Here’s a pair of little books — one even littler than the other — by Robin Dalton (née Eakin), a celebrated Australian literary agent and film producer, now aged 92, who has lived in London for the past 70 years.
As she explains in a prefatory note, Aunts Up the Cross was written as ‘a diary for my children should I, too, die young’, her husband having died at 33. Years later, when the publisher Anthony Blond complained that she never sent him anything, she reluctantly gave him the 22,000-word manuscript, telling him it was by a mad schoolfriend of hers. Blond had some success with it, as did Macmillan with a later edition, and on its 50th anniversary it has been reissued by the admirable Australian firm Text, with an adulatory introduction by Clive James.
It recalls her delightfully bohemian upbringing in Sydney. Her great-grand-father was a Polish Jew who swam the Vistula on the eve of his 15th birthday to escape conscription in the Russian army, and made his way to England and then to Australia, where he worked in advertising, built ‘a small kingdom in property’, and lived in a grand house where Nellie Melba often came to sing.
An only child, Robin Eakin lived nearby with her parents and grandmother in the only private residence in King’s Cross, which was then known as the Dirty Half Mile; as a child she was enchanted by the tarts’ cries of ‘Thirty bob — strip to the earrings’. In front of their house stood the only tree in the Cross.
With deft and laconic wit, she recalls the ‘quite extraordinary eventfulness’ of her parents’ lives — such as the time her mother killed the plumber by meeting him on the landing as she made her way naked to her bath, provoking a fatal heart attack — and the lives of her ‘numerous’ great aunts.
As with the Durrells, the family is the chief source of entertainment, but there are many lively supporting roles, such as the bookmaker who ‘ate a pound of raw tripe every morning for breakfast’. The undoubted star is Robin’s father, who was a doctor. During the war she had a British boyfriend, a naval officer, with whom she got on splendidly until her father showed him a photograph of a diseased penis:
‘Have you ever seen Robin’s Aunt Bertie?’ he said. ‘Here’s a picture of her. She’s downstairs now if you’d care to see her; you’ll recognise her by this, except that she’s got a hat on now.’
The penis was, she regretfully allows, ‘almost a speaking likeness’ of her dear aunt. The house eventually gave way to a sex arcade, and then an Underground station, and the tree was uprooted.
At the age of eight Robin Eakin wrote My Relations, ‘a book of fiction about relations I never had’, which demonstrates her precocious mastery of the semicolon and of the incisive character sketch: ‘She means well but she doesn’t mean much.’
Both books are charmingly illustrated.