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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Autobiography 5: How to be a man
My father found it much easier to show affection to a daughter (hardly surprising, having had the terrible heartbreak of the first born girl’s death by drowning) and to the youngest versions of me, his son. As I grew older, the physicality of touch diminished until, one day in his seventies in Lanark, when he looked a bit wobbly and I put a hand on his shoulder, he leaped away from me as though branded. He knew my liking for literature and was fulsome in his condemnation of D H Lawrence who was essential reading in the 1960s for anyone interested in the sexual revolution. I wondered later whether he had conflated him with T. E. Lawrence whose extra-military exertions with Arabs would have been, for him, obscene and worthy of a hanging. He was an excellent crossword puzzle solver, doing the Daily Telegraph offering each morning – providing my mother did not get there first. She told me with great amusement one day that he had not been able to solve a final clue whose answer was lesbian, and when she put it in, he was visibly shaken when she told him its meaning.
But in my childhood and youth he was a powerful role model of what it was to be truly male. I believed in him. It was a principle not to lose against either my sister or I at the games that children loved then, whether draughts, cards, word games, football or cricket.  Nor did I begrudge him his victories. It added to his aura of invincibility. And it made me competitive. I suppose I was a fragile child in some ways, thin and awkward, knotted in the knee and wearing glasses. He bought me bright red boxing gloves when I was about seven and set up a bag for me to punch. I was given a pewter-coloured, grey potato and lead slug pistol that required strength to spring load it and when I was a bit older an air rifle. I watched him wring the necks of chickens we kept in the garden and follow their awkward post mortem zigzags between the denuded Brussels sprouts’ stalks, their heads dangling. My mother helped in this conscious stiffening of my male resolve by taking me out on to the back step to watch the thunder and lightning storm approach. She talked wistfully of India’s monsoons.
He did create a tremendous sense of privilege and camaraderie, a Boys Own bubble at times. I would be sent to bed on time but told that he would wake me up in the night for the Big Fight from America. I know it happened a few times but I distinctly remember sitting in front of a roaring fire in the early hours, with the lights off, wrapped in a dressing gown, feet in slippers as the crackling commentary was relayed from Madison Square Garden or some other pugilists’ paradise. Particularly, I remember Rocky Marciano’s bouts with Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, not the fights but the celebratory ambience of the sitting room. My father would be like a hairpin, bent forward, elbows on knees, staring into the middle distance, living every described punch. He had been a Captain in the PT Corps of the Lancashire Fusiliers, seconded to the Indian Military to help build the officers’ training centre in Dehra Dun. He had boxed, high dived, done gymnastics, played football, tennis and cricket, all at a high competitive standard. What stopped him from becoming a Major was his leaving school at 14 to work in the mines to support his mother. He was not privately educated. “Not officer material’ was stamped across his otherwise exemplary record, the best anyone had ever encountered both academic and physical. How he could remain a Tory supporter after that rebuff I never could work out.
When I was young I marveled at the changes that had occurred in my parents’ lifetime: television, jets, man on the moon, domestic technology. Yet even more change has taken place in my own. But the sheer domination of the monolithic walnut encased wireless in those early years is a far cry from the range of whizzbang electronic media  today. My favourite stood tall and slim and had wings that ran down its sides similar to the accretions on American cars. The dial shone like a halo. The sound emanated magically from some Mount Olympus.. 


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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Autobiography 4: From the Big Bang to Steady State
The latest scientific speculation suggests that there had to be something before the Big Bang, poetic flat universes like bed sheets occasionally coming together to create a terrific flap and give birth to yet another. If the first of this series of posts on my childhood began with a memory of my own big bang – the lighter striking fire and the curtain conflagration, I’d like to borrow from the pre – Big Bang scientific supposition and make mention of what existed before.
My first memory did not kick start my life, of course.  That was done in India. I was born into an exotic, even traumatic medium of events and emotions which are now, at least temporarily, lost to me. I was a second child, the first, a sister, having mysteriously drowned aged six in India before I was born. From having a dedicated servant and hot earth I was in no time seeing only white skins with a cold ground under my feet. From bilingual at four – Urdu and English – I was made monolingual by the new culture of the unrelieved, accented English of a Geordie pit village by the time I was five. I started wearing spectacles suffering from very short sight.
All this pre-history and early existence conspired to make me feel different, a bit of a loner, at least this is what my adult self now informs me sagely.  I remember having many friends but no blood brothers. My sister came along four years after me and by then my sparateness was somewhat determined. I spent the first hour in bed this morning trying to uncover early memories after the Big Flame.  Here are a few.
A square cube known as a ‘blue bag’ on the kitchen window sill to ease the pain of frequent bee stings. My mother’s horror at a jam jar of pond water and a beetle so big inside it, it seemed to fill it entirely with its black back and red belly. Plodging in the stream on the way to school and through the dark and terrifying tunnel under the road to the other side. When I revisited this landmark as an adult it seemed impossible that a child could have crawled through, never mind stooped his fearful way in his wellies. Birds eggs in boxes padded with cotton wool. Butterflies in jam jars as well as bees. A man my parents called my ‘uncle’ who was a magician and bandaged his thumb and cut it off making it bleed copiously before re-engaging it and restoring it to health upon undoing the bloody linen. He gave me a silver coin of some kind. Our pebbledash, tiny cottage with its two small bedrooms, and in winter the ice on the inside of my bedroom window which refracted illumination from the street lamp outside, casting monsters on to the bedroom walls. My father having his zinc-filled bath before the fire and the prudery of him. Our dog which was a black Scottie and yapped. Our cat, that frequently attacked a neighbour’s Alsatian so that it cowered, ears flat whenever passing our house. A peck on my willy by a hen that came to watch me pee through chicken wire, causing me to scream and my mother to laugh for minutes on end. Reading. Every day a new book from the village library which was in my primary school and was on revolving shelves that served the children by day and the adults after school and on Saturdays. By six I did not differentiate and the librarian indulged my tastes. I can still see Captain Hornblower R. N. by C.S. Forester in its vivid, adventure suggesting dust cover. The Scarlett Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
These memories are like dots, not joined up yet into proper pictures, isolated stars not yet sufficient to make the Milky Way. But, as Dylan Thomas says in Welsh Incident , “I was coming to that…”


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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Autobiography 3: Abandoned child, wild gorse and honey bees
I think I may be dashing about in time. I cannot really put things in date order. My memory seems to be a bit like a dark night sky wherein a star suddenly appears and I fasten on to it with my telescope.
My parents drove me to friends of theirs where I was to spend a week on holiday. We went in the new (second hand) family car, a big Rover with walnut dashboard and leather seats. My father must have been doing well as a soft drinks salesman. He had given up on the motor bike which, once every few months, he would dutifully strip down and clean in front of the fire. I never knew why I was ejected from family life like this. Until I left home for college this was the only aberration in a continuous existence at home in Shadforth. They cannot have lived too far away and they were called Donaghy. They had a much older son in his mid teens. They lived in what was a piece of Durham’s mining-related architecture, a hamlet of houses, a handful strip of each on either side of the road. Their toilets were out the back and communally shared with other houses on that side of the street. A horse and cart came once a week to remove the contents of the joint septic receptacle which ran along under all the wooden toilet seats. You sat in your cubicle, above the floating mayhem of drunken miners and their Edwardian pursed lipped wives, hoping to be quick and to get out before being overcome. Constipation was a slow death – not that I can remember having it.
Two memories of this visit. The first was that my father gave the teen of the house a steel compass and other mathematical tools, embedded and glittering in a velvet and wood box, as a present. I know I felt jealousy. They had been in the Shadforth house for some time. They were MY heirlooms. Many years later my father gave someone else my half-size slate-bed billiard table, much to my volubly expressed anger. He said I had gone to college and didn’t think I wanted it. It was a curious element of his complex personality. He seemed to need to be seen as generous even at the expense of his son. Or is that too harsh? It was a table I had paid for.
Behind the latrines was a small field, though large enough for me. It was a meadow but inundated with dock, dandelion and gorse. It must have been summer when I was there. I spent much of the time catching bees in a jam jar with holes in its lid to help them breathe. The art was seeing how many you could capture. Many times you might lift the lid to entrap yet another and accidentally release one or two. Stings were common. I put flowering dead nettles inside to make them comfortable.
Why was I sent to the Donaghys? I assume with the jaundice of adult wisdom that something must have been up at home. My sister, four years younger than me, was not excommunicated. When you think back you find certain events which have nestled in your brain as unchallenged, isolated islands, suddenly develop a hidden plot, a conspiratorial odour. My child-like, lonesome distraction from wondering about the motives of my parents could be found in jars full of yellow striped or red-bummed bees. 


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Friday, November 22, 2013

Autobiography 2: Earth, Air, Water and Blood
So my earliest memory was fire. Casting my mind back I have a sort of metaphorical sense of what memory is. It’s a concertina which, when pulled out reveals all that extra capacity that cannot be seen at the outset. Or like a set of books whose spines are all that is visible on the shelf, with vague titles which must be lifted out, one by one to reveal their mysterious substance. Memory is two dimensional for the purpose of retrieval and multi-dimensional once you get hold of it. Nothing is actually forgotten but it can take unusual circumstances and lateral purchase sometimes, to draw people, events and perceptions back into consciousness.
Since an autobiography, to be true and accurate in all respects, would be vast and never-ending, to embrace the span of a life, it behoves the writer to provide vignettes, fragments that suggest the whole like shards of a hologram, isomorphic representations.
After Leeds we moved to Shadforth County Durham. We lived for a few months across the village green, opposite the school. Here are a few flashes from that time. Becoming lost and eventually found in the neighbour’s dog’s kennel with my arms around a dog notoriously big and feared by the postmen. Going to the toilet just before playtime (not yet five) and using one of the girls’ outside toilets. Just as I flushed it the bell went and I had to barricade myself in by jamming the door closed with straight legs, as I sat on the seat, trouserless. I was petrified with anguish and embarrassment as girls hammered on the door keening that they knew a boy was in there. 

Yet, not far away across the concrete yard was a lilac tree. It was here that my immersion in Zen began. I recall climbing it and reclining in its branches, curtained about by pale purple panicles, shutting my eyes and swooning in the heavy scent, my ears drowning in the deep buzzing of bees and higher pitched drones of other insects.
In that Elysium of nature, a stream ran close to the bottom of our garden. Above it swept down a hill of corn, hosting the electric blue of cornflowers, the golden fat yellow of buttercups and the powdery white branches of old man’s baccy. Has my sight faded? This memory of colour is almost-trip-like in comparison to today’s perceptions. Perhaps my present eyes do not deceive but in that natural wild-foraging state of early childhood I saw the very essence of colour, its very spirit as one finds in Shintoism. All since has been facsimile, perfectly serviceable but without the power to truly burn the retina.
I dug deep holes on the little path that ran around the field and covered them in thin sticks and grass and leaves to trap the farmer. A gang of us trekked to a nearby quarry and stole a length of rope which we tied high above the stream so that we could swing down from the high bank on one side of it, screaming like our muscular hero in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan And The City of Gold. We made dams. We tightrope walked the narrow concrete divides between the effluence tanks of the sewage farm.
The last snippet, cut from the cloth of that time, is of a birthday party. I must have been five, I suppose. Perhaps four or so boys had been invited. They brought presents. The only one I can remember was from a boy whose parents had no money, or so my mother informed me. He gave me a tin cow, a Guernsey I can now affirm. One leg had been broken off. I took the treasure and placed it on my shelf in the sideboard cupboard. I can see it now, just managing to stay upright, all on its own, lit by the searchlight of inexplicable pleasure.

It was when I learned that it is the thought that counts.


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In an autobiography, a thousand memories must begin with one

Monday, November 18, 2013

In an autobiography, a thousand memories must begin with one
Writing an autobiography represents a worrying collision of two gropes of thought. I am not talking here of the autobiographies of those who have jumped to fame on the serendipitous back of media-enhanced celebrity and deliver their usually ghost-written accounts of their first years of fame. I am more concerned with autobiography as the summing up of a life, a kaleidoscope of events and characters, memories, dreams, reflections and might-have-beens which together comprise the vaguely stable core at the heart of the ever changing mist of what has been experienced by the author. The two ropes of thought, at least for me, comprise firstly a superstitious fear that writing it might have the same import as a will and may somehow mark the end of my imaginative writing. The second is that if I leave it too late then the record of my life will become too faded, my ink drying in the pen and the very tool of my imagination, the carefully wrought word and phrase may give way to something so prosaic it has none of the character of my writing when all my faculties are present!
With autobiographies, timing is all. It must be got down before the brain is more colander than crucible.
So, beginning at the beginning, I have no memories at all of India where I spent my first four years or so of life. Suffice it to say that India has still been a dominating motif, affecting my sense of self, a background like the foundation glue an artist uses to prepare a canvas. No, despite being bilingual, nothing remains of those early naked-running native years in Dehra Dun. My first images come from Leeds, a cold northern city where we stayed for a few months with my father’s mother, not the most gracious of individuals I am told. It was there, or in some subsequent accommodation that I took my father’s cigarette lighter and hid behind the curtains, flicking it on and off. I seem to recall the mystery of this fire-maker but have no vision of the burning curtains as they exaggerated that tiny spurt of flame into an ascending line of fire and thence to the Christmas decorations.
It was the only time in my life that my father came close to hitting me, if I am to believe my mother who I am sure would not have lied about such a traumatic early event. I am assured that he did not, instead sending me to my room. The fact that he did not strike me is surely the perfect education for a son. After all, a room going up in smoke is among the worst of scenarios. I have not hit my own children and I am sure they are the same with my grandchildren. Scientists now believe that genes can be switched on and off during a life. I have displayed on occasion the willingness to battle, to use fist and foot, so the warrior gene can burn brightly if the button is pressed – but not within the fomenting confines of familial relations.

I realise, writing this, that it is possible that autobiographies might delineate more exactly the characters of those around the author than the being of the author himself. 

My father will, no doubt, not be immune from this.

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