years does not matter nor all the buildings and paintings and irreplaceable objects which have gone for ever. Now is no more than then. And the question of time is only due to the arbitrary order in which we look at time in sections … The future remains an inscrutable blank — the unreal future, that of the rest of my existence. What does it matter? I know where I am going in reality and the prospect is infinitely great.’
In June of the same year he mentions for the first time Harold Musson, an officer colleague, with whom he has become ‘great friends’. ‘We were together at Caserta and used to hold interminable arguments in the Mess on all sorts of subjects. The atmosphere of the H.Q. coupled with the work which, although absorbingly interesting, (the three of us had the cream of the whole of Italy) was rather like living on caviar and cream which upsets the digestion and rather told on our nerves.’
This gormandizing relish, which Bertie admits to sharing with Musson and an unnamed officer, was presumably in having the pick of the big game in spy-hunting, appears at odds with what he had written in his previous letter of his detachment from the real world or, as he put it, ‘the world of his existence’. Perhaps, because he had become so insulated from it in the fastness of his ‘inner’ reality, it was possible for him to engage with all his intellectual faculties in the ‘outer’ reality of the hunt without being troubled by concern for the ultimate fate of the prey when captured.
If the richness of the fare told on his nerves, he found some relief in social diversions in Rome: the hospitality of the Barberinis to whom the Brewsters were connected, a Mrs Fothergill whom he found entertaining and an acquaintanceship with Iris Origo before she left for Tuscany. These he only records in passing. More important to him was his friendship with a working class family living in a basement flat off the Via Appia Nuova, a two mile walk from the headquarters. ‘I used to go and see them fairly frequently and always received a most charming reception and was never asked for anything. How they and their like lived with the prices in the black market and often nothing to be had for ration cards, I don’t know … I have often spent an evening with them when someone would come in with an accordion, the uncle with a guitar and another neighbour with a marvelous voice who would sing Neapolitan songs.’
Despite these distractions it appears in his later letters, particularly in one dated 13th of July, that he is becoming increasingly unsettled in his work and the responsibilities it entails. In that letter, after a disparaging account of Lord Grimthorp’s garden at Ravello, he mentions that he is reading ‘the best treatise on Buddhism he has so far come across written in Italian by a man called Evola — a remarkably clear, objective and complete exposé of the subject.’ Although he does not refer to it again in subsequent letters, its influence on him must have been very strong, for it came close to bringing his army career to a disastrous end.
In November he tells of a job he has been offered by the BBC, but which he is afraid he will not be able to take as the army is unlikely to release him. A few weeks later he confesses that he finds his nerves on edge: ‘I am beginning to feel strongly that I have had enough of intelligence and never want to hear the word secret again.’
His final letter from Italy, the only one undated, was probably written early in 1946. ‘I am having a frightful time just now … my responsibilities seem to grow in the most appalling fashion.’ And at the end after mentioning visits to the opera: ‘Without some sort of distraction of this kind I think I would go wild in the present state of things as they affect me.’
For what happened in the period between this letter and a card, dated 9th May, posted from London and giving the time of his arrival by train to spend a weekend in the country with Susan who was by then living at Stanton with her husband, Hugh, I have only Basil’s account to go on. He assured me that he had had it from Bertie, himself.
After reading Evola’s book, The Doctrine of Awakening, his attraction to Buddhism became so strong that it brought the two realities, of which he had previously written that he could keep them detached the one from the other, into a contention which, while continuing in his work, he found it impossible to resolve. The successful hunting down of spies, ending, as it usually did, with their execution, could not be reconciled, as he was now forced to accept, with the Buddha’s teaching on the sanctity of life, not only human but in all its forms. (A few years later in coping with poisonous snakes in the compound at Dodanduwa, rather than killing them, he practised luring them into jars so that they could be removed unharmed out of danger to the community.) In the dilemma in which he now found himself, he asked to be relieved of his counter-espionage duties and followed this up with a refusal to divulge evidence, known only to himself, with regard to investigations already in hand. The situation, it must be added, was not without a touch of black comedy and cynics might see in his conduct a gamble which paid off. Gamble or not it required courage, for it could have easily led to a court-martial and a harsh sentence. According to Basil, for some time this was a real possibility; but either by a fortunate coincidence or due to manipulations by superiors well-disposed towards him and convinced of his sincerity, his release requested by the BBC was granted and he was allowed to leave for London to take up his appointment in the Italian section.
Like the card of 9th May the letters Bertie wrote to Susan while he was working at the BBC refer mostly to weekends spent at Stanton or arrangements for meetings in London. Curiously there is no mention of Harold Musson in the earlier letters although his release from the army must have followed soon after his own since already by March 1947 he was writing from the flat they were sharing in St George’s Terrace. It is only in letters written over a year later that Musson’s name appears and then in a context which implies that he and Susan were not on good terms.
Certainly the Feildings were unfavourably impressed by him when Bertie took him on a visit to Beckley. Asked many years later what he was like, they described him as a ‘poseur’, ‘precious’, ‘an Oscar Wilde-like character wearing a cloak’. So portrayed it is difficult to conceive of him as the dedicated convert to Buddhism he proved to be, still less to imagine as remotely possible the circumstances of his death.
There are some references in the letters to new friends he had made through Susan and to colleagues at work, but none to the progress of his ‘inner life’ which had been such a recurring theme in those written from the Isle of Man and Italy. On the direction in which it was taking him he appears to have kept her in the dark almost to the very last.
A few months after our arrival in 1948 the director of the Italian section of the BBC came to see me. After introducing himself he said that he believed that I was a friend of his assistant Osbert Moore.
I shook my head, “I’m sorry there must be some mistake. I don’t remember knowing anyone of that name.”
“But he told me, himself, that he knew you well when he was living near Oxford.”
“Oh, you must mean Bertie! I had no idea his name was Osbert. It sounds too pretentious — not like him at all. How is he? What’s he doing?”
“He’s fine. He works with me. He’s incredibly efficient. I don’t know what I’d do without him. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to come out here if I hadn’t known everything would be all right in the office so long as he was in charge. He intends taking a holiday in Italy later after meeting with the broadcasting people in Rome. He hopes to have the chance of seeing you.”
I wrote to Bertie inviting him to stay. He accepted and spent two nights with us on his way back from Rome, before setting out on what he described as ‘a jaunt through northern Italy.’ We were still living at Gemetto which with all its attractions had the disadvantage of the early start I had to make to reach my office on time and my frequent late return in the evening. Accordingly I saw less of Bertie than Leonora did but we both agreed that though his personality seemed little changed, he had become more self-assured, less withdrawn and open in conversation. He had always been given to silences which, for our part, we had never found disconcerting. Now, Leonora reported, they had taken on a new dimension. Whereas before, apparently no more than a refuge from being drawn into talk for its own sake or in which he had no inclination to take part, they were longer and deeply meditative, producing, as she found when sitting in the same room with him, a benign and restful atmosphere.
He spoke little of his wartime experiences other than to tell us that he had spent some years with Italian internees on the Isle of Man before being transferred, following the allied advance, to the headquarters at Caserta in southern Italy. He had even less to say about his work with the BBC although it was for talks in Rome at the State and Vatican radio stations that he had come out. We discussed Italian politics in which he was still interested from his time in Intelligence at Caserta. Possibly from what he had then learnt of disreputable intrigues at the Papacy, he had acquired a dislike of the Catholic church which he expressed with uncharacteristic vehemence.
Before his arrival we had been counting on him, with his encyclopaedic knowledge, to tell us the names of various trees in the park with which we were unfamiliar. He did not disappoint us: not merely identifying them and describing their various characteristics but naming the countries to which they were native.
During his visit he had worn the same quietly respectable suit and shirt with collar and tie. But he surprised me on the morning of his departure by appearing in khaki shirt and shorts, heavy boots and carrying a rucksack. It was an outfit which, at that time in Italy, anyone who had given more thought to his appearance than Bertie, would have been deterred from wearing as too embarrassingly conspicuous. I drove him into Milan and dropped him at the foot of the flight of steps leading up to the railway station. As with his rucksack on his back he climbed the steps, people turned to stare at him, finding him, as was plain from their looks, a target for ridicule. At the top he turned and waved. I waved back. It was the last time I was to see him.
In the early autumn of the same year (1948) I had a second visit from the BBC director. As our discussions were inconclusive he decided to call on me again on his way back to Rome. When the time passed and I heard nothing from him, I assumed he had changed his mind. It was not until a month later that he wrote to me with an apology and an explanation.
While he was in Rome he had had a message to say that Bertie had resigned from his post. He had given no hint of his intention, although at least one member of the staff was a close friend. He had simply left a note on his desk saying that he was resigning forthwith and would not be coming back to the office. The director had had to cut short his stay in Rome. On his return to London he learned that Bertie had already left for Ceylon, apparently with the aim of becoming a Buddhist monk.
It appears that on one of Bertie’s visits to Stanton in August he told Susan for the first time he was considering giving up his post at the BBC to leave with Musson to study Buddhism in Ceylon. Writing later in the month from Holland where he is on holiday, he starts by thanking her for having him to stay: ‘If life was like all weekends at Stanton there would be no need to consider mirages in the East! Your disapproval of my proposal is much appreciated — very much so. There is only one thing I would say at this moment which is that there is no question of choosing between friends. If I went to Ceylon with Harold Musson in order to study and, may be, practise Buddhism, it would be merely that, having decided to go, there is no point in traveling alone (at least to start with) if you can travel in company.’
In disapproving of his project Susan may have revealed her resentment at his closeness to Musson. In the months before the war when they had been together at Beckley, she had been the dominant personality, appreciative of Bertie’s remarkable gifts and intent upon drawing him out from the diffidence he was only fully to shake off in the course of his army career. Now they were on equal terms and while she may have felt rejected when he told her of his intention to leave with Musson, for his part, however much he valued and continued to value her friendship, the loyalty she might have expected of him, would have been counter to the practice of non-attachment in which he had schooled himself in Italy and which had been reinforced by his study of Buddhism.
Of his final decision to leave with Musson, despite her disapproval, she responded generously when he turned to her for help in the disposal of his possessions, agreeing to take on the responsibility of power-of-attorney on his behalf. With his farewell letter he sent her a meticulous inventory of the contents of his flat with details of what was to be sold, including his harpsichord, and what given away and to whom. The letter, dated 14th October, concludes: ‘I am eternally grateful to you for your help and understanding in all this and I know of no one else to whom I could turn under the circumstances who would have the comprehension and sympathy that you have. Thank you for everything. My best love to Hugh, yours Bertie.’
The letter which began with the heading ‘Business First’, ended with a postscript giving the address of his bank in London and that of the Chartered Bank in Ceylon to which letters could be forwarded.
Susan was not alone among Bertie’s close friends to be dismayed by his departure. Geoffrey Dennis, who had been so helpful to him in his early days on the Isle of Man and responsible for his appointment to the BBC, was deeply wounded, the more so because he had known nothing of Bertie’s immediate intentions until he read the letter of resignation left on his desk. Unaware that Musson had also departed for Ceylon, he wrote to him at St George’s Terrace. The letter was kept by Susan among her letters from Bertie.
‘My dear Musson, This sudden departure of Osbert’s without notice, throwing up everything, has surprised and moved me. With yourself, I was by far his most intimate friend and although I knew that this kind of thing was working in him, I had no sort of notion that it would be so soon or so sudden. It is a terrible blow to me … but, quite likely, (scored out) he had done the right thing.’
The letter goes on to ask when it would be convenient for him to call at the flat to collect some of his possessions left there. It is signed, G. Dennis.
It would seem from the formality of his signature and his addressing Musson by his surname that, although they must have met frequently at the flat, they can hardly have been on the friendliest terms. Perhaps he had reacted to him as the Feildings had done, and like Susan, had resented his closeness to Bertie.
If both Susan and Dennis had become emotionally attached to Bertie, even jealously so, it was doubtless because of the extent to which they had come to value the stimulus of his remarkable intellect and the humanity underlying his reserve. On his side, beyond this, he could offer no more than friendliness and understanding. Early on he appears to have set himself against emotional involvement (even at Beckley he had had a touch of the monk about him), dedicating his life to that iron-hard doctrine of unremitting self-control, advocated, as already quoted, in one of his letters from the Isle of Man: a doctrine so in tune with the teaching of the Buddha, that he might be seen to have been well on his way to becoming a Buddhist before his discovery of Buddhism.
Bertie’s relations with Musson appear to have been singularly cerebral from the start, originating, as described by himself, in their interminable arguments in the Mess at Caserta ‘of the kind that never get anywhere, such as trying to prove by logical deduction that music must be literature, etc., etc..’
Their shared interest in Buddhism must have drawn them intellectually closer and was, doubtless, the subject of discussions at St George’s Terrace which, if no less interminable than those at Caserta, instead of getting nowhere, led to their decision to leave for Ceylon. Once there, they hoped to join a monastic settlement in which, as they had learned, there were a number of European monks.
The first of Bertie’s letters to Susan from Sri Lanka was written after he had been living for seven weeks on the island. He has read no newspapers since his arrival and intends to give up reading them for good. Although he had planned to ‘retire into the unknown and stay there’, he feels that after the trouble he has put Susan to, he owes her a letter. But clearly he is finding it difficult to cut himself off from the past, for he adds a postscript: ‘Do write when you feel inclined and no matter what it is about.’ All twenty two letters which were to follow, contained similar pleas.
There was, of course, nothing discreditable, in his failure to make the clean break he had intended, though surprising, perhaps, given the resolution he had shown in giving up his post at the BBC and abandoning friends of a lifetime. It was, however, a little disconcerting to find in his next letter an admission that ‘to study and possibly practise Buddhism’ as he had claimed, was not the sole motive for his decision to leave for Ceylon.
Susan had written to tell him of the death of an old aunt whom he had been helping to support. This leads him to write of the family fortune squandered by his grandfather and father. ‘I used, years ago, to feel this rather, but now, as this has been a contributing (though by no means prime) cause of my coming here, I am more than glad of it as it helped to push me into the hermit life which, in the right circumstances, is the life I have always wanted to lead.’
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