Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Bookish (an excerpt)

A memoir in four parts

Ah, Metcalf. The boy pugilist. Sit.

Many autobiographies of writers present a picture of a shy and lonely child delivered from solitude and unsympathetic surroundings by the power of the Word, the child’s mind captured, for example, by the illustrations in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or struggling with the text of the only book in the house, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Good examples of this typical type of experience are recorded in James Laver’s Museum Piece and in Jocelyn Brooke’s The Military Orchid.

My own childhood was nothing like this. I cannot remember a time when I was not surrounded by books. My father, a Methodist minister, had a fairly large library, most of the volumes, to be sure, theological, but he also had most of the standard poets and first editions of the novels of Conrad and Hardy. Among the more ‘modern’ poets he owned Masefield, Housman, Chesterton, Belloc, Yeats, and Blunden.

After he died and I was looking through what books my mother had not promptly donated to Oxfam, I was amazed to find Wilde’s De Profundis. I’d probably seen it when younger but thought it to have been a work of theology.

My mother read all the time. Her reading wasn’t ‘literary’. Her favourite material was historical novels and detective stories. These came from the Public Library, from Boots Lending Library, and Timothy White’s Lending Library. The historical novels were of the Georgette Heyer variety, bodice rippers but “nice” bodice rippers, the detective stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. I associate all these writers, whom I loathe, with the smell of bath salts and talc, doubtless an early memory of trips to Boots Chemists.

These detective story writers seem to me, now, to mirror and perpetuate the nastiness of British class preoccupations. The Superintendent or the well-bred amateur sleuth was always assisted by the comically lower class and utterly thick but throbbingly loyal Sergeant or manservant. So it was in the 1930’s, the Golden Age of detective fiction, with Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and his ‘gent’s ‘elp’ Magersfontein Lugg and it still is seventy years later with Colin Dexter’s rather highbrow Inspector Morse and funny old Sergeant Lewis, dim but devoted as a Labrador.

When I was a child I read quickly usually taking about two hours to finish a book. On wet days I read my ration of library books in one gulp and often returned in the evening for three more. On the other hand, I was eleven before I could tell time. I can still see the tears of exasperation and rage starting in my mother’s eyes as she moved the cardboard hands on the cardboard face and asked me what time it was if the little hand was on one and the big hand was on nine. She might as well have been talking to me in a foreign language.

Oddly enough, all this reading did not mean that I was ‘bookish’; quite the reverse was true. School always baffled me. I’d like to pretend that I was so brilliant I was bored by school. But that isn’t true. I was baffled. The only subjects in which I did well were English and history. English because I did it automatically. When it came to grammar and parsing, I had no idea of what people were talking about. It took lessons in Latin years later to drive home what was meant by ‘adjective’ and ‘adverb’. History fascinated me because I felt it all around me, felt a reverent connection with every ancient wall, in every nave, felt a covenant with every hill fort and long barrow.

I passed what was called the ‘eleven-plus’ exam — an instrument for sorting out grammar school hopefuls from ‘secondary modern’ fodder — only because my mother drilled me in ‘sums’ and suchlike.

It quickly became apparent that if I were ever to do anything at all in life it would be on the ‘arts’ side of affairs though any prospects whatsoever seemed more than doubtful. At thirteen I was declared ineducable in Math and I stopped taking the subject altogether. The fact that my Math teacher that year was abnormally small and looked like a Japanese sniper as drawn in American comics and drove home his points with the rung of a chair may have had something to do with it. But not much. The truth is that numbers cause a pain in my forehead.

The English teaching I received between the ages of twelve and fourteen was, I realize now, superb. Our only activities were précis, paraphrase, exercises in comprehension, and essay writing. In other words, we were drilled in logic, in the steel structure of the language. Literature was dealt with in the following way: each term we were given a list of twelve novels to read at home. This meant that in a school year we read a minimum of 36 novels. At the end of each term we were given a test cunningly designed to reveal if we had in fact read them.

‘With whom did Jim Davis shelter after the fight with the revenue officers?’

The following books were on those lists and suggest the general flavour of the reading: Jim Davis, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, King Solomon’s Mines, The History of Mr. Polly, A Tale of Two Cities, Tarka the Otter, Oliver Twist, Allan Quartermain, Kim, David Copperfield, Three Men in a Boat, Prester John, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Rodney Stone, The White Company, The Cloister and the Hearth, Rookwood, etc.

All good stuff for boys and entertaining. The idea of discussing such things as plot and characterization would never have occurred to my teachers.

And a damn good thing too. (I suspect that nowadays these books would be considered far too difficult in syntax and vocabulary and entirely lacking in relevance. I prefer them, however, to the books with titles like Jennifer’s First Period tailored to the supposed interests of adolescents.)

This, then, was my ‘official’ life until I was fourteen.