The Colour of Human Nature
A project with the Story Museum in Oxford
As part of 26’s contribution to the Story Museum’s 26 Character Exhibition, I was asked to produce two pieces of writing for the website before and during the exhibition explaining how my favourite character affected me in my childhood – and afterwards.
I nominated Charles Dickens’ Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations.
The Story Museum also requested a photograph either holding the chosen book or an object from the story – or for the braver ones, dress up in character for your photo. My daughter, Amalie (as Pip Pirrup for the photo shoot) and I decided to go for it.
A big thank you to Kenney Hamill from HBD for managing to take the photos in spite of the surreal circumstances.
Channeling Abel Magwitch and Pip.
“No school for at least a month, Mrs Colhoun.”
My mother narrowed her eyes at the GP’s edict, turned and glared a seething threat that whispered, “don’t you dare smirk, my girl.”
Ignoring my mother’s disapproval, this was music to my eleven year old ears. Up to then, I’d been recovering from a rare bout of scarlet fever. A nasty illness that gave me horrible visions of giant spiders laying invisible eggs on my skin, making me itch and scratch until the bedsheets were mottled with blood.
But this, this was an unexpected bonus. Four weeks of lying in bed played magnificently into my morbid fascination of sick children. Ashamed to think of it now, this was the life I’d dreamed about. No more vacuuming, laying table, drying dishes or – the devil's work – ironing. I was liberated from labour. I would be a lone wolf, left in blissful solitude to roam the pages of The Secret Garden and Malory Towers.
The odd homework appeared now and then. Seventies primary school wasn’t the hotbed of competitive parenting and league table paranoia it is today. The 11+ exam was a novelty – a release from the daily monotony. While I was no genius – far from it – I quite enjoyed the pleasing right or wrong quality of the tests. They satisfied my childish desire for all things to be absolute – two neat columns wrapped tightly in bows of right or wrong.
The first two weeks went well. Day turned into night as I read every book I owned. Twice.
But with no new material, the coming fortnight spread out before me like a desert. No horizon, no distractions. Ennui had me wandering from room to room looking for new blood. Even the holy of holies, my sister’s bedroom, held nothing to interrupt the aching boredom of an entire day with nothing to do.
My parent’s bookshelf was the last resort.
A teak and green coloured glass affair, I admired its tidy rows of red and green leather books. I pulled the first of the green from its station. In its void, I could see how the wood was darker, rarely kissed by sunlight. I flicked through it, fingering the thin paper and marveling at the density of the type. It smelled grown up and important. And it was.
I began reading Great Expectations and couldn’t stop. I empathised with the hero, Pip, feeling keenly every sting doled out by a callous older sister. But it is the criminal/benefactor, Abel Magwitch, who has stayed with me. His character showed my younger self the world is not full of absolutes carved in pillars of black and white stone. That no one person is all good or all bad. That we are all capable of great acts of generosity and kindness, in spite of our mistakes or if the world has turned against us. It was Magwitch who made me realise the world is full of greys, and all the better for it.