An extract from An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014)
The lithe back of the brave in the foreground; the petroleum sheen of his black hair; the headband; the unoxidised tomahawk (Made In Birmingham); the wigwam; the Winchester ‘73; the smoke signals like freak cloud formations; the heliographic bottle shard... All these could be staged through a compact between my brain and the back garden - more or less, give or take. What couldn’t be staged were: depth of field; Monument Valley; canyons’ escarpments; the chromatic peculiarities of Technicolor; squaws.
At the age of seven it occurred to me that there was a squaw-shaped void in my life.
This coincided with my leaving Holmwood School. My parents had been asked to remove me: they pleaded on my behalf, to no avail. The school had had enough of my unwitting disruptiveness. I hadn’t meant to projectile vomit melted butter in class: I had requested half a pound for breakfast and The Third German Girl had obliged me. I hadn’t meant to yelp every time I was pinched by Janet Wheelwright who lived in a house with its own squash court. I hadn’t meant to step in dog shit and trail it through the school. But I had. I was castigated too for my persistent lateness and my reveries. It was at Holmwood that I first suffered the intermittent hallucinations which have visited me all my life. Then, like my dreams, they often involved malevolent sheep. I was sitting on a bench outside the windowless room where we hung our coats. A flock ascended the staircase towards me. I gasped with delight. This was a secret world which, instinctively, I knew not to tell my parents about. Rather, then, like masturbation, but without RSI.
Because I was too young yet to enter the Cathedral School I was sent for two terms to the Swan School, founded in 1931 by the redoubtable Miss Swanton whom I feared and adored. I craved her approbation. She was a burly gust of tweed out of Margaret Rutherford by Nancy Spain. The school occupied a timber-framed house of c1500 which would be destroyed when Rackham, the vandal cum City Engineer, built an inner relief road in 1970. I had to wear a uniform: navy blue blazer with white swan on the breast pocket, navy blue and grey quartered cap with a second white swan. This was a novelty which I enjoyed. My parents didn’t. All that expense for just two terms; hence, no doubt, their pleading with Mrs Mears at Holmwood.
The beginning of Easter term 1954 was exciting. I got to walk to and from the Swan School with Roger who had attended it since he was four. He introduced me to parts of Salisbury’s mediaeval grid that I didn’t know, intersecting streets which allowed us to take a variety of routes, to explore alleys and courtyards safe in each other’s company. But after a few weeks he left for Brazil where his father had been seconded by the Royal Mail to assist in the planning of Sao Paulo’s telephone network. I was alone among unknown antagonists who were bigger and rougher and maler than Janet Wheelwright. Many had three years start on me during which they had formed gangs and alliances. This first experience of a single sex environment was a shock. Janet Wheelwright apart, I missed the girls: Liz, Elizabeth, Jenny, Sue, Clare, the two further Janets, Penny, even the haughty Caroline who seldom deigned to speak to me and who was chauffeured in a tudorbethan lodge on wheels by her mother, a headscarf rumoured to know the Queen.
No girls meant no calm solicitude, no sweet fragrance of talc and cleanliness, but, rather, the soilpipe smell of almost a hundred shrieking, blubbing, blundering, chucking, grubby, boisterous, energetic, savage, merciless small boys. And there was another smell, a far worse smell. One of the permutations of route that we could follow through the grid took us up Trinity Street. It’s no doubt fitting that a city whose major industries were god and war should have in its centre a dozen almshouses for Christ’s brides, old soldiers, godfearing widows of the fallen etc.
Trinity Hospital was friable red brick and worn stone quoins. It has been grotesquely restored when it should have been allowed to perish like the generations within it. A Wrenish chapel stands on one side of a courtyard which Roger and I investigated unnoticed. It was too ordered to appeal to us. Nonetheless some time later I did creep in again, alone this time, daring myself to trespass. A parchment woman was upright and immobile on a chair by the chapel’s door. She was unconscionably old, older than my paternal grandmother, older even than my father’s nanny Mrs Hopkins who could remember reading the news of General Custer’s death at the battle of the Little Bighorn during the smallpox summer of 1876, older than anyone I had ever seen. She appeared not to notice me. And as I left, silently, a man shuffled out of his set towards her. He was, incredibly, as old as she was. These people must belong to the third sex, which I had thitherto believed was the domain of gypsies. They were all matt desiccation. They bore the complexion of split cement sacks, which caused me to shiver. Trinity Hospital was heaven’s (or hell’s) antechamber where the pallid waited for judgment. In late winter they emitted no odour. You could not smell them. You could not smell their mortal fear. You could not smell their food. Initially the reek was faint and fleeting. By the time my nostrils had got a message to my brain it had disappeared, an olfactory vanishing act.
Such instances of evanescence did not last. As the weather grew warmer so did the odour increase. Even though there were days when I detected nothing it was becoming ever more assertive, more frequent, more protracted. It was putrid, clammy, vegetal and carnal. It prompted disgust, then dread, then confused compassion. This was the smell of old people as they relinquished life. This was the stink of death, as rank as that of the long hung pheasants Padre inflicted on my parents.
That route past Trinity Hospital was far from the only choice. I could have taken St Ann Street and Love Lane, or Payne’s Hill where the German spy who worked at a tannery had lived, or grey Rampart Road’s raised pavement, or Dolphin Street and Culver Street. But these were the ways I did not go for I was drawn to putrefaction, I took shameful pleasure in whatever disgusted me. Were the old living corpses who began to rot before they died? Did maggots seethe beneath their skin? Did they flap helplessly to repel the rodents that gnawed their limbs? The rats in the nearby Friary slums were said to be as large as cats.
Mine was not a case of nostalgie de la boue. That would imply a yearning to return to brute sordor. I had never left it. It had merely been shepherded into abeyance by the everyday presence of girls who even in pre-puberty insouciantly inflict couth on the rough puppies that will grow into the dogs called men. My mother had wanted a girl. And I wanted a sister among whose contemporaries I would find a squaw. Boys with sisters had girls on tap. It was easy for them.