Until reading this book, I had only ever heard of one person called Lupin. Remus Lupin is a character in Harry Potter – one of the creators of the Marauders’ Map and occasional teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts. For sure, he is a great Lupin.
Perhaps, like me, you are also ignorant of other Lupins. Worry not, for now is the time to learn about two more.
Firstly, Lupin is the son of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody by Charles Grossmith, one of those books of which everyone has heard but few have actually read. Inspired by this literary example, Lupin is also the affectionate nickname Roger Mortimer used for his son, Charlie. Charlie explains the relevance, for Lupin was:
the disreputable son who was the source of much of Mr Pooter’s worries.
Dear Lupin is a delightful little book, in which Roger Mortimer’s letters to his son are gathered together, with occasional interjections from Charlie for context or an illuminating anecdote. They begin in 1967, when Charlie is fifteen, causing havoc at Eton:
Your mother came back rather sad and depressed after seeing you yesterday. You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge, so to speak.
They continue for twenty-five years, until Roger’s death in 1991. Over this time, Charlie has got into all sorts of scrapes, as his life has seen him go from Eton to a crammer and then for a spell in the Coldstream Guards, followed by a couple of breakdowns and various jobs ranging from driving articulated lorries to making backgammon boards, and from being an estate agent to manufacturing boxer shorts. The letters tread a hilarious and very touching line between stern reprimand and fond indulgence. The feeling can perhaps best be summarised in this one line:
I am very fond of you but you do drive me round the bend.
Poor old Roger Mortimer. Reading his letters you can feel him getting unbelievably stressed out by his complete lack of control and influence over his wayward son:
Even allowing for the fact that you cannot yet tie a bow tie, a sweat rag coiled round your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress … I don’t expect you to be a second Lord Chesterfield, but I rather wish that in appearance and conduct, you were slightly less typical of a transport café on the Great North Road.
Luckily, his exasperation makes for very entertaining reading.
I have discovered, scattered liberally amongst these pages, my new favourite expression:
to do a pineapple chunk.
This is posh rhyming slang (it certainly isn’t cockney) for to do a bunk, i.e. to have an affair. E.g.:
her ever-loving husband has just done a pineapple chunk with a saucy nurse.
It seems to me to be the perfect expression for it, evoking a canapé from a seedy seventies cocktail party, sickeningly illicitly sweet, and yet also making such a silly, whimsical rhyme. I would – of course – never do a pineapple chunk on my husband, but how I long to use this brilliant phrase!
I’ve written elsewhere of the pleasure to be found in reading other people’s letters. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation, rich with nuggets of gossip, in-jokes and revealing lines. All these pleasures are here in spades, and by the time I’d finished, I felt like I’d got to know Roger Mortimer, and his family, dog and garden, rather well.
Dear Lupin captures a peculiarly English upper-class, father-son relationship: a funny mixture of grumblings and tellings off, with naughty stories and words of encouragement, peppered with helpful cheques and boozy lunches at a gentleman’s club.
You have to take a deep breath and decide not to get wound up by its unbelievable poshness and just give into enjoying this hilarious evocation of that world. Take this on servants, for instance:
I suppose we had some fairly weird servants, e.g. Kate Murphy who was pissed at a dinner party and fell face downwards in the soup; and a butler who had been wounded in the head in World War I and was apt to pursue Mrs Tanner, the cook, with a bread knife. To these could be added Brett who forged cheques: Ellis, who emptied the cellar and peed into the empty bottles and Horwood who thought he had droit de seigneur in respect of the footmen.
You could read this and be quite appalled, or you could get over yourself and roll about laughing. I did actually laugh out loud on many instances, much to my embarrassment (on the tube) and my husband’s irritation (at home … crikey, I only hope he wasn’t so irritated that he felt inspired to do a pineapple chunk).
The most touching thing about Dear Lupin is that Charlie Mortimer went through his chaotic nomadic up-to-no-good life keeping tight hold of nothing much except for these letters. Despite ignoring most of his father’s well-intentioned advice, he evidently valued it dearly. As, indeed, should we all.
So I shall leave you with a final nugget of wisdom, courtesy of Roger Mortimer when Charlie is about to go to Greece:
Try not to look like some filthy student who has renounced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
Sage advice indeed.