When I was three or four years old, my mother took me to some function at which the Play School presenter, Brian Cant, was making an appearance. I have no idea if it was a pantomime or if he was opening a new children’s library or what (and as my mother has been dead for almost twenty years, I can’t ask her). But that doesn’t matter; what does matter is that this event left me traumatized and questioning everything I knew about life.
Now, in these days of ‘Let’s accuse every celebrity in the BBC of molesting every small child they ever laid eyes upon,’ it is important to state that I had no physical contact with the affable Mr Cant, nor (probably) did he notice I was even there. No, my psychological upheaval stemmed from something completely different.
Brian Cant, you see, was big; he was also sandy-haired and pink cheeked. And this was wrong. This was impossible. This was weird, incomprehensible, scary magic. Because the Brian Cant I knew and loved, the Brian Cant my mummy had taken me to see, was about four inches tall and black and white and lived inside our television in our ‘sitting room’. (I assume I’d never watched Play School at anyone else’s house.) I had been looking forward to this excursion and my disappointment was as great as my confusion — I wanted to see a little man, a kind of animated toy or pet man, not an ordinary thirty-something-year-old bloke!
My poor mum was quite taken aback by my reaction. She’d expected happy smiles and giggles — I absolutely adored Brian, she thought — not floods of tears and hysterics. When, eventually, she managed to extract from me the reason for my utter dismay, she was almost as shocked as I was. It had never occurred to her that I might think that our telly was full of miniature people, of various degrees of interest to a pre-school-age child, who occasionally allowed us glimpses into their lives and activities. Indeed, in her bid to give me a rational and balanced view of the world — this was in the days when she was just mildly eccentric and not fully bonkers, so, rare though it is that I would connect ‘rational and balanced’ with any of my mother’s later actions, there was a time when that wasn’t such a bizarre concept — so, yes, as I was saying, in her bid to give me a rational and balanced view of the world, my mother had never told me any of the more usual lies: I knew that there were stories about Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other such figures — but they were just that, stories, and I knew that it was my mum and dad who left the presents in the middle of the night (actually, it’s only just, writing this, occurred to me to wonder why, if they didn’t subscribe to the Santa Claus myth, they felt the need to adhere to the nocturnal gift giving convention — weird…), surprised me with hidden eggs on Easter Sunday, or handed me a sixpence if one of my teeth fell out.
Anyway, time passed, and I’d all but forgotten this incident, until the other day when I was having a conversation with a friend who is of the opinion that any form of theism in this day and age is a mental illness. For early man, he posits, observing that when the sun shone, the crops grew and people were less prone to illness would lead to the logical and, indeed, scientific conclusion that the sun was some kind of G/god, and the onlooking primitive peoples, whose manners were impeccable, knew to thank H/him for these boons. From this, it also made sense to propitiate rather than antagonize that benevolent deity… and if that involved sacrificing a few virgins (because co-incidentally the harvest was more plentiful or more of the newborn lambs survived the first time they tried this), then it would seem like a small price to pay. This was man questing for knowledge and understanding and using the limited tools and resources he had available to him. Only then science got increasingly sophisticated and the sun was proven not to be a G/god but a huge burning mass of hydrogen and other gases, and bumping off virgins could have absolutely no effect on its behaviour. Thus, my friend concludes that anyone who, given the vast wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary, chooses to believe in a deity must be mentally unbalanced. (I shall say no more about his beliefs as he may wish to expound them in his own blog, and, as they are his, he will express them better than I can — if he has already done so, or does so in the future, I will append a link so you can get the full picture.)
So, back to me. When I was three or four, my mother had carefully ensured that I didn’t believe in anything that wasn’t demonstrably real, whilst still telling me the stories of the unreal. As mentioned, I knew about Father Christmas — I just didn’t have any delusions about his corporeality. By the same token, by the time I was seven, I knew all about Jesus Christ and his cronies, as well as about Zeus and Janus and Osiris, and also all about William Brown and his mates, as well as about Moomin Troll and Pippi Longstocking and Paddington Bear… because I was a precocious child and my mother liked reading to me and encouraging me to read for myself. Being of a reasonably logical disposition, Violet Elizabeth Bott’s threat to ‘thcream and thcream until I’m thick’ always struck me as a fairly self-defeating method of achieving her aims — but nowhere near as daft and masochistic as that fella who thought that letting random Romans torture him was a good idea, even though he had magic powers and could easily have made them stop.
In those days, my mum and I had the ideal relationship. I liked learning things; she liked teaching me things. Hence her shock when she found that she’d slipped up regarding telling me the truth about the people I saw on telly. My conclusion was, however, given no information to the contrary, a perfectly sound one: I’d never seen anyone I knew personally on television and I’d never seen any tiny black and white people not on television. Therefore, it was obvious to me that the two were separate entities. See? Completely logical.
But once I got over the shock of discovering that I was wrong, I was able to adjust my perceptions and still enjoy my daily dose of Big Ted, Little Ted, Humpty, and Jemima (but not Hamble — never could stand Hamble, ugh!). And this is, to me, the difference between religion and science and (hopefully) enough to reassure my friend that I’m not suffering from mental illness. Were I, almost half a century later, to insist that everyone I saw on TV was a miniature human being who was now leading a colourful, HD life in a much larger and flatter box than the monochrome one I once believed to be Mr Cant’s home, then I’d be showing the same wilful resistance to enlightenment demonstrated by those who, even when presented with more evidence than they could shake any number of sticks at, still insist that there is a G/god (just one, mind you, the one of their choosing) and H/he’s responsible for everything.