Last week I blogged about the possible psychic damage I might have suffered through exposure to Charlie Brown when I was 5. I continued rereading my Peanuts Treasury, and toward the end came across this strip from 1963 which suggests it was too late anyway. My character was formed already. Thanks Lucy!
I’ve slowly been bringing across from America to Britain some of my favourite books from my childhood. I missed the chance to pass them on to my nieces and nephews, who are in their 20s now, but my best friend has kids who are 7 and 5 and keen readers, so I wanted to share with them what I could of my childhood.
Given the somewhat troubling race relations of the 20th century, I decided it was best to vet the books before passing them on. Many were actually already dated when I first read them, and indeed I’ve come across many gratuitous shifty Arabs and African American stereotypes. My latest disappointment was Rabbit Hill – OK, it was written in the 40s, but how bad could something be where the main characters were all woodland animals? Not bad at all until the arrival of the long-anticipated new owners of the local farmhouse. There had been much speculation about what sort of garden they would plant and what sort of garbage they would put out and whether there would be traps and poison. The animals’ fears are put to rest when a huge Black maid steps out of the back seat, because people of her shape and colour always put out the best garbage. No, I really can’t give that to modern children to read.
I felt more optimistic about my Peanuts Treasury. I recently came across a lovely correspondence with Charles Schulz about whether he should introduce a Black character, with his sensible worries about being seen as patronizing. The eventual progressive if somewhat bland result was Franklin. And indeed, there is nothing too worrying in the race relations in Peanuts, and although the gender stereotypes of the 60s are evident they are generally undercut.
But what I came to realize with growing horror as I read is how very similar to Charlie Brown I am. Which came first? Was I a good-natured but bullied and depressive child who found a mirror in Charlie, or did I pick up traits from him? I started reading Peanuts when I was probably 5 or 6, when my world view was surely still malleable. Did my whole character end up being moulded to fit the shape of the round-headed kid? Good grief!
I don’t keep many mementos at work, but one of the few personal items on my desk is a dollar bill folded into a bow tie the way Aunt Judy taught me to do when I was around 10. It’s a reminder for me that the most mundane subject can be made remarkable if you lavish on it a bit of attention and inventiveness.
Judy died last month, shortly after her brother (my Dad). I always admired her keen interest in the world around her and her commitment to making that world a better place. After college she worked for the Department of Labor in DC, with a particular focus on regulation of child labor. Her own father, my grandfather, had been sent to work in a cotton mill at the age of 6. Her work helped ensure that no longer happens in America.
Of course, if President Cuckoobananas gets elected, those days might come again. Teach your children origami now – a cottage industry craft might come in handy.
My sister Sandy and I cleared out my father’s dresser drawer of knick-knacks after his funeral. Some things we set aside for the whole family to go through later and decide who gets what: his wedding ring, personal notebooks, pocket tools, photographs. Some things we threw away: free sewing kits he would never have dreamed of using, perished rubber bands, cheap giveaway key rings. We agreed between us that Sandy’s son, as the only smoker in the family, could inherit the collection of cigars and matchboxes. And I was clearly the logical recipient of this, my own letter to Santa from the mid-70s.
It’s written on the back of a mimeographed PTA circular from 1973, which would fit with when our old dog died. However, that would make me 6, and it’s hard to believe even I was reading Little Women and competently using colons at that age. (Little Women was crossed out because Mom pointed out to me that we already owned a copy). I can’t remember actually receiving a single thing on this list, so it makes it hard to date more precisely: it could have been anything up to a few years later.
Clearly Dad was tickled by the small details: the guess at a precise mailing address on the envelope, the attempt to sneak in a puppy at the end of the list. He himself loved dogs and would have been an advocate for this gift, but he acknowledged that Mom had a right of veto as the actual picker-up of poop.
Sandy and I laughed until we cried at grade-school me, and then I cried a bit more at the thought of him keeping my letter in his dresser for 40 years. To him I think I always remained that droll, precocious child. I miss him and her. And I still want that puppy dog.
American patriot, master of the atom, scourge of the despot. Such was the self-written epitaph of Charles Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, but it’s not a bad fit to my father. Edgar Alexander McLean was a nuclear physicist, a veteran of WWII, and a tireless campaigner for the local community. But I think he identified most closely with Homer Simpson, an ordinary Dad just trying to get through his days without screwing things up too badly. He could generally be brought to see the funny side of life, and I have fond childhood memories of laughing with him until we could both hardly breathe over episodes of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and more recently The Simpsons. I owe him my sense of humour, along with so many other things.
A weekend of odd symmetries…yesterday in an arboretum in the New Forest, I had just sidled up to Darren on a wooden bench when we heard an angry disembodied voice shouting, “Hello? Hello, can you hear me?” At first I thought we were being told off for a PDA, like on the city walls of York in the early days of our relationship. But after that initial guilty start I realized it must be a walkie-talkie. Sure enough I found one half-buried in leaves on the ground and manged to communicate with the grumpy owner of its twin, who demanded we bring it to him at the entrance. It was a bit annoying to cut short our visit for such a surly request, but in the interests of karma we did unto others.
Today the weather turned brutal. Despite winds of gale force 9, we walked 2 miles along an exposed shingle spit to visit Hurst Castle, and 2 miles back. Part of the fun was laughing at what an absurdly unpleasant experience it was. Arriving back in the hotel room, I realized I had dropped my phone somewhere along the way. So we walked about 2/3 of the way back to the castle, and then home again, combing the pebbles for a plastic item the same shade of blue as a bottled water cap, of which there were many. The phone’s battery had been nearly dead, so after a couple times trying to ring it and being told the number was unavailable, we gave up. But back in the hotel we rang the castle and heard that someone had found it and turned it in. I couldn’t face the 4-mile round trip walk again, so I took the boat to the castle, soaking up quite a few facefuls of spray washing over the prow. The boatman very kindly didn’t charge me, even though I was the only passenger going out. But I gave him nearly the full fare as a tip anyway – knowing me, it won’t be long until I need some more good karma.
My latest poem to be published is a modest effort in a forgotten form: a ‘Little Willie’. These are usually 4-8 rhymed lines about children meeting gruesome ends, and they were popular around the turn of the 20th century. What’s not to like?
My sister Susan told me that there would be a feature on them in Light, the top online journal for funny poetry, so I sent a few off and one made the cut. I was especially tickled to find among the other handful of poets in the feature one XJ Kennedy, a leading authority on poetry in general and funny poetry in particular. So my most trivial of poems so far appears in the most august surroundings.
Susan has 2 poems in the feature also. Does it say something about our family that we both enjoy writing about sibling murder?