We were three, siblings, stretched out in an orange tent with the rain, which never seemed to stop, hammering on the flysheet and taking every opportunity to get inside when the wind brushed the sheet against the inner lining. We were on a return visit to the island we grew up on, discovering how small it had become and how wet the ground was, thick with bracken and long grass. This was the second of three visits for me each with its own magic (https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2013/09/26/46/). Mercifully the temperature had dropped and the midges had disappeared temporarily. And so the time waiting for a window in the weather was spent drinking coffee, and making the best of the mouldy bread the shop had sold us. When it was bought, the previous day, in the dingy tin hut half a mile away, I clearly heard someone say from the back “well they’ll eat it if they are hungry”. So we amused ourselves with a bit of singing and talking about words and language. They were, that is, I was listening. I had learned the art of keeping quiet. There is a proverb about that: a fool who holds his tongue can appear wise. But generally, it was because I was out of my depth
I was a late developer, a slow learner. Always have been. I discover things late in life that others take as second nature from nursery school. Even today when I find that all of my architectural contemporaries have retired long since, I am only now beginning to feel that I getting the hang of it. I could put my slow learning down to the fact that my education hiccupped from school to school as our family moved around the country. I could blame it on being at the tail end of a large family. When it came to me, my parents were so engrossed in the trials of the others that they were exhausted and left me to my own devises. I could blame it on other things too, like being mildly dyslexia when the words and letters seem to jump around on the page, but the truth is it was more likely to be laziness. But I knew how to not look lazy by busing myself with other things, rather than the thing I was supposed to be doing.
So I was listening when my brother was demonstrating how contemporary language was a poorer thing quoting almost verbatim from an essay by George Orwell “Politics and the English language” where the writer compares a modern day example of what a passage from Ecclesiastes might sound like compared to the King James authorised version. This was nothing new. My siblings would spend hours of an evening discussing and laughing in a literary world which I could never connect to. I seldom got the jokes and the references went over my head. When I even interjected, I realised it was a tactical mistake, as my ignorance was mercilessly exposed. I remember coming back from school during the holidays having spent some time in the library. I had discovered Steinbeck, traveller’s stories in soviet Russia and China and the war poets. I was taken with the romance of the revolution in Cuba and the accounts of Castro and his band of guerrillas working their way through the forests, their affinity with the peasants and the victorious ride into Havana. Sitting around the Rayburn in the kitchen I chanced my arm and tentatively introduced my leftist views. It was a bad move. I was totally out of my depth and quickly, though kindly, my theories were shown to be the half-baked ideas that they were.
It was all about reading, you see. I was not just behind I wasn’t on the same road and, strange as it may seem, I have only recently learned how to read. Of course I learned at school and of course I have read throughout my life, but never in a serious way. I read because I had to and sometimes to explore some fancy. The new experience, however, was a growing curiosity to dig and explore the stories and ideas to get to the heart of the thing and think through what this meant to the very business of living. The other thing that may seem strange is that I came to this new experience after learning to read the Bible. I wrote about this at https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2016/05/02/a-purposeful-habit-4/.
Now there are late developers then there are late developers, and it is hard to describe the wonder of this discovery so late in life. Being able to light upon books written with intellect and wit, with economy of language, knowledge and experience and a pursuit of wisdom. These have generally lent more on the non fiction rather than the fiction side, but not exclusively so. Today I am half way through an 850 page Russian novel, smuggled out to the west in the 80’s and printed without the author being able to make his final changes to it. It is a quite astonishing work, a beautifully told tale, full of realism, pity and at times latent horror but shot through with the tenderest humanity.
It took me a long time to find what I couldn’t see or share in all these years ago, but I am glad I did.