Once more, a grand theory of life goes missing

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The Independent Online
NEVILLE Ricketts was no ordinary child. He did what other children did, it is true, but he also observed what he did and tried to work out why he was doing it, which is rare among children and almost as rare among grown-ups.

Let me give you an example. One day he was helping to clear the table and was taking a dirty plate piled high with rejected food to the sink. He scraped the food into the bin and put the plate in the sink. Moments later, his mother said to him: 'Neville, why have you put these knives and forks in the bin?'

It was true. Without thinking, he had put the cutlery as well as the food into the bin. 'I am sorry, mother,' he said. 'I must have done it without thinking.'

And there most children would have left it. But Neville Ricketts could not let it rest. It struck him forcibly that his mind knew very well that knives and forks do not go into a rubbish bin, and yet his hands had thrown them away. Why had his mind not stopped his hands? Do minds go off-duty for a period? Does the intellect have a fag and a cup of tea, as it were, during which time the body can get away with anything? Or is it perhaps that when dual activities are involved (eg, throwing away food while stacking washing-up) the two activities can get transposed?

'Neville, dear,' said his mother, 'that's the third time you've dried that glass and put it away.'

'I'm sorry, mother, ' he said, 'but I was trying to work out how signals between the body and the mind can go so hopelessly astray.'

'Yes, dear,' said his mother, who had become used to the idea that her son was not as other children. She sometimes wondered if it was hereditary, though she was inclined to blame their television set, which could only receive Channel 4. Neville was now only nine, but already he had his heart set on a Nobel Prize or, failing that, his own comedy show on late night TV.

The next time Neville thought about these things was when he was shelling peas. He noticed after a while that even when he got his system going - peas in the colander, pods in the bin - he still sometimes got it the wrong way round. This was annoying because it meant digging deep into the bin to find the errant peas. It also meant that yet again the body was disobeying the mind. 'Or is it just,' said Neville, 'that our minds are computers which, when badly or insufficiently programmed, do not control the body effectively?'

'Pardon, dear?'

'Nothing, mother.'

Neville began to collect examples of human activities that could easily be transposed by even the most intelligent people. He noticed when people cut things out of the newspaper to keep, and then threw them away. He noticed when people tried to write with objects in their hands which were certainly not designed for writing: cigarettes, lipstick, chopsticks, etc. He noticed when people went off specifically to do something and came back having done something quite different - he himself was prone to go off to the bathroom to relieve himself and to come back having brushed his teeth. He was especially pleased when,out in the car with his mother, he noticed that she transposed motoring functions.

'Mother, why have you switched on the windscreen wiper?' he said. 'It is not raining, after all.'

'I know, dear,' said his mother. 'In fact, I had intended to hoot at that stupid man who cut in front of me, but I forgot where the horn was.' How many of us have tried to signal that we are turning right and succeeded only in washing our windscreen? Many, I suspect. How many have collected examples of this behaviour and tried to turn them into a grand theory of human reactions? Not many, I wager, and very few as young as Neville Ricketts. For a while he speculated that the instinct to get things mixed up might be implanted in our DNA. (The popularity of the film Jurassic Park has familiarised even the very young with the concept of DNA, chromosomes, genes, etc, which is no mean achievement.) By the age of 11 he had amassed a vast folder of observations on this area of human fallibility, so much so that he had to throw out his old pictures of dinosaurs. However, the next time he referred to his dossier of Activity Transposition, as he named it, he found it full of stegosauruses and pterodactyls. For a moment he couldn't understand it; then he realised that he must have thrown away his life's work by mistake.

'Oh,' said Neville. 'Oh.'

After which he never thought about it again the rest of his life.