Through a glass darkly
‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child . . .’ I thought of this quote (from the New Testament) when I recently finished reading The House in Paris, a novel originally published in 1935 by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. Large parts of the story are told from the perspective of two children aged 9 and 11. They are intelligent, but isolated from others their age, and have been marked by the shortcomings of the adults responsible for them. Elizabeth Bowen’s skill lies in hinting at the central drama of the book through the children’s imperfect understanding of events, and then to illuminate it for us fully in the section of the book told from an adult perspective.
Nothing is more opaque to a child than the whys and wherefores of adult relationships, and the book made me reflect on what I had completely misunderstood as a child, and on the assumptions I had made. For example, when my maternal grandmother died relatively young, leaving my grandfather on his own, it was obvious to me – aged 5 – that he should marry my long-widowed paternal grandmother, but my parents did not so much as lift a finger to make arrangements for this union once I’d suggested it. In fact, they laughed.
I must admit, I was a bit hazy about how all this sort of thing worked. It somehow never crossed my mind that, in this country at any rate, people got to know each other before they married. I thought you’d be walking along the street one day – when you were grown up, of course – and if some chap liked the look of you he would propose. But in my own defence, we now have Tindr, which is perhaps not so different.
Adult emotions and motivations were mysterious in the extreme, and no amount of close study and analysis revealed the workings behind them. I could not understand why my mother went ballistic over apparently trivial things, but took cardinal sins in her stride. When I threw a cigarette packet and smashed a deep indigo Venetian glass, souvenir of some fondly remembered holiday in the era Before Children, she just said ‘Oh, darling’ in a sorrowful tone of voice.
All became clear when I had my own children, of course, and I realised that whatever gave me more work to do elicited the most disproportionate response. This was neatly illustrated by a primary school teacher recalling her attempts to talk to her class about good and bad. There was universal agreement that hitting people, lying to them and stealing their stuff was Bad. But one little boy assured her that worse than all of these was eating crisps in bed. It transpired that his mother had, at the end of a long week and having made up three extra beds for weekend guests, gone to say goodnight to her son, only to find his bed full of greasy crisp crumbs. She just lost it, and the epic scale of her overreaction made it clear that he had just committed the most heinous offence in the book.
In our family, the classic mismatch between adult motivations and a child’s interpretation of them came when we were out for a country walk one day. We came across a huge dog turd (sorry, I’ve realised these seem to be something of a damesnet leitmotiv) in the middle of the path. Being public-spirited people, Mr Verity and I decided that it should be removed, so that no one else would run the risk of trampling through it. It took us a while to find a suitable stick, and even once we’d done so, we found that manoeuvring the offending object away was not as easy as we thought it would be. Finally we managed to skewer it on the stick and fling it into the undergrowth. The children watched all this gravely, and when we were done, the youngest asked wonderingly, ‘Why did you put a poo on that stick?’
All of a sudden, our purely practical solution to a small problem of public hygiene was transformed into a highly exclusive piece of performance art, probably up there with Gilbert and George and Chris Ofili in its transgressive and symbolic manipulation of faecal matter.