Friday, July 26, 2013


It's said that children acquire the knowledge they need for adult life at their mother's knee. Such a cosy picture: mother sitting comfortably in an armchair, perhaps knitting or sewing and looking – motherly. There is a small child sitting on the floor at her feet, head tilted sideways and resting against mother's knee.

That's where little boys learn that they are not supposed to cry, that they should share their toys, and that kicking their sisters on the shin is not gentlemanly. Little girls learn to bake cookies, put nappies on their dolls, and listen to wise sayings about men. What we learn at our mothers' knees is what is supposed to guide us when we grow up and have to cope and make decisions and deal with important matters.

That’s all very well for people who grow up in quiet, stable countries, live in one place for long enough to acquire memories and history, can name their classmates from primary school onwards, and can answer the questions like those so insistently posed by Facebook: What is your home town? Where did you grow up? Anyone who can answer those questions probably learned all sorts of useful things at their mothers’ knees.

By the time I was twelve I had lived in ten cities or towns in six countries, briefly attended nine schools, spoken three languages and pretty much forgotten two of them. I was saved from ignorance and illiteracy at twelve by being parked in boarding school. From then on I found ways to muddle along and find things out for myself. The girls at boarding school after lights helped out by telling jokes that I couldn't make sense of until – big break-through – I began to understand that they were about s-e-x. Never mind the bike sheds, they don’t know the half of it. Let me tell you, girls in boarding school have the real oil.

Those girls weren’t around when I found myself at twenty three, married for over a year, in a kitchen stabbing at a block of frozen mince and faced for the first time with a saucepan and a hotplate and the urgent need to provide dinner. Or when I carried home the first baby I had ever seen – my own.

Where was mother’s knee all that time?  It was usually in some other part of the planet, attached to mother.

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