Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I Was a Teenage Esperanter
Ĉu ti vere povas leĝi pensojn,
Porcelane, nun sidante,
Ĉu ti povas kredi sin?
Believe me, that was not the worst of my schoolboy Esperanto poems. Another, called "La Numenio", included the horrific line:
"fluĝis sub la stelajn lampojn".
Sweet Lethe has washed away all other traces.
Esperanters have been dragging their Frankenstein idiom around this and other web blogs ever since I made a passing reference to Incubus, the only major goat-themed film shot in something approaching that language.
If Marcel Proust managed, through bad luck and indolence, to end up in Hell, each crumb of his madeleine would dredge up memories of shambling terror such as I have endured and will now inflict upon the rest of you.
I had drowned all recollections of Esperanto through a combination of alcohol, drugs and acquiring a life. But the selective candour with which Wales commends itself to the nations demands that I retrace the steps of shame that brought me into its bucktoothed penumbra.
As a 14-year-old Welsh nationalist I had drawn the melancholy conclusion that other peoples were never going to learn my vowel-shunning native tongue, meaning that I would have to learn every other language or use English. Then my German teacher introduced me to Esperanto.
You would think that someone whose livelihood depends on persuading 1970s British youth to learn a genuine, difficult language generally associated with beastly behaviour and lumpy women would want to keep Esperanto a secret. But then my German teacher was not only Dutch, but a Quaker.
Quakers, of course, have turned lack of self-interest into a religion. The Dutch, however, are aggressive landgrabbers who conceal their plans to colonise the North Sea bed by pretending to be irritating, hash-mashed peaceniks.
If people learn German they will realise that the Hun, for all his faults, is willing to buy a round of drinks and has something approaching a national cuisine. The Dutch will then be exposed as grubby polder-dodgers and get schlepped back to the marshes from which they never fully emerged.
So Mevrouw Niederlage inducted me into the Zamenhof Cult. She herself had joined the Esperanters while being brainwashed at a volunteer work camp in Communist Czechoslovakia.
Stalin had stamped out all Esperantovian tendencies in the 1930s, understanding that the colossal struggle with the Nazis meant there was room for only one kind of internationalism. But by the 1950s the Soviets realised that feckless Western youngsters could be lulled into fellow-travelling through an appeal to their idealism and dislike of all things American - apart from the music, singers, films, actors, clothes, food and Marshall Aid.
Luckily for the cause of freedom, the Communists thought the best way of bundling bourgeois youth into Bolshevism was by sticking them in a logging camp with a bunch of thyroid-deficient Slovaks, no soap and singsongs in Esper-bloody-ranto.
The only teens who enjoyed this were Communists from the Rhondda, for whom near-starvation in the singing Tatras was like a fond memory of holidays in Snowdownia. And the Quakers, of course.
For me, as a louche Cambrian Gaullist, Esperanto appealed as an easy way to conjugate with French girls rather than their verbs. I learned it fast and convinced my Byronic self that young women swoon over speeches about the Battle of Morfa Rhuddlan, detailed accounts of my political programme and, of course, poems written just for them. In a language only Belgian peace-studies teachers can understand.
My first and last school exchange was educational in showing me that French girls liked cigarettes, singing English pop songs, discos, mopeds and non-spoddish boys several years their senior. Among their major turn-offs were all things Welsh, poetry, and total bollocks like Esperanto.
I've stuck by being Welsh over the years, and just can't shake off poetry, but Teach Yourself Esperanto went straight down the Red Cross Shop once the bus got back from Guérande.
So, if your teenage son starts saying things like "Verb declensions are pointless, but the accusative case and noun-adjective agreement are a must", this is what you do:
Slip into his bedroom when he's out, and check under the sports bag in his cupboard. There you may find grainy mimeographs adorned with Lovecraftian symbols like "Ĉ" and "ĝ" and group photographs of squirrely people in windcheaters.
These are the fetishes of the Esperanto Cult. Replace them, along with any pamphlets on the Baha'i faith, vegetarianism and the United Nations, with some decent porn, a hairdresser's appointment and Top Gear magazine. Then get him laid by one of your divorced ladyfriends fast. He will thank you for it in years to come, and most likely immediately.
I know I did. Thanks, Mam.
And thanks, Aunty Meryl.