It doesn’t happen so often now – old age is very rewarding in that – but every once in a while I feel that I can’t keep up or I don’t fit in and I can taste being lost like old metal in my mouth. I was trying to explain to a girl of 12 why I went to church and why I gave up. (There is a background to this: she adores her father, the family were initially Roman Catholic communicants and then “my father read a lot of books” and renounced it all, taking his very young family with him. Mother’s comments are unknown.)
I was brought up to go to any place of worship, be respectful, pay attention and see. Discovering that my playmate Derek went to the local Methodist Chapel, I went to Sunday school with him for a long time: my most vivid memory is of hearing an elderly missionary explain the Chinese ideogram for “faithfulness”, showing us the drawing of a man standing by his word. I went briefly to the Congregational Church, and then to two different Anglican congregations, the second of which I gave up on when my sister’s fiance was killed in a plane crash.That embodied my first crisis of faith, when I knew I needed something but I didn’t know what. There were two other occasions when I lost touch with the Master, wide apart, but that’s it: my God may not be your God, but He’s very real to me.
At school I didn’t fit in because of my accent. Both parents were from the South and this was the industrial North East, another country. And then I discovered that the mixture of vocabulary and voice made schoolmates laugh and even defer to me, and used it all shamelessly. I practised to be an eminence grise long before I had grey hair.
Often I didn’t fit in at work. (I was a secretary for ten years). I read too much, my mother said I thought too much. But I hadn’t been to university so I wasn’t quite one of “them” and it was doubtful if I was one of anybody else. A passing man gave me good advice: accept you don’t fit in, and work out of it instead of against it.
Looking recently at a 40 year old piece of film of me working on air at the first incarnation of Capital Radio (it’s now on its second), I hear myself learning to say what other people in a similar situation might think. “That’s what stopped me from ringing in” exclaimed the man who rescues me when the computer shows its teeth. “Where did that ability to confront come from ?” Out of fear, I said. “Well, Anna, it’s the most extraordinary volte face” he said. “Nobody would ever think you were ever afraid of anything.”
Protective colouring, my friend: always sound as if you know what you’re doing and try to make sure you do.
Parties are not for me. I can’t find my feet. I think I have enjoyed three or four in my whole life. Oh, the headaches I have pleaded, the glasses I have washed!
And then, years ago I was being interviewed by a woman who left me briefly to do something else so, of course, I looked at her bookshelves where I found this quote from China’s Great Helmsman, Mao: “war is politics with blood and politics is war without blood.” That I have remembered it and how I found it says something and I thought of it again as I watched a magnificent documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on The Vietnam War. And for the hours that it ran, I belonged – because so so many of those young men thought they knew and discovered they knew nothing. They were all lost and picking up the pieces that worked for them too. And I watched and I paid attention (it is a paean to the art of documentary). I wept and I watched. I realised that I have seen the world – even in my small experience – as deeply about the nature of war and politics at a viscerally simple, personal level. You know we say “It’s a war out there” ?
Living and working for an academic institution in Cambridge I recognise the sense of being neither fish nor quite fowl. I am also occasionally finding as I get older (60 next birthday, I realise with a sense of surprise) that I am sometimes subtly, yet not, I think, meanly, excluded from girlish things amongst my colleagues, whose mothers are about my age or younger! I really love your writing, Anna. Thank you.