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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Monday, 29 April 2013

Childhood revised

Even those who haven't read Proust know that a madeleine (cake) leads to the Land of Memory. But the novel includes a violin sonata, a local train service and a loose paving stone all with similar roles.
 
Images, sensations, echoes. Last week I was visited by a very strong image. A tin-opener with a stout wooden handle better suited to a stonemason's chisel. At the cutting end a heavy clump of metal shaped into a bull's head. A thick blade below the snout resembled an unconvincing prosthetic jawbone. Even more lurid, a squat spike jutting from the bull's head.
      
An artefact from an era when tins came like tanks. The squat spike allowed the operator to punch a jagged hole in the tin top; thereafter the warlike blade tore at the metal.
      
I hadn't thought about that tin-opener for at least fifty years. But as I did I began to peel back layers of my life. Unlike my mother, who feared the ripped edges, I enjoyed opening tins. There'd been a succession of pansy openers, hardly up to the job. I get the feeling the bull's head was acquired for me alone.
      
The spike was - you might say - a two-edged weapon. Driven with sufficient force to penetrate the top, it briefly triggered a jet of pea or bean liquor a foot high. Didn't matter to me, I was a dirty child.
      
A child being useful. Stepping out of character. Urged on by a minor sense of power. Whereas, previously, my childhood memories have tended to dwell on my fears and my uselessness. Marcel knew about all these things.
      
NOTE. I am not preaching Proust. I never do. We arrive there solo or not at all.
 

10 comments:

Sir Hugh said...

From time to time I experience a little jolt when I see long forgotten, but now suddenly half familiar items from our childhood in possession of one of my two brothers.

I then wonder how, and why they ended up with them instead of me, and for some items there is a mild feeling of jealousy.

Perhaps the two have had similar twinges when visiting me and coming across items that belonged to parents, and in some cases others in the family.

Tom said...

Do I detect a whiff of joy at childhood bashing, crashing, slashing and splashing? And are we feeling a little macho and bullish this morning? Nice one though.

Lucy said...

What a fabulous, quite mediaeval looking, device! It might have been meant for opening 'corned beef from the Argentine' except those tins had keys on, and could, still can, slice the top of your thumb off before you can say knife. Your mum was very brave to let you loose with it.

I have the old button tin we had at home from before my bith, still with some of the same buttons in it, and I find that quite Proustian. My dad in fact had button-phobia, which is quite a well-known one and has a name.

Joe Hyam said...

Ah yes those tin openers. I remember them well, and the the opens tins with jagged edges. Never design masterpieces. But why do I remember camping and finding that no one had one or even a pen knife? There is a scene in Three Men in a Boat which describes this predicament.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh: You had seemingly inherited Grandpa S's carpentry tools and at the time I resented this. Quite soon I was glad you had them. Especially the planes. Setting the blades on those wooden things was quite tedious; greatly simplified on an up-to-date metal plane. The wooden stuff commands high prices now as decoration for households which favour male decor. When I look at such items all I see is inefficiency.

Tom: Not this morning but I was sixty-five years ago. The bull's head opener was capable of tearing any tin apart, unlike those openers made of chromed pressed steel with a fold-up corkscrew in the handle. designed deliberately for those who didn't really want to open tins.

Lucy: My mum could be very brave on my behalf.

I had to look up button-phobia straight away: koumponophobia sounds like something invented on a wet afternoon by a classics don. Wikipedia is discursive on the subject and I wearied before I reached the end of the entry. The most logical occurrence would seem to be a person (typically American) long accustomed to a zip in the crotch area, being suddenly required to make do with buttons. Worrying constantly whether buttons would work quickly enough, or whether... Did you question your dad about this. or was it one of the family's great forbiddens?

Joe: Savage but certain is how I'd characterise this tool. I suppose I had different priorities in those days.

The Crow said...

I have a john-wayne (P-38), issued to US army and marine corps personnel until sometime in the 1980s.

I got mine from my first ex-husband. Used to keep it on my keychain, but misplaced the keys once and decided the P-38 was too valuable to risk losing, so it's in my dresser.

For more info, visit here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-38_can_opener

The Crow said...

Of course, the john-wayne holds no candle to your bull opener - what a beauty!

Ellena said...

I wonder why I can't remember tins being opened during the time I was living at home.
How come you knew Lucy was refering to Koumpounophobia and not to Omphalophobia. Oh yes, it's the button tin.

Roderick Robinson said...

The Crow: Something similar to the P-38 was available in the UK and I could see that it would be unmatched for lightness and smallness. However a certain skill is required and I see the Wikipedia entry devotes quite a lengthy para to this. Certainly no one would want to go to war burdened with my bull's head; on the other hand, if one ran out of ammo...

In fact the bull's head has been superseded by the Brabantia which is so well designed it is capable of opening the smaller end of a corned-beef can (remarkable) and which I posted about a couple of years ago.

What was surprising about the bull's head was the way it worked on my memory - just as Proust predicted. It led me all the way back to another version of myself which contradicts the traditional picture aged ten-nish. A mini adult, if you like - albeit in just that sense.

Ellena: I think it rather depends on where you lived, aged about ten. There was a good deal of snobbism about eating stuff from tins in Yorkshire, during the war and immediately post-war. Tins typed you as working class, as did did buying cakes made up from the bakery instead of making them yourself. In those days no one ever put a value on the time spent preparing food; tins were quicker and - it was suggested - the contents were less nutritious, less healthy. Probably true but we weren't about to starve over a matter of principle.

Lucy said...

The story went that as a child he was looked after by a tyrannical old aunt who wore an Edwardian frock with lots of buttons down the front. He was OK with ordinary numbers of buttons on shirts and such like but it was buttons in large numbers which revolted him, so a spilled button tin meant he had to leave the room.

As far as I know he had no problems with belly buttons.