Books give gift of possibility

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Books are wondrous food for our children's minds. Photo / 123RF

By Alan Duff

In a 1951 column my grandfather compared an English country essayist, Richard Jeffries, to the great G B Shaw on the subject of death, opining that Jeffries wrote about it better.

A quote: "There is no such thing as a natural cause of death ... we are murdered by our ancestors whose dead hands reach out from the tomb and drag us down to their mouldering bones."

Grandad wrote how generous Shaw's ancestors were in not murdering him until he was 94.

Jeffries' ancestors murdered him at 39.

Last week, my childhood friend was buried, gone at 66. His mother died in a dentist's chair after being given too much pain-killing gas. His father's hand reached out from the tomb with the heart condition passed on to his son.

I expect a claim no later than 83, the longest any of my direct paternal or maternal male line has lived. Although my mother defied her ancestors (as she did everyone and every social convention) by living decades longer than all her siblings, joining her ancestors' mouldering bones at 78.

My deceased friend was my closest pal from age 9 until about 20, when we went our different ways.

There were three breaks of about a year each in between. When we did see each other there was no formality, exaggerated boasts. Just tell each other the truth of how life has gone so far.

He was born dispossessed conceptually. And I stumbled in the fog of emotional turmoil.

We drifted apart, as childhood friends often do. Hit your 50s to realise you have nothing in common, try and force the past back to life but it falls short and flat.

Still an uncomfortable feeling imagining him in a coffin: All that unfulfilled sporting promise gone; the quick mind that never found a focus.

The person I knew intimately and yet a person I didn't know at all.

Across 40 years on our different life courses: the big moments and life-altering events, luck and influences that changed me.

The big dreams my friend had that were never realistic, and my own a seeming impossibility. But I believed I'd make it as a writer, as did he as an astute gambler.

Part of my luck was growing up in a home full of books and a father who gave his children the wonder of the written word as some sort of hapless counter-balance to our mother's hedonistic and frequently violent ways.

Continued below.

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In the end Dad's way worked - just.

My paternal ancestors left behind love of the written word, which opened up other worlds, and ultimately allowed an inherited writing ability to the fore. My late friend's ancestors only gave him a physical talent which he did not develop.

I have a theory that the tombs of generational mouldering bones must have diversity, mutational variance, if you will.

To bring nurture into it: cultural complexity; exposure to a broad range of ideas; the gift of vocabulary which expands your understanding of life. All this combining to expanding your options - to put it rather thinly.

But if you inherit only the tactile, with little or no exposure to the written word; if your world perception is mostly physical, your understanding only of what seems to be in front of you, you start, surely, at a disadvantage.

Go back a thousand years of my friend's ancestors inhabiting our isolated two islands, and only warriors reach out. The great bulk snatched not by genes so much as a simplistic culture in part defined by isolated geography.

At the same time Europe was both warring yet becoming more civilised, in part because countries were the equivalent of Maori tribal divisions.

Although my upbringing was more tumultuous than my friend's, I nonetheless had an educated father whose mother had a novel published and his father was a nationally admired editor/columnist, and we kids were taught that the world is a very big, interesting place.

By the time I was 10, I and my siblings had already experienced too much family trauma.

But on the other hand, our father had opened our minds to notions, concepts bigger than our mere selves; fed us the wondrous diet of science, gifted us with the rules of grammar.

My friend, meanwhile, grew up without those traumas in his late mother's and my mother's pa, but hardly learned anything except how to play cards, bet on horses.

That doesn't sound fair to me, to be grabbed, plucked from a contest you were never equipped to be in.

The times you live in can pull you down to join its culturally diseased living bones. That's sad.

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