It’s a quiet Friday afternoon in the office, the week winding down all over. It’s strangely dim outside, clouded over, warmer than it has been but with a cold wind blowing hard. On my lunchtime walk I buttoned up my padded jacket and flung the hood of my top over my head. People idle, gather into groups chat about nothing in the absence of any work demanding itself. I’ve wandered up and down. Occasionally I stopped to listen in briefly, or to contribute something suitably glib. Then I return to my desk and browse again through the online newspapers and articles to keep me occupied.
In the middle of all that I came across an article about literary boxers – that is, authors who liked to indulge in a bit of fisticuffs through the ages. Not surprisingly Norman Mailer featured heavily – an individual I’ve never liked much, and always seemed to mask – or enact – some kind of insecurity in brash aggression.
It got me thinking though. There are people who take naturally to acts of physical expression, and those who recoil from them. Fighters perhaps, and lovers, but never the twain shall meet. Well, maybe. There are types though. People wired such that in one what is expressed as a form of aggression (or assertion) is in others subsumed or subverted. Essentially, we react (or process) to the same things very differently in a way true to our own individuality.
Physical crass aggression the crass and obvious expression of that, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most of this processing happens beneath the surface. If it expresses itself it’s in attitude.
Reading about Norman Mailer I felt largely unsympathetic to him. He did things and acted in ways I could never. I like to think I’m smarter, and more balanced than that. However, I did recognise something very similar that we share.
I’ve been through the mill. I’ve survived so long out of a kind of perversity. I refuse to be beaten down. There’s a belligerence in that. It’s not a passive reflex. It’s aggressive, as it must be, unintimidated. The harder it’s come the harder it’s made me. That’s how it must be. If you don’t push back you’re going to be steamrolled.
It comes back to that basic quality, which is expressed in different ways at different times. It’s a natural thing.
Reading the belligerent feats of different writers I cast my mind back to when I was a kid. School is a dynamic social experiment. Kids are raw and unfinished. Things happen without the moderating influence of good manners, courtesy, or what we have come to call civilisation. In many ways it’s a wonderful thing.
In my first school, Thornbury Primary School, I was in the minority born to Anglo parents. Perhaps 20% could have been called Skippy’s. The rest were representative of the migrant mix of the day – Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, and so on. I can’t remember any Asians, and there might have been a few Brits.
I was a cute kid with freckles and chestnut coloured hair. I was average sized at best, and certainly nothing intimidating to look at. I wasn’t soft though. You don’t intend to be anything, but you discover what you are. I was one of the stronger characters about. I was unafraid of speaking my mind, and even enforcing it. I got into regular scraps, and in memory, enjoyed them. I was not someone to ever take a backward step.
The most famous story of me then relates to a time I saved one of my classmates from bullies. His name was Keith, a boy taller than me, but a little plump, smart enough, but with the look and manner of the born victim. In the Darwinian rough and tumble of the schoolyard he was always going to be picked on. I would have accepted that as the law of nature, but ganging up on someone has always been seen as being un-Australian (used to be anyway).
I actually remember this. One night after school I had started to walk home and saw that Keith had been bailed up by 3-4 kids who were in the process of beating him up. I just acted. I didn’t think about it. I just went to him – what happened next I don’t remember, except that it seems the kids cleared off and Keith declared me a hero.
I know this because that night, much to my surprise (I remember the surprise), I was invited over with my family to Keith’s home. Obviously Keith had told the story of my brave rescue of him, and presumably I was invited over to be properly thanked – though that is another fragment I can’t remember (though my mum never forgot, and would regularly re-tell the tale in the years after). What I remember was playing Barrel of Monkey’s with Keith in his room.
Keith and I were just about polar opposites, which is probably one reason I helped him out – it was unfair to pick on someone who couldn’t defend himself. We were never close, and he lives on only in this memory, and in school photos of that time. Momentarily I wonder where he is today, and what he’s doing.
I suppose in all my years of school I would have been in about a dozen fights. Many schoolyard fights are not much more than untidy scraps, and I was never shy about it. I think I actually enjoyed it often. There’s a lively sense of being engaged in life. Not a bystander, but an active participant. It’s a misleading and potentially harmful notion, but it never caused me any problems.
I grew out of that as I matured. I’ve never been averse to a scrap in the years since, I’ve been in a few push and shoves, and at times I’ve bared my teeth – but it has never been a thing for me as it was for the likes of Norman Mailer. All the same that attitude, or spirit, has informed who I am – and why I’ve been able to stand so resolute.