I was in Woolworths last Friday when a woman hit her little child across the head. Quite a few of us saw what she did, but none of us did anything. To be fair, it wasn’t a hard blow and the victim didn’t burst into tears, but it was shocking. When young, I was often belted round the ear, once for saying ‘bugger’, but then, in those days, the word was unspeakable and the punishment unremarkable. Returning home I did a little research on the history of spanking, and am amazed — as both Richard II and Frankie Howerd were apt to exclaim — at my findings. For instance, did you know that as late as 1968 a gentleman in Bognor Regis was doing such a brisk trade in selling canes by post that he was running out of trees and contemplating moving to a leafier part of the country? I already knew that Gladstone was into flagellation after going out to talk to ladies of the night — as he was a Liverpudlian it didn’t surprise me — but we were never taught that Swinburne wrote a poem called ‘Arthur’s Flogging’, the last three lines of which read:
With piteous eyes uplifted, the poor boy
Just faltered, ‘Please sir’, and could get no farther.
Again, that voice, ‘Take down your trousers, Arthur.’
Last week I went to the Athenaeum club in Pall Mall for the launch of the 2004 Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard Gregory. It contains a feast of entries on such mind-boggling subjects as evolutionary psychology, tickling, extra-terrestrial intelligence, free will and phantom limbs. It was Professor Gregory who, years back, explained to me how memory works. Apparently the brain lays down chemical tracks — tyre marks in the mud, so to speak — and information is then stored in the circuit system. There are certain people, a very few, who suffer torments from having too good a memory. There was a poor chap in Russia who had a terrible time whenever he needed to cross a road. His storage circuit was so good that he projected images of heavy traffic before he even set foot in the gutter; he could never be sure whether he was about to dodge real cars or the ones he had seen the day before. He actually had to train himself to be forgetful, which feat he accomplished by writing down memories and then setting fire to the paper. It wouldn’t work for everybody. For many of us, I doubt if we’d remember where we’d put the paper.
It’s disconcerting, isn’t it, the way buildings and streets keep being pulled down and replaced by ugly modern blocks whose windows must cost a fortune to be cleaned. Take Whitechapel and the Commercial Road. Fifteen years ago I was taken by Professor William Fishman round the area frequented by Jack the Ripper. Then there were cobblestones, and houses with front doors and front steps that allowed memories to climb into the mind. They’ve all gone now, and when I went into the pub with its side entrance leading into Gunthorpe Alley and asked the way to Toynbee Hall, everyone looked blank. I mentioned Chapman, the man who had once lived in the cellar of the pub and been hanged for poisoning three wives, all of them his, but no one had heard of him either. I understand the cellar has been reconstructed — so goodbye to the past.
Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884 in memory of Arnold Toynbee, economic and social historian who spent his life trying to draw attention to the poor of the East End. He was a man of his time, for in 1882, 1884 and 1885 British trade unionists passed a series of resolutions demanding a stop to the flood of ‘alien paupers’. Nothing new in that. I at last found the Hall, a short walk beyond the poisoning cellar of Mr Chapman, to witness a reissue by Five Leaves Press of William Fishman’s book, East End Jewish Radicals, the definitive and massively authoritative work on the history of immigrant Jews in the East End. I suggest that the scriptwriters of that soap televised every week should buy a copy and include some other anarchists apart from Dirty Den.
I underwent a most mysterious ritual a few days ago, in which I sat in a room in the British Council building in Spring Gardens and gave a reading to an audience. Then I was asked questions about the process of writing and where the ideas came from. I was adamant that there was no such thing as imagination, that we aren’t born with it, that it isn’t like blue eyes or the colour of one’s skin, but rather a hotchpotch of memories sunk into the mind from the time of conception onwards. The mysterious bit was that I was alone in a space empty save for a chair, a table and a very large television screen; there wasn’t a microphone or a camera in sight, but the people who were looking at me and posing the questions were all in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I call that rather sinister.
Radio Scotland was due to come to my house on Thursday to record two readings and two pieces of music of my choice. One agrees to do this sort of thing because it seems a nice idea at the moment of asking; later, of course, it requires a lot of thought and agonising. In the end all I managed to be sure about was the last entry in Captain Scott’s diary, the bit when he says it’s a pity but he doesn’t think he can write more. The music I chose was David Bowie singing ‘Space Oddity’, the link, should it require explanation, being Tom losing contact with the Earth and heading for an endless journey into space. Actually, Captain Scott is still lying perfectly preserved hundreds of feet under the ice, but it hardly matters because Radio Scotland cancelled the broadcast.
In 1967 my ex went to Wales and brought back a very small forest birch tree which he planted in the back yard. It is now taller than the house and has been diagnosed as causing extensive damage to the brickwork of the bathroom. After many arguments with the insurance company, I’ve agreed for it to be cut down, though no one seems entirely able to prove it’s the cause of the damage. When it was smaller I used to wind false roses round its branches, but they’re long since out of sight above the chimney. Next week it’s going for the chop; tears all round.
Should you be interested, the information regarding spanking is contained in a book called The English Vice by Ian Gibson. It was originally brought to my attention by a masterly publisher’s ad in the Times Literary Supplement which announced, ‘Coming at last in softback, the history of spanking at a price that will really hurt.’