WAYS WITH WORDS / PENGUIN / INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY AUTOBIOGRAPHY COMPETITION

DARTINGTON FESTIVAL 1997
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The Independent Culture
My father's shed, always a source of both joy and disappointment, was, just once, a place of revelation. Exclusively his empire, it was kept locked and the key hung on a nail high on the frame of the scullery door. In the very early days this was beyond my reach but the time came when, standing on a dining-chair, I was able to stretch and just flick it free. To replace it, I had to appeal to my mother and endure a lecture. A few inches later, she, like her lecture, became redundant.

I loved the shed. It had just one window over the bench, which meant dark corners that promised hidden delights. The light, however, picked out certain joys. It was the age of wooden planes, spoke-shaves, chisel handles, and these had a subdued gleam that reflected years of contact between tool and man's hand. The planes fascinated me. They were always laid on their sides, which meant that my attention was immediately drawn to the shiny precise lines of the blades whose obvious sharpness gave me shivers of apprehension and pleasure. The chisels, of different lengths, hung from racks on the wall, xylophone bars waiting to be played. There was the smell of cut wood and, if I was lucky and there had no been no time for tidying, delightful curls of wood-shavings all over the surfaces. These, wrapped round my fingers, became aromatic rings that I held to my nose.

On one wall there was a high shelf usually inaccessible to me because the bench was covered with half-completed toys or cupboards that I dared not move because my intrusion would be revealed. Then, one day, I found the bench pristine, free even of the last fragment of sawdust.

The desirable object on the shelf was an old drawer, used as a box, that I had always wanted to investigate. Part of its attraction was that its height took it to an inch or so from the shed roof. At the open end of the bench, furthest from the wall, was an old sea chest. I clambered first on to that and then on to the bench. With a wary eye on the dangling chisels, I moved forward until the shelf was directly over me. The drawer loomed, large, ominously heavy, threatening to be immovable. It was an apprehensive hand that I raised. To my surprise, that first tentative touch was enough to move it. A corner stuck out from the shelf, bringing with it a triangle of folded paper, that, with great care, I eased free.

A little later, I was unfolding and flattening on the bench two joined pages of a large account book, on which, in my father's careful upper- case printing, was a poem called "The Vicar's Daughter". Now, more than 50 years on, I can recall only the last two lines:

They never get my knickers down

Until I get there money.

Two things struck me: first that my father did not know the difference between "there" and "their": second, that he had written (at the time I assumed he had composed it himself), a poem of 20 rhyming stanzas, jam- packed with jaunty metre, and what I knew at the time was full of what my mother called "mucky thoughts".

I read it with excitement and embarrassment, two feelings that merged into the single one of anxiety when the time came to refold it. The original sharp, flat rectangle had become a mutating rhomboid, beyond my control, and bumpy enough, I imagined, to give the drawer a list on the level shelf. I backed to the door, to see how it would look to my father when he came in. The usual inch gap between top of drawer and roof sloped discernibly. All I could think of was to climb back and grind the drawer to and fro over the paper.

When my father came home, he looked the same as when he had left but for me there had been definitive change. For the first time, he and sex were connected in my mind. He was a fluent swearer, with a fine alliterative thumper of "Bloody, bleeding, bastard" that preceded many a description. But his oaths referred to such topics as chairs on which he had caught his knee, buses that were late, moments when matters went wrong, the chief male nurse (often), the night superintendent (very often). The poem was different. He did not worry if my mother or I heard him swear. This had to be hidden. I knew that my mother had not known of it any more than I had, that she still did not know.

"Knickers" was a strong word in the vocabulary of St Thomas's Junior School, one for which we were punished if we dared to utter it. This meant not only that it was always half-shrouded in a snigger but that it had a quite ridiculous importance. Once, just once, a glorious moment, the wind had lifted Miss Cullis's skirt and I had seen her navy-blue knickers. She had blushed. I wondered what she would do if she saw some of the other words, much much worse than "knickers", that were in every line of the poem.

I went whenever possible, three or four times a day sometimes, to read the poem. After a very short time, there was no need for me to read it: I could have recited it. But I had to take it down, unfold it, hold it spread out on the bench with my hands. It was a tactile relationship, one quite inexplicable then if not now. The paper grew more and more grimy, the rhomboids slacker and slacker. Then one day I went to my own personal library with its one work to find that someone else had taken it out.

That evening I looked straight at my father and he looked straight at me.

Many years later I asked him about the poem.

"What poem?" he replied. 8

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