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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Scrap of Autobiography.

As a small boy, I was very obsessive.  After pulling the chain of the lavatory, I raced the flush, thus: I ran down the corridor to the spiral stairs, and tried to get to the bottom of the stairs before the flushing had stopped.  If I succeeded, I awarded myself an imaginary gift – whatever gadget happened to be of interest in my life then.  Sometimes it was a telephone.

In those days a telephone was something of a marvel and not so many houses had one.  Our number at the local exchange was 45.  The exchange was attended by a young woman who served also as a general source of information, for example if you wanted to call Mrs. Luff, she would be able to tell you that Mrs. Luff was at that moment at the chemist’s and would you like her to put you through to that shop?

Our cat caught a dragonfly.  I was upset because the dragonfly was a large, multi-coloured insect of great beauty and possessing spectacular flying abilities, in addition to making a distinct rustling sound with its wings..  Yet I admired and was in fact really amazed at the cat’s quickness at snatching the dragonfly out of the air as it flew swiftly over just within reach of the cat’s paw, and considered ruefully that I was unable to do that.

At the age of five, my mother, father, sister, Simon my mother’s dog and sister's Scotch terrier (that never got a proper name) and I travelled by car from our home in Somerset to the lake district in Westmorland.  We stopped on the way and spent the night in a hotel in Kendal. I think it was near where the Brewery Arts Centre was later created, and there was then a patch of rough grassy ground outside, where I played.  On the hotel’s gramophone, my sister played some records of the music from the musical comedy “The White Horse Inn”, and I experienced the effect that music sometimes had on me, enabling me to feel the atmosphere of the place (I suppose, in the mind of the composer at the time.)  I still remember the melody.  This effect has always seemed important to me and accounted for much of music’s charm.

A day or two later, when we were ensconced in the farm house at Watendlath, a hamlet by a little tarn south of Derwentwater, my (half) brother Claude appeared on the scene, on leave from his work in India.  He approached me as I was playing in the stream there, and asked me if I had a boat to sail on the water.  “No,” I replied. “You have now!” says he, producing one from behind his back.  Of my four half brothers and sisters, Claude was the only one who paid much attention to me.  When he came home on leave he usually bought a flying model aeroplane, taking me out with him into the local fields to fly it, and when he returned to India he left it for me to play with, which I appreciated very much.  Alas, Claude died in North Africa, a casualty of war, six years later.

At school very early on, other boys pinned me up against a wall and threw stones at me.  I had no idea how to defend myself, as I had never before come up against aggressiveness.  I had no inner resources for this kind of situation, I felt forced to admit to them that I was no good, and felt bad about that.  In fact it became a lifelong habit of mine to back down in the face of confrontation or difficulties that I could not see how to solve.  On complaining to my mother, she had no useful suggestions; she was a defeatist and her only recourse was prayer, despite the fact that it seemed to do her (and me) no good.  She was religious, but like so many religious people her faith was weak, not to say non-existent; however, she loved me and I loved her.  I sometimes think that people who do not seem to need religion have enough faith in life to enable them to do without it, while those whose faith is lacking are forced to turn to a God so that they can feel supported.

When I was nearly seven my father sent me to King’s School, Bruton, two miles away by road.  It is a boarding school for most pupils, but for the first month or two I went as a day boy, my father taking me and fetching me back every day.  It had an elementary section, which was of course where I started.  My mother had already taught me to read; my first lesson was a Latin lesson.  No-one had told me there was such a thing as Latin; however, it wasn’t difficult and I still have a book given as a prize for Latin a year or two later.  I soon became accustomed to being at or near the top of the class except in matters of History, which I found incomprehensible, irrelevant  and dull.  The past meant little to me.  The school had a good library, and I read adventure stories like Rider Haggard’s “She” and “King Solomon’s Mines”, reference books on subjects such as British Butterflies and text books on science.

I must have been about fifteen when I took a silent fancy to a girl working in the grocery store in Evercreech where my mother often shopped.  She was probably a couple of  years older than me, I guess.  I was home for the holidays, and one evening I suddenly took the notion of walking the mile or more to Evercreech and seeing if she was around.  I had no definite plans, certainly I would never have asked anyone where she might be found, I don’t think I even knew her name and the shop was closed for the night.  I really couldn’t understand it myself why I thought it might be possible to see her.  Anyway, I walked to the village in the dark evening and past the shop where she worked.  A few yards further on I heard footsteps behind me, looked round and to my astonishment it was she, walking just a few yards behind me.  No one else was on the streets at that hour.  Of course I had no idea of how to approach her, and even wondered whether it would be advisable.  I was scared, so I continued walking until she had turned off somewhere and was no longer following me.  It was my first experience of the phenomenon of synchronicity, perhaps telepathy, and an early example of the many missed opportunities that have been scattered through my life over the years.

I suppose it must have been from the age of about eight that I found myself interested in the subject of punishment with a cane.  I had experienced this once when all five of us boys in one dormitory at school were finally caned by the normally very tolerant housemaster for persistently disobeying his order to give up talking late at night.  It was only a token punishment but served to shut us up for the time being.  This incident was not the beginning of this interest, it had been there for some years: where it came from and how it arose I don’t know, my parents never used any kind of punishment on me.  At school when I was about sixteen I got properly caned for ignoring many rules, the failure to attend church one Sunday morning was only the last straw and the Headmaster told me I needed “a sharp lesson.”  This sharp lesson having been administered, he shook my hand and said “You took that very well,” but in truth no bravery was needed, I was so surprised by the sudden unexpected turn of events and kind of anaesthetised mentally that it didn’t seem to hurt much, although examining myself immediately afterwards, the ridges of the welts could quite plainly be felt  and it was obviously not a token punishment but the real thing.  The marks remained visible for couple of weeks.

Experimenting upon myself, I realized the prosecution of this interest needed a partner.  My first wife Barbara was somewhat interested, and we played with the practice a little; we might have made more of it, but our relationship was not stable due to general ignorance and restlessness on my part and a rather strange, perhaps neurotic personality on her side.  Much later while married to my second wife (who had no interest in these games) I met a woman who needed what I wanted to offer and I gave her a quite severe caning.  A day or two afterwards she wrote requesting “more of the same”, but I was not in a position to offer any permanent relationship, and she found someone who was, so we didn’t meet again.  She was an intelligent, frank and courageous woman, though somewhat overweight, and I regretted the loss of her acquaintance.  A year or two later I became friends with a couple living not far away, they had recently started to discover the delights of this practice and I joined them on three occasions, they were younger than me and I had ideas for scenarios which they did not have.  I instructed the wife to write a story involving punishment and we played out the roles in that story, so that the wife got severely caned and strapped; she was tied down to the kitchen table for the occasion and we did not relent, however much she screamed.  .  This was evidently what she needed as she developed a sudden attachment to me, which I had warned them might happen before we started.  But the husband became insecure.  “Allegiances can alter,” I had said, even before we met; we had to give it up.

Power of words

When I reached the age of about sixty-five, my appreciation of poetry increased very noticeably.  Sometimes I would wake in the night with a half-remembered poem in my mind, and feel compelled to get up and look up the exact words.  Then, what is it exactly that gives certain arrangements of words a power to move the emotions beyond what would be expressed by the mere words?  How is it that this:

“Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing.”

                             is not just a simple question?  We can point to some interesting things: for example, the alliteration in the second line that makes your tongue wag up and down; the contrast in line lengths of the third and fourth lines; the choice of “knight-at-arms” to stir the imagination.  But I feel there is something more that gives it life, and that something is partly in me, not just in the poem.  It’s something to do with the interaction between the poet and myself, mediated by his gift of writing.

Not just poetry has this effect: reading Moby-Dick, I feel delight at the way Herman Melville has put the words together: the extraordinary originality of the writing, the wide vocabulary, some of it made up for the immediate purpose.  I sometimes wish I could write like that!

Why do these words:


Lay her i' the earth;
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.”

                                    bring tears to my eyes?

And why is this:               

   The winter evening settles down
                With smell of steaks in passageways.
   Six o’clock.
   The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
   And now a gusty shower wraps
   The grimy scraps
   Of withered leaves about your feet
   And newspapers from vacant lots;
   The showers beat
   On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
   And at the corner of the street
   A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

   And then the lighting of the lamps.

                                                   so intensely evocative?  Why do I feel I have really been to that city and walked those dirty streets on a wet, windy winter evening?


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