Grass Seed in June: The Making of an Architectural Historian, John Martin Robinson, Michael Russell Publishing, £16,95)
Country Life plays a key supporting role in this trenchant, sometimes startling and brilliantly entertaining memoir. As a schoolboy at the fierce Fort Augustus a once illustrious Benedictine establishment in Invernessshire that had become ‘dreary, laddish and second rate’John Martin Robinson found solace in the Latin liturgy and the library, where Country Life was his ‘secret drug’.
He surely speaks for many when he writes: ‘I drooled over the articles on country houses, and developed my visual tastes and architectural knowledge at one remove, through the distant tutorship (so to speak) of Christopher Hussey, the architectural editor, and a genius’.
The author is disarmingly candid about his shortcomings: ‘I have always been subject to terrific fits of temper’. One of his father’s fellow Lancastrian farmers observed: ‘The trooble with that theer lad is he doan’t shape’. He endorses this view: ‘I have never shaped. I don’t drive, I hate all games, I don’t type, I don’t take photographs. I can hardly dial a telephone’. Yet he rejoices in the rarity of being ‘a ginger, circumcised, intelligent, lower-upper-class Brit’, and belonging to the last generation (born 1948) ‘to be able to marshal a shield of quartered arms, compose a Latin epitaph, read old books for pleasure, value formal manners, or tell the difference between Dec. and Perp.’.
From Fort Augustus (where ‘most of the boys were Scottish thugs or colonial expatriates, and some of the masters seemed to be certifiably mad’), we follow his idiosyncratic progress to St Andrews University, on a glorious mini-Grand Tour, and then to the ‘architectural nirvana’ of Oxford. Ultimately, he begins writing for Country Life and lands a job with the lamented GLC Historic Buildings Division. As he says: ‘Buildings and architecture have been my passion since the dawn of memory’.
It is an inspiring story, beautifully written and chockful of wonderful throwaway asides such as ‘I think you should be able to have a deer park on the National Health, as an antidote to depression all those large brown eyes, skipping hooves and little frisky tails’.