What the Children Want to Know

They ask: ‘Will you tell us a story? Instead of reading one to us. Will you make one up?’

I answer: ‘I don’t know. I like reading stories. I love stories.’

They ask: ‘Please tell us a story of your own. Please.’

I answer; ‘I’d rather read someone else’s story than make up my own.’

They ask: ‘Please, will you? Please? We love those stories! Please make one up!’

I answer: ‘What about?’

They ask: ‘Could you tell us a story about what you did when you were a boy?’

I answer: ‘No. It wouldn’t be a story. It would be just a load of disconnected memories. I’d tell you about my dog, or mackerel fishing, or climbing on to the roof of the water tower. Or breaking into an abandoned house to find a set of false teeth in a jam jar. Those teeth were the most frightening thing I ever saw.’

They ask: ‘You broke into a house?’

I answer: ‘Well, not really. It was abandoned. The people had left. It was falling apart. The windows were all smashed. The doors were left open. We just walked in.’

They ask: ‘Why were they so frightening? Those teeth? What’s frightening about teeth in a jar? We’d find that funny. Wouldn’t we?’

I answer: ‘I don’t think I want to talk about that now. It’s time to go to sleep.’

They ask: ‘Will you teach us something then? Teach us something useful. Teach us something so we don’t have to learn it ourselves.’

I answer: ‘Maybe. Close your eyes. Settle down. Let me think.’

They ask: ‘Will this take long?’

I answer: ‘No, just give me a few seconds.’

They ask: ‘Are you hoping we go to sleep so you don’t have to tell us a story?’

I answer: ‘No, I’m really thinking.’

They ask: ‘Will you hurry up?’

I answer: ‘Ok. I’ll teach you about the way the world is wide open, how the future is all yours. Your lives could take you anywhere. You are at the bottom of a great tree and any one of those branches, twigs, leaves, could be yours. There is so much wonder. And look through the leaves and you’ll see the sky. And at night, the stars. Breathe in the air, it’s so beautiful. Listen to the tiny creatures scurrying to their hiding places. Wait for the dawn. Hear the birdsong, feel the first rays of morning sun on your face.’

They ask: ‘Is that something you’ve learnt?’

‘I suppose so,’ I answer.

‘What was that all about?’ they ask. ‘We don’t understand.’

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Satisfying the System

The System requested that she enter the details. All details were entered into the System. The System expected that all details, including dates of birth, date of entry, initial base line tests and medical records be included. These were added. The System demanded she test all those whose details were entered to ensure they were operating at the acceptable level. The tests had to be objective and quantitative. The System abhorred qualitative judgements.  Quantitative, objective tests were conducted, the results entered. The System confirmed that as only 82% and not the required 85% reached the acceptable level that an Action Plan be drawn up and logged into the System within ten working days. The System stipulated that if this was not done measures would be taken to reprimand, discipline, even replace the personnel responsible. An Action Plan was drawn up, specifying the process whereby improvement would be achieved: those who failed the test were deleted from the System. Those who failed the test were deleted. Failure was deleted. The System was satisfied.

Wittgenstein’s Silence

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler were born in 1889, and attended the same primary school in Linz, Austria.  Hitler’s image is captured on film over and over again, gesticulating histrionically as he speaks at rallies, presiding over the Olympic Games in Berlin, greeting world leaders at the Berghof, or peering at a map through a magnifying glass. He smiles and waves to children at pageants, stands in an open top car in a motorcade, signs the surrender of France. But the image of his contemporary, Wittgenstein, we can know only through photographs.  We can hear Hitler’s voice in a multitude of recordings. Wittgenstein is silent.

Wittgenstein wrote only one book in his life time, The Tractatus. Yet it is his profound effect on his students that seems to be his greatest legacy. Many were overwhelmed by his lectures, the intensity of his presentation, some even spoke of watching, in reverence, as he sat and thought. Wittgenstein thinking was a spectacle.

When those same students were asked what it was Wittgenstein was trying to say, none could encapsulate it. They don’t doubt he said something of enormous significance, but what it was, exactly, remained somehow nebulous.

One of the those students was author William Gass, who described watching Wittgenstein as ‘the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem.’

Hitler pollutes the cultural consciousness. He is everywhere: his sinister image, the iconography of his regime, the horrific barbarity of the holocaust. His legacy is a terrifying white noise, a bleak static. What Wittgenstein leaves us, however, is a curious absence, as if somehow he knew that something not said is even more meaningful than what is.  In The Tractatus Wittgenstein wants to show that language corresponds to the world of facts, but in its preface writes ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.’ True understanding of his work, then, means climbing the ladder of his propositions into silence.

The Surgeon

The surgeon looks inside with a device similar to a microscope, a fibre optic thread. He sees the brain of his patient like another world. He enters that world. He knows a mistake could leave her paralysed, or worse. He delves through the plumbing of arteries, through networks of nerves, like the cables in his home. This is his home, he belongs in the patient’s brain. He knows his way through the folds and fissures to the stem. But there’s no one here. And there are no ghosts, no spirits, no soul. The lights are not on. He senses the electricity that surrounds him, the power supply to each cable, and the fizz and pop of synapses. But here, when he looks, he cannot see life, or consciousness. And he knows, as he burrows, that were he to look in his own brain, even as he looks into another now, he would see nothing of what he is so vitally aware right now. The quality of his own experience, and the knowledge that here, in this blancmange, is another’s character, desires, beliefs, memories. The surgeon is held in high esteem, but he thinks of what he does as a primitive science.  He is, at the same time, proud and humble. He senses this, but is aware that, were he to look into his own skull, these very attributes of his character would never be found. He is a stone age man attempting to understand relativity.

Remembering ‘To the Lighthouse’

I think it was in Devon I read To the Lighthouse.  My memory of it, like my memory of most things, is unreliable. But unlike most books To the Lighthouse feels like memory itself.  Trying to recall it, five years after reading, I see the image of the house, a reflection in a window, and the garden, a lawn sloping down to the sea.

There are the meals, the cutlery and the crockery. There is the philosopher, and the painter. There is certainty, and doubt. There is the war, and the house, through which we wander, like ghosts, in the eerie middle section, when it is abandoned. That emptiness haunts me.

And then there are the children, and the return a decade later. My thoughts skim across the sea, to holidays on Cornish beaches with my own children, the houses we once rented, that are now empty, or filled with the voices and laughter of strangers.  I can smell the tobacco in To the Lighthouse and feel the steam from saucepans of vegetables, or the scent of charred meat. Like any novel, it weaves my world into the author’s world, draws me into her darkness.