I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
You learn by example, boy; if you hang out with those scoundrels, you’ll become as they and with your outlook and energy, no doubt significantly worse!
Before I cover my person in egg, a small but essential thread, gathered here, is from brain-driven history lessons, from time is, when time was, at school. Shovelling aside dirt from the gone before, it is a relief to find I am not as balsamic as I thought. Although the schools I went to failed me, there is reclamation and memory enough to oil the stretch of my imagination all these centuries later. The danger in being a screwball was getting strung out on the syntax, giving up in a tangle of dates and confuted facts, as is my wont. Call me dumb?! Infuriating, as dotting Is and crossing Ts could be there was one teacher who hit the lesson with some rarefied rapport. His words for the trees got through.
The merest thought of him eyeballing the inscribed, stimulates my turn with the pen even now; quantifies the process to this step in life. I know the difference between linear and nonlinear. How essential cerebral variables are to each other, and the result. I can’t spin a yarn without code or language, at the very least some sort of mimicry. In learning the subjection of those skills, I get confident, consistent enough to ride out on a wave of storytelling. Whatever the story, technicalities provide a canvas, a framework for the imagination to flourish. Structure of morphemes, lexemes, hieroglyphs, alphabet, lexicons, or what you will, our ABC, arranged a certain way, releases a fairytale clear and true. In line! Frame to attention! Present arms! Without imagination and flare, the pen stays stuck on paper, flatlined to a qualified series of answers, pegged out to a straight sequence of facts.
Like most of the village gang, I grew up believing we walked a plateau of lands, surrounded by seascape, reaching far as eyes could see to a berm. Beyond this bounding, a curved shelf of falling waters cascaded a chasm, from this elevation to the lower. A powerful god dwells underneath. Our Master of death, and life thereafter, forges earth, fire, water, air, seals silver, gold, flesh-and-blood, meriting divine steppingstones. One of few salient facts I knew to be true. Until I leapt faith, steal aboard a wind vessel bound for that threshold, a stone’s throw from his halls of truth.
Suckled down among crewmates, unseen by the hawk’s eye, I disappear into the discourse. Without a name, a medal and all-important virtue, most of us were too young to prove ourselves as men, let alone champions of an afterlife. Such was our fancy, stuck in the nether-region of terrible dreams beheld a terrifying prospect; an enduring challenge that plagued the expedition.
A few leagues out, somewhere between the here and there, distance appeared a mirage of unaltered space. Illusion, caught out by a listless sea and no wind. We basked in the sun, bathe with the mermaids. As death drew its sword in diminished supplies, our concerns rose to the surface. The laughs and flirtations wore thin. Issues, differences and other such contentions challenged everyone’s metal. Fears of being carried by an almighty god nosediving a gorge to the field of reeds highlight our concerns. With each passing moon, the whisperers grew in stature. Hemmed in, close and personal, meanderings accumulate, daemonic frictions fester until the entire ship seemed crazed by a fantom hell.
All of us sounding off to a crescendo with nothing foretold. Word for word, the tattletale that blinded our lead, put in place, swallowed up by greater forces.
The stratosphere, crazed by our shortcomings, took umbrage. All power to the beast. The crack and blast of the heavens came in on the backend of a squall, to quash the gossip. Battered and beaten by a throw, we tie ourselves and anything that moved tight to the brig; let her have her way with the roar. The surge of a storm pounding us headlong toward what we all thought to be the fall.
Wild winds and rampant rains subside. Silence. Nothing but darkness.
As light drew across a war-torn deck, it soon became clear our skiff had run aground, stuck fast in shallows. No crashing out, nae a plummet from the cliff-edge in sight. A turquoise littoral, skirting a curve of hills and lush vegetation as far as the eye could see. Beyond this, who knows what befalls the traveller? We had come as deep as we might to realise we could ride a wind path further still.
Some days of eating raw fish, berries and nut-water, the big moon released our battered ketch to the sea. Full of excitement, mindful of the endless peregrination, we turn a course for home.
On reaching the foothold of another’s shore, where a death drop should have been, it soon became clear that the cut-and-dried formulae I was being peddled back in the classroom contradicted my wayward nature. Unexpected as the outcome of this journey had been, this epiphanic insight was more an affirmation of something that bedevilled my equilibrium from the first day in the nursery. Like everything that happens within a fixed quantum of time and space, things are never what they seem. If it hadn’t been for the wisdom and patience of Mr Jones, who relayed such a story to our eager ears all those years back, I would no doubt have accepted stupid, as garnered from these formative years, a foregone conclusion for life.
Mr Jones, as you may recall, was the Welsh history teacher, empathic and tough enough to keep us glued to the desk without winding up the clock too much. While he persevered with I Ching furtherance, we went to the well, the edges of civilisation, immersing ourselves in other ages. The devil’s in the detail, he’d mumble, and whilst you won’t get through the test without them, they are not the point — an aside I always felt, more a reminder to himself rather than a pointer for us. For those of us lucky enough to catch him off-guard, his confessed mumblings proved immensely reassuring. With that nugget in tow, we learnt how each era brought new and radical changes from what had gone before.
On the surface, our history wasn’t difficult to grasp. The reformation seemed palpable. Our most dramatic example of human advancement appeared to be at the forefront of warfare. Domestically, food is increasingly diverse and accessible. The utensils with which we cook a little more sophisticated. Tools used to build a table, chair, that bridge, the architecture, cities, roads, drainage, the infrastructure favoured an evolutive process moving ahead at pace. Undermining and driving the ongoing domestication are lawmakers and breakers keeping the plebeians under the thumb. Chiefs and senators working the floor, switching friends for traitors, traitors for friends, scheming and plotting for the throne. Hello, smile, knife in the back, a broken heart, full of suspicion for the other; this leader, or another, for and against, one down two to go; an air of constant unease leads to a constitutional gridlock that brings the country to its knees with the onslaught of war. Becoming familiar with leaders, generals, their rank and file, we were climaxing in a bloodbath on the main-stage.
War, as I recollect, always had our full attention. The extra-curricular activities and wealth accumulation may have been out of our league, but combat between ruling families seemed triggered by the same maxim of honour and pride that we stuck by. Marshalled by comrades in arms, savvy with strategy, enthralled by artillery, preoccupied with tactics, we were all too familiar with that battle demography.
Growing up in the smoking remnants of an empire, corporal punishment and forecourt fights played a central part in the schoolboy’s life — survival of the fittest saw bullies and sadistic teachers having the last word. If a severe caning didn’t catch you unawares, some incoming fist was going to smack you off guard eventually — fight, a fight! Where? There! Back of the sheds, said the wretch to the angel, there’s a fight. A FIGHT! We knew well how frictions between any of us could start with a warning that would plague the days. The threatening note in assembly, the sharp end of the pen, pushed and prodded at the desk, in the showers, the locker rooms, between shifts, inside hell, outside the gates, forever and a day, until a clash of the titans became inevitable.
Hurt or offend someone, especially in a close-knit family, they retaliate. There might be a time-lapse before the retort, a split second perhaps — if the barb hasn’t quite sunk in, or the loser is out cold, the reaction comes later, if not minutes, another day, next week, a year, a decade, on the hour. The offence’s rank informs the measure of revenge, plotting, planning, the strength of poison and so on. Were we led by the rule of law, kick-started in the distant neurons of an ancestral layer, or tied to the genesis of conflict at birth?
Boys keen to settle a score using the fist seemed more adept physically and undoubtedly shown slick moves from a world-weary father or a hardened brother. Keep the head low, avoid the eyes, light on foot, quiet as you like; eventually, the shyest of stragglers got sucked into the fray.
Egged on by eager boys, some nervous, others bold, head between the one in front, eyeballing the clash, pushing in, most excited, braying like spectators, hungry for blood at a gladiatorial arena. Do it, do it! Kick him in the rocks, kill, kill him, go on, finish him off!
I held my nerve until my nose got hit, then lose it, lashing out in all directions, a tear-driven snot ball of rage, missing the target by miles. Fallen and loaded in disgrace, I offered admission to my failings, hoping to leave the ring with a thimbleful of integrity. Holding my head high enough, til out of sight. I’d skulk off in a sour mumble vying for some mean-fisted payback of which the torment and pent-up fury saw little or no respite till I saw the deed done. Shocked, furious, not beaten, drawn, or quartered. Restless by a mile, pacing the floor on the backend of a sleepless night, revenge seems sweet in repose. The thought of a dagger driven into the scoundrel when least expecting it was nothing less than lifesaving and given the curriculum and strict school policies, hardly surprising.
For all the career-based rhetoric and moral flag-waving, internally, privately, in marriage, in death, in politics, religion, military, consortiums, in academies, in science, even in the arts, on guard, one step ahead, one over the other, remains distilled as the mainstay and mastery of the human life. Nothing wrong with hierarchies, a leader led team effort, we wouldn’t have the social, economic, health values we have now without them. But in adapting that killer instinct, that’s often suggested when talking about seizing the trophy in a game, rising to the top in academia, the chosen career — knocked off the back end of a combat zone, the penultimate staging in history — we took the role literally, hid behind the machismo mask, holding off cruel teachers and like-minded boys in threatening proximity. Preservation of a favoured race was the foregone conclusion. We won, by taking civilisation, ethnicity and governance, across uncharted waters, to the wild beyond and ramming the evaluator’s ethnic code down the throat of peoples who we saw fit to do with as we wish. Staking claim to the lands, stealing, shackling, raping, looting, selling their lives in relentless succession, onwards and upwards, for crowns’ accounts.
Shamefaced and browbeaten by the clock, what’s done cannot be undone. If I am the troglodyte on trial here, and I suspect I am, I have no excuses for actions made in the storms of my past. But of those who set the trend before me, in defence — two tango — beliefs and opinions, like dances, are complicit. As thugs go, I was ill-educated, not uneducated — a sensitive and vulnerable Tartufe, born in innocence and bred to sit on the extreme side of the chamber. Too dark, too much, too late, too soon, said the empiric ruler to the fool, turning him to stone. Heartbreak and grief inform the mind to shut down, while terror, like a shroud of fog creeping across a mote, seeping up ramparts, over battlements, through arrow loops and under doors, finds a way in to douse the light.
So why not unlock the story, unearth the play, the penultimate phenomena, before identity, judgements, and boxes ticked, fix conviction in place? You never know; temperance may strike a richer seam.