My grandfather and his cardinal texts moved in with us soon after he began to lose his mind. It must have been at the beginning of the 1960’s. One of the lessons the old school master liked to repeat was intended to prove that life was a competitive struggle. Imagine, he said, if swimmers lined up at the edge of the pool, dived in, swam a race and at the end of it were all equal, not divided by as much as a finger tip. You’d be disappointed wouldn’t you? You’d think, that wasn’t much of a race!
Although I used to find this story irritating, I never thought much about it till now. Why are the people taking part in life lined up at the edge of a swimming pool rather than, say, getting on a train for a day out at the seaside? If life is a race, there will be winners and losers, but why is it a race? Somehow the little story slips the basic premise past you without you realising what’s happening. And it’s taken me nearly fifty years to understand that the story is told not from the point of view of the swimmers but from that of someone who is watching the race: my grandfather presumably, who as a teacher for many many years saw virtue rewarded and laziness punished as his pupils succeeded and failed. (Or, as happened to some of them, got killed in either of the world wars, which, is generally seen as a kind of success.) If you were actually taking part in the race you wouldn’t mind too much if everybody finished in a dead heat. Would you?
My grandfather’s father worked on the railways. One day he wasn’t feeling very well, so his mates said, look Jack (or whatever his name was, I should know what his name was,) you lie down over there mate, you lie down on those sacks till you feel a bit better. But two days later he was dead from pneumonia. His wife was still pregnant with my grandfather, her only child. She had a little corner shop, worked hard at that as well as bringing up Percy.
Percy worked hard and became a school teacher. From the age of eleven until he retired at seventy, having been given special dispensation to carry on after the normal age of retirement, he worked at the same school in Brighton with only two breaks, one to train as a teacher at St John’s College, Battersea and one to serve as a soldier in Egypt (lucky, lucky Percy: there weren’t any Germans in Egypt) during the First World War. So although he dived in energetically, for him the race was soon over; he seems to have spent a long time treading water, or floating on his back.
Property began with my grandfather. (Before him there is only genealogy, and he traced the family line, or a family line, a desirable one, back as far as the battle of Crecy.) His father didn’t even own the sacks he lay down on when he got pneumonia. But Percy began the process of bourgeois accumulation which I’ve inherited along with the things themselves and which in my hands has become so disorderly that I’m left unable to lay my hands on the objects I would like to describe to you now. There’s so much of it, in bags and boxes, under the bed, in the attic, in the cellar, waiting on high shelves to make you sneeze. I have postcards of the pyramids, framed photos of W.P. Trustram posing again and again with the school football team as the years go by but he doesn’t, decades of cuttings from local newspapers which trace the careers and deaths of former pupils, and my two favourites: a brutal or ceremonial special constable’s truncheon and a little card from the second world war identifying the bearer as an air raid warden and therefore entitled to admission to any property in the neighbourhood to check out the black out. Think of that! W.P. Trustram knocking on your door, (maybe with his ceremonial truncheon to hand,) demanding to be let in so he could snoop around your house and make sure no chinks of light were admitted.
His own house at 81 Elm Grove, Brighton, a long, steep ascent to the race course which might have helped with the stories of life as an athletic struggle, was dark and full of dark furniture whose bulky angularity rebuked and checked any movement on the part of small children. He didn’t really need any black out material. Long after 1945 the place was always blacked out.
Just as soon as I get this place sorted out and tidied up and I’ve found the air raid warden’s card I’ll take a photo of it and put it on this site. I actually do know where the truncheon is: I’ve kept it by the bed for a few years now in case anybody tries to climb in through the window in the middle of the night. Then I will shout, I’m warning you! I come from a long line of special constables!
I must be very stupid because until now I’ve never connected my grandfather’s swimming pool story with my own. In the early 1960’s all the secondary schools in Salisbury decided that they needed their own swimming pool, even though we all used to swim regularly at the council pool. Going alone, each school could only afford an unheated pool; if they’d clubbed together they could probably have built one heated pool to share. It seems that the schools decided to race against each other to construct the pools in which their pupils should race. Three of us wrote a letter to the local newspaper saying that we thought the pool idea was wasteful, why didn’t we give the money to Oxfam instead? We were rebellious and disaffected but we had no idea of the storm this proposal would cause. The headmaster told us that our parents, who had organised jumble sales, had sweated blood to raise money for the swimming pool. He said a lot more but it’s the blood that I remember. It was Churchillian. This was round about the time of the Cuba missiles crisis, we’d been on our first Aldermaston march; the first photographs of children in Biafra starving to death appeared in the Sunday Times; civil rights activists were being murdered in the US; we failed to see that our parents were in fact bleeding as well, but then we were an ungrateful generation. We didn’t know or care or believe that we’d never had it so good. When they tried to warn us about the dangers of communism we just turned the music up. I think the head, Mr Sabben-Clare, was particularly angered by the way we smugly slipped Oxfam into the argument and made ourselves appear good, at least to the Salisbury Journal.
He decided that a suitable punishment for our insulting behaviour would be to insult and humiliate us in return, in a military kind of way. We three were sub-prefects. In our case it didn’t mean anything, it was a minor privilege without responsibilities given to us because we were clever sixth formers. Unlike the real prefects we didn’t have to discipline younger boys. They had two stripes on their shoulders, we had one. But because the headmaster believed in rank, hierarchy and responsibility he thought we would be shamed by being reduced to the ranks, when it was actually something we could be proud of, a minor battle honour. So after the speech about the blood our parents had sweated he ceremoniously cut the stripes off our coats, his bizarre court martial ritual confirming everything we felt about his idea of the school and of society, and making us feel even more important than we did when we read our letter in the paper. And of course the whole thing was so absurd that our parents weren’t angry. I think my mother was upset, but my father found the whole thing quite amusing. He was probably quite pleased that for once I hadn’t behaved like a wimp. And the more liberal teachers, who were the only ones we had much to do with once we were in the sixth form, gave us to understand that they found it amusing as well.
But later, in the cold, cold swimming pool, the forces of reaction got their revenge. Because I could swim. I think when I was in the upper sixth I got out of all other games and sports by agreeing to swim. In our unheated swimming pool, which was always freezing cold. And since swimming was not one of the school’s strengths, I found myself in the school swimming team. Just. I mean I was the worst swimmer in the team, and everybody else in the team was worse than everybody in the teams we swam against. So I always came last. By some distance. All I ever saw of the other swimmers was their wake.
By this time my grandfather was dead, and I never connected my juvenile experience of the bitterness of failure with his little parable until now.