A Single Skuller
The Final Whistle
My Dominant Characteristic
Life as a Serious Person
The Little Talker
MY DOMINANT CHARACTERISTIC
from Chronicling Myself
Fear of being inopportune runs deep in me. It is my earliest memory. Six and a half years old and watching my mother to decide how I should behave, so I’m not a nuisance. I think it goes back to a year earlier, when I was jumping up and down while my mother was trying to dress me, and I dislocated her jaw. Dr Strich slipped the jaw back into its joint sockets by gripping her throat with both hands. It looked as though he was choking her. My mother did not smile again at me for a week.
Curiously, I dislocated my professor’s jaw in a game of squash in Dundee twenty years later. Before it happened we called one another by first names, Bill and Augustus, for he was American-trained. But once I had performed the Dr Strich maneuver it was back to Dr Young and Professor McHugh. Making your superiors feel their age is a foolish move for a young man.
A propos of inopportuneness, getting it wrong is not what I fear, for it is not a fear but a fundamental consciousness that I essentially annoy people. Although with some people I enjoy this ability and on occasion exploit it, my prevailing instinct is to take steps to circumvent what is my reality. I used to think embarrassment was my strongest feeling, but now I think it is just a symptom of my basic annoyingness. Showing embarrassment is an intellectual form of blushing, as if to say, ‘Yes I’m embarrassed, disembarrass me’. It is the same sort of thing as tears.
At six and a half I faced up to my dominant characteristic. It was not a matter of accepting it. Annoyingness was my life, and me. ‘There’s that boy again.’ I think it is why I liked to run around all the time at a breakneck speed until my face went puce. My mother worried that Augustus must have some rare condition which would prevent him growing up. I don’t think this prospect annoyed her. It was a tender fear, I think, but to be on the safe side I decided it did, and rushed up to the bathroom after a particularly hard bout of running to damp down my high colour with cold water. That only made me look more like a Red Indian, one with streaming eyes too, since, for some reason, under extreme physical exertion I seeped tears, neither of joy nor sorrow. It was simply a reflex reaction and meant nothing, except something physiological.
But of course because they would annoy my mother - she distrusted tears - I thought they were particularly despicable. Once, yes, I foolishly patted on some talcum powder and came down looking, I thought, suitably ashen, but in fact more like Lila Kedrova (Zorba the Greek, 1964). ‘What were you doing with my make-up?’ my mother said. Everybody laughed. My embarrassment amused them. Perhaps embarrassment is not a symptom of annoyingness after all, but a cheap trick to gain sympathy, like tears or setting yourself up for easy laughs.
Yes, I ran and ran. I think I supposed if I ran fast enough, like the wind, I would not be seen by anybody. It was an active form of my propensity for not speaking, a sort of visual silence. I like this idea. But I suspect it is annoying in the sense that Byron meant. ‘Oh you’re being poetical again’, he said to Tom Moore when the Irish songster began to roll out orisons at a Florentine sunset. I could blame a latent identification with Baudelaire, who made himself into an inspired irritant of others, a human version of the corrosive sublime, but I was well on the way before I even knew his name. So he must have been in my blood.
After a lifetime of trying to counter my annoyingness, or of using it to make things happen or just get done, or just for the hell of it with people that annoy me, I think I now have it under control. Now I mostly only annoy myself. I am resigned to making the endless ratiocinations necessary to keep the world unannoyed, but the effort has paralysed so many aspects of my existence (language is a recurrent one. It began with infantile English and now la même in French) that I wonder if I exist any more, other than in the eyes of others. But I suppose learning how to annoy myself has been the achievement of my life.