MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday11th May. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book Of Love, you need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right.

MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

Obsessions are curious things, and perhaps my own is shall we say, small beer. Perhaps better to call it an eccentricity, even a harmless eccentricity, as I don’t see that it puts anyone out in the smallest way, not even myself the tireless but not at all tiresome obsessive. It is no secret to those who know me that I am always doing mental arithmetic in my head (mark the slack redundance. I am not as clever as I thought I was, unless we are to conjecture that the mind might be lodged in the backside as feasibly as in the head). But my mental arithmetic is of a specialised kind, for it is exclusively concerned with time and chronology, the passing of time and the related business of the dates of birth of significant people, some of whom I know personally and others who I don’t. The fact is, it seems to me to be infinitely illuminating to know that e.g. Englishman X was born in 1939 while Englishman Y was born in 1950. The reason is toweringly obvious. The infancy of X overlaps with the duration of the Second World War which means X’s parents and other relatives must have been carrying the anxiety of a world at bloody war, including the apprehension of a possible invasion by brutal at times genocidal German Fascists, and this anxiety surely must have communicated itself however subtly into the warp and weft of X who now in 2018 aged 79 still carries those buried and haunting resonances whether the bugger knows it or not (and if he is a nigh octogenarian English Jew this is even more germane, no pun intended).

However, all this is very general and I shall now be more specific. It is now exactly 51 years since I sat my O level GCE examinations in 1967, the year of both the radical and hallucinatory Sergeant Pepper album by the Beatles, and of the lightning Six Day War where Israel took on the surrounding Arab countries and in less than a week clawed back what it believed to be its rightful ownership of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Of course, in June 1967, aged 16. I wasn’t thinking about either of those defining events (I didn’t acquire the album until Christmas of the same year) as I was up to my eyes in the make or break O levels which led either to the Sixth Form and university, or to obloquy and oblivion. Yet the truly extraordinary fact is that I can not only remember sitting those sine qua non bastards 50 years on, I can also remember the bulk of their contents, and in some cases to a remarkable degree of specificity. For example, the Biology O level 51 years ago required me to draw freehand a busily sprouting broad bean with the labelled cotyledons. The RE asked me to give the significantly different gospel versions of Jesus’s two separate Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes, respectively The Feeding of the Five thousand and The Feeding of the Four Thousand, with Saints John and Luke completely omitting to mention the latter. The English Literature paper demanded that apropos the HG Wells novel Kipps, our set text, I must give an example of the hero’s social embarrassment when his surprise fortune moved him up the snobbery ladder (I wrote about the ice cream aka the ‘bombe’ going flying in the posh London hotel restaurant, with mortified Kipps blushing and decorously swearing ‘demn’!). But more remarkable than any of that, and this brings in the Second World War again, after a full half a century I can still remember verbatim a specific sentence in the German Dictation exam, both that which Willy Wandless the German master actually dictated, and that which nobody including me the effortless top of his class was able to transcribe correctly.

What I thought Willy Wandless, aka Willy Witless Shitless born 1912, hence 27 when World War Two broke out in 1939, had brayed at us, and thus what I wrote down was, “Allmehrlich nichte er ein.”

I jotted down that terse if musical sentence, even though it made nil sense to me, because I had never heard the first word, presumably an adverb modifying a verb ‘nichten’ of which I had also never heard. The fact that both were unknown to me, was for the simple and laughable reason that they didn’t exist, and indeed it transpired that what Witless Shitless had flung at us teenage ignoramuses was: “Allmahlich, nickte er ein.”

Meaning, “Gradually, he nodded off.”

Wandless was subsequently obliged to send off all our dictation papers to external examiners, but he took a quick look at them before he did so, and then sought me out to upbraid me for getting that very easy sentence wrong. I was his star pupil who regularly got 99% in every exam, and he scowled at me very pettishly as if to say I had let him down badly.

“But we’ve never had the words allmahlich and einnicken in class,” I protested with a blush as it occurred to me not for the first time that schoolteachers, and especially bachelor and spinster ones born anywhere between 1900 and 1920, were often truly bizarre in their outbursts and regularly downright idiotic with some of the things they melodramatically proclaimed.  I did not do so, but could have gone on to say with great feeling that the whole bloody German O level was stark, staring mad in 1967, inasmuch as we were required to demonstrate the utmost familiarity with the obscurest reaches of German grammar, but did very little reading of texts and certainly studied nothing whatever of actual German culture or literature. Thus, while we knew every jot and tittle about the inflection of adjectival endings which a great many Germans themselves get wrong (der junge Mann, den jungen Mann, des junges Mannes, dem jungen Manne) and the suppositional subjunctive, God love us (sei es noch so schwierig, tue ich es doch! Be it ever so difficult, yet I shall do it!) we didn’t know the fucking word for ‘gradually’, surely one of the most essential adverbs in the world (if you doubt me, try going without it or its handy synonyms for a month). Apropos which our German master Witless Shitless was a published author no less, for he himself had written our beginner’s German textbook, full of derring do tales of his own peculiar invention about courageous granddads, epic feats of strength and escaped bulls, and they were peppered with words we would never use in a million years. Amboss for example, meaning a blacksmith’s anvil, that Willy’s Tarzan of a granddad carried on his back across a raging river! Backpfeife, a rare and dated word, meaning slap or smack. Brotkrume, meaning a bloody old breadcrumb! So yes in 1967 when the Beatles were improvising about psychedelic drugs and the boundless cosmos, and the Israelis were briskly routing the hostile Arabs, we befuddled schoolkids knew plenty about anvils, slaps and breadcrumbs, but didn’t know the oh so vital word for gradually, bit by bit, slowly, eventually…

Enough said, and now back to mental arithmetic, which in my view is generally far more instructive than any other field of knowledge. My balls-up of Willy’s O level dictation happened 51 years ago, but then reflect and be truly stunned to realise what in the way of kernel history was going on 51 years before that. That’s right, 51 years before 1967 was 1916, and it was half way through the First World War, and we and our brave allies, the French and the Belgians, were at decimating war with the Kaiser’s troops. And in such a fractured scenario, of course, ordinary Boche soldiers away from the front, were regularly required to guard ammunitions depots and strategic train junctions and the like in the vicinity of Ypres and Passchendaele, and understandably enough a lot of the poor exhausted buggers, short on decent food and brainless with lingering trauma from the trenches, did what exactly, can we imagine? Yes, that’s right, they fell asleep, naturally enough, which is to say, they bloody well nicked ein, for they nodded off as opposed to upping sticks and deserting and fucking off. Let us imagine one of them, let’s call him peacetime farmhand Rudolf Knappertsbusch, helplessly sensing his poor eyelids growing ever heavier in the ammo depot as he dreams of his plump and succulent little girlfriend Heidi Tischbein back home in a village near Monchen Gladbach. Allmahlich nickte der Rudolf ein! ‘Gradually’ and despite himself Heidi’s blameless and uncomprehending peasant boyfriend ‘nodded off’, to be viciously bawled out by an outraged sergeant, a bully called Wilhelm Schatz from Bremen, who said that if it happened again, this flagrant and pansified neglect of duty, he would have Knappertsbusch shot and would happily join in the firing squad personally.

51 years before 1916, when someone like Rudolf Knappertsbusch had been shouted at by someone like Wilhelm Schatz, it was 1865, which was exactly one year before one of the most famous authors ever, HG Wells, entered the breathless and expectant world. He was born on the 21st of September 1866, which means he was conceived somewhere around the 21st of December 1865, a few days before festive Christmas. 102 years later (twice times 51) in 1967 and for my O level, I would be reading the fruits of his creativity in the form of a novel called Kipps, which became famous far beyond the rest of Wells’s fictional comedies (e.g. Ann Veronica or Mr Polly or Love and Mr Lewisham). That was because it was turned into a runaway successful London musical in 1963 called Half a Sixpence and was a vehicle for the stellar promotion of the English pop singer Tommy Steele (his real name was Tommy Hicks) who was born in 1936. Which is to say that HG Wells, whose innocent and charming little novel was responsible for the Swinging Sixties superstar success of Tommy Steele, was 70 years old when his future Artie Kipps = Tommy Hicks/ Steele was born. It seems to me to be also very significant that the musical’s success was at its height in precisely 1963, when the Beatles were already a heraldic presence, but the mop-haired boys were still culturally and affectively speaking the equivalent of the likeable lads next door (aka Tommy Steele with knobs on). There they were with their cheeky but affable Scouser grins, you could if you had wanted have happily introduced them to your aunty or your granddad, and they were certainly nothing like the blearily hallucinogenic long-haired Beau Brummel extravagances they were seen to be a mere four years later on the Sergeant Pepper LP cover. What that means is that though Tommy Steele’s success was colossal and it was in the 1960s, it was not at all a Swinging Sixties success but more like a Belated and Bloated and Austere 1950s success. The novel Kipps was published in 1905 which means it took 58 years to reach in transmuted form the London stage, and by then HG Wells who lived to be 80 had been dead for 17 years. He had seen the end of World War Two and the defeat of the Germans for the second time in that fretful fiasco known as the twentieth century, where wisdom and tolerance and basic kindness and even practical if selfish common sense had seemingly meant nothing at all to anyone. He had also been through wretched self-searching in his final years and aged 78 in 1945 had published a book of only 34 pages, an essay in fact called Mind At The End Of Its Tether. It is a pessimistic and embittered vision of a future where humanity might well be replaced by something else…and of course it was more than likely occasioned by the appalling and quite unbelievable events revealed on the recent documentary newsreel films that anyone could go and watch in the cinema. Piles meaning spectacular mountain heaps of infinitely emaciated corpses, glazed and hollow-eyed little infants among them. Enough said, surely.

As for me, aged 12, I started learning German under 50-year-old Witless Shitless Wandless in 1962, when John Lennon was 22 and Tommy Steele was 26 and was only one year off celebrity, thanks to the novel Kipps which I myself would study 5 years later. Those hideous news reel events were at their unspeakable height in 1944, which is to say only 18 years before I had started off with Willy Wandless reading Ich Lerne Deutsch (written in antique Gothic script) with Richard und Marie and their dog Rolf who bellt laut and their Mutti whose hat was hilariously stolen by a monkey, an Affe, in the zoo when she took her children there. And yes, only 18 years before the loud woof-woofing of good old Rolf and the thieving monkey in the zoo, they were still conscientiously, like the fastidious clerical Beamtes/officials they were, running concentration camps where they immolated and vaporised babies, and elsewhere they were still massacring whole villages of East Europeans as Untermensch Pobel (rabble), weren’t they, if I have it right, which I really think I do?

What I’m getting at is that the arithmetic that we are talking about is strictly mental, and the sooner we all understand that the better for us all.

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