It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.
‘Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’
Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and The Sea
I first read this book when I was about fourteen years of age. Not a prodigious reader, something that came out of the fact that I was a struggling reader – a dyslexic. With school then becoming a place of false hope, a victim of insidious bullying that threatened to break my young resolve, I visited the school library like one who would visit Lourdes. Somehow, just the act of pilgrimage could do it. I browsed the bookshelves in the hope of divine intervention. My normal choice was a history or geography book that gave me facts, packages of knowledge, small chunks that could be digested easily. I was not good at reading novels that would demand days of attention or maybe even weeks. I was a poor reader who struggled over every word. In class, there was no escaping when the teacher asked you to read. My failing attempts were met with snorts and ridicule. The scars that were left from those days still itch today as I stand in front of classes of students who see books and reading as irrelevant antiquities in an age that sees the magic of the internet as just something that we have in our everyday lives. I am sure that I would have been one of these if it had not been for the pressure from my dad, Romeo and Juliet and The Old Man and The Sea.
I started reading Hemingway’s novella today and was struck by how fresh it all was. Time sits inside books waiting for somebody special to release it. I was back to the tragedy of man, the eternal effort to fight forces and events that cannot be controlled. Sometimes, shit happens. If you are unlucky, like Santiago, shit happens more frequently. Now, I don’t know where I stand on the fate thing but it may as well serve as a metaphor for the whole explanation of happening. If it ever happened, it was fate. If a tile fell off a roof and cleaved through my head, it was fate. If a tree blew down on top of my car with me inside it, rendering me a cripple, it was fate. If I then went on to tackle my unfortunate brush with fate by writing numerous novels that thousands of people read, it was fate again. Lottery wins, cancer, getting married…yup, you’ve got it, fate. I ought to alliterate fate with an expletive because it’s so fucking greedy and so, so much in need of recognition.
Fate writes stories before they are told. It’s sitting here beside me now, nudging me with a wink of the eye that tells me that it told me so. Yes, and when I began reading The Old Man and The Sea, I thought of fate.
I was back at school. Break-time was happening and many of the students were outside playing on the mud of the grass or tarmac of the playground. My breaks would normally involve football, the medieval version in which sixty people would brawl for the ball. We had been in secondary school for a few years and had resisted the government’s attempts to make a more equal society. Whatever we had learnt at junior school was consigned to the distant and unrelated past. High school was more of a jungle. There were pecking orders and social strata. There was also the food-chain, one that was not dissimilar to those found in Origin of the Species. H.G. Wells would have recognised it from his book, The Time Machine. Put simply, the school was divided into two parts: puffs and scruffs. The ones who had passed their 11 Plus were the puffs whereas the others, the normal ones, were the scruffs. We were taught in different streams, played out in certain groups, formed friendships and relationships based on our perceived academic abilities. All in all, we were disentangled from other kids who we had thus far grown up with and, to this day, that divide has never been bridged.
This separation of the young was obviously not new; it had been going on for decades through the grammar, technical and secondary system. Perhaps that system was better in many ways as it physically divided groups of kids rather that psychologically separating. In fact, there is something quite insidious about the nature of that exercise as it mirrored the way in which society operated on a macro-scale. We move in our own groups with others whom we perceive to be our equals or with those who share a common outlook. Many of the towns and cities that I have lived in have areas that are demarcated to particular groups. I was a council estate boy in a mining village that also housed those who were wealthy and those who were extremely wealthy. Within the village, there were three council estates, each with its own characteristics. In fact, within each of the estates existed enclaves of upper, middle and lower. My estate was middling with a smattering of upper. The estate next to ours was tougher and it was rumoured that some of them even thought that the bath was a place for storing coal. The third estate, which was separated from the other two, was perhaps upper, if only in the minds of those who lived there.
Junior schools helped us to not see the divisions but secondary made them all too obvious. My friendship group, one that I still have access to today, revolves around two major estates and fails to include anyone from the third. Perhaps this proves nothing other than the essential non-gregarious nature of mankind or how we very much gravitate towards people who reflect ourselves.
None of this goes any way towards explaining why I should be here, tapping out the path back to understanding. Whatever social experiments or sociological norms were followed back then surely has little to do with the person I am now. Age is developmental, it moves in stages. When I was a child I acted and thought as a child. Now, I have pushed aside childish things and think like a man. No! There is something in my personal history that has blighted me. My burn-out was forever coming. It’s happened before and I am desperately afraid that it will happen again and again. My quest is to discover its source and then to quench it.
But when I find the source, what will I do then?