Last week, browsing the bookstands at Southbank (yes, again. I have an addiction), I picked up two books by Lillian Beckwith. There are a few names that leap out at me when I’m running my eye over a shelf, and hers is one of them.
Growing up, Lillian Beckwith was our next-door neighbour. We didn’t know her as Lillian Beckwith. We knew her as Mrs Comber. When we first moved in, my dad mentioned that she was an author, and as a kid who liked to write, that caught my imagination. I honestly can’t remember, looking back, if I wanted to be a writer before we met the Combers, or if knowing them is what made me want to work with words.
Ted and Lillian lived in what I thought of, and still do think of, as the best house on our road. It matched my romantic idea of Being A Writer, and yes, I probably cling to it a bit, still. Large (huge) with rambling gardens round it – the steep, long driveway wound up to the door, tangles of trees and bushes on each side. There was a large gravel space for cars. There were ivy-covered archways. But it wasn’t imposing – it looked friendly. My abiding memory of the inside of the house is warm and dark and full of books. Collies bouncing around (‘watch out for Barley, she nips’), and Mrs Comber sat in her comfy chair with a blanket over her, while Mr Comber got the orange squash.
As a kid, I took having the Combers as neighbours for granted, but in fact they were both a massive influence in my life and very generous. They kept chocolate oranges on hand for Christmas; and, knowing we were the only kids who lived down the road and would ever knock on the door, kept chocolate on hand for Halloween. Mr Comber made elderflower wine, which he shared with my parents.
I’m probably not alone in that I didn’t particularly enjoy, when I was a kid, making conversation with elderly relatives – but when I was growing up, I don’t remember wanting to avoid trips over to the Combers.
Mrs Comber was patient with me. She listened to and answered all my questions about writing. Wide-eyed questions about how she got published, when did she start writing, could I write? She signed a copy of The Spuddy for me (which went missing after I went to uni, along with several of my other books) – my very first author signing! – and gave me a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook, which I kept for years and read all the articles in, learning how to format manuscripts and where I should submit to. She read my endless, typed-up tales of broken-hearted ghosts drowning unfaithful men in lochs. She encouraged me to keep writing, tell stories, and she never stopped being pleased when I told her about any small victory in a writing competition. When her son wrote a set of short stories for children, based around creatures on the Isle of Man, she asked if my sisters and I would read and give feedback. First time reviewing something? Of a sort, yes, and I can’t speak for my sisters, but I really enjoyed it.
Lillian Beckwith was, I have just this second realised, to all intents and purposes my first mentor. And as a young teen I didn’t even realise it.
Don’t get me wrong – my parents, my English teachers and a lot of friends were also encouraging, but none of them had the bonus of being a genuine, published author. That made a difference to me, that she was interested, and just having her next door gave me that push to try harder, to keep writing.
It wasn’t just the writing; they were nice company. I made excuses to go over there – offering to help Mr Comber out in the garden. Well, yes, we had a decent garden of our own, but it wasn’t as cool. Ours didn’t have a pond in the furthest nook for a start. And we had grass to take care of – the Combers didn’t, really. Everywhere was bushes, potting sheds, water, roses, vegetables. I remember the biggest rhubarb patch I’ve ever seen. They had chickens that lived in an old,
golden [‘it was blue, sky blue’, says my sister] Austin Allegro (many years later, Ted gave the Austin Allegro to my sister and dad to fix up as her first wheels). The collies would ramble around, sticking their noses in piles of old leaves and dashing about by the hedge looking for a glimpse of my own dogs on the other side of it.
I helped out at the Combers for a few weeks, with far more zeal than I ever did my poor parents (sorry, mum, dad). That garden remains, for me, the image of my ideal outdoor space. The quiet; the work; the house sitting in the middle of it all, filled with words.
When I saw the two books on that table under Waterloo Bridge, I picked them up because I realised that for all she (they) did for me, I didn’t know much about the Combers’ life before they were our neighbours. I’d read The Spuddy. I knew The Hills is Lonely was about their life in the Hebrides, but beyond that, they were Writer and Gardener – I never thought of them as friends because they were too old, and I held them in awe.
Mrs Comber died while I was at university and Ted died just a few years ago, 96 years old by then. My parents don’t really know the people who bought their house.
I don’t doubt that my memory has romanticised the Combers. I know they will have had flaws and dramas that I know nothing about. But they, and especially she, gave me something to aspire to.
Hindsight, there, in all its glory. God, how lucky to have known them.