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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Scared stranger

L. P. Hartley, an underrated, very English novelist, wrote The Go-Between, a beautifully observed story of corruption. Most good novels make mediocre movies but not here. The movie is even better; watch Michael Gough in a terrific supporting role.

Those who have not experienced book or movie may, nevertheless, be familiar with the novel's over-exposed first sentence: "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there."

The foreign country called youth. Old age allows us to buy a return ticket to that destination, to wander briefly and to reflect on Hartley's truth. I discovered I was not merely younger, but someone else.

I believed I would die if I were tickled relentlessly enough. A quaint thought? I was an asthmatic child and asthma’s breathlessness seemed to prefigure a fatal, pulmonary implosion from tickling.

I believed adults were not only inexplicable but that they weren't interested. Within their ambit I might have been a toad, perhaps a slug - a small, unexceptional creature that didn't, by definition, deserve attention. I assumed this state of affairs would continue for ever.

I was told, probably by a teacher, I would eventually marry. I decided as a small act of rebellion I would not do so. A means of saying: you see, I can be different. The victory would be pyrrhic but a small price to pay.

I suspected all my thoughts – not just about sex – were impure and probably deserved punishment.

Terrified of the future I knelt at my bedside and prayed to an Obscure Being.

Eventually this over-sensitive shred of gristle withered and was reborn as someone else. One good thing – I no longer fear death by tickling. What I do fear deserves another post. Perhaps.

7 comments:

Avus said...

"Eventually this over-sensitive shred of gristle withered and was reborn as someone else".
Caterpillar into butterfly, eh? Have you any idea what started the renaissance, RR?

marly youmans said...

I haven't read him but did see and like the movie, long ago.

You are quite brave to admit your childhood's ways. I don't think I would do that. Although I do remember a horror of tickling: really it was so awful because it deprived a child of all control and the ones who had it would not stop. (I also remember being very hot and dry in the Painted Desert in Arizona and feeling that I would soon swallow my tongue because I had seen a dreadful little school film that convinced me such things were common and a danger. So there's another odd childhood persuasion for you.)

Roderick Robinson said...

Avus: I am not claiming that the newer RR was superior to the infantile one. More likely those extremes of behaviour, fears and thought processes I describe were replaced by others that were equally extreme. Social gaucheness, for instance, lasted until... you know, I really can't say when that departed if it ever did. So-called adulthood - which is marked by much more than the passage of time - only means there is more to occupy the mind and there are fewer periods of terrifying introspection that seem to characterise any honest assessment of childhood. I always worry when I read of someone's snap judgment that they had a happy childhood; I tend to wonder what memories are being shut out.

Marriage is, of course, the large transformer since it forces the adolescent (or it should) to think stereoscopically instead of self-centredly. I was twenty-five when I married. The tragedy with certain marriages is when the man, and it frequently is the man, wants to go on behaving like a teenager and has merely replaced his mum with a bride.

However two developments stand out. The first blessing arrived when school ended. I never understood the imperatives of school; if I ever thought about them in the abstract I only saw the processes as pointless. Whereas within a week at the newspaper, in the company of men and women united by the need to get sentences right, I knew I was among people I understood.

The second development occurred during National Service much of which I hated - the forced matiness, the limited horizons, the draconian concepts of punishment. But eight months of five-and-a-half-day weeks devoted to understanding radio was a type of education I found myself grudgingly accepting. Afterwards I realised this disinterested instruction had changed the way I thought about the natural world; it helped me discard superstition and embrace a mathematical approach to phenomena. I was no longer just an ill-defined young man who simply read books and called myself liberal arts. It took several years to recognise the fact but I had finally taken on a minor form of intellectual rigour.

While also learning not to be too solemn about things.

Marly: Much of my response to Avus also applies. Your memory about swallowing your tongue immediately rang a sonorous bell; children are easily misinformed but in ways adults rarely appreciate. For some reason I was convinced as a seven-year-old there could be no more hideous a situation than to be required to sing solo in public. And I'm talking incapacitating terror here, augmented by over-hearing adults - those remote self-contained beings - talk laughingly about their own apprehensions faced with solo singing. But they laughing, me not.

When V, for the first time, played a scale on the piano and asked me to duplicate it I did so as if it were the most natural thing. Later in that exhilarating and exhausting first day I realised, faintly at first then with growing excitement, I had outgrown a childish fear. I hadn't simply endured singing solo in public, I had wanted to do it. Finally, at age eighty, that part of me might now claim to be adult.

Avus said...

Thanks for that considered reply, RR. Odd how much we disliked our enforced military careers, but nearly everyone I now talk to seems to think it did them good.

Roderick Robinson said...

Avus: Rose-coloured retrospection in many cases I suspect. Who can bear to say that the two years slipped by entirely without profit?

Marly Youmans said...

Hah, I like that response! And much of that is something I face now, with three children, ages 18-26. It is interesting, that gap between childhood and adulthood, though somewhat exhausting for the observer.

I remember my father wanting to record me reading when I was a tiny little girl. It was, to me, humiliating and upsetting, and he could not understand why.

Roderick Robinson said...

Marly: Definitely sounds like a variant of my fear. All the elements are there: the apprehension, an undefined sense of being upset, and an adult who - despite his other no doubt sterling qualities - simply didn't understand. How alien that world was; how convinced I was that things were stacked against me. Now we are both part of that world and must take care not to add to its lack of sympathy.