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Rudolf Ponomarev
Rudolf Ponomarev

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Both my parents, by the standards of that time and place, were bookishor "clever" people. My mother had been a promising mathematician in heryouth and a B.A. of Queen's College, Belfast, and before her death wasable to start me both in French and Latin. She was a voracious reader ofgood novels, and I think the Merediths and Tolstoys which I haveinherited were bought for her. My father's tastes were quite different.He was fond of oratory and had himself spoken on political platforms inEngland as a young man; if he had had independent means he wouldcertainly have aimed at a political career. In this, unless his sense ofhonour, which was fine to the point of being Quixotic, had made himunmanageable, he might well have succeeded, for he had many of the giftsonce needed by a Parliamentarian--a fine presence, a resonant voice,great quickness of mind, eloquence, and memory. Trollope's politicalnovels were very dear to him; in following the career of Phineas Finn hewas, as I now suppose, vicariously gratifying his own desires. He wasfond of poetry provided it had elements of rhetoric or pathos, or both;I think Othello was his favourite Shakespearian play. He greatlyenjoyed nearly all humorous authors, from Dickens to W. W. Jacobs, andwas himself, almost without rival, the best raconteur I have everheard; the best, that is, of his own type, the type that acts all thecharacters in turn with a free use of grimace, gesture, and pantomime.He was never happier than when closeted for an hour or so with one ortwo of my uncles exchanging "wheezes" (as anecdotes were oddly called inour family). What neither he nor my mother had the least taste for wasthat kind of literature to which my allegiance was given the moment Icould choose books for myself. Neither had ever listened for the hornsof elfland. There was no copy either of Keats or Shelley in the house,and the copy of Coleridge was never (to my knowledge) opened. If I am aromantic my parents bear no responsibility for it. Tennyson, indeed, myfather liked, but it was the Tennyson of In Memoriam and LocksleyHall. I never heard from him of the Lotus Eaters or the Morted'Arthur. My mother, I have been told, cared for no poetry at all.

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Friends of our own age--boy and girl friends--we had none. In part this isa natural result of boarding school; children grow up strangers to theirnext-door neighbours. But much more it was the result of our ownobstinate choice. One boy who lived near us attempted every now and thento get to know us. We avoided him by every means in our power. Our liveswere already full, and the holidays too short for all the reading,writing, playing, cycling, and talking that we wanted to get through. Weresented the appearance of any third party as an infuriatinginterruption. We resented even more bitterly all attempts (excepting thegreat and successful attempt made by Mountbracken) to show ushospitality. At the period that I am now speaking of this had not yetbecome a serious nuisance, but as it became gradually and steadily moreserious throughout our schooldays I may be allowed to say a word aboutit here and to get the subject out of our way. It was the custom of theneighbourhood to give parties which were really dances for adults but towhich, none the less, mere schoolboys and schoolgirls were asked. Onesees the advantages of this arrangement from the hostess's point ofview; and when the junior guests know each other well and are free fromself-consciousness perhaps they enjoy themselves. To me these danceswere a torment--of which ordinary shyness made only a part. It was thefalse position (which I was well able to realise) that tormented me; toknow that one was regarded as a child and yet be forced to take part inan essentially grown-up function, to feel that all the adults presentwere being half-mockingly kind and pretending to treat you as what youwere not. Add to this the discomfort of one's Eton suit and stiff shirt,the aching feet and burning head, and the mere weariness of being keptup so many hours after one's usual bedtime. Even adults, I fancy, wouldnot find an evening party very endurable without the attraction of sexand the attraction of alcohol; and how a small boy who can neither flirtnor drink should be expected to enjoy prancing about on a polished floortill the small hours of the morning, is beyond my conception. I had ofcourse no notion of the social nexus. I never realised that certainpeople were in civility obliged to ask me because they knew my father orhad known my mother. To me it was all inexplicable, unprovokedpersecution; and when, as often happened, such engagements fell in thelast week of the holidays and wrested from us a huge cantle of hours inwhich every minute was worth gold, I positively felt that I could havetorn my hostess limb from limb. Why should she thus pester me? I hadnever done her any harm, never asked her to a party.

My discomforts were aggravated by the totally unnatural behaviour whichI thought it my duty to adopt at a dance; and that had come about in asufficiently amusing way. Reading much and mixing little with childrenof my own age, I had, before I went to school, developed a vocabularywhich must (I now see) have sounded very funny from the lips of a chubbyurchin in an Eton jacket. When I brought out my "long words" adults notunnaturally thought I was showing off. In this they were quite mistaken.I used the only words I knew. The position was indeed the exact reverseof what they supposed; my pride would have been gratified by using suchschoolboy slang as I possessed, not at all by using the bookish languagewhich (inevitably in my circumstances) came naturally to my tongue. Andthere were not lacking adults who would egg me on with feigned interestand feigned seriousness--on and on till the moment at which I suddenlyknew I was being laughed at. Then, of course, my mortification wasintense; and after one or two such experiences I made it a rigid rulethat at "social functions" (as I secretly called them) I must never onany account speak of any subject in which I felt the slightest interestnor in any words that naturally occurred to me. And I kept my rule onlytoo well; a giggling and gurgling imitation of the vapidest grown-upchatter, a deliberate concealment of all that I really thought and feltunder a sort of feeble jocularity and enthusiasm, was henceforth myparty manner, assumed as consciously as an actor assumes his role,sustained with unspeakable weariness, and dropped with a groan of reliefthe moment my brother and I at last tumbled into our cab and the drivehome (the only pleasure of the evening) began. It took me years to makethe discovery that any real human intercourse could take place at amixed assembly of people in their good clothes.

There was another predisposing factor. Though the son of a prosperousman--a man by our present tax-ridden standards almost incrediblycomfortable and secure--I had heard ever since I could remember, andbelieved, that adult life was to be an unremitting struggle in which thebest I could hope for was to avoid the workhouse by extreme exertion. Myfather's highly coloured statements on such matters had sunk deeply intomy mind; and I never thought to check them by the very obvious fact thatmost of the adults I actually knew seemed to be living very comfortablelives. I remember summing up what I took to be our destiny, inconversation with my best friend at Chartres, by the formula, "Term,holidays, term, holidays, till we leave school, and then work, work,work till we die." Even if I had been free from this delusion, I think Ishould still have seen grounds for pessimism. One's views, even at thatage, are not wholly determined by one's own momentary situation; even aboy can recognise that there is desert all round him though he, for thenonce, sits in an oasis. I was, in my ineffective way, a tender-heartedcreature; perhaps the most murderous feelings I ever entertained weretowards an under master at Chartres who forbade me to give to a beggarat the school gate. Add to this that my early reading--not only Wells butSir Robert Ball--had lodged very firmly in my imagination the vastnessand cold of space, the littleness of Man. It is not strange that Ishould feel the universe to be a menacing and unfriendly place. Severalyears before I read Lucretius I felt the force of his argument (and itis surely the strongest of all) for atheism--

Secondly, this imaginative Renaissance almost at once produced a newappreciation of external nature. At first, I think, this was parasiticon the literary and musical experiences. On that holiday at Dundrum,cycling among the Wicklow mountains, I was always involuntarily lookingfor scenes that might belong to the Wagnerian world, here a steephillside covered with firs where Mime might meet Sieglinde, there asunny glade where Siegfried might listen to the bird, or presently a dryvalley of rocks where the lithe scaly body of Fafner might emerge fromits cave. But soon (I cannot say how soon) nature ceased to be a merereminder of the books, became herself the medium of the real joy. I donot say she ceased to be a reminder. All Joy reminds. It is never apossession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away orstill "about to be". But Nature and the books now became equalreminders, joint reminders, of--well, of whatever it is. I came no nearerto what some would regard as the only genuine love of nature, thestudious love which will make a man a botanist or an ornithologist. Itwas the mood of a scene that mattered to me; and in tasting that mood myskin and nose were as busy as my eyes.

The other undisguised blessing of the Coll was "the Gurney", the schoollibrary; not only because it was a library, but because it wassanctuary. As the negro used to become free on touching English soil, sothe meanest boy was "unfaggable" once he was inside the Gurney. It wasnot, of course, easy to get there. In the winter terms if you were noton the list for "Clubs" you had to go out for a run. In summer you couldreach sanctuary of an afternoon only under favourable conditions. Youmight be put down for Clubs, and that excluded you. Or there might beeither a House match or a Coll match which you were compelled to watch.Thirdly, and most probably, on your way to the Gurney you might becaught and fagged for the whole afternoon. But sometimes one succeededin running the gauntlet of all these dangers; and then--books, silence,leisure, the distant sound of bat and ball ("Oh the brave music of adistant drum"), bees buzzing at the open windows, and freedom. In theGurney I found Corpus Poeticum Boreale and tried, vainly but happily,to hammer out the originals from the translation at the bottom of thepage. There too I found Milton, and Yeats, and a book on Celticmythology, which soon became, if not a rival, yet a humble companion, toNorse. That did me good; to enjoy two mythologies (or three, now that Ihad begun to love the Greek), fully aware of their differing flavours,is a balancing thing, and makes for catholicity. I felt keenly thedifference between the stony and fiery sublimity of Asgard, the green,leafy, amorous, and elusive world of Cruachan and the Red Branch andTir-nan-Og, the harder, more defiant, sun-bright beauty of Olympus. Ibegan (presumably in the holidays) an epic on Cuchulain and another onFinn, in English hexameters and in fourteeners respectively. Luckilythey were abandoned before these easy and vulgar metres had time tospoil my ear.


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