When it comes to museums, there are some I have never been inclined to visit, the Pencil Museum in Kendal being one. I have passed its door many times knowing that I can learn the history of Kendal’s pencil manufacturing industry at any time by reading it up - should I ever feel the urge to do so. I may feel differently, however, the next time I’m in the area because, having recently been to the Robert Owen museum, Keats House and the Sigmund Freud Museum - all of them small, specialised collections - I am beginning to appreciate the value of immersing oneself physically in a subject. It’s about engaging the senses in the learning experience and conjuring up that magical quality - atmosphere.
Besides, reading up a subject is easily postponed - sometimes indefinitely - especially in the case of Freud. His theories and practices are famous but, for the layman at least, understood only at a superficial level and, like many complex disciplines, liable to be parodied in the process of popularisation. Nevertheless, surrounded as I was by all things Freud, I became conscious of my subconscious and found it impossible to resist indulging in a little self-psychoanalysis. That dream which features my appearance on stage wearing nothing but a vest: is it really about wish fulfilment? If so, should I sign up for a few sessions on the couch? But no: the damage was done so long ago that it’s too late or too pointless to bother with repairing it. Searching through my earliest memories I recall peering over the side of a ship into the deep green ocean. When, soon after, in my first year of school I painted a picture of a ship on a green sea, the teacher ridiculed me by insisting that the sea is blue. That never-to-be-forgotten humiliation is surely responsible for my enduring artistic inhibition - and my fear of being seen without trousers.
On a more positive note, however, the experience may also have catalysed in me a strong empathy for the tender and impressionable state of infancy. Whenever I see a toddler I think back to that teacher who sought to modify my impressions of the world - despite the fact that she had apparently never gazed into the deep green ocean. Whatever children experience is reality for them. One former child to whom I’m related has just turned eighteen. I first met him on the day he was born and have taken an interest in his progress ever since, encouraging him occasionally to assert his independent view of the world (taking care not to subvert his parents’ hopes). By happy coincidence I was present this week when his father took the three of us to the pub so that his son could ceremonially buy his first round of pints - legally that is. What happened subsequently will probably scar the young man for life.
The bar was busy and we had to wait our turn. When an opening appeared I acted instinctively and caught the barmaid’s eye.
“Three pints of Summer Ale, please”, I shouted. Father and son were talking but, as the barmaid started to pull the pints they looked up and realised that I had spoilt the occasion by calling the order out of turn. My apologies were grudgingly accepted.
“Think of it as one of life’s lessons”, I continued. “You need to be assertive at a busy bar.”
Our first-timer looked unhappy at this unwanted lesson but, I rationalised, he will at least have a story to tell the next generation of legal first-rounders. Besides, as Freud might have said (but didn’t) “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”