Last week several people — well, two to be exact — asked me if I was looking forward to St George’s Day. One of them was a road-sweeper. Apparently it falls this year on 23 April, although in 1861 its date appears to be two days earlier. I know this because I looked it up in the Book of Days. I keep thinking how confusing it would be if one came back from the dead and tried to look things up in newspapers. I visited Liverpool two days later, the road-sweeper’s query still in my head, and inquired of a girl loitering beside the paper stall at Lime Street Station what she thought of St George. She said, ‘He’s a goner, isn’t he?’, and turned away. She was using slang, of course, which is a term meaning secret language. I only learnt that interesting piece of information because someone divulged it on the wireless the other morning. By the way, I mention coming back from the dead because a lot of my outings these days consist of going to funerals.
I didn’t enjoy being in Liverpool, mainly because the city I once knew no longer exists. To dwell in the past one needs the buildings that used to cast shadows on the romantic meetings, the tragedies, the twists of fate that affected one’s life. For me, I wouldn’t ever have become a writer if I hadn’t lived in Huskisson Street, that decaying Georgian terrace yards from the once-crowded, long-since-destroyed sunken graveyard below the Cathedral. I do acknowledge that the world has changed. It’s called progress. My parents gabbled on about the relaxation of morals, of the emergence of unmarried mothers, whose numbers doubled in Liverpool after the government promised to provide them with accommodation. Fortunately my Mother and Father were both in the ground before I could have been a recipient of such largesse. In my case, my departed husband provided the necessary housing.
I got a funny phone call last night, at eight o’clock, from the Gas Board. A young woman asked me to read the meter. I said I couldn’t, it was too high up on the wall. She was very nice and suggested I got help. I told her that my sometimes cleaner was coming the next day, at which she said, ‘Fine, get her to do it. I’ll ring you back in the afternoon.’ That was three days ago. I’m beginning to wonder if this wasn’t a sophisticated prelude to robbery. I’m comforted by the fact that once thieves encounter the stuffed buffalo in my hall, horns lowered to charge, they’ll back off.
I spoke to my grandson Inigo yesterday to ask him if he’d been told anything at school about St George. He’s a very polite boy and wanted to be helpful. No, he said, he hadn’t, apart from the fact that George had a friend who was a dragon.
The reason I went to Liverpool was because I had written a short story for radio called ‘Claire Has Fair Hair’ about a boy who, just after the war, was having elocution lessons at Crane Hall. If you come from Liverpool, you inevitably pronounce a’s as e’s — Clere has Fer Her. I read the story and thought my scouse accent was pretty good, but when I listened to the tape I was astonished at how false I sounded. I too went to Crane Hall, where Mrs Ackerly taught me to speak proper. So I just went for an hour or so to stand outside the building where my voice had been changed. I couldn’t go inside because it’s no longer a place where blind men once tuned pianos. It’s boarded up, probably about to be knocked down. On the way back I asked a man sitting in a doorway what he thought of St George. He were bloody brilliant, he said. My son suggested he was probably referring to a footballer named Best.
My dear friend Paul Bailey has just been received into the Catholic church, as a convert not a priest. I sent him a little silver cross to stand on his bedside table. Many years ago I too entered the church, mostly because I hoped a fear of everlasting hell would keep me on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately the church went all mushy a few months later and has remained so ever since. You have to hug people at the end of the service. Paul is fortunate in that the Pope has decided that the old Latin Mass should be reinstated. The cross I sent wasn’t made of real silver, which was lucky because it got lost in the post.
According to the Book of Days St George was born in the year 303, and made a fortune out of selling bacon to the army. He was later ordained Archbishop of Alexandria and increased his wealth by plundering the temples and taxing the Christians. Then some group or other rose up and threw him into prison, after which a mob stormed the building, dragged him out, hacked him into bits and threw his body into the sea. Gibbon labelled him a scoundrel, which I thought was a slang expression; it isn’t, it’s just a foreign word. Why on earth George was made our patron saint is a mystery. There’s a pub near me where they drape a red flag over the windows whenever England is playing another country at football. Some people think this decoration belongs to the British National Party.
What better way to start a wet day in April than a visit to the local hospital to undergo a vigorous examination of one’s mutilated chest. The remaining bosom receives such probing attention that one feels elated. While waiting to be ravaged I was approached by a lady with a medical problem situated higher up. She said, ‘Greetings, Dame Sybil,’ and hugged me. I swear she was accompanied by a dragon.