The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Been reading the first volume of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography Little Wilson and Big God with huge enjoyment. This is the first sustained attempt I’ve made at something by Burgess, and my impression is that he’s no great prose stylist - it’s all bolts and spot welding and exposed gears, a Mustang rather than a Jaguar - but no matter how unbeautiful it can be, by gum, it works.

There are dozens of pieces I could quote, and I’m only about a quarter of the way through. This one made some impression. Burgess is 11 and recovering in Monsall Isolation Hospital from scarlet fever:

“This meant, among other things, the meeting of the desquamated [“To shed, peel, or come off in scales. Used of skin.”] from the girls’ wards in some neutral zone of the grounds. The meeting was always collective, with spokesman and spokeswoman. Our spokesman was nicknamed ‘Angin Out because, crying for an urgent bedpan, he had said that was what the faeces were doing. […] The social ritual featured male aggression, though it was purely verbal, and female reasonableness. ‘What wards are you lads in, then?’ - ‘Who wants to know?’ - ‘That’s not a nice way to speak.’ - ‘We’re not ‘ere to be nice.’ - ‘What are you here for, then?’ And so on. When I said to ‘Angin Out that the spokesgirl was not exactly pretty, he said that there was more to a girl than prettiness. There was a good ‘art and nice manners. He told me this with immense seriousness.

“But it was with a pretty girl that I rolled naked on the grass behind the shrubbery. We had shed all our skin like snakes and were proud of our new bodies. So we showed our bodies to each other and to the Monsall sun; we embraced and rolled. We rolled to a concealed hollow and kissed and stroked and said we loved each other.”

That was as far as it went - probably as far as it was able to go. I scratched my ear and thought how it was rather a lot further than I got to at that age, and for an embarrassingly long time afterwards; but I remembered primary-school kissing games, and proto-girlfriends of pre-adolescence, and our teacher’s irritation one day at the class’s low-level but constant preoccupation over who was “going” with whom. We had an amorphous idea of what male and female was about, though we were incapable of doing anything about it.

Then I read this and this, and was shocked.

I particularly like Ravenhill’s line “The spectacle of sex dominates our lives - but the humanity of it is absent”. There was Page 3 when I was a kid, though it was an enigma of the adult world, a secret source of puzzlement rather than titillation. Nowadays…Jesus.

Should any lawyers or other miscreants be reading, this doesn't mean that I’m in favour of changing the law. Sixteen seems to me about right, though principally to protect children from adults rather than each other. Judging from the newspaper pieces linked to above, some psychic as well as physical protection may be in order.


As a totally leftfield postscript, Neil Diamond ain’t cool now and never has been, and my cool radar is bargain-basement.


At 24 February 2006 at 15:31 , Blogger James Long said...

Glad to hear Little Wilson and Big God is a good read. I am planning to read Burgess's autobiographical volumes once I have finished with Roger Lewis's biography of him.

If you're interested, I blogged something about it quite recently...New Tammany College: meet Guy Blunt

At 24 February 2006 at 23:15 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Yes, I was, and it was. Thanks.

At 25 February 2006 at 20:07 , Blogger Joe said...

Ah, early, precocious romances and sexual ingorance... My memory is of my first girlfriend with her Sindy Doll and my Action man getting it on and doing it. We had no idea what 'doing it' was and the lack of genitalia on either doll nicely illustrates how naive we were. Mind you, it did get me my first snog!

At 1 March 2006 at 18:56 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

I remember when the pelvic unit on Action Man went from being flesh-coloured, like the rest of him, to being covered with a kind of giant blue nappy - combat cyber-underwear of a kind presumably fit for heroes - and thinking that he'd been bowdlerised.


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