Wednesday 14 March 2012

On surfing and Shakespeare

There are some things I never discovered until I was in my thirties: single malt scotch, Shakespeare, the Trinitate of Saint Augustine.

For example. The Shakespeare I was made to read when I was a boy – Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew – was all spoiled for me. Even Hamlet is a play that I have never really learned to love, ever since I was forced to read it by an English teacher named Mrs Macey who gave dreary afternoon orations about the archaic words and the imagery of rot and weeds and poison. Harold Bloom has said that Shakespeare will speak to as much of yourself as you are able to bring to him: and at sixteen years of age I was not able to bring very much, so Hamlet was wasted on me. Even when I read it today I am struck by nothing so much as a dull sense of familiarity, like meeting an old classmate you used to know but never really liked.

But then there are the plays I never read until my early thirties – King Lear, Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra – and they are the great things, the plays that seem to light up everything, quick as stabs of lightning. They speak to more of me, because I had more of myself to bring when I read them.

The other day I read King Lear again, a text whose every syllable seems charged with revelation, bright and burning yet not consumed like the bush that Moses saw, and I was glad I had never read a thing like that when I was a boy, back when I knew nothing of what a grand appalling thing it is to be alive, back when someone like Mrs Macey would have had to explain it to me.

We are always talking about the things we wished we knew when we were young. Important lessons are learned too late, and we feel that everything might have been different, everything better, if only we had learned those things twenty, thirty, forty years ago. But there are some things that it's good you never saw until you had a few lines around your eyes. There are lovely things that grow only in the desert, and there are truths that cannot take root in the fertile soil of youth but only in the harder, drier conditions of a life that has known failure and disappointment and loss and the joys that come slowly.

This week I learned a truth like that, something I might have learned when I was younger, but am glad I never did.

I lay in the sun. I watched. I waited. I paddled. I looked back in fright. I felt the startling huge push. My head was filled with noise. I pushed myself up on my hands. I was very glad and very afraid. From beneath a great weight I dragged my legs up. I wobbled. I tottered. I – stood!

So it was that, at the age of thirty-three, at a place called Moffat Beach, I learned to ride a surfboard.

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