Who is your favourite character from the Muppets?
Excluding Miss Piggy of course, because She is such a great hero and role model for us all, not to mention such a powerhouse amongst pigs, that I don’t think it would be fair to make the rest of us compete on the same playing field as Her.
Mine is The Count. I loved him from the first moment I saw him. There are so many things about him that are absolutely great. Like, he’s a vampire, yet he isn’t all that scary. He’s a really sharp dresser, with an intriguing, Bohemian-sounding (literally) Eastern European accent. He’s highly educated, loves organ music, and is always happy. He made capes cool long before Harry Potter came along.
And he counts. Everything. As character catchphrases go, they don’t get much better than “I love to count! Mwu ha hah.”
For me, he is a soul mate.
My relationship to counting is not so much one of love as addiction. I can’t help counting things. I feel a responsibility to the world, to make sure that things are adequately counted, so that it is known how many of them there are. That way, things will remain under control.
No doubt, that’s why they tell women in labour to count the seconds between contractions.
Now those of you that know me, and know how much I love maths, might think that this is just a manifestation of that general phenomenon. But it’s not. My love of maths is about depth, symmetry, harmony, aesthetics, the joy of finding a new pattern. Whereas my need to count is just a tic. I count steps when I’m jogging, magnets on a fridge, bricks on a wall. I do push ups on Tuesday and Saturday mornings just so that I can count them out loud in German – because that sounds so much more profound than counting them in English with an Australian accent. I count seconds between lightning and thunder, seconds of held breath when trying to dispel hiccups, and number of children in a class walking across the road on a school excursion.
In nothing is my need to count more apparent than in counting the storeys of multi-storey buildings. I put this down to growing up in Canberra in the seventies, when the only high-rise buildings in our known world were two office towers in Woden, of which I think one was about twenty storeys. Whenever I went there, I needed to count them again, just to make sure none of them had worn away or otherwise disappeared. It’s odd then that I no longer remember how many there were. I’m sure it was at least twenty, and not more than twenty-five, but I can’t tell you more than that. You’ll have to go and count them yourself.
Those high rise buildings symbolised sophistication, cosmopolitanism, urbanity, everything that Canberra then wasn’t. We even had a café owner that had to fight the council for years just to be allowed to have outdoor tables and chairs – something that must have been viewed suspiciously as Too European (meaning continental Europe, not Britain, which was Home) and in those days to be European was considered only one or two steps away from Communism.
But nevertheless, those Woden towers – so many storeys – my how grand! To a little boy, those big buildings in Woden were very exciting, although I never went inside one, and still haven’t.
When I got bigger, I sometimes got to visit Sydney then, ultimately, came to live there. I thought it was amazing how many tall buildings they had. There were several skyscrapers, the largest being the Australia Square tower with fifty storeys. That ruled the roost for more than a decade, to be eventually surpassed in 1977 by the MLC Centre with sixty storeys. Like a true country bumpkin, I would walk up to the tower, look at the ground floor, then slowly tilt my head back until my gaze reached the top – a tiny point in the sky, seeming so far away.
But I didn’t count the storeys. There was no point. You always lost track. Anyway, the really impressive thing was not these few skyscrapers, but that the average building in the CBD was at least four storeys high, often six or more. Coming from Canberra – a sea of one-storey bungalows – that was the real shock – that just ordinary street buildings could be so high. The fact that most of Sydney was a sea of boring bungalows just like Canberra didn’t seem to matter when you were in the CBD.
So I started counting. For every building I passed I had to start at the bottom and count until I got to the top – was it five, six or seven? No, wait, there’s a little penthouse, or a row of dormer windows just below the roof, so that’s eight. Unbelievable!
I have lived in Sydney for more than half my life now, and worked in the CBD most days. But I still have to count any building with more than two floors. If it’s more than four then I feel a small surge of pride – like ‘that’s proper urban that is’.
My family took me to Europe this last northern winter. We stayed on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Paris (that’s sixth floor for Americans). I think there were seven floors altogether – the top one being attic style with windows peeking out through the dark-grey, zinc roof. In Paris nearly all buildings are between six and eight storeys, because it was all knocked down and re-built in a period of about twenty years under central control, directed by Baron Hausmann. You’d think I could have relaxed knowing that all the buildings were of height seven, give or take one but NO, I had to count most of them that we walked past, just to make sure. After all, if I didn’t do it, what if nobody else did? Then it wouldn’t have been counted and where would we be?
Same thing in London. At least there’s a bit more variety in height there (don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder whether the much-praised uniformity of Paris’s Hausmann streetscapes is just a little bit boring). And of course Liverpool.
Anyway, next time you are at a musical show and you just have to know how many chorus members there are, don’t be shy. Go ahead and count them. Then tell your companions after the show. They’ll be glad you did. Certainly the Count and I will.
Bondi Junction, November 2018
I love Peanuts.
There’s a double entendre.
It could mean that I love ground nuts. I do, very much indeed. I can’t imagine living a life without nuts, especially without peanuts. They are the food of the gods.
Or it could mean that I love Charles M Schulz’s comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy the beagle, Lucy the bossyboots and others. That is true too. I have some old books of Peanuts comic strips that I have had since I bought them at second-hand markets decades ago, and which I still really treasure.
One sequence of strips I was thinking of recently is when one of the characters – Linus, I think – was telling the others about haphephobia, which he explained in his overly earnest, nerdy way, was a fear of being touched. In one of those strips somebody accidentally almost touches Snoopy, who instantly leaps up metres into the air as an instinctive over-reaction.
I recalled this as I have been thinking recently about touch as a means of non-verbal communication, and how some people tend to touch others when they talk to them, while others assiduously avoid it. I’ll call the former ‘touchy’, pausing only to note that this has nothing in common with the occasional use of that word to mean short-tempered.
When I think about the people I know that are touchy, It seems that most of them are women. The most usual touch is on the forearm, or sometimes the elbow. I know one person who rubs the side of your arm around the elbow when you talk to her – a gesture that I find unusual, but heart-warming.
What do these touches mean? They seem to communicate reassurance, goodwill, perhaps an indication that, right at this point in time, you have their full attention. Whether that is the intended meaning I don’t know. Quite possibly there is no intended meaning. Touchy people seem to be more instinctive than others. Their words and actions stem from their un-self-conscious connection to the great cosmic flow – what Daoists call Wu Wei – rather than from premeditation.
In Anglo-Celtic culture, not many men touch, but some do. In my experience those that do tend to be matey about it, and are more likely to pat on the shoulder or the back than touch the forearm or hand. And they generally only pat other men.
I have habitually been a non-toucher. I don’t quite have haphephobia, but I have been known to flinch slightly when somebody unexpectedly touches me, or even comes close. I don’t know where it comes from. Freud would have us look to our childhood and, like almost every child growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I received plenty of corporal punishment when I was judged to have been naughty. My punishment was considerably lighter than that which many of my school friends told me about, and my parents never struck me on the head or anywhere that would cause any damage other than redness that lasted an hour or so. But nevertheless I can remember cringing before the blows that a parent was – with all the best intentions and believing that they were morally obliged to do this no matter how much they disliked doing it – about to deliver. Perhaps I cringed because I had a nervous disposition, or maybe my disposition became more nervous because of the punishment. I can’t tell. I do know that many of my contemporaries seemed to be less physically nervous than I, so I Imagine my genetic predisposition played at least some part in it.
Whatever the reason, I have not been good at being touched and have certainly not been a toucher. But recently this has been changing. Perhaps I have been listening to too many philosophy podcasts about ‘authenticity’ and about how relationships with others are the only real thing in the world. Whether with conscious effort or just because one tends to relax more as one matures, I have become more capable of tolerating unexpected touch without flinching.
But wait, there’s more!
I have, to my immense surprise, started to become, every now and then, a toucher. At first I surprised myself by, on occasion, gently tapping a forearm or a shoulder. Never on skin of course! We Anglo-Celtics need the reassurance of a shirt or jumper beneath our hand in order to feel that one is not being improper. Maybe some of the later taps were deliberate. It’s hard to tell. But even though some taps may have been pre-considered, the overall trend is not. There is no plan.
The forearms and shoulders that I find myself tapping or patting are exclusively those of men. I think that is partly deliberate and partly instinctive. I have had it so soundly drummed into me that any uninvited touch of a woman other than one’s life partner is not acceptable, that I have big unconscious barriers against ever doing that. In any case, in the current climate it seems wise to proscribe such actions to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. It seems a pity, but that’s just one of many ways that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have made things so much worse for others. I wonder what other people think about that, and whether it will change with time. At least many women feel no constraint against touching men to whom they are talking, as well as, of course, other women.
I have been surprised too, about how non-frightening and positive it can be to do a simple tap or pat. It is such an efficient way to communicate goodwill and support and, unlike supportive words, it doesn’t seem to run the risk of being interpreted as sarcastic. There’s so much sarcasm in the world. We don’t need people inferring it when it’s not there.
This gradual opening to the possibility of touch seems a good development. But there’s one Anglo-Celtic reservation I have that I don’t think will ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate a massage. It just creeps me out to much, people poking around in my neck muscles and such like. There are too many fragile parts in there that I feel are on the verge of getting damaged. And it’s too close to being tickled, which I never was keen on. I don’t know whether the childhood cringing from imminent punishment plays a part in it as well. Massages are supposed to make you relax but, for me, they do the opposite. Still, plenty of people like massages, so me not having any just means there are more for the rest of you.
A cynic might say ‘What’s the big deal? People touch skin to skin all the time in the business world, when they shake hands at the start of a meeting!’ That is true and, being in the business world, I do that as well, with nary a thought. But it doesn’t count, and you know it doesn’t count, you cynics! Shaking hands is a meaningless stylised ritual that has long passed its usefulness. They say it was originally invented in order to show somebody you met that you weren’t holding a weapon (an urban myth?). Except when visiting or living in the USA, I think that these days we can take as read the weaponlessness of those we meet. Plus it spreads germs. I sometimes wonder ‘What if I’m about to break out in a cold? I’d hate to give it to somebody else.’. We all know that the most infectious period with a cold is just before you realise you have one – or is that another urban myth? I admire the Japanese, who bow when meeting people for business, and then present business cards in a pleasingly formal way.
The point is that it’s the voluntariness of the unbidden touch that can make it so scary to do, or to receive. There’s nothing scary in what is mandated, as handshakes before business meetings are. Or, for that matter, the compulsory ballroom dancing lessons we had in senior high school, where we boys had to hold girls’ hands as we marched to and fro, then twirled them about, or twirled about them, whichever it was (I wasn’t terribly good at ballroom dancing). We were mostly too terrified even to talk to the girls at school, let alone touch them (we outnumbered them five to one so it seemed presumptuous to assume any of these rare and special humans would wish to hear anything we had to say), but when the dancing mistress fixes you with her beady eye and snaps ‘Take positions! Join hands! Go!’, you just obey.
This essay at one point had the word ‘sashayed’ in it (can you guess where?). But now it doesn’t. I think that’s an improvement.
Bondi Junction, August 2018
George Orwell said ‘At the age of fifty, everyone has the face s/he deserves’.
I first heard that saying decades ago and for some unknown reason remembered it. I was never very confident about exactly what Orwell meant by it, but I have always interpreted it to mean that if you spend your life being cross you will end up looking like a cranky old wo/man. But if you spend your life smiling kindly, you will look like a kind old person. It goes along with that other old saying, that your face will get stuck with whatever expression you are wearing when the wind changes (or does that rule only apply if you are making a face at somebody?).
If it were true, it’s bad luck for those that suffer a lot of pain or grief in their first few decades. They would end up looking permanently in pain or sad.
There’s not much we can do to avoid pain or grief, but we have at least some control over whether we scowl or smile on those around us.
Orwell’s saying came back to me at around the age of forty. I didn’t remember what the cutoff age was but I remembered that you had to watch out if you didn’t want to end up like Mr Wintergarten or any other fictional old person the neighbourhood children avoided in fear.
I started paying occasional attention to my facial expressions, noting when I smiled. I was somewhat relieved to find that I smiled quite often, partly because my children, who were all below ten years old at the time, often made me laugh or smile at their antics. ‘Thank goodness!’ I thought. I would be safe from ogredom and the neighbourhood children would be free from my future reign of terror.
There are two special occasions when I do my best to smile – they are when riding my bicycle on public roads, and when jogging.
The reason for the jogging smile is that I heard that a famous American public intellectual and wit said something like ‘If I ever see a jogger smiling I might try it‘. For a long time I thought Gertrude Stein said that but now the internet tells me it was actually the comedian Joan Rivers in 1982. I don’t know if others would count Joan Rivers as a public intellectual, but I like to think of Public Intellectuality as a broad church. Anyway, I resented the implication that joggers were a miserable bunch that hated jogging and did it either because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop, or because like an Opus Dei monk wearing a cicatrice, they felt that the pain they were suffering was somehow accumulating points for them in their heavenly bank account.
Fie on you Ms Steinem (yes I know, I get Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem mixed up – pathetic isn’t it) I admonished her inside my head. I don’t suffer when I jog. I quite enjoy it most of the time, and sometimes I even love it. But I had to admit she had a point about the smiling. Joggers didn’t tend to smile, perhaps because they were too busy trying to breathe.
So I determined to set the world to rights. I became possibly the world’s first ever smiling jogger. I didn’t smile all the time. It is quite tiring on the facial muscles to maintain a smile for minutes at a time, as any games show barrel girl will attest (some people think that catwalk models look so sulky these days because they are perpetually hungry, but I think it may also be because it is more relaxing to maintain a vacant gaze than a beaming smile). But as soon as a passer-by hove into sight, I lit my face up like a Christmas tree, so they could see just how much fun I was having.
This led to some peculiar looks, and mothers shepherding their children anxiously away from me with worried expressions on their faces.
My campaign of smiling on a bicycle was for a different reason, and met with rather more success. There are a bunch of nasty ‘shock jocks’ in my city that anathematise anybody that expresses any concern for the environment as a Luddite, anti-democratic communist. They save their most virulent hatred for refugees and bicycle riders, in both cases, apparently because they clog up the roads and thereby interfere with the God-given right of every right-thinking person to drive their Land Cruiser down any street at 60km/h plus, unimpeded.
While most people, fortunately, are not influenced by this outpouring of bile, it does have some spillover effects and it did tend to generally increase the degree of hostility between cyclists and motor-car drivers. I thought that if I smiled at motorists that I encountered (or, at least, at the ones that hadn’t just nearly killed me by turning in front of me, cutting me off, passing too close and fast or just blaring their horn at me so close as to make me nearly fall off in fright) I would be doing my little bit to rebuild cordial relations.
I am pleased to report that this little strategy, unlike campaign Joggers-Can-Smile-Too, met with unexpected success. I received plenty of return smiles, waves and other gracious, heart-warming gestures. So, take that, Alan Jones!
For some reason it is also easier, and feels more natural, to smile when riding than when jogging. It might be because riding is after all more intrinsically fun than jogging, because of the whizzing. We all love to whizz after all, and not many of us are capable of jogging at whizzing speed. I used to be able to, but have not been able to for a long time now. Plus, every time one’s foot hits the ground (which is about eight-three times a minute, in case you were wondering), one’s facial muscles all get wobbled about by the shock-wave, making it more than usually hard work to maintain a smile. If you don’t believe me, look at a slow-motion replay of the 100m race in the Olympics and watch what the faces do. Ignore that famous sideways smile photo of Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. That was in a semi-final, so he wasn’t really running very fast (for him).
There’s also the fact that, because the air is rushing towards you quite fast on a bike, you don’t need to open your mouth into a big fat O shape to get enough air in. A sweet smile leaves more than enough opening for enough of the rearward rushing air to find its way to the lungs.
After a while, it just became a habit to smile when I was riding my bicycle, at least, when I wasn’t climbing a difficult hill or negotiating a particularly dangerous traffic situation.
So, in between the child-induced smile, the jogging smile and the bicycling smile, it seemed that my face was probably doing what was necessary in order to meet Mr Orwell’s challenge.
Now I am well past fifty, so I suppose I am out of danger. My face has, I suppose, become set in whatever configuration it is to maintain from here on in. The only expected future changes are ever-increasing numbers of wrinkles, perhaps sun-spots and scars from removed skin lesions and a gradual loss of teeth and hair. But can I be sure of that? After all, while Mr Orwell’s skill as an author is beyond question, his expertise as a gerontologist is comparatively unknown. Could he have been mistaken? What if it is sixty, seventy, or even eighty? One cannot be too careful. Perhaps it is too early to stop smiling.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay (better late than never): adolescent and young-adult offspring just don’t seem to compel beaming, helpless smiles from adults in the same way that two year olds do. Of the positive emotions that adolescents can generate (we’ll not dwell on the negative ones), there are affection, pride, sympathy and a number of others but “Oh my goodness that’s so adorable!” is not usually one of them. I presume this has something to do with evolution. We are programmed to find almost every utterance and action of a two-year old adorable, because they cannot fend for themselves and, if we didn’t find them adorable, we might not be inclined to fend for them – which wouldn’t do at all, not if we want them to grow up to be Prime Ministers. But above the age of about sixteen, the fending skills of the human species appear to be adequate, so evolution decided to ease off on the adorability spell. That may be all very well – after all, many adolescents prefer to spend time in any company other than that of their parents, and parents are easier to shake off if they are not following you around with adoring grins on their faces. But how are we to meet our smiling quota in the absence of such an influence? I have a feeling that now I may spend less than half the amount of time smiling that I did ten years ago. I can put some of that down to my mid-life crisis, but I think the partial maturation of my children has to bear some of the responsibility.
What, then, is to be done? One has to find other things to make one smile. But what? That will have to be the topic of another essay.
Ian Dury knew though. He made a list, in his song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3).
Here’s a picture of Ian Dury showing he had not much to smile about, with his grim environment and the after-effects of his childhood polio on display. And yet…….
Do we all have things we look forward to learning? In early 1983 I was very excited about learning the meaning of ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’. That was the name of the central section of the main text for my second year uni algebra course. The text was ‘Rings, Modules and Linear Algebra’ by Hartley and Hawkes.
I understood from the course summary and the blurb on the textbook that learning how to do the activity described by the above italicised phrase was one of the main goals of this course.
What I found particularly appealing about the goal was that it referred to three different things, none of which I knew what they were. What is direct decomposition? Dunno! What is a finitely generated module? Dunno! What is a principal ideal domain? Dunno!
To add to the titillating obscurity of the subject, each of the three things was qualified by an adjective or adverb. The first two things only had one qualification each: direct decomposition rather than just any old ordinary decomposition, and finitely-generated module rather than just a commonorgarden module. But the third thing actually had two qualifications. This was not just an ideal domain or a principal domain but it was a principal, ideal domain. How exciting is that?
(Mathematicians may wish to object that the comma does not belong, and that the word ‘principal’ actually qualifies the word ‘ideal’ rather than the word ‘domain’, so that ‘a principal ideal is a thing’, whereas a ‘principal domain’ and an ‘ideal domain’ are ‘not a thing’, to borrow the ‘thing’ terminology that seems to be so popular amongst today’s young people. But let’s not allow this minor technical point to spoil a good story).
Why, you might wonder, was I so fascinated by a topic with so much jargon in it? What, you might ask, and perhaps not entirely without reason, is my problem?
The answer, I think, is that I have a fascination with jargon, and more generally with weird, obscure and bizarre things. The jargon has to be justified though. I have no interest in the jargon invented by some professions (merchant bankers and stock brokers in particular come to mind) to describe perfectly ordinary concepts in obscure ways in order to make them appear clever to others and justify their exorbitant fees. No, what excites me is jargon that people have no choice but to invent because the concepts it is describing are so abstract and complex that ordinary words are useless.
The jargon of mathematics and many of the sciences is of this justified type. When a physicist tells you that the steps necessary for predicting the perihelion of Mercury include performing a contraction of the Riemann tensor and another contraction of the Ricci tensor in a Swarzschild spacetime, or that the possible states of a carbon atom form an exterior algebra generated by the Hilbert spaces of electrons, neutrons and protons, she is describing things that cannot be described in plain language. And yet they are real things, not just insubstantial ideas. They are things that enable humans to perform wonders.
More to the point though, when Doctor Who announces that he has ‘Reversed the polarity of the neutron flow’, we learn that as a consequence of this linguistic peculiarity the universe, which was about to have its space time continuum rent asunder (ouch!), has been saved. This is no postmodernist proliferating syllables for the sake of mystery and pomposity, as in:
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.” [Felix Guattari]
At heart, I think my fascination with genuine jargon is just part of an insatiable curiosity. The world is so full of intricate patterns and amazing phenomena, yet we will only ever get to see a tiny part of what is there. I want to find out what I can while I have the chance.
I can’t remember much about that 1983 algebra course, but I can picture that topic title going around and around in my brain like an obsession. I particularly remember running around the uni oval in athletics training, thinking as I went that within a few months I would actually be one of the privileged few that understood ‘Direct decomposition of a finitely generated module over a principal ideal domain’, even though at that time I had no idea of what it even meant. It was like counting down the days to Christmas.
I can’t remember the point at which we finally learned how to do it. Perhaps it was a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps it turned out not to be as exotic as it sounded, or familiarity had bred contempt (or at least dissipated some of the awe) by the time we neared the end of semester.
As well as spoken jargon I also have a taste for unusual symbols. In primary school, when everything we do in maths is a number, the idea of doing algebra in high school, where we would use letters rather than numbers, seemed very grown-up. In junior high school we could look forward to trigonometry with those funny sin, cos and tan words, then logarithms and exponentials with log x and superscripts ex and then, even more alluring, calculus in senior high school with those loopy integral signs ∫.
At uni I couldn’t wait to be able to use the ‘plus’ and ‘times’ signs with circles around them – ⊕ and ⊗, the special curly ‘d’s that are used for partial differentials ∂. And the upside-down triangle ∇. I imagined it would be like learning a secret language, into which only specially selected people would be initiated (Yes I was vain! So sue me. What privileged, talented 20-year old isn’t?) As it turned out I didn’t get to use ∂ much, and didn’t get to learn about ⊗ or ∇ at all, because of my subject choices.
I very much wanted to learn about ‘tensors’. I had heard that they were like matrices (rectangular tables of numbers that all maths students have to study in first year uni) only more complex, and that you needed them to do relativity theory. But again I missed out because of my subject choices. Not that I regret that. If I hadn’t made the choices I did, I’d have missed out on learning about finite-state automata and NP-complete problems, and would never have had the opportunity to design a computer chip that converted binary to decimal or to write parallel-processing computer programs to simulate populations of aliens (that’s beings from other planets, not the human immigrants the Tea Party are so worried about).
Over the last few years I have rectified my lamentable ignorance of tensors, ⊗ and ∇, as a consequence of my mid-life crisis. Some people buy red sports cars and get plastic surgery. I decided I couldn’t live another year without understanding General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It takes all sorts, I suppose.
An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?).
An unexpected bonus of this flurry of crisis-induced self-study was two new hieroglyphics 〈x| and |y〉 – complete with funny names: ‘bra’ and ‘ket’ (because when you put them together to make an ‘inner product’, written 〈x|y〉, you make a ‘bra[c]ket’ – get it?). That affords me the smug satisfaction of being able to understand – if not necessarily able to follow – most of what is written on the sitting-room white board that’s often in the background in The Big Bang Theory. And yes, it usually is real physics or maths, not just made-up jumbles of unrelated symbols. Sometimes it’s even relevant to the story-line, like when Sheldon had Permutations and Combinations of a set of 52 elements written on the board, because he was trying to figure out a magic card trick one of the others had done (not that they ever referred to the board). That’s in contrast to Doctor Who, where they just sling any old combination of fancy words together (‘Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’ is not a ‘thing’. Or at least, it’s not a ‘thing’ you can do.).
I’m not expecting this essay to resonate with many people. It is a rare perversion to be intrigued by arcane language and symbols. But perhaps it’s not unusual for people to long to learn something or other that is currently far beyond their knowledge or abilities. It might be how to crochet an intricate doily, to speak a foreign language fluently, to recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from memory or, when a bit younger, yearning to be able to ride a bicycle without training wheels, swim the Australian Crawl or play a piano with both hands at the same time.
Bondi Junction, March 2014
When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.
‘Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!’
In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.
When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.
In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.
One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.
Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.
Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.
I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.
What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.
Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).
In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!
Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.
There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.
Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.
When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.
Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.
Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.
One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?
Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.
I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.
When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.
When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.
Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013