Wednesday, September 26, 2012
When reviewing a book as well known as Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, there is little point in wasting time describing plot and characters. So much has already been written about this masterpiece that only a broad outline is needed. Heart Of Darkness is a tale told by a seaman to his fellow crew members while their ship is anchored in the Thames Estuary. Marlow, a veteran of the sea, relates the story of a job he once had when he was required to navigate a great river in Africa in a steamboat to find a man called Kurtz. He – and Kurtz were dealing with a company that traded in and out of Africa, darkest Africa, as it was then often called.
As ever with great literature, it is not what happens that matters. How things develop and how they are related is always the key, and Marlow, whose voice delivers almost all of the book’s narrative, is not afraid of expressing opinion or offering interpretation alongside events. So subtle is Joseph Conrad’s character, however, that the reader never feels that ideas are being hurled from the text. Throughout we are invited to share Marlow’s world and world view in the same way that those imagined listening seamen share his story. We are never cajoled or commanded. The writer never uses the character merely to pontificate.
The darkness at the heart of the book is multi-faceted. Yes, obviously, it is the dark continent that Africa represents in the received values of the time that lies at the centre of the story. Yes, the darkness also represents the dark-skinned people who inhabited the place. One thing the modern reader must be prepared for is Conrad’s use of language, especially terms that would not today be tolerated. But Conrad’s language is already more than a century old, and sometimes things change.
On the other hand, another heart of darkness for Conrad was clearly the exploitative relationships that fostered and perpetuated colonialism. At the time, such a position would have run contrary to received assumptions. It is interesting to note that this aspect of darkness at the heart is mentioned at the outset, before the story has migrated to Africa, while we are still within sight of the heart of the Empire. There is another darkness, also, at the heart of human relationships. Sometimes people need protecting from the truth, it seems. Sometimes a little lie preserves a myth whose destruction would not help anyone who accepts its truth.
What makes Heart Of Darkness a masterpiece is that its messages manage to be both universal and timeless, despite its clear foundation at the nineteenth century. They go to the heart of how human beings interact, both as individuals and as groups. They examine motive, allegiance and self-interest. They epitomise our inter-dependence, the necessity to co-operate, but they also identify and describe an equally essential need to compete, to assert individualism, to survive, sometimes at another’s expense.
At the heart of the novel, also, is the very experience of story telling. It is not just what Marlow relates to his companions that maintains our and apparently their interest: it is also how he tells the tale and how he offers interpretation of his feelings. Like Marlow himself, we are wiser for having relived the experience. And just like the unnamed listener who ostensibly wrote down Marlow’s story, we remain spellbound by every word of this masterpiece.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Anglo-Saxon Britain by Grant Allen is a book that now comes free via Amazon Kindle, so there is absolutely no excuse for not reading it, especially when such editions can be downloaded to and read from an ordinary personal computer, at zero cost and complete convenience. This is not an advertisement, except, of course, for the book.
Anglo-Saxon Britain ought to compulsory reading for all narrow-minded nationalists, Little Englanders, British national types, English leaguers and any other set of racial purity head-bangers, plus absolutely anyone who might even suggest that isolationism is either beneficial for or a natural state of the English. Anglo-Saxon Britain is not a new book, and hence does not cover any aspects of ethnology that have been developed since the arrival of DNA analysis. Anglo-Saxon Britain is thus an old-fashioned review and analysis of available historical documents and sources. But, in a succinct and wonderfully readable form, it succeeds in summarising the issue’s complexity and communicating a beautifully rounded picture of a thoroughly complicated reality.
The English - and their Saxon and Jutish cousins – were, of course, invaders, originating in what we now call Germany, Denmark and Holland. What they brought to a Romanised, at least in part already Christian and largely unified land was barbarism, paganism and continual warfare. What they also brought with them – or at least the Angels did – was their language, a form of low German with gendered nouns that had case endings and verbs that declined into multiple forms But the general structure of that language endured, endured as its complexities of form gradually disappeared whilst its complexity of potential nuance grew. Its vocabulary welcomed successive waves of foreign invaders and its aesthetic adopted the more civilised ways of other foreigners from southern Europe.
The Danes also deserve a mention, of course, since they ruled most of what we now call England for much of the Anglo-Saxon period. And the Welsh and Celts, indigenous people, but only in a relative sense, were not only subjugated but contributed in their own way to the wholly complicated and, frankly mixed up, gene pool through inter-marriage. The point is made repeatedly that perhaps the most English – as far as the original form and sound of the language is concerned – is still spoken by the Lothians of modern-day Scotland, since the Angel settlers there were the least affected by subsequent waves of invasion.
What we do know about the English – very little, it has to be said, since they wrote down almost nothing about themselves – is that they rarely cooperated, except at the tribal or clan level, constantly bickered and argued, regularly fought one another and spent very little time on more civilised pursuits. At least some things have endured.
Anglo-Saxon Britain by Grant Allen does not trade any myths. It presents a learned, well researched and referenced account of the politics, the conflicts, the culture and language of the early English. It reminds us that the last English person to occupy the English throne was Harold in 1066 and he succumbed to an immigrant from continental Europe who moved in and made the place his own, perhaps improving it along the way. The book is superbly entertaining as well as informative, erudite and learned, but also lean, stimulating and succinct. Its sections on the language, alone, render it essential reading for anyone who is the least bit interested in English or the English.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
We’ve been here a couple of weeks… - Don buys Cornish pasties, relives a holiday, remembers friends and nights out in Bromaton.
We’ve been here a couple of weeks now. We are starting to settle in. I have even tried out some Spanish. There’s a shop up the road that sells English foods, so I walked up to get us a snack. I crossed the road at the zebra by the camp site entrance. Why do I call it a zebra when it’s red and white? And whatever happened to pelicans? There was a dirty great BMW coming straight down the middle of the road at twenty ks. I thought I’d stand aside and let my social better go first, but, fucus me, the guy stopped! I nearly dropped through the floor. As I walked across, I offered a display of gratitude. I turned to face the driver and mouthed a very clear, Hylda Baker-style lip mime of “Gracias”, making sure to stress, silently, the “th” in the middle. “Thome Thpaniards thay s,” said my phrase book. “Grathias,” I mimed. The driver was clearly taken aback. “Danke schön. Ich bin Schweiss,” he said through the open window. At least that’s what I thought he said, but it could just have been, “Du bist scheiss,” but I don’t think so.
Further up on the left there’s a bar. We used to go there regularly when we came here on holiday. It was the karaoke that we went for. There’s nothing like a good sing-along. I remember the whole place striking up to a few old favourites. There was one year when there were about twenty of us, all from Kiddington, who had arranged to come over the same fortnight. We used to get together and sing every evening. It was just like being back home in the Working Men’s Club. It was a great sight to see everyone singing Country Roads because we all knew the words. I can hear it now. “Take me home - To the place I love - To the place I know - West Virginia …” It was marvellous. One spoilsport stood up and left, saying that Kiddington was in West Yorkshire, not West Virginia, the archeopteryx. I wonder now if he had a point.
We got to know all the waiters really well. They used to greet us by name when we arrived for our evening drink. “Hola, Mr Don” or “Hola, Don Don” they used to say. One of them was a bit of a joker and for him it became “Hola, Don Burro” because we had told him about my nickname. He sometimes called me “Pedo viejo aburrido”, but I never did get the hang of that. Perhaps he was suggesting we ought to pay.
I called in this morning to see if there was anyone I knew, but the place has clearly changed hands. It’s been done out as an American theme bar. It’s not American and has no theme, just black walls, ultraviolet lights, a few mirrors and Heavy Metal to ring the ears. The new owner was sweeping up last night’s fag ends so I said, “Buenos días. Soy Don Burro. Bebo aquí.”
He looked confused. “Shoukhran,” he said. “Je suis de Maroc. You want internet?” I wish I understood - not to mention a Muslim bar owner... I left.
The Brit food place was just a bit further down the road. I always thought that L147, Modern European Languages, Their Development, Structure, Grammar And Context, would stand me in good stead in the era of pan-European integration, and now, in my new life, I have the opportunity to put my learned skills into action. Inside the shop I pointed in my best Spanish at the display and said, proudly, “Dos Cornish Pasty Sabor Pollo Tikka Massala Tradicional, por favor.”
I was initially gratified when the assistant did precisely what I asked. He then paused, my paper bag lunch suspended delicately between his sausage-like middle finger and thumb, the fingers of his left hand anticipating the microwave door release button. “D’yer wan ‘em warm, mate?” he asked in broadest Scouse.
“No,” I replied, keeping my Spanish accent.
It was only just after eleven so I decided to take a nostalgic detour. The pasties, after all, were for lunch, so I had at least an hour. I carried on towards the sea. It’s not too busy at the moment, probably because the schools aren’t on holiday yet, so all the travelling teachers are still at work.
As I walked past Benidorm Palace, I couldn’t help recalling the first time Suzie and I went there. It was quite soon after it opened, about thirty years ago. It’s changed a lot since then, but only on the outside. The show is probably the same. You can bank on lots of colour, well known songs, a plate-sized steak and a good night out with bare breasts, though men have to wear ties. It reminds me a lot of the famous Variety Club in Bromaton. It was built in the sixties next to Bromaton Quartet football ground. It opened in a blaze of highly selective celebrity glory with a jazz week. It was the era, of course, when BBC2 used to run live jazz prime time in the evenings, not because it was popular but because it was a fulfilment of a public service to an identifiable minority taste. Quaint, wasn’t it? We covered the development of the idea in S282 Post-War Public Service Broadcasting Ideals In Western European Democracies, contrasting it with the headlong pursuit of the lowest common denominator that emerged during the seventies and eighties. The history of the Variety Club anticipated the change. After its opening jazz, it concentrated on Sunday Night at the Palladium acts, the brand of variety that could sing or comic a star turn on television, relying heavily on names well known for their endorsement of cat food, carpets, car insurance or yogurt. I retract the last in the list because we had never heard of yogurt at the time.
It did well for a few years. Suzie and I used to go there regularly, as did a number of people from Kiddington. It was only a few miles away and it was on the bus route to Bromaton. People would save up so they could go out for a night of class every few weeks. While Reg with his organ used to fill in the gaps between the bingo in the Working Men’s Club, we used to sit with friends and compare lists of the star turns we had seen at the Variety Club. They did a special night on Sundays, with the acts, prawn cocktail, chicken in a basket and apple pie with custard for a fiver. In those days, of course, a fiver was a fiver. It was a tidy sum, a hundred shillings, or even one thousand two hundred pence in an era when a Penny Arrow actually cost a penny, before, that is, it got so small they had to change its name, because it had become too short to be called an arrow. But you didn’t get to eat your Penny Arrow watching Dickie Henderson, Vince Hill or Daisy May which is why the Variety Club cost a fiver. I can even remember speculating with my dad what kind of car each star might drive. We had to wait two hours by the stage door until Dickie Henderson came out. It was an Aston Martin. Class act.
But it was that holiday in 1981, the year of our first trip to Benidorm Palace, when Mick Watson reappeared in our lives yet again. I should rephrase that because he had already reappeared in Suzie’s life at least once per night that week. It was in one of those sophisticated cubicles that Suzie leaned across to shout in my ear, “I’m not going home.” Though the music was loud, Pete Crawshaw and his missus, Paula, both heard, though they did their best to convince us that they were still listening to the turn who was blasting out My Way at volume, with all the sincerity of a Sinatra. We had booked the table at the start of the week, some days before we had all stopped speaking to one another. I still think it was all Dulcie’s fault. She has always been a rebel, always tried to manipulate. She had started the minute we left home. She told me one thing, and then asked Suzie for the opposite. Thus we argued while she retreated to childhood’s safe ground to watch. We’d only reached the Tuesday when I left a Benidorm club early to take a sulking daughter back to the hotel, leaving Suzie at the mercy of a certain Mick Watson, whom we knew had taken over bar management in the establishment.
By then, of course, we had already been here on holiday several times. We knew the ropes; we knew the clubs and the bars. We had also come across Mick Watson in a different role, as the manager of The Dog’s on Calle Lepanto. But the place was changing fast in a way that Kiddington was not. And by 1981, he had moved on from his little shop-front pub in the Europa Centre and had become a bar manager in a club. His star seemed to be on the rise. Perhaps that’s why Suzie wanted to stay. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was that fulgurant Mick Watson’s smooth talk. For a second time, he promised her the earth. It was twenty years since our first visit to beautiful Benidorm, a place we had always associated with easy-going sophistication. And then, that evening, it became a black hole of despair for one Donkey Cottee, an end to life with the stunning Suzie. It had been so different that first time, back in the sixties.
They were years of change. We were convinced we had achieved a level of sophistication unknown in human history. We had mass media, record players, the Beatles, television soaps, cars and Cyril Lord carpets. We had even started to put green peppers into salads. We had already been abroad on holiday, and had our minds broadened enough for people like Suzie, my dearest wife, to wear a poncho as an everyday garment. It was, of course, a relationship of convenience, begun during our very first visit to Benidorm’s golden sands courtesy of Suzie’s parents, near the start of that swinging decade.
We were still scratting for a living even at the end of the sixties, mind you. Suzie and I were all right because I had a trade, or at least the start of one. But many of those who had been branded secondary and modern left school at fifteen with neither paper in hand nor knowledge in head. Pete Crawshaw was one such product of post-war British educational enlightenment. He had already worked through a handful of bit jobs when he landed a waiter’s job at the Variety Club, a position he thought would be a good earner. If people paid a fiver for their Variety Club chicken in a basket, what might the tips be?
We were still on good terms, despite having gone our separated educational ways at eleven. Pete had been a labourer for me for a few months after he got the boot from Empire Metals, where he had been packing brass right angles into wholesale-trade plain cardboard boxes. So when he got the waiter’s job at the Bromaton Variety Club, we had a few pints of Tetley’s to celebrate. I can remember saying, “Thanks for the pint, Pete. It’s the first time I have known your wallet come out without its padlock.”
“It’s all changed now, Don,” he said. And we both bolted half a pint in the next gulp. We said little else.
It took only a few weeks for the story to change. He invited me out again. This time, as usual, I paid.
“I’ve had a run in at work,” he said. I can remember his gloom. There was a white foam line of ale head across his upper lip. I remember thinking his face looked as long as Charlie Carolie’s.
“I’ll get my pointed hat and saxophone,” I said, pointing politely at my own mouth.
“I’m serious,” he said, wiping away the fast popping bubbles with the back of his free hand. “I don’t think it can last. It’s a matter of principle.”
“Pete, I’m that surprised I have precisely one hair standing on end,” I thought. “So what’s gone off?” I asked, intentionally referring specifically to the Variety Club’s food.
“Trouble at t’mill,” he said.
“Sprocket’s dropped off t’mainbrace, then?”
“Aye, summat like that…”
I was willing him to be more forthcoming, but I took my time. I knew Pete had some of the characteristics of my own granddad, to whom he was distantly related by marriage. The old chap could make a ten minute speech with eight words. And Pete, like many Kiddington lads, measured his emotional intensity in pints. It was three later that the floodgates opened.
“The boss has got it in for me.”
“What have you done, lad?”
“It was a prawn cocktail. I took it back to the kitchen.”
“My God! For whatever reason?”
“There were no prawns in it.”
I remember contemplating the scenario. Here’s a punter that’s paid a good, sweat-earned fiver for a night out to see Harry Secombe. The plumbeous proplasm of supporting acts is currently playing to chattering indifference. And so, no doubt doing their utmost to ignore the palmyric phenomenology of the material, they tuck into their five quid’s worth of locally up-market menu, specialities by resident chef Gordon Bloo. With mouths slobbering at the anticipation of chicken in a basket, the perfunctory starter, the prawn cocktail, arrives. Pete Crawshaw, the proud, employed waiter, himself slobbering at the promise of tips, delivers the pink and green concoction, as it streaks its way down the inside of a wine glass, a glass that will look completely out of place next to the pint jars on the table. A minute later, the unsuspecting Pete is called back.
“’Ere, there’s no deleterious prawns in this endocrine cocktail. It’s just a few strips of stentorian lettuce and a spoon of frangible pink sauce!”
“So I took them back to the kitchen,” said Pete after another deep swig of Tetley’s had gone part way to alleviating his obvious despair. “That’s when the boss went for me. ‘Don’t neo-platonically tell me that there’s no deleterious prawns in the endocrine prawn cocktails, you leukopotomous squirt! It’s the meretricious new house rules now! The owners say they can’t nomothetically afford any more deleterious prawns. The parsimonious place is losing money! And you are paid to serve the detritus, not comment on its flaming validity! Now take the pre-Cambrian things back and tell the artichokes what I’ve said. Tell ‘em to eat what they’re blunging given!’” Pete took another swig of Tetley’s to lubricate his vocal chords. The last time he spoke so long at one go was probably saying the Lord’s Prayer in primary school assembly. “It’s not going to last, Don.”
And then, more than a decade after our advice session in the pub, there we were in 1981, communally experiencing the new international tourist attraction, the Benidorm Palace, an imitation surely not of the Moulin Rouge or Folies Bergère, but of Bromaton Variety Club and its celebrity prawnless prawn cocktails. We were having a holiday together. But Dulcie had been a pain in the tintinnabulation all week, moaning about the food, saying she was bored, getting the runs and then sulking in her room. Suzie had spent more time with Mick Watson than with me, despite the fact that we didn’t even run into him in his new bar at the Rincon end until the Tuesday afternoon. We had fallen out with Pete and Paula, because they wanted to do things together and the Cottees couldn’t be assembled. And, to put the Dutch cap on opportunity, Suzie announces that she is not going home. I had made things up with Pete and Paula by the end of the following week. With Suzie it took longer. If only Suzie and I had turned around out of shoat creek as quickly. As I passed The Palace this morning, drifting, I began to hum ‘Memories are made of this.’
At first sight, The Quality Of Mercy by Barry Unsworth might appear to be a sequel. Sacred Hunger, the novel that won the author the Booker Prize, is a vast and highly moving tale about the slave trade. The Quality Of Mercy continues some of the loose ends that Sacred Hunger left, but it goes far beyond being a mere adjunct to its larger predecessor. The Quality Of Mercy makes its own points, just as significant as those of Sacred Hunger, but its form is more succinct and, in some ways, its message is more telling.
As ever with Barry Unsworth, the novel goes far beyond mere story, describes much more than the countable events that befall its characters. In Sacred Hunger, the focus was a mercantilist venture in the inhumane human trade of the eighteenth century. It was the history, its veracity, its credibility, its rawness and ultimately unacceptable reality that shone through and rendered the book a completely satisfying experience both as a narrative and as an intellectual experience.
In The Quality Of Mercy, Barry Unsworth continues the tale of the Liverpool Merchant, the ship that made Sacred Hunger’s voyage in the triangular trade. But it is more than a decade since the endeavour came to its unfortunate end and Erasmus Kemp, son of the venture capitalist whose dreams of profit proved no more substantial than a pending insurance claim, is pursuing an action against a gang of mutineers from the ship who still languish in a London jail. He is also pursuing the insurance claim, the outcome of which depends in part on how the crewmen’s mutiny is seen.
The Ashtons are brother and sister and, for their own reasons, support the abolition of slavery. One of the hand-clapping surprises of reading Barry Unsworth is his ability to interpret the history associated with his plots. There is no mere plod through events as they unfold. Neither is there cheap sensationalism derived from overstatement. What Barry Unsworth achieves is a rounded picture of issues that incorporates the complications, contexts and nuances of a debate that are often lost in summary accounts. And he always manages to achieve this with elegance, wit and considerable beauty. Abolitionists, you see, were not all liberals campaigning for human rights and concepts of freedom. Politics have always been more complex than that. Read the book to understand the nuances.
Well, the Ashtons oppose Kemp, at least the brother does. The sister, Jane, eventually makes liaisons of her own with Erasmus Kemp. His anticipation of willing enslavement by her prompts the delamation of some rather uncharacteristic promises of the kind that men are prone to make when presented with opportunity.
There is the case of Evans, who in theory has been manumitted and thus rendered a free man, but whose former owners still regard as their property to sell. There is Sullivan, an Irish fiddler from the Liverpool Merchant, who breaks out of prison to fulfil a promise to a deceased crew member that he would contact his family to tell of his fate. That family lives in Durham and work in the mines, work in a domestic slavery from the age of seven, the dark underground galleys of the mine reminding us directly of the below deck cargo hold of the ocean-going slaver. Then there is the mine’s owner, a landowner and a Lord, no less, who lives in a state of permanent debt, more interested in trinkets than lives. And then there is the dawn of capitalism in the form of the nouveau-riche Kemp’s intended purchase and reform of the Lord’s mines, a proposal characterised by notions of technological innovation, increased efficiency and projected profit. A little piece of previously unwanted land might hold all kinds of keys.
The Quality Of Mercy is thus much more than an historical novel. It is also much more than a tale of slavery and emerging capitalism. It is more than mutiny aboard ship and revenge via the Law. It is also much more than an essay o social class relations at the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. It is no less than a Barry Unsworth novel and therefore simultaneously emotional and intellectual, a rounded and completely satisfying experience for the reader. But it is a complex book about complex issues. Expect to be challenged.
Monday, September 17, 2012
In E283, Lexicography… - Don discusses language and the art of the blog, he examines the linguistic skills of his heritage and declares his project.
In E283, Lexicography, Etymology And Dictionary Editing Skills For Social Scientists, I encountered words I never imagined. The day I understood leukopotomy I laughed out loud. It was a question on Brain Of Britain on Radio Four. I was an addict of the show, not because I could answer the questions, but because I couldn’t - not even one. It was still an era when the working classes aspired to knowledge, rather than despised it. Suzie and I were in Dorset at the time, on a camp site near the Cerne Giant. Leukophallustry sprang to mind. When wouldn’t it? I would like to make it my contribution to the language, given the context, alluding of course to the Cerne Giant, not the CERN giant, which came in Physics P333, Sub-Atomic Mekon Layers For The Dan-Daring, and provided its own potential. I mention E283 because I learned, via its hypercatalectic stupefacient word lists some absolutely metonymic adjectives.
Now in the etiquette of the blogosphere, I am learning fast, there are e-words and non-e-words. In the south of England, so I am informed, there are u-words and non-u-words. Northerners always inhabit the latter category, and, as a northerner, I never really understood the term, apart from it possessing about the same meaninglessness as describing something, brainlessly, as cool, or not cool. All I know is that it was a mechanism for exclusion, an in-word for defining something on the inside or outside of shared assumptions that I did not share.
So the internet has e-words and non-e-words, meaning that you can’t swear. You can write expletive, but you can’t write an expletive. I came close in my first entry to being moderated. This apparently threatening process merely means being edited, though not in the way that Charles The First was edited. Featherstone U. Klondike is his name and he moderates. He reads all the entries, including all three hundred ‘Ten Ways To Achieve Self-Realisation Through Diet Reconstruction’ that appear to be lodged on the site every week. He locates and scrubs out all the non-e-words. And good old Featherstone sent me a message after my first post, saying politely that bugger and arse are non-e, but since they weren’t too offensive he’d let them through just this once. But, he said - and don’t spell that with a double t - don’t do it again.
Now where I come from adjectival skills are not highly developed. The nouns and the verbs are pretty thin, as well. Most men in Kiddington only ever use one adjective, and that in the non-e gerund. But for the purposes of my project, I need to capture the flavour. I’m a Kiddington lad, you see, but now I am translated into Spain. From here, from afar, I can see my life and my culture anew, long-sight-clarified through a previous blur of myopia. I want to examine its newly revealed detail, awareness of which escaped me at the time. And this blog is my medium, the carrier of my message.
If, via these blog entries, I am to examine the identity, character, values and beliefs of my compatriots, I have to apply authenticity. If, armed with my newly confirmed academic status, I am to analyse my origins to make sense of how I finished up in a mobile home on a Benidorm camp site, I need to use the odd expletive, if only to add local colour. But expletives are non-e and will incur moderation, so achieving consistent e-status thus constitutes a challenge.
I could invent a word, of course. Indeed, I already have one. As a child I used to annoy my mother by employing an adjective derived from blood, and it wasn’t sanguine. She got so sick of telling me off she suggested a compromise. I could say sanguine as much as I liked, as long as it sounded different. So she made up a word especially for me. She said, whenever I felt like saying sanguine, I should say ‘slodidonty’. It was a pretty word. I liked it.
“What are you doing with that Lone Ranger replica Colt 45?” she might ask.
“The slodidonty thing’s bust,” I could now reply.
I grew out of it.
So I could use my word in these blogs, but you would grow out of it quicker than I did. And if too many slodidonties gummed up Featherstone U. Klondike’s grammar checker, I might get moderated anyway, thus defeating the object of using its absurdity.
An alternative approach has already been used. I could employ some suitably acceptable word, such as adjectival, and curse merrily away. “Stuff this adjectival bus shelter,” I hear the lad say, as he kicks out the bottom panel on the left. But it lacks colour. It has also been done before in a fictitious account of a real life. As Donald Cottee, blogger, I should distance myself from such an approach to ensure no reality muscles its way into my fiction.
My solution is to employ my E283 skills. Why did I do the adjectival course in the first place? To use it, of course. So whenever I need to say something colourful, I am going to employ a colourful adjective, or even a noun or verb occasionally. By colourful, I mean something you wouldn’t expect to write on a shopping list or use in polite conversation outside of a university. Pseudohermaphrodite might be an example. So I can have my young lad say, “Stuff this pseudohermaphrodite bus shelter” as a prelude to booting out the ill-secured lower panel. I can use my skills, get my meaning across, keep things varied, remain thoroughly e, and still get past Featherstone U. Klondike’s solipsistic grammar checker. You, my reader, can then substitute what I intended. Problem solved.
So what is my project? Well, it’s partly a chronicle and partly a history. The first aim is quite a pastime these days. We have Brits moving to France, Brits moving to Spain, Brits moving to Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Dubai and wherever, anywhere but Britain. They all tell their stories to the folks back home. We have intimate detail of how they grew their first olive, how the ceilings fell in, how the local attorneys rip you off, about the first time they really enjoyed sardines, about how many things you can do with a clove of garlic and about how you can use gunpowder to cure baldness. In this aspect of my quest, I accept the clichéd status to which I aspire. I’m from a mining village in Yorkshire, for God’s sake! What do you expect, imagination? But the second part of my agenda is what makes my project different. This will be more than a diary, more than a travelogue, and more than a renovation project. It will examine, from an academic viewpoint, precisely what Suzie and I have left behind. We aren’t here just for the weather and the wine. We’re here, in part, because our origins decayed to free us. Our roots were so secure, at one time, that you couldn’t have pulled us out of Kiddington soil with a JCB. At sixty-four, I was wafted abroad by a breeze. The question is, why?
There is a third, and more nebulous goal, a goal that can be realised merely by the very existence of this blog. Since the invention of writing, the promulgation of ideas has been the privilege of the few. Entitlement in publication, if I might mix disciplines, has always favoured the resourced. Either your face fit, or your wallet did - or whatever you used to carry around your readies in the era of The Epic Of Gilgamesh. With the rise of the internet, this has changed, and I intend to be one of the first to place a permanent text in this new era, which I will label the “phenomenological phenomenon”, or pp for short. Quietly, the common man’s voice (sorry, pc), the common person’s voice is now being heard. Never before in the history of humankind has the ordinary person been able to promulgate. How would history have judged Alexander The Great if those conquered could have blogged about their experience? And what about those raised from the dead by certain miracle workers? Would they have blogged? Just imagine: “Fell asleep after too much unleavened bread for lunch. Hysterical father pulls tramp off the street to try and wake me, because now that I am obviously pubescent he won’t come within five cubits of me. Tramp sits on my bed, shakes it and wakes me up. Father declares it a miracle and offers a shekel to get rid of him and his mates.” Yes, they would have blogged, and in the pp era, they can. Vox pop will thus explode myths, or merely create them, like it has always done.
For the first time in human history, the ordinary person has a say, at least that’s what we learned in Media M101, Althusser, Derrida, Post-Modernism: An Introduction To Neo-Marxist Analysis Of Soap Opera. It’s a partial viewpoint, of course, but no more partial than those who published in the past. A search for Donald Cottee, in the era of pp, produces results. In all previous eras, these people would have died unknown, and remained so, their contributions eternally unrecognised. The information age has thus changed everything. It allows the claiming of previously privileged territory by the common person, and I can now seek my own immortality via its free space.
Back in Kiddington we have the lad who kicked in the expletive bus shelter. I watched him just a few weeks ago. The shelter is by the church, a dark stone structure built by miners who gave their labour for free. That was just over a century ago. Across the road is the cemetery, where many of the poor archimandrites are buried, their headstones removed a generation ago when the place was tidied up by a council worker with an excavator, an act that afforded them the eternal anonymity that was the birthright of their era. Across the fields beyond, clearly visible from the bus shelter, is where Kiddington Colliery used to stand, the apparently permanent institution that absorbed miners’ labour, encrusted their lungs, made their livelihoods and took their lives. It was also tidied up, demolished, in fact, smoothed over and grassed, because a certain government decreed that our nation no longer needed a coal industry. Energy prices rose and British Coal, now predominantly not British, has moved back in to skim off the grass and topsoil to open-cast what’s left of the saliferous spoils. Crepusculate the stuff that’s still underground.
So when I watch this lad, this specimen of Kiddington’s future, walk under the shade of the church bus shelter, I have parallel stories in mind. I watch him as he starts to poke a Doc Marten toe at the bottom panel. In my mind’s eye, I see a permed lady fixing on a target, a summary symbol of what she wants to destroy. I see a lad start to kick hard until the panel breaks away and flaps loose. I see the woman’s plan go into operation. The hired assassin hits his first targets. I see the boot smash the panel. I see a war waged by a government against its own people. “They should make ‘em better, my dad says. You can just kick them to bits,” says the lad. “It’s cheaper to buy it from Poland. Dimorphicise the ocelots,” said the government. Put the boot in.
Friday, September 14, 2012
A Song For Nemesis by Len Harper will appeal to any reader who likes a book to be action-packed and driven by an explicit and largely linear plot that occupies the narrative focus and, apparently, the entire psyches of most of the characters. Written in the style of its genre, A Song For Nemesis is effectively a screenplay that has been filmed Hollywood-style. The plot is revealed largely through dialogue between pairs of characters, with occasional musings offering background and interpretation that operate rather like incidental music. This stylistic device could be a weakness – and usually is – but in the case of A Song For Nemesis by Len Harper, it subtly enhances the plot, since the book’s principal character, Enriqué, is a film maker pursuing his craft.
In all books of this genre, any summary of the plot’s content becomes a spoiler, since finding out what happens is the main reason for reading the book. But it is possible, without spoiling the plot, to mention some settings, contexts, themes and characters.
A Song For Nemesis opens in London, and much of the action is set in the west of that city. It starts near the Oval, visits Holland Park and goes as far afield as Hammersmith. Some people, it seems, have to keep on the move, because there are snipers with rifles and silenced handguns, plus road-rage drivers with powerful cars who mean business, applying their attentions mainly to Enriqué. It seems that the hit-men - or man, perhaps, because balaclavas can be changed - is none too competent, since the job seems to be beyond him. But, as the plot unfolds, we appreciate that there might be method in such incompetence, since mere madness might be the eventual motive. It might be Enriqué’s project that is the target, but is the aim to prevent it or, perversely, protect it?
The first event in A Song For Nemesis is Enriqué’s proposal to Lena, who just happens to be in a rock band. She is going to accept the offer, can’t wait, it seems, but first she has to do a gig. And at that gig a hit-man bursts onto the stage and brings the song to an abrupt end. The question is why? The answer may become clear towards the end of the book.
Enriqué is an interesting character, who surely would have been more interesting had we got to know him better. He is an émigré - perhaps refugee? - from El Salvador. He is also a film maker and a competent one, who likes to lace his entertainment with traces of meaning and significance. On an assignment in El Salvador he gets shot. A kitchen knife doused in a disinfectant of moonshine digs out the bullet. The blade is handled by Senica - pronounced Seneeca - with such aplomb that the wound seems to heal in no time at all. Cutting someone’s arm to bits, it seems, is a real come on, because Enriqué and Senica bond, with the lady eventually playing a virtually non-speaking role in that crucial film that the director is making.
If a murder and an international conflict characterised by terrorism and guerrilla warfare were not enough, these characters also have to deal with an international conspiracy. Yes, there’s a secret society that is so secret that the whole world seems to know about it, right down to its origins in central Asia, the brainchild of a descendent of Genghis Khan, no less. There are capitalists whose corporations are associated with a covert drive for world government, making a change from global domination, though in the end it may amount to the same thing. There is an upper crust family in Oxfordshire, whose generations look down from wall portraits to haunt the living heirs. They have their Damascus moment, but it happens in Oxford, though they do have a flat in London, as well. There is an elderly magnate in the United States, a curiously ambivalent figure who has some even more curious employees, and a landed aristocrat with generations of ancient lineage in Switzerland… But this is all getting very close to the substance of plot and plotting, of which there is much.
El Salvadorean émigré Enriqué eventually makes his film, and its revelations prove immediately significant. But what the film is about and what transpires along the way will only be revealed if you read A Song For Nemesis by Len Harper.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor is a novel with such a strong sense of place that it is hard not read it with a consciously-applied west of Ireland accent. The sounds seem to fit so perfectly.
The book is the story of Lucy, her immediate family and their acquaintances. At the start Lucy is barely past the toddler stage, but she is a headstrong and independently-minded young girl who does not want to leave Lahardane, where she and her family seem to belong. Lahardane is a house an farm near Enniseala in Ireland. The problem is that her parents, Captain Everard and Heloise, have foreign, even English connections. The story begins in nineteen twenty-one, a time of revolution and change in Ireland and there are some who now are not as welcoming as they once were. There has already been an incident when Captain Everard shot and wounded a young man, believing that he and his friends had come to the house with an intention to do harm beyond petty theft. The time is right to leave the place, the couple conclude.
But Lucy is of this place. She has known nowhere else. She cannot contemplate such a change. But she is young. She will soon learn, soon forget, no matter how strongly she feels that her very existence is entwined with this place, this country, the sea, this community and its people she knows so well.
What separates Lucy from her parents might stretch the imagination of some readers, but it remains both possible and credible. In an era where individuals stay permanently connected as they roam, it might be hard to imagine an age when people are not just off the radar – partly because that had not even been invented then! – when they remain both impossible to locate and impossible to contact. If one separated party did not know the other’s whereabouts, then the same was true the other way round. And if someone decided to cut with the past and start afresh, then they were separated from their former life for good, as long as they wanted to stay that way. But not in this novel…
Everard and Heloise are clearly quite wealthy people. They can do their own thing, virtually wherever they want. In the first half of the twentieth century, their desire to wander did not entertain anything outside of Europe, but that provided sufficient scope to satisfy their needs. Thus they meander into new lives, pursued by a sense of bereavement.
Lucy, on the other hand, got her way and stayed at Lahardane. She picked up an illness and an injury along the way, but one was quite soon cured and the other – well, the other became less significant as time passed, as did other considerations that were initially pressing. She grew up, loved a man, but dare not act on her feelings, since they were usually located elsewhere. She saw a war come and go, and perhaps did much the same with a life.
What happens to Lucy and her parents is fundamental to this book. But the main reason for reading it, and the main impression it creates, is its portrayal of west of Ireland life. Here are the conflicts, the supports, the tensions and the loyalties that characterised relations that remained, at the time, essentially colonial. There are issues of social class and the sustainability of livelihoods. Religion, of course, is never far from the agenda. But underpinning everything is a determination to survive, as individuals and as a community, to carry on despite everything that life and fate throw at you. Lucy does carry on, but in other ways her life stops when separation is understood, its overbearing reality never being accepted. She surely wants to realise her desires, but what are those desires? Does she allow herself the mental space to acknowledge them?
The Story of Lucy Gault is a hauntingly beautiful book. The writing is poetic, as well as crystal clear. The subject matter is murky, however, because this is a book about people who love one another, in their own, albeit detached ways.
Sunday, September 2, 2012
A search for Donald Cottee… - Don sets the scene by examining who he might be. He searches for himself without much success. He then introduces himself, comments on his lost education, discusses sheep and goats and goes back to school
A search for Donald Cottee in this information-rich, perhaps wisdom-neutral age reveals a wealth of potential identity. Like everyone with broadband, I regularly Google my name and even minor variants to see if I still exist. Browsing results carefully ordered for relevance I imagine possible identities, alter egos that one day I might be tempted to adopt.
I could be a black belt in taekwondo, bi-locating between California and Indiana. This version of Don Cottee is an active type, both younger and fitter than me. Alternatively, I might be the co-author of an Australian educational resource, no doubt enlightening for those who experience it, if, that is, experience has time to crystallise in an attention span trained by search engine response times. In another persona, I might even be involved in agriculture. But, despite pursuing a personal enlightenment in recent years, farming was not a discipline I explored. For Donald Cottee, perhaps, the life of a beef eater or indeed Beefeater might have appealed, but a beef farmer, no, since along West Lane in Kiddington I have lived close enough to the odour and ordure of husbandry to know they offer no attraction.
D. Cottee might be a specialist cleaner of carpets and rugs in Western Australia, no job too small or too large, contact me and I’ll quote. As a reader of these pages you will soon begin to appreciate how often I do quote! When I do, I will usually refer, as my recently acquired academic respectability now requires. Back in the search results, I might be a retired public works officer from New South Wales, rather than an ex-electrician from Old West Yorkshire’s coal mines. In that alternative guise, I might have facilitated bicycle usage, initiated bush-care projects and demonstrated simple ways to store water. He sounds a far worthier specimen than the village lad of my continuing and, as yet, unrealised aspiration.
As a lad, indeed, I might have played baseball in one Terre Haute American Little League, but I played rugby league and that none too well. The story of my sporting life deserved no Oscar nomination. Despite my origins down the pit, where players of the game reputedly bred, my time has been firmly on the spectators’ side, in that vast indefinable team that always turns up, never participates and never shares the victors’ pride, life being at best a temporal draw.
But the one I would dearly love to have been is the researcher, the Cottie D., who has achieved fame via the intricacies of bronchovascular downstream blood pressure changes in exercising sheep. I applaud the specificity of his achievement but personally I aspire to a broader landscape, wondering whether a single lifetime might suffice if one were to travel upstream as well. But I applaud his achievement of academic respect, perhaps the only kind of respect that is more than academic. Academe has, indeed, become a recent obsession of mine, but it was human society that formed my focus, not the insides of an animal’s gullet.
So if none of these is me, then who am I? At one level the answer is easy and already I recognise that I am stretching the etiquette of the blogosphere by not having introduced myself at the start. We can all have endless fun speculating on who we are not! I am Donald Cottee, usually Don. I am sixty-four years old. I am not losing my hair: it dropped out years ago. My wife, Suzie, is still my valentine and our newly-adopted Spanish residency has assured a copious supply of wine. I don’t stay out late, never did, though in future, and together, Suzie and I might try a little town painting in the local clubs. So no cottage in the Isle of Wight for Don and Suzie, and no grandchildren either, it seems. I can’t explain. Dulcie, our daughter, seems happy enough these days, though things maternal never really seemed her priority. But Rosie, our motor home in a Benidorm caravan park, is precisely what we wanted, our years of scrimp and save thus having borne enough fruit to juice up a few final years.
Suzie and I have been together, more or less, since our teens and she has never called me Donald, always Don, a title that here in Spain endows me with unexpected and undeserved kudos beyond imagination. Don is actually short for my nickname, my extra name, which Suzie coined. It was Eccles, in the dark cellar, who told Bluebottle that most people called him by his nickname. “What is it?” the lad asked. “Nick,” said Eccles. But mine is Don, short for Donkey, not Donald. To Suzie, I have always been a donkey. This hypocoristic label has nothing to do with an alliteration of Donald, or any loose consideration of homophone. It derives from my large, fleshy, usually shining, salivated lower lip. Suzie would see a donkey on the television, or a horse, hippo, moose, camel or llama for that matter, and pronounce with a mocking finger wag, “That’s you, Donkey.” Anything but a llama, I used to say. They have harelips. I did call foul at a similar reference applied to a rhino. I may often get horny, but my nose is a quite normal length, width and shape, firmly within one standard deviation of the mean for a man of my size and shape. And that, incidentally, is one metre seventy-eight in height and eighty-five kilos in weight. That’s five ten and thirteen stone five in real money.
You may have already noticed that I like to be accurate. My memory instinctively opts for precision on the grounds that its products may be needed one day. This tendency has landed me in trouble as often as it has been a saving grace. But years of accuracy and manual dexterity with my soldering iron, my insulation-stripping clippers and scrutiny of colour-banded resistors have fostered both accuracy and precision. Donkey does things right and in the right way, but no doubt the onrushing sloth of retirement will calm my over-active brain and teach it to let things pass. “That will be the day,” I can hear Suzie say.
Our latest pride, our trusty steed, is Rosie, our Swift Sundance, our motor home, now driven all the way from a Yorkshire village to a Benidorm plot. We’re hooked up to water and electricity, we have satellite television for the football and now, as of today, we are on-line, hence this, the first blog entry of a new era, Donkey Cottee’s blogosphere retirement. It’s no more hiking through the rain to the pub, no more dashing down to the chippy in the car, no more fighting along the aisles of Asda in the prefabricated retail park outside Bromaton. From now on it’s t-shirt and shorts, flip-flops, salad and wine, beach walks and blogging. Our trusty Rosie, our Swift Sundance, may be something of a rusty plodder, but a Sundance is what it promised and a dance in the sun is precisely what it has faithfully delivered. Nowadays the dance is of necessity a linearity of age rather than a twist of youth, though we still manage the occasional rock’n’roll, just for old times sake, even if it does leave the hips and knees grinding.
As a youth I was too eager to twist, rather than stick. It was a chequered childhood: I know that now. I knew it before I was twenty-five, but by then I was already bust, committed, even over-committed to the whirring and ever-speeding treadmill of consumerism’s cage. I was married - to Suzie, of course - and Dulcie was ready to start school. We needed more money, our aspired lifestyle demanded it. Like everyone, we wanted to be something different, someone else. In those days it wasn’t done, of course, but, if we were young today, we would have been first in the queue for a new face, a new image, a new identity to put alongside the new car, the new house, the washer, the camera, the holiday, the carpet and the garden lounger, things we had to have but never paused to enjoy.
How we strove to be who we wanted to be! But the acquisitive affluence that society demanded needed resources we didn’t have, entitlements to which we were not entitled. I had drifted along in my job, doing well, earning good money, but the words ‘have a rise’ never quite rhymed with our avarice, and money was always short. But then, one day, there was a chance of promotion. I applied for the job I had already been doing for a year, covering for Ted who had gone long-term sick. I knew I could do it. My mates knew I could do it. My boss knew I could do it. But management appointed a lad, straight out of college, a newly qualified entrant to the industry. He’d had sponsorship, I think it was called, a label that was only ever mentioned in hushed terms, like a disease you shouldn’t catch. But it was far from an impediment. It was nothing less than a privilege for the already privileged. It meant that the Coal Board had paid all his college fees, his upkeep, his books and probably his beer since the age of sixteen. There he came, clutching his HND, still hot off the press, a diploma both national and higher. Along with the sponsorship, that made three things he had that I didn’t, four if you include the piece of paper. And so I was passed over, but it was a pass-over where I supplied the identifying blood and where I became the sacrifice. And so I embarked on what has since become my life’s mission: education, the enlightenment of the mind, plastic surgery for the persona.
I only had myself to blame, of course. I passed my scholarship. Mrs Brown saw to that. There were two classes at the top of Kiddington juniors, Mrs Brown’s and Mr Taylor’s. She was a fiery, smock-wearing matron, whose temper could make you shake at the flip of an unspoken word. He was a soft-spoken Burton-suited genial gent in his middle age, with leather patches on his dark green jacket elbows, dandruff on his shoulders and bad breath. In a contest between the two of them, she would have insisted on shouting “go” and he would have been third away.
All the bright buttons of the village went to Mrs Brown. The snotty-nosed, dribbling, farting, lice-shaven, frayed-end, scruffy rabble went to Mr Taylor. There was always much talk of sheep and goats. I said I preferred pigs and chickens, but they never took me seriously. It was a distinction I failed to comprehend at the time. Having already lost the basis of Christianity and with it the automatic association of sheep with the faithful, laudable flock, and goats with the opposition, I became doubly confused by Mrs Brown’s clandestine socialist subversion. You see, despite her professional insistence that we should all achieve the sheep status that entry to her class ought to endow, she regularly confused us by sharing her farmer’s daughter experience that sheep tended to follow blindly, whereas goats often practised independent thinking. Thus, she would tell us, she would rather see us become goats rather than sheep, thus inverting received values we hadn’t yet received. And I have remained confused ever since. At the time, the idea that Mrs Brown might even have borne a carnal respect for the animal never entered my head. Worship is a strangely human state. So, thus inverted, we became Mrs Brown’s goats, and, contrary to the divinely desired and naturally revered flock, we became a working-class inversion, transformed into independent-minded, perhaps subversive kids, Mrs Brown’s locally privileged goats in contrast to Mr Taylor’s predictable, second-class sheep.
When Mrs Brown’s goats practised their fractions for the umpteenth time, Mr Taylor’s ovines were out gardening. Well, at least the boys were. The girls were probably elsewhere learning to wash and iron. While goats recited tables, forwards, backwards and at random, there was touch and pass for rams and rounders for ewes. Goats wrote essays, while sheep copied from the board. When goats studied the Roman Empire, sheep returned to that sojourn of the infant school, desktop sleep, head placed comfortably to the side, resting on folded arms, eyes no doubt surreptitiously staring out the most recent playground target.
Mrs Brown’s goats, of course, were being prepared for the eleven plus, or Galton’s Pleasure, as I prefer to call it, that enshrinement in rationally-justified science of Britain’s feudal class system. Mr Taylor’s sheep were being schooled for life minus, the goats for life plus, a grading for life, if that’s the right word to describe what might be left after Galton had taken his prurient pleasure. Plus-graded goats headed for a grammar school, complete with Latin and French, while sheep were branded with the equally obnoxious pair of labels, secondary and modern. Rams would practise the skills of metal and wood that British industry had already exported, while the ewes were confined to the practice washing of plastic babies in an era when the birth rate would drop to historical lows as the command of the dual domestic income sent most women out to work. Goats, for the most part, at least in terms of what they read or wrote, were sexless.
But I passed, achieved my goat status along with twenty others from Mrs Brown’s class, the nine who didn’t subsequently being referred to as ‘tailored’ by the exam. That year two of Mr Taylor’s class actually passed. God knows how.
So I went off to the grammar school in Bromaton. It meant having a uniform, and that had to be bought. Just one shop had the franchise. It was called The Queen’s in The Springs, that gentle incline of a street that skirted the cathedral. It was an unfortunate name for the lads, since every year the ovine rejects would goad the goats with bent wrists, swinging hips and creamy voices, asking whether they had yet been to The Queen’s. When you shouted at them, saying it was because you had an IQ, they would retort their version, which was ‘indisputable queen’. The street is a precinct now, a word that when I went there for my school blazer and cap, we only knew from the scripts of black and white American cop shows. And what stupid hats they used to wear!
Going to The Queen’s in August was a village ritual. It marked you out as different, determined which friends you would keep, and which would reject you. The chosen would advertise their anointment by going to the chip shop in their new uniform, complete with their silly quartered or target caps, just to show off. The kids hated it, but the parents seemed to lap up the status. Whenever I see mutton-dressed-as-lamb middle-class women with an haute coiffeur miniature dog in tow, I am reminded of that annual parade of newly uniformed Kiddington kids being pulled along by their mothers.
There were two primary schools in Kiddington, ours, the large, newer one, and an old church school with too few children to have a class per year. It’s been demolished, its triangular plot large enough only for a single house. The kids who went there, sent more out of tradition than choice, had about zero chance of learning anything. Half the time they had to look after the younger ones in the same class while the teacher marked books. But pass some of them did. Kiddington’s Galton Pleasure roll each year was probably about seventy-five, of whom twenty-odd passed. It wasn’t a bad show for a mining village, I later learned. It still meant that two-thirds of the population went economically in the direction of the slag heaps that surrounded our pit.
“Of course we’ll have to go to The Queen’s in the holiday,” was a phrase that successful parents bandied around the village after the results came out. In the queue at the chippy, in the queue at the butcher’s, in the queue at the bus stop, in the queue for the one-armed bandit in the Working Men’s Club, “Of course, we’ll have to go to The Queen’s in the holiday,” would rise above the babble of village gossip, intoned loud enough to ensure even the distant might hear. Ribs would be nudged, eyes would glance their momentary lift skyward and “Hark at her” would be whispered aitchless by those whose families had been branded secondary and modern.
Except in the famous and still recalled case of Mrs Turner, of course... She made a right laughing stock of herself and her family by anticipating the result. Whether she had married into poverty was never clear, but her aspirations were forever above her status. Whenever she asked, in a plummy-vowelled, tight-lipped voice full of cream for strips of ‘stomach’ pork in Elseley’s, the butcher, the mimicking titter that would ripple round the queue was nothing less than memorable, no matter how many times you had heard it.
Her husband, a stooping, tweed-suited, wiry man with a thin black moustache, a cowering manner and a body volume about a quarter of his wife’s, suffered terribly. Without his knowledge, Mrs Turner had taken Galton’s Pleasure for granted and fitted out young Adrian at The Queen’s long before the results were known, before he had taken the test, long before they learned he had failed. The father hardly spoke for six months, and never showed his face in the village, except to catch the bus towards Gagstone at the stop at the end of the common, the stop hardly anyone else used. His ploy worked because the bus was always full by the time it reached the end of the village, meaning that he had to hang on to the rail on the conductor’s platform at the back, the noise of the road across the open space precluding any social contact with his fellow Kiddingtonians.
The son, Adrian, suffered the real butt of the communal joke, however, and found himself branded for the rest of his life. He had to leave Kiddington in the end. He couldn’t stand listening again and again to “Oh, yes, you’re the one whose mother went to The Queen’s and…” He would try to stop listening, but you could see the hurt in his face, a hurt inflicted for life by nothing more than an untimely purchase of clothing, clothing that proclaimed a status that was not his to claim.
Adrian had been in Mrs Brown’s class, and a dead cert for the cert, so to speak. Mummy took Galton’s Pleasure for granted. Every weekend he was instructed to wear the barathea blazer she so proudly bought, on tic no doubt, so that he could be paraded up the road by the common, tugged determinedly by the hand by his leading mother. The knife-edge pressed grey turn-upped flannels accompanied, as did the quartered cap in blue and brown. All of us lads in those days used to wear shorts, by the way. I didn’t go into long trousers until I was fifteen! So there went Adrian, resplendent in his new uniform, a spick and span member of the class to which his mother aspired. And the poor bugger failed! Oops! I used a non-word…
Adrian couldn’t show his face for weeks. While the rest of the anointed goats paraded their Queen’s purchases through the village and the sacrificed sheep publicly gathered, he stayed firmly locked indoors. “Is Adrian coming out to play, Mrs Turner,” delivered by conspirators with convincing innocence across the doorstep, presented respectably, yellow-edged with scouring stone, would elicit the curt response, “He’s poorly,” and inside he would stay. They kept it up for the whole summer. You could see the curtain twitch as Adrian peeked out to see who was asking after him. Eventually he did transfer from his secondary and modern to the grammar, one of the few that made the impossible dash. You had a better chance of crossing the Berlin Wall than passing the thirteen plus, but Adrian did it. These days he would have been diagnosed dyslexic, syndromed into a corner, boxed into a stereotype, excused his birthright, but back then he was simply given the second chance that most dismissed. By then, of course, he had long outgrown the barathea and the flannels, and anyway he was already into long trousers, unlike most of us, his mother convinced he was mature beyond his years. As far as I know, the original uniform is still in his wardrobe. His mother was too proud to offer it second hand and probably afraid to throw it away, since its unread name tags had been dutifully attached at every specified place.
But now, from the perspective of a life lived, I can see that we Kiddington lads were out of place at the grammar. The girls at the high fared better, basically because the ladies found it easier to adopt airs and graces, even if they later rubbed off just as quickly. I did all right. I was never top of anything, and never at the bottom either. There were O-levels to take at sixteen, but I, along with most of my Kiddington mates, left at fifteen to go down the pit, because the local competition we had entered had already been won, and that was the limit of our ambition. We had taken Galton’s Pleasure and were neither secondary nor modern, blissfully unaware of any competition beyond Kiddington’s borders. So apprentices we became. We learned a trade, that essential adjunct to the human being that would not only automatically assure an income, but also, by virtue of endowing title and role to a name, would supply an individual identity. Any idea that we might ‘stay on’ and train as solicitors, bank managers or even teachers never entered our heads. It wasn’t for the likes of us. You tried to stay clear of the law and most Kiddington people were paid in cash, solicitors and bank managers thus being generally associated with life’s problems, not its advantages. There were always a couple of Kiddington kids who broke this mould, but usually they were from the big houses at the top of West Lane and they went to the toffee-nosed schools in Punslet, or that other one, orbiting in its own universe, a place where people paid for education, a dimension the rest of us could not even imagine.
But then it’s all different now. I have that piece of paper I needed all those years ago. I’ve studied my units, done as the great course designer has deemed, jumped hoops, hurdled intellectual challenges like a pro. I now have my honours and can proudly attach BA to my name, courtesy of The University Of The Air. We used to joke, Suzie and I, with her parents, who used to tell her that she should get a BA. We told them that she already had one, if it stood for big arse. Oops, there’s another one… Anyway, we wanted to get married and she was pregnant straight away. Dulcie was the sweetness of our life.
I have overstated my welcome … and I am going to be told off for my non-e language. I blog. You blog. He, she or it blogs, but not too much. Enough.