Dilettante: I was eleven years old and this word changed my life. I am not sure how it even found me. I lived in a house where words such as ‘factory’, ‘liver’ and ‘Mam’ were routinely heard but find me it did and I thought it was the most beautiful word I had ever heard. Looking back I recognise that I was probably mixing it up with ‘debutante’ – another word that wouldn’t routinely be a part of the vocabulary of my childhood. I thought it meant clever, and funny and witty and pretty and alive and of course, I now know it doesn’t mean any of these things but it opened a door to a kind of childish wisdom which was both painful and liberating in equal scary measure.
I didn’t belong there. From the day that word started eating my brain almost every interaction I had made me feel lonelier. My bestest school friend Linda telling me that I had eaten a dictionary after I used another lovely word (I am not sure what it was but it was enough to lead to a mildly chastising tease and a knowledge that I needed to be more careful); my new trainee English teacher pleading with me to read a story I had written out to the class – mortified I refused of course; my Mam telling me that one day I would save for my bottom draw and recognizing that I was patronizing her when I laughed along with her idea of my future involving the gathering of cheap linens and nick-nacks ready for marriage. I knew the word ‘patronising’ though I wouldn’t have used it out loud. I knew even then that if I did get married it wouldn’t be to any of the boys from where I lived. Or indeed any boy at all (yes, I knew the word lesbian but never said it out loud).
From the day I quietly, secretly rolled ‘dilettante’ around my tongue and somehow because of it knew I was different, others treated me differently. Now, as an adult, I know the theory of transactional analysis and self-fulfilling prophesy but I was eleven and didn’t yet have a notion of cause and effect. I just knew that the harder I tried to be ‘normal’, the less I was. Words just kept leaking from me. I felt my parents anxiety and occasionally, embarrassment, and how much they tried to be proud of their weird child.
I would lay in bed, trying to ignore the orange and brown flowered wallpaper my Mam had thought so modern but I thought was dreadful and would play with the word over and over. I saw myself, the dilettante, playing along with other girls who always looked like Enid Blyton girls of course though I had no idea what ginger beer was and had never been on a picnic. In my imagination, whilst we were playing alongside some leafy river, thinking about how to solve the latest mystery, they would allot me the role of wordy, clever gang member and I would have a place. Those few moments before sleep were so precious and the only times I didn’t feel alone.
Granddad always ate fish and then, after wiping the plate clean of red sauce with his white sliced bread, would put his swiss roll and custard on the same plate. He was an ex-trawlerman and in the Dogger Bank in a force 10 gale there was no time for either niceties or washing up. He had never seen reason to change the habits of a working lifetime when he became landlocked and with proper plumbing. “Give us a word our Lel” he would say whilst we were enjoying a bit of fresh cod together sat at his sailcloth covered table, and I would try to find one that he would think interesting. I knew I had succeeded when he slapped his hand down on the table and laughed his guffawing granddad laugh.
I pleaded with the library lady to let me use the grown up section. I wish I knew what her name was now so I could thank her. Would she even be alive now? She seemed very old to me back then but of course, she was under retirement age so probably not old at all. Where I grew up it was usual for kids to play out in the streets. There was no concept of abduction or after school activities then. I am not sure where my parents thought I was but I was at the library. Devouring every book I could get my hands on. I wasn’t supposed to be there without a grown up but having sneaked in behind some for a while the staff team noticed but let me in anyway. The chairs in the childrens library were too low for me and I was cramped up on them but the grown up chairs were to high for m
y legs and caused me to have painful lines along the back of my thighs. Despite my inability to find a comfy spot I read till my head ached and tried to ignore the games of the kids dumped in there while their parents quietly browsed the shelves on the other side of the glass wall. Over time, back-of-legs sore from the edge of the brown bakelite chairs, I would grow twitchy for the shelves on the other side of the wall. It started as a curiosity and became a full blown ache. ‘When you are thirteen you can ask your Mam to sign your card and then you can use the adult section” but thirteen was too far away and I knew I would never ask my Mam. I snuck in and hid behind the nearest shelves which happened to be the Dewy 920 section. The only section the librarians could not see me from when at their desk and I started on the biographies. My first was about Airey Neave and I hid it at the bottom of the shelf so it was still there on my next visit. I had no idea who Airey Neave was but wonder now how the universe helped me find the first book about escaping from impossible situations. I would like to visit Colditz one day. I feel I know it well.
Eventually I was caught. I knew my love affair with the Famous Five and Hardy Boys was long gone but fortunately, so did she – the lovely librarian who made me promise that I would find a little spot and be quiet. She always smiled at me when I came in. I never did get my Mams signature though by the time I reached 13 I had read my way through every biography in the library.
I don’t believe I had seen the word in print since I was a child and it had long gone from my memory. I was shocked to see an old 80’s pop star on the news use it to describe himself in his hay-day and it was obvious he wasn’t being complementary about the man he had once been. It was with a strange sense of dread I opened the dictionary. Although not a part of my conscious being, the word had set the axis of my world for forty years though I didn’t really know what it meant. Could I safely revisit it? I felt a sense of loss that I had so carelessly discarded it through college, and childbirth and relationships. Seeing it there in print made me feel lonely all over again. Amongst references to superficiality – which caused a sharp intake of breath – the word ‘dabbler’ stood out like a small forgiving beacon. A word of curiosity and with no hint of reprisal. My axis was secure. I could get along with ‘dabbler’. Sometimes you just have to make your own definitions. Strange that although I love words unashamedly now I cannot find the one I was grappling for back then, when I was eleven. I think I will reclaim dilettante, quietly lest my literary friend mock my apparent ignorance. It smells of my bedroom, and libraries and Granddad and feels safe. I will dabble, and be comfortable in me.
Antonia Chain, Brighton