SO: The Virginia Quarterly has completed half of its first century, and is now about to embark on the second half—fortunately with better hopes of completing that too than any of us mere mortal contributors could have.
When Bertrand Russell, himself then a nonagenarian, wrote congratulating a neighbor on the latter’s eightieth birthday, he began his letter “My Dear Young Friend.” No one, however much longer-in-the-tooth, would dare address the Quarterly in that fashion: all the same, this seems perhaps a permissible occasion for casting one’s mind back: not merely to the year 1925 when the Quarterly first appeared, but to one’s own earliest childhood. It is salutary to do this now and then, even if only because it brings home to one that decrepitude is not something peculiar to one’s later years but starts the very day one is born: for I have been told (though never allowed to test it experimentally) that a newborn infant can hang by its hands, but loses this ability after the first few hours. Whether or not that is the case, his joints most certainly grow too stiff at a very early age for sucking his big toe in any comfort, as can any baby still in its prime.
But a general stiffening of the joints is not the only symptom of senescence which begins so young. There is also a general dimming of the five senses, of which the first to dwindle is the sense of smell. Babies are born with real noses, like an animal’s. I can recall being able to tell people apart by their smell, just as my dog Rory could. If someone left his towel in the bathroom I knew at once whose it was—or even if he had recently been in a room I entered. I can’t recall actually tracking someone round the garden by scent like a bloodhound; but then, that would have meant traveling with my nose to the ground and once you are old enough to walk on your hind legs you have already begun missing most of these ground-level smells.
I am not sure it even has to be, that children should so early lose their sense of smell; it is partly the grown-ups’ fault. These are forever sharpening the child’s eyes and ears, saying “Look at this! Listen to that!” But they never think of encouraging him to use his nose to learn about the world. Indeed they definitely discourage him: “Hark to the pretty baa-lamb, darling. . . . No, don’t smell the little baa-lamb, that’s dirty!” In this way children soon conclude that a nose is an organ which is somehow indecent to use: for children are quick to sense and adopt any taboo that is in the air—they have a natural affinity for taboos.
In the stinking civilization we live in today there is far more to offend a sensitive nose than please it, so perhaps it is just as well that their little noses do go dead on them so soon. In my own childhood automobiles were rare; one seldom saw them close, and when they passed down the road they were hidden in their own long comet-tail of dust. Thus I have no memory at all of what those early models looked like, but how well I remember their smell! If one of them came trundling down a lane even the width of a field away it set my dear dog Rory sneezing his head off; and it set me sneezing my head off too.
Yet I never disliked even the smell of automobiles quite so much as the smell of garden flowers. Whew! How grown-ups could bury their noses in a bunch of flowers and suck it in—it was like sticking your ear right in the mouth of a bassoon! A crowded herbaceous border in June made me very nearly sick out loud. I always avoided the flowery parts of our garden, and preferred playing (with Rory and the little girl who was my other friend) in the neglected parts behind the shrubbery, where the soil was too thin to be worth digging and a rotting summerhouse dribbled rainwater onto gangling weeds. It was there I found the vegetable smells I best liked—there, and in the woods. The cool smell of the north side of a beech-tree trunk. . . . The ground under hazel-bushes. . . . A flint newly kicked out of the damp earth. The smell of a twig where a bat has been hanging, or of a hare’s form. . . .
But it is gone now of course—clean gone, that whole world of the nose. Nothing is left of it but the memory, like a man who has gone blind recalling to himself what sight once was. I can sniff a rose, now, with enjoyment instead of choking.
I can even come quite close to ladies before the smell of cosmetics and perfume begins to bother me seriously. As a child, the smell of one of today’s females would have kept me at more than arm’s length—at room’s length at least, only fortunately it was not necessary in those days when none of them even used face powder: only lots of soap. Girls looked different, in those days—different from each other, I mean. You could tell them apart at a glance; and you can have no idea how pretty a pretty girl can look until you have seen one with her face bare. As for their elders, I am sure they still have marvelous faces today if only they would let you see them. Rather brown, as I remember them, with delicate pinky bits here and there and very, very clean; as good to look at as a well-polished russet apple.
But it was not only smell that was keen in those childhood days: all the senses were keen. All sound was bell-music; the sight of any friend was a vision of angels. Even English summer heat was a blast furnace; a wasp’s sting, the martyr’s worst pangs. Each experience of sight or sound or touch, each scent, each sweat or shiver, each slipperiness or stickiness or wetness, existed of itself and for its own sake—not merely as a signal of usefulness or danger. Grown-up, we only “see” a tree as something not to bump into. The only lights we see are traffic lights. We keep our ears for oncoming traffic, for striking clocks, and for radio announcements; our noses for drains, bad meat, and escaping gas; our sense of touch . . .for visits to the dentist. Except for these rare and miserable points of contact we live in a world of abstractions, not the world of the five senses at all.
I was brought up as an only child, fatherless after the first few years and with my mother mostly busy writing (for bread-and-butter). The rest of the household was a rather grey synod of maiden aunts and maiden great-aunts. I was happy as a lark; and from the earliest age—long before I could read or write or wield my own pen—this happiness used to bubble out of me in verse, for that was the only way I could get relief from joy, get joy under any kind of control. When I felt too happy to bear it I used to hide in the laurel bushes, and puddle about there with words (as if they were mud pies) until I had put together some sort of piece of rhyme. Then I carried it carefully to my mother, trying hard not to forget it on the way. I said it over to her, and watched her write it down in a little notebook. Once this was done I was free to forget it. I could return to the laurel bushes—and perhaps make another rhyme if that first one wasn’t enough.
But just as children can contain joy that would shatter an older heart, so at times they can bear other emotions that would drive their more vulnerable elders mad. Suffering. Guilt. Fear. . .
Suffering, There was a lot of death in my childhood. My only brother had died as a baby: my only sister had died before I was three, and by that time my father was already doomed. I cannot remember his voice, because by the time he came back from a “cure” in Germany his vocal chords had been cauterized and he could only whisper. When I was five, he died too.
Perhaps most five-year-olds don’t really understand what “death” means: that dying is for keeps, something which once it has happened can never un-happen again. But because of those two earlier deaths I understood death then as well as I understand it now. When I was told that my father was dead I broke like a dam, water and grief bursting out of me as my soul dropped the whole bottomless drop into despair. That day, instead of tea in the drawing room with my aunts, I had it in the kitchen with Cook; yet even then, how salt was the taste of the raspberry jam!
In bed, in the dark, I woke up—and remembered; but surely it must have been a bad dream, for to that age things can still seem too bad to be true. I crept to my mother’s room for reassurance; but no, it wasn’t a dream, she told me. . . . When I refused to believe her she offered to take me to see his body; but I jibbed at that.
Next morning my mouth still tasted salt, my gummy eyes would hardly open. Breakfast, with a load of grief on the house like a heavy fall of snow. And then . . .somehow I forgot! It was midmorning, and I suddenly wanted to ask Father something so scampered up to his room and flung open the door—to find the death-room darkened with drawn blinds, heavy with the scent of his favourite narcissus; and under the stiff folds of the sheet what looked like a not very skilful wax copy of my father.
How on earth could I have forgotten—I, who loved him so much?
At that moment I understood something much more frightful than death, for I understood guilt—even better than I understand guilt now, for how can any adult sense of guilt (so condoned and qualified with excuses) compare at all in horror with the searing, excuseless guilt of a guilty child? Luckily not: for grown-ups couldn’t stand it. They are so much less tough than children, who are tough with the toughness of a grain that has not yet sprouted.
And fear. . . .
I suppose that no period in history felt so secure as the English decade when I was a small child. The millennium seemed just round the corner, war between civilized nations unthinkable: how lucky I was to have been born at the very dawn of this blessed twentieth century! And yet there was one thing I was afraid of—really afraid: suppose I was sucked down the wastepipe of the bath, suppose one night my mother carelessly pulled up the plug before I had climbed safely out?
Small children have almost no sense of relative size: it never entered my head that I was too large to be sucked through that small hole—down into that horrible gurgling whirlpool, choked with warm soapy water, dragged down struggling into the mysterious darkness of a wastepipe which led no one knew whither: can you imagine any more horrible ending to a young life? I loved lying in a bathtub till the last moment; but can you wonder I sprang out like a grasshopper the very instant that my mother reached for the plug?
That is what I mean by the “toughness” of children: I mean the frightful things they can stand. Would any adult even dare get into a bathtub (let alone lie and soak in it to the very last moment) if he knew that thereby he risked every time a most horrible death?
Nothing a parent can do will protect his child from Fear— worse fear than he himself could face: for that child carries the whole jungle inside him. Indeed there is very little you can do for him: in the company of small children it is the grown-up who profits more than the child—and indeed how deeply do we all become dependent on the company of children! He gets the help he needs mostly from others of his own age, and from animals. It is the teenager, rather, who needs the love and sympathy of his elders: for how can you hope to help the little thing, who can carry the whole fearful jungle inside him and yet smile serenely?
People have remarked how little afraid, in the War, children seemed to be of bombs. But why should a child fear the paltry risk of being blown up by a chance bomb, when he has schooled himself to fall asleep tranquilly every night knowing—actually knowing—that there is a tiger under his cot?