Posts for May, 2010

The Deep End

My stepfather, Harry Clifford, was a country boy at heart. He was born in a Suffolk village and came to New Zealand, aged 18, where he started work on a farm near Raglan. The Depression made him realise he needed something more reliable than farm work so he got himself a job at Kingseat hospital. He stayed there for the rest of his working life and finished up as one of the senior nurses. I guess, back then, dealing with mad people was much the same as herding cows.

Harry was a good-hearted, generous and practical man with a no nonsense Kiwi approach to problem-solving. I remember him telling me how he learnt to swim. Apparently, the farming family he was working for in Raglan took him to the lake in Hamilton, threw him in and watched him flounder around until he got the hang of it. Harry told this story with a certain relish. On some level, as I later found out, he approved of it.

When he and my mother got married, we moved into his place, a large brick house just behind the main road in Papakura. I was then in my second year at university and suffered some inconvenience trying to get home when my social life required me to hang round Auckland’s coffee bars late into the night. Often I had to run for the last bus. Sometimes I missed it and had to hitch hike. One night, though, the hitching didn’t work and I was left standing in Great South Road with my thumb hanging out as a thick mist came down. Nobody was going to stop for me in those conditions. After wandering along hopelessly in the heavy, wet air, I came to a used car yard. One of the cars was unlocked for some reason so I curled up in the back seat and got a few hours fitful sleep. The next morning, while it was still dark, I caught the first bus out to Papakura and got home just as Harry was leaving for work.

I think it was this experience that convinced him I needed a car of my own for which, of course, I would also need a driver’s licence. We talked about the possibility but I never really expected anything to happen. Next thing I knew, though, he announced that he had found me a car. It belonged to one of his work mates and was on a property somewhere near Kingseat.

I am not sure how we got there – maybe someone gave us a lift- but we finished up in the middle of nowhere with no means of getting home other than the car we were inspecting for possible purchase. It was a 1938 Austin 7, painted grey. We looked it over and Harry gave the owner 75 pounds in exchange for the keys.

Of course, I expected him to drive it back and for us to commence my driving lessons in a safe environment – like an empty carpark on a Sunday morning. I was wrong.

‘Here you go’ he said, thrusting the keys into my hand. He opened the passenger door and got in, leaving me standing there, bemused and wondering whether I should panic or not.

I had never been behind the wheel of a car before but I was not entirely helpless. I knew how things worked pretty much; I knew some of the Road Code by heart and I had spent quite a bit of time lying in bed at night and visualising the process of driving, how the left foot and the left hand combined to change gear, how the right foot moved from brake to accelerator to start the car moving. So, I slipped the key into the ignition, put my foot on the clutch and turned the key. The motor started smoothly. My hand went to the gear lever.

‘That’s first,’ Harry said, waving his finger at it. I slipped the car into gear, pressed down on the accelerator and let out the clutch. The car started moving in the right direction. And that was it – my first and only driving lesson. I got home without mishap and parked the car in the driveway.

‘You’d better call the council about a licence,’ Harry said.

The appointment was for 11.45am on a Friday. The test consisted of me driving round the block. One stretch was along Great South Road through the centre of town. I had to turn right at some traffic lights. I made all the right hand signals but I also stalled the car. Twice. We continued the circuit and I pulled up again outside the council offices. The traffic cop who was taking the test started writing on his clipboard. I was sure I’d failed. If I hadn’t he would be asking me questions about the road code, wouldn’t he? I waited glumly until he handed me a thick piece of pale green paper. I stared at it – my licence.

‘These old cars,’ he said. ‘You’re best to double-declutch them, eh?’

I am not sure if his slack approach was due to the low standards that generally applied to country drivers in those days or to the fact that he had a lunch date he didn’t want to be late for. Or maybe he figured that letting me loose in a car with an absolute, foot-to-the-floor top speed of 60 kph wasn’t going to do much harm. It’s just possible, though, that he was a mate of Harry’s and that he’d had a quiet word spoken in his ear.

Whatever the case, even I knew that I wasn’t much of a driver. I couldn’t park. I couldn’t start on a hill and my three-point turn was close to shambolic. What was I to do, though? In the end, I just got on with it and taught myself. It probably took me a month or so.

Trainspotting

The second enthusiasm I caught from Murray Wilkinson was trainspotting.  This is a quintessentially useless activity. I had to stand on draughty railway platforms waiting for trains to arrive so that I could write down the numbers of their engines and then, when I got home, underline these same numbers with a ballpoint pen in one of the little books published by Ian Allen, books that, collectively, listed all the locomotives in Great Britain.  Real enthusiasts, and I quickly became one, went to great lengths to collect their numbers.  For me, any railway journey involved sitting (or standing in the corridor, if there was one) with my face pressed to the window peering up the line so that I could see the engines that came towards me and read the numbers on the front of their boilers (they were still almost all steam trains in 1951).  This was an uncomfortable task and difficult, too, given that the combined speeds of the two trains might be 240 kmph so that the spotting opportunity only lasted a fraction of a second.  It took vigilance, commitment and discipline – qualities that have often been wanting in other parts of my life. 

Useless activities are done unambiguously for their own sake.  They have you in their thrall, which is probably just another way of saying that they are manifestations of some kind of instinct.  In the case of trainspotting, the instinct is one that is common in nine-year-olds, especially boys, but that can also survive into adulthood.  It’s the instinct of the collector.  I’ve always enjoyed the story of the man who collected old tyres, a completely useless activity because they were of no value whatsoever.  He had acres and acres of them, piled into pillars and ridges and mountains.  His property was an eyesore that drew complaints from neighbours and bureaucratic fire from the local authorities.  Then, one day, someone discovered a way of recycling rubber and overnight he was a millionaire.

I like this story because it is about the triumph of folly.  It is a kind of morality tale in which the virtue of doing things for their own sake is rewarded in the only way that is fitting – unexpectedly and without justification. 

Of course, collecting tyres is not collecting in its purest form.  That honour goes to trainspotting.  Nothing has less utility than a trainspotter’s list of numbers or his Ian Allen ABC of British Railway Locomotives: North-Eastern Region full of its scrupulous underlinings.  Such a book can’t even be used by another spotter.  It is no more than a record of experience, the most abstract form of intellectual property, of meaning and of value only to its creator.  As such it suffers from all the purity and the pitfalls of private knowledge.  Once, in a fit of acquisitive madness, I went through my Ian Allen books and underlined dozens of numbers at random just to increase my collection.  The only result was that I destroyed it.  I suffered a terrible sense of self-betrayal and, what’s more, I had to start all over again. 

Trainspotting relies on a private kind of integrity.  You have to be honest with yourself in order for it to mean anything at all.  On the other hand, there is no way that a spotter can know that his collection is accurate.  Who is to say that, in the split second when two trains flashed by each other, I had not read the number as 61043 when it was actually 61048?  Almost certainly, I got some of them wrong.  The integrity of the collection depends not on its truth but on the collector’s belief in its truth.  Here, I think, is a shining example of the absurd – a bundle of disparate elements that come together only in the doing and which resists the loss of meaning that results from a shift to another point of view because it has no meaning in the first place. 

Trainspotting helped me survive the last years of my childhood.  Like listening to the Goon Show, it offered me a way of being.  More than the Goon Show, it gave me something of value (to me) that no one else could destroy.  I kept it up until we left England in 1956.  The only legacy I have of all those years of observation is the ability to spot locomotive anachronisms and mislocations in British movies set in the first half of the 20th century – ‘You’d never see that engine in 1935.  It wasn’t built till 1948’ kind of thing.  Even these remarks I have to keep to myself.  Other people don’t usually thank me for them.

Snow

The coldest winter I can remember was in Bradford in 1951-52. It was nothing exceptional for the locals but I was too young to have time-stamped memories of the really big one of 1946-47 and since then we had been living in London where it rarely snowed. It snowed in Yorkshire in that year, though. It kept us home from school for a couple of days. Everything went white. There was a big drift, way above my knees, piled up along the front fence. When the weather cleared, I tunnelled into it, lengthwise, and made a tube I could crawl through, a magic space of white light.

The walk to school, when we did get to go, was a riot of snowball fights, which carried over into playtime. I don’t know how it started but suddenly there was a fight between pupils and some of the staff, including the headmaster. They were vastly outnumbered, of course, but they stood their ground for quite a while and took it bravely, a dozen or so teachers and a couple of hundred kids, screaming in happy anarchy.

After the snow came the freeze, which left a crust of ice crystals over the battered drifts. By now the snow was too compacted for snowballs so we turned instead to making slides. I am not quite sure how a slide ever got started. I suppose some kids had the skill or the experience to pick a likely spot. What happened was that you took a run up, planted your feet and slid along on the soles of your shoes until the ground beneath you bit and stopped you dead. Pretty soon there would be a queue of people waiting their turn. All the soles on the ice created a friction that covered it with a slick of water. This would freeze overnight, hardening and thickening the surface. Over the course of a few days the slides got longer and longer and also more and more treacherous to anyone unwary enough to step on one. The adult neighbours complained about the one in our street when one of them slipped on it. We took no notice so they resorted to sabotage. We woke one morning to find that someone had dumped a bucketful of hot ashes in the middle of the slide. Neither end was long enough.

The biggest slide, though, was on our school playing field. It must have been the length of a cricket pitch and was in constant use. It was not for the faint-hearted. You had to go for it full tilt in order to get from one end to other and if you tried to trim your speed there was always someone faster than you coming up behind and yelling at you to get out of the way. For the most part, it was dominated by the bigger and more daring kids. My physical courage was never up to it. I confined myself to shorter slides round the periphery with the other scaredy-cats. The sheer speed of the kids on the big slide filled me with awe and envy.

I am not sure how long the cold weather lasted but, eventually the snow began to thaw. The playing field became a morass of slush under which you could hear the soft sound of water trickling. This led us to a third game.  We began to dig channels, packing down the slush into banks and guiding the melt into little streams that joined to become bigger streams and, eventually, into a river, several centimetres deep and nearly a metre wide. This had to go somewhere. Somewhere downhill. The most obvious spot was one of the backyards next to the grounds. I can remember standing at the top of the slope and looking down into the yard, which was a foot or more deep in water. Water swirled around the corners of the house and down the side paths. I knew there was a risk the house itself might be flooded but there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. The stream seemed somehow inevitable, like the river of life.