Lord of the Flies : Books in the Blood # 12

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

The Romans believed that human beings were not born properly formed, that they need shaping to enable them to grow into decent citizens. This is why they beat their children as a matter of course – how on earth were you supposed to breed effective conquerors and Empire builders if you didn’t punch all the softness out during the formative years?

In the Middle Ages, people thought bear cubs were born as a formless lump and the reason their parents licked them so much was that they had to be pushed into the right shape – imagine a blob of furry modelling clay and you’ve got the idea. Hence the expression ‘licked into shape’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you cry, and by the way I do wish you wouldn’t do that – it’s like having a virtual Greek Chorus following me across the webby-sphere. Stick with me – a point will be made.

I can see where these ancient thinkers were coming from. Maybe not with the bears, but to be fair they probably just made that up – I’m sure you could count the number of Medieval thinkers who got close to a bear cub and lived on one hand. Not one of their hands, of course, because presumably they’d come away without digits to do any counting on. But I digress.

But the Romans had a point, because human’s are born only partly formed. We lack in experience and knowledge, of course, as anyone who’s ever watched a toddler try and do almost anything can testify. They fall over,  bump into furniture, burst into tears seemingly without reason, burble nonsense then start throwing things when you can’t understand them … They are my Uncle Stan after a Payday Friday visit to the Squint and Spyglass pub.

And emotionally, small children are bit … Odd. This may be controversial (and completely unproven), but it seems  to me children are born without empathy – it’s something they learn with experience. Ever seen a toddler fall and hurt itself whilst surrounded by other toddlers? The rest of the crowd carry on pushing building bricks up their noses and eating the contents of the sandpit.  I’m not really suggesting that we’re all born sociopaths and that it’s only with experience and example that we learn to care for others … Or am I?

Which brings me onto today’s Books in the Blood,

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Now, this is another Secondary School set book that many of you will have read. I already know from previous conversations online that some of you  REALLY didn’t like this book. And who can blame you? To be honest, I’d be a little worried for anyone who read this book time and time again. If this is your go-to book when you’re feeling low, when you want to snuggle up in your onesy, a big mug of Horlicks in hand … You should be wearing that rather fetching jacket with the fastenings at the back – you know the one with the long sleeves and the buckle motif.

This is a book to admire, but is it one to love?

It’s very well written – remember the scene on the beach at night, the description of the light on the waves, of the bright fish swimming around a body?

But the bodies, of course are one of the problems. Because Golding creates a world devoid of adults, stuffed with young boys and once they’ve shrugged of any semblance of civilisation, they revert to that primal state the Romans were so worried about. The world the boys create is nasty and brutish, where there’s no room for the soft, the sensitive or the weak. It’s an unjust world where those with a sense of decency won’t survive long. (I can hear you students of history shouting ‘But that’s what Roman society was all about.’ A discussion for another time, friends).

I suppose it’s many people’s first introduction to dystopian fiction and there’s little out there that’s more dystopian. Have you heard anyone criticise the plots of The Hunger Games and other YA books for being too violent for the young, as if this is a recent phenomenon, a symptom of the modern era’s degradation? Just remind them of this book and the fact it was school that made us read it.

I remember finding it creepy, disturbing, genuinely depressing, making me want to flee back to the reassuring comforts of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. If this was what ‘adult reading’ was all about, give me the Beano.

I’ve said this before on Word Shamble, remember Golding taught at a boys’ school – if anyone knew about how heartless children can be, it was him.

A sobering thought.

From sexual dalliance to the dissolution of the monasteries: Wednesday Word Tangle

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Ever been naughty?

It’s a funny word, often used to describe childish misbehaviour. It’s a light, bouncy word, downplaying the severity of waywardness, presumably because they’re kids and aren’t held responsible for their actions.

Mind you, if you’ve ever watched a group of the little horrors playing when they don’t know they’re being watched, you might replace the word naughty with ‘excessively violent, verging on sociopathic’.

Leave a group of boys alone with some sticks for half an hour and on your return you won’t find them trying to build a shelter or whittling a touching tableau of baby animals. Oh, no. They will have found something to sharpen the sticks on (their own teeth – the teeth of the smallest, most vulnerable member of the group) and they will be in the process of jabbing each other with as much force as their under-developed muscles can manage.

If you leave them a week, one will be king – an old school, Biblical king, not some kind of ineffectual figurehead only fit to wave and draw the tourists – and have the power of life and death over the rest. They will have killed and eaten a wild boar ‒ even if you left them in your local park where there’s nothing more dangerous than mallards and scabby, one legged pigeons.

William Golding knew what he was talking about when he wrote Lord of the Flies – well, the man did teach at a boys’ school.

So, I guess we realised naughty’s too tame a word for kids and we relocated it sideways, with a nod and a wink, to suggest something more adult. Bit weird, but that’s how language works – just think of the different ways the words ‘gay’ and ‘bad’ have changed in just a few decades.

But the word of the week isn’t naughty, but another saucy, adult, picture-postcard kind of word, and my first hyphenated Wednesday Word Tangle.

Hanky-panky.

Now, when I hear it, I think of sexual misconduct, but in a sort of vaguely rude, but ultimately harmless way – much more Benny Hill than bondage and ball-gags. It can also be a general term for dishonesty, getting up to no good.

This was an interesting word to research, because no one seems to know for certain where it came from. Wictionary claim it could come from the Romani expression hakk’ni panki meaning ‘big con’ or ‘great trick’. There’s some talk of it coming down from illusionists and their use of handkerchiefs (the ‘panky’ bit coming about just because it rhymes and language loves a rhyme).

But most sources (and bearing in mind these are internet sources and so tend to copy and paste from each other) seem to think it’s a twist on the phrase ‘hocus-pocus’, suggesting nonsense, especially when involving magic tricks.

One derivation I read draws me and even if it’s not true, I want it to be. It claims the phrase Hocus-Pocus is a mickey take by Protestants of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation and associated religious rites. Apparently, this is also the origins of the dance the Hokey-Cokey, or Hokey-Pokey as you chaps call it in the States. The dance is supposed to be a satire of the Mass, though I’ve been to a lot of Catholic Masses and there’s been nothing as lively as a knees up, I can tell you.

I must admit to finding this idea intriguing. There has undoubtedly been enmity between the Protestants and the Catholics – the Reformation, the Spanish Armada, the dissolution of the monasteries and the wholesale vandalism of British churches under the Tudors bears witness to that.

But that this hatred should come down to us in the form of a rather quaint family-orientated dance is odd.

When I think of the Hokey-Cokey, I think of the post war years. I think of grannies in hairnets laughing like drains and flashing their frilly bloomers as they ‘shake it all about’ after two gins and a Mackeson stout. I think of village halls and VE day and girl scouts and communities united in a bit of innocent, pre-internet nonsense. This is the sort of thing we did during the Blitz (along with extra-marital sex with American squaddies and taking advantage of the black-out to burgle the neighbours).

I do not think of martyrs and massacres and religious intolerance.

So, next time you use this soft silly, fun little phrase, remember its history, because it’s a corker.