Magazine article The Spectator

Off the Straight and Narrow

Magazine article The Spectator

Off the Straight and Narrow

Article excerpt

ECHOING VOICES: MORE MEMORIES OF A COUNTRY HOUSE SNOOPER by John Harris

John Murray, L (English pound)17. 99, pp. 239, ISBN 0719564832

The picture of a maverick which emerges from this book is ever more strongly drawn. In this sequel to his autobiographical No Voice from the Hall, published in 1998, John Harris takes us forwards, backwards and sideways around his earlier account. There is less fishing, and the kindly figure of 'Snozzle', his Uncle Sid, the upholsterer-cum-antique dealer who `took on' Harris in his teenage years, appears only fleetingly. The anecdotes are more circumstantial, the edited and neatly dovetailed snapshots of the conservative upbringing against which Harris revolted, and subsequent revolts against authority in all its forms.

Harris the putative anarchist, destined for grammar school and a red-brick university, takes his first step off the straight and narrow when he deliberately fails his eleven-plus. From then on his path is serendipitous - evacuated from Uxbridge to Brandon in Suffolk in 1944, he makes his first reconnaissance over a burnt-out country house, and pulls a perfect prehistoric flint dagger from the shallow soil. There are many more instances of such good fortune - a dull country house guide bought unseen in the 1960s holds two exquisite topographical watercolours painted by J. M. W. Turner for Sir Richard Colt Hoare. Now they are in the Yale Center for British Art in the USA.

In 1945, `with choking pride in his voice, Dad announced that I had been accepted to train as an upholsterer at Heals'. Harris clocks in late from lunch hours spent playing truant in the Prehistoric Department of the British Museum, to face the inevitable sacking. National Service follows, after a few years of a sort of vagrancy spent in youth hostels and exploring ruined country houses. In 1950 he was Awol five times; in Malaya the following year, an officer sympathetic to his interest in the local archaeology saves him from a court-martial.

Demobbed and living on the proceeds of a scam, he arrives in Paris and enrols at the Ecole du Louvre, to have the benefit of student lodgings and medical care. In the lavatory of his filthy billet, he pulls the chain and experiences a `sudden swirl of obnoxious floating foetid things around my shoes', but despite this nauseating setback soon afterwards he penetrates the rooms of a noted collector and former diplomat, Richard Penard y Fernandez, and gains access to his boiseries, paintings, and 'titillation room,' where a terracotta nymph by Clodion wears a tuft of Madame de Pompadour's pubic hair. …

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