Something's Hiding in the Cellar

REMEMBER, remember .... Up in the neighboring farmhouse in Yorkshire, when I lived there during the '70s, they're recalling their childhood .... The sister is chuckling at all the fond memories. She says: ``Remember when we painted in right big letters on t' wall of the milking parlor `DAD WE'VE GONE SHOPPING!' It stayed there for years. There's still some of it left!'' ``Oh, aye - but the best were that time we 'id all his wellies, and he 'ad to go out into t' shippon with that inspector from the Milk Marketing Board who'd come to look at t' cows. Muck were up to their knees! Dad 'ad to burn 'is bedroom slippers ont' bonfire, they were that smelly!''

General uproarious laughter, including Dad. He doesn't mind being laughed at, which is a good thing in that family. But - just for the sake of self-respect and some modicum of parental authority - he decides impulsively to rugby-tackle No. 2 son off the sofa and pummel him merrily with his agricultural fists all over the carpet.

``Aw - geroff! GERROFF y' great - OUCH!''

I DON'T remember, really, the precise details of the scene - it was a decade ago - but it was typical and I do remember being struck with the intensity of the nostalgia evinced by the family. Remember, remember! It was as if the things they were remembering had happened at the turn of the century. But the thing is - they were still kids. About, say, 18, 16 and 13. Thereabouts. Yet to them childhood seemed a bygone age, irretrievably vanished.

I suppose nowadays it's solemn 12-year-olds who sit like grannies round the fire and reminisce about the gone-forever days of yore.

Things have changed all right. In my day we didn't leave childhood until we were about ... 26. Even someone quite a lot younger than I remembers what a shock it was to be told - she claims it was in her 20s - that ``Father Christmas isn't actually ... well, you see, he doesn't actually ... exist.'' ``He doesn't EXIST]'' Shell-shocked with spontaneous disillusionment, all she could counter, incredulously, was: ``Does this mean that Easter Bunnies aren't real, either? OH, NO!!!!''

That's (with only a bit of exaggeration) how our world-of-childhood came to its belated end in those days - years after we had technically ``grown up.''

Not today. Today adulthood virtually strikes at birth. In fact, in the interests of up-to-date social veracity, I have to report the remark of the 2-year-old granddaughter of some friends of ours.

Her grandfather sometimes sings to her. She loves this. One time the song ``aba daba aba aba dab said the monkey to the chimp'' held her particularly rapt. When ``Johnny'' (as she calls him) had at last finished, a look of profoundly nostalgic appreciation came all over her face.

``A-ah!'' she said, with a sigh, ``Aaah, Johnny. I haven't heard that song for YEARS!''

I mention all of this only because I find that my own childhood memories haven't started to have a lot of interest for me until now, when I have only a year or so (the precise timing is classified) before achieving my half century. Even now I have a slight feeling of discomfort in the odd pleasure my memories give me, as if such basically hearthside self-indulgence might indicate a real softening of the intellect. But then if you've never had much intellect to soften, it probably doesn't signify.

It was my discovery of Clare Leighton who set me off again. I have, truthfully, always been a pushover for other people's childhoods: enormous delight, I think, is to be found in books like ``Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man'' (early pages), ``Cider with Rosie'' and ``Lark Rise to Candleford.'' Also Gwen Raverat's Cambridge childhood as described in her ``Period Piece''- in which she tells how it felt to be a daughter/niece/cousin/granddaughter in a family of Victorian eccentrics (the Darwins) has been a favorite for long enough.

Clare Leighton is a writer and artist both, and she too has written about some of the idiosyncracies and vivid experiences of her childhood.

In her book ``Country Matters'' of 1937, there's a chapter called ``Picking Primroses,'' and the strange thing is that she remembers what might have been a delightful occupation as a thing of trembling and terror. This was because ``in the rituals of our childhood's year, my iced birthday cake needed to be surrounded by stolen primroses.'' They were stolen, perforce, because they only grew in two places near her house in East Anglia, and both these places were private woods.

``It was queer,'' she writes, how her old nurse ``would fling aside her moral scruples and organise this reckless trespassing.'' Clare, who got no further than ``a timid creep into the fringe of the wood,'' was petrified they would be caught. Only readers of her book can find out whether or not these innocent flower-thieves were ever caught.

All I will reveal is that Miss Leighton felt strongly that if her birthday primroses had been picked in a garden, ``they would have held no magic.'' She suggests that one of the greatest pleasures of recalling childhood is to re-evoke ``a safe thrill of fear.''

``Each time ... I meet a straggling clump of village children with their hands full of tightly-clenched bunches, I can cast my mind back across the years and relive that extravaganza of emotion.''

THE poetry of that 18th century Northamptonshire poet of the countryside, John Clare, is wonderfully shot through with remembered moments of childhood fears and panics and daredevil escapades. With him, in at least one longish poem, it was the temptation of birds-nesting that he recollects.

In our ecologically fragile times, picking wildflowers and pinching birds' eggs are anathema. Clare - and Leighton too - with their acute feeling for countryside, were, for their time, extremely ``green.'' But nobody thought for a moment that century-old rural practices like picking flowers or collecting eggs could remotely damage the balance of nature: Nature was far too all-embracing and sturdy for that. What did deeply affect Clare was the wanton destruction of natural habitats by Britain's Enclosures Act.

But as a ``heedless happy boy'' he birds-nested, and as a poet he didn't forget how this adventuring took him so far from home and school that he thought he was at the world's end and could ``oer the brink just peep adown/ To see the mighty depths below.''

And then the panic. It rings so true: ``So back I turned for very fear/ With eager haste & wonder struck/ Pursued as by a dreaded spell/ Till home - O I could write a book/ I thought what wonders I could tell....''

In my case, though, the causes of the most spine-chilling moments of childhood were more domestic. I was not at the edge of a dark private wood, or even the edge of the parish or the world. I was either in the cellar or in the bathroom.

The cellar was understandable enough as a place of terror. It was dank, chilly, dark, and made entirely of very gray Yorkshire stone - the kind of stone the Bront"es at Haworth were familiar with in their parsonage and its gloomy churchyard. But - and at least one of my brothers bears this out - our parents never seem to have considered that the cellar could frighten us. They were forever sending us down into it to fetch things. It was, in essence, a vast refrigerator: The meat and milk were stored there, and kept fine for days. It wasn't, as an environment, a place where butter melted.

``Christopher, just pop down into the cellar and bring the sausages up, will you?''

And I would take a deep breath, rush down the long stone steps into the ``depths below'' as though entering another universe, utterly inhospitable to cosy and vulnerable earthlings. Deep in the granite cold, barely able to suppress the horrifying certainty that someone was hiding, waiting, there, or had followed me down the steps because it was an ideal place to murder me (he was always behind me whichever way I turned), I would grab the plate of sausages from under its wire-mesh meat-safe, and - by now a wobbling jelly in boy-form - I would not palely loiter: Leaping heedless up those stairs as if the Baskerville Hound was fanging my shins, I'd reach the real world - safe home again - with a sharp pang of relief. I might have been away for hours. Probably it was 90 seconds.

The bathroom (laugh who will) was no less terrifying, but here it was a peculiar superstition that seems to have passed to me from the same brother - who as a child I had scarcely met, because he was mostly away fighting Germans and so forth - by a process of infantile osmosis. I'm sure the reader will forgive the detail, but in this room, which was very long and Victorian and not well heated - at the point furthest from the door - was one of the facilities usually found in bathrooms. And above this, indeed inextricably linked to it by intricately bold pipe-work, was a remarkable big and old cistern. This wonder of antique plumbing craft was distinguished by a title inscribed on its side. This title was more hopeful than accurate, more advertisement than sober fact. It read: SILENT HARRIAP.

Naturally we thought - since even now I'm not too sure of the spelling - that this chain-operated technological wonder was, like a ship, female in gender, and was called Harriet.

Well, let me tell you, Harriet was by no means ``silent.'' In fact she was given to a gushing and rushing, a grinding and screeching and baying-at-the-moon, a shreaking and creeking and clashing and smashing that might have made a tiger feel frail.

But Harriet did have one saving grace. She was hesitant. You'd pull the chain, and she would give the matter her consideration. She would think what it all meant. She would look at her watch and see if she felt like exercise just now. And only then would she burst with ghastly abandon into her own specialized and unwonted form of cacophonous life-enhancement.

So, because she hesitated, WE HAD TIME TO ESCAPE!!!!

And like John Clare ``pursued by a dreaded spell'' both my brother and I performed the dire ritual: get completely ready ... hearts pounding ... pull vigorously down on the chain ... and like a gale-force wind pursued by a lightning bolt, sprint toward the door, unbolt it frantically, and get out onto the landing before Madame Le Harriet lets fall her shattering cataclasm of noise....

Oh the shudder of it! Oh the frisson! Oh the wonderful, hilarious, ridiculous - but, thank goodness, now firmly in the past - horripilation of it. B-r-r-r-r.

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