Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

Yizkor

 
I found the photograph I had been missing. It was found, as most of my misplaced objects are, precisely where I had placed it; in this case it was safely at the bottom of my backpack. I wanted it for remembrance. 

The photo sits in its small oval frame. It shows two small boys sitting side by side. Their cheeks have been pinked by some process of photographic enhancement common to photos from the ‘fifties. One boy sits cradling a large teddy bear. The boy’s face is a narrow oval, his expression unsmiling, alert, guarded, attentive to the photographer who is an adult in a frightening world controlled by adults. The second boy, taller, wider, rounder, has a fuller face, topped with wavy titian hair. He has the daughter of a smile on his face. His is the image I have sought, this the face of the person I wish to hold in remembrance.

 

The portrait conveys much of what I wish to hold: the elder boy is Dennis, his parents’ firstborn, my brother. His destiny is here to be read. It’s all here – firstborn, male, cherished; good-natured, close to his younger brother – and fat. In this photograph Dennis must be about four. In less than sixty years he will be dead.

 

***

 

Literally translated, the Hebrew word yizkor means ‘he will remember’. Over the recent Festival period I recited the yizkor prayer for my father, my mother, my wife’s father; and for Adrian, my consuegro; and I remembered them all tenderly. It was only when I prayed for Dennis that I cried. I cried for the protective brother I could not protect, for the always-advising brother I could not advise, for the firstborn who worshipped this usurper as a hero. 

Dennis did not ask to be born fat. He did not ask to be born first. He loved his father as his father loved him – not wisely but too well.

Immoderate in all he did Dennis loved his younger brother immoderately. I miss him, I pray for his rest as I pray for my own.

 

A Trip to Cuba – Part 3

The People – kind, bright, gracious.

In Cuba, time is not money, money is not time. The people have not realised that they should exact a money price for the gift of time. Time is not (yet) a commodity. It remains a gift.

The Body – in Cuba, the body is nowhere repressed; everywhere it is expressed, accepted, celebrated. A fat, fat lady will wear body-defining lycra, in stripes that accentuate her plenitude. She hears music, and like everyone else, she’ll dance. It hasn’t occurred to her that she is unfeminine, unpretty, not sexy. (Marie Claire costs twice her weekly earnings, so she hasn’t read the truth about her body.) So she lives and dances, innocent of the truth. An unliberated woman.

A man stands facing us in a public place, his eyes and mind are elsewhere. Idly he scratches his balls. He takes his time, doing the job thoroughly. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream, his mind moves upon silence. He finishes his scratching, looks up, his eyes and mine lock, while Annette looks away to spare him embarrassment. She need not bother: the man looks into the distance again and loosens his three piece set from the grip of his undies.

The cityscape of La Habana – so rich in architectural beauty, frequently neglected, never abased.

The pride of these humble people.  There is no cultural cringe in Cuba, no sense that authentic life lies somewhere else. What they lack, what exists across the sea, is affluence, not life.

A feeling of security wherever we go in Cuba. No street is too dark and lonely to walk. Encounters with strangers are not alarming.

They say there is petty crime against property, but we see no sign of it. Crime against persons is rare.

(Perhaps, after the embargo, things will change: the Mafia will return, and introduce World’s Best Practice.)

The black Cubans – tall, beautifully made men and women, the men broad, the women slender. They carry themselves like aristocrats, their movement fluid and graceful.

The music – it is everywhere, and almost everywhere it’s live – performed before you or beside you or behind you. You can’t eat or drink, shop or walk without a chance encounter with music.

The music is of the people: it creates them as much as they create the music.

A music scholar wrote that Afrocuban music is the fruit of the love affair between the Spanish guitar and the African drum.

Music and pride are mutual creations in Cuba. Cubans know that their small nation creates a musical gift enjoyed and valued far beyond their homeland.

The Spanish Language – they’ve got words in Spanish for just about everything: it’s a whole nother language, you might say, and a wholly beautiful language. And the Cubans don’t laugh at you when you try to speak it.