BWS 09.03.16: Phil Dwyer

Phil Dwyer

Phil Dwyer’s journalism, essays, travel writing, and fiction have been published in over fifteen international titles, including The Financial Times, The Times (of London), and The Globe and Mail. He is an alumnus of the Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto.

Phil dropped by the blog this week with a guest post. Enjoy!

In Praise Of Encyclopedias (and The Three Princes of Serendip)

I was a sick kid, asthmatic in an age before steroid-based drugs. My local GP, the English version of a family doctor, prescribed three medicines for my asthma: a yellow, opaque solution of penicillin for lung infections; a red, sticky and impossibly sweet and then disgustingly bitter syrup which I believe was supposed to ease my cough (I never really had a cough); and a brown poison the purpose of which I was never able to penetrate. Of the three the brown was by far the vilest. Its only virtue was that it made the other two taste less heinous.

These three potions did little for my wheeziness. My mother’s folk remedy, a hot toddy—brandy, sugar, hot water and lemon—was far more effective though probably highly illegal for a ten year old. These were the days of laissez-faire parenting. The sugar, hot water and lemon were useless too, of course, but the brandy helped me to relax and did seem to ease my breathing. It also gave me a lifelong taste for brandy, although these days I prefer Armagnac to the cheap, astringent, generic brandy my mother used for her concoction.

Despite the toddies, when I was twelve years old I had a sustained asthma attack I just couldn’t shake. It lasted from September to March, an entire winter and into the British spring. Imprisoned indoors, the days moved at a glacial pace.

The school sent work for me to do, but not enough of it; I was generally finished by Monday afternoon. This was decades before daytime TV arrived in the UK. In those days, television started at 4:45 P.M., with children’s programs—Noggin The Nog, Ivor The Engine, Captain Pugwash—before the evening news. The only exceptions were a quarter of an hour program at lunch, and, for perhaps an hour a day, dour educational programs for schools. The rest of the time the BBC and ITV broadcast a test card.

test card

BBC test card, circa 1967.

There was nothing to fill those endless days with but books, and at first, just my library books. But as a “junior” member of the library I was allowed only four books a week. I’d usually blown through those by Monday afternoon—a whole five days before my twin sister replenished my stash.

I started in on my elder brother’s English set texts: The Catcher In The Rye, Don Quixote, Animal Farm, and Dombey & Son. I abandoned the Cervantes, feeling the adventures of a crazed Spaniard were a little too juvenile for a twelve year old. I had similar reservations about the Orwell, but I thought the allegory clever so I forgave him its innocent simplicity. I fell in love with Salinger. He offered a glimpse of an alien world, so different to the constrained, polite world painted by the English authors I’d read up until then: dangerous, rebellious, loaded with racy language. I didn’t know it was possible to write those words down. To publish them. I re-read Catcher once a year for the following five or six years.

Soon, though, I was through those books too, so I started to devour my mother’s collection of whodunits: mainly Agatha Christie. I drew the line at Mom’s romance novels. Barbara Cartland was a step too far.

Desperate, I scoured the house for more reading matter. In the dining room I uncovered a treasure trove, an Odham’s Encyclopedia set my mother had brought from a door-to-door salesman on a weekly payment plan some years before.

I remember the slight resistance of the encyclopedia’s pages against the outside air the first time I opened a volume: the red-speckled fore edge; a faint whumph as it yielded, as if the book were taking its first breath; a vaguely nutty, musty smell. Mine were likely the first human hands to plunder its treasures. For ten years or more it had sat undisturbed on its “handsome dark-wood presentation shelf”, jammed tight against its sister volumes. I felt like the prince in the fairy tale, waking a sleeping princess.

I spent hours with those encyclopedias, returning to them day after day. Every entry I read seemed to make me more curious, hungrier for more. The serendipity of alphabetization jammed charmingly disparate subjects together — alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm. Simply by turning the page I could enter a new and equally fascinating world. It was there I learned that ice expands as it melts, one of the only materials on earth that does so. I also learned that Mozart was an accomplished mathematician, that he’d come up with a composition method based on dice throws. I tried out the resulting music with my recorder—ironically, the only instrument I could play, given my asthmatic condition.

An avid reader before those six months of sickness, the months spent with the encyclopedias were responsible for a profound shift in my psyche. When I returned to school I felt as if I’d come untethered from my classmates, had drifted off on my own tides. I felt like an outsider, an observer, not a participant. I saw the other boys’ quirks and foibles, saw them as material, interesting characterization. I started to record the things they said and did in a notebook.

For the most part I was forgiven this oddness because I was a good footballer and a useful cricketer, valuable currency in the strange tribalism of young boys. But I sense they never quite trusted me again. I had learned to let my own instincts and passions lead me, to find my own paths. I’d learned to allow curiosity carry me in whatever direction it demanded, and I was comfortable with it, with being different. I knew too much, saw too much, and was very likely to write it down.

Phil Dwyer visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 9, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Shauntay Grant, Terry Watada, Naomi Zener and a special guest talk by Eva Stachniak entitled “Making History Come to Life in Your Fiction”.

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