Posts for March, 2010

My Diary

I remember little about my first school. I don’t think it gave me much apart from a lifelong loathing for turnips. These were a frequent component of school dinners and came as a pinky-orange mess, along with mashed potatoes, some sort of meat and gravy, and a wet, green substance that might have been cabbage. My problem was that you were not allowed to have any pudding – soggy and sweet and doused in thin, pale custard – until you had eaten your first course. My lasting memory of Cottingham School is sitting with a plastic beaker of water in one hand and a fork in the other, eating turnip, sipping water to dilute the taste, and trying not to gag.

I don’t remember having anything else against the place but I can’t have been happy. I got into the habit of packing it in at morning playtime and going home. This involved a good mile walk – the length of Hallgate, down Eppleworth Road and along St Margaret’s Ave. My mother was not pleased to see me, given that she had a two mile walk to take me back again. She was good about it, though. She even took my behaviour as a kind of compliment. The reason I kept leaving school was, she decided, because I was bright; the lessons bored me. This might have been true. Another explanation was that I was feeling rejected. My father was away at his new job in London and I had a baby sister at home who was now the centre of my mother’s attention.

Whatever the case, that first year was not a success. When we finally followed my father down south and I began attending my new school in Barkingside, they found I couldn’t read. My mother was astonished. Reports from Cottingham had indicated I was doing well. I was surprised too. As far as I was concerned, reading consisted of turning the pages of a book while reciting a story. The pictures in the book were prompts as to which bit of the story came next. How was I expected to read these strange new books when no one had told me what the stories were?

I liked The Glade Primary School. It was only a few hundred yards from home but I don’t think I ever availed myself of the opportunity to leave early. My school report for the term ending 19/12/49 records that my behaviour was ‘Good’ and that my work had ‘shown some improvement’. Moreover, I scored 9 out of 10 for reading. Only my composition (18 out of 30) and my arithmetic problems (22 out of 40) let me down. I came 19th out of a class of 41, a safe place to be.

The mediocrity of my composition was largely down to a daily exercise called ‘My Diary’ in which we were supposed to record the events of our lives.  I found this an excruciating task, almost as loathsome as eating turnips.  Faced with the heading awkwardly scratched in blue black ink in my exercise book, I felt nothing but an awful blankness.  What did my life consist of?  Swimming at the pool with my sisters, playing with my clockwork train set, going down to the buddleia bush at the corner of our street to catch butterflies: couched in such terms these experiences meant nothing.  They were drained of all significance.  I was, of course, incapable of capturing what they really meant to me – the strange blue coldness of the water in the pool, my complete absorption in the construction of a railway, the wonder and the lust for possession I felt at the red admirals and the peacocks fluttering round the long drooping clusters of pale mauve flowers.  My Diary forced me to stop and look at myself from the outside and acknowledge the truly insignificant creature that I was.   

Eventually, I solved the problem by a simple expedient.  I started to invent things.  There was nothing fanciful about these phoney entries.  I was either too judicious or too unimaginative to come up with anything obviously untrue.  I wrote, for example, about how my goldfish had died, even though I had no goldfish.  I had seen a dead one somewhere, though, floating upside down in its tank.  From this point My Diary became tolerable, even in a perverse way enjoyable.   I knew that I was lying and that this was wrong but I was willing to risk either God’s or my teacher’s wrath in order to avoid the possibility of judgement.  Paradoxically I was risking one kind of exposure to avoid another.


Now is a point
   in space time.
Any point.
If you’re there
   that’s now.
What are you, though?
And what’s a point
   but an abstraction?
Is there any point?
If there’s no point,
   where are you?
 Now is
   where you are
   and the difference
   between the agent
   and the observer
   the living
   and the dead.
 You and this
   is now.

Our Office Manager

Bardumon the Beetle

Bardumon the Beetle

The Meaning of Life

‘If I did not believe in God, then life would have no purpose,’ said Credo.
‘What’s the purpose of a joke?’ asked Master Tze.
‘You think life is a joke?’ Credo asked, surprised.
‘I think a joke is life,’ said Master Tze.

An Unlucky Family

I come from an unlucky family. We tend to lose people. This is, generally, because they die, often before their time. My grandfather, my father, my mother, my stepfather, and one of my sisters have all been married twice and not a divorce among them. On top of that, two of my sisters and I have both lost children. Maybe there is a family curse. If so, it comes down from my father’s side and although it doesn’t begin with my father, because people seemed to have been getting prematurely lost for a generation of two before his, he seems to be the focus of it.

In 1929, or thereabouts, he married Mabel Felgate, a beautiful young woman who he met through the local church. They taught Sunday School together. Within a few years, they had two daughters, Janet and Judith. Barely three years after that, Mabel was dead, carried off by leukaemia or pernicious anaemia, as it was then called. My father, aged thirty, was left a widower with two pre-school children. Fortunately, his mother was available to help out. Unfortunately, two years later, she, too, was dead, of a heart attack this time.

In January 1938, my parents were married at Kings Hall, a Methodist Church in Fountain Road, Hull. My mother is listed on the marriage certificate as having no occupation; I guess her job as shop assistant for W H Smith didn’t count. She was 24 and now took on the role of step-mother to a five-year-old and a six-year-old. I’m not sure why she did it, to be honest. We’ll call it love.

Whatever the reason, I was born almost five years later and my youngest sister Bridget five years after that. When Bridget was three and I was eight, however, our father died of a coronary thrombosis. My mother, now aged 37, who had still never had an occupation that anyone would write on a certificate, was left with four legal dependants: their ages 19, 18, 8, and 3.

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Twenty years later, on the other side of the world, she got married again, to Harry Clifford, a widower with a nine-year-old son.

All these permutations have left me with two half-sisters, a sister, and a step-brother – the kind of arrangement that gives the people who draw family trees a headache.

For much of my growing up I was ignorant of these complexities. This was a good thing in one way; it meant there was never any question that Janet and Judith were my sisters, pure and simple. To the modern mind, though, such lack of openness is a peculiar and unhealthy trait. Was there anything to be ashamed of? Surely not. And yet, if there wasn’t, why keep quiet about it?

I remember an incident just after my father died. We were cleaning up in preparation for moving north from London back to Yorkshire. I can picture the darkness of the room where I am kneeling on the hearthrug in front of a blazing fire. Janet is on my left, my mother on my right. Between them is a pile of papers. They are going through them, sorting them out, feeding the fire with the ones that aren’t needed. I’m watching the paper catch and flare and turn black and then grey. Some of the grey bits, fringed with tiny red sparks, float up the chimney.

Suddenly, Janet says to my mother, ‘Shall I tell him?’ She has a piece of paper in her hand.

‘No,’ my mother says.

There is a tense little moment and then everything goes back to the way it was.

I say nothing. I let it go. I know something important has just passed by but you don’t question things in my family. You wait patiently, trusting you’ll find out in the fullness of time.

I found out three or four years later. The answer was in a book that I had had on my shelf for several years – a copy of Tennyson’s collected poems. Inside was an inscription. I can’t remember the precise wording but it was something to do with the marriage or the engagement of John Else and Mabel Felgate. I was horrified. It was as if I’d discovered some dirty secret – incest or something equally nasty. No doubt some of this reaction was down to the peculiar sensibilities of an eleven-year-old but some, too, probably arose from my shock at realising I’d been kept in the dark.

I didn’t mention my discovery, of course. I kept it to myself. The odd thing was, though, that my mother somehow found out that I knew. Maybe I left the book out on my desk and she read the inscription for herself. Whatever the reason, she began to avert openly to my father’s first marriage, as if it had been common knowledge all along. It seemed that it was not the events that were the problem but the initial telling of them, the awkwardness of the moment of revelation.  The longer you leave something, the harder it is to speak of it. I guess there was never a right time.