Dr. Steven Novella
Neurology, Yale University
Dr. Novella knew he was headed into the lion’s den when he accepted an invitation to go on the notorious Dr. Oz show, perhaps history’s most influential promoter of unscientific alternative medicine. He was there to represent science-based criticism of alternative medicine, and hoped to make the best of the opportunity the producers afforded him.
All signs were good until the cameras started rolling, and from that moment on, it was hopeless. Allowed only a few seconds to answer each of Dr. Oz’s questions, Dr. Novella did the best anyone could, but each of his points was followed up by counterpoints from:
• An alt-med doctor sitting beside him, given an unchallenged opportunity to refute each of Dr. Novella’s points;
• Other alt-med professionals stationed in the audience, also given chances to refute Novella’s points, with never a chance for him to counter; and
• Slick pre-produced taped segments blatantly misrepresenting alternative medicine as being backed by strong experimental evidence.
Even when they don’t quote mine or use the editor’s razor, the most motivated television producers still have plenty of tools in their arsenal to turn the tables against good science and promote nonsense.
Science Friction is a new documentary film that will expose these faux documentaries, and give the scientists a chance to clear the record. The film is being crowdfunded.
JThe winter it has passed
And the summer’s come at last
The small birds are singing in the trees
And their little hearts are glad
Ah, but mine is very sad
Since my true love is far away from me
And straight I will repair
To the Curragh of Kildare
For it’s there I’ll finds tidings of my dear
The rose upon the briar
By the water’s running clear
Brings joy to the linnet and the bee
And their little hearts are blessed
But mine can know no rest
Since my true love is far away from me
A livery I’ll wear
And I’ll comb back my hair
And in velvet so green I will appear
And straight I will repair
To the Curragh of Kildare
For its there I’ll find tidings of my dear
All you who are in love
Aye and cannot it remove
I pity the pain that you endure
For experience lets me know
That your hearts are filled with woe
It’s a woe that no mortal can cure
Songwriters: CHRISTY MOORE / DOMINIC BEHAN / HAROLD SHAMPAN
The Wrens of the Curragh’
In 1856 The Curragh Military Camp had been established on the plains of Kildare, and attracted a community of Irish destitute women. The women, mostly in their twenties, lived on the plains about a mile from the camp. Outcast by society, they supported each other within their community and lived difficult lives in furze-covered shelters dug in the ground using any protection from the weather they could find.
Because they mostly iced in ‘nests’ in the ground the women became known as The Wrens. Their choices were limited to either living rough on the Plains of Kildare or in the workhouse where they would have no control and no dignity whatsoever.
Their only means of income was the oldest profession. They sold their bodies to the soldiers of the camp.
The women were ostracised by society, the church, and the local communities. Many had young children living with them but such was the nature of society at the time that they received little compassion. They were beyond the pale of so called ‘respectable society’. They were stoned, spat at, and beaten in the the local communities. Shopkeepers refused them service. Only one business, run by a widow, would allow them to enter and be served.
The army permitted them to buy necessities twice weekly at the camp store and sent water wagons out to the ‘nests’ twice weekly.
There are accounts of gangs of local men who considered it sport to terrify the women and burn down their nests.
There are accounts of incidences of gang rape by groups of soldiers. An incident reported in the town of Newbridge concerns a local priest who attacked one of the Wrens, tore the thin shawl and gown from her shoulders and beat her with his riding crop until her blood splashed all over his riding boots. Though witnessed by many locals, no one voiced any protest.
Another priest was known to attack any Wren he encountered with scissors he carried for the purpose. He would cut off their hair, marking them with the “shame” of the Corinthian prostitutes. No one ever objected or tried to help.
For fifty years, until the end of the nineteen century, the Wrens of the Curragh lived in the ditches of the Plains of Kildare and died there of from disease and exposure. When they fell ill the workhouse usually refused to take them in and those few they did were kept away from sight in conditions no better than those they had left on the plains.
Because of the hypocrisy of religion we Irish, usually renown for generosity, could be just as uncharitable as anyone else.
At the end of the 1960s, and the mystical hippie dawning of the Aquarius age, we were all still searching for meaning.
The big four philosophers when I was 18 were Hesse, Vonnegut, Brautigan and Tolkien.
Of course I read other influential writers, but at the time I really believed everything I needed to know about being a decent human being was in the works of those four, though it took me another 50 years to really begin to understand why.
There was another influential book I encountered.
In the course of exploring the world I came upon the I Ching. inevitably. It had a great deal of credibility amongst the hippies of my generation. Of course I looked into it. I still have, in my lock-up in New Zealand, a beautiful translation from Chinese through German to English, of the I Ching by Richard Wilhelm.
Yarrow sticks were hard to come by where I grew up, but I was a numismatist, and had in my collection several of those fascinating old Chinese coins with square holes. It seemed appropriate to use them. Having designated which side was heads and which was tails, I had a culturally acceptable method of obtaining a randomly generated hexagram, in accordance with the instructions accompanying the book.
My youthful, hopeful self was quite surprised to find how seemingly accurate and appropriate was the advice I gleaned from the wise words of the Tao. The last remnants of my Roman Catholic superstition we’re slowly fading at the time (now only the guilt remains) and I could possibly have easily fallen into the woo mentality of believing some spiritual power, something beyond myself, was guiding me, through the words of the book.
But I read something – I don’t recall exactly where – some scientific article, perhaps, that said our brains were hard-wired to look for patterns. We look for visual patterns, such as potentially threatening animal or human shapes hiding in the trees, and we look for patterns of events and try to make some sense, often wrong, of the coincidences and causality.
The evolutionary advantage of this pattern recognition behaviour is in the significance of the value of the false positive over the false negative.
If I see what looks like a lion lurking in the bushes, and run, the likelihood of staying alive is increased, whether it is a real or imagined lion. If I decide it’s a trick of the light, and ignore it, my chances of survival are decreased if I am wrong.
The same principle applies if we recognise a pattern of events that seem to coincide. Should it rain enough times after we ask nature politely for a shower to water the crop, we may come to believe that asking causes rain.
The downside of this, is that as there is, or was, an evolutionary advantage to being superstitious. We suffered from pareidolia. It became an affliction. We came to see those shapes and faces in the bark of trees, as beings, and ascribed to them powers and motives. We recognised patterns of events, some like the celestial movements, or the seasons, quite real. Then some smart arse recognised the patterns of our own behaviour, saw an opportunity for power and put himself forward as an intermediary between the common people and the spiritual world. And we got religion.
But I digress. I was speaking of the I Ching. I recognised that my brain was looking for patterns in the events of my own life. I was taking the words from an ancient book written in Chinese, translate first to German then to English, and gleaning valuable meaning from them. But this was not superstition. The advice the book was giving me was good. Why? Because it was written in such a way that it was inevitable that the reader would apply the general advice in such a way that it would most benefit him. Because the Tau was the way of the upright, it had to be good advice. For a few formative years the I Ching helped me make decisions that brought me to where I am now. I have few regrets.
These musings were inspired by coming upon this following little piece in one of the philosophical emails that turn up in my in-box from time to time.
After a few more hours swimming up and down the Bribie Island pool, I may have more to write on the subject.
The following is borrowed from Psychology Today.
Impact of the I Ching on Carl G. Jung & its implications
Jung, Taoist psychology, and cross-cultural communications
Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, has had a bad rap. There is no such thing as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. No one has ever been able to reproduce it, or to explain a physiological mechanism for it. People who claim to be allergic to MSG, putting it plainly, aren’t. If they were they’d be allergic to mushrooms, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese AND tomatoes. All of these are naturally rich in glutamate. There is no Italian Restaurant Syndrome either. Obviously.
I have known this for a long time, and I’ve never been concerned about whether there was MSG in my food. These days however, there rarely is, all because of a myth. I can’t even find it in a supermarket any more, though I have tracked it down on line. So someone is still using it.
This became of interest, even of importance to me when my friend Bob commented on my post in which I talked about reducing my sodium intake for the sake of my failing kidneys. A quick check with a reputable source of scientific information confirmed that, as Bob had suggested, MSG will enhance the flavour of food significantly better than salt while contributing to the diet only 40% of the sodium that salt does.
Worth knowing. It may well be that salt is not the bad guy it is made out to be either, when it comes to blood pressure and heart attacks. A study a few years ago suggested that people tend to self regulate their salt intake, and though its consumption is higher in some societies than others, there is not much correlation between sodium intake and BP and heart conditions.
Be that as it may, it IS a known factor in chronic kidney disease.
While on the subject of food myths, let’s pop a few others;
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. This belief was generated by Mr Kellog, who wanted young men to stop wanking.
There is nothing scary or dangerous about GMOs. All our fruit and vegetables as well as our livestock are genetically modified. That is what evolution is. Modern science has just found a way to speed up the process and guide its direction.
There’s no such thing as a superfood. No discussion necessary. Good food is the basis of good health, it is not medicine. Though some foods have medicinal properties, they are not medicines because there is no way to know or standardise the concentration of active ingredient without processing and analysis. This is why most medicines and supplements are synthesised rather than extracted.
The body cannot distinguish between synthetic or natural substances. They are chemically identical and metabolised in exactly the same way. This means that the vitamin C in Berocca is as good as what is in an orange.
This principle also means there is no “good” sugar and no “bad” sugar. No “natural”or “organic” sugar. There is just sugar. The only bad thing about sugar is in the amount eaten. The poison is in the dose. Any diabetic knows that starch is metabolised into sugars. The important factor here is the rate of conversion, which is why complex carbohydrates are better for you.
Fats and oils, however, are chemically different, and are metabolised differently. So there are good fats and bad fats.
Lastly, and I speak from both expertise and experience, the only diet that ever works for weight loss is one in which the amount of energy, measured in Calories or kilojoules, that is taken in by way of food and drink, is exceeded by the energy burned in normal metabolism, activities and exercise. To gain weight, reverse the balance of the equation.
A healthy diet is one that contains all the components, in the proper overall proportion, for maintaining a healthy metabolism; protein, fat, fuel in the form of carbohydrate and sugar, vitamins and minerals. And don’t forget fibre to keep it all moving, and water!
I learned two new words today. Hypnopompic and the related term hypnagogic.
I have frequently experienced these phenomena and, frankly, in my younger days they scared me. Some of the times I experienced this, it seemed to suggest I might have some form of prescience because in a vivid dream I had apparently “predicted” an event that later did in fact happen. I wondered if I was psychic. I was pretty sure there would be a completely rational explanation. I posited to myself that perhaps my brain, subconsciously aware of data I had not consciously considered, had worked out a likely scenario which was later confirmed, as “predicted”.
I believe I got that right. It still makes sense to me. More sense than having psychic abilities, anyway.
Many times I have awoken thinking “Wow. How did my brain come up with all that? Where did it come from? Then within a few minutes I have totally forgotten everything except how impressed I was with myself for having dreamt it. Occasionally I have had such a frightening dream that I have never forgotten it.
Once I dreamed I was holding my infant child’s cold, grey corpse and weeping. I awoke still weeping and could not shake the dread that I felt. At that time June had taken our baby girl back to Solomon Islands to present her to the family. I had stayed in NZ. I couldn’t afford a ticket for myself as well, nor spare the time off work.
When I awoke, the dream had been so real I was panic stricken. In those days there was no way I could contact the family in the village to assure myself all was well.
I was working in the area of home that day so I called in to check the mail at lunch time. There was a letter from June. It was postmarked a week ago. Sumana was seriously ill in hospital in Muda. It was a Wednesday, which just happened to be the one day of the week there was an Air Pacific flight to Honiara via Nadi in Fiji.
I immediately called the bank and arranged for them to cover payment for a flight to Honiara, and contacted a cousin in Honiara to arrange a flight for me to Muda as I could not arrange it myself or through a travel agent. I then called work, told them I was taking leave, packed a bag and headed for the airport. That night I slept in a hotel in Nadi and by ten the next morning I was in Honiara. My relative’s wife met me at arrivals with a ticket for the next flight to Western Province. An hour or so later I was in Muda, where I borrowed a bicycle and pedalled from the airport terminal to the hospital. There I learned that Suma had been discharged. I pedalled back to return the bike, then headed down to the wharf by Agnes Lodge resthouse. As I arrived I called out to a passing canoe in my grammatically poor Roviana to ask if they were going anywhere near Nusa Hope village. “Of course we are” answered my sister in law, whom I had not recognised.
So it was that barely 24 hours after reading June’s letter, I arrived in Nusa Hope village, where Sae, my father-in-law said “I told them all you would arrive today. No one believed me”. He added ” You are looking fat” and then, knowing why I was there, and to my great relief, “Leana hola sa komburu.” The baby is fine.
It turned out that Suma had suffered what was probably heat prostration and was taken to hospital where she was tested for, and diagnosed as having, malaria. Despite being already on prophylaxis she was treated with a massive dose of chloroquine, which made her sicker. Hence the letter.
She was well again by the time I arrived. Apparently someone had mixed slides in the lab. Another child had not been diagnosed when he should have been.
Shortly after I arrived in Halls Creek, I had another weird hypnogogic experience that I still remember distinctly. I was, I was quite sure, completely awake, staring through the darkness at the green glowing digits on the air conditioner, telling me it was running at 18 degrees. I heard three sharp knocks on my bedroom door and turned to see an elderly aboriginal gentleman standing in the doorway, smiling at me. He was very old, dressed in shorts, with white hair and beard, and a long stick or spear. He looked at me with a penetrating gaze and a friendly smile. I felt no unease, though I was surprised, because I was sure I had locked the doors before coming upstairs to bed.
“Hello”, I said. “How did you get in?” Then, for some strange reason, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
I got up, turned on the light in the hall, and went downstairs to put the kettle on. Then I went to check the doors, which were just as I thought, locked. I turned to ask again how my visitor had gained entrance. Of course he wasn’t there. Standing in the kitchen I realised I could not possibly have seen him as clearly as I believed, because the room had been dark with only the green glow of the LED digits of the aircon to illuminate it. And where had he gone when I arose and turned on the light?
Afterwards, realising I had imagined it, I wondered whether I had actually got up and gone downstairs, or had I imagined that too?
These two events are examples of a few that are different from most I have experienced because I have never forgotten them, and can still picture in my mind what I dreamed, or thought I saw at the time. Most are forgotten within minutes of waking.
The mind is an odd thing.
I can well believe it when someone says “It came to me in a dream”.
The trail leads up a bush-clad mountainside
Singing with birds, redolent with earthy attar
Rustling with hidden afternoon activity.
I catch an occasional glimpse
Of furtive feathered ground dwellers
And fleeing lizards.
The path is rough; rock and root-strewn
I need my stick to steady my steps
The summit touches the sky, above the highest trees
Which are shrouded in evening mist that washes
In slow floating waves as on a time lapse shore
Branches reaching out like dark coral rock.
Above the washing white tide
Here at sunset, I made my camp
With one desire;
To sleep, and awake at dawn
To the bellbirds’ famed chorus.
The morning came bright
The birdsong, sublime under a clear sky, echoed.
The island below me a taonga of poenamo
Set in lapiz: Around my camp
Came curious weka
Enquiring after crumbs from breakfast.
On my descent I followed no path.
I had set my course on line of sight
Towards the green and black lakes
And beyond, to the obsidian cliffs
My second objective.
Though taking the obsidian is forbidden
I had set my heart on finding a piece
Suitable to nap a knife.
The going was slow. The bush impeding.
I came upon a place of silence
No birdsong, no rustling in the undergrowth
Eerie. The nape of my neck tingled
I fell into a hole
Unhurt I climbed out
And saw the overgrown hole was regular, square
And there were more; many more, man made
It was a place where people had once dwelt.
Lived and died.
I moved on as swiftly as I could
One lake was black, one algal green
I cooled myself but did not drink
I had a feeling Lethe might live within
At the foot of the cliffs I found
Tumbled shards of shining atramentous
The volcanic glass I coveted.
I took some; perhaps there and then
Began the curse that follows me yet.
I cannot return the tuhua; I no longer have it
I left it somewhere, some time, I don’t recall.
It is lost. It does not matter.
© 2019 ARF
I have been waiting for a few key people to die before I really get started on my autobiography, so that I don’t get sued. They are taking their time about it. If they don’t get on with it soon I may beat them out the door. In the meantime I shall have to stick with the relative safety of what I recall of my early childhood and younger days.
This is not written to entertain anyone. That comes later when I revise it and start making things up. In the meantime I am just jotting down some dot points to jog my memory so I can expand more fully some of the stories later on. It is pretty random at this stage.
Draft 1. My Autobiography, Part 1: The Early Years.
Chapter 1: England and Beyond.
Around 1:15 in the early morning of January 16 1952, my grandmother woke my father from his no-doubt sound sleep to tell him that he was now the father of a baby boy. Dad didn’t need to ask how she knew this. She is Irish. Later that day he visited Woking Hospital and learned that his mother was correct both about the time and my gender.
That was me. Born.
That is how the story was told to me. Once, many years later, over a teacup she was reading, my Irish Nanna told me she had the sight, and she thought I did too. She was pretty guilty about it because it rather clashed with how she was raised a Catholic. That is why I know she really believed it. Because it made her feel guilty. Me, I have my own theories on how some people seem able to work out what’s going on when others can’t. It involves the subconscious processing power of the brain. If tea leaves or some other form of pattern recognition process helps, well who am I to argue. At least not with my grandmother.
Only last week I put extra food in the slow cooker one morning because I had a feeling I would have guests that evening. Sure enough two tourists I had met two days before turned up. They had to turn back on the Canning Stock Route after one had a bike accident in the sand dunes. They were most surprised when I told them I had been expecting them and I had a hot meal ready for them. But I am digressing sixty two years ahead already.
Now read on:
By describing to older relatives the houses, events, pets and locations that I recalled, I have been able to place my earliest memories to when I was three years old or younger.
Some of them are pretty hazy, like waving bye-bye to my dad, held in Mum’s arms outside a house I could partly describe. Others are very clear images even now. Why I remember particular things I don’t know.
My cousin Dawn and I both sitting on a potty beside each other, in front of a blazing fire at my paternal grandparents’ house.
The very first time I wiped my own bum all by myself. Mum had left me on the loo and gone next door. Such pride. I had to go over next door to tell her and everyone else about my achievement. I don’t think Mum was all that impressed.
My Irish Great Grandmother, Granny Coffee (nee O’Brien) sitting on a high backed chair like a queen on a throne in an ill-lit room and giving me a ten shilling note. The only memory I have of her.
Fireworks and a bonfire in the snow.
Silver threepenny bits in Christmas pudding that flamed as it was served. The only time my Irish grandmother ever used alcohol was that little bit of Brandy on the Christmas pudding.
The pine smell of Christmas. A teddy bear. A koala made of kangaroo skin from Aunty Berys in Australia. I gave them both away to a collection for poor kids when I was 15. Many years later I saw the koala, or one exactly like it – even down to the worn patches – in an antique shop. I couldn’t afford to buy it back.
Picking blackberries. Scratched hands. Blackberry and apple pie.
Rhubarb. Custard, Lemon Curd. Cherry pie. Counting stones to see who got the most. Nanna always made sure it was me.
The huge copper in which Nanna did the laundry. The mangle which squeezed the wet clothes dry when you turned the handle. Blue in the rinse water.
Riding on the back of Nanna’s bike as she took me to work at her cleaning job.
Hiding under the table with my mother when some chap came around to collect half a crown that mum didn’t have. It seemed half a crown was a lot of money. Grandad Ayres gave me one whenever we visited. Once he asked me “Double or nothing?” I asked what that meant and he explained that if he tossed the coin and it came down heads, I would get two half crowns. If it came down tails he would keep it. I knew I was onto a sure thing because granddad would never let me leave without my half crown. So I agreed. He tossed. I lost. He kept the half crown and then gave me the best advice I’d ever had from an adult. “Never gamble son”. The sting of it stuck. I have never been keen to part with money on a bet.
There was a silver birch tree in our front garden at the Balmoral Estate, Woking. i loved its white bark. I visited the house in 2008 with my Aunt Anne. The tree is gone. The old lady who lived there wanted to know why I was photographing her house.
Snow so deep Dad’s car was just a white mound. I made a tunnel in the snow.
I remember an uncle’s wood shed, his saw-horses, axes, files and saws. The delightful smell of rotting sawdust that I still love. They had a big black dog and I still love dog smell too. I must have liked it there. There was an open space and woods behind their house. We walked the dog and explored.
Picking bluebells in the woods and catching sticklebacks in a stream with my aunts, who were not that much older than I, though they seemed so much older at the time. Collecting acorns.
Conkers. A Horse Chestnut on a string.
A shady lane walking with my aunts as a girl rode by on a horse. The horse dropped its doos right near me. I liked that smell too. And the spring smell of the woods.
Walking round Horsell Common. There was a huge pond which I was told was a bomb crater. It had a wrecked fighter plane in it. There had been a war not long ago. Right here. Later, somewhere else, I saw areas of broken houses and piles of bricks that Dad said had been houses that were bombed. There was a war there too.
Being told that Horsell Common was where the Martians had landed and not yet being aware that some stories are true and others are not.
That pond on the common had frogs in it. That is where my interest in frogs began.
Waiting outside the Cricketers Arms while Dad talked to a man about a dog. He brought me out a glass of lemonade sometimes. I waited patiently but I never ever saw a dog.
Fishing in the Basingstoke Canal. A cousin singing an Elvis song, – I’m All Shook Up. We used floats that bobbed on the surface. I don’t remember catching anything but I was really interested to see the canal locks in action. I watched a small motor boat be lowered from one lock to the next. There was duckweed on the water.
Playing with my cousins David and John. They had a cool collection of military Dinky toys, and toy soldiers.
On a double decker bus singing Last Train to San Fernando and some other song of which I can now only remember the line I’m only a poor man how much can I take? I thought the line referred to how much money was the singer allowed to have.
Lonnie Donnegan. Skiffle groups.
Sitting upstairs on the bus at the front, pretending to be the driver. I also seem to vaguely recall holding up the bus once for someone to get on, until my mother explained to the conductor that I was talking about my imaginary friend. Or perhaps I only recall this because I have been told the story a few times. Either way, it really happened.
I had an invisible friend, not an imaginary one. Apparently I passed on some pretty interesting stories that he told me. I can’t remember what he looked like, but he was adult. I believe he was Irish and may have been one of the Sidh. Sometimes I am pretty sure he is real. Just really good at not being seen when he didn’t want to be. Plainly I could see him, or I would not have been talking about him. I did, therefore he was.
I remember buying a Minnie Mouse shaped ice lolly from the man with a horse-drawn ice cream cart. It cost a penny, which was very expensive in those days. My mother complained. Disney. I recall the coin was enormous in my hand. I also recall I didn’t want the Minnie Mouse one, I wanted Donald Duck, but Minnie was all that was left. Someone else got the last Donald Duck. I saw it and I thought it had a much better shape than the Minnie. Funny what you remember. I don’t even know what flavour they were.
I remember pedalling my jeep to the corner sweet shop to buy sweets I paid for with farthings from the money pouch on the holster belt of my cowboy outfit. Farthings were a much more manageable sized coin and everyone gave them to me to put in my pouch. I learned that four of them were equivalent to a whole penny. Sweets were sold by the ounce and it seemed to me that a few farthings bought quite a lot of sweets.
Trebor Chews, Lemon Drops, Smarties, Rowntree’s Wine Gums. Licorice Allsorts.
I remember painting my grandparents’ garage door with an old paintbrush and a bucket of water dyed with laundry blue. The garage door never changed colour no matter how many coats I applied. I wondered why my grandad wanted me to do it.
I remember picking plums with Grandad, and him telling me they were Victorias. He said Nanna made him send some to the Queen at Buckingham Palace every year, because the song says “Send her Victorias”. I didn’t get it.
Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. Forever associated with that potting shed at my other Grandad’s place. It had been a Bomb Shelter in the back garden and was now used as a toolshed and storage for flowerpots. The dim light and dusty petrichor smell.
Picking peas and digging potatoes with my other Grandad. The smell of freshly dug potatoes (and the taste of them cooked) also lives in my memory. New potatoes.
Shucking peas with the other Nanna. The taste of raw peas.
Cold sausages and cold cooked new potatoes. With butter.
Crying over cooked liver because I simply could not eat it without gagging (I love it now). Sent to bed with no dinner and served cold liver next morning for breakfast. More tears. Nanna sneaking by and eating it for me. Mum suspicious.
I seem to recall spending a lot more time with my paternal grandparents than my mother’s parents.
I remember having for a short time a pet grass snake that Dad caught on Horsell Common. I learned that there were other dangerous snakes called Adders, or Vipers. So I should leave strange snakes alone. There is a tortoise floating in my memory too, but I am not sure if it was mine or a neighbour’s. I think the latter, because it slept or hibernated in a glasshouse and I don’t believe we had one.
I had two goldfish called Wally and Sammy that we brought home from a fair in plastic bags. I remember getting lost at the fair and the panic I felt until I found my parents. Or they found me.
Wally and Sammy had a glass fishbowl to live in. I left them with my Aunt when we went to New Zealand. She wrote me a letter to tell me when they died.
I remember toys and books that would be worth a small fortune if I still had them. A Muffin the Mule marionette, Dinky toys, Matchbox toys, an electric train set of the London Underground. I never understood why the set didn’t come with tunnels. It was, after all, supposed to be under ground. A battery powered army tank. A rubber band powered submarine that went up and down in the bath. A tin ray gun that fired sparks. A wigwam. A wind up monkey that played cymbals. A bow and arrow with rubber suction cup tips on the arrows. A little milk truck with tiny crates of bottles, some white and full of milk, some clear. Empties. I remember one of the empties had a bubble in it that spoiled the illusion. A toy shop in which all the jars and packets of fruit and vegetables were actually tiny sweets. It even had little scales and weights for measuring out the groceries.
A yoyo I couldn’t do anything with.
I remember Noddy books and Rupert Bear.
Rupert was smart. Noddy was a bit silly.
Tessie Bear gave me a squishy feeling when she gave Noddy a hug.
I thought Mr Golly was so nice to give Noddy his first job.
I never really trusted BigEars. He seemed rather grumpy and judgemental, though I could not have expressed it that way then.
The Rag and Bone Man came round with his horse and cart swapping stuff for Mum’s rubbish. I never understood why.
I remember the first time I saw floaters in my eyes. It was bedtime and the light was dim. The floaters seemed to drift downwards. I told my mother it was raining in my room. She told me not to be silly. I knew then I could see things other people couldn’t.
I remember watching the track on a gramophone record roll into the centre of the record. I pondered for a long time about where it went. I concluded at last that it went under the label, through the hole in the middle and continued on the other side. Nothing I have learned since disproves this theory.
The record label said Capitol. I was sure it was spelt wrong. It looked wrong. See? I was smart.
Mum packing me a tiny suitcase and putting me out on the front doorstep to wait for the man from the Naughty Boys Home to come and take me away. Tearfully begging forgiveness and promising to be good if she let me back in. Waiting in fear until she did. I don’t remember what I did wrong.
My parents once drove me past some huge creepy looking old brick building and told me it was the naughty boys home. I didn’t want to go there.
I remember the milkman coming round with an electric powered cart. I wondered how he made it go so I took a look while he was talking to my grandmother and mother. I deduced that if I pulled down the handle, it would move. I tried it. The cart jerked forward and all the bottles rattled. I let go immediately, and the cart stopped. It scared the daylights out of me. No one seemed to notice and as I calmed down I felt a little pride in my reasoning powers. I had figured it out by myself.
Soft drinks delivered by the crate in a truck. The scent and taste of orangeade.
Orange juice in waxed cardboard boxes.
The scary face in the woodgrain of the toilet door at my Maternal Grandparents’ house. I can still see it. My first remembered experience of pareidolia. But to me then, it was a face in the door. I was afraid of it but could not stop looking.
Fantasia and the terrifying Night on Bald Mountain scene. My Dad told me his horror childhood film had been The Wizard of Oz, particularly the flying monkeys scene, but I don’t recall that being very scary when I saw it. I just liked the movie transition to colour and the green flames in Oz. Green flames seemed really cool. I didn’t understand the story at all.
Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Robin Hood, Zorro. Andy Pandy.
Feeling sick after a trip to Brighton (?) and throwing up all over the kitchen floor after Nanna made me drink lemonade. She always knew what to do.
A hot bread poultice on a festering sore on my knee. The distinct phenol and oil of wintergreen scent of thick, pink Germolene ointment, from a round tin. Germolene cured everything a poultice couldn’t deal with. Or maybe a poultice cured everything Germolene couldn’t handle. In any case, both together were a powerful combination.
Being put to bed in a strange room upstairs at Nanna and Grandad’s place when it was still daylight. Unable to sleep, watching from the window and seeing my mother go out. Wondering where she was going and if she was coming back. The clock’s tick tock as I lay in my bed waiting for sleep and darkness – which in summer could be as late as ten pm.
A Christmas party in an aircraft hangar where my dad worked. There were trestle tables of food and drink, and an enormous plane. Father Christmas gave me something. I don’t remember what. Maybe that submarine.
I had a sailor suit which formerly belonged to Prince Charles, given to my mother by a friend or relative who worked at the Palace. It was too tight and I hated it. I only remember wearing it once to some wedding or similar event. There is a photo somewhere of me wearing it.
I collected tokens of some sort from a cereal packet. We posted them away and soon after in the mail I received a toy telescope.
One kid who lived near my grandparents’ home in Russell Road, Horsell, I think his name was Billy Cotton, had a new pedal car in the shape of a racing car. It had a bonnet that opened and an engine with little spark plugs and wires and everything. It was so cool. He challenged me to a race around the block, certain he would win because his was a racing car. My jeep was lighter to pedal and I won easily. My First Victory. After that his didn’t seem so cool.
My aunts playing hopscotch on squares drawn on the pavement with a piece of brick. Me not understanding what was happening or why they were doing it.
I remember watching ants on a dog turd by the brick wall on the pavement outside my Grandparents’ house. It was fascinating to watch them. I wondered why they found a dog turd so interesting. It smelt. A few days later I saw the turd had turned white and crumbly. I wondered how that happened.
I wondered about a lot of things. Like where were the ladders that my mother and aunts talked about? “Oh I have a ladder and I only just bought them”. What?
What was a stroke, and why did you whisper about it. Did it have anything to do with stroking cats and dogs?
We visited one of Mum’s uncles who didn’t even have water in his house. There was a pump in his front garden with a handle that went up and down. I couldn’t move it.
My first day at school.
That kid in the sleeveless pullover could be me. It’s not, but I looked exactly like that. I even seem to remember school being like in that photo. Big low tables. The smell of paint and crayons.
I wasn’t at school long in England but I seem to remember being able to read my Noddy and Rupert books even before I went to school. I do know I that in NZ I thought the Janet and John books I was introduced to at Ohariu valley School were pretty lame in comparison. But then I met Dr Seuss in Palmerston North. But I digress once more. That is later.
At the end of 1957, my parents emigrated to New Zealand.
When I found out, I followed.
No, seriously, just kidding. They took me with them.
We travelled from London by train overnight to Glasgow to embark as assisted immigrants on the TSS Captain Cook. I remember the Johnny Walker statue at Waterloo station in London , and wondering why he was famous. Also why he was dressed in that silly fashion. Tearful farewells from the adults. I just thought it was an adventure. Oh, lets get on with it.
I was sorry though, that I had to leave Wally and Sammy behind.
But I had a new Rupert Bear Annual from Aunty Doris to read on the way.
Some time in the night Dad told me we were in a different country now, called Scotland.
Salty porridge in Glasgow.
The TSS Captain Cook
Being on a real ship. The smell of bunker oil, paint and ocean.
Separated in a cabin on one side of the ship along with all the women, girls, and small children. Men and older boys on the other side. I was the only boy in a cabin of maybe six. All the rest were women and girls.
My hand jammed in a door when I tried to go into the cabin when someone was changing. Pain and swelling. Tears. A visit to the infirmary to be sure nothing was broken. Bandaged.
Some stupid girl in a bra. As if I cared to look.
A storm. Everyone locked in and not allowed out on deck. Being sick. Falling out of the top bunk and being relegated to the bottom one. The shame of it.
Lifejackets and lifeboat drill.
I enjoyed the meals in the dining room. I don’t remember being served anything I didn’t like. There was a distinct smell of eggs and steam and fish and white sauce. There was a similar but different delicious steamy hot food smell in the galley when I wandered in there later on my explorations. The kids menu was not the same as the adult sittings.
Sneaking down to the crew-only afterdeck at the stern, which seemed to me to be only just above sea-level. Watching the waves rise higher than where I was standing. Awe at how much water was out there. Making friends with the sailors. No one minded I was there. When I look at the photo of the ship the deck doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as low as I remember.
I found my way to the galley. The cook (there must have been more than one!) was friendly and told me he would cook me something special if I brought him all the flying fish that landed on the afterdeck. He gave me a bag. I remember seeing fish come flying over the ship’s side and flopping about on the deck. I gathered lots of fish. I am pretty sure someone was helping me collect them. That part is hazy. The cook gave me fish and chips and cream scones. Maybe not both at the same time. I am pretty sure I went there quite often whenever I could escape. I probably stank of fish every time mum found me and herded me back. What a give away.
My mother was really irate every time I disappeared. I disappeared a lot. There were some pretty cool places a small boy could get to on a ship and be hard to find.
I was only five. I was curious. An explorer. It was an adventure. I can see now why my mother was so pissed off. At the time it seemed to me she was being most unreasonable about it. That ship was the absolute best time of my short little life so far. Watching the sea roll by was never boring.
Roses lime cordial in icy cold water from a water cooler and with clinking ice that had bubbles trapped in it, and which had just the faintest hint of a metallic taste when you crunched it between your teeth.
Hot salt-water baths. Not enough fresh on board to waste on baths. Another strange steamy smell. Odd smelling soap that lathered in salty water.
Shark fins in the harbour at Curacao. A crocodile in the river leading up to the Panama Canal. Gun towers around the Pepsi Cola factory where we went on a day tour. Beggars in the street. Shoe-shine boys.
The Crossing the Line ceremony at the equator for which my mother cut up my favourite Disney tablecloth to make me a costume. It was wasted. I didn’t win a prize.
I took it so very seriously when as part of ceremony I was awarded a certificate that said I now had free and safe passage throughout the whole of Davy Jones’ realm. I believed it implicitly. Ever since then I have felt at home in or on the sea. No matter what crap has happened to me at sea – and quite a lot has – I have always been calm and self assured, and handled it. I am at home with the sea. I have never doubted that this equanimity is entirely because of what I was told when I was only five.
That is how important an affirmation can be.
And I had one in writing. Signed by King Neptune himself. The ocean was mine.