When I was about five and my brother and sister were at school and my mum was doing the housework, I used to sit on the linoleum with the sun streaming in through the windows and play with my different coloured marbles. There was a particularly beautiful one with a twizzle of sea-green in it. I named it after myself and by a strange coincidence it usually won the games I played with myself.
At other times, especially on rainy days, I would go up to my parents’ bedroom, take down one of the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedias from the bookcase and open them at the pages that showed foreign flags and scout and navy insignia. I found the flags exotic and beautiful and the insignia thrilling. I imagined a day when I would be old enough to join the scouts and start to collect the various badges. I might even join the navy one day so as to have stripes pinned to my sleeve and visit all the countries and see their flags.
Neither of those things happened. On my first evening in the scout rooms it became clear that I wouldn’t get a uniform for several weeks and the badges might take even longer to earn. On hearing this I lost interest and never went again. Sea sickness and just growing up made me forget about joining the navy.
Mid-afternoon each weekday during the 1960s there was a black and white children’s TV program called ‘Watch with Mother’, which lasted about half an hour. Each day there was a different program with various puppets. On Monday there might be ‘Andy Pandy’, on Tuesday ‘The Flowerpot Men’, on Wednesday ‘The Woodentops’ and so on. My dad asked my mum if she sat down and watched it with me to which she replied that this half-hour slot was the only time she had to herself. Apparently it was the only time I stopped talking.
I think I must have felt very safe, sitting with the sun streaming onto the red and white carpet that my mum and dad actually wove soon after they got married. All my grandparents were still alive and death, illness and divorce had not yet entered my consciousness. Everything seemed secure and unchanging. All there was for me to do all day was to play and wait for my brother and sister to come home from school late in the afternoon.
I started school at 5-years-old but couldn’t find anything of interest in school work. I just wanted to play all day. And this was how things continued for the next 11 years until I left school at 16. Just like today, it was then possible to attend school for 11 years without learning anything. The only difference is that then, if you learned nothing, you left school without any qualifications. Today they give you a Master’s Degree simply for attending.
I wasn’t interested in school subjects and my teachers weren’t great at igniting my interest in anything. Their job resembled crowd control more than teaching so I don’t blame them at all. Yet neither do I blame myself. It was just how things were. I was neither clever nor diligent. Even my mum, who was an infant teacher, was unable to persuade me that school subjects were interesting and at some point she decided not to force me any more, as she had done a little with my older brother and sister, who needed less coercion anyway.
Even during my later years at school the prospect of getting either a boring job or no job at all didn’t worry me. The future was a foreign country and I neither knew nor cared what they did there. Even up until my late twenties after I had been working for over a decade I continued in much the same vein.
But one day I changed. I pictured myself getting older and still working as a postman, still unmarried and with no children. That thought depressed me so I decided to try to take the bull by the horns and steer my life a little, rather than just drifting along.
So I started doing things because they might prove useful rather than because they were enjoyable. More of my thinking was dedicated to planning. I read a lot, partly for pleasure but also because I felt I should ‘educate’ myself. I went back to school and took some exams and then, at the age of 30, I went to university where I studied English Lit, German and History. After graduating at 34 I started teaching English, first in Macedonia, then Poland, then Spain and now Japan.
What I wanted back then was to find a nice woman and to have two or three children. I could easily picture the picnics and holidays, though not the drudgery of 9 to 5 or moody silences on rainy Sundays. I was sure that once I had got everything into place I could stop thinking about the future and just relax into the present. Needless to say none of this happened.
I am now older and I suspect that I will stay single. Many British women around my age look and act like men and I’m sure I’m not much more attractive to them. I have pretty much given up on looking for my soul mate and now it’s too late to have children. So my future looks like ti will involve a gradual decline in health with the people I know slowly dying.
However, one thing does appeal to me and that is trying to get back to the way I used to see the world when I was playing with my marbles or perusing the children’s encyclopedia. It may be the case that things were so intense because my eyes and brain were still fresh and young and everything made a big impact on them. The Law of Diminishing Returns predicts that the umpteenth time you see a sea-green marble you won’t gaup in the same way you first did on seeing it.
Yet those images from 50 years ago are still stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps to create a strong impression you need to look closely, a little like the artist Lucien Freud did. I recently saw a documentary on him and although I’m not a huge fan of his work (I’m not really interested in art), there was something fascinating about him. When he looked closely at something his eyes opened very wide. I don’t know if he was play acting or if it was genuine but his paintings do suggest that he was really looking.
Virginia Woolf wrote about seeing things in an intense way in her book Moments of Being:
‘Moments of being are moments in which an individual experiences a sense of reality, in contrast to the states of ‘non-being’ that dominate most of an individual’s conscious life, in which they are separated from reality by a protective covering’.
I think the ‘protective covering’ must be habit so that your brain recognises something quickly and you hardly need to look. Yes, it’s just a sea-green marble. So what? So I would like to spend what time remains to me in trying to peel back that protective covering.