Mr Houghton was known not to be friendly towards children. There was probably a pre-history to this - that children were not friendly towards him. It was coming up to Christmas and I was fifteen or sixteen and carol singing . . . and the only one of us who dared to knock on Mr Houghton's door - was me. I don't know why I insisted on going there with a collecting can. The others were all for missing his house. I suppose it was a challenge, I didn't want anyone to be left out, and I didn't want anyone to be not-nice to me - and I think I wanted to prove (to myself) that if it was me at the door, he wouldn't be an ogre. So, while the others sang . . . I went up the steps to his narrow cottage door . . . and knocked. Mr Houghton was tall, thin, elderly and nicotined. He invited me in while he fetched some money. He gave me a copy of 'Be Your Own Lawn Expert' and 'Be Your Own Rose Expert'. I didn't have a lawn and I didn't grow roses. He said 'The History of Mr Polly' was the best book ever written. I said 'The Man Who Was Thursday' was better. We agreed to re-discuss it when we'd both re-read both books. I left with money in my can. He died before we could find out if our opinions had changed. The timing can't be quite right because he came to our house the following summer to take photographs of the Church silver (for insurance) and while there, he took a photograph of me in black and white. Or perhaps that is right. Perhaps I wasn't quick enough in keeping my part of the arrangement. (I take a long time still to fulfil promises.) But, whatever the timescale, he died before I could tell him Mr Polly was a better book than I had remembered. And I was left wondering, for ever, what he would have said about The Man Who Was Thursday. So, we met twice, only twice. Yet, in those two meetings, he influenced my life. - I realised grumpiness can arise out of intellectual isolation. Why else did he start discussing English literature with a teenager who happened to knock on the door one night with a carol-singer's collecting can? - The 'Lawn Expert' and the 'Rose Expert' - These weren't an introduction to gardening but they were my first gardening books. I'm not sure that's the point though. I've never had a lawn and I'm not much of a rose person but still I keep them. Whenever I move, they move too. They are a sign that the world is bigger than one's immediate needs and interests. (Really!) - Mr Houghton sparked my interest in photography too. Of course, there were lots of photographs in our family - but they were simply records of events . . . of family members being of a particular age . . . being on holiday . . . and, however interesting they were to us, there was never any thought that they might be of the slightest artistic merit or of interest to anyone except us . . . and once colour photography had been invented, it never crossed any of our minds to use black and white. The photo Mr Houghton took was nothing more than a casual 'snap' but it was a turning point none the less - because he had CHOSEN black and white.
And today I realised all this.
It's taken me that long. _____