Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I have told this story before: too often. You have heard it before: it is not always about me. 

Lonely bookish kid. Bog-standard comprehensive school that wasn't nearly as bad as he makes it out to be. A whole series of cultural fireworks go off: Tolkien; Tom Baker; Stan Lee; George Lucas; Jack Kirby. He spends his time in his own head playing with action figures and model spacecraft when he is really much too old for toys and dolls; making up, but not writing down, stories and adventures. At some specific moment Dungeons & Dragons explodes into his life and he emerges and starts playing with real human beings again. 
Did anyone but me ever encounter a thing called Star Games? It is proper ephemera; existing only in my memory. It was a big puzzle book, bound in the style of the Star Fleet Technical Manual and the Star Trek Concordance, but without any official status. The puzzles were linked in fairly clever and imaginative ways so they formed a first-person narrative where YOU were the hero. (This was before Fighting Fantasy.) YOU were a space agent who had to perform some incredibly dangerous and important mission behind alien lines and save the Galactic Federation. To hack the aliens' computer YOU had to solve a moderately complex cryptography puzzle. To get to the secret weapon store YOU had to navigate a more than usually complicated labyrinth. There was even a kind of ship-to-ship dogfight on the final page. I think YOU shot enemy ships by memorizing their positions on a grid. 
It wasn't terribly good. It was truthfully only one level up from the puzzle pages you used to get in children's TV annuals. For four consecutive years I failed to qualify for the Anti-Dalek-Force. But for a fortnight it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. To everybody else I seemed to be the one who wasn't much good at French, was hopeless at football and spent the weekend at Sunday School. But secretly I was an agent of the Galactic Federation. 
I never have been able to explain it. It may be a literally over-active imagination; an ability to put reality into interlocking frames. A year or three back I went to the Doctor Who Experience: an exhibition of Doctor Who props presented as an immersive narrative experience. Obviously (obviously) I knew ("knew") that it was not real. I am not a mental case. I don't really think that you can start in a warehouse in Cardiff and be beamed onto a Dalek Spaceship. But at the same time I would have been ready to punch anyone who broke the illusion; who said "this is only a model" or "that is not the Doctor speaking to you, it is a recording Matt Smith made some time ago." I suppose I was playing at playing, playing at being on a Dalek Spaceship. But there was no part of me that said "gosh, this is a very clever illusion". It was more "I am on a Dalek spaceship, being shouted at by Daleks, and it's what I have always wanted".
I am told grown-ups get a similar affect when doing the guided tour of the Coronation Street studios. At one level they are learning about how their favourite TV show gets made; at another level they are literally visiting Ken Barlowe's house. They can hold both ideas in their head at the same time. 
The Walt Disney Star Wars theme park people have understood this very well. "I have waited my whole life for this." 

I continued to believe in Father Christmas for much longer than most children do, which is to say: I think that I maintained the pretence of believing in Father Christmas; I continued to play out and enjoy the annual consensual folk drama in which Mum said "has Father Christmas come?" and I said "yes he has" and the game would have been spoiled if either of us had said "you know this is a game, don't you?" 
If I continue too far down this line of thought, I will start to wonder if the ability to both believe and not believe in Santa, and to frame walking around a film set as if you were really on board an alien space ship; and to somehow fill in pages in a puzzle book while imagining that you are Space Agent is in anyway related to the religious impulse. And that would be a troubling thought.
Grant Morrison says that Superman—Superman himself—once literally appeared to him and told him that he, Superman, wanted him, Grant Morrison, to take over the job of chronicling his life; and that is why Grant Morrison started to write Superman comic books. At some level, he, Grant Morrison, literally believes that Superman exists, or is a representation of something which literally exists, on some other plane of reality. But the place where Superman appeared to him was a comic-book convention. He seemed older and fatter than you would expect, and his costume was rather creased up. "But isn't it more likely that what he talked to was not Superman, but a fan in a Superman costume?" Yes, of course: it was a person taking on the role of one of the gods. But it was also one of the gods. That's how ritual magic works.
When I was very small, if you had said, "what do you want to be when you grow up" I would have said "a space man"; but as soon as I was old enough to grasp what being an astronaut involved, I realized that it wasn't a viable career option for me. At some point before Star Games I read the long forgotten and terribly dated kid science fiction novels of Hugh Walters. Their astronomy was pretty poor, but their orbital mechanics was pretty good. They were rip-roaring adventures but they made it pretty clear that the job of an astronaut involved a lot of hard work, a lot of extra P.E. lessons, and that the process of launch and re-entry would probably make you sick. I liked the way Chris and Serge and Tony were bestest best friends and laid down their lives for each other at least twice in each novel. But I knew they were doing something I could never really do. 
Pretending to do something is very different from actually wanting to do it. This often comes up in discussions of the darker recesses of the internet: you can like reading about disgustingly kinky stuff without actually being disgusting or kinky. 
I never did work out what I wanted to be when I grew up, although "librarian" suits me. I suppose that if anyone had looked at that annoying bookish little boy with a plastic space helmet they would have said "Oh I bet he is going to become a librarian." 

There was a range of crisps called Outer Spacers; little corn rockets and little corn space stations. If you collected a hundred crisp bags you could send away for a series of big Outer Space posters—arty paintings of different kinds of space ship. The posters were drawn as if you were looking through a window or portal on the side of another space ship; so if you collected all four, which naturally I did, you could put them alongside each other, and turn YOUR bedroom into a cabin on an Outer Space Ship. 
They were printed on heavy paper, and for some reason it was permissible for me to ruin the wallpaper in my bedroom with blu-tack but not permissible to ruin it with tape, so the posters fell off the wall about twice a day. But the idea that MY bedroom was a spaceship was well worth the trouble. I remember when I first saw the advertisement. This is what I have been waiting for all my life. 
The House at Pooh Corner ends with Christopher Robin leaving the Enchanted Forest. It is perhaps the most sadistically sentimental thing ever written. Phil Jupitus tells the story of offering to read it at a book event and being unable to get to the end. Rather bizarrely John Major picked it as one of his favourite pieces of writing on the Radio Four show With Great Pleasure. 
"Pooh, when I'm—you know—when I'm not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?" 
"Just me?" 
"Yes, Pooh." 
"Will you be here too?" 
"Yes Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh." 
"That's good," said Pooh.
But it is hard to unpick. Is it two friends saying goodbye; or is it a seven year old boy growing out of his toys? They are using the language of death and bereavement; but no-one is dead. Little boys do in fact grow up and Winnie-the-Pooh is, in fact, only some fur and sawdust and glass eyes. Is it us grown-ups who are mourning our childhood; or are we begging children not to grow up? We spot that Peter Pan is a bit creepy, particularly when we know about J.M. Barrie's rather intense interest in young men; but no-one ever suggested that there was anything untoward about A.A. Milne's relationship with his son. A bit too distant and Victorian maybe, a bit too certain that once you are grown up you are grown up and that's the end of it, but sweet and wholesome and not without a streak of healthy cynicism on both sides.
No-one thinks that grown men should carry on playing with teddy bears forever. So are we mourning the death of the idea of a person; acknowledging that our friends were imaginary and consigning them to non-existence? Granny used to exist but now she doesn't. Pooh doesn't exist, but then he never did. 
Milne introduces his first book of children's poetry with a riff about William Wordsworth. (Wordsworth, he says, used to introduce each of his poems with a few words of explanation; but he, Milne, is going to let the readers figure things out for themselves.) Wordsworth, as everyone knows, believed that heaven lay about us in our infancy. He didn't mean that childhood is innocent and heavenly and nothing bad ever happens there. He is very much aware of poverty and bereavement and chimney-sweeps. But he agrees with Plato that human beings are connected with a supernatural order of reality, and that children have inside knowledge of that supernatural order, because they haven't had a chance to forget about it yet. C.S. Lewis was undoubtedly correct in saying that meadow, grove and stream only appeared retrospectively to be apparelled in celestial light: Wordsworth was not writing about what it was like to be a child, but what it was like to be a middle-aged man remembering his childhood. But that's okay too. The fact, said the Professor, that hills look blue from a certain distance is a fact about hills, as good as any other fact.
There was a time when I could take a poster that had been jotted down in a hurry by some commercial artist in order to sell calorific salty corn snacks and genuinely feel that I was on a spaceship. Or pretend that I felt that I was on a spaceship; or pretend that I was pretending. There was a time when I could take a plastic doll that looked very slightly like a character from a TV show that was made before I was born and find that three hours had passed by and an epic adventure had taken place in my head. 
I was about to type "wondrous adventure" but I have no memory of building Narnian Castles in my head. My stories were rather mundane. Toy Red Indians could spend a whole half term trecking across the desert. Look at us, they would say, being Red Indians and trecking across the desert. Once I had successfully turned my bedroom into a space craft what I wanted was to be on a routine space flight from earth to Alpha Centuri, and to hear there was a slight problem with warp engine number two, and run down to the engine room with a spanner and fix it. I didn't populate the woods in the park with dragons and elves; but I did imagine I was carrying a routine message from King Arthur and would be back in Camelot in time for tea. 
Tolkien is sometimes accused of appalling tedium; of chapters and chapters in which characters do nothing but look at trees and make soup. I think we were very much on the same wavelength. I would have been happy if the 3D-chess scene in Star Wars had gone on for ever.
Perhaps this is what Christopher Robin was mourning; or what William Wordsworth was remembering. Christopher Robin never does anything in the Hundred Acre Wood: he just goes for walks and looks at the trees. Unstructured imagination; flow-state; being in the zone. The ability to look at a toy or a picture and flip into a different head-space. Is this what people mean by meditation or mindfulness? Is it the edge of mysticism, direct knowledge of God, the cloud of unknowing? Or is it just that when we were very young we had a lot of time to waste and that now we are six we feel as busy as Rabbit? 

A long time ago I wrote a little pamphlet called Tangled Up in Pooh in which I argued that what is really happening in A.A. Milne's stories is that structure and hierarchy is interposing itself between the child's mind and the subjective, experienced world. The male pencil mediates the maternal forest, and all you are left with is the written-down stories, not the experience itself. 
Yes, I know you are laughing, but I am pretty sure I am right. Certainly Christopher Robin's animals all see learning to read as a kind of Edenic fall. 
The death of Christopher Robin: putting the action figures away in the box: finding that although Cyborg and Muton still thrill me with their messianic transparency, I can't meaningfully tell myself stories about them any more. I can dress them up and put them on display and even have some fun making "pew pew" blaster noises but the days when I really felt that I was enacting the last great battle to save the human race are long gone.

Oh Stan Lee, Stan Lee. I had a box of plastic spacemen and when any decent child would have been flying around his bedroom making laser gun noises, I would imagine one of them falling to earth and getting separated from his people and experiencing the human race first hand and bewailing man's inhumanity to man. 

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Irina said...

You are me and I claim my £5.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In a good way, I hope? :)

Irina said...