Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lent Thought

Where I grew up in Birmingham we lived in a huge, detached house. It was one of the last on its side of the street that hadn't been turned into old folks' homes, dentists or offices. We lived between an old people's home and a telephone exchange. The house was built in 1865.

On the opposite side of the street were pleasant, but more modest, three and four bedroom detached and semi-detached houses from the 1930s or so. My parents identified them as the homes of labour-voting university lecturers. 'They are not one of us,' was the message I received.

All the tradesmen (largely men in those days but called men whatever their gender) who visited our house were known to my parents by their occupations - milkman, coalman, postie, window cleaner.

My sister and I made friends with the children of the houses opposite and one day, when two such were in our house, the milkman came to the door. I guess I was about 8 or 9 years old. 'It's only Barry,' the other children shouted.

It was a seminal moment. The idea that the milkman had a name was fantastic to me. I didn't know milkmen had names. Furthermore the possibility that you could call him by that name - you could use an adult's Christian name - changed me. I wanted, from then on, to be the sort of person who called people by their names as soon as possible, whatever they did and whoever they were.

I think I was a bit of a let down to my parents from then on who had a complex alarm system which alerted them to any use of Brummie accent, any hanging around with the lower classes and any left-wing tendencies. I was never beaten. It was all psychological.

I think my life from then on has been a journey into ordinariness. I was told I was special. I'm not. I was told I was superior. I'm not. I was told to be suspicious of the children of left-leaning lecturers and anyone who lived in a terraced home. I learned not to be.

At the start of Lent I wonder what other accidental prejudice I picked up as a child of which I remain unaware. Negligence, weakness and deliberate fault are often given as the conditions from which we have to repent. How about conditioning, miseducation and striving for acceptance as their understudies?


Mr Gnome said...

Oh dear, it all sounds a wee bit Larkin-esque!

Poor you.

One was so lucky with one's childhood: jolly days, and cosy bedtimes.

They tucked me up, my mum and dad!

Mr Gnome said...

One can't help being reminded of Oscar Wilde's wistful remark:

'Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.'

One wonders how his sons Cyril and Vyvyan assessed their father's legacy in later years....