Interesting Things – Saving

Since childhood, I have only ever been able to get through each day and face the fact that another must follow, then another and another, by throwing every grain of effort at Interesting Things. Some days are barren, and there are no Interesting Things that will let me pick them up, and so I must endure the torment of a tedium whose source I do not understand, so cannot stand against, let alone defeat. Hold on. Hold on, there will be Interesting Things tomorrow.

When all effort is exhausted, and a fork in the road offers me either the option to abandon this charade and stop now, the pills are ready, or to hold on for another day, for Interesting Things will come, they really will come, I have managed (obviously) to take the latter path. This capacity I have to be distracted by Interesting Things, distracted enough to prolong this hateful journey, is such a tremendous blessing that I so, so much appreciate, for I know that others have not been granted it, or anything like it, and I know their suffering is so very great, and I would help if I could, but I do not know how.

Before books, and long, long before the Internet, I had my Box of Interesting Things. The cardboard box itself had contained the transformer for my 00 scale electric train set, and it was so well constructed and so sturdy that my mother decided to keep it ready for some eventual storage requirement. And before I knew it, this Box – the size of a shoebox – had taken custody of a whole variety of Interesting Things. It became my Box of Odds and Ends, whose contents easily exceeded the greatest possible marvels, because I was only a child, and greater marvels – a few, anyway – lay some way off in the future.

I cannot now remember the sheer diversity of all the wonderful things I collected, but I do remember some: horseshoe magnet, spare tyres for my toy cars, paper clips, mirror, string, empty cotton reels, drawing pins, short ruler, pencil-sharpeners (several), sticky tape, key for winding clocks, batteries, pen knife that in my hands had been reincarnated into a new life (for my great grandfather, in whose house I had come to live, had died the year I was born, and who now would cut the string on parcels or open stubborn envelopes or ease coins from between floorboards?), pencils, erasers, magnetic compass, compass for drawing circles and arcs, bulldog clips of various sizes, shoelaces, pencil caps, pencil extenders, the program issued at the school’s nativity play in 1963 (in which I played Joseph, having appropriately already fallen in love with Mary, Mother of God, who was Jane), empty pill jars and spare corks to stop them, nail file, and a few toy soldiers who had lost contact with their platoons.

But then books came, and more books, and now they fill the house, thousands of them, as my Box of Interesting Things developed a more abstract aspect so to speak, expanding outwards from little physical things to include all these years later the thoughts and experiences of others, spreading out across the world like a greedy fire to consume, and thereby brighten my life, the tales of travellers and dramas of playwrights, of histories of distant times, of fabulous fables and arduous endeavours, and passing over at great length the earnest thoughts of profound philosophers. Here in this sanctuary, in this Box I have filled, lie worlds within worlds of wonders and marvels. This is what has saved me from such a bleakness that I struggle to describe, from this despair in the face of a pointlessness that fastened its jaws to my ankles in childhood, and which I know now will never release me.

There are many things that I dread at various levels of dismay, but the most profound, the most terrifying, is that fear of waking one day and finding that Interesting Things are not interesting any more. Of all the evils that this world may yet shove through my door, this is the one that unnerves me the most.

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Men – Hewing

I am five, and I remember the joy of running home from school through the silence of the park, to the quiet sanctuary of my own private room, to escape the frantic volume and din of voices that lasted not all day, of course, but whose incessant clamour grated on my nerves, like a pain growing larger as the hours passed, under the barrage of chatter, under the barrage of just the teacher’s voice, sometimes. My thoughts were derailed, the printed words in my books became just ink on paper that meant nothing, nothing beyond the fact that, now, in this confusion of noise, they would not speak to me, and my eyes skated over the papery surface like a man on stilts who was bound to slip and crash through the icy surface he had been foolish enough to venture onto, down into the freezing embrace of meaninglessness.

An_urban_footpathAfter the park – after the quiet footpath had cut between long, long properties to either side, to take me to that row of houses where I lived – back in my own room, at last, there was not silence, but peace. Through the half-open door, I could hear my mother in the kitchen, clattering quietly with this utensil, then with that, sliding the tray under the grill to make cheese on toast, and I knew that in a minute she would call me, and for the moment I could read about planets, or draw a dinosaur, or make a castle by sticking together bits of cardboard that my father had saved for me. Oh! – and there was such a space in my head, an uncluttered, unencumbered space where I could think, where I could travel in time, wander between the stars, or feel the weight of my armour before the assault on the castle began.

And still I seek such solitude and respite from the troubled and troubling world, where everyone else lives and chatters, where they make such a noise. As I write this, my neighbour is having their backyard cleared out, shrubs cut back, trees cut down (all of them, every single one, where at the bottom of the garden there had stood for at least ninety years a tiny wood as large as a tennis court) and the men have a machine, that pulverises all the waste wood, that makes such a horrid shrieking of destruction that, again, my thoughts are shattered and words break free of their meanings.

65: All Things – Ending

Almost all my dreams are nightmares, and always have been. The earliest dream I can recol­lect places me in my infant’s perambulator, lying on my back, gazing at a brilliant sky in early sum­mer. Next to me, heard but not seen, were my mother and her friend Sheila, who were talking and talking and talking. I could not follow what they were saying, a feature common to reality that was simply replicated in my dream. I was myself not silent, not any more, for I was wailing in dis­tress and terror, and I was trying to alert my mother to the awful danger that was descending upon us. For high up was flying a squadron of aircraft, painted grey and barely visible against the pale blue of the sky. And from each aircraft had been despatched some piece of ordnance, sus­pended like floating down from two, three or even four giant parachutes – howitzers, heavy mortars, 25–pounders, anti-aircraft guns, armoured cars and even a handful of tanks. Gently, gently, all this menacing metal drifted towards the ground, ready for deployment on the battlefield that must lie all about us. And right above me now, spread­ing out in all directions, was the bottom of a troop carrier, which in only a few moments would crush us to death. And I wailed and wailed my warning, with all my heart I tried to alert my talking moth­er. But she just kept on talking, totally oblivious to the danger that was bearing down upon us.

Some few years later, at about the time I start­ed school, I had a sequence of dreams in which we were being evacuated in an emergency, and I had struggled to find my precious things in time as my parents bundled cases and bags into their shaking arms and headed up the short driveway at the front of the house to the main road beyond, where transportation was waiting. But I could not find quickly enough what I wanted to take,[1] and oh, what a sense of desperate panic came upon me … and which to this day has never really lifted. By the time I got outside, they had gone, everyone had gone, and I was on my own. And then the bright flash, and everything was instantly on fire. All the trees, all the bushes at the front of the house were bathed in an exquisite, incandescent glow of flickering blues and yellows and reds, as if they were made from silver and gold wire, caught in a gentle, undulating breeze that made them sway and shimmer and dance with light. I felt no heat. I was not myself on fire. I was already dead, I sup­pose, and now as a spirit surveyed the ruined world for just a little while longer. Although I was too young to have yet heard about the nuclear menace or understand is mode of operation – to know that flash fires will erupt instantly upon det­onation, well in advance of the mighty and all-consuming shockwave that will follow seconds or minutes later – I nevertheless dreamed it accurate­ly, and there is a mystery indeed.

[1] In those days, my father’s shirts came in cardboard boxes, all of which I kept, for they were so incredibly useful for general storage – ideal for jigsaw puzzles whose original boxes had torn or split, perfect for toy cars, which when stacked anticipated the multi-storey car parks of the future, just the thing for odds and ends such as Sellotape rolls, paper clips, the mirrors from cos­metic products, bits of string, bits of pencils, rulers, rubbers, scissors, staplers, exercise books, watercolour paints, brushes, little pots for water, plastic zoo animals, toy soldiers and their weaponry (ironically). One of these boxes was ideal for taking a few things on our visits to my grandparents or other destina­tions, for I hated, so hated not having something to do, or being cut off from my project of the moment. So in my dream I was desperately trying to select the few things that I wanted, that would fit into one of these boxes, and in my panic I just could not think, could not think at all, and like the panic itself, this procrastination has followed at my side, muddling my thoughts, ever since.

54: Window – Breaking

I am five, in my classroom at school, and I have been trying to read for two or three months. It seems apparent that pretty much everyone else in the class is progressing more satisfactorily than I am. They are advancing to books that aren’t even in the series I am still struggling with. The girls especially, I can tell from their chatter, are enjoy­ing their reading. They actually understand the texts that they read, whereas all I can do is lurch from word to word, essentially unaware of any meaningful narrative behind this tortuous mystery.

We had started with the Janet and John series of books, and I had coped after a fashion. These books were designed to be taught using the ‘look-and-say’ method where, on first encountering the text, the teacher simply tells the child what the word says, so that they will henceforth always rec­ognise that word when it reappears in the future … for it will reappear, immediately, like a thing de­mented, over the next few pages. And when you have that experience, you will forever know that word. The earliest stages of this enterprise had not been too bad, and I was now competent in a basic vocabulary of perhaps sixty or seventy words, com­prising essentials such as

Words for Window--Breaking

We sit at our desks for these reading lessons – and there I am, almost certainly stuck on a hard word that I do not know. My fellow pupils are actually turning pages as they read their books … but not I. It is the same sentence for minute after minute, as I stare at it, hoping that its meaning will burst through the typography and mystically acti­vate my brain into understanding what it says.

One by one, the teacher summons us to her desk at the front of the class, where we are put through our paces as she opens our books to both pages that we have already mastered, and those we have not yet even glimpsed, and she listens as we read them aloud to her. The best I can do, when things go very well is, as it were, read out a list of words, the words of the sentence revealed above the card the teacher places on the page to deliber­ately obscure the text lower down. I seem to recall that a second card would often as not be placed over the text higher up, compelling the reader’s eye to attend to only the words being read and spoken at that very moment. Does she even block out the text to the right, and move her bit of card in time for our arriving at the next word?

Oh dear … here is a hard word I do not know.

‘Try to say it,’ she tells me. How? How do you even make the attempt? The context of the sentence, which probably I am not aware of, does not help me. Now, she covers up the letters of the word to reveal only its syllables, one at a time. She tells me to ‘sound the letters’ … she shouldn’t be doing this, because she is supposed to be teaching by the look-and-say method, and not by using this phonic approach. I recognise the end of the word, because it is the same as the word ‘down’, which I already know, but the final letter is missing. Well, that’s something. I struggle with the first part, though. I have not seen it before, and I cannot relate it to any words that I already know. I think she helps me, and tells me this syllable is ‘wind’. She presses me to say the letters aloud… I do my best, and I pronounce the word ‘window’, but rhyme it with the made-up word ‘wind-how’. I do not know the difference between ‘how’ and ‘doe’, nor that in this word, the ‘dow’ bit is pronounced ‘doe’. The teacher is exasperated. Goodness, she has been trying so patiently, but now she has about had it with this silly boy who gives every appearance of playing up. She raises her voice, and behind me I can hear the scraping of chairs as the rest of the class looks up from their reading to stare at me. I have been humiliated again, and I did not want that. I tried so hard to read that word – she has by now told me how to pronounce ‘win­dow’ – and I feel utterly baffled that the word ‘down’ was of no use to me, a traitor complicit in my humiliation. I do not think she meant to be unkind, but she was, and the way she handled my inability to read that word was a disgrace. I viewed her with a suspicion that veered into contempt for the remaining months that she was to be my teach­er.

 

 

Window

 

 

That is why, ever after, whenever I read any­thing, that teacher is always right beside me, ready to catch me out, ready to call upon the rest of the world to take a good look at my shame, and that is the larger part of why I would for the rest of my life feel a disturbing awkwardness attend every act of reading. It was forever to be something danger­ous that could bite me quite unexpectedly, like a rabid dog that looks quite friendly at first. I view with a sort of suspicion every book that I do not yet know.

The little house that I came to fifteen years lat­er, upon getting married, the little house that my wife’s grandfather had arranged to have built in 1925, was named by him Vind-Auga, the Icelandic for window. We had a new enamel plaque bearing that name fixed to the new garden gate in 2009, the year that we had new paths put down in the garden so that my dear wife could get outside in her wheelchair. The little plaque is still there, and every time I see it, I am reminded of that fateful day I could not read the word window.

44: Bullies – Stamping

I am nine, and I am sitting in the back of the Ford Anglia. I have been sitting in the back of the Ford Anglia for years and years, for my whole life, dreading the terminus of this short journey, for my mother is taking me to that terrible, terrifying school where I must subject myself to endless, cruel humiliations and beatings. Much of the time I walk to school, but when my mother has time, or when she has a trip planned to travel on, to go to the shops, or visit her parents, she takes me to school, on her way. And now the car is just turning into the street where another quarter of a mile further on, that place of torture awaits, all white­washed and Victorian, with thick gloss paint on all the doors, and the smell of soap in the air as thick as soup. Because I am new, on my own, starting here mid-term alone and alien in this different culture, I am an easy and obvious target for boys who thrive on violence, who learnt it, I later wonder, from their fathers (and uncles and older brothers) at home.

Ford_Anglia_1958_Castle_Hedingham_2008 photo by Charles01 wiki

I will not want to vacate the car. I will say I feel unwell and want to be taken home again, but my mother will make me get out, and propel me, her hand in the small of my back, through the school gates into a world of abuse and violence.

If not on this day, then on one close by, the boys will notice my new shoes, and enviously wish to convert them into the worn and used up wrecks they wear themselves, as well as hurt me, so they gather round too closely and then start stamping, stamping on my new shoes, trying to scuff and split them, trying to break my toes. It is not the pain of this attack that particularly worries me. No, I am more concerned with how my mother will react later, at home, when she sees the appalling state of my new shoes, for she will blame me and say it is my fault, and doubt my account of the bullies.[1] When the attack is over, and my toes feel wet, I go inside to use a piece of paper towel to wipe away the mud and grime, and later, back home, in a moment of uncharacteristic slyness, I quickly apply boot polish to fill in the scratches, and my shoes do not look too bad, considering the ferocity of that attack, and my mother in days to come will raise no query.

Forever I sit in the back of the Ford Anglia, forever on my way to my horrid doom, and I so wish, so wish to be taken somewhere else, to a sunny garden, a bright, open park, or to go back home, not to our new house here, but back to my great grandmother’s house where I might ride my tricycle up and down the garden path, even though now my tricycle is, of course, much too small for me, and must have been donated to a jumble sale or given to another child who I hope so much treasured it as much as I did, and maybe they too will all their lives remember the circum­stances of its coming to them, perhaps brought by a grand­mother sitting constrained in the front of a little car.

[1] In later years, it was suggested to me that my mother’s habit of rejecting my account of things, of holding me a liar, can be explained by the likely possibility that she was the liar, glid­ing through life on the efforts of others, manipu­lating and cajoling with false flattery and lies, such second nature to her, that she assumed that every­one else too was a liar, that this was just how peo­ple are.

38: Birds – Clinging

I am in my first ever class at school, and I am almost five, and I do not want to be here. I want to be back home, barely a mile away across the lovely park, where I would be riding my tricycle up and down the garden path or along the footpath at the front of the house where I first mastered the art of tricycling, or drawing houses or cars or trains, or perhaps playing with my train, laying out the track across the old carpet of my bedroom, or colouring in pictures with my new felt-tips that my father had acquired as free samples that they distribute in abundance to salesmen in the trade, for that is the world he inhabits in these early years. But no, I am at school, and we have just been handed, each of us, a new exercise book, larger than the folded foolscap variety I am used to, with their shiny bright red covers that I can buy in Woolworth’s for just a penny or two – for the new exercise books that are being distributed across the classroom must be quarto in size, and with their pastel covers, they look so appeal­ing. How pleased I am to have my own exercise book!

And now the teacher is telling us what to do, telling us to draw a house, and explaining it with a drawing of her own, done in white chalk on the blackboard at the front of the classroom. And in my enthusiasm, I take up my HB pencil (also provided by our teacher) – which really isn’t dark enough – and draw a version of that house on the very first page of my book. But now the teacher tours the room, checking on our progress, and I realise I have done it wrong. My house fills the whole page. It is a bold and confident house, with noble walls and stable roof and wide front door, wide enough for a grandmother carrying a child’s tricycle. Oh dear! I have done it wrong, the only one who has done it wrong. The teacher returns to her place at the front of the class and explains that the house can only work if it is quite small, when later, one day at a time, the rest of the street will be added, house by house. For these houses will bear their street numbers, and through this exercise we will learn our numbers and their correct sequence. (I already know how to write the numbers, up to 10, anyway, after which it got a bit more tricky, and for some weeks, I felt that 90 should come in the sequence where 20 in fact appears, and when I was told the truth of it, I felt terribly sceptical.)

House and Birds 02

 

So the teacher hands me a large eraser that smells of rubber and of living lost days languish­ing in the classroom, with which I am to remove my lovely house and replace it with a little ram­shackle affair that is to be labelled ‘1’. But the eras­er is not very effective, and I already know, thanks to my grandfather and his gifts, that a 2B or 4B pencil, although darker, and although having a greater presence on the page, usually rubs away much more easily. I struggle against this dreaded HB marking, and nearly ruin the page, catching at the paper and creasing it. From now on, for the rest of my life, every time I use an eraser I will be plunged back into this humiliation of having to rub away the house I made too large, whilst the rest of the class looks on, condemning me no less than does the teacher.

A similar incident occurred just a few weeks later. The teacher told us to draw a large letter T on our page, and of course, that is what I did. On­ly it was not a ‘T’, it was a bird table, and my T was too large, again, and there was no room for the birds. Again the teacher intervened, but this time, thank goodness, there was no smelly eraser. Instead, she told me to draw the birds hanging upside-down from the bottom of the bird table and clinging to its support. It looked very silly indeed, and I felt, again, a fool.

 

35: Lost Dog – Following

Look, that window there, the one next to the dark green front door … could I not be behind that window, on the other side, in another room, safe? Could I not have friends come to see me, who laugh through the smoke of our cigars? Or perhaps there comes a new lady friend, who sees the future more clearly than I, and has it all safely mapped out, all charted and plumbed, a double life, she and me, for at least a few years?

Could I not have bookcases bearing authors who shape a comely world of things so interesting I will weep at the wonder of it? And can there be a gar­den through the French doors, at the back of that room? And for hotter days, a summerhouse half-hidden in a fair forest of bamboo? And mightn’t its timbers never quite give up their ambition to always, always smell faintly of creosote, the smell of which always takes me back to childhood holi­days in chalets in Dorset, near the coast with its cliffs and sands and long summer days, and in the evenings and through the nights, the steady smell of creosote?

Mightn’t there be another world in which I could live, relieved of this despair? Or must this despair follow me, like a lost dog that wishes it were found again, into all possible worlds?

May there be glass in the doors of the book­cases, like in olden days, with keys to keep them shut?

Oh, but may there be conversations with my dear wife again?