Nothing To Be Frightened Of
By Julian Barnes
Hardcover, 244 pages
List price: $24.95
By John Freeman
I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That's what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: "Soppy."
The person to begin with is my maternal grandmother, Nellie Louisa Scoltock, nee Machin. She was a teacher in Shropshire until she married my grandfather, Bert Scoltock. Not Bertram, not Albert, just Bert: so christened, so called, so cremated. He was a headmaster with a certain mechanical dash to him: a motorcycle-and-sidecar man, then owner of a Lanchester, then, in retirement, driver of a rather pompously sporty Triumph Roadster, with a three-person bench seat in front, and two bucket seats when the top was down. By the time I knew them, my grandparents had come south to be near their only child. Grandma went to the Women's Institute; she pickled and bottled; she plucked and roasted the chickens and geese that Grandpa raised. She was petite, outwardly unopinionated, and had the thickened knuckles of old age; she needed soap to get her wedding ring off. Their wardrobe was full of home-knitted cardigans, Grandpa's tending to feature more masculine cable stitch. They had regular appointments with the chiropodist, and were of that generation advised by dentists to have all their teeth out in one go. This was a normal rite of passage then: from being rickety-gnashered to fully porcelained in one leap, to all that buccal sliding and clacking, to social embarrassment and the foaming glass on the bedside table.
The change from teeth to dentures struck my brother and me as both grave and ribald. But my grandmother's life had contained another enormous change, never alluded to in her presence. Nellie Louisa Machin, daughter of a labourer in a chemical works, had been brought up a Methodist; while the Scoltocks were Church of England. At some point in her young adulthood, my grandmother had suddenly lost her faith and, in the smooth narration of family lore, found a replacement: socialism. I have no idea how strong her religious faith had been, or what her family's politics were; all I know is that she once stood for the local council as a socialist and was defeated. By the time I knew her, in the 1950s, she had progressed to being a communist. She must have been one of the few old-age pensioners in suburban Buckinghamshire who took the Daily Worker and--so my brother and I insisted to one another--fiddled the housekeeping to send donations to the newspaper's Fighting Fund.
In the late 1950s, the Sino-Soviet Schism took place, and com-munists worldwide were obliged to choose between Moscow and Peking. For most of the European faithful, this was not a difficult decision; nor was it for the Daily Worker, which received funding as well as directives from Moscow. My grandmother, who had never been abroad in her life, who lived in genteel bungalowdom, decided for undisclosed reasons to throw in her lot with the Chinese. I welcomed this mysterious decision with blunt selfinterest, since her Worker was now supplemented by China Reconstructs, a heretical magazine posted direct from the distant continent. Grandma would save me the stamps from the biscuity envelopes. These tended to celebrate industrial achievement--bridges, hydroelectric dams, lorries rolling off production lines--or else show various breeds of dove in peaceful flight.
My brother did not compete for such offerings, because some years previously there had been a Stamp-Collecting Schism in our home. He had decided to specialize in the British Empire. I, to assert my difference, announced that I would therefore specialize in a category which I named, with what seemed like logic to me, Rest of the World. It was defined solely in terms of what my brother didn't collect. I can no longer remember if this move was aggressive, defensive, or merely pragmatic. All I know is that it led to some occasionally baffling exchanges in the school stamp club among philatelists only recently out of short trousers. "So, Barnesy, what do you collect?" "Rest of the World."
My grandfather was a Brylcreem man, and the antimacassar on his Parker Knoll armchair--a high-backed number with wings for him to snooze against--was not merely decorative. His hair had whitened sooner than Grandma's; he had a clipped, military moustache, a metal-stemmed pipe, and a tobacco pouch which distended his cardigan pocket. He also wore a chunky hearing aid, another aspect of the adult world--or rather, the world on the farther side of adulthood--which my brother and I liked to mock. "Beg pardon?" we would shout satirically at one another, cupping hands to ears. Both of us used to look forward to the prized moment when our grandmother's stomach would rumble loudly enough for Grandpa to be roused from his deafness into the enquiry, "Telephone, Ma?" An embarrassed grunt later, they would go back to their newspapers. Grandpa, in his male armchair, deaf aid occasionally whistling and pipe making a hubble-bubble noise as he sucked on it, would shake his head over the Daily Express, which described to him a world where truth and justice were constantly imperilled by the Communist Threat. In her softer, female armchair--in the red corner--Grandma would tut-tut away over the Daily Worker, which described to her a world where truth and justice, in their updated versions, were constantly imperilled by Capitalism and Imperialism.
Grandpa, by this time, had reduced his religious observance to watching Songs of Praise on television. He did woodwork and gardened; he grew his own tobacco and dried it in the garage loft, where he also stored dahlia tubers and old copies of the Daily Express bound with hairy string. He favoured my brother, taught him how to sharpen a chisel, and left him his chest of carpentry tools. I can't remember him teaching (or leaving) me anything, though I was once allowed to watch while he killed a chicken in his garden shed. He took the bird under his arm, stroked it into calmness, then laid its neck on a green metal wringing machine screwed to the doorjamb. As he brought the handle down, he gripped the bird's body ever more tightly against its final convulsions.
My brother was allowed not just to watch, but also to participate. Several times he got to pull the lever while Grandpa held the bird. But our memories of the slaughter in the shed diverge into incompatibility. For me, the machine merely wrung the chicken's neck; for him, it was a junior guillotine. "I have a clear picture of a small basket underneath the blade. I have a (less clear) picture of the head dropping, some (not much) blood, Grandpa putting the headless bird on the ground, its running around for a few moments . . ." Is my memory sanitized, or his infected by films about the French Revolution? In either case, Grandpa introduced my brother to death--and its messiness--better than he did me. "Do you remember how Grandpa killed the geese before Christmas?" (I do not.) "He used to chase the destined goose round its pen, flailing at it with a crowbar. When he finally got it, he would, for good measure, lay it on the ground, put the crowbar across its neck, and tug on its head."
My brother remembers a ritual--never witnessed by me--which he called the Reading of the Diaries. Grandma and Grandpa each kept separate diaries, and of an evening would sometimes entertain themselves by reading out loud to one another what they had recorded on that very week several years previously. The entries were apparently of considerable banality but frequent disagreement. Grandpa: "Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes." Grandma: "Nonsense. 'Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.'"
My brother also remembers that once, when he was very small, he went into Grandpa's garden and pulled up all the onions. Grandpa beat him until he howled, then turned uncharacteristically white, confessed everything to our mother, and swore he would never again raise his hand to a child. Actually, my brother doesn't remember any of this--neither the onions, nor the beating. He was just told the story repeatedly by our mother. And indeed, were he to remember it, he might well be wary. As a philosopher, he believes that memories are often false, "so much so that, on the Cartesian principle of the rotten apple, none is to be trusted unless it has some external support." I am more trusting, or self-deluding, so shall continue as if all my memories are true.
Our mother was christened Kathleen Mabel. She hated the Mabel, and complained about it to Grandpa, whose explanation was that he "had once known a very nice girl called Mabel." I have no idea about the progress or regress of her religious beliefs, though I own her prayer book, bound together with Hymns Ancient and Modern in soft brown suede, each volume signed in surprising green ink with her name and the date: "Dec: 25th. 1932." I admire her punctuation: two full stops and a colon, with the stop beneath the "th" placed exactly between the two letters. You don't get punctuation like that nowadays.
In my childhood, the three unmentionable subjects were the traditional ones: religion, politics, and sex. By the time my mother and I came to discuss these matters--the first two, that is, the third being permanently off the agenda--she was "true blue" in politics, as I would guess she always had been. As for religion, she told me firmly that she didn't want "any of that mumbo-jumbo" at her funeral. So when the undertaker asked if I wanted the "religious symbols" removed from the crematorium wall, I told him I thought that this is what she would have wanted.
The past conditional, by the way, is a tense of which my brother is highly suspicious. Waiting for the funeral to start, we had, not an argument--this would have been against all family tradition--but an exchange which demonstrated that if I am a rationalist by my own standards, I am a fairly feeble one by his. When our mother was first incapacitated by a stroke, she happily agreed that her granddaughter C. should have the use of her car: the last of a long sequence of Renaults, the marque to which she had maintained a francophiliac loyalty over four decades. Standing with my brother in the crematorium car park, I was looking out for the familiar French silhouette when my niece arrived at the wheel of her boyfriend R.'s car. I observed--mildly, I am sure--"I think Ma would have wanted C. to come in her car." My brother, just as mildly, took logical exception to this. He pointed out that there are the wants of the dead, i.e. things which people now dead once wanted; and there are hypothetical wants, i.e. things which people would or might have wanted. "What Mother would have wanted" was a combination of the two: a hypothetical want of the dead, and therefore doubly questionable. "We can only do what we want," he explained; to indulge the maternal hypothetical was as irrational as if he were now to pay attention to his own past desires. I proposed in reply that we should try to do what she would have wanted, a) because we have to do something, and that something (unless we simply left her body to rot in the back garden) involves choices; and b) because we hope that when we die, others will do what we in our turn would have wanted.
I see my brother infrequently, and so am often startled by the way in which his mind works; but he is quite genuine in what he says. As I drove him back to London after the funeral, we had a--to me--even more peculiar exchange about my niece and her boyfriend. They had been together a long time, though during a period of estrangement C. had taken up with another man. My brother and his wife had instantly disliked this interloper, and my sister-in-law had apparently taken a mere ten minutes to "sort him out." I didn't ask the manner of the sorting out. Instead, I asked, "But you approve of R.?"
"It's irrelevant," my brother replied, "whether or not I approve of R."
"No, it's not. C. might want you to approve of him."
"On the contrary, she might want me not to approve of him."
"But either way, it's not irrelevant to her whether or not you approve or disapprove."
He thought this over for a moment. "You're right," he said.
You can perhaps tell from these exchanges that he is the elder brother.
My mother had expressed no views about the music she wanted at her funeral. I chose the first movement of Mozart's piano sonata in E flat major K282--one of those long, stately unwindings and rewindings, grave even when turning sprightly. It seemed to last about fifteen minutes instead of the sleeve-noted seven, and I found myself wondering at times if this was another Mozartian repeat or the crematorium's CD player skipping backwards. The previous year I had appeared on Desert Island Discs, where the Mozart I had chosen was the Requiem. Afterwards, my mother telephoned and picked up on the fact that I had described myself as an agnostic. She told me that this was how Dad used to describe himself--whereas she was an atheist. She made it sound as if being an agnostic was a wishy-washy liberal position, as opposed to the truth-and-market-forces reality of atheism. "What's all this about death, by the way?" she continued. I explained that I didn't like the idea of it. "You're just like your father," she replied. "Maybe it's your age. When you get to my age you won't mind so much. I've seen the best of life anyway. And think about the Middle Ages--then their life expectancy was really short. Nowadays we live seventy, eighty, ninety years . . . People only believe in religion because they're afraid of death." This was a typical statement from my mother: lucid, opinionated, explicitly impatient of opposing views. Her dominance of the family, and her certainties about the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.
After her cremation, I retrieved my Mozart CD from the "organist" who, I found myself reflecting, must nowadays get his full fee for putting on and taking off a single CD track. My father had been despatched, five years earlier, at a different crematorium, by a working organist earning his money honestly from Bach. Was this "what he would have wanted"? I don't think he would have objected; he was a gentle, liberal-minded man who wasn't much interested in music. In this, as in most things, he deferred--though not without many a quietly ironical aside--to his wife. His clothes, the house they lived in, the car they drove: such decisions were hers.
Excerpted from Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes Copyright © 2008 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.