Chapter Seven: The History of the Knowable World
A snowstorm short-circuited the electric fences at Great Crouchs Farm in East Sussex, England several hours before dawn on the day after Christmas in 1962. With the electric fences down, a boar from one field crossed to another to attack its resident boar.
I was a witness only to the late stages and aftermath of this attack, but was affected by it profoundly enough that I am writing an account of it after fifty years, fed by my versions of instant and extensive memory recall, both of which have operated with unusual idiosyncrasy across the years. Then there is the recent neural glitch that has helped this book along: for eight years beginning in 2008 and ending in 2016, I intermittently experienced incidents of a clinical neurological condition called “Transient Global Amnesia”.
Transient Global Amnesia is less grand than it sounds, or rather, it is exactly and merely what the term says it is: a temporary but total loss of short-term memory recall. It is the condition under which, triggered by an impossible-to-secure combination of physical and possibly cognitive conditions, short-term memory ceases to function. The thirty-one doctors and medical students who converged on my hospital room the morning after my first TGA incident were unanimous in assuring me of two things: that TGA wasn’t life-threatening, and that TGA is a one-time “freak” event, rather than a chronic or intermittent condition. They were right about it having no negative impact on my general health, but they were wrong about it being a one-time occurrence. I’ve now experienced eight of these one-time events, and they have shaken the normative framework by which I see the world.
When the first TGA incident occurred—it was the longest of the eight, almost five hours—I was frightened, but not quite panicked. Once normal consciousness returned (and I recognized that I hadn’t suffered a stroke), I began to piece together what I’d been doing while the recording element of my brain was disabled. I had, for instance, competently driven and parked a car, and I had changed a tire on another car. When normal consciousness returned I was sitting at my desk in my office, then located in a coach house about ten metres across a courtyard from the house I lived in. Partly to reorient myself and partly because I worried that I’d more resembled a clumsy Frankenstein’s monster than myself, I wanted to know if I’d damaged anything in the house and coach house while I was in my altered state. A careful walk-about revealed nothing amiss—I’d closed the garage door, the coach house was intact and so was the house: no entrance or refrigerator door had been left open, no chair or table overturned or knocked askew. Someone watching me while I was in this state would therefore have detected nothing out of the ordinary in my behavior. I just couldn’t remember any of it.
Several of the subsequent episodes (which have lasted from a few seconds to slightly over an hour) have had witnesses, and they have testified that my personality remains intact, that I recognized them, knew who I was, and, generally, appeared to be normal. But I couldn’t tell them the day, month or even the year, and I kept reiterating that everything seemed very strange even though I understood that it wasn’t.
My witnesses all agreed that I was, if anything, unusually calm. This was almost certainly because I was aware that I was experiencing an incident of Transient Global Amnesia and didn’t want to upset them. I was able to provide them with a coherent explanation of what was occurring inside my brain, and to reassure them that it was temporary and not particularly serious—no need to call an ambulance, etc. I was even able to explain the typical effects of Transient Global Amnesia and that it almost certainly had some fairly simple causes—a combination of emotional stress and physical exertion that involved crouching and bending my neck—a combination that constricts some impossible-to-pinpoint blood vessel that then cuts off just enough of the oxygen or electrical energy to my hippocampus to render me temporarily incapable of recording what is going on around me. Over the eight episodes I’ve experienced, there has been enough similarity in the triggers that I’ve learned to recognize onset, and to get pretty good at arresting it. My last TGA episode I induced deliberately, because I wanted to see if it was possible to consciously trigger it, and then to exert control over it. It turns out I could do both. Since then it has been easy to avoid the triggers, and slightly more difficult but still possible to manipulate the boundaries of the amnesia to—here’s the relevant part—enhance memory recall.
It’s commonly accepted that human brains are substantially underutilized. Neurologists argue, unproductively but sometimes ferociously, over what the used percentage is, and why so much of the brain is unemployed and/or under-deployed. The truth is that the understanding of the human brain has reached a level of sophistication roughly equivalent to that of the European exploration of Africa during the 19th century. We know, in other words, very little about it. Neurologists—often working with totalitarian governments—have discovered elements of brain architecture by catastrophically disabling portions of it, and more recently, and through less destructive means, there have been advances in understanding its remarkable adaptive plasticity. But we know startlingly little about the brain’s ultimate capacities, we remain vague about how parts of the brain interact, and our understanding of how it stores and transports content in order to either allow the conscious mind access or to deny it, is spotty.
This has made me wonder if the human brain is more fully deployed than is generally recognized—as a recording device, one that records literally everything that happens around us—and that the limiting factor is its recall abilities. Memory recall seems to be determined, and profoundly restricted, by the frames of cognition we use to filter data—each frame and its resident filters being idiosyncratic and different from one person to the next and one culture to another, all aimed more at chaos control than extending recall volume and range.
Yes, I get why frames and filters on recall have to be used. They are the brain’s internal self-preservation system, as crucial to normative reality as the filters we impose on sense data. If we remembered everything that happened to us, it would probably drive us insane, or at least render us immobile with over-stimulated contemplation. The aftermath of TGA, when short-term memory has returned, is similar to déjà vu, at least in its capacity to disorient. Things seem, not quite unfamiliar, but as if attached to another time, and to another contextual framework that is quite distinct from the one we usually work with. “Normal” reality, it turns out, is grounded by a highly selective “frame” from which we construct an essentialized time-space matrix which then serves as the “theatre” for “normality”. If we didn’t have this cognitive certainty, we’d be too frightened, most of the time, to get out of bed in the morning.
After my first incident of TGA I noticed that the disorientation of subsequent events was progressively less extreme and unsettling. This permitted me to recognize that for a very short period immediately after restored recall, I was able to access the contents of my deep memory without the recall being dominated by the navigational priorities of my “normal” brain, which relies on that rigid “frame” of habituated cognition everyone uses to assert normality. I also noticed that I was progressively less frightened by the enormity of the contents of memory when accessed on an unfiltered (or random) basis.
What has this to do with writing this book? First of all—as with most people—the list of things I don’t remember is far longer than the list of what I do remember. That’s fairly normal. What I remember and don’t isn’t quite so normal. I’ve forgotten the names of lovers and friends and even one ex-wife (temporarily but very embarrassingly) along with an eye roll-inducing number of anniversaries, birthdays and special events that slipped from my memory’s grasp and got lost in my private twilight zone, sometimes with dire consequences for me. These are mostly breakdowns of recall in short-term memory, and I suspect that as a writer, this happens because I characteristically use my short-term memory to constrict reality into tableaux, anecdotes, and small stories that then entertain (if not always satisfy) my desire for narrative.
In any case, most of the ugly details—if not the consequences—of my memory lapses are now mercifully gone—suppressed in deeper storage vaults than I’m permitted access to.
I’ve already noted that I have (possibly anecdotal) evidence that we record everything, and that the true limit to intelligence is that we’re rarely able, at any one time, to get at more than a tiny percentage of what we’re storing in our brains. It also seems to be the case that the recovery of memory is difficult to enhance, and its recording devices are extremely difficult to fine tune: we’re chronically outside the stories that are inside our brains. The obvious question, therefore, is this: why do I remember the morning of December 26, 1962 so vividly and in such detail?
For sure, the 26th day of December 1962 possesses rich particularity and an unusually clear dramatic script. But in the twelve weeks that preceded it, rich-and-particular had been my norm. I’d hitch-hiked across North America; been a passenger on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis; had stood before the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in awe, and fallen asleep in its Reading Room, even though I’d had to beg my way into it. I’d delivered letters for the Royal Mail in Eastbourne during the 1962 Christmas rush, and as you might have already recognized without wanting me to get too deeply into it, I’d shoveled tons of smelly pig shit.
In the months that followed, I would shovel more tons of pig shit, and go on to new adventures: I would be awakened twice by men pointing guns at me, once in Paris and another time in Belgrade; I would stop to light a cigarette on a Paris sidewalk, take a leisurely puff, and see the building three doors ahead of me explode into the street as a terrorist bomb detonated at the exact moment I’d have been in front of the building had I not decided to light up; I would be kicked out of or miss entirely several countries; I would lie and steal motor oil and siphon gas in the middle of the night in Italy, France and West Germany; I would run an international border and bribe a police officer, each time by accident; and I would run my hands over the Venus de Milo at least a dozen times and press my index finger—just once—against the surface of the Mona Lisa.
And yet the snowstorm and what those two boars did to one another on the morning of December 26th, 1962 would be what I recalled most clearly a year later, and on its tenth, twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries it would remain near the top of the things in my teeming brain undimmed by time. That snowy morning has been the most vivid single event of my life, the one from which a huge number of subsequent events were born or would be contextualized.
I didn’t understand this at the time, but the months I spent in Sussex at Great Crouchs Farm was the period of my civilization, such as it has been. There’s nothing grand here, although I did learn to drink claret and cognac, eat Beef Wellington and choke down steak and kidney pie without gagging. I’d begun life as a barbarian, and I became, while I was in England, something different: by consciousness, and eventually by choice I became a Visigoth. What I mean by this requires that I define the difference between a barbarian and a Visigoth.
A barbarian is a human being for whom everything—other people, events, institutions, even environments—is merely an opportunity for personal gain and/or aggrandizement. Not very surprisingly, barbarians, as I’ve defined them, seemed very common on the minor frontier where I grew up. As a personal life strategy barbarism worked efficiently in Northern British Columbia because it got you into whatever gravy you encountered, provided your dipper and pail were at the ready. It was an effective survival tactic, too, particularly if you could imagine no other world than the one you were in. You assumed that everyone was out to hit you with a stick, and so you hit them with your stick first.
For reasons I will never fully understand, my instinct was to turn my back on both the strategy and the tactics of barbarism. Instead, I tried, from an early age, to dream up different ways of living. One of the motives I had for leaving home was that I thought there might be fewer barbarians living in the big cities of North America, and fewer still in Europe. I wasn’t wrong, either. Anywhere I went in 1962, barbarians seemed to be rarer than among the hackers and hewers I grew up with on the frontier.
Barbarians were also—so it’s clear that I’m not running down the citizens of my home town—notably rarer then than they are today, even in my home town. That’s what you get from decades of publicly-encouraged and lately nurtured-by-universities “entrepreneurs” who enter-and-take whatever the rest of us don’t aggressively protect, usually on behalf of some multinational corporation and with encouragement from governments and our MBA-infested universities.
A Visigoth is a quite different creature from a barbarian, and not just because the Visigoths had the organizational resources and the power to sack Rome in the year 410 CE, the first to do this since 390 BCE. They got a bad rap for that, but how it actually happened and why is a more interesting story than the one about a bunch of yahoos with boar’s tusks stuck to their helmets pulling down statues and raping the wives of cultured Roman senators.
The Visigoths of ancient Europe were a branch of the Goths, a Germanic-speaking people that achieved tribal coherence in the southern parts of Scandinavia around 750 BCE and drifted gradually south, eventually settling along the eastern banks of the Danube River on the northeasterly margins of the Roman Empire. By the second and third centuries CE they had penetrated into southeastern Europe all the way to what is now Bulgaria (then Scythia) and western Turkey. In 376 CE, the Thervingi, a branch of Goths under a king named Fritigern, grew tired of defending themselves against the then-rampant Huns on their north-eastern flanks, and petitioned the Roman Emperor Valens to be allowed to cross the Danube and settle on Roman territory to the south.
Valens gave his consent, but provided the Thervingi with so little arable land that a famine quickly ensued. When Fritigern again petitioned Rome, pleading that his tribe’s children were starving, he was advised, by Lupicinus and Maximus, the Roman governors of the province, to sell their children as meat for the Romans’ dogs. That provoked Fritigern to go to war against Rome, and in 378 the Thervingi defeated a Roman army led by Valens at Adrianople in what is now Western Turkey, killing Valens in the battle. Fritigern himself died in 382, shortly after concluding a peace treaty with the Romans that allowed the Thervingi adequate lands, but made them responsible for the military defense of the territories along Rome’s northeastern perimeter against the ongoing threat of the Huns.
To carry out the defense of Roman territory successfully, the Thervingi, under Fritigern’s successor Alaric, put together a coalition of Goth tribes that became the Visigoths. The corruption and continued cruelty of the Romans, whose western empire was collapsing from within, provoked Alaric and his army to leave his territory and attack in the general direction of Rome in 400. This first foray met with mixed success, and Alaric withdrew, suffered through more Roman indignities, and invaded once again in 408, this time with more of what historians call ardour but was more likely with a lot more anger, irritation and desperation. Alaric’s army reached the city of Rome, which had a population of approximately 800,000 at the time, in August, 410.
The Visigoth sack of Rome has been called “one of the most civilised sacks of any city ever witnessed”. That sounds silly, but it’s true, and there were reasons why their sacking of Rome was so mild. The Visigoths were already Christian and therefore respectful of Christian sites and institutional property. A few aristocrats’ palaces were looted and some Romans who resisted were slaughtered and their women raped, although Visigoth apologists blamed opportunistic Roman revenge-takers (barbarians!) for most of that. The facts are that the Visigoths withdrew from Rome after just three days, and that when they left, most of the city and its monuments were intact and its citizens unharmed. From there, Alaric and his army continued south with their loot-sacks all the way to modern Calabria, where Alaric took sick about a year later and died at the age of forty.
The Visigoth remnant, undefeated in battle, slowly withdrew north and then westward from the Italian peninsula, and within a few decades had settled around Toulouse in what is now southern France, well in advance of the much more violent and destructive sacking of Rome by the Vandals in 455 CE. By 500, the Visigoths controlled most of Aquitaine and much of what is now Spain, and would hold Spain until the Islamic invasion in 711 CE.
From their beginning, the typically tall, fair-skinned, broad-shouldered and wasp-wasted (this is Edward Gibbon’s description, not mine) Visigoths were not the animal skin-clad horde of rapists and thieves this period of European history seemed to have had massing at the junction of every road and river crossing. The earliest Visigoths, remember, formally petitioned Rome to be allowed to cross the Danube, and then offered military service in exchange for what they assumed would be safe occupancy. Once settled, they did their best to live as Roman subjects under a rudimentary “rule of law” they’d already practiced internally for some time, something that the Romans themselves no longer did and certainly didn’t honour in their subject peoples.
My point is this: time and again, the Visigoths behaved more justly and less violently than those they opposed. They’d been operating with a relatively strict code of behaviour for several hundred years before they began to formalize it early in the 7th century CE, eventually promulgating the Liber ludiciorum (or Visigothic Code) in 654. This code was far more detailed than an aggressive set of “don’t screw with us” admonitions and threats, and in fact it was the model for the European medieval law codes on which the ones we live under today are based. Look it up.
This background is my way of suggesting that I was, as a colonial Thervingi in 1962, already more respectful of European civilization than most of the Englishmen and Europeans I came in contact with, and sometimes more knowledgeable about its institutions. I was also precociously wary of the dangers presented by the omnipresent Barbarian hordes.
Let me summarize this, so you don’t think I’m being completely frivolous: Visigoths try to get along with whatever empire they encounter but have enough culture of their own to retain their individual and group identities and if necessary defend themselves against both the Empire and the barbarians. Yes, maybe this is just a “or so I hope” projection. But it is also possible that this is the inevitable ethos of people who know more about Empire than the Imperialists themselves.
The ‘Romans’ of my time on earth have been the Americans. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, their cultural and military ascendance was uncontested across most of the world, and the hinterlands of Northwestern Canada were no exception. My people lived in America’s culture: we drove their cars, ate food they’d produced, listened to their music, and believed in most of their paranoic politics. I’d even gone to high school with American boys whose parents were stationed at a Pinetree Line radar facility built by NORAD near my hometown in 1953 to detect incoming Soviet bombers and to guide NORAD’s intercepting aircraft when they shot them all down over our heads, har, har. By 1962, with the Soviet Union’s development of long-range missiles, the base was being turned over to the Canadian Air Force, which didn’t have any aircraft with which to even try to intercept Soviet bombers, let alone nuclear missiles. The base remained there, I guess, to early-warn schoolchildren about when it was time to crouch beneath their desks and wait for the world to end.
One or two of my high school friends and I spotted some of these exposed edges of things American in our midst, although we didn’t know what to do about the stupidities and corruptions we had to suffer. Because we didn’t think anyone in authority, American or Canadian, was capable of listening the way we were, we made our pacts with one another and imagined a code of conduct that would make life fairer and more decent than it was. That made us Visigoths—or at least Thervingi—even if we were faced with a Rome we wouldn’t be able to sack no matter how much the Romans insulted and exploited us. At least not literally.
There are more hopeful ways of looking at this than pointing at how many Canadians live in Los Angeles today, and how many of them are comedians. It begins with the proposition that individual lives and collective history can have different operating systems. History, at least during the twentieth century, operated by calamity and catastrophe, and its narrative was governed by how vigorously and resourcefully people tried to avoid calamities, and by how they addressed the ones they couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent.
The twenty-first century has, for most of the time to date, operated by the same historiographic rulebook, but with—so far—noticeably fewer casualties. This might be a consequence of the distrust of the nation-state that saw the last decades of the century trade in the ethnic-cleansing of many of them for a series of charters and international agreements that focused on individual, property, and corporate rights. To the degree that it has been successful, it might be because individual and corporate life has always been calamity-averse, its narrative more driven by modest warrant and drawn to the vast sea of normality that surrounds history’s seemingly relentless succession of calamities. Barbara Tuchman, writing about the fourteenth century, with its outbreaks of plague, the Hundred Years War, and its innumerable failures of authority and civility, articulates the divide between individual experience and history this way:
Charles (V) reigned in a time of havoc, but in all such times there are unaffected places filled with beauty and games, music and dancing, love and work. While clouds of smoke by day and the glow of flames by night mark burning towns, the sky over the neighbouring vicinity is clear; where the screams of tortured prisoners are heard in one place, bankers count their coins and peasants plough behind placid oxen somewhere else.
My voyage across the Atlantic, by sheer accident, coincided almost exactly with the last half of the 20th century’s most potentially incendiary geopolitical event. The stare down between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy was the closest we came to exterminating the human species and destroying the planet with nuclear weapons, and that isn’t a retrospective judgment. Virtually everyone in the world recognized the Cuban Missile Crisis for what it was while it was going on, and like everyone, I mostly ignored it. It wasn’t history yet, so it didn’t warrant capital letters. It was the moment of the present, and I ploughed my field behind the placid oxen of contingency.
My personal narrative of those three weeks looks like this:
It began a month to the day after Soviet Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, speaking to the UN General Assembly on September 11th, warned that a U.S. invasion of Cuba could provoke war with the Soviet Union. That day, October 11th, I stuck my thumb out just across the Fraser River bridge at Prince George to hitch-hike to Montreal. There, along with five other boys with whom I’d graduated high school, I was to board a creaky old passenger liner named the SS Homeric for Southampton on October 19th. We’d agreed among ourselves that we would travel on the same boat to Europe. But we’d made no plans to stay together either before or beyond that. We were eighteen years old, on the loose for the first time in our lives, and we could only see so far: we were getting out of town in heroic terms, as far from home as any of us could fathom, and anything more than that was far beyond our planning abilities. We would deal with a world new to us once we could see and hear it.
On arrival in Europe, which I’d only seen in National Geographic’s pictures and had imagined not at all, I’d figure out what to do with myself. What I had instead of an itinerary-based plan were two vague ambitions: see the world; become a writer. Wouldn’t the Great Wide World take care of that?
Each of us traveled to Montreal on our own. Several traveled by train, the others got there as I did, by hitchhiking, which was relatively safe and easy in those days. It was also fast enough that I made an arrangement with my two closest friends among the five to detour for two days in Toronto, where one of my father’s business associates had foolishly agreed to give me the run of his Toronto apartment. We were seeing the sights of the big world, so Toronto wasn’t to be missed. We rode subways for the first time in our lives, ransacked as many bookstores as we could locate, ate every morsel of food in the apartment, and departed for Montreal without getting arrested, burning down the apartment building and without ever reading a newspaper or turning on the apartment’s television set. At six in the morning we found a bus that would take us to Highway 401, where we flipped coins to determine the order in which we would stick out our thumbs. I got the third slot, watched my friends quickly get rides, then took my turn. Within five minutes I got a ride that took me all the way to Kingston. I was dropped off at a gas station on the outskirts of town, ducked into the washroom to splash water on my face, walked across the road to a store and bought a couple of chocolate bars, and was back on the highway in fifteen minutes, thumb out. In less than an hour, I was picked up by a travelling salesman who drove me the rest of the way to Montreal.
On the doorstep of Montreal’s YMCA on the Rue Drummond late in the afternoon of October 17th, less than twenty four hours after President Kennedy and his inner cabinet had made the decision to blockade Cuba, I checked in, and found that both of my friends had arrived about twenty minutes before. Not long after that, we were standing on Rue Drummond.
“What’s that big hill up there?” I asked, pointing north.
One of the others scoffed at me. “It’s Mount Royal,” he said. “There’s a famous church up there. Supposed to be another famous church in the harbour where we get on the boat.”
I wasn’t interested in churches. “Where are the bookstores?”
“The woman at the YMCA desk said there was one around the corner, on Rue Stanley. It’s called the Seven Steps Bookstore. Supposed to have everything.”
It didn’t have everything, but it had most of the important books in the strange universe my friends and I were determined to live in. I bought a copy of Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts, and one of my friends bought a copy of John Wieners Hotel Wentley Poems. With that, my tattered copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Jack London’s Martin Eden and my volume of Shelly in my knapsack, I was ready for Europe, and without looking for the second famous church or the blessing of anything or anyone, we boarded the SS Homeric early the next afternoon. As I walked up the gangway, I noted that the ship badly needed a paint job.
The second night on board, while we were still somewhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I got drunk. You could hardly blame me, since it was the first time in my life I hadn’t been forced to drink on a hillside, a dark alley or in a parked car, worrying about when the cops were going to show up. Yeow, now I could sit at a bar and be served anything I wanted by an adult in a white coat and tie. I ordered strange sugary drinks loaded with alcohol and drank them quickly, and then I ordered and drank still more.
The next morning the Homeric hit open water and an October storm. For almost two full days I stayed in my cabin, at first hung over as only eleven gin fizzes can render a human being, and then, as the old liner’s vibrating prow began to lift out of the waves and crash twenty feet into their depths, no more than a step from the head, seasick and vomiting. It was October 23rd before I was able to concentrate on anything less immediate than trying to keep the contents of my stomach from splattering across the walls of the cabin.
While I’d been hitch-hiking across the Canadian Shield north of Sault St. Marie, an American U2 spy plane discovered that there were Soviet missile installations under construction in Cuba, and while I was wandering around downtown Montreal four days later, U.S. Attorney-General Robert Kennedy had been politely asking Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko about exactly what sort of aid the Soviet Union was providing to Cuba. Kennedy was already aware that the Soviets had been installing missile launchers on the island and that some long-range missiles were already present, but he said nothing when Gromyko suggested that the Soviet Union’s primary aid was agricultural, but that there were also, ahem, some strictly defensive missile batteries under construction—nothing to be concerned about.
I was busy driving the porcelain bus in my cabin when President John F. Kennedy delivered the televised speech in which he announced that he had ordered the U.S. Navy to “quarantine” Cuba and demanded that the Soviet Union remove all of its missiles. Two days later, my first day fully mobile since the eleven gin fizzes, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having halted a flotilla of missile-carrying Soviet transport ships 700 miles from Cuba, and with Soviet submarines shadowing the U.S. Navy vessels conducting the “quarantine”, told the world that the Soviet Union would not be intimidated and that he would not remove the missiles that were already installed.
The next afternoon, as the SS Homeric neared the Irish Coast, I was camped outside the ship’s radio room with several of my friends, where the ship’s captain was monitoring radio dispatches and trying to decide whether to divert his ship to the south Atlantic or to stay his course. In the hallway outside the radio room, one of us asked him why he was so worried. “I’m not sure that Southampton is going to be there when we arrive,” he answered.
Several hours later all five of the young men I’d boarded the ship with were in the ship’s bar with me, getting drunk and maudlin. Our response to the possible end of the world was a passionate recitation of the things that would be lost if the world was blown up. Each of us had a different list. One mentioned trout fishing on a small creek I’d never heard of, a datum I noticed one of the others memorizing for the future. Others talked about the beauty of our northern Canadian home, girls they had plans for; cars they wished to own. Shelley’s poetry was at the top of my list, and no one laughed at me.
Each of us was thinking about the promise of a world we were just beginning to explore and we didn’t want to lose. We promised one another that if we survived, we would never take anything for granted again, that we would dedicate our lives to protecting the people and things we loved. I don’t recall any of us mentioning our parents, who must have been, at that moment, worried sick about us—if they’d noticed the crisis at all, which we understood wasn’t to be taken for granted. Until that day, we hadn’t thought of ourselves, either. In a way, we’d been in this crisis most of our lives, just not this close to the edge of its abyss.
But like Tuchman’s 14th century peasants, we also continued to plough the fields. One of us tried his best to pick up a tall young woman with dark hair and a memorably thin, severe face. She was several years older than we were, and disdained us; to her we were children. The boy who was trying to impress her tried to explain how complicated a person he was. Her thin lips curled around what first appeared to be a smile, but swiftly turned into a sneer.
“You’re about as complex,” she said to him, “as a little red wagon”. For a brief moment her eyes caught and held mine: yeah, you too, kid.
It was a challenge, I guess, but since I really was just a kid, it was easily left unmet. As I staggered back to my cabin I couldn’t hold back my laughter. I was learning to process life’s lessons not in the often-cruel spirit with which they were delivered, but by diverting their energies to my own existential purposes. I had also understood, in a novel way, what could plausibly motivate a young man like Martin Eden to throw himself over the side of a boat, and I promised myself that I would never ever try to pick a woman up in a bar.
When the Homeric docked at Southampton mid-morning on the 25th of October—I’ll never know if the captain made a conscious decision or if inertia and the boat’s engines made the decision for him—the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its height and the nuclear doomsday clock was as close to midnight as it had ever reached.
And yet that doomsday clock didn’t matter to the six boys from Northern B.C. when they hustled down the gangway at Southampton. Three took a train to Dover and then to Ostende and the continent, while the other two, neither of whom I was close to, traveled with me to London—then simply disappeared into the smoke the moment we arrived at Waterloo Station. One of them spent a few months in Northern England and went home; the other ended up, eventually, in India.
Then there was me, suddenly as alone as I’d ever been in my life. I’d boarded the train to London with a vague and very short-sighted plan of staying at the YMCA and then going to the British Museum’s Reading Room, where somehow, I would be transformed into a writer. That was as far as I could see. My own private Cuban Missile crisis became what to make of this strange city I’d blundered into, with its ancient buildings, its smoky fog, its millions of people who didn’t know who I was, and clearly didn’t care.
I spent the 26th and 27th of October 1962, as Khrushchev and Kennedy pushed and shoved one another along the edge of a nuclear war, gazing at the statues in the British Museum, trying to imagine how things so ancient and beautiful could have a material existence outside a picture book or National Geographic. When I wasn’t doing that, I was huddled in the Museum’s reading room, at the door of which I’d looked so young and forlorn that a kindly librarian had allowed me inside. No, I didn’t have the credentials, but then Colin Wilson hadn’t had them, either.
I knew that The British Museum’s reading room was where Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell had once read and written. Lenin had worked there, too, but under a false name. I wondered if he’d looked as lost as I felt, and if they’d let him in for the same reason they let me in. I’d been told all my life that you had to know someone to become someone, but here, somehow, that didn’t seem to be true. I was no one, knew no one, but there I was, inside in the Reading Room. It was one of the Great Places in the entire world, the place where several of my heroes had gotten their start, and I sensed, given their unprivileged backgrounds, that they hadn’t known anyone either. What could this possibly mean?
I didn’t try to write anything in that hallowed place. It was enough to sit there quietly and reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a self-help travel guide, peering around as carefully as I knew how, trying to decipher which of the others in the room—they were mostly older, well-dressed men—were writing great books, and if any were, like me, trying to figure out what a great book might be.
It was probably while I sat there trying to sort out who was there to change the world and who was, like me, merely trying to understand who was in the room and how I could acquire the knowledge and confidence to try to change the world, that the Americans and the Russians concluded a geo-political deal through back channels. Nikita Khrushchev blinked; he would take the missiles out of Cuba. For a while, no one knew that Kennedy had blinked, too, agreeing to remove some obsolete American missiles from Turkey to give the deal the optics of a détente. For sure, no one on either side informed me that the crisis was over, but that was because they didn’t really know it was over, either. No mortal ever knows when such crises end. Only hindsight has that kind of crispness to it, and I wasn’t yet old enough to have hindsight.
That third morning in London I wouldn’t have cared if John Kennedy had called me on the telephone himself to explain it. That was when I opened my passport and remembered that my mother had taped a note to its last page with the phone number of an uncle and aunt in Sussex. I had no idea where Sussex was. Or what it would turn out to be.
Among all the promises I made to myself that night on the boat while the world seemed about to end, I kept just one: I never did try to pick up a woman in a bar.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.