This year I will mostly be thinking about anecdotes. I find them fascinating; the way in which anecdotes are created and shared, the ability some people have to tell a good story, and the ways in which anecdotes and shared stories contribute towards happy social setups. This could be about kids in a classroom, about families and about so much more.
My thoughts are still cloudy, and I have got lots of little strands to pick at and unfurl.
I’m not yet in a position to think about it and write about it, but I am currently back at home with family after losing a close relative. I know that writing is cathartic for me, but I also know that I need to get my timing right. Now is too soon.
One thing I have been thinking of is just how rich with stories I feel as soon as I come home. Thinking of this relative fills me with so many memories, days out, adventures and moments, that I barely know where to begin. I feel lost, and he always enjoyed encouraging lostness when we were little.
One thing that is fresh in mind though, as I am back in my home town, is the power of individual words. Certain words will forever and always carry more personal meaning than could ever have been planned at their inception. Some bland and purely utilitarian words have, through experience, taken on so many strange meanings and been cocooned in so much context, that their meaning to me, and to those with whom I shared the experiences, will always override the dictionary definitions. I am thinking of ‘Now then’, as a greeting, and when I’m ready I’ll probably want to say more, but instead – for now – I’ll share a few others.
‘Hectic’, ‘Guilty’ and ‘Facetious’
Fear not, this is not my summary on my Tinder biography.
I recall queueing up in anticipation in Year 3 at the teacher’s knee. A gaggle of us had formed, waiting for her help, attention or approval. I was feeling smug – odd to think of a smug 7 year old – because I had an incredibly complex and difficult word I wanted to write. I couldn’t spell it because it was so complex. The line shuffled forward and when I got to the front, I was asked about my problem.
“I need help with a very long word.”
“… (for emphasis, and the benefit of all around me) Hec-tick”
For some reason, above almost all else from being that age, this sticks out for me. It seems symptomatic of my weird relationship with language whereby, still today I would say, I find myself gleaning a new word and immediately seeking approval.
‘Guilty’ was a different story, and more embarrassing; I didn’t even need to wait until adulthood in order to cringe at it.
Quite simply, I had attached the meaning of the word ‘unwell’ to the word ‘guilty’, and as such, I used guilty as a synonym for feeling sick, ill and on the cusp of vomiting. This would be less of a concern were it not for my quite affected sensibilities when in front of the camera, and a family holiday film exists of me being jiggled around on a fairground ride on Bridlington seafront, and I stare into the camera and shout over a crowd of spectators to Mum and Dad, whilst fake-retching,
“Oh god…I feel guilty…*fake-vomit*… I feel so guilty.”
My complex relationship with the word guilty led me to quickly discover the word ‘culpable’ which I have always preferred ever since Bridlington, July 1999.
‘Facetious’ is very similar, but happened in Sixth Form. By this point, I had got to seeing myself as a bit of an arty type, and was quite readerly. Our A Level English Literature class was a brilliant little cloister of academia in a not particularly academic institution. Our small group would gather with our teacher – a funny, open, wise, loving and quite subversive man on the brink of retirement – and just talk about books. I’m sure it must have happened, but I don’t remember being steered through hours and hours of exam prep; we just were encouraged to read, think and talk.
It was in this proto-Oxbridgean little learning community that I discovered I didn’t know what facetious meant. On one occasion, I made some kind of gormless yet shocking statement to the group – maybe it was a flawed interpretation of a book I didn’t properly understand, which happened often – and after the familiar silent pause that would follow my words, the teacher said,
“Jonathan, you’re being facetious aren’t you.”
Bristling with a quick smile, I replied.
“Er…yes, I guess so, thanks.”
I thought facetious meant wise.
Speaking of this teacher, he features in a different personal biography of a word. This one borders on the paranormal, and explains why this seemingly ordinary word retains an odd sense of nausea with me and two of my friends to this day.
Aged about 16 and 17, the three of us – myself, Naomi and Becky – would often sleep over at Naomi’s. Whilst there we would listen to music, laze around, talk about books and philosophy and religion and our town and our classmates and our future and mind-enhancing drugs and Louis Theroux and gay rights and about universities and politics and we took ourselves very seriously, whilst loving our time together.
As if rebelling against nothing at all, we would often stay up til the early hours before falling asleep, waking in the morning, getting some breakfast – Earl Grey of course – and going home.
On one occasion, we were up in the top room and decided to try for an all-nighter.
Naomi and I had taken it upon ourselves to redecorate this room, partially in celebration of her getting a weekend job at Wickes, if I remember correctly. We painted the walls cream, and then painted words and sketches all over it in jet black matte paint. It was oppressively weird and unsightly and we were very proud. We pulled in a lot of spare mattresses and essentially had constructed what most people would recognise as a crack den, except all that was being consumed was strawberry laces, opinion pieces from the Guardian Weekend magazine and some corrosive unbranded vodka (that later led to the corner shop being closed down).
It was in this room that myself Naomi and Becky had an evening where our talk got quite dark. We had met to revise together for a study party, and we were going through some poetry. It may have been Seamus Heaney actually, so it would have made us younger than I just stated. Anyway, we got to talking about the nature of madness and the fear of the dark.
Each of us is still interested in this, and all of us covered different aspects of it in our A Level Literature; Naomi and Becky both now work with vulnerable adults in mental health charity settings, and we all went on to study some psychology at university. The talk got darker and darker, and the house got darker and we got a bit drunker. The hours ticked by, and it got to about 4:30 in the morning. At this point we decided to try to turn our attention back to the poems.
Sleep deprivation does weird things to a person, and especially to three impressionable and intense young Doncastrians sitting inside a nightmarish little padded cupboard of our own design. We got edgy and suggestible.
We became incredibly paranoid, and a mood descended. Every little sound or change in the light made us panic.
It was about this time that my imagination wandered to the schoolboy with a rictus grin, in Victorian school uniform and with grubby knees, who was sprinting up the staircase from downstairs whilst humming in a high-pitched shrill voice. I couldn’t get the idea out. Every time I blinked he was getting closer. I could see him coming, could hear his little feet stomping.
I told Naomi and Becky and they begged me to stop and we scared each other even more with this. We were sitting with our backs to the wall. My eyes would dart and Becky would squeal. Naomi would go quiet and think about something, and it would make me panic. Becky would move abruptly, and I felt my everything clench.
We decided to try to power through this feelings because we were being stupid. Back to the poem.
I was reading it aloud, so we could analyse it, and as I did so, as soon as I pronounced the word ‘underneath’ and set it free in the den, I saw the boy’s face through the bannister. He made solid eye contact as he passed by, and his smile was pasted on and was too large for his head. Even as I write now, I just felt the hairs on my legs flinch. He was moving so quickly, and was so close to us. He was sprinting up the stairs, stomping. And his face was that of our English teacher. It ‘was’ our English teacher, but somehow in the form of a haunted boy from the old days.
I wailed NOOO! and started crying and Becky and Naomi did too, because our paranoia and tiredness and adolescence and absolute terror had coalesced in one harrowing moment when my mouth said the word ‘underneath’.
Opening our eyes, the fear quickly disappeared but the anxiety and unease took residence like a bad cloud in our den. We laughed nervously at our own irrational fear, whilst still feeling its tendrils retreating slowly down the back of our throats. We tried to analyse it away, objectifying our minds and distancing ourselves from them. We tried to read the poem again, but each time we got to ‘underneath’, a nausea and panic rushed over us. Almost a mania.
It is a very common word, and one which quickly seems strange if you keep saying it. It figures regularly in my daily life, and doesn’t always bring back any memories, but when it is there as a sentence in its own right, such as if I ask a child where her ruler has gone, and she replies ‘It’s underneath’, I find my sentiments take me back to being face to face with the non-existent ghost 10 year old version of my A Level English Teacher.
‘Pardon my French’
On a school trip to the Yorkshire Dales in Year 4, some clown among my classmates pushed a massive boulder down a hill and it obliterated a sheep in front of our eyes. The outdoor educator/rambler man, who was showing us around the Dales at the height of the Foot and Mouth Outbreak, went puce with rage and after having had two days of poor behaviour already, he exploded.
“You are all a BLOODY DISGRACE PARDON-MY-FRENCH.”
I didn’t quite get what that meant, feeling quite sure it was entirely English, and missing the point, but I liked it and it stuck with me.