From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.
‘Oh – you’re the one who wrote the Dictionary.’
I often get this, when I run into someone who went to my school, or his parents.
Yes, I wrote the Dictionary. I have copy in front of me now, not the original but a reissue. It is a photocopied A5 booklet that was put together by a well-meaning teacher, long after I had left the all-boys boarding school where I lived through my body’s 13th to 18th years. This was 1992 to 1997 in world-historical time, so an era of major political and hormonal transitions.
During my final year, I conscripted a team of juniors and sent them out with notepads into the various boarding houses like 19th-century anthropologists, telling them to bring back exotic words and help me type them up. Perhaps because of the school’s physical isolation in the foothills of the Drakensberg (I speculate in the Foreword), ‘a very large and colourful body of indigenous terms has developed amongst its pupils’. In my last week at Milton College, I printed off a few hundred copies on the sly and sold them. The reissue was produced (I was told) when the one remaining original in the school library fell to bits through being consulted so often.
It is a highly embarrassing document. Not just because the revised edition includes a picture of me (with centre parting) on the cover and several of my schoolboy poems. The Dictionary, which I have only mustered the courage to revisit in preparation for writing this piece, is a deep core drill into a world of shame, anxiety, embarrassment – with generous servings of sexism, homophobia and bigotry. Adolescence, in other words, but adolescence in a particular place, and at a particular time. And the fact that everyone can’t see how embarrassing it is makes the whole thing more embarrassing still. The only time I have raised the matter myself was when I ran into one of my assistants, years after school.
‘You mean 1001 words for homosexual?’ he said.
I let the subject drop. But now I am writing this to fill in everything between the entries that I so confidently recorded, thinking of myself only as the disinterested observer, when I was in it up to my neck.
Mainly, though, I want to write about skin.Read More