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Archive for the tag “1960s”

The Anatomy School (book review)

The Anatomy SchoolThe Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.

At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.

The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.

After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.

It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.

One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.

On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.

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Where were you?

People sometimes ask “Where were you when such and such and event happened?” Or, more likely, they remember where they themselves were. And now people are remembering where they were during the first moon landing, 40 years ago this week. Jim Forest’s memories of where he was are particularly interesting because they recall another aspect of the 1960s — he was in jail.

On Pilgrimage: The whole Earth in a prison cell:

Most people at the time saw the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it happening via a pair of low-tech earphones made available to me by the State of Wisconsin. I was in a narrow cell at Waupun State Prison.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of 14 people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

As for me, I was travelling through the Kalahari. I was doing that during the Apollo XI space mission, and during the Apollo XII mission as well. At the time of the Apollo XIII mission I didn’t make it to the Kalahari, and Apollo XIII didn’t make it to the moon either.

Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

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