I am more than happy if anyone wants to read what I've written, but I would like to ask you to write me a brief message stating your opinion. I am of course flattered to hear if you like it, but I learn more if you tell me what you do not like.
My children are eagerly reading about Harry Potter and a British boarding school to train young wizards, and I want to tell them about the real boarding school I attended for a year in Oxford, England when I was eight -- Christ Church Cathedral School, -- preparing boys (no girls) for Eton and service in the British Empire. This reality has since become as strange as wizardry although it was only 1966. I have great respect for the fantasy world depicted by J. K. Rowling – and I share her concern with death and multiple sclerosis. While my school did not teach magic per se, the ghost of its founder, Cardinal Wolsey (1473 -- 1530), did walk the dorms, was reputed to have murdered one of the boys and did take the slipper I had thrown at him. I was not just coming from the bourgeois modern world of London suburbia, but from the safety of 1960s mid-America. The England I saw has ceased to exist but continues to fascinate me as much as wizardry. People called me "sir", because I was not working class; and the bus drivers were white and proud to be bus drivers like their fathers before them and they still expected their sons would be after them.
Mom and I think that
Before I left Kansas I had a different approach to writing, even if the stories only survive in my memory. At that time, I sought to understand my surroundings by seeing them through supernatural eyes. I called them the jelly monsters at the time and have polished for publication the way I retold the story to my daughter some 40 years later. But there was another way to see the world that tempted me then, even if I had to hide it. My older brother had a pile of National Geographic's in his closet. This perspective seemed incompatible with that of the jelly monsters. Everything was clear and real, if strange. It is possible that the jelly monsters have stayed with me more during the past 40 years than I think. But when I went to England -- and then continued to go -- I thought I was looking for reality.
I want to tell them of my two years at a boarding school in the New York City before the twin towers were built. There was no British Empire here, but in boarding school we learned to construct a place in the broader world in which our situation had meaning. I then spent a year at home -- but it was not the safe American home of my childhood in Kansas. Half the population of my new home in Hong Kong in 1968 had recently escaped the Cultural Revolution in China and lived as squatters and I watched speechlessly as they fished a man out of the harbor who had been executed on the Mainland.
I want to write about going to school in Geneva, Switzerland, where my class at age 13 resolved America could handle its race problem by simply requiring blacks and whites to intermarry so that the resulting generation would all look the same. I would like to write about riding bicycles over the Alps in Switzerland with a German boy when I was 14. I was living on his farm in Bavaria and he knew I could speak some languages he learned at school. I remember when we moved for the first time into a canton that spoke French, he at first thought it quaint that the shop girl, no older than he, could sell us bread in fluent French, but it was quite different when he began to flirt with her and realized she really could not speak German. It was like the world was changing for him. Perhaps he realized then for the first time I hadn't always spoken German either. We were going over the Alps, but he was only just beginning to conceive how big the world was and it was a complex realization.
I want to write about my year in Italy and about the mystical world view of my Jesuit Latin teacher -- Professor of Latin at the Gregorian University in Rome, for a church that no longer spoke Latin. He became like a father to me and I still know his family 35 years later today. He had written a series of books in the 1950s to show it was often easier to translate into Latin than between modern languages. What would Europe have been like if its public discourse were now in Latin instead of the chaotic translation of everything into a -- predictably for cost purposes -- constantly decreasing number of modern languages? He had himself begun to speak Latin and standard Italian at the same time -- he had previously only spoken a ladino dialect.
I ran with the bulls in a small Spanish village in 1978 – this custom is not unique to Pamplona – and I saw a small quartet assemble in a crowded marketplace to sing a nationalist song forbidden in Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1984 and disappear again into the masses. I saw a small group of Slavs celebrate a secret Mass in 1979 -- doubly forbidden in communist Hungary for ethnic and political reasons.
Asia too has changed. The Saigon I saw as the American troops withdrew and the Communists had not yet made it Ho Chi Minh City only existed for a few months. The orphanage with the half Vietnamese children with blond hair and blue eyes who had to eat pig food because the food donated by American charities had been sold on the black market is not there anymore. Neither is the man I was introduced to down the street who cultivated fragile orchids as if there were no war. Or the Cercle Sportif, where the rich played tennis in spotless white outfits and the children put salt in their Coke to watch it go flat and spoke French faultlessly as the machine guns could do nothing to stop change outside their door. And they were showing a Japanese sword fighting movie on big screens in the four corners of the camp for Vietnamese boat people I saw later on Guam.
I have seen a great many different places I want to write about. From Tiger Hill near Darjeeling, you can watch the sun come up slowly over the Himalayas which act as a prism so the colors appear one by one. I saw Phnom Penh in 1969 when it was still a sleepy provincial French town and the pedicab drivers spoke pidgin French before we pushed the war over this city. I have sat with a trucking magnate in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai who boasted in 1974 he could have anyone killed for $15.
A lot has been forgotten that needs to be remembered. We talk about spying. I was spied on during the Cold War too. Of course it was sometimes my fault really. One time I had a visa to Leipzig and went illegally to Karl Marxstadt, which we now call Chemnitz again, instead. As usual, I was given the carrot instead of the stick. They tailed me but I only saw the 30 page report complete with numerous photographs after the Wall came down. They did not arrest me, and I did not know that the East German spy had judged me at age 22, to be "well, but not stylishly dressed". They gave my brothers more the stick with prison and strip searches while they tended to take me out to fancy dinners and plays with the same purpose (trying unsuccessfully to get East German spies into Hong Kong in the guise of students through my father who was a professor there). The East Germans actually thought my younger brother was a spy. Of course, the West Europeans thought he was a spy for the East too and didn't give him the job at the European Union his wife now holds. I met some of his friends over there -- they published an underground dissident newspaper which was hard to do without any machinery to reproduce texts -- you can get at best five copies with carbon paper. I have been asked how I could be so sure my brother was not a spy. I suppose I would not have known if he had been. But then I don't think he was.
I have tried my hand at being a regular professional too. I graduated from Yale with majors in classics, Latin and Greek, and linguistics and The Johns Hopkins University gave me a Ph.D. in history. The novel I have finished, "Creon and Oedipus, an historian’s murders" brings together these disparate fields in an attempt to understand history, our love of the past, the need to excel in a profession, our fascination with alchemy and death in one story.
I have many stories to tell about my students and their sometimes mystical view of the world from my years as a history professor, but I became too sick with multiple sclerosis to continue telling my story at the university. I became the English voice of European Catholic Bishops, cement factory salesmen, parliamentary bureaucrats, nutcases who don't think West Germany existed because there was no quorum when the Reich was dissolved, whole books about Mao and Stalin, psychotherapy, and about how the universe is made up of waves as a freelance translator. Speaking for an Italian peasant aggrieved by an American Airline, I have written "I am poor, but I have my dignity" and I have been the English voice of an Italian cop in Florida undercover to catch a major cocaine distributor, transcribing the phone numbers I could have used to unmask him to his death and make myself incredibly wealthy.
I researched my dissertation in Germany where I met somebody in that library connected with the German museum in Munich - one of the places Germans find for people who see things other people cannot see -- there is a word for that in German I don't think we have in English: “Narrenfreiheit” -- the freedom of the mad to speak. He knew several ancient Middle Eastern languages and had learned things we cannot fit into any of our curricula. He used to dress all in white and write his articles that no one had the background to understand. We used to speak German together but when he heard I spoke English too, he started poking fun at me in a working-class Liverpool accent saying I had probably never even heard of the school he went to: Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford England. He laughed bitterly. They had chosen to admit one working class student to this elite aristocratic school as a sort of gesture to equality and made him into something that could not go back to the streets of Liverpool but could never be accepted in the halls of traditional academe either. They had made me the 11th chorister in a choir of 10. He had ended up in a German museum and I had been given a scholarship there too. Now I have left academia, I feel the need to write my true conclusions from my dissertation research too in the context of “Narrenfreiheit”.