Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

Back to the bloodthirsty stones

Continuing my theme of trying to keep January away from my brain – or alternatively trying to get my brain through January, i bought a Doctor Who box set a week or so back and have been happily working my way through it. It’s called The Key To Time. Naturally it stars Tom Baker aka the Fourth Doctor. He was my Doctor and apart from Eric Morecambe the great hero of my childhood; but what prompted me to buy this particular box set was discovering, via YouTube, a clip of the story which gave me nightmares – the most wonderful, beautiful nightmares! – after i watched it as a kid.

It was so long ago that i didn’t even recall the title, just that it involved a circle of standing stones which came to life in the night and smashed down people’s doors so they could drink the inhabitants’ blood. In my imagination the stones were huge and absolutely realistic. I would dream that the circle was on a hill just beyond our house and watch as one came to life. Paralysed with terror – indeed i would be literally unable to move, let alone cry out – i would lie in bed as the stone made its way down the hill. It would smash its way through the front door, glide up the stairs – it was always me it was coming for – and then, as it came crashing through my bedroom door i’d wake up, sweating with fear. Fantastic.

Other than the stones i could recall nothing about the story itself apart from a scene in which dear old K-9 is nearly killed trying to hold them off (How i cried!). Well, that’s not entirely true: i did remember the Doctor (of course). Romana though – this first incarnation of her played by Mary Tamm – i had no recollection of at all. Re-watching The Key To Time stories now i find this incredible, not least because she’s gorgeous. But then i was only about 8 or 9 i suppose. Sex appeal was lost on me.

The Stones of Blood is the third story in the Key To Time (16th series of Doctor Who). Perhaps i had always known that i could find it if i wanted to. In the age of the internet it’s almost too easy to find things. But at some level i’d always feared that the glory of that childhood memory would be diminished if i saw it all again through adult eyes – saw the dodgy props and the sets which were so clearly the interior of a studio. YouTube though gives you a way to peer back into a show without fully committing yourself to the experience. You watch a clip on a miniature screen, as though looking through a telescope at something in the distance.

Did it seem diminished? Well, obviously not or else i wouldn’t have bought the box set. Inevitably, the stones are quite laughably unreal, yet so strong is my recollection of my childhood terror that they still gave me a thrill when i saw them. More than that, i realised how much the show for me was always about enjoying the mixture of wit and loneliness that is Tom Baker. Him and plucky, clunky K-9 – my generation’s Lassie. This is still my impression now that i’m more than halfway through the six stories. Never mind the terrible editing or plots that don’t make sense (why does Romana walk backwards off a cliff?), it’s still magic.

What i’m loving most of all though are the commentaries with Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. My God are they hilarious together: Tom who can’t remember anything about the episode he’s watching and who greets each absurdity with a mixture of childlike glee and acerbic wit – in one scene where the druids are gathered in the stone circle to perform a sacrifice he suggests that they’re going to sacrifice Adric, one his less-loved Companions. And Mary who is a delicious flirt (why did she not flirt like that with him in the show?) and who has a wry humour all her own. I love the story she tells of flashing in the wings one night when she was appearing in panto with Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker. Someone should bring Tom and Mary back together in a Doctor Who audio play. Free of the ravages of time, the limitations of the BBC’s special effects department and the general awfulness of 70s television they would have the Universe saved in no time at all.

My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.

Paan & the Mesabji

A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.

During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.

In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.

Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.

The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.

He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.

* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.

The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!