Francis James arrived in Hong Kong from Sydney in an ambulance one Friday night, with a briefcase full of greenbacks and a big jar of honey. He was on his way to Moscow to drink vodka with some old buddies, then wartime pilots and now in and out of the Kremlin.
He dumped his bags at our flat in Macdonnell Road and headed straight to his tailor in Wanchai, returning with a red and gilt invitation to the tailor’s daughter’s wedding the next day.
He had known the tailor and his family for years and remembered the bride huddled over her rice bowl and schoolbooks at the back of the shop when she was about my age.
Next evening, wedding well out of the way, my father Jack Spackman and James were relaxing over a nightcap and reflecting on the day’s events.
Dad asked what gift he’d given and, back across the room in his best sonorous tone, James said: “The Oxford English Dictionary, my standard gift for the illiterate.”
James was a terrifyingly gruff honorary uncle.
He would fix me with a glare and ask my opinion on the events of the day or a book he had caught me reading. The conversation would always end with an instruction for me to look something up.
Months later James left Moscow for London, where, Dad said mysteriously and offering no detail, he behaved somewhat scandalously.
One day Dad opened the door to the postman to take delivery of a good sized box. And then another the next day, and then two more, and two weeks later two more, until our lounge room was cluttered by a full set of Chambers Encyclopaedia.
No note, no name, other than a bookstore in London, but it fairly shouted Francis James.
Dad loved it. “A gift for the illiterate.”
I burned with shame. I knew who it was for. A gift for the ignorant.
Years later Dad left Hong Kong for San Francisco, leaving his flat in the care of Sheila Dennis, a fine Daughter of Empire who deserves her own tale, and donated the encyclopaedia to the South China Morning Post’s library.
Discovering that they already possessed an identical set of Chambers’ the librarians promptly boxed up Dad’s books and sent them to his last address, much to Sheila’s bemusement.
And some time after that Dad, now settled in California, was surprised one day to take delivery of an entire set of Chambers Encyclopaedia, each volume neatly stamped ‘Property of the SCMP Library.’
“What happened was they were doing a clearout of old books, found a record that I’d donated a set of Chambers and assumed these were mine. I wish I’d never sent them my address,” Dad said.
I don’t know what happened to the Californian set, but good old Sheila carted the James books back to England when she left Hong Kong and, not long before she died, handed them over to my husband who carted them all the way over to Australia.
This is the burden of history – two shelves’ worth of out of date encyclopaedia that will never be looked at again.
This is the Curse of James.
A gift for the ignorant and now among my most prized possessions.