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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Father and Son: an end to certainty

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

God, the father and son: an end to certainty.
How old is a child before he knows his father is not omniscient? How old is he before he knows that the village priest is an empty vessel? The latter is easy to answer. It came to me when I asked, during choir practice, “Who made God?” The answer was pat, as I remember. Perhaps I  embroidering it by suggesting that Canon Tillard had a look of smug, priestly insincerity as he stared down at me and said, “God made himself.” Even if he said it in all piety, it did have an extraordinary effect upon me. The vaulted Romansque Anglican church, given to Latin mass, white surplices and incense swinging, reverberated with his words. Its stones’ echoing hollowness amplified what seemed to me to be the absurdity of his reply. Even in science fiction, as promoted in the Eagle comic, the most fiendish of aliens did not make themselves out of nothing. Something could not come out of nothing. Whatever laws of reality I held dear in my head at the time were so confounded by his reply that I abandoned the choir and Christianity. I was eleven.
Around the same age I was selected to represent Shadforth C of E primary school in a road safety competition with another school. My team (the only three pupils in the top age bracket, about to take the 11+) spent a week or two swotting up the Highway Code. My father offered to test me. When it came to the sequence that traffic lights go through, he stopped me and said I was wrong. I showed him the Highway Code. He said that it was a mistake in the text and illustrations. He had driven for decades and the sequence was different. He rehearsed me to remember it. Needless to say I was asked that very question. I can still remember the conflict as I struggled with the book’s authority and my father’s. He was in the audience of course. I opted for his version. I was wrong and as a result received three out of four marks for my answer.
It marked the beginning of the end of his omnipotence. Where once I had believed everything he said with an almost fierce fervour, doubt now lurked in my childhood Eden, in all its snakiness. It was the underpinning of my skepticism regarding all forms of certainty in later years, even, ultimately, feeding into my PhD on observation methods in qualitative research. But I don’t want this to sound like retributive carping against my father. He was a fine father in many, many ways. But he was a product of Edwardian England, the army, subservience to the establishment, fair play, the importance of rules and undisputed male dominance within the home. Suddenly seeing him as flawed helped me to be aware that that all people have their weaknesses. I am sure he suffered terribly that evening in the school, sitting among his fellow villagers.

Loss of pride for a man of his generation was even greater then than today. The unimpeachable justice of the father was integral to his sense of identity.


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Slates, frozen milk and green woodpeckers

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Slates, frozen milk and green woodpeckers

My slate was a rectangle, big enough it seemed to my small hands. It was bordered with wood, maybe pine but probably beech. The writing implement, my stylus, was not chalk but a smooth cylinder of slate, too. I have no memory of  the holders. They were probably owned by the children of families whose parents used something similar for cigarettes …! My parents, who both smoked at the time, certainly never provided them. Cigarettes in our house came in soft, colourful packets.

There were two school rooms and a small kitchen. The bigger room also contained the hall and was used by the five to eight year olds while the smaller one was for the older children on their way to the eleven plus. When school milk arrived it was put in the kitchen. In winter the milk was frozen in the bottles and had to be thawed out. As I write this I have an involuntary recoil at the memory of over-heated milk. Cold milk with a shake of icy creamy froth on top, was perfect. Older children thawed out the bottles. The little kitchen was also used for monitorial purposes. Apart from my sister, when she was three, I must have helped teach many children to read and write.
I remember being caned by the class teacher for laughing too much; that involuntary, impossible to stop, eye-watering laughter that feeds itself and those around. The caning was administered with a four foot, unwieldy garden cane. The teacher was not adept at sadism and every time she tried to lift and bring it down upon my hand, it caught the table and went askew. This fuelled more side-splitting laughter and led to less punishment.
An inspector came to the school and looked at all the children’s work. He singled out a composition of mine because I wrote that King Alfred’s ships were like swans in the bay. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy from that moment. A later teacher, at grammar school, scrubbed out my word ‘nadir’ and said the word did not exist.
I was somewhat proficient at art and had pictures displayed on the wall. I painted or crayoned birds and football teams. There was a strong thread of shimmer in them. I liked the clashes of green on red in a woodpecker and my teams also had green and red stripes, though no such strip existed.

My two bibles then and later were the Observer Book of Birds – I learned to recognize every species together with the patterns on their eggs – and an annual three inch square book of the previous season’s football recorded in tiny print with results and tables throughout the season.  I had a favourite team for every division and knew the home strips of all teams in all divisions.
As I have said in a recent post, colour dominated my life, as though it depended upon it. Later, much later, in my fifties, I discovered that I had a genetic abnormality, one which made me both short-sighted and vulnerable to retinal detachment.


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Distance lends confusion

Friday, December 13, 2013

Distance lends confusion
I have just looked up the village in which I spent seven years, from 1947 to 1955, Shadforth. Now it has a small website and a sort of potted history which, if not directly contradicting my memories, at least allowing little place for them. ‘Potted’ here is a metaphor as in the reduction of a pig to Spam. The village green where Sir Lancelot and Gawain fought is now part of a conservation area. The houses around it, including the school I have recently described, are part of this embalming of the past by today’s well-meaning bureaucrats. The rough grass,  overlooked by these dwellings, upon which wickets fell, a boy had an epileptic fit so massive we all ran away in fear of the Devil and where my compatriots skipped, bowled hoops, ran races and fought until blood was drawn and we were separated by minimally concerned adults, carries no scars or trophies of those days.
This insulated sphere of my childhood’s adventures has lost its unique otherworldliness on today’s internet. It is overshadowed by a village a mile away called Ludworth. Ludworth has Pele tower remains and a more historic lineage. Shadforth is only unique for one thing – its name. There are no other Shadforths (“shallow fords”) in England, according to the data on the site. In my early years there was a dome around Shadforth as palpable as The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. To venture beyond its security brought trepidation into the heart. Immediate unfamiliarity crowded in on the wanderer. Perhaps half way to Ludworth (a place where unspeakable roughnecks roamed) along a country path, was a big pond. The way to it was through this alien territory. To leave it could mean death. But here was where newts could be caught, in all their red livery, as exotic and mythic to us as Golden Salamanders. It took days of planning and hardening of the heart to make the trek, one which you never made alone.
I remember, though I was too young to take part, that a battle was to be fought between the Ludworth and the Shadforth boys. It was heralded for weeks, vying in our credulous minds with the battle of Bosworth Field. The stomach tightening fear and anticipation of the event has erased any knowledge of the result.
This blood-thickening nostalgia is more than a spurious, dewy-eyed tug at the heart strings. It is more than a Proustian episode. I want to reconquer, to reclaim the world that was Shadforth, to be an enfant sauvage, to enable childhood ghosts to walk again, to see the school spilling out at lunchtime, to regain the totality of life under the dome.

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The Fields of Dreams

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Fields of Dreams
The green sward stretched out before us. Ladies in fine gowns held the favours of their champions as they sat in the gallery waiting for the tourney to begin.  Knights, to a man, were armoured and horsed with lances held perpendicular by their saddles. Shields protected them. Some were like Lancelot, in disguise, willing to deceive those they loved. Some were like Galahad, pure and unaffected by earthly temptations. There were no green Knights as I recall.
The jousts took place at lunch break on the village green between the school and a stone wall which became the balcony for the fair ladies of Arthur’s court – the girls in the school’s two classes. The lances were wooden vaulting poles. The shields were dustbin lids. The favours were ribbons used to denote teams in PE. The whole organization can only have come from the heated imagination of one or two children like myself who, ahead of their reading age, loved Arthurian legend. I recall winning a joust and galloping over to the balcony, turning to allow a young damsel from the first years’ class to ride upon my back as I celebrated my victory. Courtly love was everything to a nine year old.
In the winter, the battles were grimmer. No fair ladies. Feet beating the snow, woolen-wrapped, heads in balaclavas, Brussels sprouts stems in hand with their thick bulbous clay-bound roots and only the ubiquitous dustbin lids to protect us, we set about each other. The lids were dented out of shape by the barbaric onslaught of our medieval spike ball maces, never to fit their bins again.
I lived in a world of Norse Gods and Heroes, sagas such as Beowolf, children’s versions of Malory’s Morte D’arthur, Greek and Roman myths. And they seamlessly elided into the modern, the Superman and Batman comics, The Eagle, The Rover. Fantasy knew no real boundary. Superheroes populated the imagination in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of rational underpinning.

I wonder now whether my imagination was my universe and reality amounted only to meals and sleep.

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Intimations of Mortality

Friday, December 6, 2013

Intimations of Mortality
I need to backfill slightly for those of you who have not read an earlier post this year but which kicks off the present one. I was born in India. By the time my family returned with me to the UK I spoke Urdu and English. By then I was aware that my elder sister had drowned and it took three or four years for my parents to conceive me. Four years after me they produced a girl, too. Until I was forty five or so I had the story of my sister’s death imprinted on my brain by my mother. She would say, “Little Margaret would be fifteen now” or “Little Margaret would be twenty five now”. In other words my dead sister was ageing as I was, a ghostly precursor to my life. She died, I knew – I had been told many times – at the age of a toddler, two or three, found drowned in the water tank in the garden. She had apparently climbed over the little protective fence. There she was found, like Ophelia.
I returned one day with my dying father to find my sister’s grave. He was reluctant. Maybe the prostate cancer and the catheter made him feel unprepared. Anyway we went. We found the grave. It had been partially defaced with strange hieroglyphs. We interrogated the register in the little church. There was her name, Margaret Sanger. There was her age. Six years. Now, can you imagine? Six? But she was surely a toddler! Finally my father talked about that distant time.
Margaret was born with a fear of water. She hated being bathed and would scream. When she was eighteen months her screams brought adults into the garden to find her pointing. A toddler was drowning in the fountain but her prompt but precocious warning saved it. She wanted to learn to swim. When my father took her to the swimming baths she grew rigid as she approached and turned blue when he gently eased her into the water. He taught hundreds to swim in his later life. He became a swimming pool manager after the army. But not his own daughter. Not Little Margaret. The very strange thing about her death was this: the post mortem showed no water in her lungs. My father could not explain it except that she may have died from fear. Or, I told myself, she had been asphyxiated and thrown into the tank. Who knows?
The reason for repeating all this is that I must have had some kind of preternatural cognizance of what death meant from the very beginning. One cannot walk in the footprints of the dead all one’s life without some extra sense of it’s presence. But, as you will have gathered, my mother never let it inhibit my freedom to roam, to play beside water, to take chances. She was not a character that could have fitted in the plot of that terrifying film for all parents, Don’t Look Now.
The first deaths I can recall were those of the wrung-necked chickens. Then there were the annual cub wielding forays in the barns of the farm next door as the rats were smoked out. We always had a cat and so I have many images of the creature bringing presents of mice, voles and moles to the dining table. A boy, climbing the sand quarry at the top of Shadforth, fell and was suffocated. It did not stop us going there for Sand Martins’ eggs. I climbed another cliff and took a young Jackdaw for a pet, one day taking it to school on my shoulder. It did not fare well in the hen coop where I kept it and died. Fish died in jamjars or the ponds I made in the garden, lined with clay. Death was everywhere, as natural to me – even if intimidating – as the business of living. The mother of a school friend and teacher in our tiny school, died of cancer. And, to connect with the last post, an effect of death is the fading of colour; in the eyes, in the flashes of red on a fish’s flank and even in the gleam of the coat of a kitten killed by the warning snap of our dog protecting his dinner bowl.
I’m not so frightened of the prospect of the last journey, that Arthurian float across the waters that divide, because death was there from the very beginning, sniping away. Being inconsiderate. I wonder whether life can be truly lived without an acceptance of it’s constant presence?

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The Colour of Memory

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Colour of Memory
Modern life is destroying colour in a kind of genocide, a universal clearance of the natural spirit of tone, shade, tint and hue. So it appears to me in retrospect.
The following lines by A E Houseman encompass the notion that for each of us, memory has its own presiding colour. For him, blue represented a time, an age to which he could never return.
INTO my heart on air that kills

  From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

  What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

  And cannot come again.
For me it is colour in its very being. As I have already ventured, I became a putative Zen Buddhist in its early adolescent form though without any such label. The brief vignette in an earlier post in this series recounted the rhapsodic nature of being in a lilac tree or the extraordinarily vibrant flashes of blue and yellow in corn fields that were not yet annually brutalized by spraying. Those were the days when a farmer or gardener fought cunning battles with predators, with their blood constantly on his hands, and had a kind of grudging respect for his foes, even though today we might regard the strung up carcasses of birds and animals to deter further predation, primitive and inhuman. We now prefer mechanised killing on a grand scale from planes, from tractors and from genetic laboratories and have a growing population of city estate children with no knowledge of where eggs or milk or the beef in burgers come from, or of nettles and thorns or wild fruit and fungi. No, those playful days provided arrays of colour in the hedgerows, meadows and cultivated fields that burn in the mind’s eye.
Nothing since compares in my mind to the spectacular spectrum of colours to be found in birds’ eggs, their positioning next to each other in cardboard containers lined with cotton wool. If a rainbow had been constituted from the colours to be found in my box, it would have stretched right across the sky. I suspect that in those immediate, post-war British days where the range of paint was limited in houses, where products in ironmongers and department stores were similarly lacking in much beyond magnolia, green and brown, when fathers wore dun and grey utility attire and women had not cultivated the seeds of fashionable independence, eggs were a wonder. They were a child’s stained glass windows affording a view of the spiritual essence of existence. Since then industrialisation and mass production have led us to a point where we cannot pick wild flowers without guilt and where more and more flora and fauna are necessarily added to the lists of the protected. It is said that 96% of all species that have ever existed have become extinct. In my own private lifetime with its unique visual history, it is the bleaching and extinction of so much colour, wild, savage and limitless that causes the pang of loss. It is as if, as I age, Death, the robber, has begun to visit early to begin pilfering my sensibilities from me.  
He is particularly keen on colour.

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