I have always been able to spell. So I used to believe, anyway. I suspect that if I ever investigate the matter the evidence will prove me wrong. That said, by the time I started school, aged four, I had grasped the basics, and I looked down on the other children for their inability to do it, not that I’d ever have mentioned it to them. I was a nice little boy, really. Perhaps my disdain was really bafflement. Their memories weren’t as good as mine, I probably decided.
Aged nine, our teacher gave us a spelling test split into three parts. The first sixty words were straightforward. Any child who got full marks progressed to the next thirty, and any child who got full marks in the second part progressed to the final ten words. I was the only one who got ninety out of ninety, and so the third part consisted of Mr Platt reading ten words aloud, me writing them down, and everyone else in the room sitting around, bored. I got seven of these last ten right: one of the words, attorney, I had only seen written down in Peanuts cartoons, and I spelt it ‘attourney’ in the test, my reasoning being that it might be one of those words that Americans spelt without the u.
Surely a speccy nerd who can spell and likes to show off about it is exactly the kind of person likely to get a punch up the bracket round the back of the bike sheds, you’d think; but no. For one thing, I was never stupid enough to hang around the bike sheds, and for another, some of the other children in my class seemed to take pleasure in my spelling, fabrication though that sounds. One of them delighted in my ability to rattle off S-U-P-E-R-C-A-L-I-F-R-A-G-I-L-I-S-T-I-C-E-X-P-I-A-L-I-D-O-C-I-O-U-S in a matter of seconds. Some well-meaning boys used occasionally to refer to me as the walking dictionary. It’s not the kind of nickname any sane person would solicit, but it was flattering in its way. We are so used to thinking of children as innately capable of cruelty that sometimes we forget they can be kind too.
In my class that year was a very sweet girl of Polish parentage whose surname defied the conventions (such as they are) of English spelling. On one occasion the other children at my table tried to catch me out by demanding that I spell her name, while covering it up on her tray so that I couldn’t cheat. I had already taught myself how to spell it, as was my (unconscious) custom with any unfamiliar word or name. Years later, in the presence of another Polish student possessed of a particularly z-heavy surname, I had occasion to write it down. She laughed and said it was the first time anyone had done it without having to ask.
Another spelling test comes to mind, that I took at the age of thirteen. It was a hundred-question test, and included words like ‘fare’ and ‘subterranean’. I was convinced I had got full marks and gently nagged my teacher in the weeks that followed for my marked paper. To begin with she gave me the brush-off, but eventually she said she would tell me my mark: it was ninety-nine. I won’t say it tormented me that I didn’t know which word I had slipped up on, as I was so supremely confident of my accuracy that I simply assumed she had made a mistake with her marking. I even asked her (with, I fancy, an air of incredulity), was she sure? None of us got our tests back, and it is my belief that she never marked them. What teacher has the patience to write down three thousand ticks and crosses? Not even a professional and organised one, which the teacher under discussion was not. Why, then, did she make up such a mark? Was it in the interest of verisimilitude — after all, no one spells a hundred words without misplacing a letter or two along the way — or was it to tantalise the nasty oik who had been plaguing her? If I were a Philip Roth character I could get a good 5,000 words out of this single incident.
I am now a grown-up, and I can still do the complicated words like desiccated and Cincinnati, but I don’t feel any longer that being a decent speller sets me apart from others. Most people I meet these days can spell perfectly well, and those that can’t don’t need to, thanks to those helpful red squiggly lines all over the place. It doesn’t really matter how many r’s are in harassed, and everything I have built my life on is a fake and a lie. Never mind.