The first was to maintain the weight loss I had accomplished last year. Losing weight and getting fit were my only resolutions for 2009 and I managed to shed a quarter of my body weight and have my doctor tell me “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” (Hooray) But now I have to take New Year resolutions seriously. (Boo)
My second resolution was to make a real effort to keep in touch with friends, old and new, real and virtual. For the latter, of course, I have to keep this blog current. (Hooray) Â But here I am, last day of January, making my first post of the year. (Boo)
My third resolution will very probably be the death of me. I was drunk daft enough to resolve in front of witnesses that I will not buy one single book until I have cleared my shelves, tables, desks and floor of all the books waiting to be read. At last count, there were 231 books in that category. (Hooray) Since January 1, I have managed to read only nine of them, which means I can’t buy any more books until the end of 2011. (BIG FAT BOO)
For me, not buying books is like an alcoholic taking the Pledge or a crack addict becoming a nun. My friendly online bookstore, (cough) Indigo (cough), which has just declared its first ever operating profit, might even go bankrupt, while the Canadian consumer spending index will dive.
Family legend has it that I have been reading since before I could speak. The story goes that my father came home from work one day and found me, a mute three year old to that point, sitting on the floor in the middle of the Irish Times. Why I was mute is a story for another time. Suffice to say that, when he enquired of my mother what I was doing with his newspaper, both parents were dumbfounded to hear me reply “I’m reading it.” I’d love to be able to say I remember the occasion, but I cannot tell a lie: I don’t. However, I do remember, at an even earlier age, sitting on my Dad’s lap every evening while he read Kipling’s Mowgli stories to me and my older brother and sister. He moved his finger along the words as he read, presumably for my benefit, which is probably how I learned to read. (It may also be the reason I fell in love with my first serious boyfriend when he took me to see Disney’s Jungle Book. Big mistake, but that, too, is a story for another time!)
In defiance of the accepted wisdom that reading to your kids every night will turn them into readers, none of my siblings developed an interest in reading and there were very few children’s books in our house. But we lived next door to a family of book lovers, who gave me free run of their house and the books they had outgrown and stored in their attic. Every day, after school, I would let myself into their house, empty while they were all out at work, and settle down in the attic until somebody arrived home, or I was called to supper by my mother. This routine continued until I was about nine, and had the added benefit of keeping me out of reach of my older sister, AKA The She-Devil. At that time, the man of the house, who had been in a long term care hospital for years, died and the family decided to sell up and move away. But before they left, they presented me with the contents of the attic, including the book cases to hold them.
As you can imagine, I was in seventh heaven. But this turn of events did put me back within reach of The She-Devil. Despite the fact that she was actually a very stupid girl, she never seemed to have any problem coming up with fiendish ways to torment me and, this time around, she found a beaut. We had a black lead range in our kitchen, which my mother kept fired up all day, every day. My sister would sit and watch me reading by the heat of the range and, just before I reached the end of a book, she would grab it from me and hurl it into the coals, using the poker to make sure it caught alight. To this day, I have to make a real effort not to read the last pages of a book first.
I’m partway through Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning. I think I will try to finish it this evening, so that I can say I have made inroads on ten books so far this year. But I will be back. After all, there is that second New Year resolution to keep.
I’m currently reading this wonderful novel by A. S. Byatt, a writer whose reputation has, for many years, been unfairly overshadowed by the popularity of her sister, Margaret Drabble.
I was a devout fan of Drabble’s early fiction, especially A Summer Birdcage, The Garrick Year and The Millstone, but I went off her a bit when she went all heavy, ‘doon t’mine’ Yorkshire in some of her later works. I found The Peppered Moth, her semi-fictional account of her mother’s life, unreadable and never finished it. Then last summer, I picked up a copy of her recent novel The Red Queen, set in 18th-century Korea, and was absolutely enchanted. So I’m thinking I should get back into Drabble again, although I’m not quite sure when I can squeeze in the time. During that mythical shangri-la of retirement, when I will spend every waking hour catching up on my reading? Unlikely, if The First Husband has his way. He’ll be dragging me around the world, insisting I keep moving, lest I perish like the shark!
However, getting back to Byatt: (See what I mean? Overshadowed by her bloody sister again!) She has been gradually moving away from the somewhat showy erudition of her earlier works and, ever since her Booker-winning Possession, has been writing novels I’ve found utterly engrossing.
This one is no exception. In fact, I’m reading it rather more slowly than is my wont (I usually tear through books at a canter, then forget everything I’ve read within a few days, alas) so that I might savour it. This paragraph, at the beginning of Chapter 3, really resonated with me because, although it describes a time near the end of the Victorian era, it reminded me so much of my own childhood.
…the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children. And there were many other children. There were large families, in which relations shifted subtly as new people were born … and in which a child also had a group identity, as ‘one of the older ones’ or ‘one of the younger ones’. The younger ones were often enslaved or ignored by the older ones, and were perennially indignant. The older ones resented being told to take the younger ones along, when they were planning dangerous escapades.
In this age of helicopter parenting, it’s sweet to look back to such innocent times: the warm summer days when our mothers shooed us out the door immediately after breakfast, warning us not to come back until lunchtime. And, since I grew up in 1950s Ireland, there were indeed many other children out there, with the same order ringing in their ears. As a middle child, with two older and two younger than me, I experienced both identities, although not as part of a group. I was first dragged reluctantly along by my brother and sisterâ€”seven and five years older respectivelyâ€”and then I hauled my two younger sistersâ€”five and three years youngerâ€”along in my turn.
Being the dragger-along was much easier, on me and on my younger sisters. As the dragee, I was terrorised by my older sister, aka The She-devil. As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these pages, it was her mission to at least scar me for life, if I couldn’t be drowned, stabbed or pushed under a bus. When my turn in the role of Big Sis came along, I was more likely to be looking for a quiet spot where I could read the books I smuggled out with me, than planning any dangerous escapades, and we soon came to an understanding. So long as they did their level best not to get themselves killed, I would happily leave them to their own devices and we would meet up in time to return home as a single unit. It never occurred to me, of course (and I was supposed to be the one with the brains) that my mother might occasionally have wondered why my sisters always came home in flitters from their adventures, while I was in the same pristine condition as when I left the house.
I have taken my title from a wonderful book by an Irish writer, Michael Farrell, which was released in 1963. It was his one and only book, his master work, which he toiled over for years, never satisfied, even after it had been accepted by a publisher. I read it when I was living in Germany, and I have never forgotten the chapters that detail the physical and mental abuse the hero suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers.
I was reminded of Farrell’s book, when I read some of the horrors contained in the report from the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was released earlier this week. I’m not going to go into the details here. Wise Web Woman has written about the report, far more movingly than I ever could, in this heart-rending post on her blog. Commenters there, and on other blogs I have visited this week, all ask the same questionâ€”how could something like this happen, right under the noses of so-called responsible adults, to the most vulnerable children? I think the answer to that lies in the kind of world we lived in, those of us who were brought up in Ireland during the 1950s and 60s.
Beatings by teachers, parents, even neighbours were commonplace. There was a general acceptance, promulgated by the Catholic Church which ruled the country with an iron fist, that children were basically evil little bastards who, if they were not severely chastised at every opportunity, would run amok. Although I had many a slap from my mother, that was just because she didn’t like me very much. None of my siblings were ever hit or beaten, by either of my parents, so we were luckier than most. Every kid I knew was routinely beaten by one or both of their parents. I had one friend whose father used to beat her with the flat of a cricket bat, well into her teens. A cricket bat! I can hardly lift one with both hands, they’re so heavy.
The teachers in the national school I attended for the first six years of my education were vicious. We called it “getting biffed,” when a teacher called you out to the front of the class, made you roll up your sleeve, and delivered sharp, stinging blows to the palm of your hand, if you were a girl, or to your backside, if you were a boy. The number of slaps depended on the enormity of your misdeed, and the level of pain depended on the favoured method of the teacher. I remember one nun who used a bamboo cane, which had been carefully shredded on the business end, to deliver the maximum amount of damage. Another teacher, a lay teacher this time, was renowned for using a chair leg to beat the boys in her class. She lived in our village and was much admired by all the parents for her control of said boys. Nobody ever thought to complain to their parents about these beatings. If you were one of the lucky ones, like me, the response was invariably “you probably asked for it.” Most kids lived in terror of their parents finding out they’d been punished by the teacher, as it would earn them another beating at home. Winter beatings were the hardest, as we all suffered from chilblains on our hands, that would bleed after a biffing. Along with the beatings, there were the casual crueltiesâ€”being lifted out of your seat by your plaits, as I was on many occasions; having heavy rulers or blackboard dusters thrown at you; getting smacked on the back of your head, just for the heck of it, as a teacher passed by your desk.
My family lived on a squareâ€”a private park maintained by the residents. I spent my childhood playing in the square, along with all the other children in the area. If anything got out of hand, a fight broke out, or something was broken, any adult who happened to be passing by would wade in, box every kid’s ears and go on his or her way, confident that the kids’ parents would not mind in the slightest that their offspring had been slapped around by a neighbour. “I’ll box your ears” was a favourite euphemism of the time. Sounds so cute, what was in fact a sharp slap to the side of the head that would leave your ears ringing. Any adult could hand one out to any kid, no matter how young, with impunity.
My cousin, Peter, was educated by the Christian Brothers, a religious teaching order that plays a starring role in the Child Abuse report. They were renowned for their brutality. Peter was a harmless kid, sweet-natured, not a mischievous bone in his body. He was beaten so badly by one of his teachers that he permanently lost the hearing in one ear. So we were all shocked when Peter up and joined the Christian Brothers after leaving school. The Brothers paid for him to go to university, and then on to teacher training school. The day after he graduated as a fully-accredited teacher, he left the order. As one of seven kids, he could never have afforded to go to university any other way. Revenge is, indeed, a dish best eaten cold.
Unlike Peter, my only brother was a fiend in human form. My mother once told me that, from the moment “Paddy” was old enough to go and play in the square, the doorbell started ringing as neighbours lined up to complain about him. The nuns and brothers lathered the hell out of him, but they could not beat the mischief out of Paddy. Even my father put on boxing gloves and went a few rounds with him once, but to no avail. When he was about 12 years old, after several visits from the police, Paddy was sent away to boarding school. Or at least that was the story we were told. Many years later, I learned that he had been sent to Daingean Reformatory, one of the institutions described in the Child Abuse report, after an incident involving a stolen car, a midnight joyride and a court appearance. He spent two years there, after which he was banished to an expensive, very tough boarding school in England, that had a reputation for turning around problem kids. But Paddy remained the black sheep of the family for the rest of his life. Although he made and lost several fortunes in England, eventually retiring at age 40 to become a “gentleman farmer” in Ireland, he was always a lost soul. Over the years, we got used to reading about his latest escapade in the tabloids, until he died suddenly, after a massive heart attack when he was only 44. Reading about the abusive atmosphere in Daingean, I wonder if my brother might have eventually found his path had he not been sent there.
In the Ireland I grew up in, I have no doubt that many adults were aware of the physical abuse meted out to orphans and reformatory kids. And I am equally sure that they would not have objected. If the Church said these kids were evil and needed to be punished, for their own good, well that was just how it had to be. The sexual abuse is another matter. Although there were certain priests in our Parish that all the kids knew to stay away from, if only because there was something icky about them, I don’t ever remember any gossip or rumours about teachers and kids. And I have to believe, if there were, then somebody would have intervened. I have to believe that.
Another good one has shuffled off this mortal coil. John Mortimer is probably best known for his Rumpole series of novels, which made a successful TV series for the Beeb starring the inimitable Leo McKern. But he was also a successful barrister, playwright, and writer of several wonderful autobiographies, of which A Voyage Round My Father is a particular favourite of mine. It, too, became a successful TV productionâ€”twice, the second starring Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, and Jane Asher. I’ve also read several of his non-Rumpole novels, but not even scratched the surface of his output.
Mortimer was also famously left-leaning in his politics, a fervent supporter of Labour for many years and all-round rabble-rouser. I will never forget reading an article by him in a long-defunct British glossy magazine for women, called Nova. It was the thinking woman’s magazine, a huge breakout from the cosy Woman’s Weekly genre, full of recipes, knitting patterns, and adulatory stories about the Royal Family, that had been the norm to that point. Unfortunately, Nova was killed off when the British version of Cosmopolitan came off the presses and hammered it in circulation numbers. As a matter of principleâ€”not to mention sheer bloody-mindednessâ€”I’ve never bought a single copy of Cosmo to this day and I have shunned it in waiting-rooms around the world. Besides, it’s absolute shite.
To get back to Mortimer. It was shortly after he had defended the young hellions who had published a very, very rude edition of Oz Magazineâ€”you can read all about it hereâ€”which was also very funny, I might add. I kept a copy of it for years, but it must have got lost at some point during my travels, alas. The reason I remember the Nova article so vividly is that he used a quotation I had never heard before, and which affected me profoundly. It was from Voltaire: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I’ve tried to keep to that maxim, even in my looniest of loony left days. And I would have to say that being open to a variety of opinions and ideas has enriched my life enormously.
This is who I want to be when I grow up. Thank you to The Poet Laura-eate for introducing me to her. My order for four of Ms Athill’s books is already winging its way through the wide wonderful world of the interweb.
Slate, the original and still my favourite online ‘zine, has a wonderful article by Johann Hari on Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.
The article, and I assume the book, is full of wonderful little nuggets like this one, on London’s sewers:
Her journey opens by tramping down at midnight into the place where that road beganâ€”the sewers of London. This city beneath the city can be deadly: Stinking clouds of hydrogen sulphideâ€”the “sewer gas” that forms when sewage decomposesâ€”will suffocate you if you get caught in them. Before these tunnels were built, London had “on-site sanitation.” This is a polite way of saying people shat in a covered-up, set-aside space, and their feces were collected and sold to farmers as manure. But in the early 19th century, London’s population rapidly doubled, and the city’s buildup of excrement became unsustainable. The cost of having your private cesspool emptied spiked to a shilling, twice the average workers’ daily wage. So, people took to emptying their cesspools into the Thames, which soon ran brown. By 1848 cholera outbreaks were killing 14,000 people a year, and then came the “Great Stink” of 1858. London reeked so badly people were vomiting in the streets. The drapes of the House of Commons were soaked with chloride in a (failed) attempt to disguise the stench.
It seems we are living in a golden age – somewhere between a time when humans wallowed in their own excrement and a not-too distant future when the world will drown in shit – unless we can come up with an alternative in the next few decades. Where’s Joe the Plumber when we really need him?