My brother Graham married Dinah in 1960 in Johannesburg, and so at the age of 16 I gained a sister-in-law. I don’t remember how well I knew her up to then. I never went to the wedding – I don’t remember why not. I must have been in England at the time and unable to get there. I have always been a little sad that I was not there. Dinah was the best gift that my brother ever gave me.
Dinah, was quite a catch. She is super intelligent and wise, very religious, incredibly well-read, very intellectual, and although she may deny it, a great cook and homemaker. She solves the most difficult newspaper crossword puzzles every morning. She is a whiz at the game of Bridge. She has been a copywriter, head of the local Alzheimer’s Society, and even owned a flock of sheep. She loves opera and knows them all. She is always going up to London to see an opera or a play – often taking her nephew and or niece.
Dinah’s early years were quite similar to Graham’s (and mine). Shortly after we emigrated to South Africa from the UK in 1947 her parents did the same.
Her parents were part of Johannesburg high society. Her father was the head of CNA (the Central News Agency of Southern Africa ), an imposing figure at 6 ft. 4″, and her mother was very glamorous – I remember she would always order a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot whenever we were out to dinner together. They also had a home in Margate near Durban, and a house in Capri where I stayed a couple of times. Graham, who valued his independence, always insisted on staying at a hotel whenever they went to Capri.
Whilst writing this I discovered a fairly extraordinary coincidence. I mentioned in an earlier blog that my grandfather had donated the great pulpit to Westminster Cathedral . It turns out that Dinah’s family had donated the Grand Organ to Westminster Cathedral!! I never knew that.
Her parents also had one of the largest cars I’d ever seen – an Austin Princess – which they once lent me to take out one of my early dates. Their chauffeur, Thornton (I was too young to drive) was very cool and quite a character. He would pick up my date, drive us to the cinema in downtown Jo’berg, and wait in the car somewhere while we went to the movie, and pick us up and drive us home afterwards. I think I must have impressed my teenage date on that occasion! It certainly impressed me – her name I remember was Leanora Reznikov – she lived in Killarney, a suburb of Johannesburg – Hello – Leonora?!
(This just came to me: very many years later in London, I took out another Leonora – the daughter of the Duke of Grosvenor – more on that perhaps in a later blog).
Many years earlier when Dinah’s late sister Sue, as a young mother of two, was diagnosed with an illness that was to take her life far too soon, Dinah promised that she would help look after her children Sarah and Adrian. Adrian unfortunately was born with a condition that put him in a wheelchair for life. He is a remarkable man and far from letting it get the better of him he has become a well respected solicitor and even ran to be a member of Parliament a couple of years ago. He and a group of his friends together with his sister Sarah, Dinah, and myself had a great time at his 50th birthday party a few years ago which he threw in Las Vegas. On the fancy shirts that he gave to everyone he’d had printed an image (rather like a traffic sign) of a stick-man in a wheelchair pointing down -with the caption “It’s All Downhill from Here”. He is very witty and has a very dry sense of humour.
Dinah’s niece Sarah is bubbly and fun. I am very fond of her and I have always felt a sort of bond between us. Sarah is married to Martin and they have a son Ollie who I saw out here in LA a couple of years ago, and a daughter Alice.
I haven’t seen Adrian and Sarah’s father for many years but I do know that Dinah has been like a guardian angel to them.
Graham started to date Dinah around the end of the 60s. He really wanted to be married and, having been turned down at least once by her, he eventually wore her down and she agreed to marry him on the condition that they would wait for one year. If he still wanted to marry her after a year, she said, then she might! They got engaged a year later and shortly after that I gained my dear sister-in-law. They later returned to England which is where they lived from that point forward.
‘Hatchetts’ was the name of Graham and Dinah’s country home in Hampshire. It was Ground Zero for Christmas. it was a large 15th. Century (well I’m not sure really – but it was ancient) house and there was plenty of room for people to stay. Every year for many years, three or four old friends along with Sarah and her family and Adrian and his helper would spend Christmas there. It became a tradition.
Sometime around the mid-nineties I started joining them and every year for 10 years or so I flew to England for my family gathering. Nearly every time my brother very generously sent a limo with a uniformed chauffeur to greet me at Heathrow airport and drive me to Hatchetts, which was about an hour away. It was always a warm and festive occasion with a lot of wonderful food and of course great wines from their enormous cellar which was large enough for about twenty cars, and which I think was originally an underground escape route for monks – there were still a couple of bats flying around when I was last there. Dinah was the chef/caterer, and Graham was in charge of the bar and the carving. I always had a great time and I got to really enjoy the feeling of having a family. It was of course December and often bitterly cold, and sometimes snowing or raining (to be fair I think once or twice it was sunny and not so cold). I nearly always caught a cold either on the flight over, or from the change in climate from Los Angeles. I began to think of England and winter as one and the same.
After five or six years I might have chosen to go every other year or even during the summer. However, when I learned that my brother had cancer I wanted to go every year. I knew I would regret not having seen him as often as I could before he died. After he died in early 2007 I flew over for his funeral. Since then I have flown over for Christmas just once or twice and stayed with Dinah. We spend Christmas day at the home of her niece Sarah and her husband Martin and their family. Adrian would be driven up by his helper allowing the tradition to sort of continue – but I always felt Graham as a sort of patriarch was there in spirit (which reminds me- in Dinah’s new cellar there are still some of his amazing cognacs and armagnacs).
Hatchett’s however was one of those rambling old English country houses that dated back several centuries. It had a semi circular driveway with gates at both entrances and quite a lot of land which included a tennis court, a large swimming pool (which Dinah in later years managed to actually turn into a huge beautiful pond complete with a fountain in the middle!) and an enormous lawn which the gardener would have to mow regularly. I remember how great it looked with all the straight mowed lines. I believe the 30 foot high Yew hedge was noted as the largest in England and the gardener somehow managed to walk along the top to trim it and keep it in shape.
The upkeep and maintenance of this old house was fairly daunting and a couple of years after Graham died Dinah moved with her dogs and cats, to a smaller house in a charming little village where she is comfortable and can easily look after things – including her beloved garden. She has many friends in the area. The fish and chip shop and the church are within walking distance, and of course there is a pub and a village green where in the summer, weather permitting, there is usually a cricket match to set the scene.
She meets regularly with a local writers’ group and churns out the most amazing, fantastical, imaginative, diverse, interesting, and thought provoking, short stories. During the last few years she has churned out almost SIXTY of them. I showed these to a couple of friends of mine who enjoyed them so much that they insisted on being on her mailing list. They can’t believe how good they are and neither can I. I am trying to get them published. Dinah wants to put some of them together under the title “Bus Stop Stories” since they are short enough to be read whilst waiting for the bus. Stay tuned.
Dinah is a cross between the sister I never had and an angel – and in the years since my brother died, more like a best friend and the rock I lean on. She has known me for most of my life and since neither Graham and Dinah nor I and my ex-wife had any children, I think of her as the last member of my immediate family. Whenever I go to England I stay with her. She looks after me and feeds me all sorts of wonderful British goodies (sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, treacle tart etc.). We always have a good time together.