Article written by Ann Nevill
Jocelyn Brooke was the most evocative, nostalgic and most Proustian of writers. He published some fifteen books but his masterpiece was his three volumes of autobiography, recently republished together by Penguin Modern Classics under the title “The Orchid Trilogy”.
This a patchwork of impressions, of his childhood in Sandgate in the early years of the last century, of some of his friends and his Army experiences as a private in World War II working in a VD clinic in Sicily. (Surprisingly enough he even re-enlisted like T.E. Lawrence for a short period after the war). He was a passionate botanist since the age of four, asserting he preferred flowers to people, and wrote much on the flowers he had identified wherever he stayed. In Sandgate some of these were Horned Poppy, Bristly Oxtongue, Tree-Mallow, Henbane and Vipers Bugloss.
He lived with his parents, brother, sister and much loved nanny at 22 Radnor Cliff. His father was the owner of the well-known wine merchants in Sandgate Road, J.H. & J. Brooke. This was a solemn place more like a bank where the purchase of fine wines could be discussed. However the fact that one could theoretically buy a bottle of beer over the counter caused his father to be ostracised from the teaparties of Radnor Cliff as being in trade.
The family also owned Ivy Cottage, Bishopsbourne, where he died in 1966. However, Sandgate also had its delights, the memories “bathed in the keen windy light of spring mornings, a seaside gaiety and brilliance haunted by the thud of waves on the shingle and the tang of seaweed.” The tall green-shuttered Victorian house perched on the edge of the cliff seemed to be perilously suspended between two worlds, “the tame ‘country’ world of the undercliff and that other uncharted universe – inimical and threatening – of the sea. The sun blazed in one’s face, the wind rushing from the windows lifted the hall carpet and flapped the tiger skin hanging on the wall. From the french windows one seemed to be perched above an abyss, an immense void of air and sunlight. Below lay the garden with its grey-green clouds of tamarisk and beyond the enormous sweep of the bay, the sea rising like a wall against the sky, the gulls wheeling in the empty air”.
From here the small boy could bathe (which he hated) or take tea with family and guests on one of the garden terraces, the QuarterDeck. “Quarter Deck teas were not popular with the parlour maid who, at four o’clock, would mince disapprovingly down the garden carrying one of those curious wicker work contraptions like portable pagodas, laden with cakes and sandwiches.” (As a child at No. 4 in the 1930s I can remember exactly the same ceremony, but for us it was lunch rather than tea.) A few years ago there was a Day of Brooke with readings and a talk from his biographer. Reverently we walked down to the rustic summer house, which had been impregnated with the odours of creosote and paraffin, housing a miscellaneous collection of objects, garden tools, a ball of string, a Beatrice stove. An admirer had brought a selection of the flowers he described.
His first school which he attended for mornings only was Gaudeamus (its real name Conamur). The building at the end of the Riviera later became the Marine Hotel. Under Miss Pinecoffin, its founder, the school inculcated a breezy and strenuous optimism. She was a progressive headmistress, Corot and Greuze hung on the walls, while the singular flora of Art Nouveau, sprawling water lilies and fleur-de-lis, burgeoned unexpectedly in corners. Little girls in sage green djibbahs were perpetually tearing breathlessly to and fro as though the school were run on the lines of a military detention barracks.