Volume 1. Infancy and childhood
von George Spencer-Brown
Chapter 3. The seaside
When I was three we went to Sheringham, and the previous summer to Saltfleet.
Although we lived by the sea, we considered our own "resort" too downmarket to wish to stay there, so drove long distances in a fleet of cars loaded with uncles, aunts, cousins, and other hangers on to these more distant spots. They were only less downmarket, as far as I could see, in being more isolated and inconvenient.
The words 'upmarket' and 'downmarket' were not then used to describe persons and places. 'Downmarket' had to be indicated by a longer phrase, probably by 'not quite out of the top drawer'.
I used to annoy my mother by asking 'If we are in the top drawer, then what drawer is the King in?'
At Saltfleet we stayed in a boarding house run by a Mrs Chatterton. The one lavatory there was watered by a spring, and we had to pump the handle up and down for two minutes before the tank was full enough for a flush.
There was much discussion on the morality of how this should be done. Most of us boys were for doing the pumping to flush away our own remains, but some of the girls, my mother in particular, were all for the more "moral" approach of pumping up the tank for the next user of the facility.
Why do woman always think of these ridiculously moral ways to do things? The labour was the same whichever way we did it, so why not do it the way for which there was at least a particle of motivation? I did not feel inclined to do all that work for Auntie Mary who came next, but would be too embarrassed to leave my own droppings for her to inspect, so would be properly motivated to pump up my own flush, not hers.
At the age of two and a half I would have made a wonderful industrial consultant, for I had already devised ways of eliminating horrible morality from all activities, especially washing up, which our household treated with the urgency of an acute appendicitis, including a boring ethical discussion of who should do what in the operation.
'Why not,' I said, 'just leave all the plates unwashed? Then anyone who needs a plate can wash it himself.'
'What about the pans?' my mother used to say, introducing specious arguments as all women do. They after all invented morality. Men would never have thought of it or seen the need for it.
'The pans,' I said stiffly, 'could be washed by anyone wishing to cook.'
The women felt decidedly worsted by this argument, for women's whole philosophy is that you have to do things you don't like for the sake of others.
Fiddlesticks! Nobody ever needs to do what he doesn't wish to until circumstances force him to do it. If you women don't want to cook, it's all the same to us men. When we want our food cooked, as we will, we will wash the pans and cook it ourselves. It will mess up your kitchen, which is what you really don't like, isn't it! So if you don't want your kitchen messed up, you women will have to wash the pans yourselves. This way we all do what we have to when we have to. It may not be the best of all possible worlds, but at least what needs to be done gets done without complaint, which is what morality always leads to.
'Oo! Somebody didn't pump up the lavatory for me to use next!'
'Pump it up yourself, you silly arse!'
One day at lunch, I was wittering and whining because Mrs Chatterton had not produced a pat of butter to put on my peas, which my mother always did.
There was a great fuss, and I went on complaining until Mrs Chatterton (we of course called her 'Mrs Chatterbox') produced the butter. Meanwhile my Uncle Harry, who could not stand my whingeing (this word for whining had not yet been invented), said angrily to my mother,
'If that was my child I'd give it a damned good thrashing and send it to bed!'
I noted his remark with interest, knowing my mother would protect me from his intended violence. Every child has constantly to manipulate its elders to get what it wants, and continuous whingeing happened to be the most effective way with my mother. I realized that I must find some other way to deal with Uncle Harry.
After lunch everybody wanted to go to sleep except Uncle Harry, who said he would rather go for a long walk. I immediately announced my intention of accompanying him, much to his surprise and my mother's concern. We walked for three or four miles, and I put on my absolute best behaviour, listening and making intelligent remarks to everything he said, and not once complaining of tiredness. Uncle Harry was overjoyed. When we returned for tea, he irritated everybody by going on and on about what 'a grand little fellow' I was. I could see I had scored a resounding success with him, and this would be reflected in the size of the Christmas and birthday presents I could expect from him in the future.
I was so hungry after the walk that I demanded, and eventually received, three eggs for tea, with much discussion among the women as to whether three eggs might not be harmful to a two-year-old.
The whole party consisted of my mother's relations and their friends, my father taking his holidays separately in his London apartment, or on his yacht, or at his studio in Paris. My mother's side were considered the "poor relations" of the family, although my mother's two brothers and two sisters had all done quite well for themselves. But they or their husbands were in "trade", and could not match my father's inherited annual income of seven thousand pounds, nearly a million a year in today's money.
The space at Mrs Chatterton's was limited, and I had to sleep in a double bed with my twelve-year-old cousin Joan, much to her extreme distaste. When we were grown up I would tease her by telling her boy friends I had already slept with her. She was furious, and had to produce elaborate explanations saying it didn't mean what it sounded like.
The older boys slept in a tent on the lawn. I expressed a strong desire to join them, but to have a two-year-old amongst them would have been socially degrading for them, as well as endangering all the forbidden activities their temporary freedom from adult supervision allowed them. Poor Joan, being a mere female, was given no choice in the matter of whom she slept with.
One of their friends was a girl called Cicely. I had some difficulty pronouncing her name, and would carefully separate the syllables so that I got it right. I used to wonder why, whenever I said it, everybody laughed.
What I disliked about girls was that they always seemed much surer of themselves that us boys, and treated us with scorn without telling us why. One of them was particularly scornful about a man she knew, and they all used to giggle about how peculiar he was. Then suddenly she married him. There simply is no accounting for women, is there?
What most puzzled me about women was that they never seemed to have babies until they got married. What was it about the ceremony that made the difference? Was it the ring? I asked all the grown-ups I knew, including my parents, but they pretended not to understand the question.
A few years later, again at the seaside, a distant cousin, somewhat older than me, told me with great glee that he had just found out the answer, and explained it to me in detail. I refused to believe him, although I knew deep down that it must be true.
'My father would never do that to my mother,' I said defiantly. 'She wouldn't let him!'
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