Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Full circle

I woke up wondering if my life was going to describe an arc, parabola or trajectory in the material sense that I was born into a world where one was cold and hungry a lot of the time - not because I was underprivileged but because we were all cold and hungry more or less from 1944 when I was born until 1958 when my father, on a whim, sent me to school in Switzerland. At home we were cold - no heating upstairs; coal fires in the downstairs rooms; coal fired Aga. Food was filling and bland: shepherd's pie, rice pudding, 'custard' made with powder etc. I was sent away to school aged 7 where it was equally cold and there was still rationing so we had 2 ounces of butter a week distributed in little pots with our school number on. You could blow the whole lot one teatime or there were school champions who could keep their supply going nearly the whole week, by which time it was rancid because the pot were kept in the dining room at room temperature. We had a sweet ration which was doled out on a Saturday too. At my big school on the Weald of Kent, it was so cold in winter that water froze inside the dormitories and many fellow students suffered from chilblains. We used to stand next to the big old radiators for some heat and stamp our feet to keep the circulation going. The diet was so appallingly short of any fresh vegetables or fruit that I developed chronic constipation - a typical meal would consist of baked bean pie followed by 'Dead Man's Leg' - a pastry roll with jam and custard. Life as a student in Oxford in the early 1960's was equally spartan; we subsisted on a dreadful diet of faggots (the cheapest nourishment known to man) and cheap fags - meaning cigarettes not gay men. Some of our best friends were gay men, of course, but we were unaware, until one by one they succumbed, not long after, to AIDS. The first to go was Luis, a charming Puerto Rican who was a guest at our first spectacularly inept 'dinner party' my flatmates and I gave. To us, making and serving a meal for five or six was like splitting the atom. The meat - was it duck? - was indequate and inedible; we managed to cook some frozen peas and maybe we made a trifle for dessert? I cannot remember. We knew nothing about wine, so bought the cheapest gut rot, probably rough Spanish red because we remembered ( thought vaguely) that red went with meat. Our other guests included a delightful history don from Balliol, Maurice Keen and perhaps David who is now a very senior city lawyer, specialising in mediating in international corporate legal disputes. Two of my four flatmates have 'gone before': one was murdered in France by persons unknown in the first long vac after we all went down, and another died early from a combination of self neglect and alcoholism, leaving her magnificent family house to the National Trust. Privilege is not a passport to happiness or even, in those days, comfort. Perhaps the opposite.

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