Thanks Flickr / alida saxon
As I delve into childhood memories—it’s a matter of “Seek and ye shall find”—I recognise the roots of my present behaviour and preferences. I ask myself how those roots originated but I don’t so far have answers. They might be innate, patterned in DNA that shaped my brain. Or they might be adaptations in my present incarnation that became fixed habits.
In my case a pattern developed of always, in any group of which I was a member, being the furthest from the centre: literally eccentric. When football or cricket was taking place on the playing fields of my childhood, I would be found at the boundary or beyond. The adjacent ploughed-field had greater fascination than the rapid transfer of a ball from one excited young sportsman to another. The rapidity of sport interfered with daydreaming. The material world gave out vibrations which had to be savoured before I could work out which way to turn, what to do next. This is what influenced my choice of game. If frisbee, skateboard or other such Californian devices had already been invented, or had my parents bestowed on me a bicycle, or a kite, then I might not have gone my own way and invented pastimes so far from the common pursuit.
I was frustrating the whole point of boarding-school, for its ethos centred in team games as training for Empire. Was this the reason my headmaster so resolutely refused to approve of me? Or was it that he saw in me signs of incipient homosexuality, of which more later, that must be stifled? Or perhaps he conflated both tendencies as equally undesirable and probably linked.
One of my earliest pastimes, in my first term at the school, was gathering “tobacco”. I had a tobacco tin and somehow I got the idea that the weed known as “broad-leaved plantain” could be smoked. I put leaves of this in the tin, with the intention of curing and offering them to my grandfather; or perhaps of smoking them myself.
The ploughed-field was dotted with fragments of pottery, none very ancient, especially pieces of clay pipe. At a later age, ten or even more, I collected them in a tobacco tin, perhaps the same one, and endeavoured to piece them together. I called it Archaeology but my headmaster dismissed my perseverance with undisguised contempt. It’s odd that both of these pastimes involved pipe-smoking. But Mr Sudell, my headmaster and my grandfather (whilst in his study) were seldom seen without a pipe, lit, being filled or the ashes being knocked out. It was candy that I craved, of course, but the adult vice somehow fascinated me.
The ploughed field had deposits of pure yellow clay, heavy and sticky, amongst the brown loam. This was something to gather and mould, to make things of and in the absence of a kiln, to allow my artefacts to dry by themselves over time.
I also discovered that I could attach a ball of clay to a springy stick and then with a movement of my wrist propel the projectile high into the air, where it reached the flock of birds circling overhead, but never hit one. My head was “in the clouds”! So in the winter months when other boys would gather round a goal mouth to play impromptu football in the breaks between lessons, I’d usually wander off to the ploughed furrows, happy in my own space. But when I did play football, I preferred the role of goalkeeper, for it involved less team co-operation than the other positions.
For long winter evenings many of us had stamp collections and we would swap freely. One boy started to give me the colourful stamps of the French Colonies, as gifts, not swaps. Eventually it became plain to us both that he was handing over his entire collection, the most extensive in the school, piecemeal. My parents were the poorest in the school, so I got less pocket money, a smaller set of fireworks for the Guy Fawkes celebrations, usually some gross deficiencies in the set of required items specified in the school’s Clothes List.
My stamp collection, newly expanded so easily by this bequest, gave me the experience of wealth. French colonials were beautiful: St Pierre et Miquelon, Djibouti, Reunion, Tahiti, the list was long. I don’t remember finding out where on the globe they were. I liked them but they were so easily acquired I had no sense of hoarding them possessively. I can’t remember but I must have handed them over to others when I left the school.
In my last term at the school, I remember whiling away the evenings playing cards. I think it was some kind of whist, but the main thing was the sugar-coated chocolate beans called Smarties that we used for gambling chips. We bought them at the school tuckshop. I remember becoming as rich in those as I had been in stamps, hoarding them, sorting them by colour, and of course eating them. I must have been twelve by the time I left that school, feeling mature, changing in some indefinable way, ready to move on.
PS revised 23/10/08