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A Shout From The Attic: How Charles Darwin Upset Gerald Marshall's Father

Recalling an incident from his chilhood, Ronnie Bray tells a rollicking tale involving the origin of the human species.

Read more of Ronnie's life story by clicking on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. Read also his lively weekly column, Letter From America.

I did not meet many of my schoolmates' parents. One exception was John Atkinson’s mother, who I met in horror as she belaboured his brawny back with her bread slicer. Another exception was Gerald Marshall’s father.

I was surprised and hurt when Gerald Marshall told me what his father had said after Gerald had told him of something I had said. I was not a cheeky lad, so what I unfold may be surprising. You need only know that I spoke in candid naiveté about a subject I had heard of, and of a fact I had observed.

Gerald was an only child who lived with his mother and father in a squat terrace house up a cobbled yard on the west side of South Street. Apart from his being in my class at Spring Grove School and having a clear recollection of the exact words I said to him and his brief but telling report of what his father replied, I have no memories of this boy with whom I shared a classroom for the best part of ten years. He must have been a good and nice boy or else I would have remembered.

Where I heard it, I do not know. But hear it I did, and although I cannot say that I was ever an established believer in the theory, it popped into my mind as I stood talking with Gerald just as his father rolled along South Street clad in his oily Macintosh, the sign of the engineering worker, with his equally unctuous cap perched on top of his dark curly mop. Grunting a Yorkshire greeting at his son and heir, he turned into his yard through the archway, and shambled towards his home.

I didn’t even know the name of Charles Darwin then, but must have heard or seen something about his theory. Mr Marshall’s squat build, swarthy features, unkempt dark-hairy head, and charcoal-stubbled chin metamorphosed in my puerile imagination to the likeness of a noble primate. I was moved.

“You know they say that man came from monkeys,” I confided to Gerald, continuing, “Well, it could be true, because your father does look like a gorilla.”

If Gerald was disturbed by this intelligence, he did not betray it. His face gave nothing away of whatever he thought or felt, but he muttered something about hunger and went through the archway, following his father home for tea. I walked on South Street into Trinity Street and dawdled my way up the hill to home, my head reeling with inconsequential thoughts, the Simian Question having dismissed itself from my mind just as quickly as it had entered.

Next day, at school Gerald had news for me. “I told my dad what you said,” he disclosed. I was impatient to hear what it was, for this could be earth shaking news, especially if Mr Marshall was aware of his family history. My voice trembled, revealing my excitement at standing on the verge of an important discovery.

“What did he say?” I said.

“He said I’d better not play with you any more.”

And that was that. No explanation, no confirmation, no denial, no advancement in the course of human knowledge about humanity’s origin. Before I could pursue the matter further, Gerald had spun on his heels and I was alone. He was an obedient boy and even though I once saw Mrs Marshall hurrying up the yard carrying a bag full of bananas, I could never get Gerald to stand still long enough for me to ask him my burning question.


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