Two Left Feet

“I’m sure I’m dyspraxic,” the woman said, “though of course they didn’t call it that when I was young. They just called me Clumsy.”

She was a sprightly, slender lady, perhaps sixty-five or seventy, with a lively and engaging face; I liked her instantly, and was willing to claim kinship.”Same here,” I said.

“Oh!” she said. “Do you get left and right muddled up? Were you a late walker? Terrible handwriting?

“Apparently I used to walk around on my knees,” I said, “and I was terrible at sports -”

“Oh yes! Last person to be picked for the team! And they’d put you in goal to keep you out of the way, and then you get told off when the ball goes in -”

” – And the other kids hate you because they think you’re not trying!”

It was like one of those conversations where you find out that someone you’ve just met has got the same favourite book as you, or spent their childhood holidays in the same place – that sense of shared understanding and validation of the way you feel.

Now, I don’t really approve of the medicalisation of normal human variability. It implies that perfection and normality are the same, whereas, as we know, nobody’s perfect. Notwithstanding the significant effects of severe Asperger’s syndrome, there are some people who apply an amateur diagnosis of “somewhere on the spectrum” to anyone who they think is a bit odd. This implies that there is a group of perfectly well-adjusted and socially able people who are nowhere on it; and if I’ve ever met any of these paragons, I don’t know them very well. Taken to extremes, the allocation of a Latinate term to every diversion from the ideal could lead everyone to be treated for imagined or insignificant flaws, and the consequence in terms of human misery could be dire.

It also smacks of hypochondria – encouraging people to pride themselves on their interesting health conditions. “I’m not clumsy, I’m dyspraxic,” I could say, as if the trail of broken crockery I leave behind me makes me somehow more virtuous, a heroic figure struggling against the tragic handicap that Fate has dealt me. Or: “I’m not a miserable cow, I’m a depressive.” (Actually, I’m both.)

All that said, though, I love the idea of being “dyspraxic”. I think the main reason is that when a new descriptive term enters the language, it is relatively light on negative connotations; it means, as Humpty Dumpty put it in Alice in Wonderland, “just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” It stands between the characteristic it refers to, and the connotations which that characteristic has collected.

In “The Beauty Myth,” Naomi Wolf observed that, in Western culture, beauty – particularly in women – is seen to correlate with all the virtues – goodness, intelligence and lovability. Being thin – which in this narrative is an implicit requirement for beauty – is, if possible, even more loaded with connotation. It is assumed to imply self-control, application, and industriousness.

We aren’t under as much pressure to be dextrous as we are to be attractive. Quite apart from anything else, there’s not much you can sell people to make them less clumsy, whereas you can bombard people with adverts for skin creams and diet plans. However, the same sort of process applies in both cases: being clumsy is associated with all manner of other characteristics, all of them negative.

Being bad at sports, as I and my friend identified, means a lack of team spirit. You can’t possibly be trying hard enough to win, so therefore you can’t want to be part of the gang. Sportsmen and women are heroic, morally and physically. Olympians return to the country garlanded with honour. “Sporting” doesn’t mean dexterity, but moral nobility – the ability to be magnanimous in victory and steadfast in defeat.

It’s worse, I think, for boys. Girls and women are permitted not to care about sports, but men who don’t like football are, you’d think, practically eunuchs. In “A Room with a View” the last straw for Lucy is when her fiance Cecil refuses to play tennis. Her brother Freddy has complained that “there are some chaps that are no good for anything but books.” Cecil says, “I plead guilty to being such a chap.” Forster has already signalled Cecil’s lack of sexiness by describing his failure to kiss Lucy properly, whereas the hero, George, simply grabs her and snogs her whenever he gets a chance. Cecil’s inability to play tennis is even worse. Poor Cecil. Can’t play tennis, actually asks a woman’s permission before engaging her in sexual activity; who’d want him?

Inability to play a musical instrument is an indication, firstly, of a lack of application; secondly, of a lack of finer sensibilities; thirdly, again, of a lack of sexiness. Nineteenth-century girls who’d been taught to play the piano were encouraged to play for potential suitors. And it has been repeatedly observed that a sure-fire way for a boy to get the girls is to acquire a guitar.

Breaking things is carelessness, a lack of regard for your own property and that of others. And as for having to hold your hands out in front of you to see which one spells L before turning left – well, that’s just stupid.

Now, I’m not going to set up a “Dyspraxic and Proud” group. Firstly, because the word “dyspraxic” has entered the English language in a jocular sense. People use it in a similar way to how they would use “vertically challenged” as a comically elevated version of “short”. It has come to mean, in fact, “clumsy.”

More importantly, in order to be actually proud of something you really have to think there’s something good about it. And I wish I wasn’t so clumsy. It’d have been great to have avoided all that PE-lesson-related hassle. I’d have bloody loved to have mastered a musical instrument. And I do wish I hadn’t broken one (was it only one?) of my husband’s collection of Piccadilly Records mugs.

However, presumably, it’d also have been nice to have been drop-dead gorgeous. Just as we generally find out that worth and lovability aren’t the sole property of the beautiful, so those of us with two left feet need to appreciate that it doesn’t make you a bad person. That is, it would be silly to be proud of being clumsy, but there’s no need to be ashamed of it.

Brockhampton at the time of Brexit

There is a lovely church at Brockhampton, in Herefordshire. It sits in a landscape of small-scale, rolling hills, heavily overlaid with woodland. They create the sort of intimate, unique setting which human beings, with our instinct to define territory, love to recognise. That curve of the road leading us down into the village. That spacious vista into what was – I guess – the landscaped grounds of the local Big House. The church sits snugly into the gap between the two.

It was designed and built by William Lethaby in 1902. Lethaby was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, an artistic and philosophical grouping with ideological links to the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Augustus Pugin’s pro-Gothic Catholicism. All of these movements reacted against the shock of modernity in the 19th century – industrialisation, the growth of vast cities, and the exploitation of a burgeoning underclass. They harked back to earlier ages in which  – it was believed – existence was nobler, and human endeavour had not been reduced to the banal degradation of factory work. The Arts and Crafts movement extolled the virtues of artisan industry, craftsmanship and the nobility of the common man. It linked, philosophically, with the first folk revival, in which Sabine Baring-Gould, Cecil Sharp et al collected folk songs  – not as a curio but as a valued cultural asset.

Outside, the churchyard is fuzzy with long meadow grasses and wildflowers, and the church itself – a composite form, built in local stone, and thatched – resembles a centuries-old farmstead, which has been augmented and altered over the years, so that the original plan is obscured by later additions. Inside, the church’s A-frame construction – a pointed arch, more roof than walls – is reminiscent of one of those cruck-framed barns, whose structure is provided by pairs of massive oak beams, resting on the ground and leaning on one another at the ridge. The choirstalls carry delicate, intricate carvings of the wildflowers outside. The whole building gives the impression of having grown up as part of the rural landscape, and having been elevated to the formal status of church by accident. So perfect is its evocation of bucolic English country charm that a scale model of it has actually been built 21 floors up in a building in Osaka, as a wedding chapel.

At the back of the church, there is a moderately-sized triptych. It takes the form of a central panel of carved and painted wood, showing Jesus’s crucifixion in the middle and some of the scenes leading up to it – the :Last Supper, Jesus’s arrest, Jesus before Pilate – around it; and two painted panels, hinged like cupboard doors, on either side. “Probably sixteenth century,” says the label. In almost any other church in the country it would be pushed to the fore as a prized possession; because Brockhampton is such a perfect example of one of the artistic movements of a different age, the triptych fits uncomfortably within the church, and is positioned unobtrusively.

We don’t know the name of the artist. But we know quite a lot about him – I presume it was a “him”. We know that he had the patience and the skill to incise in wood the patterns upon a brocaded robe and the folds of a wimple. We know that he was observant; he had noted that, if a person is suspended by his arms, the balls of the shoulders jut forwards, and the twist of the arms delineates all the muscles and sinews upon them. He noticed that, when a woman in a long dress faints but is supported by those around her, she seems to telescope downwards – her clothes and her limbs and even her face seeming to shrink and crumple. He saw that the strength of a horse is in its great hindquarters, which power it to gallop and barge and kick, and that, therefore, a soldier who presents his mount’s rump to the crowd is not joking, but threatening. We know that the artist, on the cusp of the Reformation – whatever form it took in whatever country he came from – combined some mediaeval sensibilities with the Renaissance’s humanism. He crammed his figures into elaborately-framed cases, as they appear in illuminated manuscripts, but he wanted to show how people in a given situation would think and act and appear.

Out in the churchyard, there is a war memorial, which lists the names of the First World War dead under the heading “The Unforgotten.” As in every church in the country and every graveyard in Europe, the alphabetically-listed groupings of the same surnames bear witness to whole families’ devastation.

But a mere name means nothing. You find this out when your own name changes. When I married, I said to friends who were surprised that I had adopted my husband’s name, “It’s not a statement of subordination; it’s a statement of unity.” In the next job I took up, nobody cared a jot how long I had had the name I bore, and attributed to it no significance whatsoever; why should they?

In “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” the poet Gray, surveying the graves of the village dead, at first regrets the lack of opportunity which prevented any of them from having achieved the greatness of which they might have been capable. He then consoles himself with the thought that the villagers were also, because of the constraints upon their lives, incapable of doing any serious harm.

In contrast, it seems to me that the boys listed upon the Brockhampton war memorial had the worst of both worlds. Nobody forbade them to wade through slaughter, as Gray put it. Rather, they were compelled to. And it got them nowhere. They attained no greatness; they got nothing but an early death and their mere name inscribed upon a board. They might be called “the Unforgotten” but, unlike the woodcarver who produced the triptych, they died too young – in many cases – to have made themselves memorable to anyone but their friends and family, who are now, like them, long dead.

It was the day after “Brexit”, when Britain voted to stop co-operating with Europe. In rural England, the proportion of “Leave” votes was higher than in the cities. “We want our country back,” people said. Some people defined “our” more narrowly than others. Some people defined “country” more narrowly than others.

Earlier, standing in the nave of the church, to test the echo, I’d raked in my consciousness for an apt thing to sing, and what came out was “He who would valiant be” – John Bunyan’s quasi-martial poem, with the lines that have always made me feel tougher –

“Hobgoblin nor foul fiend/Can daunt his spirit/He knows he at the end/ Shall life inherit.”

– which Ralph Vaughan Williams set to the tune of the English folk song, “Our Captain Calls All Hands” – an unconvincing description of the glory of war.

On that day, of all days, the church’s evocation of perfect Englishness seemed rather sad and rather sinister – the 1900s harking back to an imagined ideal of the past, which might not have ever existed – any more than the Brexiteers’ imagined past. Twelve years after Brockhampton church was built, in that peaceable, secluded setting, teeming with wildflowers, Europe fell apart, and Brockhampton’s boys fell with it.

I don’t mean to say that we should not value the past, or that Brockhampton church is made less beautiful because of the events of twelve or of a hundred and fourteen years after it was built. And I’m sure that Lethaby and the other Arts and Crafts artists and architects, whose philosophy was social and egalitarian, would have been appalled by any taint of nationalism. I am simply saying: First, let us not believe that any imagined notion of nationhood is worth killing or dying for. Second, we are remembered not by the names which we bear, but by what we do; so let us never again accept the idea of consigning our young to an abject death, when any one of them might otherwise produce something as remarkable as the Brockhampton triptych, or, indeed, as remarkable as Brockhampton church itself.