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From 'To Be And Not To Be'

by Douglas Harding

The View Out and the View In

Miss Chipperfiled and the Water-colourist of the World
Funny things happen in our childhood, curious indications of our real character, of our mission or destiny, which seem to set the course of our whole life.
Or at least to point out the direction it’s likely to take. At the time, of course, they aren’t seen as at all prophetic. It’s only in retrospect that we tumble to the far-reaching significance of these early happenings. So it comes about that our life, though lived forwards, is understood backwards, and the child is revealed as indeed ‘the father of the man’, as Wordsworth put it. 

Hindsight tells me that Wordsworth was right, at least so far as this child is concerned. Not only did I get off to an unusually early start with my life’s work, but I began with some of the best of it. 

I was about six years old at the time. Our house stood on top of a cliff overlooking the slate-coloured North Sea, and the sea-weedy wreck of a fishing vessel called The Spider. I was in the habit of wandering along the windy and desolate shore, alone. And it was here that I discovered my mine of jewels — rubies, emeralds, turquoises, amethysts, topazes, what have you. Mind you, they were a gradual discovery and took a lot of patient unearthing. Some of the more beautiful ones — for instance the rubies — were rare and proportionately precious. But I was a frequent and hard-working miner. And how richly my efforts were rewarded! 

For these weren’t the ordinary sort of precious stones you find in jewellers’ shop windows, the sort that are set in rings and necklaces and crowns. Oh no! Those were mere jewels, fairly common and quite unmagical: bright and beautiful like my own gems, of course, but ordinary, not at all mysterious, and quite powerless. 

Mine, on the other hand, were altogether special. In fact, unique, and so different that they deserved other names. To call them super-rubies or super-emeralds and so on, or even the real Crown Jewels, didn’t begin to do justice to the magical potency of my treasures. Or perhaps I should say: to the worldwide magic power they conferred upon their delighted owner — conferred upon me, this seemingly commonplace and much- put-upon small boy. 

This magical power was the ability to paint the world all over, from the highest fleecy cloud in the sky to my own hand, from the tiny steamer on the horizon to the foaming breakwater at my feet, instantly, whatever the colour of my choice. And then, instantly, to change that colour from (say) red to blue, and then from blue to amber, as the mood took me. And not only was this magic quite secret (I was careful not to tell even my best friends about it), but it was evidently one that all others lacked absolutely. No matter what they held to their eye, what gem they chose to look through, nothing happened to the scene. It stayed the same old colour. Only I had the right to call myself the water-colourist of the world! 

Of course the language I use now to describe my childhood experience is very different from what I would have used then. In fact I had neither the ability nor the need to spell out these things in any detail. And surely they were all the more thrilling, more deeply felt, on that account. 

No wonder, then, that the upshot, the tragic conclusion of my gem-mining adventure, was so devastating. So much so that I remember the scene to this day, vividly and in detail — the echoing schoolroom and the view from its window of my deserted beach and the angry sea. 

The ogre of the occasion was Miss Chipperfield, the ironmonger’s elderly daughter. She was one of the teachers — the only nasty one — in Miss Smith’s dame-school, which I attended daily. She noticed — she would! — that the pockets of my off-white shorts bulged suspiciously, and made me turn them out. And then she had the nerve, the wickedness, to call my precious jewels dirty rubbish, bits of filthy broken glass which were already spoiling my shorts and would be sure to cut me before long. 

Well, I cried and cried. I begged to keep at least my rubies. But in vain. Into the iron rubbish bin they all went, and were lost for ever. And what was even worse, my parents were told, and further mining was strictly prohibited. How I cursed Miss Chipperfield! From then on I made sure she taught me nothing. Not that the wretched woman was able to strip me of all my magic powers, however much she would have liked to. There was another power that came to me even earlier than world- colouring. I gave it no name at the time, but world-owning will do. Though less spectacular than world-colouring, it did have the advantage that nobody could guess what I was up to, much less put a stop to it.
In those far-off days young children were got out of the way by sending them to bed at seven o’clock, or even earlier. The window of my bedroom had, instead of a curtain, a shiny buff roller-blind, covered with brown arabesques, which let in most of the light on a summer evening, and, in winter, most of the glare of the street arc-lamps. So it was that, unable to get to sleep and forbidden to get up, I lay there for hours contemplating those brown arabesques. Utterly boring though they were in themselves, I found I could, by steady staring, do a marvellous thing with them. I could bring them right up to me! And, after some practice, other things, too, no matter how distant they were said to be. Now the charm of this magic wasn’t only that, in spite of its worldwide operation, it remained perfectly secret, but also that the collapse of their distance made things mine. When thus truly seen, all I laid eyes on became my very own property. But again, of course, I didn’t indulge in any such word-play. It was enough that somehow I lived my everywhereness and allness. It made a lot of difference. For instance, when the streetlights went out and I raised the blind a little, I could see the stars into my bedroom. Or was it that I could see myself into their bedroom? Either way, there’s magic for you! 

There are two other kinds of equally impressive world-magic that I must touch on here, more briefly because they are fairly well known. As well-known as they are undervalued. 

The first we call world-destroying-and-world-re-creating. Or, if you want to rubbish it, the ostrich ploy. One buries one’s head in the bedclothes, thereby suddenly abolishing the Universe down to the last bit of fluff. And then, after a suitable interval devoted to relishing one’s mighty destructive power, suddenly produces everything out of nothing, arrayed in all its former splendour and why-there-it-isness! 

The second we call world-turning. When I start rotating on the spot — wow! — I do nothing of the kind. I start everything else rotating, and the nearer it is the faster it goes. The whole scene whirling like mad, around what? Why around its true Centre, of course.
 
Add this expertise to world-colouring, world-owning, world- destroying, and world-re-creating, and you have something big! An impressive magic repertoire, far surpassing all adult cleverness, and quite encouraging for a child who’s always being reminded by grown-ups that he’s not grown up. 

Most of us soon grow out of this sort of thing. I have grown into it. That world-shrinking adventure in the lonesome bedroom and that world-painting adventure on the draughty foreshore, were early steps along the road I had to go, a powerful kick-start to the whole thrust and purpose of my life. So far from chipperfielding those childhood powers, I have made it my business to take them very seriously indeed. 

Why? For a variety of good reasons. Because they were and are based on what I see instead of what I’m told I see. Because they can be verified by anyone anywhere at any time. Because they dovetail neatly into that perennial philosophy which I find makes intellectual and practical sense of an otherwise chaotic and meaningless existence. Because I cannot believe they were awarded to me by an Almighty Trickster hell-bent on fooling me. And (may I add for good measure?) because they are so intriguing, such good fun, so productive of further magic; and as such more than enough to keep me busy all these years. 

Wordsworth got it right. We do come trailing clouds of glory from God who is our Home. But in a deeper sense we never left Home. Nor need the glory dim with age, much less depart forever. It can still blaze out of bits of filthy broken glass in rubbish dumps by angry seas. It still can and it still does tickle into leaping back and forth lazy old arabesques on shiny roller blinds. The glory can and should flood our whole life. Shades of the prison-house don’t have to close in forever around the growing and grown-up boy or girl. Anyone of any age, who really wants to, can see his or her way out of jail into the happy and inexhaustible astonishments of freedom. The author of this book is a nonagenarian child who suffered some very severe attacks of adulthood, but has largely recovered. Witness the fact that when he finds himself redecorating the landscape and skyscape, or making or unmaking or spinning it all, he’s just as bowled over as when he did those same things at the age of six. And more determined than ever that all the Chipperfields in all the world, aided and abetted by that little old grown-up in his mirror, shall not prevent him. 

‘Truly I say to you: whosoever will not receive the Kingdom of Heaven as a little child will not enter it'. 

(This collection of essays – To Be And Not To Be, That Is The Answer – was first published in 2002.)

(All books presented in our Book Extracts are available via Amazon or our website shop.)

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