INTRO: Memory is a capricious, if not perverse, faculty. While I may remember obscure incidents in a novel or biography read years ago, I’d be stumped if you ask me what I ate or wore the day before yesterday. Nevertheless, the following phrases have left an indelible mark on that tyrant.
WALK, DON'T JUMP
DeWitt Clinton, the all-boys high school I attended in the Bronx, had the most students in the world, so it may have been to save space that its stairways had very low ceilings (formed by the metal rungs of the one above). Hence, the above sign. I must have descended them thousands of times unscathed when, one day, I unaccountably leapt and suffered a nasty gash on my forehead, with a spectacular gush of blood. It might have killed me, but kids are tough and I am still alive to tell the tale.
IF YOU'RE SO SMART, WHY AREN'T YOU RICH
During the summers of high school, I worked as a messenger for my Dad’s stationery store facing the south side of the Empire State Building. One day I toted some merchandise to a print shop in the since yuppified eastern thirties. This time, dad came along to discuss the bill with the proprietor, a grizzled old landsman, chewing a pencil, and boasted of his son’s top grades and admission to a good college, which prompted the wisecrack. It wasn’t because he was coarse and mistaken that I was upset. I already knew I wasn’t cut out for commerce. Rather, it was because I wasn’t able to counter (much less articulate) that artistic and intellectual pursuits were nobler. I was still too unformed and the milieu I grew up in – of striving, second-generation Jewish businessmen – was against me. Adding to my impotency was the stink, clutter and noise of a crummy locale in the 90 degrees heat (spare me that “un verano en Nueva York” rubbish).
WELCOME, HARVARD REJECTS
Greeting of the Dean of Columbia College (the undergraduate branch of the same university) at the ceremony to welcome the freshman class. For me and many others, it was touché indeed. Looking back, however, I think I received a better education there than at Harvard and at a fifth of the price. No longer, alas: a recent survey puts Columbia among the three most expensive universities in the world.
WHY DON'T YOU READ ROUND THE SUBJECT FIRST
Said my thesis advisor when I embarked on a Ph.D. at Cambridge University at the age of 23. Obtaining a broad view of the field before plunging into the tedium of footnotes and index cards was sound advice: little did he know that I would take it so literally. After two months in earnest at the university´s monumental copyright library, I spent virtually the whole of the next three years browsing books from the stacks…pulled out at random! Still, there was a method to my madness, since a) I’d soon lost all interest in scholarship; but b) had to reach 26 before being exempt from Vietnam (and didn’t know what else to do with my time); and c) in contrast with the post-grad faculties of America, whose members are ultra-strict nannies, Cambridge takes a relaxed, donnish view of the enterprise. As one gentleman to another, all my advisor asked of me was to consult him every few months in case I had any problems, and when I reported there were none, I was left to my own devices again. It sounds far-fetched, but I did dodge the draft.
THEY'RE ONLY HERE THANKS TO VICTORIAN CAPITAL
As a callow lad from the Bronx suddenly thrust into the posh lifestyle of Cambridge, I was naturally awed by (and envious of) the smooth manners and gilded self-assurance of the public school set. However, due, in part, to drab RAB (Butler, author of the democratizing Education Act of 1944, now Master of Trinity and crypto-anti-Semite), the university had changed since the days of Brideshead and that set was being superseded by the grammar school one, many of whom despised the former, as seen in the above rejoinder to me by one, which, in effect, repeated Figaro’s classic remark: “What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more”. If there is any doubt, see Piketty, who has updated it.
IT'S ALL RIGHT AND ALL WRONG
After dropping out of Cambridge and a short spell in London, I lived in a commune in Norfolk, whose de facto guru was a guy from the East End who went to art school (under the same Act), then decided that painting was sterile and became a master craftsman, which (ideology aside) was the right move, because everything he turned his hand to was blessed with an extraordinary meticulousness and artistry, from the ancient country houses he restored (including the splendid early-Georgian mansion which housed the commune) to the authentic Finnish sauna he built in the garden (with handcrafted wooden tiles for its onion dome) to the great meals he cooked for us. Despite being ham-handed, I occasionally made a stab at some minor crafts project myself and then, like a cat with a dead mouse, would drop it at his feet for approval. “Yeah, it’s ‘alright’, he would say, “alright and all wrong!”
HE (THE HORSE) DOESN'T LIKE IT ANYMORE THAN YOU WOULD
In the same epoch, I spent a few afternoons as a stable boy in exchange for riding lessons from a lady who trained thoroughbred horses. One of my jobs was to sponge her prize stallion down after a work-out, following her instructions to start with its nostrils, proceed to its neck, back, flanks, belly and legs (tricky the latter, but it was tied) and only conclude with its anus. NOT in the opposite direction.
TAKE YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS! (STAIRWAYS AGAIN)
One night, the commune held a wild party in a restored lighthouse on the Norfolk coast, which, since it was tall and narrow, was equipped with a perilously steep spiral staircase. At one point, rather high on this and that, I was rushing down it when I received the above warning from a guest from another commune, who, as an ex-merchant seaman, knew whereof he spoke. But it was only years later, when I took my son to see the WWII aircraft carrier, the Intrepid, moored on the Hudson river in New York City as a Sea, Air & Space Museum, that I got the full import of what he meant. Fighting vertigo and panic on those cramped, nearly vertical gangways to the sky was almost beyond me. Imagine what it must been like on a choppy sea in the midst of a kamikaze attack!
JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE PARANOID DOESN'T MEAN THEY'RE NOT AFTER/OUT TO GET YOU
Variously attributed to the poet Delmore Schwartz, the novelist Joseph Heller and Henry Kissinger, this piece of folk wisdom is probably as old as the hills, but I first heard it after I moved from the commune to County Clare, Ireland, where I shared a stone cottage with a fellow who, as a recent refugee from the Troubles in Belfast, likewise knew whereof he spoke.
IT'S NOT THE COLD THAT GETS YOU BUT THE DAMP
More or less the same origin as the above, except that nearly everyone in Ireland said so, though they didn’t necessarily live up to it. When my then wife and I sold our leather goods on the street in Limerick, the harder it rained, the more we earned! And it was on the handful of truly hot days in the year that the Irish most complained of the weather!
PUT YOUR SHIRT ON!
Now to the Sun: If you want to get an idea of the Black Hole of Calcutta, try the steamer which ferries passengers (and some freight) back and forth between Tabatinga (on the Amazon border between Brazil and Colombia) and Manaus, whose lower deck houses hundreds of passengers who sleep in hammocks, surrounded by a stockade of baggage, so pressed together you have to crawl under them to advance, though my family and I were smart (and prosperous) enough) to book a cabin abutting the wheelhouse. Even there, it was such a slow, boring voyage – the fabled jungle a mere distant tree line –that the only thing to look forward to were the greasy meals in the communal dining room. Now, shorts and a bare chest (for the men) apparently being the norm, I never expected the stewardess to order me to put on a shirt on when I first entered. It left me humbled and pissed but, looking back, I agree that you can’t let yourself relapse into a whole-hearted savagery in the tropics. It’s a matter of discipline and dignity, like the Brits who dressed in black tie for dinner in the Raj.