Three’s a Charm

May 30, 2013

Multiple Pages
Three’s a Charm

Probably it’s just my simpleminded arithmomania, but years ending in the numeral three seem to be more memorable than average, both publicly and personally, for reasons high or low.

In 1953 the public became the personal. This was the year of the Coronation, the first public event to impinge on my consciousness.

We kids all got Coronation mugs—my sister still has hers. There was a street party with free cake and desserts. Most people were happy for the pretty new Queen, although my Dad, a sour republican, took it all as one more opportunity to grumble about “those bloody Germans.”

England was bursting with children in 1953: My elementary school overflowed, so that my class was decanted to an annex in a local church hall. England was still a real nation, too, not yet a flophouse and welfare office for all the world’s beggars, thieves, and lunatics. We were named after kings, queens, and Bible characters. The street games we played were centuries old. That a citizen might be arrested for carrying the nation’s flag was beyond inconceivable in 1953.

“Years ending in the numeral three seem to be more memorable than average.”

Coronation aside, the public world came filtered through the tabloid newspapers my parents favored. Tabloid headliner of the year was John Christie, who had murdered at least eight women. Christie was arrested in March, tried in June, and hanged in July. Justice was brisk back then. Abundant, too: Twelve other people were hanged that year in England, one a female.

1963 was the year when sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin. Sex certainly had top billing in the public sphere.

For me personally, Larkin got it precisely right. Sex didn’t come easy, though: I had to walk for it.

My partner in exploration and I were both living at home. Neither of us had a car. I would spend evenings with her in her parents’ living room—talking, reading, listening to music, and writhing with lust—until the parents went to bed at ten-thirty. Then we would copulate on the living-room carpet, whose color for some reason I remember with perfect clarity: a fetching pale shade of cerulean.

By the time we finished, the town’s meager bus service had shut down for the night, so I had to go home on foot. Her house and mine were on opposite sides of the English country town we both inhabited: four miles as the sated lover stumbles. I didn’t mind. To this day I have found nothing so conducive to a good night’s sleep as a long post-coital walk.

One minor additional inconvenience was a certain aid to male sexual hygiene that my fastidious mistress would not allow me to deposit in her family’s garbage. Nor in neighbors’ hedges: She made me promise to walk at least the length of the street before I discarded the thing.

On one occasion I still had it when, halfway through the walk home, I passed the town’s General Hospital. King Edward VII had dedicated the place, and there was a bust of him on an inscribed plinth in an alcove set into the hospital wall. Feeling irreverent and perhaps having internalized my Dad’s republican scorn, and the streets being perfectly deserted, I fixed the unwanted item, loaded with its pale cargo, over His Majesty’s nose. Then I staggered on homewards whistling a happy tune—quite possibly indeed one from The Beatles’ first LP, which had come out that spring.

1973 is best forgotten. I spent much of my late twenties in the grip of a shameful psychological affliction whose symptoms have been described by much better writers than me. The year 1973 was the lowest trough of the thing, a chronicle of wasted time.

But even in this misery there was a silver lining: I came to the USA for the first time and fell in love with the place. I went back to England five years later, but I think that from 1973 on it was foredoomed that I would die an American.

1983 was an interesting year. I learned a lot. The first half I spent teaching college in China, which was then still struggling out from under Maoism’s great rotting corpse. The joy of the work was my students, who were much brighter, funnier, and more optimistic than I thought they had any cause to be. They were more diverse in character, too. Solzhenitsyn noted the paradox that the varieties of human personality, good and bad, exhibit more strongly under totalitarianism, while freedom leads to leveled conformity.

I returned to an England transformed. The monetarist medicine of the early Thatcher years had been digested, the victory over Argentina had given patriotism a boost, and the Iron Lady had won her second general election. People I’d known a year or two earlier as clock-watching corporate drudges and public-sector drones were starting businesses. That woman mattered.

In 1993 Nellie Muriel Derbyshire was born, and my life as a parent began.

The Clinton presidency began a few days later. If you want to tell me the Clintons are scum-sucking bottom-feeders, I won’t disagree. But those eight years were pretty nice, the nation more relaxed than before or since. You could even say true things about race without a screeching mob of schoolmarms coming after you.

In 2003 the USA invaded Iraq; I forget why. I published Prime Obsession, still my favorite among my own books, just on the Elvis principle.

Interviewer: “Of all your hits, which one is your favorite?”

Elvis: “Uh, ‘Teddy Bear.’”

Interviewer: “Why is that your favorite?”

Elvis: “Uh, that’s the one that made the most money.”

2013: Personally, this will likely be the year of the Empty Nest. Publicly…oh, dear.

According to The Economist, the United States was the best place in the world to be born into back in 1988. Today, the United States is only tied for 16th place.

I have watched one great nation decline; am I fated to see another? I pin my hopes on 2023.


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