by Christopher Rush

SRB Diary: How Television Changed My Life

October 28, 2009 | by Christopher Rush

IN 1954, when I was ten years old, the first twelve-inch-screen black-and-white television to arrive in St Monans was wheeled in all its majesty into the upstairs living-room of our neighbours across the street, where it caused an immediate sensation. Not even the coronation the previous year, with all its bonfires and fireworks and beflagged fishing vessels fluttering on the firth, made quite the same impression, in spite of the bright-minted florin pressed on that occasion into my surprised palm, bearing a glamorous young female head – so different from the mournful Victoria that still decorated many of our existing pennies in blackened copper sepia. The coronation was a nine-day buildup and a one-day wonder, disappearing as fast as the bar of chocolate I was also given, also bearing the new queen’s image. But that television altered the very fabric of life.

In fact life died in that first house to usher in the new dispensation. Its owner had a passion for collecting dung, which on a daily basis he dug and raked lovingly into his vegetable patch. He was forever scouring the streets in the scented wakes of the horses that brought round our morning milk in urns, and his was a familiar figure to be seen with sack and shovel bent over the steaming heaps of newly laid manure. Now the horse-shit grew cold on the roads and the green weeds strangled his leeks. The lights went out in his living-room, never to be seen again in my village lifetime.

They were replaced by a cold blue flickering against which the black humps of heads and shoulders gloomed like phantoms. The whole family sat in a stone circle, gorgonized by technology. Soon the circle widened, became a double circle, three tiers, a congregation – the neighbours were pouring in, to a house previously unvisited, arriving on all sorts of pretexts – and stayed till the Epilogue and what was now ‘God save our Queen’. Folk even huddled in knots on the street outside BBC House, as we called it, straining to catch a glimpse of the future, though the upstairs location made it, of course, quite impossible to see a single inch out of the twelve. Football matches and boxing fights were in full flow and the desperate deprived stood on the pavements below, intent on those windows, as if it were possible to interpret the firefly flashes of light as goals scored or knock-out punches landed, Don Cockell battling bravely against Rocky Marciano and shadow boxing was the most you could hope to see – though in reality the wireless commentaries were worlds more dramatic than anything the eye could witness.

But the age of the ear and the inner eye was gone for good. The need to see spread madly and a rash of televisions broke out in every window. Soon the streets, so played-in by youngsters and perambulated by old men, became like graveyards, the eerieness increased by the phantom flickering that played like lightning in every grove, in every crescent. A forest of masts rocked gently on the roofs, mimicking those in the harbour. “The light burns blue,” says Brutus, as Caesar’s ghost appears in his tent on the eve of Philippi. And blue indeed was the colour of the ghost-town we became.

Once I looked out of our televisionless living-room, still healthy with light, to see an amazing sight. An elderly accountant, whom I’d never seen travelling at anything less dignified than a snail’s pace, was propelling himself at startling speed from the bus-stop to his house, just a few yards round the corner from ours. His umbrella preceded him like a rifle, brief-case under one arm, and his scarf and hat were flying as he yomped his way homeward in a re-run of No-Man’s-Land. England and Scotland were playing at five o’clock, and if he could have pushed the country bus himself all the way from his office in Anstruther, he would surely have made it go faster. Few owned cars in the fifties, not even accountants. I looked at the clock. It was a quarter past five. He’d missed the first fifteen minutes. This was serious stuff. And it struck me that an invention which emptied the streets, fossilised families, gave grey hairs wings and allowed me to raid the neighbour’s strawberry patch unhindered and unseen, had to be reckoned with. I began to join in the chorus of treble childish voices begging for a television to be installed ‘in our house’. Within a short time my entreaties were answered.

For me it proved a huge let-down. The stilted studio dramas, the Children’s Hour, Andy Pandy, the intermissions, the breakdowns, the repeats, the white noise – I quickly rediscovered my playgrounds on the bouldered beaches and in the cobbled closes of the village where I’d grown up: a village of a thousand souls whose ten (yes, ten!) churches spouted a hell-fire more fascinating by far than anything that television could invent. I then proceeded to secondary school in Anstruther, spent four years of it ignoring the perfectly decent education which my teachers had failed to instil into me, and at the end of 1959, having failed all my exams, contemplated my sixteenth year and a career in the Navy.

Which very nearly happened. And I could never have guessed that it would be television that was destined to alter dramatically the course of my life, diverting me from following in the wake of my seafaring family and forefathers, and charting for me instead a passage undreamed of: not the blue ploughlands of the sea but the green fields of Academe.

This is how it happened. Up to no good as usual, pinching apples possibly, I fell from a tree and hurt my skull, not seriously, but painfully enough to go reeling home to recover. As I sat there dazed in front of the television, a film started up in black and white, and in all of its twelve-inch glory. It was the Laurence Olivier film of Richard III. I was fifteen. And I was transfixed.

More than transfixed. I was transformed. Not hitherto an academic youngster, as I have made plain, and with no academic background or ancestry, I persuaded my mother to spend sixteen precious shillings on the Oxford Shakespeare and proceeded to work my passage through the plays, starting with The Tempest on page 3 and ending with Pericles on page 1072. I read all the poems and sonnets too, and even the glossary. Then I began all over again from the first page of the compendium. I completed this Elizabethan readathon five times in the course of my (repeated) 4th Year of secondary schooling, a year of sheer intoxication in which not a day went by but I read a Shakespeare play. After that I threw myself into reading all the great criticism and scholarship, all the standard works, one teacher supplying me with books of his own and with dozens more borrowed from university libraries. Actually my teachers thought that I’d taken leave of my senses.

And, in a sense, I had. Exactly in what sense I am not at this moment at liberty to say. If this sounds as sensation-seeking, pompous and absurd as I am sure it must, I can only beg forbearance with the excuse that I am under agent’s orders. It was during the period of Shakespeare mania that I came upon a source of intelligence or enlightenment about Shakespeare the man that is, bluntly, beyond established scholarship. To say more at this stage would quite obviously queer whatever publishing pitch I intend or aspire to occupy. It should be at this point that my phone starts ringing! Like Brutus, I pause for a reply…

Meanwhile let me chase up the progress of the story. I went on to read everything from Beowolf to Virginia Woolf and from Homer to Hemingway, spent a year in the Edinburgh libraries reading the Shakespeare sections ragged, and went on to Aberdeen University from which I graduated in 1968. As English Medallist I was offered a Research Fellowship at Peterhouse, Cambridge. A university career seemed certain. In the event, I elected instead to pursue a vocation as an Edinburgh schoolmaster. The reason for this decision again lies in Shakespeare. The consequences have been recorded and expressed to some autobiographical extent in my novel Last Lesson of the Afternoon, in the same way as my childhood experiences went into my first major book, A Twelvemonth And A Day, filmed as Venus Peter.

Did I ever regret this decision? Not during the first half of my 30-year teaching career, when I brought Shakespeare to young minds with a missionary zeal that was allowed free rein. That was before the managerial revolution bureaucratized education, placed structure above content in teaching turned English into a service industry, made accountability and political correctness the name of the game, and reduced the role of literature in the curriculum as an autonomous aesthetic experience. It’s a small step from Shakespeare Made Easy to why bother with the bleeder at all? – when you can do units on Big Brother and Bridget Jones instead.

Elitist? You’d better believe it! The obvious thing to do was to leave the field a decade earlier than the laws of finance dictated or intended and to fulfil my life’s ambition to ghost-write the life of Shakespeare – a fast-fading ghost from the classroom but still a fragrant presence among the sea-roots to which I have now retired and returned. Even then I might have kept my Will to myself – but for the endless annual roll-call of biographies, all drearily repeating the same publishers’ message, that the real Shakespeare had been written at last, and all of course doing nothing of the sort. For the real Shakespeare does not exist – unless you have access to a ghost.

What have I written instead? A ghost story – just as I said. For my Will, all is flashback. With London a theatre-dream behind him, Prospero has come off his island of art, and has come home to die and lie in Warwickshire clay. And the man who has written so eloquently and often about death, now faces it himself, now asks the question that he made Hamlet so famously consider: what is death? As he watches, unsleeping, the slow dawns and sunsets set fire to Stratford, he ponders the big one. Death is the sum of all it takes from us. By subtracting from us everything that we have, death is precisely the opposite from nothing: it is, quite simply, everything. To know exactly what death is, therefore, we have to know just what it is taking away from us. We have to understand our whole lives. We have to go back to the beginning.

Can any good thing come out of St Monans? – a Braehead preacher once thundered at me. The Pittenweem road – was the facetious answer. But all this massive awareness (and much more) came out of it along with me when I left it in 1963. For more than forty years I’ve asked myself the question that Milton asked: “What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones?” And yet another life of the bard does not seem to be the obvious answer. But it’s the only answer I can give. It was a music that crept by me upon the waters – almost literally. And like the Ancient Mariner, I feel the need to tell.

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