Why I had to call my brother 'Sir'

Brothers come with the furniture. Or that, at least, was how they seemed to me as the youngest of four brothers. They were already established fixtures. Naturally, I looked up to them - and not only because they were taller.

Indeed, in the case of my two oldest brothers - half-brothers to be precise - they were almost six feet taller than I was, in my infantile proneness. These two brothers were, actually, somewhat remote in my earliest years. There were photos of them around the house, even if these did suggest they were still at school. They were not. They had graduated into the Army.

But my nearest brother wasn't remote at all. He had four years' lead, admittedly, but he was pretty much ubiquitous. He did everything first, of course. So while I was still, as Shakespeare not very elegantly put it, "mewling and puking," he was already constructing elaborate cranes and building skyscrapers. Admittedly, he was doing this in the nursery, using red-brown rubberoid "mini-bricks" that plugged together, and Meccano - a miniaturized version of the sort of things used to build the Eiffel Tower.

He was also developing a taste for fast cars (Dinky Toys a few inches long), a taste that was much later to translate itself into a Morgan sports car.

He had an ardor, too, for moths and butterflies, for owl pellets, for birds - when he started going to school he brought home some colorful drawings he'd made of birds, among them a woodpecker, a nuthatch, and, I fancy, a kingfisher, which in my eyes were the highest achievement to which any artist could possibly aspire. His fascination for nature decidedly inspired mine.

His enthusiasm for heavy theatrical disguise was perhaps a more dubious influence when, clandestinely, he painted me red from head to foot, to exhibit me to startled adults as "Mephistopheles." Was this the beginning of my keenness on acting?

When the two half-brothers returned from World War II, one didn't come and stay with us - he got married instead. The younger one now became part of things, though. He was just about old enough to be my father. I remember him playing Beethoven symphonies on our gramophone. Heaven knows how many 78s it took to cover a full symphony - quite a pile. The sound quality was a bit scratchy, too. We had no idea of the technological wonders to come, though we frequently sharpened the wooden needles to render the sound as crisp as possible.

Chiefly it is the extreme volume that I recall - it filled the house - and my feeling that classical music should be overwhelmingly loud has proved to be ingrained. When I went through my Stravinsky "Rite of Spring" and Bernstein "West Side Story" phases a decade later (they were LPs by then), I did not play them at all quietly.

In due time I went away, following in my nearest brother's footsteps, to boarding school. I discovered that older brothers, though kind toward younger brothers, and perfectly willing to play Monopoly or kick-the-can with them at home, found them an embarrassment at school. That four-year gap amounted to a geographical boundary.

We might as well have been at different schools. The younger of my half brothers had now gone to university. He then became a schoolteacher. And then something amazing occurred, brotherwise and schoolwise. This half brother got a post at "my" school. I was enormously proud of this this injection of "home" into the boarding-school environment. (Eventually, after I left, he became headmaster.)

I called him "Sir" as I did the other male teachers, and he called me "Andreae." He and I knew that it would be unfair if he favored me. So he didn't. I remember one occasion after a rugby game, he (mistakenly) blamed me for something naughty, I can't remember what. He was crosser with me than he would have been with any other boy, and gave me a harsher punishment. I wasn't quite sure I acknowledged him as a brother of mine for some time after that.

Over the subsequent decades, this brother was still able to "put me down" with a headmasterly technique that always took me by surprise. It involved a rather cutting, dismissive abruptness. Not very long ago, he decided we had been on the phone quite long enough. He terminated the call at a stroke. I was surprised at my sense of affront, as if I were still a boy.

But he was actually a self-effacing man, or at any rate he had a degree of modesty that amounted, engagingly, to instants of self-ridicule. He told stories on himself, laughing at his absurder moments, and that takes real good humor. A favorite story was when, in charge of a platoon during the war, he had smartly saluted a visiting brigadier or some such high-up, and stepped forward into a trench full of water he had been waiting by all morning.

And he was fully prepared to let his hair down and be plain silly if he felt an occasion demanded it. I didn't see it, but I was told how he had put on one of his wife's dresses and swanned around the school's brand new swimming pool before unexpectedly falling into it - making the pool's endlessly awaited opening ceremony sublimely unceremonious.

My favorite occasion of this sort was when I persuaded him to dress up as a "wee elf" for an end-of-summer school entertainment. While I recited a poem, he acted it out. I was the "toadstool" (I held a large umbrella) under which this very tall, spindly-legged, bright-green elf ran to shelter himself from the rain, only to discover that a sleeping dormouse had beaten him to it.

Just to think of it now, and the aching laughter of the audience, makes me chuckle without much self-control. I only hope he wouldn't be displeased that his kid brother values such daftness above all things in his memory.

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