Posts for March, 2010

Dickie

Early memories are curious things: discrete spots of awareness in the dark of unconsciousness. It is as if we splutter into life like a fire taking hold.

The first memory I can date is of my third birthday. My paternal grandparents gave me a canary. It came in an oblong wooden box pasted over with printed white labels. For a long time afterwards I believed it came in the mail but that really can’t be right. I still remember the delight of opening the box (I think there was something like a sliding or a hinged door) and finding a bird – lemon yellow with white wings. We were inspired and called him Dickie.

Other things I remember from those early years are making igloos out of the upturned halves of grapefruit, dumping snow on the hot stove and watching it sizzle, and eating dirt. The last is a vivid moment. I can still feel the tentative anticipation and curiosity as I put the dark, grainy stuff in my mouth. I can’t describe the taste. A few years ago, though, I was in the garden when I remembered that early moment and did it again – put a bit of dirt in my mouth. There was one of those little shocks of recognition like a short circuit back to the reality of the past. So I can tell you for sure that New Zealand dirt tastes the same as British dirt.

The memory that means the most to me, though, is from a time when I was still small enough to be washed in the kitchen sink. I am sitting there with my feet in the warm water and my mother is bathing me with a flannel. It is dusk. The light has a grey, grainy quality. Maybe it is wartime still and we are slow to turn the lights on because that would mean drawing the blackout curtains. We are letting it get dark. Then the door opens and my father comes in from outside. He has honeycomb from one of the beehives and he gives me some to taste. I crush the little wax cells with my tongue and the sweetness floods through my mouth.

There is a story in my family about bees – an incident I don’t remember. We had two or maybe three hives up at the end of our garden and I was fascinated by the comings and goings. One day, so I’m told, I took a hammer up there and as the bees came in and out, landing and taking off from the running board of the hive, I tapped them with the hammer. (I guess someone must have come along later and reconstructed these events from the crushed corpses and the discarded hammer). The bees naturally got upset. I must have realised fairly quickly that I was in trouble because I managed to get a head start on them. My mother was fond of describing how I came hurtling down the garden path and through the open back door, which she slammed shut behind me. The bees in a great swarm, according to her account, descended on the window in the door so thick that they blocked out the light. I guess I was stung. If I was, though, it did not make me scared of bees. I keep a rag of a promise to myself to get a hive one day. Barbara isn’t keen, though.

Dickie, incidentally, lived a good ten or a dozen years. Eventually, because we were moving around so much, we gave him to my maternal grandparents. There he stayed, in the spare room in a brass cage like a ball about half a metre across. There wasn’t much company, only my grandfather coming in every day to feed him and have a chat, but there was a view out of the window over the back yard and the tenfoot and a big drainage ditch, which in local parlance was call a dike. Beyond that was a green playing field. Dickie never said much. He didn’t ever sing, just gave out a cheep or two from time to time. I guess that means he wasn’t a he after all.

    Hypnogogia

Look, this is a stupid situation.
I can’t sleep.  She can’t sleep.
Well, I could sleep maybe, if she’d let me.
Problem is I snore.  Well, she says I snore.
And I believe her.  I mostly believe her. 
Sometimes I hear myself snoring. 
Except that if I can hear myself,
I can’t be asleep.  And if I’m awake,
I’m not entirely sure that it can be counted
as snoring.  Can it?  Anyway,
the situation is this.  I start to drift off,
I start to float through that penumbral world
where you see things that don’t exist
and I start to snore.  That wakes her up.
So then she wakes me up.  “Stop snoring!”
she says.  And then we lie there.
She’s too tense to go to sleep because
she’s waiting for me to start snoring again
and I can’t go to sleep because I’m worried
that I’ll snore and wake her up. 
Even though she isn’t asleep.  But
she wants to be.  Of course.  We both do. 
And the trouble is that if only she’d let me
snore for a while, for maybe no more
than a minute or two I’d pass right through
that semi-conscious state and drift into
the nothing on the other side. And I’d stop. 
But I can’t tell her that. Snoring
is one of those things that nobody
has a right to.  You’re allowed it if
you can get away with it but not otherwise.
I mean, if we were both asleep and I was snoring,
who would care?  Although, maybe it wouldn’t
be snoring if nobody could hear it.  It’s like
that tree in the forest that doesn’t make
a sound.  At least, it doesn’t make a sound
in my half-asleep world.  Not that there are
many trees there.  It’s mostly buildings.
Mostly I feel like I’m floating along, as if
I’m driving in a convertible with the top back
and the sky is soft blue-grey, like down,
and I’m looking up at the buildings drifting past
on either side.  There are houses sometimes, brick
with red tiled roofs and little wooden window  boxes
full of flowers.  And there are office blocks
and churches.  And I only get a glimpse of them.
I’m only there for a second.  Because if I say
to myself, ‘Ah, yes, I’m here again’, it wakes me up and if
I don’t, I go to sleep and it all disappears.  Although,
maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s me that disappears.
Maybe there’s a real world there on the other side of being
awake, a world full of life and energy and goings-on,
a world in which I don’t exist.  Although I glimpse it
sometimes through that hole in time and space
before the dark comes down and I wonder if,
for a moment, in that moment, I am there
and visible to the people in those streets,
an apparition hovering for a second
on the cusp of life.  Do I frighten them? 
Or do they know I’m just a phantom
passing through?

First published in Voyagers, edited by Mark Pirie and Tim Jones. I’ve included it here on Emma’s suggestion. See comment on A Dream.

The Ghost Train

I became a movie fan at the age of seven when, with a few friends from school, I started going to the local ABC cinema on a Saturday morning. I guess my parents thought it was a good way to get me out of the house for a couple of hours.

It was a big theatre – it must have held several hundred – and the noise before the show was like a cave full of bats, squeaking and chittering as they squirmed in the rows of seats. Eventually, a compere with a mic would appear, call us to order, and then invite all the kids who had had birthdays in the past week to come up and join him on stage. They stood in a long line facing the rest of the audience. I don’t think there were any prizes for this feat of being officially a year older; they probably just got a cheer and a clap. Or maybe we all sang Happy Birthday. For some reason – either I was too bashful or else I never managed to attend on the Saturday following my birthday – I never got to go on stage myself.

Once everyone was back in their seats again, the lights went down, the curtains opened and the words of the ABC Minors song appeared on the screen.

We are the boys and girls well known as
The Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday we line up
To see the films we like
And shout about with glee.
We like to laugh and have a sing song,
Such a happy crowd are we.
We’re all pals together.
We’re Minors of the ABC.

I could try and sing it to you now but it wouldn’t seem right without the little bouncing ball that picked out the words to keep everyone in time.

After the song, there was more wriggling and squirming and then the cartoons started: Disney or Looney Toons. When I watch an old cartoon now, I sometimes realise that I’ve seen it before, back then in 1950. Next on the programme was the serial: Captain Marvel or Flash Gordon or, perhaps, the cowboy, Buck Jones. Last came the feature, a full length film usually in black and white but not always.

I liked the Tarzan movies – Lex Barker was the Tarzan of my day – and the Westerns, with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers, although I wasn’t keen on the latter’s habit of bursting into song. I also recall seeing the Laurel and Hardy classic The Bohemian Girl. The feature that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a comedy that included a sequence about a ghost train. It scared me half to death.

All that I remembered of this film for many years afterwards was the image a Victorian stationmaster collapsing on the platform with a heart attack and failing to turn a big wheel that closed a bridge over a river. A train roared through the station, the engine driver’s bushy white beard blowing about in the turbulence of the half open cab. The train hurtled through a tunnel and onto the bridge, plunging in silhouette down into the water.

This scene gave me nightmares. One, in particular, was even scarier than the movie, although it had nothing obvious to do with it. I dreamt of an ugly old woman, a witch. She had a terrible laugh like the Wicked Witch of the East but, otherwise, she made no sound. She scared me so much that I was terrified of going to sleep the next night. I didn’t tell anyone about the state I was in; you didn’t do that in my family. Instead, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t dream ever again. It was the most fervent prayer I have ever made before or since. And it worked, at least for a while.

A few days ago, when I first started thinking about the ABC Minors, I began to wonder if I could track this movie down. It seemed a hopeless task, given that I couldn’t remember the title or any of the actors, but then it occurred to me that maybe it had, in fact, been called The Ghost Train. Indeed it had. It was made in 1941, directed by Wilfred Forde and starred Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, and Kathleen Harrison. What was more I also found it was available on the Internet Archive under a public domain creative commons licence.

Wikipedia describes it as:

“Mismatched travelers are stranded overnight at a lonely rural railway station. They soon learn of local superstition about a phantom train which is said to travel these parts at dead of night, carrying ghosts from a long-ago train wreck in the area. The travelers eventually get to the bottom of the things that go bump in the night. In between the scary bits, comedian Arthur Askey plays the gags with his Vaudeville style humor.”

I started to watch on streaming video. One or two of the early scenes were vaguely familiar but I didn’t remember any of the comedy business. Then, it became clear that we were drawing close to the sequence that had scared me so much. I had an odd reaction. I felt no fear at all – it was just an old movie building to a melodramatic scene in which a stationmaster told the story of the train wreck in a voice full of portent – but nonetheless I found myself saying ‘Oh, dear. Oh, dear.’ and wondering if I should be watching this in the house on my own. It was as if, despite my conscious mind’s indifference, there was some more primitive part of me that was reliving that terror from sixty years ago.

That is still the most frightened I have ever felt, despite being in several situations of real danger. It seems that, in children at least, the strength of the emotion is not necessarily correlated with the significance of the thing that causes it. If this is so, then we have a problem trying to protect our children from nasty experiences in books and movies. We just don’t really know what is going to turn out to be nasty or how nasty it is going to turn out to be. Should we be over conservative? If children don’t experience fear in a controlled environment, then they may not be able to deal with danger when it threatens them for real. That said, though, I would not want a grandchild of mine to go through what I went through with The Ghost Train.

Explanation and Understanding

It’s Writers’ and Readers’ Week at the International Festival of the Arts and Richard Dawkins is in town. When I first saw he was on the programme I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and hear him or not. I’m still not sure but I doubt I would have a choice now; his sessions will be sold out.

I feel ambivalent about Dawkins because he comes across as being utterly convinced that he is right. Complete certainty bothers me. Even though I often sound completely certain myself, I am easily convinced that there is another point of view worth considering and, even though I sometimes pour scorn on other people’s opinions, I sometimes get a sneaking sympathy for anyone who is viciously attacked by a third person. Thus, when I picked up Dawkins’s The God Delusion six months or so ago, I expected it would make me angry. It didn’t. Instead, I agreed with almost everything in it. Dawkins gets wound up at times but, for the most part, he presents what I believe is a pretty good argument against the notion of a Supreme Being.  Where I tend to part company with him, though, is in his capitulation to the power and beauty of science.

Here is a quote from a report of an interview Philip Matthews conducted with him recently (the Dominion Post magazine, Saturday 27 February 2010). In response to the question “What is it about science that really gets your blood running?” Dawkins answered:  

“It’s so thrilling, so exciting to feel that during our few decades in the sun we have it in our power to understand why we’re here. To understand the really remarkable detail. To know where the world comes from, why it’s here, how old it is. Why life is here, why life is the way it is. Why humans are here, why humans are the way they are. How the universe is going to go on in the future.

“This is absolutely enthralling and anybody who wastes their life by not getting to grips with these great questions of existence, given that in the 21st century we have that privilege, is really not living life to the full and that’s tragic.”’

Perhaps the key to the problem I see here is Dawkins’s use of the word ‘understanding’. Science gives us a certain kind of explanation, arguably the best kind. The history of thought is littered with the dead claims of people who said ‘Science will never be able to explain X’ but, nonetheless, I am bothered by the assumption that explanation is the same thing as understanding.

Take, for example, a violin. You could explain to me how it worked. You could explain in some detail how to play it. You could tell me its history or how it’s made or tuned. You could expound the theory and the physics of music. You might even give me reasons why the particular sounds of the violin appeal to (a lot of) human beings. All of this might help me understand the violin but none of it is sufficient. Unless I hear it played, and played well, or, better still, unless I play it well myself, I don’t believe I can be said to understand the violin.

(Note that understanding, here, is not the same as appreciation. It is not necessary to like the violin in order to understand it. Someone who listens to Yehudi Menuhin or Stephane Grappelli and thinks it is the most awful sound he has ever heard nevertheless understands the violin in a way that a person who was born deaf does not.)

Scientific explanation is based in a particular point of view: one that involves maintaining the distance and the detachment of an observer and using reason to interpret and extrapolate that which is observed. Understanding, to my mind, requires the point of view of an active agent, someone who is engaged and involved in all the different ways in which a human being can be engaged and involved. In this sense, doing science leads to an understanding of only one thing: doing science.

Of course, the questions Dawkins asks in the above quotation can all be answered by scientific explanation. Why are we here? Well, we are here because we evolved through the process of evolution. What does this mean? Basically, the physical conditions in the universe, as it developed over many millions of years, permitted the precise molecular combinations that constitute the human genome and the biological structures based on it and, in addition, the random or chaotic flow of events that in fact occurred where such that that genome and those structures did indeed come into being and did survive. Or, to put another way, in the words of an old rugby song best sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.

This explanation is important. For one thing, it eliminates any hope that there is a supreme being that created us for a purpose. I am not sure, however, that it gives us all we need to know to understand what being alive means. Nor am I sure that I would be wasting my life if I remained ignorant of the Darwinian explanation.

Dawkins seems in awe of the fact that he has got rid of God. Isn’t it wonderful, he says, that all this (i.e. human life) could come into existence by means of this simple Darwinian principle? I am as prone as anyone to feel the special aesthetic thrill that comes from a great idea but I also think that ideas are only one ingredient in understanding. The wonderful thing is not the principle but the fact of being alive and it is wonderful precisely because there is no good explanation for it.

Every idea has its time. Tomorrow evolution will have gone the way of Newtonian mechanics – it will be old hat – but, with luck and good management, human beings will still be waking up in the morning.

A Dream

Yesterday, I spent some time going through old photographs. Among the dozens of pictures of my daughter at two or three years old I found some shots I had taken in 1986 out at Paekakariki at the old railway yards. There were huge rusted cogs and axles, unidentifiable tanks and boilers, carriages and tenders. Old machinery interested me around that time and railway engines, especially those that ran on stream, have always fascinated me.  Over the last few days, too, I have been working on a piece that recalls a movie that I saw when I was eight years old about a train. In fact, my reason for going through the photographs was to find a picture of me at about that age.

wheels Boiler BigCogs-Small

Last night I had a dream, which seems to connect these images to the business of writing about my own past.  

I was in an old part of a city, a yard or the space where a factory had been pulled down and the rubble cleared away. I was messing around with a piece of machinery. It had a small, rusty boiler – the red surface dotted with big rivet heads like blisters – and a long thin pipe, kinked into a couple of right angles. I wasn’t trying to fix this thing; I just wanted to figure out how it worked. I unscrewed or twisted the end of the pipe. There was a gurgle and, suddenly, a jet of liquid shot out into my face. I flinched aside and the liquid kept on going, spraying right across the yard like a fire hose and splattering against a wall. My face was dripping and the right shoulder of my shirt was soaked through. I was scared for a moment that the liquid might be corrosive but there was no burning. The people with me managed to turn off the flow but they were worried about what I had done.

Then a young man arrived. He looked like Dan Carter and he worked for the corporation that owned the machine. I knew I was wrong to have fiddled with it and I was worried I would have to pay for breaking it. The young man wasn’t bothered about damage to the machine, however. It was only the escaped liquid that mattered. I told him that it did not seem to have done me any harm. Suddenly, I realised I was speaking with a Yorkshire accent.

The young man pointed to an area of ground behind me – flat but covered with rough grass. He told me there were plans to build a church there but now there was a problem. Maybe the liquid was dangerous. How could they build a church on what might be contaminated ground?

Makes perfect sense. Right?