When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Then I had my own children and I got them all out again. And jolly good fun they are too, childish things, like Easter bunnies and bubble-blowing and stories about dinosaurs etc.
My wife however complains of a conversational divide within her circle of university friends. At a rare recent get-together the ones with young children, floundering about for non-childish topics, talked of the new restaurants they’d like to visit and new films they’d like to see. The childless singletons, in stark contrast, talked of the new restaurants they had visited, and the new films they had been to see. O the hours of leisure to fill. Apparently this problem bites again later in life when the parents become grandparents and the childless merely become old.
Also, it turns out that single professional women spend an inordinate amount of time relaxing in health spas. Imagine it, a sunny Saturday afternoon, be-robed and be-towelled with a sludge-covered face. There is space and light and pumped musak – perhaps windchimes, perhaps Enya – and a clock crawls mercilessly round, slowed but alas not stopped, just ticking along, ticking along. Floating off into warm memories…relaxing, relaxing, relaxing.
I don’t think I have an earliest memory as such, only various scenes emerging from the mental mush without clear chronology, but I can vividly recall my first dead bishop. Antony Joseph Emery, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth from 1976 until his departure from this mortal realm in 1988. I served as acolyte at his funeral, an interminable ceremony for an eleven year-old boy processing faint-headedly about under the weight of the occasion and a bloody great candle. (Good gig for an altar server, though, acolyte. Quite glamorous but undemanding. Crucifers have to lead the procession, a fraught business of timing steps; thurifers are forever having to get out of their seats and therefore must stay more or less awake for the entire duration of the Mass. Boat-bearers are lackeys.)
In life I glimpsed the Bishop only occasionally and in some awe, but he seemed a man of kindly and wise demeanour. In death he was a snow white waxwork, hollowed and weird. The procession paused at the side chapel that housed his open coffin. He lay with crossed arms in cream robes, facing the heavens where his soul presumably now dwelt amongst the angels and saints. I don’t know what time it was, but in my memory it is midnight, and as the presiding cleric chants his magic words my head swims with the unreality of the scene, and, cooking in cassock and surplice, I press the cool metal of the candlestick against my forehead to keep myself from floating off into the vaulting to join Bishop Antony’s benign and kindly ghost.
I like the humble approach of Pope Francis and I like that he is a non-European. Being a Catholic and therefore exposed to the race of celibate men from an early age I instinctively divided them into two groups: the benign, kindly ones who could be trusted; and the wrong’uns, in whose company one had to be on one’s guard. The benign kindly ones were similar in their goodness but the wrong’uns came in many varieties, not paedophiles necessarily, but mad and unpredictable in different ways. The childhood feelings inspired by such men provides excellent material later in life for writers of comedy horror, the finest example of which, to my mind, is the character Uncle Monty in Bruce Anderson’s Withnail and I – played by Richard Griffiths, who sadly died this week. Not that the Church’s disgrace in recent decades is very funny. There are lots of theories bandied about re the paedophile cover-ups. Perhaps it is simply that too many benign, kindly bishops relocated wrong’uns to unsuspecting parishes in hopes that God and niceness would change their ways. If so, the burden of guilt must be hard for kindly men to bear.
A little while back Gaw mentioned that It’s Raining, It’s Pouring is his favourite children’s rhyme about a lonely old person dying in their bed in a storm. But what do we make of this one?
Goosey Goosey Gander, whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers
So I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.
Yes, the Brit family loves nothing more than to have a jolly good sing-song about a creeping Peeping Tom who murders aged men for insufficient piety.
On Desert Island Discs the cricket commentator and former England fast bowler Jonathan Agnew revealed that at school he could “bowl faster than most boys could see.”
“And of course the teachers as well,” he added. “The annual teacher’s match, I’d be very popular then, you know, Mr So-and-so put me in detention, sort him out for me Agnew.. Oh yes, I hit people.”
“What sort of damage did you do?” asked Kirsty Young eagerly. “Break a nose?”
Instantly upon hearing that exchange I was transported back to the school cricket field, and an infamous match when I was about thirteen, in which I encountered for the first time genuinely fast bowling. I was an opening batsman of promise and keenness, and had played for school, city and county teams. I strode confidently into the middle to face the first ball of the match, took my guard, and looked up. ‘Play’ called the umpire. A very tall youth was running very quickly towards me. He reached the crease and his arm pulled back and whipped over with astonishing violence. Nothing visible came out of his hand – there was merely an unearthly whirring sound in the air. I made the faintest movement towards defence as my stumps exploded behind.
Out first ball of the match; the dreaded ‘diamond duck’. Nonplussed, I trudged back to the boundary. My team-mates who hadn’t directly witnessed the dismissal laughed at my misfortune. Team-mates who had witnessed it turned pale, knowing they would soon be in the firing line (these were the days, remember, before helmets and chest and arm-guards at school level. We had communal access to a manky chest containing threadbare gloves, an odd assortment of pads that never seemed able to yield a matching pair and the notorious school box).
I never lived it down, that diamond duck – which was unfair since that bowler, whose name was Measures, skittled our entire team out in record time for the sum total of eleven runs: three of which came from the other end and the rest were byes because the wicket-keeper couldn’t see the ball any better than we could. Our teacher gave us an almighty rocket for the capitulation but we knew, and he knew, and he knew that we knew, that if he’d had to face the fast bowling of the boy Measures he’d have crapped his charcoal M&S trousers.
This freezing April Fool’s Day I give you a fine article from the Independent, 20 March 2000, as reported by Rod Liddle:
Britain’s winter ends tomorrow with further indications of a striking environmental change: snow is starting to disappear from our lives.
Sledges, snowmen, snowballs and the excitement of waking to find that the stuff has settled outside are all a rapidly diminishing part of Britain’s culture, as warmer winters – which scientists are attributing to global climate change – produce not only fewer white Christmases, but fewer white Januaries and Februaries.
…According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia,within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”.
“Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said.
There are signs that the ‘climate change debate’ is starting to emerge from its absurd right vs left political polarisation, ‘denier’ versus millenarian, and people are starting to realise that (1) yes the earth will be likely a few degrees warmer by the end of this century, and yes carbon emissions are probably the major cause, but (2) it doesn’t follow that the apocalypse is nigh nor that we should spend untold trillions on carbon reduction targets that don’t work even on their own terms. But also that (3) the British weather is about as much use as a chocolate teapot as an indicator of global temperature trends. And finally, (4) that we are a profoundly ignorant species and if we see anything of this world and its workings it is merely glimpsed, and through a glass, darkly. Happy Easter.