A Very Un-English Childhood

A germ, according to the British Medical Association’s Complete Family Health Encyclopedia, is

the popular term for any microorganism that causes disease. Examples include viruses and bacteria. In medicine, the word germ is used to describe simple, undifferentiated cells that are capable of developing into specialized tissues, such as the cells of the early embryo.

In this memoir of his English childhood up to the age of thirteen or so, Richard Wollheim uses the word in both senses. His mother was obsessed by bacteria, and he describes her frenzied but systematic daily onslaught on them: scrubbing, vacuuming, dusting, disinfecting, closing every door so that they wouldn’t escape from the room she was cleaning into other parts of the house, and opening every window to chase them out. (A French governess who insisted on closing every window to stop them getting in didn’t last very long.) There were plenty of servants to do the job, but Mrs. Wollheim insisted on doing it herself, and one has to be grateful to her, because her son’s description of the operation is as meticulous as the process itself, and fascinating in a way you wouldn’t believe such a subject could be:

She would begin with her own bedroom. The door would be shut, the readily moveable furniture would be put together somewhere in the middle of the room, and all the windows would be thrown open. Then, with a duster, she would brush the dust off all the tops and all the surfaces. When she was convinced that all the dust had been got out of its hiding-place, and had settled on the floor, she would first use the sweeper, or the Ewbank, with its beautiful picture of a lion in a roundel, to remove the top layer. Then there was the dust that had sunk into the pile of the carpet, and for this she relied on the vacuum cleaner, or Hoover. Any residual dust, which had not fallen on to the floor, or had fallen on to the floor but had not been sucked up either by the sweeper or by the vacuum cleaner, would probably have floated out through the window.
The boy in the memoir belongs to the second type of germ described in the encyclopedia, and this specimen was to develop into a philosopher who became a professor at University College London, then at Columbia, Berkeley, and Davis, California. He died in London in 2003 aged eighty, just before this book found a publisher. When we first see him, he is two years old and trying to walk on a path in his parents’ garden without falling over. He falls just the same; then screams in indignation. (He does a lot of screaming in the course of his book.) The tiny incident—the stumble in the garden—occupies the whole first page, and a bit of the second. It’s not that it’s in slow motion—as he fell, “the path was racing …

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