Making Up My Mind

When you are an only child living in your parents’ house you have, for much of the time, only your parents to talk to. Consequently your social skills are limited. One way of filling those hours in your bedroom is to talk to yourself. Not necessarily audibly or with moving lips. It’s a way of hearing another voice, a voice that might disagree with you at times, like the voices of your friends when they quarrel with their siblings.

An only child has very little direct experience of intimate and protracted talking relationships that are not conducted with his parents. At first you don’t notice it but it’s a disadvantage and it never goes away. You can copy the way siblings do it with each other but it’s an add-on, it has no roots.

This memoir is structured in two columns. The left hand column is the fruit, as I explain below, of twenty years of writing and revising. I should add that if it were possible to tot up the actual time spent at the desk with the desktop it would probably total less than three years. On several occasions many years went by between drafts, usually because I got stuck. There is, nevertheless, a continuity in the left hand column – it’s more or less what I want.

But not completely. Some of the things I wrote twenty years ago and since strike me as wrong or wanting. Not misleading but in need of some expansion. The right hand column will be the sibling column. It can talk to the left hand column and vice versa. If the right hand column starts to dominate the left hand column I’ll let you know.

1:  M A R K E R S

On or about the 3rd of June 1943, my parents, Ernest and Eiry Gale, had sexual intercourse with tremendous success. It is, of course, unsettling to visualise one’s parents having any form of pleasure and particularly so when one’s conception is a direct product of such an event. When the deed is executed with the brio that, as is well known, is a precondition of the rare, fertilising form of the act then its recreation in the imagination is, frankly, abhorrent. I shall not dwell, therefore, on the cries, the breaths, the involuntary movements that marked the occasion.

My time in the womb was not uneventful. A constant flurry of messages kept me busy, more than compensating for the cramped quarters. Within hours I realised that what others would see as divisiveness was actually formative and character-building. I gradually came to my senses and learned to take what was given. On one particular day I came under pressure to move on and, habituated by now to the warmth and dependability of the place, I found I was loath to leave. Pressure soon came from all sides and I was forced to climb down. Surrendering to the inevitable did not facilitate the process, however. Soon the pressure actually increased, to the point that I became paralysed with indecision – or was it truculence? I began to resist. Such was my determination that outside help was sought by those in charge. I had, up to that moment, been wholly unaware of the ‘outside’ – I could not, in fact, have conceived of it. Now my ignorance was abruptly suspended. The outside proved to be constituted by incomprehensible force. It closed about my head and drew me into a place. I had not had, before this, any conception of place. Now I was in one.

I was delivered by tongs in 1944. My father was a biochemist at Cambridge and my mother was a housewife. We lived in a semi-detached council house on the northern edge of town towards Girton. I was in my pram one morning when a doodlebug – a German flying bomb – flew by. I was 3 months old. It moved from right to left in the sky above the apple trees. The pram was in the back garden. The doodlebug was black against the sky. Another unlikely act of recall, dating from around the same time, features myself sitting on a potty, which would have been enamelled metal, screaming with rage as I shat.

A little later on, at the crawling stage, I crawled towards a thing and ate it. The thing was moving along but it didn’t have any feet. Since I had only recently acquired the use of my own feet the creature’s achievement was more than usually interesting. It was also moving very slowly and this meant I might be able to catch it. I had caught very little up to that point. Because it was slimy its body glinted in the light. Slimy things were quite new to me then but I knew they were special. This thing actually left some sparkling slime behind it on the path. It was following the stalks that stuck out of it at the front. I held out my left hand, I was already left handed, and moved towards it. I grabbed the little hard house that it had and saw the little stalks shrink away to nothing. I wanted to know all about this thing so I put it in my mouth. And I crunched it up. I mixed in my mouth the meat beneath the slime and the crackling pieces that sounded around in my head.

I don’t know if my mother knew about my continental tastes, I can’t remember. Perhaps I told her later. It certainly became part of family legend – “Oh, David ate a snail when he was eighteen months old. And some coal!” I sort of remember the coal. It was near the snail. There might have been a coal holder there. A bunker. The coal came in sacks that glittered with dust, on the black coalman’s back. That’s easy to remember because it happened regularly throughout the forties and some of the fifties. Some of the coal was anthracite and some was nutty slack. Radio comedians would frequently refer to nutty slack in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. I had no idea what they were talking about but I liked the resigned cheerfulness.

I started writing this over twenty years ago. Probably more than that but 2002 is the earliest draft I can find on my disk (it was titled ‘Thinning the World’ – Draft 1). I can remember abandoning it then taking it up again a couple of years later. Then abandoning it again. The first abandonment took place when I’d got to the bit where Hugh and I are trying to climb the tree when I thought ‘Who would want to know this?’ Fatal.

 

 

 

This was taken from a longer piece written at some point in the late 20th century. Again, I can’t date it but when I’d written it I showed it to a friend and she said ‘You could send this to Playboy.’ I think this was because although I had quite carefully researched the relevant embryology and anatomy it may not have been as faintly discernible as I would have wished. The passage was opaque when in fact translucency had been sought. To compensate for this obscurity I told my friend what it was supposed to be about and this may explain why she thought it was sufficiently arousing to merit inclusion in an upmarket spank mag.

 

 

 

 

 

Family legend always featured the word ‘tongs’. The proper word is ‘forceps’. The technical term for their application is ‘assisted delivery’. Perhaps it was my father who used the word. I can’t imagine my mother confiding in me so explicitly. As a result of this protracted nativity I bore, according to the legend, a mark upon my forehead. Whenever I try to recall these factitious events I see myself suspended above a fireplace to which the tongs are being returned. I am not about to be lowered into the fire but it is close by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eachard Road was where I was born. This is one of the odd things that families say. I was actually born in a nursing home on the other side of Cambridge. It’s the same as people saying “We’re building a house in Spain.” They’re not. Builders are doing it all. The people are merely paying them.

Eachard Road was one of the roads on the side of a block just off the Huntingdon Road. The houses around the block were semi-detached council properties with small gardens that backed onto each other. At the front there were, between the fences and the curb, strips of grass. They gave the roads a friendly feel. The block had a friendly feel too, because it was essentially a closed system. Only one road led to and from it.

When I think about Eachard Road I get strange feelings. They are equally strange when thoughts of Eachard Road simply pop into my mind unbidden, which they frequently do. I’m sorry to say that I’ve returned countless times to those thoughts, elaborated them, intensified them, tried to play them through in slow, microscoped motion. I’m not even sure if the thoughts give me any pleasure. I tell myself they do and, maybe once every couple of years, when visiting Cambridge, I’ll drive up the Huntingdon Road, park a little way down Sherlock Road – the one that leads in and out – and walk slowly round the block. Thoughts and images come rushing back, of course, although I’m not convinced anything new does. Nevertheless, I imagine that on one of these pilgrimages something inside me, like a great stone door, will rumble open, unleashing high-definition films of the past that I have so studiously idealised.

The designers of Google Street View were not to hand in 1944, nor were wheelie bins or colourful lightweight bicycles. Otherwise nothing has changed in over 70 years.

 

 

At this point in his career my father was a postgraduate of modest means employed in the Department of Biochemistry. Several of our neighbours worked one way or another within the university, sharing the block with other young  families endeavouring to domesticate their lives in a depleted and disordered postwar world.

 

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves” (Freud, 1899:322: Screen Memories in The Standard Edition of The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 3) 

As you left the house by the kitchen door, where I once peed warmly into my wellingtons, you entered the side passage to the garden, fenced. Uncle George and Auntie Joan, no relation, were on the other side. George Hawes was large-limbed and had built the Anderson shelter with my father. The shelter was at the end of the garden. You would walk down the right hand side of the garden, beside the pointed fence posts and under one of the two apple trees. This tree is a bit like the one in our next house but that was ten years later. It was in the later tree that I perched when I dropped an apple right onto my father’s bald head as he passed beneath whilst mowing. The thud was both hollow, because of the cavity of my father’s mouth, and sharp, because of the smack of the two skins. Mowing is also mo-ing, which is what you did on the potty at number 27, the first house. That was because you were doing a motion, or a mo-mo.

I have never met anyone else who did a mo-mo. Many have pooed and some, such as my friend the late Julian Hough, admitted to having done, in their infancy, caca. Julian would experience great discomfort when disclosing this to me twentyfive years later. He could barely bring himself to say the word audibly. As soon as he told me I began shouting ‘CACA! CACA!’ and enjoyed his reluctant giggling.

I don’t have this problem with mo-mo. Mo-mo is simply ridiculous. We must remember that this was a Science Family. Both parents had had sheltered lives. My mother, for example, from the Cardiff side, was in a charabanc on a school trip in 1925, aged 14, when she saw a bull mounting a cow in a field. “Look, look!” she cried “That cow is giving the other one a ride!” Her companions shrieked their derisive delight. My father, comparably cloistered in his youth, had at least acquired, by the time he came to instruct his toddling son, a way of talking. This was the language of Biology, wherein nothing smells and organisms have no shame. A movement takes hold of the lower intestine – which is normally quite still, we must deduce – an evacuative pulsion commences, a deed is dood. Such is the motion of the bowel and it can be, for the sake of the little ones, diminished to the mo, executed on the po, these doubled, for extra friendliness, to the mo-mo and the po-po.

But, and I repeat myself, I have never subsequently met a single human being whose family had equipped them with this strange formulation.

Mo-mo is odd but ‘tail’ is odder. Throughout much of the last century many families wishing to name the penis for the nursery appear to have found ‘willy’, ‘peepee’, ‘winkle’ and ‘dicky’ adequate to the point of obviating the need for new and more anodyne coinages, if such can be imagined. Either my parents were unaware of the array of cheery nicknames at hand or they had consigned them, along with the less tractable fuckpole and spam javelin, to the waste-baskets of the unspeakable. In my mother’s case it is likely that not one aspect of the matter, from morphology to function to nomenclature, was ever raised in the slatey Cardiff household of the grim Reverend Jones. My mother would not have become narrow-minded – her mind would never have been allowed to broaden. My father may have learned of the slang when passing coarser boys in the street but it is hard to see how the amiable ‘willy’ etc passed him by.

Clearly science, in this case, provided an answer that would be simultaneously intimate and indirect, beyond reproach. And lacking in anatomical accuracy.

Quite possibly the nursery words were known to him but were found unacceptable. If this is the case then we might consider blaming the parents, always an option hard to resist. I could not find kindly Grandpa Gale culpable, it would have to be his tiny, fussy and fastidious wife, known to me as Grandma. On one occasion in their Weston Super Mare home, when I was eight or so, I visited the toilet then returned without closing the door. Grandma told me, across the dining table, always to be sure to close the door. Something about my mute reaction encouraged her to elaborate. “Because of the smell,” she whispered, quite loudly. This short phrase pokerworked its way into instant memorability, conjuring miasmas of shitgas that would drift down flights of stairs, wrinkling the noses of old ladies and browning off diners around whose wrists and cutlery it would unpleasantly curl. It also seemed the perfect complement to the catchphrase “Pull the Chain!” that Cheeky Cheshunt, an imaginary scatalogic music hall comedian, would reliably cry on his entrances and exits. Cheeky would bring warm tears of delighted recognition with the first element of his jovial exclamation, followed by gales of glee when he tapped the side of his nose and loudly whispered Grandma’s addendum.

I can’t remember if I decided to pee in my wellingtons or was unexpectedly visited by a need that urgently required a response. If the latter then it may have seemed sensible simply to furnish it in a nearby waterproof  boot rather than risk making my way upstairs to the lavatory. (No house around the block had more than one lavatory.) The thing is, I was actually wearing the boots at the time. It is hard, therefore, to say which is the more remarkable: a disconcerting surrender followed by a resigned but immediate use of the nearby boots or a more thoughtful and experimental approach that privileged a search for a novel sensation over the fact that the act was wrong.

 

 

 

I met a literary agent and onetime senior editor at a publishing house who kindly undertook to read what was then the third or fourth resumption of the writing of this memoir. I decided on a chapter structure this time round and started sending the text, chapter by carefully revised chapter, to the editor. This material was well received but by the fifth chapter the editor was beginning to be put off by the tone, she explained, also the scatological content.

I welcomed her comments on tone but felt that there was actually very little scat to be found in the 140 pages or so that I had written at that point.

It’s easy enough to commandeer attention if you cross a line and just as easy to lose it again. Certain lines are both repellent and irresistible. To cross and then satisfy curiosity and then return may be a way forward that is not backward.

The easiest way to create a stir that may be perceived in some quarters as in front of the garde is to withhold information. Readers and audiences will then feel compelled to make sense of what is offered and may fail to do so. Some will walk away and find something better to do. Others may feel diminished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can, of course, recognise that some of this material may be considered lurid. Unnecessarily so. Surely layers of allusion, euphemism or even medical terminology could be deployed. But then, at the time that these events (probably) took place they were vivid. Impressive in the strict sense. Formative. Haunting. The ghosts of things passed. And then, years down the line, framed in a constrained and formalised environment, lurid.

I think the two main reasons for this are: the science family; the impact of the early reading of certain texts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it must have been Grandma who frowned on winkle, obliging  my father to come up with something sanitary that would ease the instruction of this new little body so carefully conveyed from the nursing home to number 27 in April 1944. The problem may not have exercised him overlong for a precedent had been set: a biological term would have been selected then infantilised and the teeny ‘tail’ would fall in with mo-mo as a unique, never-to-be argotised, family-specific tag

But tail. They called it my tail. A tail is the furry thing hanging off the end of a dog or cat, distinguished by its location immediately above the anus. So if my dick is a tail, I’m on all fours in a painful back arch in order that the tail may hang down over my arsehole. But my bollocks are in the way! Whoever had their bollocks between their tail and their arse? Plus if it’s my tail then presumably it should be allowed to poke out of my pants! But it isn’t. Plus whoever pissed out of their tail, for heaven’s sake? Plus this back-arch is immensely tiring and you need to be at least six before you get the strength to lift your back away from the ground. It’s all silly.

In the science family I learned that little distinction was made between the public and private parts. This was not so much progressive as necessary. When my father was working on candida, a yeast that causes the fungal infection known as thrush, commonly presented in the vagina, penis or on the skin, his experimental results would be discussed at the lunch or supper table in the company of my mother and myself. These latter had the most modest of grasps of the relevant technical terms to the point where only the boldest headlines in a large font were comprehensible. I’m sure my father tried to make his reports as simple as possible but after a short while darkness would descend and all the rest is noise. There are simply no words available other than the words that any biochemist would know.

None of this talk of private parts is to suggest that this 1950s family was somehow previewing the emancipations of the 1960s. Medical talk insulates the user even as it goes granular into the thickets.

My close friend Hilary came to the house for tea in the early 70s when I was visiting my parents for a couple of days. She said to my father ‘Ernest, can I ask you about thrush?’ My father proceeded to explain the nature of the infection, its favoured bodily locations and effective antibiotic cures. Hilary said that she had been told that thrush arose because of an imbalance in some bodily organ or other that could be rectified with some medicine or other. As with many exotic cures hailing from outlier sources, this was either valuably heroic or baseless rubbish. My father took the latter view and, while clearly finding the claims ridiculous, carefully and patiently explained that the purported linkage could not possibly exist. I was pleased that such frank and modern conversations could take place but I couldn’t help wondering if Hilary’s lack of embarrassment was matched by my father’s or eclipsed by the specialist terminology.

 

In the earliest years I came to science by way of the billowing trousers and polished toecaps of ‘50s Scandinavians, Hungarians, Rhodesians, Americans and all the others who came to drink Piesporter at my parents’ dos. Dos were held regularly, even in Eachard Road, before my father became head of the Microbiological Unit in the Department of Biochemistry. International visitors were made to feel at home, our home. Weaving through the baggy suits at their knee height I was struck by the awkward solemnity of scientists compared to, say, Uncle George and Auntie Joan next door. I met hundreds of scientists, all of whom were invariably friendly. But awkward. One of them, Jezda Tosic, developed a persecution complex, my father said. He thought that everyone was against him, especially my father (Jezda’s boss). On one occasion when Jezda was at Eachard Road I screamed and cried because I had to go to bed. As my father carried me upstairs I struck out, randomly, at Jezda and my fingers caught the inside of his mouth and the flesh of his cheeks. Jezda smiled earnestly. I thought he looked hurt and anxious. Perhaps that thought has been pasted onto the rest of the image that remains so clearly in my mind. The reason it remains, I think, is because it seems to speak of the secret life of scientists. They seemed so stiff but the insides of their mouths were warm.

I’m certain that even at the age of four or five I found many of the scientists strange. Most of my father’s colleagues had a style of awkwardness that became instantly recognisable yet was perplexing enough to preoccupy me throughout my schooldays, during which I eagerly identified certain of my fellow pupils as bearing the same complex of restraints.

My father had a very even manner. He never showed anger or great joy. He only wept in my presence once. He never struck me. He played games with me. He liked going to places over and over again for our summer holidays. He was, I learned as I grew, an inspired scientist. But he took few risks in the world. The adventures that he had took place in the world revealed by the microscope. It was not an easy place to describe. I often asked him to describe it and he was happy to do so. I rarely understood what he was on about. My attention would drift. Once you passed through the cell wall and on into the nucleus the processes and the language that described them became intractable as the components became ever more recondite and minute. It was, indeed, a language problem: words like ‘goes’ and ‘sugar’ obtruded from strings of polysyllabic constructions that had obtained English visas but came from a place where rutting phonemes ran clacking through packed streets in the night.

While there were scientists that I liked and scientists that I found odd, these feelings were subsumed into my conviction that the practice of science itself was odd. My father left the house at eight thirty, returned for lunch then went back to work until six thirty. At lunch he would talk about Ron, Kenneth and Bruce who worked alongside him in white coats at benches and who came to every do. He would make rather more pointed comments about Young, his surnamed boss in the main building. He would tell my mother about Lois or Paul or Pam, American researchers visiting the Unit. I could tell which colleagues my father liked or disliked – easily grasped when their spouses or romances or leisure pursuits were discussed, but threaded through the anecdotes was, of course, the language of the work itself, the utterance of which immediately brought darkness and mystery to the tabletop.

My father’s experimental work, as I have noted, was predicated on the control of contamination. Outcomes must not be compromised by the inadvertent fouling of controlled materials. The focal points of the experiments were themselves contaminants: pathogenic bacteria. In order that their capacities could be measured then curtailed they must be encouraged to reproduce only in the most scrupulously sterilised environments. Only then can you determine that their destruction or inhibition has been caused by a toxic substance deliberately introduced by medical researchers.

This fastidiousness is itself infectious and can easily lead to the idea that all entities have an undetectable capacity to infect all other entities. This could be a recipe for paranoia.

All these men were measurers. Experimental scientists carry out experiments in order to test a hypothesis and this in turn will require the repeated and probably increasingly precise iteration of an array of procedures. Results are recorded and procedures may be repeated if results appear to agree with what might be expected from the hypothesis. The catch is that the experimenter must be continually aware that their assumptions and aspirations may influence their interpretations of the data. To withhold or overlook data that weaken the hypothesis is bad science. I can remember my father talking about young researchers who he’d had to warn about such sloppy practice.

On one occasion it became evident to my father that one of his researchers was not only sloppy, not only in thrall to his  goals but was also actively pursuing a programme based entirely on the disappearance of inconvenient results. That one such individual was driving his car over the brow of a hill outside the city when he ploughed into the driver of a broken-down car just as the driver was stepping back to assess his vehicle thereby abruptly ending the second driver’s life did not in any way moderate my father’s disappointment at his researcher’s betrayal of the codes of practice.

I had, over those early years, seen flushed and struggling weaklings assaulted by crowds of children in the playground and watched in wonderment as hard won composures were dismembered in the backs of buses. Most of these scenes featured kids but it was clear to me that the cheating researcher, an adult, had been expelled from the pale and had become something quite interesting: a wretch.

That adults as well as children could be wretches was a new thought. Certainly the silent red-faced boy having his clothes slowly torn off him by an encircling throng of primary school pupils in the playground of Richmond Road Council School looked anguished in a way that I found horribly entrancing. He moved very little, did not moan or weep but cast his eyes down as if braced for execution. But I did not think that he was not in utter despair. His body had been heaved in a number of different directions, making a zigzag composed of his head forced down onto his shoulder, his hips pushed far to one side, his legs dragged from beneath him, folded at the knees and splayed. Some tugged his collar, others pulled his sleeves, another grasped his black thinsoled plimsoles by the heel and removed them. I thought he looked poor.

I didn’t think he looked bad but I sort of understood that he must be considered so by his persecutors for the purposes of the exercise. It may be that the following day he played quite sociably in the playground. But he was marked. His playmates would remember that, in time of need, this boy in cheap gymshoes was anybody’s and could be recruited and outcast in a trice.

After the driving incident I saw the killer wretch briefly and wondered if he would be able to look as if he were not a wretch. I said hello and he said hello. I was probably scrutinising him too fixedly but if there was a trace of wretchedness to be detected it was faint. If the boss’s young son greeted you in such circumstances you would expect to be closely observed and you would work on a face that would not satisfy him. This was a valuable lesson insofar as it suggested that wretchedness was not automatically apparent to the prying observer.

On the other hand, the wisdom of 19th century poet and philosopher Leopardi, renowned for his pessimism, could have saved me some time, given his assertion that ‘Men are wretched by necessity, and determined to believe themselves wretched by accident.’ Even if we overlook what is in this case a fortuitous double entendre, it’s possible that the killer wretch was merely the worst of a bad lot.

Throughout my boyhood I asked my father How Things Worked. He knew everything about the science of the world. One day he told me that when you put a cube of ice in a glass of hot water it isn’t just that the hot water melts the ice, it’s that the ice cools the hot water. We see it as the end of the ice but it’s also the twilight of heat.

I was impressed when my father told me this. I thought I understood something that other boys would never hear about: one-way things are actually two-way things! I found myself continuing to think about it into my adulthood and even yesterday evening in the car on the way to Waterloo. I see the ice and the glass and the gradual move towards equilibrium. I see the water level not rising as the ice melts because the volumes are the same, it’s the densities that have changed. A few years later I did Physics at big school and loathed it, probably because the master, Oily, had the ability to dehydrate everything he touched. But even Oily was able to describe certain physical processes in a way that made them stick in my mind for decades, slowly acquiring explanatory powers far removed from their origins in rude matter.

My father had a very even manner. He never showed anger or great joy. He only wept in my presence once. He never struck me. He played games with me. He liked going to places over and over again for our summer holidays. He was, I learned as I grew, an inspired scientist. But he took few risks in the world. The adventures that he had took place in the world revealed by the microscope. It was not an easy place to describe. I often asked him to describe it and he was happy to do so. I rarely understood what he was on about. My attention would drift. Once you passed through the cell wall and on into the nucleus the processes and the language that described them became intractable as the components became ever more recondite and minute. It was, indeed, a language problem: words like ‘goes’ and ‘sugar’ obtruded from strings of polysyllabic constructions that had obtained English visas but came from a place where rutting phonemes ran clacking through packed streets in the night.

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As far as one can determine from the documentation, I was a poppet. There is a photo of the poppet in the back garden near the apple tree. The David in it is adorable and he stands beside his wooden wheeled and dappled horse, a postwar toy made by his Daddy. He’s wearing his dungarees and clutching what, under magnification, can be identified as an issue of Enid Blyton’s weekly magazine ‘Sunny Stories’. The magazine comes from the same period as The Book.

The Book is an unwholesome obsession. I will elaborate and then I will leave it.

When I’m drowsy my eyelids will droop and I’ll find myself instantly absorbed in a very particular recollection. Conversely, when, in the parenthesis of the droop, a certain sort of vignette monopolises my attention, I know I must  be sleepy. Not primarily a means of determining whether one is drowsy – less exotic indicators are available  – this abrupt channel change is very similar to the hypnagogic events that precede falling asleep at the end of the day, when the directed vectors of thought melt away and are replaced by things that enter unnannounced and then connect themselves to less appropriate things which are in turn joined in an unlikely manner to episodes which have the most tenuous relevance to the scenes that so sinuously ensue.

The Book is the most arresting example of an invasion of the unbidden, which is comprised of a constellation of odd, recurring memories.  What happens when The Book pops up, in the blink of an eye, my eye, is often surprisingly predictable, unlike the melting of thought on the pillow. It’s as if there were a handful of crystallised icons held in geostationary orbit between wakefulness and drowsiness, poised to reveal themselves in an identical manner over and over again. When they do present themselves the icons jump up like flags in an old-fashioned cash register and, instantly and invariably, eclipse all other activity. They do not always emerge on the cusp of a drowse, they are just as capable of intervening in the street during workaday thought time.

Most of them come from far away. They carry an unchanging  powdery aura, they are thick with melancholy, they are tiny and iridescent, they insinuate that they are portals to a world and a time in which the air was of a consistency that joined all things together under the sky. They promise to unfold into lost domains whose denizens run delightedly into the streets because I have come back and why was I away, look the gardens are still the same, the sun goes down with long shadows thrown over the fields of play, it’s all still here and you can take it back with you and it will make you happy.

That’s what they say and when they say it I believe them. When they’re not in view I am a little sceptical. When exactly are they from, these immutable vignettes, especially the ones that carry no time tags? They suggest an adult’s capacity for retaining and arranging detail yet they say they’re from way back. Is it possible that they merely appear to be antiques and are, in fact, repro?

This would align them with the sort of material that is routinely thrown up by those who are borrowed by aliens, probed with extraterrestrial urethroscopes then returned to the car on the blue highway having lost several hours and they thought it was only ten minutes or those who, after a seditious and collusive encounter with a poorly trained or spurious eager hypnotherapist discover that behind the migraines and vague elusive sadness lie years of being fucked by your uncle who is now doing fourteen to twenty in an Arizona penitentiary based on the evidence of credulous nutballs.

 

A useful definition of ‘a man’ is one who spends most of his time and energy trying not to be a woman. This does not, of course, apply to all men, just most of them.

I do not except myself. In the early days I could not, of course, have been further from such a view but decades later it seems perfectly clear that it’s not just the formative years that are formative – they all are. They form unceasingly and at the same time they reinforce what has been formed.

In my own case I now wish I had striven to be less of a man. Or had striven less to be a man. There was no choice anyway –  it wasn’t even an outlandish idea. At secondary school there were queers and I had the vague idea that they were like that because they were cooped up at boarding school (the school had a small number of boarders). One or two of them, however, were day boys and had a very hard time.

It’s certainly worth asking oneself if the degree of manliness that is detectable within oneself is strictly necessary. Many may feel that that’s all very well but they have no choice – they have got where they are by taking the well travelled path. And anyway it could be a slippery slope. As a straight cis-gender man I can say that there is much man performance that could be relinquished and it would be a pleasure to do so. I have been able to let go of some of it over the last couple of decades and I look forward to shedding more before I die.

Only in the last few years has it become possible to mount a wide debate about issues of fluidity between conventional polar gender positions and, by extension, within the purportedly stable polar positions of a tried and tested but inadequate formula.

The growing acceptance of gender fluidity has advantages even for those who do not conclude that they have been misgendered and wish to align their sense of identity with the ways in which they present and describe themselves. It becomes possible for those already in uncontroversial positions to dial down what are nevertheless felt to be exacting and inflexible elements of the formula.

If such constraints are mild compared to those endured by men who no longer identify as men then they may nevertheless prevail for lifetimes. But this is testament to the perfect, seamless assimilation of the programme – like the weather it seems there’s nothing you can do about it unless you move t0 another country.

In the training programme of the formative years much of the curriculum is pretty obvious. Eventually the baby becomes able to distinguish between the wall and the door and need not wonder how their parent walks through the wall and can no longer, as a result, be seen. (A precondition of this realisation depends on the baby having experienced the sides of its cot, say, as impenetrable.) For every discrete parental instruction, such as ‘Don’t touch the fire’, there will be myriad micro learning moments which feed into a heuristics of everyday physics and do not require constant parental input.

And for every discrete parental instruction there are also countless potent but unintentionally despatched messages that will be taken as advisories or instructions.

If, for example, a parent has a skin condition like eczema that is, from time to time, scratched idly or deliberately then this may be understood by a child as a problem-solving strategy. If  such activity arises within an unsettling situation that is then resolved then the activity may be construed as having remedial value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At some point, possibly between 1947 and 1949, I had this book. It was square in format, about 8″ x 8″. On the right hand side were full-page, full-colour illustrations. On the left, text. There were beetles in it. And a castle. The beetles are characters in the story. The castle has dungeons and is dark blue.

And this is what’s so frustrating: I can’t get any further. The Book Memory is the Queen of Memories but it offers so very little. I’ve been having this Memory for years and years. I think about it almost every day (as distinct from actually experiencing it). There’s nothing I can do it to make it come. When it comes I cannot make it stay and I cannot make it any bigger or any longer. When it comes at night, before sleep, I hold my breath, hoping that if I play possum it will reveal itself.

If I can trap that memory I will see the whole book. I’ll see its cover and its title and I’ll get it – from an online secondhand book site – and every time I open it I’ll touch the lost land. I’ll walk through the lost land and it will make me happy.

It’s never going to happen. I know that. As much as I really want it I really wish it would go away. It’s a sea anchor. I can’t remember when it kicked in. Maybe when I was 40. Or maybe since always. But that suggests that soon after I read the book it became a thing. And I don’t even know if I ever read it. Maybe I just think I did.

I’ve spent so much time anchored in this way that it would be good to be able to claim some benefit – one that wasn’t sickly.

The imagery of the portal frames the Book Memory but there is no winding lane or busy highway that leads to the door. There are no approach routes whatsoever. It’s a pop-up.  Given the great riches that I have imagined to be piled up on the other side, the actual evidence of such booty is negligible. A wisp here, a drowsy glimpse, a glimpse of a drowsy glimpse. A peep.

 

We have touched on wellingtons earlier but why would a boy piss warmly in his ones? One could say “Because the wellington is waterproof so the piss would not leak into the passageway like it would if the boy been wearing his open sandals, a staple item of footwear for boys at that time.” The boy might have felt that by restricting the piss to the wellington he was evading discovery. This is pretty short-sighted: after stepping nonchalantly out of the brimming boots the youngster could indeed pad softly away from the point of emission but what had he left behind for his mother to come upon?

Kids, eh? Why did I think, when I left a small bolus of shit on the floor of Auntie Beatie’s lavatory in Luton that no-one would notice? Had I not learned from Grandma Gale – she of the shitgas – that the toilet is one of the more closely surveilled enclosures in the civilian world, a place subdivided into zones that are dramatically differentiated into one very right place and very many very wrong places?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When she was a schoolgirl my mother was scouted by the D’Oyly Carte Opera company on the basis of her role as Pitti Sing in the school’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. Her father, my grandfather, I never met him, on the Welsh side, forbade her to join. That was it. Housewife. My mother developed a psoriatic rash on her right wrist that persisted for the rest of her life. At some point in the late 70s the rash moved to the back of her neck. Dry alligator skin. Deliciously itchy.

The psychotherapist John Layard (1891-1974) remarked to a friend of mine that eczema is a form of jewellery. He did not imagine that it was pleasant to wear this jewellery, his point was that the eczema patches were a form of communication and could be seen as an indicator of status. Not an elevated status but the condition of one who is suffering anxieties that cannot be fully articulated.

E L E V A T O R  P I T CH

A person suffers from a generalised eczematic condition that presents in a number of locations around the body. The locations change throughout the day. A junior doctor suspects that the movements of the inflammation should be seen as a form of language. The medics are astounded when they decode the messages transmitted by the skin of the hapless patient.

When the time came to choose a path at A level I chose Science partly because all my pals were going to do it and partly because nothing arty was ever talked about at home. I don’t feel as if there was pressure to follow in my father’s footsteps but none of the arts was ever discussed. There was no antipathy to the arts, they just didn’t come up much.

I would not be able to make any satisfactory sense of my father’s work until I was halfway through A level Biology. Even when I could grasp some of the functions of DNA and RNA, or begin to appreciate the importance of protein synthesis, I was still pressed against a very frosted glass. As a result, a degree of performance entered my relationship with my father. I would enact the keen listener and he would struggle to dissolve the opacity of his profession. I’ve no idea if he found this problematic. When I tell my daughters Sadie and Leila that I write and direct plays and teach performance at a university they can run this alongside their own experience of going to plays and going to school. There are bridges there. When my father told me he was trying to understand bacteria, I was trying to understand what bacteria, which you couldn’t see, were.

Ron, Kenneth and Bruce were champions of this art of darkness that was science. I understood that they were very clever and valued by my father and, like him, engaged in difficult research, which was finding things out. I saw them in their lab coats working with pipettes and washing their hands and they came to the dos where they chatted and sipped white wine. Ron was big, burly and punctuated his taciturnity in a northern accent, Kenneth wore bow ties, had a goatee and was effusive, Bruce looked like Prince Philip and was my father’s best friend.

Of the three, Kenneth was least like the stereotype that I was working on. He raised his voice, he kissed and touched people, he said things in French. In terms of libidinal management he ran an open-plan office. It may be that Kenneth offered the first glimpse of a world beyond the measured behaviour of Ron and Bruce and my father. The contrast that he provided could only strenghten my view that scientists were a group of sombre men who were rarely exciting. Female scientists in the Unit, demonstrative continental visiting scientists, affable American scientists and Jezda Tosic tended to untidy this picture but I didn’t care.

Rupert and Bill Badger Contemplate the Abyss (Alfred Bestall, 1956)

Although my father knew what made nature tick I regarded him as unnatural. When I was ten, my mother, anxious that I should appreciate just how remarkable a scientist he was (he had, after all, isolated a vitamin shortly after graduation), told me that “Daddy is very good at getting things done – he always does the hard things first and only then the things he likes doing.”  I really wasn’t impressed. “Mummy, that’s an appalling notion!” I would have cried, had I been more irrepressible. I can’t recall actually saying anything but the model of impulse management that had been proffered struck me as propaganda gone wrong. Nobody in their right mind would operate like that – you’d have to pretend that you were a little wooden boy and forget that you’d had a free pass into the flesh for as long as you’d lived.

Impulse management was displayed more attractively on Sunday evenings. From both Eachard Road, our poor house, and Luard Road, our rich house (acquired in 1954 when Ernest became head of the Unit), father and son would, week in week out for several years, drive to the lab to sow the bugs. We’d stop in Tennis Court Road, my father would unlock the tall iron gates, and we’d drive onto the Downing Street site. The Microbiological Unit was hutted in a long bungalow in the shadow of the Biochemistry building. On Sundays it was deserted and my father would walk along the corridor switching on the fluorescent lights until he reached his polished teak workbench in a far corner of the open plan laboratory.

If you were going to find out how bacteria synthesised protein in order that you could stop them doing it in the name of medicine for humans, you had to have a working population on which to experiment. The bugs lived in glass jars sealed with corks. They floated in soup. In order to concentrate them into colonies, some of their number would be extracted from the soup and given what must be seen, given the imminent dilution of unitary identity in a frenzy of reproduction, as the meal of a lifetime. My father would sterilise a looped filament of wire in the bunsen burner then plunge the glowing tip into the soup jar. After the hiss, the infested loop is stroked across a shallow dish of golden-brown agar jelly. Like ashtrays being switched in a pub, the dish is covered with another and taken to one side where, in this case, there stands a mild, encouraging oven.

Sowing the bugs took about half an hour. While my father enabled life I was allowed to play with dangerous chemicals and apparatus – exposing pieces of phosphorus to the air which enflamed them, sniffing ammonia, making pipettes by rolling and extruding glass tubes in the bunsen flame, squirting indicators into acids and alkalis to see the colours come and go, swirling yellow-green fluorescein in beakers of water. Then we would drive home.

At half past eight the following morning my father would kiss us goodbye and drive the copper-coloured MG back to the lab. There, arrayed in dozens of dishes, were pale, furry excrescences of mould; millions of bacteria awaiting examination, microscopy and extermination.

Sowing the bugs was something you did with utter precision on a very regular basis. No sow: no bugs. No bugs: no work. No work: no cures. There were, of course, innumerable other operations to which my father was obliged to apply precision. Coin-sized discs bearing minute quantities of radioactive isotope were slipped into coin-sized depressions in rotating plates that their radioactivity might be measured. There was even a hand-held geiger counter that I was allowed to hold to the face of my father’s luminous wrist-watch. It roared with rage as the boiling particles drummed onto its face and the needle trembled against the max point. See in the dark watches have since been banned, I believe. My father did not, however, die of metastasis of the wrist.

Centrifuging was also very interesting. Small phials of colourless liquid would be eased into the rubber sleeves of metal tubes arrayed around the circumference of a heavy rotating drum. The tubes were pivoted so that when the drum began to whirl they would swing into the horizontal.  The lid was massive and the whole device was armoured so that chunks detached by force fleeing the centre would not be propelled into the soft world. Once lock-down had been effected and the switch thrown, the motor would build from a low hum to a whine as a melting blur took hold within and the squat tub showed signs of wanting to judder across the floor, had its stocky legs not been bolted into concrete blocks. When the drum whined down again, my father, and this was the best bit, would lift the phials out and there, in each, beneath two centimetres of crystal clear liquid, was a spot of beige paste. On closer inspection I would see that the spot had no proper outline – it bled hazily into the liquid, the nimbus thinning into transparency a millimetre offshore. This, then, is what bunched bacteria look like. We can assume that any single one of them must also be beige but in a very vanishing sort of way.

When I worked as a kitchen porter in the Victoria Cinema Restaurant in Market Square for a few weeks in the summer of 1962, Sid the Chef filled the rotary potato peeler with spuds and turned the dial to maximum. As the spuds hurtled noisily about in the abrasive chamber, Sid gave out a gargling roar and whipped the door open. Globes of potato, battered bald, blasted from the peeler, bulleting into the fleeing yelping sous chefs, waiters and platewashers, ricocheting off the pots and pans.

A few years later I saw the power of the centrifuge at work on human flesh. Fighter pilots, according to the TV documentary, were strapped by their masters into pods on the end of a rotating arm, in order to prepare them for excessive G. As the rpm were gradually wound up, a camera in the pod showed the pilots’ facial skin sliding lava-like down onto their chests. As the blood drained from their heads to their toes, they blacked out.

Do bacteria black out? Such an enquiry begs many more. The least one might say is that the nucleus is probably shifted well to the left for the duration.

In a small, warm, windowless room to one side of the lab three balances stood glistening on a waxed benchtop. Each balance was enclosed in a glass case with sliding doors. Two chromed pans – the scales –  were suspended from the cross arms. Quantities were placed in one of the pans then quantified by the systematic addition and subtraction of weights to and from the other pan. While this is, of course, very much how potatoes, say, were purchased in the years before pre-packaging, I was fascinated by the business of tremendous accuracy.

Beside each balance was a box, in blonde wood, containing a bed of purple velvet artfully slit and pouched so that a series of tiny weights could be lodged in it. The largest of these tiny pieces, the 10 gramme, was bung shaped and bore a little knobbed handle by which it might be conveyed to the pan. Below 1 gramme a significant change took place. No more bungs: now leaves. Wispy leaves of shiny silver metal, rectangles and squares, all with one corner slightly turned up. Each with the gramme fraction impressed, as a numeral, on the top side. These weights were not to be conveyed by hand – a pair of tweezers was provided so that the weight of human grease could not distort the reading.

What must it be like to be the manufacturer of these tiny weights? Are the bungs and leaves produced in moulds? And if so, how are they tested? Against definitive master weights, obviously. But what if you remove a fresh weight from the mould and weigh it against the master weight and it’s too heavy? Do you reduce its weight by shaving it in some way with an abrader  of some sort? And what if you remove too much?  Do you stick a little bit back on with glue? And then what if the little bit you stick back on is too big? And how much does the glue weigh?

These thoughts hover on the very edge of a treacherous domain. Cross the border and you’re in a place that, at its least offensive, is boring and in its florid form is vertiginous and proto-aspergian. This is the place of escalating  reiteration and steadily diminishing novelty. Its mathematics informs obsessive compulsive disorder and may even lead to the collecting of train numbers.

In the right hands, of course, it can be made marvellous. Borges goes there, as does Beckett, especially in his novels. The outcomes, in these cases, are bracingly philosophical. Mathematicians go there in order to formulate. And all sorts of scientists go there. It seems you can go there in safety if you have a project. In the days when I went down the lab with my Dad we didn’t have Borges. Not down my road, anyway.

I was amazed when my father told me of the dangers of grease. I realised that even if the obtrusive and widely reported ordinary secreta are discounted, the body wiped clean, we still carry on our hands, preceding even the fingerprints, a fine film that will give weight to all that we touch, however lightly. And, as I already knew, it wasn’t a one-way thing. The toucher, the hapless bearer of exudate, makes a deposit; he leaves some molecules. But he gets some back. Not, presumably, as many as he left. Unless it was butter, say, or jam.

It may be felt by some – the macrophiles – that the quantities under discussion are negligible. That they’re beneath consideration and at the end of the day who cares? People who feel like that are clearly unaware of the unreliability of matter. They don’t understand that we’re walking through mist all the time. Everything is boiling. It’s not touch and go, it’s touch and swap.

The end of edges and the unreliability of envelopes preoccupied me greatly and have stayed with me ever since, evolving into a central axiom of a set of occult principles that include, of course, those derived from the ice/water business. These principles made sense of the world. Possibly they made nonsense of it as well. They were occult to the extent that I never talked about them to anyone. Not because I thought they were loopy. I just held my peace and ruminated on them.

I would sit in the balance room and weigh things, marvelling at the number of decimal places that could be added after the main figure. I wondered if it were possible to weigh things down to the last molecule. I imagined that if such a balance were to be made then the final, ultimate, definitive weight could never be determined for more than a moment because atoms and molecules would be jumping on and off all the time.

At some point in the sowing-the-bugs years there was a revolution in balances. You placed the unweighed amount in the pan, shut the glass doors and turned a knob. The doors insulated the pan from intrusive local zephyrs and the waves of heat that might flush forth from the body of the weigher. The knob activated a series of delicate levers, each of which bore a different weight, shaped into a metal loop. As the knob was turned the loops would be raised or lowered onto hooks projecting from the counter arm, registering their value on an illuminated screen. The knob could be turned rapidly to and fro, impelling the arms to move up and down like fingers drumming on a table. When equilibrium was achieved, the result, to four decimal places, could be read from the display. The revolutionary balance, impressive in its robotic obsolescing of human hands, served nevertheless to rub in the notion that we were greasers all, flies in an anointed order that did not require our validation.

In the early 50s polio came down our road and took Michael Murray. He was about seven years old. When he came back he was in a wheelchair and stayed in a wheelchair throughout his days at the Perse School for Boys. His classmates used to carry him up and down the stairs. With polio you had to avoid public places. The parents of the other children in the street did not seem to be aware of this – their kids were allowed to go to the cinema, to the swimming pool, wherever they wanted. In number 27, impatulpa rallasis, as I heard my father call it, was to be feared and resisted. I asked if I could go to the cinema as long as I didn’t breathe in. My father didn’t bother to point out the unscience of this – until a cure for impatulpa rallasis had been found no child of his would mix with the masses.

My protracted brush with bacteriology in the formative years alerted me to the fact that there was great force in the invisible, be it comprised of atoms or micro-organisms. Such an awareness could, one might think, have a corrosive effect on one’s sense of bodily immunity, providing the ideal incubator for hypochondria. A fellow would be inclined to hold his breath lest the very next breath conveyed contagion into him. From the bacterial point of view (the bacterium does not have a point of view consequently no questions are begged), his skin would be seen (the bacterium does not see) as warm, wet and welcoming havens for propagation. His skin is agape with portals.

Once you understand touch and swap, you realise that the body just doesn’t care in the same way as its earnest owner might. It’s tough. I joined forces with this tough body. These bacteria, these viruses, these opportunistic pathogens – I knew them, I knew their ways. I knew it was actually quite hard to get infected. The common cold, for example. It had nothing to do with humans being cold, or wet. Throughout my life I have always felt superior when people admonish each other not to venture out with wet hair. I always go out with wet hair. When my hair is already wet, I mean. And I need to go out. There has been, I will admit,  a certain truculence attached to it in the past. I would say to those who were enfeebled by superstition “My hair is wet. And I’m going out.” I would still say it  if it arose, but it would be declared ironically, as if I didn’t really take it seriously one way or the other. I should say that I have never wetted my hair and then gone out in order to make the point.

Gone-off bread is another example. Fleming noticed that the luxuriant growth of his staphylococcus culture, left on a dish in his laboratory during a two week holiday in 1928, had been inhibited in one area. Within this patch a rogue mould had grown and around it a no man’s land in which no staphs grew. Fleming concluded that the contaminating mould, which had wafted up from a lab below, had antibacterial properties. The mold turned out to be penicillium and the rest is why infections can be cured.

The blue-grey beard found on poorly attended bread is taken to be an indication that the bread is toxicated and inedible. In the antibacterial household this is not necessarily the case. While we did not, at number 27, drink rancid milk or eat festering chops, there was, nonetheless, an awareness that not all that rots is rotten. I think this is where my indifference to the sell-by date originates. I never look at them. Can’t be bothered. All you have to do is scrutinise and sniff.

Years later a hippy baker in Bath showed me a furry loaf he had prepared some time earlier. He scraped the fur off and cut me a  slice. It was fine, as I knew it would be. “Don’t worry about this mould thing,” he instructed. I hadn’t been and I didn’t.

So despite my precocious acquaintance with the semi-permeable nature of bodily surfaces I’ve always been terribly healthy, privately opining that illness was a trivial mental effect not to be indulged. I felt this right up until my late forties when it began to strike me as a touch grandiose. Nevertheless, because my father was in the business of cure I believed that the invisible was manageable. A sense of frailty and contaminability that might have got through to my body never took hold.

Similarly, the powers of the invisible never inclined me to the spiritual. I have never had a spiritual experience. This could be genetic, of course, but I’m inclined to the view that, well, those experiences are just another mental effect. Given that I couldn’t actually formulate such a glib position until my early twenties, I often wonder why I was so suspicious, throughout my school years, of the various efforts made to engage me with the Christ business. My mother’s father, Grandpa Jones, from the Welsh side, was a Methodist minister of such stereotypical strictness that when Eiry, my mother, broke free she, swore that no child of hers would ever be exposed to religion. My father, from the Weston Super Mare side, was more conventionally inducted but shook it off with the pesticidal application of science in the course of his teens at school. When he got to Cambridge he briefly joined a number of student societies representing the standard spiritual selection and rejected them one by one. So we didn’t really talk about God much at number 27. I was more interested in, say, how light switches worked, and always got good value.

*

I lived, back then, in a house of precision and repetition and measuring. You could go a long way with this recipe. I’ve got a lot out of it. It’s a formula for achievement. It only works if you don’t question it, however. Question it and you’re fucked.

But the bookshelves told another story.

They were to be found in the sitting room, which was called the lounge. It was a long room looking onto the garden at the back end.

I’ve done what I keep doing. Jumped from the 1944-1953 house to the 1953-1965 house. I can’t remember any bookshelves in the first house. I certainly had books then but I wasn’t conscious of my parents’ books. At the second house there were sets of bookshelves fitted into the far corners of the sitting room. Each L-shaped unit had three shelves. And that’s where I learned how to travel forward in time.

I’ve always been interested in what other people are reading. I jot down their recommendations eagerly and will pay close attention to those weekend supplement pieces in which emergent or prominent writers will identify the books that have had a significant impact on them.

Rarely, however, unless specifically pressed, do these respondents mention anything they read or had read to them before puberty.

It is as if no critical faculties whatsoever were present in the pre-pubertal middle class western reader. Material washed past like a river running through rocks, or an airliner traversing the sky at an altitude that rendered its markings illegible.

Clearly the fact that you listened to The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, E. 1969) 50 times and The Tiger that Came to Tea (Kerr, J. 1968) 60 times had no impact whatsoever. It was all apparently a great waste of time. Oh yes, I think I remember that. I really liked that.

It really doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten it. This forgetting business is debatable at best. But when these magazines ask you you should at least say something like ‘Yeah. I suppose there was something about those books. Something to do with appetite, maybe?’

Or if the attribution of significance to books that you’ve forgotten doesn’t make sense then jump forward a few years to the stuff you were reading for yourself as well as having read to you.

I was 12 in 1956 and familiar with the Rupert books and annuals. The utter blankness of facial expression in all of the otherwise colourful characters fascinated me. I had already seen, in 1950, on a magical 3 month visit to America, Harold Gray’s iconic ‘Little Orphan Annie’ comic strip and had been unsettled by Annie’s empty, dotless and lidless eyes.

 

The Enucleated Annie

Does she know that people are staring at her? How would she know? It’s hard to take your eyes off her but she can’t put hers on us. And it’s not as if she’s blind. She rarely bumps into stuff. Her dog Sandy isn’t a guide dog. He doesn’t wear a harness or anything. Plus he too has no eyeballs. And neither her tall adoptive father Daddy Warbucks (made his fortune selling arms in WWI) nor his servant the towering Asp (Asian, inscrutable) has to point out dangerous obstacles to her although they reliably supply assistance in scrapes.

It’s like she can see you but not see you. Which could make her both omniscient and impenetrable. But it doesn’t. You get used to it and she’s just an adventurous kid.

On the other hand Annie is in some way vacant. Her face moves around the dead sockets, much as that of a high functioning zombie might. Her body, unlike that of the zombie, is complete and conventionally flexible, compensating, at a graphic level, for the orphan girl’s dead-above-the-neckness.

 

 

 

Harold Gray was a cantankerous anti-communist patriot who gave Daddy Warbucks dots thereby, we must infer, consolidating the latter’s male gaze. Annie is tirelessly venturesome but whenever things get out of hand, Daddy comes to her rescue. He dots her eyes.

At the age of six I wasn’t following the Orphan Annie storylines so much as tentatively savouring the shadowy panels populated with awkward bulky figures I didn’t understand but found eerily puzzling.

Rupert Bear’s blankness, as noted above and seen below, is arresting for a number of reasons.

In common with his woodland companions, Rupert is, for much of the time, startled but frozen. Not because he’s a drawing but because he hasn’t got enough detail. He has five marks on his face, two of which are dots. Many illustrators or cartoonists have found this to be sufficient but Mary Tourtel and Alfred Bestall went for deadface.

In consequence and despite the frequently inviting panoramas of the Rupert Annual endpapers (see Abyssal example above), the creatures of the cottages, barnyards and woodlands of Nutwood exhibit the flattened affect of the melancholic or the ambulant catatonic. It is possible that were they to encounter, in an outskirt or meadow, a group of entranced human ramblers, they might agree to collaborate on the running of a for-profit farm or petting zoo.

A homeopathic strategy would be adopted, wherein the living dead would be drawn to the colourful intricacy of the Nutwoodens while the latter group would not look askance upon the carnivorous wanderers with their uninflected access to basic drives. The ‘like cures like’ approach would attract members of the public who, disenchanted with benzodiazepines, would find in the impulsivity, reduced affect and general deracination of the zoo creatures both consolation and inspiration.

This is a bit of a cheat inasmuch as it suggests that at an early age I was able to detect affinities between Rupert and flesh-eating ghouls. While these certainly exist I should note that when I first came across Rupert it would be almost another 20 years before I saw Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). I might have seen it at the Scala in Kings Cross. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey) was released in 1962 but it never got as far as the Rex in Cambridge.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched, however, to retrofit readings of an 18-year-old’s quite specific cultural experience onto the vague ruminations of a six-year-old trying to understand why some people are there but not there. The 18-year-old didn’t understand either but a few years later, when I began to immerse myself in psychoanalytical ideas, I started to wonder if they could be applied to fictional people as well as real ones. In turn, if the interpretation of dreams could facilitate personal insights then perhaps a similar approach would suggest that the curious fascinations of both Rupert and zombie lore stemmed not just from their visual renderings but their proximity to mental states that one might encounter, albeit in milder forms, in the social encounters of everyday life.

Charabanc of the Dead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I may have to revise this. Despite my scrapes with furry loaves, despite my subsequently unimpaired health, further research tells me that while penicillium is indeed a mold not all food molds are penicillin. Gone-off bread may host a number of molds at the same time, some of which may be antibacterial, some of which may be harmful. I resent learning this because it compromises my sense of my being unusually immune.

I do not, however, discount the possibility that such fancies are overweening and not unrelated to ideas about the immortality of the flesh-eating zombie.

Journalism

You can access various articles and features from here.