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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
The Best Of All Possible...
by John Morrow
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I cannot recall Wisdom being on the curriculum in All Saints Public Elementary school in the late 1930s/ early 1940s - or if it was then I must have missed it, just as I missed algebra to a bout of diptheria in January 1941.
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There was no 'catching-up', you see; once you had stepped (or been pushed) onto the bank, the river of knowledge in All Saints flowed on regardless. Authority's remedy, if you spent too much time out of the stream in one year, was to keep you back a class. But this would mean ructions in the family, whose shaky economic viability depended on your starting work the day after your 14th birthday. Socially too, the stigma of having attended school into your 15th year could follow you to the grave ('Thick as champ when he was wee').
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But even being cast up in an isolation ward in Purdysburn Fever for three weeks could provide some items of 'experience and knowledge', the accumulation of which the O.E.D. quotes as essential to the acquisition of Wisdom. For instance, I would never again be able to visit a zoo without being physically sick, recalling the feelings of that 10 year old me on visiting days, capering silently for my silent and capering parents in front of the window that separated us.
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Diphtheria in those pre-penicillen days was highly contagious and potentially lethal. There were 30 of us in the male isolation ward, ages ranging from 4 to 50; sufferers below and above that range were sent to 'another place', it was rumoured darkly. It was here during my first week, a period of high fever and wild hallucination, that I learnt the meaning of the words 'positive' and 'negative'.
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The Best Of All Possible...
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Each morning at the scrake my swollen and flameing throat was vigourously swabbed, the swab tested there and then, and the verdict given audibly by the swabber to her mate with the clipboard at the end of my bed: 'positive'.
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That went on for five days; then, on the sixth, 'negative', announced loudly and greeted with hand-clapping around the ward. had I remained positive for more than eight days, a dour oldster informed me, I would have been taken to that 'other place'; and should I at any time relapse into positive it would be curtains - literally, around the bed, and clergymen in masks, and then... The latter scenario I saw played out four times during my three week stay, the protagonists including two lads about my own age.
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So the tension of the swab ritual was sustained right up until my final morning. Little wonder that even now those two words tend to surface occasionally in my waking thoughts; an early dramatisation of the vanity of human wishes in the face of an arbitrary selection process.
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One great comfort during that fraught time was my favourite comic-cut, and in particular the characters in the main feature; Cowboy Dick, his cow-girl-friend Sue and Curly Bill the ranchhand. They lived in a log cabin in the Rockies and weekly fought Indians and rustlers and generally had what seemed to me a high old time.
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In that first mad week in Purdysburn it was these three who came to vivid life for quite long period in my delirium. Not just dreamlike, but solid touch and feel reality, extending even into research into the contruction of the log cabins and a personal addition to the plot in a determination to build one in the street where I lived, in the shadow of Belfast's largest gosometer... me and the Da and the Uncles would cut the logs in Ormeau Park and float them across the Lagan behind Gerry Boyce's penny ferry... A febrile fantasy that would be brought to mind years later, hearing and reading descriptions of self-induced 'altered states' in the febrile 60s.
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Imagne, then, my delight on the day of my release to turn the corner of our street with my Mother and discover that the government had built me not one, but six little cabins! Down the middle of the street - not logs, of course, brick and concrete, but that didn't matter.
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From then until Easter - including a long, school-free, convalescence during which I might have missed Higher Mathematics - we had a high old time playing in the cabins. Then came Easter and a hard night's pounding by the Luftwaffe, the entire street crammed into the little cabins, singing hymns and praying. (Much later in life I would be bombed again by National Socialists; but they, thankfully, never developed an air arm.)
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That long night in the bouncing shelter my young sister and I didn't sing or pray: we stuffed our ears with vaselined cotton wool and read comics by pencil torch. (The shelters did actually bounce; like log cabins and earthquake houses in Japan - and I suppose Lisbon - they had no foundations, so jumped free whenever a big one landed close by. Ours was nearly three inches off true by the end of the night.)
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We weren't at all religious, being products of a 'mixed marriage', our Mother Church of Ireland, our Father a hard-nosed 'Blackmouth' (Presbyterian), neither of them very church-going folk. Sister did have a flirtation with being 'Saved' in a tin tabernacle, but it didn't last. And the only experience of evangelical zeal I encountered was when a Marxist shop steward in my first trade union convinced me that one must have a philosophy to progress through life - but that didn't take either; like sister I found that I didn't possess the required capacity for uncritical faith. For many years, however, I suppose I could have been categorised under the heading 'Fellow Traveller' (and was, I'm told on some police blotters), a designation that could be placed in the broader Leninist grouping 'Useful Eejit'.
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Perhaps it was the effect of the above events, especially that first week in isolation, that inclined my initial literary interest towards the bizarre: the opium eater De Quincy; Aldous Huxley's maunderings on peyote in the New Mexican desert; the dark, laudanum induced visions of Edgar Alan Poe; and for light relief the gin-fueled, sometimes equally bizarre, wit and wisdom of the Algonquin Round Table - Parker, Thurber, Benchley, Lardner... Sadly, my own experience of stimulants has been limited to the consumption of draught stout, inducing nothing more profound than off-key singing and vomit.
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I should explain that that outbreak of literary name-dropping above is the result of a haphazard plundering of Belfast's public libraries and the advent of cheap paperbacks and not at all from any formal Higher Education. I was born too early to benefit from the 1947 Education Act: 'The legislation,' said the late John Hewitt, 'that transformed so many potentially good plumbers and bricklayers into bad poets' (or words to that effect). Lacking algebra and wisdom I probably wouldn't have made it anyway.
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During the 70s any links I had with Queens University were through friends who were graduates. It was one such, a good poet - now internationally acclaimed, then travelling the road which they say leads to the Palace of Wisdom- who revealed to me one aspect of the pile never dreamt of by the founders.
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In the gloaming of one autumn day I chanced to pass by the front of the main building, and there saw my poet friend and two flatmates, line abreast on hands and knees, crawling slowly across the front lawn, each with a small cloth bag suspended around his neck.
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Approaching in wild surmise I was urged profanely to watch where I was putting my feet. They were harvesting, my friend explained, that day's crop of the Magic Mushroom, a delicate and evanescent bloom which Queens lawn yeilded in lush abundance. (Another cornucopia, I learnt later, was a field adjacent to Musgrave Park hospital on the sectarian fault-line between green Andytown and true-blue Finaghy. Those were tense times, but I'm told that addicts from both sides browsed amicably enough as long as the invisible line down the middle, recognised by both, was not breached. There were rumours of Xmas-truce-like celebrations following particularly potent crops - but I'm inclined to doubt that.)
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A few days after that meeting on Queens lawn I met my poet friend and over a drink asked him how the evening had gone after the mushroom cull. It had been exceptionally luscious, he said, so much so that he had no memory of anything until, in the small hours of the next morning, he awoke in his bedroom, fully clothed still and with the empty mushroom bag clutched in his fist.
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He was immediately aware that he was not alone. In the centre of the room, between bed and door, were three figures. All wore short Grecian tunics, sandals, and on their heads circlets of oak leaves. The tallest, clean-shaven one he recognised as Aristotle; beside him, shorter and darker, was Plato; and, full-bearded and leaning on a white stick, Homer.
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My friend knew by the intense way they all gazed at him that he was meant to speak. Questions loomed in his mind; the Big Questions: Why are we here?... Where did we come from?... Where are we going?... With the great wisdom of the ages ranged before him, my friend eventually posed his question... 'Well lads,' he said, 'how do you think I'm doing so far?' 'Ciaran,' said Aristotle, 'yer a sound man.' At this the others nodded in concurrance. Then all three trooped out through the closed door and were gone.
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My poet friend has never mentioned that visitation again, nor have I, so whether the 'lads' ever visited again I have no way of knowing.
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As for me, I left All Saints Public Elementary aged 14 with a sole A on my Leaving Certificate. It was, you'll never believe, for Parsing and Analysis of the English sentence, a step on the road to wisdom that did me little good as a riveter's catch-boy in the yards.
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Yet even here were to be found those items of 'experience and knowledge' recommended by the O.E.D.. In my first week I learnt how to chew tobacco and spit with amazing muzzle velocity and accuracy. Even to-day, given luck and a following breeze, I can still drown an eariwig at five paces, and do so frequently as I 'till my garden' (Voltaire 1694-1778).
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The Best Of All Possible...
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