I was fourteen when my mother bought me my first ‘adult’ novel: John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers. I was into war stories, you see, and the premise of this one was so good it appealed even to my mum.
Imagine this: the year is 1943 and Australia’s been invaded by the Japanese. What happens next? Battles, I hoped, and lots of ’em, like the gory ones in James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, which I read a few years later.
Wrong. Here the fighting is finished before the story starts, and all we’re left with is a rag-tag bunch of would-be resistance fighters who traipse around the desert looking for arms and ammunition they never use.
That was my teenage take on it. Today, as an adult, I think I know better. Now I’d say the book is less about the Pacific war than it is about the age-old struggle between white Australians (in the shape of the soldiers) and the continent’s red centre (the bush). There’s plenty of drama really, but it’s purely psychological.
Bored with the lack of explosive action, though, I never finished the thing. Which is why I’m surprised that, a few weeks ago, I allowed myself to be hooked by the Hooker again. This time by a novel of his called Our Jack, which, I’m pleased to report, I’ve read right to the end.
Jack Lamberton is a clever kid who grows up in the Antipodes during the 1940s and 50s. Like his country, he’s confused and weak, caught, as he is, between the old and the new, the near and the far. His mother is a remote Englishwoman who never really left her homeland, while his father, a hard man who admires Americans, is obsessed with order, discipline and concrete.
It’s an impossible upbringing in many ways and yet Jack finds a way through.
. . . by the time I was twelve, I had learnt that lying and deception were, for me, the ways to survival, and even success . . . Books had made me deceitful and knowledgeable – and we all know that knowledge is power
It’s a strategy that almost works. Despite his dodgy looks, Jack wins over a series of winsome women; one by one, though, they desert him, tiring of his ‘eternal childishness’ and his failure to come to terms with anything.
Our Jack admires another Jack: ‘strong, cheerful, reliable’ Jack Martin, the hero of R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Like his fictional namesake, Jack wants to master life’s challenges, and by the end of the novel – well, almost the end – it seems he might’ve done just that, since the book he writes becomes a bestseller.
This time it was I who was in command . . . Like Jack Martin, I had succeeded – I had thrust an oar down the throat of the shark of life.
Which brings me to my point. I, too, have viewed life as an enemy, as a predator I must repel in order to endure and prosper. I, too, have assumed that by re-imagining reality I would one day come to rule it. I, too, have been wrong.
Because, in one last vicious twist, Jack sees the error of his ways. His dying father, he realises, knows his secret: that his book is a deception, an imitation of an old bestseller beloved by his long-dead mother. The shark of life has dodged Jack’s thrust.
And yet it doesn’t have to end this way.
Having seen off the shark in Ballantyne’s book, Jack Martin and his pals leave their lagoon. They know there are more throats in the ocean than they have oars. Instead, they seek safer waters and are thrilled with what they find.
Inside the basin, which we called our Water Garden, the coral formations were much more wonderful, and seaweed plants far more lovely and vividly coloured, than in the lagoon itself.
This is what I hope to do. By seeking safer waters, I aim to evade the shark of life. Enough self-deception, I say. The world is not at my command and never will be. Far better, I think, to see life as a Water Garden to be immersed in and admired.
But how? By reading and writing, of course, only better. Because the best books don’t distort life; on the contrary, they magnify its marvels.
Jack Martin’s mate, Ralph, has but one book, from which he gains ‘much interesting knowledge’. It’s a volume of Captain Cook’s voyages – the very voyages that, in a sense, brought the British to Australia and thus, by extension, The Bush Soldiers to my bookshelf.
I really should read it one day.
So, what’s your aim in life? To win fame and fortune, to be remembered for your wit and wisdom or, like some lucky folk, to have a plant named in your honour?
Alphonse Karr is a ‘fantastic shading bamboo for any garden’. Originally, though, he was much more (or less) than this; he was, in fact, Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr, nineteenth-century French critic and novelist.
Big deal, you say. What has France, the nineteenth century or, for that matter, bamboo ever done for me?
Very little, perhaps, but Alphonse Karr (of the Jean Baptiste variety) is the originator of a very famous, and very useful, phrase. It appeared in his journal, Les Guêpes (The Wasps), sometime in 1849.
‘The more things change,’ Alphonse wrote, ‘the more they remain the same.’
Yeah, that very famous phrase.
I’ve been thinking about human beings, you see. (Clothed ones, I assure you.) Are we capable of change? Real change, I mean, and not just the short-lived superficial kind.
Mostly I’ve thought not, if only because the more I’ve changed – my mind, my manner, my milieu – the more I seem to have, well, stayed the same. (Thanks Alphonse!) Impervious to alteration, that’s me.
And yet for every cynical Karr there’s a doubting Thomas…
Although he never made it as a plant, Thomas Kuhn propagated a very famous, and very useful, idea. It appeared in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, sometime in 1962.
When ‘normal science repeatedly goes astray,’ Tom wrote, ‘then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead . . . at last to a new set of commitments’.
That’s right, folks, it’s the proverbial paradigm shift: the fundamental change in approach or assumptions that takes place every now and then in scientific circles and other realms, including the personal.
Yeah, well, that’s my extrapolation of an interpolation of mine, because Tom himself didn’t apply his ideas to individuals as such. That said, he went close.
He writes, for example, about how those who have changed can convince others to do the same. To him, it’s all about language and communication, which is music, I’ll admit, to my writerly ears.
Fundamental change is portrayed by Tom as a kind of conversion, one aided by the act of translation – a special type of translation.
And here I’d better let him speak for himself.
To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.
That transition is not, however, one that an individual may make or refrain from making by deliberation and choice, however good his reasons for wishing to do so. Instead, at some point in the process of learning to translate, he finds that the transition has occurred, that he has slipped into the new language without a decision having been made.
If Tom is right, we can change ourselves: by immersion and not through abstraction alone.
So, surround yourself with the people you want to emulate. Learn to identify with them and one day you will change. By then, though, it won’t even seem like a stretch: your new self will be more familiar to you than your old.
Change, you’ll say. I haven’t changed a bit.
And that’s the thing about true change, I suppose: it doesn’t feel like change at all.
Perhaps that’s what our man of bamboo, Alphonse Karr, really meant.
For years I have been a closed book, to others and even to myself. Time and time again, words have failed me when I’ve tried to speak of myself.
Not any more.
Last month someone read me – a writer, no less. His name was Anthony and in the pages of his book I did the unthinkable: I found my type.
We met in a bookshop. After a confirmatory flick, I took him home, where he spoke to me until the sun rose, shedding new light.
‘There exist two rather fundamental states of mental distress,’ Tony began, ‘the depressive state and the schizoid state. The emotion characteristic of the former is a feeling of hopelessness and misery. The emotion pertaining to the latter is one of futility and lack of meaning.’
Yes, Tony, I replied. I know them both.
‘Both states take origin from deprivations and misadventures afflicting the infant during the first year of its existence,’ he went on.
I hear you, man, I said, but we won’t go there. Tell me more about schizoid dude instead.
‘He is characterized by detachment and emotional isolation,’ he explained. ‘Schizoid people have ceased to interact genuinely with their peers. Thus they often continue to feel themselves to be unrealistically weak and incompetent on the one hand, and to have equally unrealistic phantasies of power on the other.’
‘Moreover, the less satisfaction a person gains by interacting with people and things in the external world, the more will he be preoccupied with his own inner world of phantasy.’
Hence this blog, I muttered. Turning back to Tony, I asked, What about the depressive?
‘His principal concern is also to protect himself from the danger of loss of self-esteem,’ he said. ‘But, unlike the schizoid person, his self-esteem is much more directly dependent upon a “good” relation with others.’
‘Depressives have no built-in confidence. They remain as vulnerable to outside opinion as a baby is vulnerable to the withdrawal of the breast.’
Tea, I said. Would you like some?
But Tony was not to be deterred. ‘Many people of this temperament give up hope of being loved for themselves, especially since they habitually conceal their real natures. But the hope raises itself when they start to create.’
Then he grew more expansive.
‘Another way of dealing with depression is the so-called “manic defence”,’ he said. ‘When a man becomes manic, he reverses and denies his depression. He becomes overactive. Instead of being sensitive to the needs and wishes of others, he becomes inconsiderate, irritable, demanding. He alleges that he feels splendid and claims complete self-confidence.’
You know me better than I know myself, I said.
‘It’s possible,’ said Tony. ‘After all, some creative people seem to have only a tenuous sense of their own identity. Indeed, their work may be an expression of their search for identity.’
I nodded. That explains a lot, Tony, I said, sadly. Not least of all why I’ve been obsessed with writing, music-making, art and creativity for most of my ‘adult’ life. Not because I’m especially good at them or because they’ve made me any money, but simply because they keep me sane.
‘If creative work protects a man against mental illness, it is small wonder that he pursues it with avidity,’ Tony said, in his bookish way. ‘And even if the state of mind he is seeking to avoid is no more than a mild state of depression or apathy, this still constitutes a cogent reason for engaging in creative work even when it brings no obvious external benefit in its train.’
You’ve read me, Tony, I said. Thanks to you I’ve found my type. What I do with this knowledge is now up to me.
‘For creative work, access to the inner realm of the psyche is essential,’ Tony said. ‘But,’ he went on, a note of caution entering his voice, ‘so is a strongly functioning ego, inhibition of immediate impulse, and control.’
Point taken, my friend.
Thus our conversation closed, and with it Tony’s tome*, whose lines had me pegged. It leaves me a more open book – if not to others then at least to myself.
And that’s saying something.
*The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr (1972)
Take a look in the mirror. Notice anything about your orientation? That’s right: you’re upright, like the rest of us. Relax, it’s just the way we grow; up, it seems, is the way we go.
Okay, step away from the looking glass.
While you were admiring your anthropomorphic erectness, you may not have twigged to something else: our feelings are vertical, too, or at least they are in the ways we think about them.
We’re up or we’re down. Our spirits are high or they’re low. Our mood is elevated or depressed. If our metaphors are anything to go by, our emotions are like mercury in a tube. (Ha, there’s another one! To be mercurial, of course, is to have sudden changes in mood.)
Why so much Y-axis in our thoughts about feelings? It comes back to gravity, methinks, to that perpendicular pressure which drags us down – down to die, if we’re not careful, our brains dashed out on a rock somewhere. For if down equals death and death equals despair, then down clearly equates to despair.
Which is why, one Sunday past, I went and stared at a bridge. An irresistible force was weighing me down, and part of me wondered whether gravity would flatten me if I gave it the chance.
But as I sat in the car, dog-walkers wandering idly by, my thoughts turned from the bridge to the page, to the net that catches me when I dive for oblivion. Because stories, for me, are the upside of down.
Falling to Safety
I met him at the park. He said it was near his place but he couldn’t face his girlfriend so he’d come here instead. He was on my seat – the one with the view of women pushing kids on swings. Only he wasn’t watching.
When I arrived he had his head in his hands. I didn’t encourage him to talk, he just started. Told me he was a fireman; asked me if I’d heard the news. I told him I hated the news. So, after a pause, he filled me in. Fire, apartment block, trapped mother, trapped baby. Straight out of a comic book. Then the crazy bit: mother dropping her baby from a window to a fireman.
That pulled me up.
Hold on, I said, go back a bit. You caught the kid? The fireman groaned. That’s the thing, he said. I almost dropped it.
But didn’t, I said.
Listen, he hissed. I almost dropped that thing; I almost killed it. Next time I won’t be so lucky.
Next time, I said, you won’t be so unlucky – you won’t be the poor prick stuck underneath. You don’t know that, he said. True, I said, nodding. I don’t know a lot of things and that’s one of them.
We went quiet for a bit. I watched a mother try to coax a boy down the slide. The fireman watched with me. You any good at sport, he asked, after a while. Not as good as my brother, I said. And that’s all that counts. You reckon, he said. I’m fucking useless.
I looked at the size of him, the wide shoulders, the monstrous arms. Bullshit, I said. It’s true, he said, with a shrug. I can pump iron but I can’t catch to save myself. I’m a clutz.
That’s not cool, I said. Not in this country. Don’t I know it, he said. I copped hell at school. And fair enough too, I said, with a grin. You gay prick. Sometimes I wished I was, he said. Least I would’ve had a few decent mates. Yeah, I said, I know what you mean.
He turned to look at me, just as the boy went down the slide.
So, he said, you’re finally getting it? That my career’s over? That my cover’s blown? That all this flab, and my uniform, is a disguise? That I’m going to drop the next baby?
Everything’s a disguise, I said. Look, what if you weren’t lucky. What if the catch wasn’t half empty but half full?
I almost dropped it, I tell you, he cried.
But you didn’t, I said.
He thought about this for a while. But how can I be sure, he said finally. Catch another baby, I said, knowing straight away where I was going and not knowing if I liked it one bit.
Don’t tell me, said the fireman, looking at the pram beside me. You live in a two-storey house. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. I hate climbing stairs.
And you’ve got a baby. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. That’s pretty piss-weak, he said. Sorry, I said, that’s me. My wife’s idea.
The fireman snorted, got up and walked away.
Catcher in the Rye, I called after him. Ever read it? He kept walking, that big body of his blocking out the sun. Then he came back, mothers turning to look at him in a way they’d never looked at me.
It is funny, though, he said. Me running into you like this. Isn’t it, I said.
But you can’t be serious, he went on. You don’t want to take that risk, surely, with your own kid. You’re a fireman, I said, squinting up at him. What’s not to trust.
You trust me, a stranger?
Okay, I said, maybe I’m just trusting full stop. I even trust in trust. You’re a fucking idiot full stop, he said.
Ah, I said, now you’ve seen through my disguise.
He stood there, flexing his fingers. I would like to know, though, he said. Before I throw it all away.
Then he turned to me, his eyes shining with hope. You think I can do it?
More to the point, I said, do you think I can?
On and on we went, round and round the mulberry bush, until, trembling and quiet, we up and walked to my wife’s two-storied house, me pushing the pram.
Here, I said, pointing to a spot below the bedroom window. Try not to put your feet in the garden.
As I turned to go, the fireman grabbed my arm. I was top of my class, he hissed, his eyes glittering.
Hold that thought, I said, and took my son upstairs.
It was here, let me tell you, that I almost lost my nerve. I went to a shelf, I took down a bear. I turned it over and over. It was real enough. Then I saw the note you’d left and I put the bear back.
My throat was burning as I scooped the boy up. Three lives, I said as I clutched him to my chest, as I walked with him to the window. Three lives and the whole of humanity. Surely, Ben, we have to take the risk, just to find out.
I opened the window. It’s all right, said the fireman, I’m here, I’m here.
He looked massive as he stood there looking up, hands big like baskets filled with bread and fish.
How could I miss?
No, the fireman screeched, as Benjamin fell. Holy fuck, I cried, as he tumbled out of the fireman’s grasp.
When I got down there the bastard had gone. But Ben lay in the rushes, asleep and unhurt.
I turned and saw the fireman, who had crept back, massive hands hiding his mouth.
It’s all right, I said. He’s alive.
But I dropped him, he cried.
No, I said, he’s been safely caught.
But I dropped him, the fireman said.
So did I, I replied.
We stood and looked at each other, in something like wonder.
Then Benjamin woke with a cry.
At once, the fireman became a fireman again, and me, well, I went back to being a dad.
Which I did, having experienced, yet again, the upside of down.
These days, fans accost me in the street. Rick, they say, how did you do it? How did you get where you are today?
Waal, it wasn’t easy, I reply, adjusting my codpiece. The bus was late and I missed my stop. But I got here. Eventually.
The fans don’t think so, oddly enough. They look at each other and edge away, leaving me wondering why I can’t come clean about my sudden ascent.
You haven’t heard about that? Think about it, you nonce – what else could prevent me publishing a post here since mid-May last year? Illiteracy? Lumbago? Wild horses?
Nay, nay and nay. Nothing but success, pure and simple. For let’s face it: a bloke who hits the big time doesn’t need to blog. (Or beg for that matter, which is much the same thing.)
Now, as I bask in the glory from the isolation of my grandiose grotto, I feel a plectrum of guilt. One that picks at my nylon nerves. I mean, don’t my fans deserve better?
Yes, you do – you know you do. Well, here it is: a retracing of my path to prominence. Follow it, and you too might aspire to greyness. To greatness, I mean.
Milkman. If cheese is made from milk, big cheeses are made from milkmen. Delivering milk, midnight to dawn, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swinging me along – such was my first job of work. A month or two on the dark side set me up for an enlightened life.
Trolley-boy. Nothing’s harder to handle than twenty shopping trolleys in a row, especially in the swirl of customers and cars. My short stint at a supermarket taught me that control is an illusion. Holding on is the best we can hope for.
Administrative Officer. After accidentally acing a public service exam, I wrote letters for the Minister of Police. Few of us are truly happy, it seems. In almost a year I discovered that, for many, life is a complaint for which there is no cure, judicial or otherwise.
Law Clerk. Speaking of the law, I was in it for a bit. Just long enough to learn that every firm – every group big or small – has its own unwritten rules. Which I broke. Stuck out the back with the stationery, I wrote satirical news stories until I earned the sack.
Assistant Resident Boarder. Living with fifty teenagers gave me a good gauge of my own mentality. The results weren’t pretty. Clearly, I’m no leader of boys, let alone men. Which is why it’s best to go it alone, all the way to the asylum.
Investment Relations Officer. God is not always the best guide, especially when it comes to gold. I discovered this while working for a posse of preaching prospectors. Tasked with placating doubting Thomases – irate investors seeking imminent earthly reward – I realised that the faith of others is never enough.
Medical Typist. To be a good listener, you need someone to talk to you. For months on end I had doctors whispering in my ear, dictating letters. After a while, I thought they were talking to me. But they weren’t. They were talking through me. Dodge the dictators – this became my motto.
Writer. Okay, so I wasn’t a real writer. For a time there, though, my words did earn me some dough. Three kid’s stories netted me $800 (one was reprinted), at about 40 cents a word. Evidently, this invaluable experience taught me nothing, as I ain’t published anything since.
Data Entry Operator. Data – it’s everywhere. And it needs to be entered and operated on. That’s where I came in. For ten years I dealt with botanical data, sampling along the way something of the poetry of science. Lesson No. 9: there’s an art to everything.
Casual Research Assistant. To zone out, that’s what I learned while casually assisting a friend with her research. Numbers aplenty cried out for input and, as an aimless Arts graduate, I was ready to put in. As I daydreamed, my digits became, well, the digits. Truly, trying too hard makes trying too hard.
Ten sure steps to success or a beagle’s blighted breakfast? Call it what you will, this serpentine, potholed path has made me what I am today: a humble Passport Officer (ongoing), no less. Which is perhaps more than a trifler like me deserves.
And yet, as the Lonestar Hitchhiker himself, Don Dilego, puts it:
I want to build a brand new road,
But I’m not so sure I know where it goes…
There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to face facts: he’s a teenager and always will be. He ain’t never growin’ up, so he’d better get used to it.
For me, that time is now.
I’ve been back in the workforce for over a year now, you see. Long enough to be reminded that all the well-adjusted adults out there ain’t nothing of the kind. They’re selfish pricks, really, just like me.
So why bother trying to become Mr Maturity? Better to admit that all I’m interested in is ecstasy. And adulation. In music, I mean.
Because, for me, life lives not in a job well done but in a line well-sung. A line like the one from ‘Jeremy’, as belted out by Eddie Vedder: ‘Try to erase me from the black boar-oar-oard’.
Know what I mean?
Anyway, the time has come for me to return to my roots, stunted though they may be. That means more guitars, more songs, more singing, more stupidity.
As I’ve put it in a dodgy song-to-be:
The teenage twin I never had
Has come back,
And twice as bad.
Or, in the words of my new favourite singer, the late Gavin Clark of Clayhill:
How do I feel?
I embrace my destiny.
How do I feel?
I feel like me.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, you pricks!
For someone who has a lot of friends, I get pretty bloody lonely. Okay, so all my buddies are imaginary, but what has that got to do with it?
Years ago, I made a big decision, and probably a bad one. I decided that real people suck – as pals, at least. Phantoms, I felt, make better friends. What led me to such a pretty pass? Was it the misanthropy of my parents or my own social awkwardness? A bit of both.
Mostly, though, I put it down to the crazy ideas I had as a teen. Back then, all my friends – bar two – seemed to lack a couple of crucial qualities: complexity and concern.
No-one called me, you see. No-one came after me. No-one seemed to care. The friendships I had were fed solely, I believed, by me. And, in my youthful eyes, one-way streets inevitably led to dead ends.
Sure, there were no smartphones in those distant days, but I wasn’t that hard to contact. No, my unpopularity had nothing to do with my remoteness and everything to do with the way I perceived my pals: as shallow and lacking in seriousness.
You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I was an intense individual, one obsessed by the quest for, err, Beauty and Truth. I was, in other words, a pompous git; amusing at times, but definitely not someone to chat to about your holiday plans or family news.
People who thought about such things were superficial – such was my elevated opinion – and no doubt I made it clear to my friends that I felt this way. Thus they didn’t call me. Why would they?
Like nature, culture abhors a vacuum, and into the breach stepped books.
When I was little, my mum gave me a bookmark whose inscription I took to heart. You might know the poem. It begins, ‘Books are friends/Come, let us read’. What hope did I have?
So, over the years, instead of making friends, I bought books. Second-hand ones, of course, because they have more character. Books became my imaginary friends.
And now I’m lonely. Why? Because just as, years ago, I categorised my real friends and lost them, I’ve gone and put my books in boxes. Somehow I’ve managed to distance myself even from my imaginary mates.
Come, let us read. If only I could!
I’d been away from home for a week, working. Over breakfast, and out of idle curiosity, I asked my five-year-old son to tell me what he thinks I do for a living. ‘You make books,’ he said, playing with his porridge.
‘Well…’ I began, and stopped myself. His answer was understandable, I supposed, since he knows about the stories I’d published and about the book I’m trying to write. Understandable but awry.
‘Well…’ I started again, before stopping a second time. I sat and sipped my tea. Whether my son knew it or not, he was actually right. In its own way, my employer is the biggest publisher in the land, pumping out two million titles a year. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.
‘Spot on,’ I said to my son. ‘Your dad makes books.’
What’s the simplest story you can think of? No, not Hemingway’s six-word classic, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, which probably isn’t even Hemingway’s. I’m picturing the modest passport, and the spare biographical details those slim volumes contain.
Name, sex, date and place of birth – now therein lies a tale. Think of Homer’s heroes, for instance, and the thrills and spills their lineage bequeaths them, as they try to live up to their names, and to being both Greek and male. (Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has it really bad.)
Think of almost any pre-modern story, in fact, and note how its characters strive to meet the expectations laid upon them at inception. Expectations encoded in the facts of their birth.
Identity – it’s part of our inheritance as humans. An inheritance that, in recent times, we’ve come to resent and reject. Today, we change our name and gender at will; today, we fudge our age and our origins on a whim. Which is why the modernist (literary) text – yikes! – is invariably about escaping our ancestry by trying to ‘make a name’ for ourselves, however ugly or empty the new one might turn out to be. For, as Eliot puts it in ‘The Wasteland’,
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .
All this (and more) brings me to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which I happened to read during my recent time away. Its hero, Tom, yearns to be a ‘living, breathing, courageous individual’, not a ‘cringing little nobody from Boston’. He hates the reality of his impoverished existence, and he’ll do almost anything to escape it – he’ll even alter his identity by becoming Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a rich industrialist.
Sadly, I know how he feels. There have been a few people in my life who, I’m ashamed to admit, have known me only by the wrong name. (I mumble, you see.) I’ve never corrected them – then or since – because I prefer to be seen as someone other than myself. Call me a coward or just call me Will, as one of them used to do.
It’s kind of ironic, then, that I now work for the Passport Office, helping to make those shrewd little books that authenticate identity. Like Tom Ripley, I’ve tried hard to escape the facts of my birth, and yet they’re still with me, a kind of passport, perhaps, to another life – possibly even my own.
Just don’t tell my son about my real job or he won’t want to grow up to be like me. Then again, maybe he Will.
Study. I thought I’d learnt my lesson, but here I am again yearning to return to the unreal world of deadlines and demands, arguments and ideas. Am I mad? No, just human. For although I couldn’t wait to finish my undergraduate degree, I waited twenty-five years to do so. Indeed, I was in such a hurry to get to the end of it that, in the end, I didn’t want it to end.
I’ve been reading David Lodge’s A Man of Parts, a novel about H.G. Wells. An avid womaniser, ‘Wells’ holds contradictory views about sex – for him it is ‘just fun’ as well as being a sublime spiritual experience – and Lodge has him explain this inconsistency thus:
I oscillated between those two attitudes to sex without ever reconciling them – but that’s the human being for you. We’re a bundle of incompatible parts, and we make up stories about ourselves to disguise the fact. The mental unity of the individual is a fiction.
Incompatible parts, conflicting interests – this goes a long way towards explaining why, now and forever, I want what I don’t want.
I’ve been training at work, you see. Cramming so that I can take on a new role in the near future. All the thinking and note-taking has sent me back a year or two, to a time when I was studying from home, while helping my working wife raise our two kids.
It was the best time of my life, despite the stresses and strains. And why not? I spent most of my time reading, writing and thinking about the finest things life has to offer: literature, history, philosophy. When I wasn’t deeply depressed or drowning in self-doubt, I was happy, oh-so happy. And when I graduated, in 2014, I was happy, oh-so happy.
Now, though, the light has gone from my life. Yes, I have kept on ‘reading’ and ‘writing’, but I lack the guidance, encouragement and criticism that comes with formal study. Without these things, I am – to my great shame – lost.
I have attempted to explain this to myself once before, in a short piece entitled ‘An Uneasy Ego’. Here it be.
Into bondage we are born – this much is known. But whom do we serve?
‘It may be the devil,’ Bob Dylan intoned, ‘or it may be the Lord.’ True, I suppose, but not true enough. For, in reality, we have a second master: damnable Self.
Why, mine or thine own. For years, I have sought to serve the former – myself. Alas, I have failed to do so well, and my higher needs remain unmet.
This is a sharp question, and it needles me. Am I, perhaps, a poor servant? Nay, I think not; for, at times, I have served with success. Am I, then, a poor master? Yes, almost certainly so.
Any man who would be master must dominate and control his menials. I do neither for long; my thoughts are unruly and my passions headstrong. In short, I lack self-control. Also, I do not dominate my selves, of which I, like you, have many. In short, I am rarely myself.
The rub, Maud? That an uneasy ego makes a good servant but a deplorable master.
What happens when you want what you don’t want? You seek help – from your masters. For me, that means I must go back to ‘the books’ and to those who can teach me to read and write them better.
Postgraduate study is horrendously expensive and time-consuming. It’s not as costly, though, as life without learning.
Love kids? Then clearly you’ve never been a stay-at-home dad. I have, and the whole weird and wonderful experience has taught me an important lesson: that when it comes to children, a little of them goes a long, long way.
Which is why, after four years in the saddle, I’m breaking out of the stable. Don’t get the wrong idea – as a (part-time) stay-at-home parent, I’m the beast here, not the rider. It’s just that I’m tired of doing the donkey work.
And my kids are great. Happy and healthy, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they’re all I hoped for and more. The only problem, of course, is that they’re children. Dependent, demanding and – most trying of all – distracting. I mean, how’s a bloke supposed to think?
By going back to work, that’s how. Before long, I’ll be a full-time employee again, having spent two days a week at home for the past five years. Sitting at my desk doing my mundane work, I’ll soon be able to daydream in peace – all through the week.
It’s sad, really, but true. And yet I’m not the only one who feels this way, you can be Shaw of that. George Bernard Shaw of that, in fact. Ever read his essay, ‘What Is Wrong With Our System of Education‘? You should. In it, GBS cuts close to the bone, his tongue only half in his cheek.
‘That children and adults cannot live together comfortably is a simple fact of nature,’ Shaw writes, instantly making me feel a little less guilt. Fortunately (for me), he carries on in much the same vein.
. . . if I have to be medical officer of health, wardrobe mistress, sanitary inspector, surgeon for minor operations, fountain of justice and general earthly providence for a houseful of children . . . I shall be so interrupted and molested and hindered and hampered in any business, profession, or adult interest, artistic, philosophic, or intellectual, which I may be naturally qualified to pursue, that I shall have to choose between being a mere domestic convenience and getting rid of my children somehow.
Well, I have chosen. Rather than ridding myself of my kids, though, I’ve decided to rid them of me – Monday to Friday, at least. Out I go and in comes that mere domestic convenience, my more-than-willing wife.
She loves kids, you see.