have dreamed of calling my uncle "wicked".
was a dedicated and caring General Practitioner. He made house-calls
to his elderly patients, lit fires for them so they wouldn't freeze
to death, made sure they had enough to eat... He was deeply in
love with his wife. But, in retrospect, he was my (fortunately
distant) Wicked Uncle, my unfortunate mother's brother, who left
the Royal Navy in 1946 (as Surgeon-Lieutenant) to become the junior
partner of a practice in Coventry. I was well into my fifties
before I realised the extent of the damage wrought by his interference
in my upbringing.
was his sister's bastard. He probably didn't know who my father
was any more than I do. I sucked my thumb for many years, thus
pushing out my top front teeth so that I had to wear a tooth-brace
worked by elastic bands.
was also left-handed, a condition perceived as a curse or handicap
by my grandmother, who used to slap a ruler edge-on against my
left hand when I used it in preference to my right - improperly.
mother had a married sister who resented me even more. She made
sure that neither her mild and very-good-with-his-hands husband
nor her very-good-with-their-hands sons ever had a chance, or
the desire, to show me how to hammer a nail straight, wield a
screwdriver, put a nut on a bolt without dropping and losing it.
She "deprived" me of the only possible "male role-model",
and so I gradually, unconsciously became my own role-model. And
still I am, although I now have plenty of men I admire - Schopenhauer,
Nietzsche, Mauss, Bourdieu, Foucault, Diogenes. Whitman - and
even the ineffable Yeats and Rilke, scoundrels though they were.
also attached some admiration to the only picture in the house
which affected me: a photograph of Charles Dickens with a splendid
beard. From early on my only ambitions were to grow a beard, smoke
a pipe, and wear an earring like a pirate - not the dream of the
usual effeminate, sissy or nancy-boy! I had fulfilled them by
the time I was twenty-one, and have never had any other ambition,
except to write short stories as good as Kafka's. Of course whatever
my talent for poetry (unperceived by anyone else) I do not have
a talent for story-writing.
uncle used to spend his summer holidays on the chilly North Antrim
coast, bringing his wife and - at that time - two children. I
have never cared for beaches, because, like any Molly (another
of his words was Shibby, along with Sissy) I hated sand in my
socks and shoes. My feet have always been a weak point, partly
because they are very broad and, in the 1940s and 1950s broad
shoes were simply not available. Working-class children were given
large boots into which they could grow, but I had to wear shoes
that were too narrow, so my feet were scrunched. They are the
only part of my body that I, even today, do not like to reveal.
North Atlantic was horribly cold. The weather in July and August
was (and is) rarely warm. "My Family" were all sporty
and outdoor - but I preferred to go off to somewhere relatively
warm and read Conan Doyle or Dumas - and before that, Enid Blyton.
My ingrained anti-sportiness and self-exclusion has intensified
as I have aged, and I am sure that it is the chief and defining
inheritance from my (mercifully-) unknown father. My reluctance
to brave the weather and the pitless waves of the North Channel
was obvious. But I enjoyed excursions. I loved maps.
famous Giant's Causeway was not far away. I remember one excursion
to it, after which I bought (or asked for) a miniature simulacrum
of "The Giant's Chair". My uncle told me that if I put
it in a basin of water, made a wish, and left it overnight, my
wish would be granted. Of course, being made of painted plaster,
it simply dissolved. My uncle was highly amused at my distress.
and his two eldest children (Sylvia and Geoffrey) learned to swim
in very dangerous, cold circumstances, in a rocky cove (more like
a small chasm) in which we could have hurt ourselves quite badly.
I was the last of the three to learn. This was probably just as
well for Geoffrey, who might otherwise have borne the stigma of
Shibby (could this be a corruption of Siobhán ?)
at least for a while.
good memories of the years of summer holidays spent in a cold,
rented house in Ballycastle, county Antrim, were the evenings
with my mother who took me to my favourite place: the graveyard
and ruins of the Franciscan Friary at Bonamargy (beside the river
Margy) on the edge of the village. I loved walking over the ruined
walls, hopping down into rooms, running up and down stone stairways.
I also loved walking over rocks and pebbles, because they provided
challenges to balance which I found delightful. Even today, in
my seventies, I love walking over rocks and stones.
loved the old headstones in the graveyard. Even then, I loved
the quiet and the lack of other people around. Not only was I
a sissy and 'a bit of a drip', but a loner as well !
was of course very little 'culture' in Northern Ireland after
the second world war. But touring companies had not yet died out,
so the amazing Donald Wolfit brought his company even to Belfast,
where my mother made sure I saw his Shakespeare productions. The
other touring company was The International Ballet, which made
a greater impression on me.
wanted to become a male ballet-dancer. I had the right stance
(feet turned out, which was also considerfed to be a defect).
But my lack of supple co-ordination largely due to my enforced
partial right-handedness (and left-footedness) would have prevented
me from ever becoming a dancer, even if the opportunity could
ever have been offered. Nevertheless, I loved the challenges to
balance which I saw in Swan Lake, Giselle and Coppélia.
And I found the music enchanting: it carried me aloft and above
the dour, grey, sectarian respectability of Belfast. My liking
of Tchaikovsky's lesser music was no problem to my uncle - who
could play the piano well enough to impress a young boy - but
my desire to become a dancer, rather than a train-driver like
my cousin Geoffrey, sent up another red flag.
my uncle, aided and abetted by his friend and fellow medical student
who was also our family doctor, urged that I should be 'toughened
up', and sent to a Proper School for Boys where rugby and other
rough and mindless games were compulsory. Thus I was taken out
of a normal Public Elementary school which I liked, where no "game"
was obligatory, and which had reasonably good (and reasonable)
teachers, to be put (mid-year) into a 'Preparatory School' whose
outrageous fees were only part-met by the state. The fees were
outrageous because the teaching staff was outrageous and largely
Dickensian. A private school for boys in the 1950s was little
different to Dickens' Dotheboys Hall. I was 'encouraged'
to eat horrible food at dinner-time - and thus began my passive
resistance to schooling and all authority, because I simply refused
to eat it, sitting alone at the long table under the cold eye
of a teacher until the lunch-break was over, and my almost-full
plate was taken away.
was picked on by particularly-untalented teachers - especially
those teaching mathematics, which I loathed. I was cuffed and
caned a lot. I suspect that they got a whiff of a Sissy in their
midst. I was not the only pupil to skulk on the edges of football
and cricket fields; not the only pupil who was unable to turn
a somersault or vault a 'horse' like the Brave Chaps in the propaganda
film The Great Escape.
I think I was the only one whom the headmaster recommended to
be sent to a Child Guidance Clinic, staffed by 'qualified' people
as incompetent as the teachers of Cabin Hill Preparatory School.
poor mother was caught between her sympathy for me and the demands
of the males (brother, family doctor - who also, gruesomely, was
the school doctor) who were desperate to Make A Man of me. She
consequently lost my trust, and I became "A Liar". In
other words, I did not have the objectivity, the courage or the
trust to tell her how much I hated school and exactly how I suffered.
She was hauled up in front of the horrible hypocrite of a headmaster
(aptly nicknamed Greasy) almost as much as I was. She was part
of a loathsome little game in which I was the ball, and was encouraged
to be ashamed of me. Children who lied out of pathetic defencelessness
were condemned as morally blighted, and in need of 'curing' or
'straightening out' by compulsory games and surreal rules. It
wasn't until I read Carl Jung that I began to understand the infantile
games of adults. Needless to say, I then became a fan of Angela
Carter, Bruno Bettelheim and Marie-Louise von Franz.
the adults known of the Experiments in the Bushes with my circumcised
friend Herbie Balmer (who likewise loathed 'games' but was very
bright and complaisant), I could have been sent for electro-convulsive
therapy or worse.
I not had an accursedly high IQ, I would have been expelled at
various times during my school years. If only I had been duller,
less thoughtful, less sensitive - Normal, in fact! I think I transferred
this desire after I left school by generally avoiding 'normal'
middle-class (and especially) sporty people, and becoming déclassé,
associating with folk-singers, Catholics and the unemployed, with
whom I was happy to identify, as I had identified with smelly
beggars and 'bad' (independent-minded, gangless) boys in my early
Since I was a pupil, my odious school has
sold off much of its land and shrubberies for tasteless and depressing
I was a 'problem' only to male adults and their admirers. I have
never had a problem with making friends, even though I was bullied
from time to time by the 'tougher' boys, one of whom got a kick
out of pissing in my mouth while his friends held me down. He
(surprise! surprise!) went on to become one of the most famous
rugby players for (rugby-playing, i.e. Protestant-Ascendancy,
Ireland. I was also targetted by at least two (my memory is not
good) teachers, plus the weasel-wordy, bluff, pipe-smoking headmaster,
who taught Greek unbelievably badly, and punished me for my own
good, etc. etc. I had good friends at school, including one (slightly
"better at games" than I) with whom I would repair once
or twice a week deep into the dense rhododendron shrubbery to
do genital things together.
was a surgeon's son (and went on to be an anaesthetist) so we
clad our sexual precocity-curiosity in medical terminology, using
medical textbooks that were available to both of us. He was circumcised
and I was not, so we performed endurance experiments on each other.
How close could we put a lighted match to our glanses ? What weights
could we lift with our erect cocks ? My friend Herbie usually
won, because circumcised dicks have lost most of their sensitivity
along with the foreskin - a fact which bears heavily on the treatment
of women by Muslims and Jews. But these were innocent, almost
wholesome, competitions by today's standards.
I could make my cock look like his, but he could not make his
look like mine. I did not feel inferior nor worthless as I did
on the "sports" field. (One of the most popular "sports"
of all time have been Bull- and Bear-Baiting.) We were friends
who would go on to have a cheerful rivalry at the top of biology
classes. This was one of the few subjects which was well-taught
(by a non-Varsity man) in the senior ('grammar') school to which
we automatically graduated at the age of 11 or 12.
too my career was very tarnished. I became more rebellious. I
was interested only in a few well-taught subjects (English, French,
Biology) and made absolutely no progress in the especially badly-taught
subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and Physical Exercise.
uncle and his friend the school doctor then advised my mother
to have me board at the school (which was only two miles from
our home). This was a further expense - and good money after bad,
because I ran away. Running away from school is what sissies do,
boys who won't "face up" and "knuckle down"
and turn their whole being inside out to please battalions of
'normal' males who are unsure about their masculinity, and visit
their fears on defenceless children. But I also did a very butch
thing: in my "study periods" I stole day-boys' motorbikes,
worked out how they were driven, and whizzed gleefully around
the countryside with considerable risk to life and limb. It was
amazing that I did not crash. This was in the days when motorbikes
generally did not have batteries and were kick-started - a problem
for me because I am left-footed.
next interference came at my final year. They (with the headmaster)
decided to make me a Prefect, thinking that a little brief authority
might make me join the system and take them seriously. It did
not. I refused to censure and punish younger boys unfairly. I
even did the unpardonable thing of actually writing the Lines
(500 times "I must keep my hands out of my pockets"
or similar) imposed unfairly on a boy by a fellow-Prefect. This
was a kind of class-perfidy, an act of treachery against hierarchy.
I was seventeen.
"fellow" schoolmates comprised: bullies, charmers (but
no self-harmers), cheats and sneaks, hiders and skivers, duckers
and divers, skulkers and sulkers - but I was none of these. I
was enjoyably teasable. If I was baited enough, I would fly into
a literally-blind rage and throw something. The teaser would then
sidle off, very pleased with himself - except for one time, during
a Boy Scout afternoon (I refused to join the militarist Combined
Cadet Corps), one of my persistent teasers had a go at
me. I picked up a Scout-knife and threw it wildly in his direction
- hitting him freakily just above the knee and causing a wound
requiring stitches. I was caned for this, of course, but gained
the admiring sobriquet of Mack the Knife. Needless to say,
I couldn't catch a ball nor throw one over-arm - nor whistle
through my teeth. Not many children actually can do the whistling
trick. It requires a very acrobatic tongue - and I have always
had a 'lazy' (that is to say, unacrobatic) tongue.
uncle had a central parting in his hair. This was the worst feature
of T.S. Eliot, whose poetry I came across around the age of 15.
His best work is certainly The Waste Land - a gold-mine
of a poem which had itself mined The Golden Bough. His
worst work is probably the Four Quartets, banal, typically-occidental
musings on time and existence which any eight-year-old Buddhist
trainee-monk would recognise as superficial. Would that Mr Eliot
had had the seriousness to read the works of Rumi or Hafez even
in the poor translations then available. But FitzGerald's re-interpretation
of The Rubâiyat of Omar Khayyâm was (and is)
widely available, and he seems not to have absorbed any of its
deep and serious humour...
uncle, as I have said, played the piano competently, at least
to my innocent ears. Not of course Chopin or Debussy or other
sissy-music - I can't remember what he played. I was sent
to his former piano-teacher. She almost killed my love of music.
I felt like the child in Marguerite Duras' mysterious Andante
Cantabile, except that her child could play well while refusing
to explain what andante cantabile meant, whereas I played
badly but with no problem in understanding the markings, verbal
or otherwise. Neither I nor anyone realised but I am dyslexic
regarding sheet-music. I can read the notes, more or less, but
cannot work out the way they should be played - the timing, in
other words. This is ironic because I am now incredibly aware
of delicious rubato in Chopin performances as in O'ud recitals.
I have a very good sense of rhythm (e.g. tabla) but I cannot read
it off a page. So my piano lessons fizzled out. It took me a year
or two to regain my interest in European classical music; after
my childhood enthusiasm for the lesser music of Tchaikovsky came
that composer's major works, and then Sibelius, who was an
Open Sesame! to many musics.
uncle certainly "had a good war". This was not
true for two of his three sisters. Though he volunteered and sailed
the high seas in a position of manly authority, they, in London
and Canada, were summoned home by their mother to live with their
mother after war was declared. My mother could quite legally have
stayed in Canada as a teacher, but "felt it her duty"
to obey the summons. So it was for daughters. A year or so later
she found herself pregnant.
unmarried sister had a network of friends in London whom she lost
in returning to Belfast and finding a dreary job in the Victorian
fustiness of the accounts department of Post Office Telephones,
a job she loathed and endured for over twenty years. It was she,
kind and generous, who helped bring me up, while my 'fallen' mother
was, perforce, "across the water" as a WAAF attached
to the Meteorological Office.
is not good to dwell upon childhood wrongs real or imagined. The
motto of my third-rate Public (i.e. semi-private) School is Ne
Obliviscaris, a Latinisation of the Dinnae Forget of
the Dukes of Argyll and the Campbell Clan, though it is a mystery
to me why they should not forget their infamous pro-English massacre
of MacDonalds in Glencoe in 1692.
have probably given the impression that from early on I have been
in control of my life and knew what I was doing. Not at all. Most
of my life has been spent in a fog of hesitant unknowing. Or rather,
I have almost always felt out of my depth. My behaviour has been
bold - but blind.
I am still somewhat prone to little object-hurling outbursts of
tearful rage when my goat is got.