Thursday, 12 June 2014

Lucky Philosopher: a subjective autobiography


Please comment at:


Lucky Philosopher: A Subjective Autobiography

Bruce G Charlton

'Lucky', in the dual sense of luck of all types both good and bad or otherwise, and also simply lucky - in the sense of on this day of commencing (the morning of June 12 2014) my life has indeed been extremely lucky - of good fortune - and whatever happens from this moment forward, I would be both ungrateful and dishonest not to acknowledge the fact. 

I was probably about six years old when I became self-conscious - in the sense of being able to step-back from my situation, able to observe myself.

That was when I became aware of death, and that everybody would die including my beloved family. And this was when I began to pray: to pray that they would not die - not yet.

I prayed to the Norse Gods - especially Thor.

Why them specifically, I cannot recall - but I have always assumed it was related to the Marvel Thor comics with their Tales of Asgard - at any rate, I felt an affinity with Vikings which was perhaps related to actual (or imagined) heredity.

My prayers were multiple supplications; repeated and further multiplied by phrases such as "a million times a million times a million" and so on. The pleas were attached to lists of names - I was careful not to miss anybody I cared-for off the list; and if I thought I had missed a name I would start again.

Certainly these prayers were sincere, and in that sense I believed in the Norse deities as a reality; I did think that Thor was listening to my prayers. In another sense, the prayers were much like a superstition or a neurotic compulsion, in that not to do them was the problem. Pray and there was no guarantee; but fail to pray and there was - I felt - likely to be retribution.

Clearly, my idea of god, of Thor, was of a harsh and punitive god, un-loving; requiring propitiation but from whom no help could be assumed.

In other words,. aged six I was a real pagan - genuine, sincere, but utterly private.

My personal experience therefore fits CS Lewis's assertion that paganism is the spontaneous and natural religion of Man - religion without need of revelation, scripture or even interpersonal communication.


So, if death of a loved one was my greatest fear: my second greatest fear was owls.

Thus, fear was a thing of the night, mostly; and of that solitude which takes no account of the fact of being inside a house, sharing a room with my sister, a matter of ten yards, and a couple of walls, away from my Mother and Father.

I would sometimes wake in the night and hear an owl (the screech or hoot of a Tawney, or a pair of them) and be frozen with fear. I would block my ears and hold a pillow over my head; but also listen as hard as I could - and I could still hear them.

What did I fear? Perhaps that, for some reason, I would be compelled against my will to go to the curtains and pull them aside, and be confronted by an owl sitting on the windowsill, staring at me - even worse, hooting at me...

And then what?

Presumably, at that point I would simply die of terror.


Coming from an atheist, or at least non-practising, house - I encountered Christianity at school (my primary school - aged 5-11 - village school was run by the Church of England). Christianity mostly struck me as like school dinners: it smelled bad, tasted worse - and was soul-suckingly dull.

I found the hymns dreary in the extreme - what I would have later called turgid - especially when performed in church. Some of the school assemblies were - in junior school at least - enlivened by a pretty young-ish teacher with short brown hair who would play the hymns at about double the normal speed - like a race between the piano and the assembly.

Even worse, in the morning instead-of-assemblies where we used to listen to the BBC broadcast of 'Morning Service' and were supposed to join-in with the singing and prayers.

But, if I found the hymns dull, I found the prayers wicked - because they clearly assumed that I should love this so-called God as my Father, when I knew for sure that I loved my Daddy far more than this forced-upon-me interloper. I understood this as a straightforward attack on my real Father - and dug-in my mental heels against it - either refusing to say the prayers (just moving my lips) or else saying one thing with my voice and the opposite in my mind.

At the age of six I became an atheist, with permission from my Father who said I didn't have to believe in God. This came as a great relief - and I was quite vocal about my rejection of Christianity. At one point I was excused from attending religious studies classes, and can recall sitting reading with the only only exempted pupil - a Roman Catholic boy.


When I first began it, school mostly struck me as interminable - I thought the days would never end. After spending so many blissful years with my Mother, later my sister - and my Dad coming home for lunch most days; school was like being expelled from Eden.

I was sent to school in Devon for a few weeks - then we moved to live in Somerset and I had to do it all over again in a bigger (and, it seemed to me, rougher) school. Why I was started in Devon for this tiny period I shall never know - but certainly I hated the whole business.

I always was, and still am, prone to home sickness - so I found the school situation basically unpleasant and I would rather have not been there; however, once I started to make friends I can recall much that I greatly enjoyed - especially for the first five years (up to age 9), which were pretty much idyllic.


Some things about school were really enjoyable. Not the lessons, obviously - which were either so easy I can't recall them, or so bewildering that I can still feel the trauma.

Incidents stand out like snapshots of memory - and I can only assume they were typical.

The playground seemed vast, intricate and with steep slopes. The toilets were dark, smelly and outdoors. I never sat down to the toilet at school (unthinkable) and so it was a matter of peeing onto the wall of a urinal while holding my breath or breathing through my mouth.

The wall seemed very big, but some boys were able to lean back, do something with their willies, and somehow direct a jet of urine up and over it into the girls toilets on the other side; which was clearly something to be emulated.

It looked easy, so I tried... It was going well for a couple of seconds and I was expecting a satisfactory result, maybe eliciting screams from 'the girls' - but either I leaned back too far, or the power failed... and I ended up by showering myself with my own urine.

So I never tried that again.


Plasticine modelling was a particular joy. Plasticine was a dark brown claylike substance which did not harden - and could be used for detailed modelling - or else simply long sausages, logs, sheets, points and the like.

It was only several years later that I realised new plasticine came in a variety of colours - because the only stuff I ever saw was the results of complete and homogeneous mixing of these into a uniform brown.

And there was Lego - which was exclusively used to make space rockets, robots, tanks, hand guns and other weapons. One particular day I found a cylindrical brick with a point (it must have been a broken flag) that could fit in-between four of the knobbles on a brick - and made the perfect point for a space rocket - but on subsequent days I never could find it again.


In sum, playtimes were what I lived for - either in gaps after finishing the allocated work, or in the official breaks between lessons. 

The playtimes existed in a mythic world - a world of 'gangs' (that is, groups of boys with some kind of rivalry) tearing around, machine-gunning each other with hysterical cries, swooping about as aircraft with arms outstretched, playing football with stones, alien groups of girls doing strange things like bouncing rubber balls off walls, or doing handstands against walls (with their skirts covering their heads), or terrorising the boys by playing 'kiss chase'.

As we exploded out into the playground, after randomly charging for a while, we boys would march in sweeping lines with arms over shoulders chanting and stamping "all-in who wants to play..." whatever it was; English and Gerries, Thunderbirds, Cowboys and Indians or the mysterious "Simon Dickens Show". If you wanted to play, you joined onto the end of the line - we just kept marching until we had enough people.

Choosing sides was done by 'picking' - chanting a rhyme long enough that when tapping people on the beat we couldn't predict who it would end with. I had a very strong preference for using "eeny meeny macka-racka, rerie domanica, chicka-ricka rom-pom push" - and an aversion to the complicated and time-consuming 'one potato, two potato' rhyme which began with the instruction - "Spuds out!" when we would put out two clenched fists (the 'spuds') and commence the drawn-out process of eliminating them to see who was left last with a spud.


So far as I was concerned, up until I was about nine years old, school lessons and formal events were simply time subtracted from real life - and real life was mythic  -continuous with the mythic life of stories, TV and fantasy.

Television was very much part of this world. I can recall watching The Beatles singing 'Wanna Hold Your Hand' when I was only about three or four, and feeling uneasy at the fact they were addressing me, and I did not want them to hold my hand.

Later TV programmes were immediately integrated into our world of play. I particularly liked things about Outer Space and also Red Indians - these catered for opposite sides of my nature.

Naturally, this was a world of magic - and the TV series of 'Bewitched' had the double appeal of being about magic and having the witch Samantha played by Elizabeth Montgomery - who I instantly fell in love with. When Halloween came along, I was scanning the skies of Somerset fully expecting to see Samantha on her broom stick.


Family life, too, was full of rituals and secret languages, slang and catch phrases. It was mostly delightful - so long as I was left to my own devices.

Trials included car journeys - when I felt sick and unable to breathe - no ventilation system in those days, and the windows could seldom be opened. The situation was almost unbearable when my Father smoked.

Also - because I could not read without feeling sick - the boredom was excruciating - no radio, no music, just confinement, inability to move - and a limited (mostly upward) view of passing things which held no interest.

So, as a child I was a real Pagan, and I inhabited a world of magic and myth. Live was saturated with meaning - almost everything was significant; when it wasn't so boring as to seem unbearable.


My childhood from about 6-9 years old is remembered in considerable detail - and this was the time of 'clubs'. None of these lasted very long, but it was the founding of a new club which was so exciting.

For example, there was the Thunderbirds Club - based on the Gerry Anderson TV puppet series. A group of us improvised uniforms which we took into school (the top infants class - which was aged 6-7). None of us had a 'proper' uniform - but I improvised something from a Boys Brigade outfit I had been given by my Granny, and which used to belong to my Uncle.

It was a navy blue cap which bore some resemblance to the real thing, and a diagonal 'sash', with a stout leather belt and an empty ray-gun water-pistol as the weapon. It turned-out that the teacher made us remove our uniform in class (too distracting; too intimidating?) but assembled the gang at playtime and... well I can't remember exactly what happened, but presumably it was great!

My favourite reading at this time was Enid Blyton - book after book about children of my age gathered in clubs! I couldn't get enough of them. I can remember reading them in one day, staying up until ten o'clock sometimes (during summer holidays - two and a half hours after bedtime) reading under the bed covers with a torch.


Forming a club required a minimum of two children, and often enough it was just two - but I always hoped for three or four. We would spend a couple of hours thinking of a suitable name (The Squirrels, The Wasps...) making identity cards, and thinking of passwords.

And then that perennial problem: the Club Headquarters: The Den.

Finding a suitable 'den' was something we never seemed to sort-out. Ideally it should be weathertight, and resistant to invasion by rival gangs (real or imagined) - and something you could decorate...

But we never found anything remotely suitable. I remember one headquarters that was in the middle of a hedge - to get to this 'den' you needed to crawl along a brambly tunnel; and then inside the hedge was a trampled hollow. Well, it might have been a suitable den for a dog or perhaps a family of fox cubs, but not for humans.


Until we found The Cave.

As I began to grow out of Enid Blyton, I found another (now apparently forgotten) series of books by Malcolm Savile featuring The Lone Pine Club. 

At just this time, my circle of friends extended to include a couple of children who lived in the grounds of the quarry and who had on their land two features which were so exciting that it seemed, for a few weeks, as if I was living inside a book.

First they had a swimming pool - a small, outdoor, unheated pool; but wow!

Secondly, they had a cave. And a cave was the hallmark of a real, Blytonworthy club.


As I recall, this cave was not on public ground - but ground owned by the quarry; which would explain how we had never discovered it.

And, as we walked into it, there was a mini explosion of bats!

A cave! With bats!

Near to the cave we found a pine tree - so that was it; we really were the actual Lone Pine Club.

That summer of either 1967 or 8 was 'living the dream', of being inside a myth.


Part of the myth was that the club of kids would solve a crime; and we made some steps in that direction as well.

While playing on The Oak Tree (the one with a horizontal branch where you could sling a rope and swing on it - not to be confused with The Oak Tree at the end of my road) we saw a man in a flat cap coming out of the wood.

We agreed that he looked 'suspicious' so we followed him back to his house - and gave him the code-name S.M. (for Suspicious Man, obviously).

Sometime later we saw him, or somebody with a vague similarity to him, coming out of the same wood carrying a shotgun! How suspicious was that?

Clearly things were spiralling out of control and it was time to bring in the authorities - so I went to my Dad, as he was gardening, and told him the whole story. He didn't say much, and kept his back towards me - I noticed his shoulders seemed to be shaking, but for a while he said nothing.

Then my Father solemnly reassured me that he would take the necessary steps; and, indeed, we had no further problems from S.M. - nor did we see him again. Perhaps he was in prison? Surely he deserved it.


At playtimes in primary school, we would gather in large mixed groups to perform ritualistic singing and chanting games such as Oranges and Lemons, or the Farmer's in his Den.

I used to get a strange and excited feeling from engaging in these, because they seemed incomprehensible yet significant. Why was the farmer in a den? Why did the Farmer song end with patting a bone? Why did Oranges and Lemons end with someone having their head chopped off?

One factors was the frisson of playing with "the girls" en masse - of having an excuse to play with girls. There was a strange thrill from dancing hand in hand, or being the farmer then choosing a 'wife' in the Farmer's in his Den.

The whole thing was bizarre - almost as if we kids had-to perform these things for a forgotten reason: it was our special job in a way that did not apply to the normal free-for-all games or the chasing-and-catching games (like Up-and-Down or British Bulldogs). Certainly, they left behind a special satisfaction when completed.

Some scholars have suggested that these games are garbled pagan or magical religious residues - this may not be true, but certainly it felt like that.


Many of the most significant childhood experiences were up on The Hill in The Woods. We would wander and explore here - and what was remarkable was how often we came across something new. One time it was some donkeys grazing - who were friendly enough to accepts being patted. Another time it was a strange rock that looked like a toad.

Once we found an iron crucifix about eight or ten feet high - a beautifully wrought statue buried among the young trees of a recent forest plantation and with its head looking down on the village below.

The next time we looked for it, it could not be found - and then later again, it could. The path seemed to come and go.


But life was not all good at Primary School, and the main source of suffering was school dinners and school milk.

Food in England of the mid-1960s was still in the era of World War II and rationing. There was a minimalist approach to quality, which - over the years - had been corrupted into a sub-minimalist approach. School nutrition was about as bad as it was possible to be outwith a situation of active and prolonged siege.

The school milk was supposed to provide as essential dietary supplement for a population near subsistence level during the Great Depression - and in the actual context of a prosperous middle class commuter village in Somerset, this meant that the only way to get children to drink the milk was to make it compulsory.

Having provided the milk - in 1/3 pint bottles - the authorities regarded the task as having been done; and from that point onwards the milk was treated as if it was any other commodity like sandbags or bricks. The concept of a 'cold chain' was unknown.

In other words milk was transported to the school in open-backed vans, and left outside exposed to the elements until we drank it, mid-morning.

This meant that in winter the milk was frozen solid, with the silver metal top pushed off and a column of translucent white ice extending an inch or two from the neck. Before drinking it, the milk had to be thawed next to hot pipes or a radiator. It wasn't very nice.

Even less nice was the milk in summer - which had often been kept for several hours (maybe days?) at about 22 degrees Celsius, or even 28 or more, if it happened to have been standing in the sun. The cream had separated into such a thick yellow plug that often the milk would not pour-out until a hole had been excavated into it with a cardboard straw; and to say it was rancid is putting it mildly - and the texture was forbidding: lurid blobs of sour cream floating in a thin, yoghurty slop.

Summer milk was almost visibly seething with bacteria and tasted so vile that it would linger for hours.


Then there was school lunch.

There were three problems with school lunch: bad quality ingredients, bad cooking, and bad handling. (Other than that, it was fine...)

The ingredients were appalling - when I read about starving people eating leather I have an inkling of what it was like. It was not just a matter of poor quality meat - it was that mostly the stuff wasn't meat at all but sawn-off bone-ends. We called it gristle, and assumed it was a tough kind of meat - but it wasn't - it was the cartilaginous part of bone: un-chewable, indigestible, of zero nutritional value.

This would have been bad enough, but the education authority paid some old women called 'dinner ladies' to hang about the food hall, and try to force us to eat this inedible substance.

As for cooking - the cabbage provides the best example - not least because cabbage was dished-up with most meals. When I was given properly cooked cabbage some years later, I literally did not recognize it. What we had, resembled a dilute solution of semi-composted grass - but tasted a lot worse.

This cabbage had been boiled until it lost all texture and substance, then it was boiled some more until it lost all belief in itself as cabbage - then it was boiled some more until it began to degrade into its primary atomic particles. Then it was sent to my school.


But this stage took a long time - a looong time.

The dinners had been cooked several hours earlier, we were told four or five hours, on the other side of Bristol; and brought fifteen or twenty miles in the back of a slow van - in a tepid state - to be re-heated, and to wait another hour or two before being consumed.

I expect most people have observed the skin which forms on the top of ersatz custard made from powder? After a few hours of the above treatment, the skin is the custard - or most of it. And the small proportion of liquid which remains was made with water instead of milk - and so lacks both texture and taste.

All that can be said in favour of this 'custard' was that it was not actively offensive, and was probably not dangerous to health (because, since it contained no milk, it could not really go-off).

The combination of poor ingredients, poor cooking, and poor handling meant that nothing whatsoever about the school dinners was enjoyable - and quite a lot of it was simply unsuitable for human consumption.

Once you had accepted that home cooked breakfast (substantial and delicious: cereal and milk, bacon or sausage and egg with fried bread and a cup of tea) would have to last all day until you got home in the evening, then the main problem was trying to avoid as much of the school dinner as possible - by eating the minimum amount of the least toxic items and rearranging the unconsumable residue to as to look as small as possible.

So school milk and school dinners were hazards to be negotiated, rather than pleasures to be anticipated; and the substance provided under the rubric of 'food' were not merely low or lacking in nutritional value, but an active threat to human survival.


My first musical instrument, at age ten, was a ukulele - the one that looks like a little guitar - and it cost one pound and one shilling; bought for me on impulse by my Dad, unplanned, from a shop in Bristol. It came with George Formby guide on how to play it.

Within days or weeks my then group of friends had formed a 'pop group' which we called The Shades. We wore sunglasses (naturally!), flared trousers and brightly coloured nylon shirts with cravats.


The Shades comprised an electric and pneumatic reed organ (which sounded like a motorised accordion), a steel strung acoustic guitar, the ukulele, and maracas - we had no amplification, 

With such a bizarre line-up, I can only attribute our success to the musicality of the organ player - who could compose, arrange, and improvise a bit; and also that we must have had nice treble voices', because it was not long before we were playing 'concerts'.

We even played at the main Church service on Sundays - which was probably a couple of hundred people; and 'entertained' the old folks at the nearby residential home.

We were canny enough to fit the material to the audience, and I recall playing and singing such contemporary worship classics as Lord of the Dance and Kumbayah in front of a full house with that nervelessness and sense of entitlement of the pre-adolescent; and an old time song called 'After the Ball' which we learned for the Old Folk.


By this time I had upgraded from ukulele to ukulele banjo - which was much louder and cost nearly five times as much (i.e. five pounds).

Then, with terrible swiftness, we recapitulated that typical late 1960s trajectory by electrifying and becoming 'progressive'...

The old, old, and typically 'sixties, story: loss of innocence - corruption interpreted as sophistication.


We stopped calling ourselves a pop group and claimed now to be Rock - we changed our name from 'The Shades' to ...Quarternion (meaning a group of four... clever, yes? That one came from our intellectual organist); and we learned a couple of heavy numbers including the 'meaningful' (a word we actually used) Child of Time as played by Ten Years After.

We listened to the Woodstock live album. We worried about the Vietnam War - or was it the Viet-man war? We became tortured artists with a social mission and a keen interest in girls.

We plugged our instruments into on old valve radio which served as combined amplifier and loudspeaker - well 'amplify' and 'loud' did not really come into it: this particular radio was apparently designed for a wartime family to gather around and listen to Churchill's stirring rhetoric, rather than creating a 'wall of sound'.

The electronic organ remained, but we added an electric 'lead' guitar (the classic Avon budget model, purchased from the Kay's catalogue), and I switched to playing 'bass' on the lower strings of another ordinary electric guitar - the whole being sustained by the solid beat of the same old maracas rhythm section...


I quit before it got to the stage of peace-and-love-ins, Hari Krishna, drugs and overdoses.  


No, we never did get a drum kit. And no microphones. To be honest, you don't need a microphone to make your voice heard over the sound of a 1945 radiogram, a pneumatic organ and maracas.


After Primary School came high school, or The Comprehensive School as we called it, and a new set of friends with a new set of interests.

At primary school my focal interest in friendship was football - and for much of the time I took it for granted that my first job would be working for a few years as a professional footballer, before becoming a doctor-scientist and doing Nobel prizewinning research. 

In retrospect, it seems clear that while I was good enough to get into the school eleven a side team - which placed me in about the top two thirds of the class - I was not picked for the six a side team - which meant I was not in the top one third. The basis for a professional career was... lacking. But at the time, I simply felt this as an injustice and a failure to appreciate my specific skills.

Anyway, at The Comprehensive School, it soon became clear that change was desirable. Football (i.e. Association Football or Soccer) was not taken seriously by the teachers (who handed over the selection for the school team to one of the pupils, who came from a different Primary School and picked all his friends); and Rugby was what we supposed to be keen on.

Still, many of the boys played football all through breaks and lunch times, using a stone instead of a ball. Consequently I wore holes in the toes of my brand new school shoes in a very short time - and was told by my mother to stop.

But I was keen to stop anyway, since football caused fights, and I had already been in three fights in the space of the first month. I 'won' two (by popular acclaim) but would certainly have lost the third if it had not been stopped by the ending of lunch break. With a kid from the Children’s Home I had met my match - and I can still recall the shock and awe I felt when he landed a punch on my jaw: it was so heavy.

I got out with a swollen eye and a thick lip and decided that enough was enough, and to make some new friends.


And so began The Airfix Years.

The first two and a half years at The Comprehensive were focused on the hobby of making plastic models, mostly of aircraft - and of talking, reading and playing about aircraft. It was a long and avid 'craze' - one of the earliest of many crazes, which spilled-over into my adult academic life.

I was never good at making the kits. At first I did not bother with instructions, but put together the interesting-looking items in what seemed like a reasonable order.

Later I graduated to following the instructions - but was always reluctant to make a choice between optional weapons. If cannon, rockets and bombs were provided as options (to represent different uses of a WWII aircraft at different phases of the war) then I would naturally want them all - and since sufficient mountings were not provided, I simply cemented them here and there, wherever there was space.

I was never keen on painting the models, since that delayed construction. Each colour of paint would sometimes require separate application, and many pieces needed to be done before assembly. Much better to make the things, then paint the completed model as best could be managed.

The transfers, or decals, were again usually provided in several versions - but as the model was unpainted or inadequately painted, I felt it looked best if all the transfers - maybe three sets of them - were applied in order to cover as much of the surface as possible. 

I suppose the result must have been a mess, to an objective eye - but my eye was not objective; and the completed model served the purpose of stimulating the imagination both during construction and afterwards in a kind of Neee-Yow play with chugga-chugga sounds for machine guns, chung-chung for cannon, and a sort of Whump inside the mouth and bursting out from closed lips to indicate bomb explosions.


My reading was initially focused on the innumerable Biggles books, which described the adventures of an unageing pilot who fought in fighter planes in both the 1914-18 (Sopwith Camel) and 1939-45 (Spitfire) wars - and between the wars flew around the world having adventures.

Later I moved onto non-fiction and memoirs of pilots (Douglas Bader,  Ginger Lacey, 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham in his Bristol Beaufighter night-fighter), and accounts of particular campaigns such as the Dambusters. And my absolute favourite: 633 Squadron by Paul Brickhill, about the Mosquito bombing raid on a Heavy Water factory - which I once listed as the best book ever written.


It is hard to recall how all this was integrated into our socialising and play - but the key to the era was messing-about and having-a-laugh.

At this stage I had nothing whatsoever to do with girls - although there was always one or two of them I 'fancied' secretly, thought-about with yearning, and kept an eye on.

In many respects the early years at high school were a return to childhood after a kind of early and transient pseudo-maturity in the last couple of years of Primary School when there had been a lot of semi-formalized 'snogging' - which is what we called kissing on the lips, mouths closed, eyes closed - rather like in Tom Sawyer.

The snogging mostly took place in kissing games at parties - the most popular was Postman's Knock. I can't remember what happened, but it was a semi-random way of getting boys and girls to kiss but preventing them from choosing each other.

Anyway, all this stopped at High School - and I was generally much happier and cheerier once I had found a congenial group of boys among whom I could be silly.


To be called 'silly' was, in fact, regarded by us as a compliment.

The whole thing was based - so far as I was concerned - upon an ability and a tendency to laugh unrestrainedly and uncontrollably.

I suppose my disciplinary record at school was actually not very good, in the sense that I can remember having detentions quite often, being sent to the Headmaster and the deputy Headmaster etc.  Literally all of these punishments were for laughing.

We would whip each other into such a frenzy of laughing - usually by picking on some small incident, some very small incident of almost inconceivable triviality, and repeating it with exaggeration, in a funny voice, or with fantastic elaborations - until we were all literally rolling around gasping for breath and unable to speak.

I can recall being told-off for kicking a piece of wood around the playground - this piece of wood had been broken off the arm of a slatted seat - but not by us: we just found it. The 'humour' of the situation was that the teacher had accused us of 'kicking wood around' and 'Wood' was the surname of a boy in our class - and so that was it...

Eventually we were lined-up and told to be silent, in an area outside the official playground and near to the Staff Room and school offices.

As we stood, not talking, various of us would make deniable 'noises' (without moving mouth, without change of facial expression) - such as sighs or peeps or, whatever - but this kept us all in a suppressed state near the edge of hysteria.

Then the ancient Deputy Headmaster - nicknamed Gobber, because he spat when talking - lumbered out to give us a telling off; and something about the way he lumbered broke the dam for me and I launched into such an hysterical outburst that I was unable to speak, unable to answer his questions; and in short disgraced myself.

All I can remember is looking up to find the Deputy standing right in front of me, asking why I was laughing - which was, of course, the one thing I could not tell him - and anyway by that point I could not say anything. It was taking all my best efforts to remain standing . 

Nothing bad happened to me - indeed I think the teachers were remarkably tolerant; since there is not much more annoying than a bunch of boys laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate times - especially when they are laughing at you.


But that was life. Everything was grist to the mill of making a joke - and it is amazing how many I remember.

There was a special status, a kudos, for the skills involved in having a laugh. For example sound-effects. Boys who could make funny or realistic noises, or enact little scenarios, were popular.

One new boy became an instant success in the space of a lunch break for doing an impression of a man being lifted up by a crane with a hook through his nose; he just went from group to group demonstrating this fascinating drama.

First the hook was made with a thumb, and the crane was indicated by whirring sound and robot-like movements of the arm; then there was some palaver of engaging the hook into the nostril; and the great thing was when the hook started going upwards, apparently dragging the distressed man onto his toes, hauled by the merciless hook...

This chap soon after became my best friend - so it goes to show how important these things were.


At a lower level of skill, another boy was 'famous' for barking-out the work BOC! in situations where we were supposed to be silent.

The word Boc came from a drama lesson, where it had been used as the sound made by an axe felling a tree. We thought this was amusing, and were looking for some way of using the word.

The breakthrough came when everybody was sitting at desks, heads-down and supposed to be writing, in the school library; when someone (it may have been 'Wood') shouted BOC! - very short and sharp; without making any movement or change of expression.

Presumably, the librarian (an extremely tall, skinny, bald American) looked up to observe a motionless sea of bowed heads and no indication whatsoever of who had made the sound, nor even where it came from. Understandably, but unwisely, he demanded "Who shouted Boc?" and that was it, chaos ensued - and the business of shouting Boc! became a craze, guaranteed to provoke a mini-riot of hysteria.


We used fountain pens to write with  - I suspect that ballpoint pens were illegal; and this led to what might be described as Adventures with Ink Blotting and Spattering.

Blotting is straightforward. The ink pens either had a reservoir of ink - with some kind of squeezing or plunger mechanism to load the ink from a bottle; or else they were cartridge pens when the ink was bought already inside a plastic tube - and inserting the cartridge would pierce the tube and allow the ink to reach the nib.

Either way, it was possible to compress the ink container and extrude a large blob of ink onto the work book of a best friend when their attention was diverted.

But this was rather dull - so the best effect was to make a deep blob - then covert it into a complex blot by pressing the pages together. If, then, the pages were slid back and forth, then the ink could be made to cover pretty much the whole of two sheets. If slimy spit was added to the mix, the lubrication led to even more damage.

Of course, this was a sort of 'nuclear option' only to be used in the case of extreme provocation or extreme boredom; and, analogously, liable to mutually assured destruction from retaliation.

One Biology lesson matters got completely out of hand. A group of four or six of us was sat around a table, doing some kind of practical work - looking at plant components down a shared microscope, or similar. It began when somebody like Jones blotted Tank's book - with the full works: blob, blot and scrape. Tank deserved it for having his curly hair in a style which resembled headphones and for being generally a smug dandy.

But Tank could not get at Jones's book to retaliate; so the conflict escalated into spattering. Tank raked his fountain pen in a sweeping arc in front of Jones, whose head, neck and white shirt-front were diagonally machine-gunned with multiple blobs of ink.

Unfortunately, as so often in war, there was collateral damage - and some others got spattered by Tank's scything gesture; therefore the counter-attack was multiple and devastating. Jones plus others combined to empty their fountain pens, using short criss-cross sweeps, onto the cowering, muttering Tank.

I observed all this through a small crack in my school blazer - because I had seen the conflict brewing and retracted my head into the unfolded lapels of my dark navy blazer, upon which the ink storm spattered invisibly.


I was sufficiently impressed by the effect of the ink to hatch a wizard wheeze. I discovered that - if the ink was diluted sufficiently, it looked like ink, but did not stain. How I convinced myself of this is hard to imagine -  but I believed I had discovered a recipe for create apparent ink havoc which after a few seconds would simply disappear like water.

And it seemed to work! I spattered various people and things, creating a sensation - but then before they could retaliate I showed them that it was a fake. Hilarity ensued.

Within about an hour the craze had spread, and a group of us found ourselves in the boy's toilets armed with pens charged with ultra-dilute ink and washbasins full of water for swift re-loading.

Chaos! Within ten seconds everybody was covered in the dilute ink, and so were the walls and ceiling of the bathroom.

At the time I insisted that the real problem was some stupid boys had failed to dilute their ink adequately - probably Roberts, because that would have been typical.

At any rate, when the Deputy Headmaster walked in (Why? - I never knew) there was a situation of apparent carnage. He was so angry that wouldn't listen to my protestations that things were not as bad as they appeared to be - and we all had lunchtime detention to clean the room and restore normality.

Whether it was because the ultra-dilute ink had dried in the meantime, or because of some flaw in my reasoning was never clear - but in the event, when we had to do it ourselves, it turned-out to be surprisingly difficult to remove the 'fake' ink spatters - it was almost as if they were real ink spatters.    


So, the main thing in life during the Airfix Years was these incidents, which could then be recounted again and again - elaborated, extended in fantastic ways.

This was life - until at the age of thirteen over the pace of just a few months; something changed inside me, almost palpably - and simultaneously new vistas opened-out with The Lord of the Rings.


But immediately before the Tolkien era there was a brief period - a few months, maybe half a year - when I began to be pulled-into the mainstream world of youth groupings and cults; and I was in danger of becoming normal.

(Normal, that is, for a thirteen year old boy at that time and place.)

There are a few residual signs of this. A single photograph of me standing in a family group with 'long' hair - that is to say, halfway down my ears, and beginning to curl-up like a watch spring. Curling-up, that is, despite my best efforts; which included washing my hair just before bed-time, plastering it down flat, then sleeping the night in a woollen balaclava helmet.

This photo also depicts me wearing a lavender coloured T-shirt and 'Loon' pants - which were denim jeans tight to the knee, then with a V-knee seam and the bottoms flaring out to 24 inches so they would completely cover and conceal the shoes - which were baseball boots.

All this indicates I was trying to be a Hairy - which was the slang term for the contemporary incarnation of 'Hippies' and devotees of 'Heavy' or Progressive Rock; and what confirms the interpretation is my head-hanging-forward, round-shouldered stance - as immortalised by Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoons.


The Progressive Rock craze incorporated groups such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd  and (from the USA) Mountain - we listened to these (borrowed from a friend's older brother) on a little portable record player supervised by an older kid who wore black velvet 'Flares' (a less extreme version of Loons) as part of his school uniform - but who had spent so much time slapping his thighs in response to 'the beat' that he had oval bare-patches on the front of the trousers. We therefore nicknamed him Frix, which was short-for Friction Pants.

Also, I attended a few school discos in the evenings (which I never did in later years); where I stood around trying to appear sophisticated by holding my chin in my cupped hand - even though I was standing-up. This was something I had seen being done by Steve Peregrine Took - who played bongos next to Marc Bolan in the Tyrannosaurus Rex combo. I believed it made me look thoughtful, enigmatic and sophisticated; so that girls would be compelled to come up and ask me what was on my mind.

The only part of the discos I actually enjoyed was dancing to the Hawkwind single of Silver Machine with the strobe lights on - which caused a dissociative trance state.

This led to what later stood as an anomalous album by Hawkwind nestled in my accumulation of Long Playing records. I tried hard to like it, especially having spent so much pocket money on it; but something about the music, the graphics and the text actually sickened me, and after a while I just hid it away and pretended it didn't exist.

Most of the music I listed to was recorded 'live', on a tiny portable cassette tape player, from friends albums - but after a few months hard usage, these cassettes would get slower and slower, then jam solid and become useless.

I also tuned into late night radio, lying in bed with my little transistor and single earplug, when the likes of John Peel and Bob Harris would play the latest exotica from the edge of Rock - which was in these early 1970s at the most pretentious level it ever attained - as epitomised by the double or triple LP gate-fold 'concept album', and the inclusion of ten minute improvised solos on bass guitar, or drums.

Heavy Rock on a tranny via a tinny earplug does sound like a contradiction in terms - the apparatus was only a small step-up from a crystal set - but this was irrelevant, because the whole thing was almost entirely a symbolic gesture of belonging to 'youth'.  


Anyway, by good sense or good fortune, I was rescued from this path by Tolkien; who triggered changes that made me step outside of the world of mainstream youth culture and into something altogether larger, more suited to my nature, and more nourishing.


When I first read Tolkien - which was sometime after I turned thirteen, it was a turning-point for me.

Cause and effect, no doubt, run both ways - I was at this point developmentally pre-prepared to read Tolkien, and Tolkien also had a permanent effect on me.


First it was The Hobbit. I held-off reading Lord of the Rings because I liked The Hobbit so much, and resented the idea of a book which did not have Bilbo as its main hero - but in the end curiosity, and satiety with re-reading The Hobbit - pushed me on to Lord of the Rings. The rest is history.


It was at about this time, as I was walking down The Main Road of the village, that I felt a change in myself - in my mind. It resembled the description given by some patients with schizophrenia who describe being in a perplexed state for a while - knowing something is going on that concerns them, but not what it is - then suddenly, in a wave of (apparent) insight, finding everything made clear.

With me it was a bit like waking-up, becoming aware of myself and the surroundings. The dawn of self-consciousness.

This never happened again - so I suppose that this was my experience of the process of mentally becoming 'an adult' - although physically I still had a couple of years to wait. I knew at the time it was significant, and I also knew the significance - that I had 'grown-up' inside - in terms of the essential core.

Since then 'me' has always been 'me' - and my pre-thirteen year old self is somewhat hazy, somewhat alien.


For the next four and some years at school, my inner life was dominated by Tolkien's world, and by the implications I drew from it. As well as reading and re-reading and pondering - the Tolkien interest propelled me into other fascinations. After quite a long period of months just immersing myself in Lord of the Rings - I turned my attention outward to seek something similar, something which expanded and extended the things I drew from that world.

I decided to read adult's literature; our house was full of good books - so I asked my Father for advice. I began with George Bernard Shaw's various works beginning with Androcles and the Lion and Everybody's Political What's What, and Robert's Grave's I Claudius/ Claudius the God novels.

This was the start of the Culture Vulture years - 13-21 especially, when I attacked The Western Tradition with great energy and a retentive memory; limited (it seems) more by constraints of availability than of time.

The house was full of Good Books, there was a small (one medium-sized room) but well-stocked village library, and I was soon going into Bristol to swim among the endless stacks of the City library. I had the good fortune of a well-trained and enthusiastic English teacher from whom I learned to read Middle English and appreciate Shakespearian language - which opened-up 600 years of literature.

(I also borrowed a copy of Sweet's Anglo Saxon Primer to try and add another chunk of time to my appreciation - but I could not make head or tail of it. Some people manage to 'teach themselves' languages; I have always been a mediocre linguist.)


Bristol had probably the best professional theatre outside London, and another teacher would take groups in a minibus during the evenings to see pretty much everything they did - so I began to accumulate an experience of plays - old and new.

Classical music took a while to kick-in. For quite a while I was mainly interested in Folk Music, and what little 'Medieval' (including Tudor) music I could hear - but an interest in the Recorder led to Bach and Telemann and then to the vast world of the Baroque and Classical eras (I was not so keen on later stuff, and still am not), and Gilbert and Sullivan led to Grand Opera which I would borrow in boxed LP sets from the City Library - by the time I finished school I had heard pretty much the whole of the pre-20th century standard repertoire, quite a bit of it followed with libretto or score (which could also be borrowed from the library).


All this cultural devouring was done on my own and for my own satisfaction - in some way. I didn't really have anybody to talk with about it - my best friend followed me quite a bit of the way, but he didn't want to analyse things in the way that I did. This led me to the secondary literature - criticism, scholarship, opinion, reviews and the like.

This was where I was, and am, different. Lots of people listen to classical music - but not many (except professionals) read books on the subject, its history, structure, biographies. Lots of people read novels or watch plays, not so many read about novels - and read plays. And I also read literary essays - and biographies (plural) about the writers.

Clearly I was seeking more than diversion. Clearly, for me, it was a matter of trying to go inside the arts - and not simply in a practical way (by acting in plays and singing in classical pieces) but in a more philosophical way, indeed in a religious way: to get inside the world view of classical music, literature and so on, and in fact to stay there.


For me, High Culture was a religion. My hope was that my life and abilities would turn-out to be such that - eventually - I would be able to live inside literature and music, and see the world from that place; I would be inside - protected and sustained - and looking-out; and that world would provide me with the necessities - work and love; money and status and enjoyable activity and human relationships.

There was little of this for the external observer to see - in the sense that this probably looked like a Hobby; recreation from my 'real' work of studying, passing exams and later training as a doctor.

But it wasn't: For me it was the most important thing because it was my hope of happiness, lacking any other religion it was my only hope of happiness - it was real life.


I came across the idea of runes before the actuality - because there was a gap between me getting keen on the idea from hearing runes named in the songs of Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrie Took's folk group Tyrannosaurus Rex before I later actually read the Hobbit and saw actual runes.

Before seeing the actual runes; I formed the notion that runes were probably ornate letters - something like Gothic script; and I and my friends started writing in this (invented) style on the covers of school exercise books using a facetious, formal and ornate type of phraseology - as I supposed it to be: thus instead of Geography there was 'Geographical Studies', and so on. If a teacher noticed and adversely commented, or told us to change what was written, that only encouraged us.

Then there was my haversack. Having initially used a briefcase to carry school books, I soon realized my folly; and when it fell apart I got an army surplus haversack - which was more practical as well as 'fashionable' in that particular time and place.

I then proceeded to decorate the haversack with biro writings, using this supposed-runic alphabet for my name and various slogans or mottos, now forgotten.

Inevitably, I read the Hobbit, and copied out the runic alphabet used there (essentially Anglo Saxon runes) - and discovered that runes were in fact simple, straight-line marks - designed for easy scratching or carving onto stone or wood. So I added more inscriptions to the haversack, using these real runes.

When I read Lord of the Rings, I found in the Appendices Tolkien's own runic alphabet - and transferred my allegiance to it. There was not much space left on the haversack, but I added one or two names of special significance; and I used runes to mark a knobbed walking stick I made for myself from an elm tree we felled in our garden (killed by the terrible Dutch Elm Disease) - I still have this stick; and also an ashplant staff, later cut from a hedge sapling on Backwell Hill.

Much later I had a big resurgence of interest in runes, and bought a set of them scored onto small glass pieces about the size of dominos, and various semi-scholarly/ semi-'channeled' New Age and faerie books, including a lavish illustrated volume by illustrator Brian Froud. Our local Anglo Saxon museum sold some metal rune pendants on leather thongs, which I duly purchased - but I can't bring myself to wear 'jewellery' (except a wedding ring), not even if concealed.

Runes still have a special meaning for me - even the mere idea of them evokes a kind of thrill. Since reading Tolkien, and mostly deriving either directly or indirectly from him (our modern cultural knowledge of runes comes from Tolkien - specifically from The Hobbit, just as the modern awareness of dragons comes from that book).

I have of course come across runes all over the place - including that fascinating and grossly misleading compendium of The White Goddess by Robert Graves; not many fantasy writers can resist the power of runes: and power of some kind they do surely have, not least the power to transport the mind to other times, places, realities; a power as benign as the purposes for which they are deployed.


French phase

Aged twentyone I happened to be taken to the local arts cinema to see a movie called L'amour en fuite - written and directed by Francois Truffaud. It made a big impression on me - I fear mostly for the wrong reasons! But it led to a couple of years in which I would go and see just about any French movie (with subtitles, of course), especially from New Wave directors, culminating in a couple of visits to Paris in my middle twenties.

From scores I watched, I probably thoroughly-enjoyed about three of these films - and I don't enjoy any of them now (L'amour en fuite seems painfully clumsy and clunky!); but I kept on going back, hoping to recapture whatever-it-was.

The word that sums-up this era is pretentious.

I don't say that the French movies were to blame for this, nor were they the only element; but the fact is that I did have a secret, rather ashamed, fantasy life about being the kind of alter-ego hero which the French directors put into their movies - a famous but pleasantly-tormented artistic genus who has elfin women throwing themselves at him - and who always yields in the end, after due examination of conscience. Or else who is obsessed by some initially-reluctant gamine creature - who always yields in the end, after due examination of conscience.

In retrospect, I can see that my would-be or actual girlfriends at this time were often selected somewhat on this basis - as potentially fitting-into this general milieu either psychologically or visually (with predictably unsatisfactory consequences, mostly - of course - for them).

All this against a backdrop (maybe monochrome?) of cafes, bars, restaurants, bookshops, Citroen DS cars and Le Metro.

This was about not merely being 'an intellectual' but being a public intellectual - in the sense of doing one's thinking and writing in public, on display (for admiration, implicitly) - presumably seated at the table of some pavement café on the Left Bank.... Being covertly photographed by tourists perhaps?

So, there was nothing very noble or sophisticated about my French Phase - it was wishful thinking of the most unrealistic and hedonistic type.

The first time I tackled Charles Williams was after reading Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings, which was during late 1987 when I was living in Durham Castle (part of University College) as a resident don, wearing an academic gown at all mealtimes - which were taken at High Table in the 'medieval' hall; and attending a variety of somewhat Inkling's-esque groups for eating and drinking, conversation, and discussion of our reading and writings.

What most interested me about Charles Williams was the idea of a supernatural 'real' world behind the everyday world, and The Place of the Lion was the book which most attracted me. I was also interested by his idea of romantic theology - especially the Via Positiva - which I interpreted as a path to higher consciousness via the creative life; and his mystical idea of The City as a microcosm of Heaven (I think I read some of the essays in Image of the City).

At that time, I was not a Christian, but I was very interested - in a detached way - by Christian theology, monasticism, ritual and various aspects of Christianity. I was reading and much influenced by the ultra-Liberal theologian Don Cupitt; I subscribed to the Dominican journal Blackfriars, I sporadically attended the college chapel and once read a lesson there, and choral evensong at Durham Cathedral (located only a hundred yards from the Castle). I read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue with broad approval - with its call for a revival of Thomism.

In sum I was a serious dabbler on the edges of Christianity - but in a way that made no fundamental difference to my life or beliefs, and made no demands upon me: none at all.

Anyway - from this context I attended a couple of evening meetings of a Book Club which included some of my college friends - including a meeting in a small modern house on a housing estate where we discussed a Charles Williams novel: I think it may have been Many Dimensions. The reason I am unsure is that I had been unable to locate a copy, and indeed only a couple of the participants in the meeting had actually read the book; which was out of print and very hard to find. Indeed, it was an absurd choice for a Book Club! - but there you are.

I have a strong recollection of the flavour of that meeting, but nothing of the content. The flavour was strange to me - because we were located in this very mundane suburban setting, a group of very respectable but junior academics (or academic-related people - such as librarians, and a college chaplain as I recall); discussing very strange supernatural matters with an attitude of seriousness, and as if such things as Charles Williams described in his novels might actually happen - at any moment.

As I walked away from that meeting some thirty years ago, it was a dark late evening and I looked about me at the night sky and the lights of the city and thought how strange people were - how strange I was; that nobody could have guessed that behind the curtains inside a small, boxy, semi-detached, modern furnished house there would be a group of people discussing the breakthrough of divine and demonic forces into exactly such a world - even a sense of expectation that such thing might be just out of sight and about to change everything - if not this evening than tomorrow, or next week.

It struck me that behind the quietest, most 'conforming' and respectable of people there lurked extraordinary, wild wishes or fantasies - yearnings that were only semi-serious, and expressed with very English politeness, reserve and diffidence; yet which were so strange that they must have sprung from depths.

Ever since, Charles Williams has carried for me something of the flavour of that evening, and that group; and of a time when I learned something surprising about the nature of people.


Probably the most enjoyable and most worthwhile regular group of which I have been a member was the Rambler Club in the School of English at Durham University, late 1980s.

The name came from the fact that the group was focused on reading one essay per week from the 208 essays by Samuel Johnson published as a periodical called The Rambler from 1750-52. I was lucky enough to be asked to join for the last 20 or so weeks, completing the sequence - I infer the group had previously been meeting for at least seven years (since the group met only during term time, which lasted 27 weeks but some weeks would be missed to due exams). After finishing Johnson's Rambler, I believe they moved on to the Adventurer and Idler essay sequences. 

There were four 'core' members (which seems common for many lasting groups) of common interest. The 'Chair' was Derek T, whose characteristics were a nimbleness of wit, fertility of ideas, and a crisp phraseology - he tended to talk the most and shape the debate. The second most frequent speaker was David C - who was the most open-hearted and emotional speaker - he would also tend to give the conversation a dark and pessimistic turn. David F spoke only when he had something considered to say - with some diffidence, but always respectfully listened-to because his statements had a background of deep thought. Tom C was the oldest and most distinguished member, he beamed upon proceedings with a benign air - and he was turned-to to settle disagreements of fact, or he would chip-in with a 'crowning' verbatim quotation from a memory exceptionally well-stocked with the classics; especially Shakespeare (upon whom he was a great authority).

The structure of each meeting was quite simple. The timing was about an hour, people arrived carrying a packed-lunch, either having read the essay already - or, if not, then being given a photocopy to read while others arrived. Then the conversation would be kicked-off by Derek, who would usually take charge of moving it on or redirecting it as necessary.

The Rambler essays were essentially a stimulus to conversation, and the conversation was 'moral' in theme - typically beginning with whatever moral point the essay had emphasised, but evolving unpredictably according to the mind of the group and their interactions.

And the conversations were superb - due to the quality of the participants - especially the informal chairmanship of Derek T, and the necessary degree of structure. Behind the formal structure - and, I think vital to the success for the group - was a common purpose or philosophy; which was 'anti-critical'. These were hard-working and experienced teachers of English in one of England's premier universities who yet were very sceptical of the validity and value of mainstream 'literary criticism'; and were seeking a more personal, heart-felt and spontaneous way of discussing literature. By my estimation, they achieved it. 

I have attended and tried to form many small conversation groups, sporadically over the years - and they are in my experience, seldom at a high level and always very difficult to sustain - so I feel privileged to have participated in one of the shining exceptions; albeit briefly.