J A Dunkin Wedd ("Tony")

A memoir by his son, F L Dunkin Wedd

My father was close to being a genius. He had huge talent in many different areas; I have often thought that if he had had just one great strength, his life would have been much easier.

Perhaps being nearly a genius is worse than not being one at all. Certainly for his family, Tony’s growing eccentricity seemed increasingly like madness. Local paper headlines like "All the planets are inhabited" says Tony Wedd were uncomfortable for us.

Even writing this memoir in October 2004 has been more painful than I had expected. These are my personal memories. They are certainly incomplete, inaccurate and partial. If other family members want to supplement my recollections, I hope they will.

My first memory of Tony is being carried in his arms into what was to be our new house - Tye Cross. He had designed and supervised the building of a five-bedroomed single-storey house set in what had been the walled garden of Chiddingstone Castle.

And it was the usual Tony mixture of genius and crazy. The bedrooms were in a separate wing to the north, the childrens’ facing east where we would be woken by the morning sun - which was wonderful.

Less wonderful was the absence - in a building finished in 1959 - of any kind of heating system. My sister Imogen got herself an oil stove by saying she needed to work on her exams, and her room became a haven of warmth into which I would blag my way if I could. I remember saying to her as we walked to school one winter morning "When I grow up I’m never going to be cold". There was just one toilet between five; when there were visitors, queueing was the norm.

The living room Tony had designed was huge - big enough for a grand piano and an upright to be lost in one corner of the room. It had huge glass windows down one side - and a tiny fireplace in one corner, around whose log fire we would huddle in winter. One of the huge glass windows was supposed to slide, but its weight meant it soon dropped and was almost immovable.

There was another window at the west end from which red squirrels could be seen playing in the trees of the Hever Estate. Above this window was a high shelf, on which Tony would put me if I was naughty. I would be unable to get down until rescued. I was amused to see a very similar idea being used in one of this year’s TV nanny programmes: The Naughty Corner is today’s equivalent for The Bad Boys’ Shelf.

My father’s talents were numerous. He was big and masculine, but not a macho man: he would say he could express himself as well by arranging a bunch of flowers as by building a bookshelf. He painted, he sculpted, he designed. He was a good mathematician, a raconteur, a good dancer.

My parents gave great parties in our huge living room. They would roll up the rug and dance The Gay Gordons and suchlike. Once the guests were all invited to come dressed as a town; I ran about with a pistol, saying "Stick ‘em up and give me all your money" (Andover); my mother walked about with a cowboy novel tied on her head (Weston-super-Mary). Tony loved to invent complex jokes.

He wrote a book on design, ‘Pattern & Texture’, that was used in art schools for many years after.

He kept goats, gardened and maintained our 2½ acres. I remember him having to put down billy goat kids with chloroform which came in a green bottle. He cried and cried as they breathed their last and he dropped their bodies into the grave he had dug for them.

But it was hard to tell the difference between the ideas that were thirty years ahead of their time (conservation, organic food, nuclear pollution), and nutty (the Star Fellowship, formed to welcome the Space People when they landed).

I suppose now we would say that he suffered mildly from autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Certainly he found it difficult or impossible to understand or predict the reactions of others. My mother would say that he could not see how telling a prospective buyer that a picture had taken him only ten minutes to paint lowered its value for them.

He did suffer from narcolepsy. He and I would go to visit his mother in the Kent & Sussex hospital in his Austin Seven every Saturday; we would be driving along quite happily, and suddenly he would pull off the road into a field gateway, lean his head to one side and be instantly asleep. After five or ten minutes he would wake and we would be off again.

The 1930 Austin Seven was a soft top, pale blue and called Bridget. He told me that when he sold it he had included in the contract of sale a condition that the name Bridget should always be given to the car - so maybe she’s still around somewhere. Tony had found her when he had been on a train; he had seen her from the window, hanging from a crane in a breaker’s yard, got off at the next station, gone to the yard and bought her for £25.

Tony was born on 1 March 1919, and grew up in Langport, Somerset. His father George seems to have been lacking in assertiveness, while Kitty, Tony’s mother, was determined to the point of wilfulness. Tony complained of petticoat government, and once chased one of the maids around the kitchen with a carving knife.

The family was very comfortably off, with a big house. George was a solicitor - perhaps not a very ambitious one - while Kitty allegedly lost a good part of the family fortune at bridge parties. There were servants, and tea-parties, and tennis on the lawn. Tony went to Clifton College in Bristol, where he did well at mathematics and rugby; in one game, he was concussed in a collision, but played on; and it was to this that he attributed his narcolepsy.

I was always told that after school Tony wanted to go to art college - but that his parents sent him to Woolwich Military Academy. If this story is true, it would seem to indicate great insensitivity on the part of George and Kitty. But it also shows Tony’s lack of determination, and a need to blame things on others. People always accuse others of their own failings, he would say, and he was right: he did.

I’m unclear about the next phase in his life. At one time he was a lumberjack in Canada, though possibly this was later. He was certainly in Canada during the war, training in the RAF. He explained how his narcolepsy, at that point undiagnosed, made him a trainee pilot of extremes: he would either get top scores, or very poor ones as, struggling to stay awake, he sought to get the plane down safely. He talked about flying Ansons and Oxfords, and had a huge fund of stories which would all begin "When I was in the RAF…" He gained the rank of Pilot Officer, according to a photo caption in one of his later albums.

He then trained as a wireless operator, and when Imogen and I were little he taught us some morse; he rigged up a buzzer between our adjoining bedrooms, with a button at each end so that we could send messages. As Imogen was seven years older than me she cannot have got much out of these conversations! However, she discovered that out of the top window of our loft she could flash a torch to the Coxes’ house across the way, and practised her morse with their son, a close contemporary.

At some point in his forces career, Tony encountered Bill Coates, a musicologist with some knowledge of Indian classical music. According to Tony’s story, he was picking out Beethoven’s Fifth on a squeezebox in the toilets when Bill came in and heard him. They became fast friends.

Bill, Irene and their daughter Nora became regular visitors at our home in Kent; for some reason I always felt slightly discomforted in their presence. They signed their letters and cards ‘Birene’; even as a boy I thought this pretentious and noticed that whereas Irene got all her name in, Bill only got half of his. After their daughter was born this became a slightly fairer ‘Birenora’. Irene claimed to be a witch, and behaved very oddly. Perhaps they were as eccentric as Tony; the difference was that Bill and Irene had a private income.

As far as I know, Tony never saw action in World War II; this was odd, given that he was 20 years old at the outbreak of war - and 26 at the end of it. It would be especially odd if he had attended Woolwich.

In the late forties he fetched up at an unconventional school called Long Dene. This was one of the rash of schools that had grown up around the ideas of A S Neill, and Tony met my mother Mary who was teaching there. She had been a conscientious objector during the war, and had worked with Neill at Summerhill.

Tony and Mary married, and Tony became stepfather to my sister Rosalind. My sister Imogen was born in 1948. I’m hazy about some of the chronology hereabouts, but at one point they went to Sladnor to help run another school with a couple called Tom and Alice; Tom, normally a strong swimmer, drowned in the sea and the venture foundered. I think this was a deep blow for both my parents; they both spoke of it often, and it was clear that the death had marked them.

They were then in London for some time; they lived at 12 Nassington Road, Hampstead, and family photo albums show my sisters Rosalind and Imogen growing up there apparently in great happiness. My father’s photographs and captions show paternal love, as well as his trademark punning wit.

Tony was an early house-husband, making the childrens’ clothes on a treadle sewing-machine while my mother worked at Macmillans, the publishers. He was enrolled in a course on design at this point, I think, but had chronic bronchitis, and was advised to leave the smoggy London of the fifties.

This bronchitis continued in the country; I remember him wrapped up uncommunicative in bed. He would normally get an attack in the stressful period leading up to Christmas; but on Christmas Day he would turn up at the lunch table in his dressing-gown, miraculously restored. I often felt that with Tony, illness was tactical.

I remember him going off to London to work at Bensons the advertising agency in his green tweed three-piece suit, his beard neatly trimmed, his wiry hair brushed to near-order. He didn’t last long in any of his jobs, and he would come home and tell us proudly what he had said to his boss. The candour of which he seemed so proud had got him fired. The trouble was that he was indeed very clever - generally cleverer than the people he worked for. He would tell them they were fools, and they would give him the sack.

I expect he also came up with mad ideas, and stubbornly refused to be convinced of their impraticability. He may have been cleverer than his bosses, but they ended up with careers; he ended up out of a job.

After he worked for Bensons, he worked for some while with an architectural model-maker called Kim in Westerham. He would sometimes take me there and I would fashion a Nelson’s Column an inch high, or marvel at the tiny trees and cars and buildings. They also made puppets: I remember particularly a marionette crab that Tony walked in an extraordinarily lifelike manner up the bedroom corridor at Tye Cross - to the horror of my sisters. Tony liked to shock people.

One time, Tony came home with a ukulele and a tutor book lent to him by a colleague; I set to work to learn to play Old Black Joe, and The Old Folks at Home. Tony seemed to know what would stimulate me; he could be amazingly sensitive. The puppets also became a big part of my life.

He would challenge timidity - of which my mother had a good supply. He encouraged my teenage sisters to hitchhike to Scotland to the Edinburgh Festival; he set me on to write the letter replying to an ad in The Times. That got me a month’s holiday, aged 11, in Southern Ireland as companion to the son of the Kabaka of Buganda. He encouraged people to find their limits - not be restricted by imposed boundaries.

Whilst I was in Ireland he sent me a card; being homesick, I was thrilled. But I couldn’t understand the message, and sought help from my hostess. It was a card of a knight in armour with a visor, and the message began "Some fellows in Armagh / Were ‘orrible to Eire…" None of us could make it out. When I got home he explained the complex pun: some fellows in Armagh (armour), were ‘orrible to Eire (horrible to hear - because of the accent) - and so forth. All this was way over my head, aged eleven, but was just exactly the kind of complicated joke he liked to invent.

After the modelmakers, he taught at a secondary school in Westerham. Typically, he gave the students sex education lessons that outraged the parents, and was out of work again.

There were probably many other jobs that I’ve forgotten, but eventually he ended up buying a big wooden toolbox and a set of tools to go off to work as a carpenter (chippy, as he would say) on a building site. This did not last either. It was a kind of Rake’s Progress: at each stage in his career he was downwardly mobile.

One reason for his job-insecurity was that he was trying all along to be a painter. He would sell a picture for £45 (a decent sum in 1965) and give up his job, convinced that his painting career was launched. Then he would sell nothing for six months, and be forced to take whatever job he could.

His paintings, when I look at them now, show all the hallmarks of a depressive personality. He called them abstract landscapes, and the best of them are lovely, somwhat in the manner of Ivon Hitchens, who I remember meeting once. But the majority of Tony’s paintings are dark and full of pain; I can see why people wouldn’t want to buy them. He was a kind of Leonard Cohen of painters.

He had mad and wonderful ideas. For my schoolfriends - especially Peter Randall-Page, now famous for his sculpture - Tony was an inspirational character. His disdain for convention, and the way he challenged received ideas, made him attractive and magnetic.

He certainly attracted a bunch of social inadequates with names like Jimmy who shared his beliefs about flying saucers. With his blind friend Philip he built crazy gadgets based on messages from the Space People that they took down in automatic writing - culminating in the legendary Free Energy Coffeepot. This was designed to tap in to free cosmic energy collected by a circuit of coils and crystals; he and Philip were baffled when, after great and unaffordable expenditure, it failed to work. Perhaps, they mused, they had used the wrong type of crystal?

You may laugh; we could not. It is hard to be a child whose parent is a laughing stock.

The best thing he taught me was to suspect convention. He taught me not to accept other people’s opinions about the right way to do things, but to make up my own mind. He himself delighted in flouting convention, in baiting my mother’s posh friend Betty Bradley with discussions of Anglo-Saxon swearwords. He liked to tell a story about a bargee, the punchline of which was "Fucking arseholes"; he would bring this out whenever there was a visitor present who might be made uncomfortable by it. He was like a boy with a pocketful of firecrackers, and couldn’t resist letting them off.

He seems to have been attractive to women, as he had a string of affairs. Sometimes these were with very sophisticated women - which struck me as odd: Tony had decided that washing and tooth-brushing were bad for you, and as a result smelled pretty bad.

I met the daughter of one of these ladies later at West Kent College, but neither MaryAnn Mackenzie nor I acknowledged that we had ever met before - both ashamed in our different ways I suppose.

Eventually, my mother Mary had had enough, and when he had a floozie in the flat behind our garage one night, she went with a witness to confront him. Given evidence of adultery, she could divorce him. This would be in about 1970.

After that night, I saw my father just once for a few minutes; a few months later he emigrated to Australia with the floozie - Cilla - and their baby daughter, Elyssa, just born. I felt sorry for Cilla: being much younger than him, she was caught up in a situation she probably hadn’t planned on: I felt she was the victim of it all as much as we.

He packed up their belongings - including the latest in the string of Morris Minor Travellers that followed Bridget the Austin Seven - and shipped them out to Australia. He and Cilla had decided to hitchhike to Australia, with their baby. They got as far as Iran, I believe, before the difficulty in getting lifts proved insuperable. They then took a plane.

I must admit that for his family Tony’s departure to the other side of the planet was a huge relief. However, the flying saucer mania continues to haunt us to this day; put Tony Wedd into Google and see what I mean.

Arriving in Australia, they made their way to the uninhabited island off the coast of Brisbane where the commune they were joining was to be established. To no one’s great surprise except theirs, it transpired that the man who owned the island was unreliable: there was no camp, no water, no clearing - and no community. It was just them and the mosquitoes.

They lived in a garage that was lent them for some time. Then they got the job of running the youth hostel at Beaudesert, and this became an experimental community. I imagine that like Tye Cross it was a haven for all the dottiest people around. Tony published a magazine for friends and family called The Crow (Strine for hippie apparently), in which he developed all his ideas - recycling, poems, geometry, alternative cultures and so on.

He died of cancer of the jaw. Who knows? Perhaps brushing his teeth would have extended his life. In fact, from the tone of Cilla’s telegram to me, I suspect he took his own life when the pain became unbearable; he had spent months on special diets of honey and wholegrains, all his food being minced up so that he could swallow it.

I loved my father. But he made loving him difficult. Sadly, despite his attempts at egalitarianism, despite his studied unconventionality, he was, deep down, a product of his parents. From George he inherited a weak will, a lack of discipline, a lazy inability to make himself do what he disliked - like earn a living.

From Kitty he had the superior attitudes of the worst kind of snob: he was insultingly patronising to the father of a friend of mine, because although a fellow RAF man, he had been ground crew and not an officer. Perhaps he was also uncomfortably aware that Higgs (as he insisted on calling him) had actually served his country?

He was a great father all the time you were little and gave uncritical love; when you grew up and wanted your own life not to be a reflection of his, he lost interest. He was a social embarassment; he was an unreliable provider; he was delusional; he was a snob.

But dull he wasn’t.

F L Dunkin Wedd
© October 2004