2009-08-08 00:00

IT is well known that when you’re really old you can’t remember how many spoons of sugar you’ve just put in your tea, yet the details of your infancy are clear as if they happened but yesterday. Why, I recall learning grammar as I first started the art of conversation. Esp. verbs and abstract nouns. I mean if you invited somebody to a birthday party that would be an invitation, see, and of course you would be the invitor. Not at all complicated, really. By the time I hit seven and moved to an all-boys school I had everything buttoned up and ready for advanced cultural activities. Sport culture came first. From the farm came a manly game played with potatoes, or stones if your father grew mealies, though in town the cricket ball became standard. A certain boy would hurl this cricket ball at fleeing playmates, and whomever he struck would then have a turn at hurling the ball at all the others. Only who was going to be He? The first hurlor? All players would stand in a circle and the owner of the cricket ball would point round this circle saying One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four, five potatoes, six potatoes, seven potatoes more, and whomever he was pointing at was out, until there was only one bloke left, and he would be He. Dead easy. Simple, except I couldn’t didn’t know what the bloody hell a wumpitator was, and I’d become too proud and manly to ask.

My Uncle Julius, now, he was really cultured, he came from Germany, see, and he had a proper cabinet-size wind-up gramophone with a steel needle and dozens of big black records which would spin at sickening speed and a whopping copper speaker inside this cabinet would emit a sound as of somebody singing underwater with a finger up his nose. La Donna e Mobile, this somebody would gurgle to Julius’s utter delight. But Uncle Julius, said I, what does it mean? Ach ja, he replied, it meance wuman ist fickle, nicht war? Aha, thought I. AHA! Wuman clearly has something to do with wumpitation, it must be what my Auntie Juno is always doing, that’s fickle all right, falling in love with Rudolph Valentino done up like an Arab sheikh, riding off over cinematographical sand dunes on an all-white stallion, lolling about in a desert tent drinking jugs of wine all day while this sheikh fellow reads love poetry out loud. A sort of frisson, a kind of grue would descend on the family when we saw the symptoms busting out once more: John Boles with his moustache but a single hair thick, done over with eyelash glop, his hair greased down with lavender brilliantine and shiny like an army boot. That sort of thing.

My mother, now, she was a Christian Scientist, insofar as she knew what the bloody hell it all meant. What she did know was that if things seemed all wrong that was only a belief that they were all wrong because nothing could be wrong in God’s Kingdom. This belief was a function of something called Mortal Mind in contrast to something else called Eternal Mind, and what you had to do when things appeared to be all wrong was Know the Truth and Eternal Mind would take over your headbone. Then there was Mister Parkinson, headmaster at school, who would say a small Anglican prayer at assembly and we would all sing a C of E hymn, and this seemed the easier thing to do when things seemed all wrong. Dear God, said I at homework time, like starting a letter top left, Dear God, give us this day our daily bread and deliver us from Auntie Juno who is once more wumpitating. Talking to yourself again? said my ma, you suffer from a belief in madness, just like your father. No, said I, I am saying Mister Parkinson’s prayer for Auntie Juno’s wumpitation. She delivered me a smart klap to the back of the head. KNOW THE TRUTH YOU LITTLE BUGGER! she cried.

Well, switching to Islam or something shouldn’t have been too difficult, but this was something else, like squaring a number in arithmetic. I had to know the truth that I could know the truth, like. But I got into my house up the loquat tree where my ma couldn’t climb and dug into my mortal mind. And would you believe it, after two weeks of Eternal Mind my Auntie Juno suddenly gave up J. Boles, R.Valentino the lot and fell in love with Clark Gable who was entirely modern and real and rode a real U.S. Cavalry horse and wore a proper Civil War scuffed-up uniform, and what’s more she stayed in love with him and wrote him letters which he answered. Everybody loved Clark Gable. I myself, in a macho sort of way. Uncle Julius gave up cynical Italian opera a switched to triumphant German song: The Ride of the Valkyries, that sort of thing, contralto battle cries EEE yaaa WHOOP!

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