Title: Mad Hatter Days

Author: Owen Marshall

In: Sport 21: Spring 1998

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1998, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Owen Marshall — Mad Hatter Days

page 9

Owen Marshall

Mad Hatter Days

As a student I read biographical pieces in which old men addressed their youthful selves as if complete strangers, and claimed to be baffled by the motivations and attitudes they once possessed. My reaction was that the stance was an irritating and pompous affectation. Now however, in my fifties, I'm beginning to change my mind.

I turned 21 in August 1962; my final BA year at the University of Canterbury. I remember little of the year apart from a smattering of my own trivial, selfish pursuits. World events, national issues, even regional happenings, have no place in my recollections, presumably because they played no part in my life.

I was a varsity wallah, as I had found myself termed when balloted into National Military Service as a 20-year-old the year before—something of a shock, but that's another story. I had a duffle coat, corduroys and desert boots: for ‘sharp’ wear I had an ivy league shirt—just like the Kingston Trio—and a small-brimmed green hat with a feather. I owned several pipes, the most prized being a Tanganyikan block meerschaum, the most severely intellectual, a curved Peterson. Wearing coat, hat, and Peterson, I must have resembled someone in search of a Conan Doyle theme party.

A green Series E Morris gave grand mobility and kept me poor despite my secondary studentship. It had an iron key I remember which unlocked the bonnet. Rather than sell that lovable old Morris cheaply a few years later, I should have shut it away and waited for the steep increase in value that the model was about to undergo. But then I have always lacked any entrepreneurial nous.

I read a great deal, almost exclusively ‘high’ literature, though sometimes my intellectualism slipped and I would play tennis for days at a time, before guilt overwhelmed me. I had several trite responses in conversation which I thought worldly wise—‘But it's all relative isn't it,’ or, ‘The question is one of pure semantics.’ I had an page 10 inclination to write, but most of my time was spent in reading and talk. God, how we talked: at the university, at the café, at parties, the pub, the flat, while walking from one to another of these places. All of us jawing on with preposterous nonsense which was largely a way of showing off. What bullshit-artists students are, and what sound preparation for life that often proves to be.

I pursued women, but was clumsy in those arts necessary to captivate them. Either I pitted myself against them verbally in vigorous intellectual competition, or observed them in brooding silence and wondered how they would look without their clothes. The personal solicitude, easy flattery and banter, the brotherly ease, which disarmed them, I was slow to learn. One young woman with whom I had a vigorous dispute over British Fascism of the thirties, did move from a passion for the right-wing position to become more liberal and accommodating during an evening. I thought I had discovered something essential concerning the female psyche, but the trick never worked again. I have retained, however, as a consequence, a fondness for the historical lessons of the thirties. Her shoulders and upper arms were particularly beautiful.

Of my 21st itself I recall little. My own family made no fuss over it, and the modest party I did have was put on by parents of a friend. These people were very generous to me, treating me in much the same way as they did their own son, and allowing me to stay with them while I was working at vacation jobs. I paid only a small amount for board, and the recollection of my imposition and their generosity now embarrasses me. I hope that I thanked them more often than I remember doing so.

My girlfriend gave me a Parker pen which I've lost. I still have the cuff-link set which is the only other 21st gift I can identify. It was given to me by one of my oldest friends and his partner. They later married, and now live in the same town as myself, where he is a prosperous accountant. I see my friend rarely, and on these occasions we retell school and university anecdotes with enjoyment, and have virtually nothing else to talk about, so much have our lives diverged.

During that year of 1962 I flatted with three friends in an old house in Tuam Street. The grass gradually grew until it obscured much page 11 of the window area. We had placed the lawnmower on the roof to hold down some flapping sheets of corrugated iron. Even had the mower been at ground level, we wouldn't have used it. We spent a good deal of most evenings playing a game of our own devising, wherein we took turns standing with our back to the door and tried to pot a pink fishing net float into the waste basket at the other end of the hall. The losers went miserably to their rooms castigating themselves as total academic failures who couldn't even win at throwing a float into a waste paper basket. The winner went to his room castigating himself as an academic failure good only for throwing a pink float into a trash can.

My recollection is that I had become a competent cook, but recently my flatmates vehemently insisted that each of my rostered meals was exactly the same—friend sausages, with carrots and potatoes done in the pressure cooker. I remember that large pressure cooker. We were all afraid of it. The screaming valve, which occasionally blew up, drove us from the kitchen. Even that became a sort of bizarre ritual. Almost anything could be made to serve as a refuge from academic study, but only romance left no regrets.

One of the greatest benefits of university is that the poverty experienced by many students brings them into contact for the first and last time in their lives with those at the bottom of the economic heap. A wonderful array of characters, some of whom have been defeated by life, and others who have splendidly refused to pay it conventional homage. The student's Bohemia was only one of the subcultures I experienced in the world of seedy flats, eccentric landladies, drifters and misfits, casual and menial employment, minor opportunistic criminality, pubs and takeaway food, bludgers, wrecks, emotional crises, definatly unrecognised artists, and true friends. At that age I delighted in it all, because youth itself gave immunity to every outcome.

I'm surprised at how little I remember of being 21, and I do indeed find my young self largely a stranger. I see myself through the looking glass, and the Mad Hatter seems to be in charge. One thing I can remember faithfully—the unassailable conviction that all of life's opportunities stretched endlessly before me.