It was while living in the Far East, and around the cusp of fourteen, that I discovered the joy of learning and the joy of words. My formal education before then was patchy, at best. A private school, with a rather lovely quadrangle, in colonial Africa; a rather brief sojourn in a Catholic boarding school in England, where I received six strokes of the cane several times, once for leaving the dorm and talking after ‘lights out’. Another brief spell at some other school; and even a spell of ‘private tutoring’ or months when I had, joy of joys, no school or lessons at home to attend. A patchy education not because of my parents, but rather because of my irascible and rebellious nature as a young boy. For I seemed to be trouble; a scallywag. For example, I remember one incident at some school I attended for a while around the age of eleven: a teacher, annoyed with me at the end of a lesson after I had vaulted over a desk in my haste to get outside, shouting “Myatt, you think the sun rises and sets in you!” A haste, because I really did dislike being cooped up inside, forced to sit at some desk and expected to pay attention to what was being said or what was written on some blackboard. Which is probably why, around the age of ten, I deliberately, petulantly, failed a written examination and why at that same school I once turned up for lessons wearing a brown leather jacket and with a sheath knife attached to my belt, which naturally led to me being sent to the headmaster and having to wait around, in some sort of detention, until my father arrived to escort me home. I was just so bored, so uninterested in what was being said or taught. So bored, uninterested, so irascible, I assuredly (and unintentionally and for many years) caused problems for my parents, although it is possible that one cause of my dislike of formal learning – and school – was due to a combination of myopia and astigmatism, which remained undiagnosed until the age of thirteen, and which diagnosis resulted in me having to wear spectacles for the first time.
My discovery of the joy of learning and the joy of words – around the cusp of fourteen – was, as recounted in my apologia Myngath, almost certainly due to the influence of the English teacher at what was then for me another colonial, and new, school. Not that I had some sort of schoolboy crush on the blonde and young Miss D. Rather, it was a combination of her enthusiasm for and indeed love of her subject, her gentle style of teaching, and the trouble she took to explain things if we – or, as often if I – did not understand or appreciate something. For she treated us as adults, not as children, and was just such a contrast, or seemed to me at the time to be such a contrast, to the other teachers there and encountered previously. For example, at that same school, our mathematics teacher would often shout at us if we made some error and had even been known to throw the blackboard rubber in the direction of someone if he was particularly annoyed for some reason.
My English lessons became for me a place of revelation, a pleasure; something anticipated with joy; and I well remember Miss D reading to us a story from The Golden Apples of The Sun by Ray Bradbury, for she – those words – conjured up for me another time and place and a strangeness that I found enticing and enchanting; as if I was there in that place listening to the sound of that foghorn… Once, we were given the task of reciting aloud before the class a poem and I choose and memorized Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for I had a short time previously and at her suggestion read it and was enthralled; the words, the rhythm, transporting me to another and very different world. In brief, and because of her, I had discovered and begun to use the gift that is our human imagination.
Books thus became for me not things I was told by some teacher to read (and which thus became ignored) but a means of discovering new worlds and a new sense of Time. Previously I had no real awareness of the past and no feeling or concern for the future, having lived in and for the moment and to be outside; swimming, running, climbing trees, walking, travelling to new places and observing new sights and hearing the sounds of life, feeling the warmth of the heat of the Sun and the sensation of tropical rain beating down; learning a Martial Art… Now, there was an awareness of things, people, events, places, beyond that immediate world of mine, so that I became eager to learn to such an extent that many other subjects interested me, including mathematics, geography, history, astronomy, even the Latin and the Ancient Greek that some teacher at some school had previously tried to teach me. So much eagerness to learn that, within a few months, with my whole attitude to school and to books having changed, I came top in several subjects – and second in some others – at end of term exams, much to the delight of my parents and much to the surprise of my well-adjusted and studious sisters.
I loved to read, and to not only find new words and their meanings but also to use those words, not always correctly and often pretentiously, in some English essay or other, as I recall in one essay beginning a sentence with ‘And’ and being gently informed by Miss D that such usage was not correct, leading to an interesting discussion, after class and making me late for my next one, about grammar and about who decides what rules are correct and why. Several similar discussions followed over the next few weeks, several about spelling, after I had discovered, and used, not only the older form connexion instead of the ‘correct’ connection but also some older spellings found in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. After a while, when I added my exercise book to the pile she had to mark after class, Miss D ceased to correct my ‘misspellings’ perhaps intuitively understanding my schoolboyish and rather arrogant desire to be different, to still need to rebel and in however small a way.
A few years later, and then living in Blighty, one small goal, conceived during that Far Eastern year, was achieved. For I, by then quite the bookish young man, had acquired the complete, multi-volume, Oxford English Dictionary, and loved, almost every evening, to dip into it for an hour or so, discovering new words, their etymology, and a quotation or two to betake me, in the days following, to some library or some bookshop to find and to read the work or works in question. I enjoyed the richness, the diversity, the flexibility, of the English language; its assimilation of so many words from other languages, and that ambiguity of sound which sometimes led to or could lead to such variations in spelling as sometimes seemed to annoy those who desired to reform that language and which reform would see its versatility, quirkiness, and heritage, lost in order fit some boring manufactured schemata.
All too soon, however, and – in hindsight – alas, this love made way for and then was for many decades rejected in favour of another. For I had discovered extremism, and became, most regretfully, an extremist. Someone who, because of his fanaticism and his political involvements, became an altogether different person; a pseudo-revolutionary street-agitator and violent neo-nazi thug; someone who associated with criminals and who indeed himself became a criminal and who thus developed a ‘street-wise’ persona rather at odds with his former ‘prep-school days’ and his somewhat ‘well-educated’ (RP) accent.
Books, and study, were replaced by private and public rhetoric, and by rallies, meetings, and brawls; and, in letters to ‘comrades’ and to friends who were sympathizers or to those who were during those times useful, my misspellings and my grammar became increasingly exaggerated, almost an affectation of someone who, having accepted and indeed enjoyed the rôle that he was expected to play in order to accomplish some shared and extremist goal, could sometimes be mischievous in a schoolboyish, idiosyncratic, kind of way. For instance, one of my favourite misspellings, in such communications with such people, as sometimes in the polemical tracts I wrote and sent to others, was appearence, in imitation of more Chaucerian times; another, existance, in similar imitation of those now long gone days when spelling was often individual or regional and before the move toward standardization.
An interstition of some three decades, marked in ending by the move toward Islam and thus by the cessation of such written communication with those aforementioned types of people. And it was my attempts to learn Arabic which irretrievably returned both my boyish love of words and my interest in questions of interpretation; a love and an interest that had – but only briefly – touched me twice during those extremist decades interspersed as those decades were with many itinerant years.
The first such period was while a Catholic monk, with the reading of LXX and Ἡ Καινὴ Διαθήκη. The second, over a decade later, when a settled domestic life of a shared love of alas only some four years duration renewed my interest in and enthusiasm for the classical literature of ancient Greece, leading me to translate a few such works in the confines of a study lined from ceiling to floor with bookcases replete with books, including of course another copy of the complete OED.
Now, through the past two bookish years and by recent translations and exegesis and philosophical musings, I seem to have found, and at last, a certain equilibrium; even that particular type of studious happiness I knew for a while as a boy in the Far East when I would sit on that sandy beach by the South China Sea – not far from my home – reading the latest book bought from a bookseller in Singapore city or loaned by she, my English teacher, whom I still remember so very well and who, quite without me knowing it then, taught me so much.
For it is if I am that boy again; or at least the type of person content with so little who, inwardly young in a world all their own, has no cause, no ideology, and who harms no one and nothing. The quiet person who, having become still, is as
A falling leaf turned Autumn brown
Following the wind of the moment:
Neither clinging to, nor striving against,
The force of existence ever a dream in the end
and who, if he is to be remembered at all, would hope it to be for his translations of Aeschylus, Sophocles, the Poemandres tractate, and/or his philosophy of pathei-mathos.