Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, better known as Lord Berners, 1883-1950, was an eccentric British composer, painter and writer–Grove Dictionary pegs him well as part of a “slender British avant garde which emerged after World War I.” –A sort of English Satie if you can imagine it, best known for some ballet music and a truly wonderful autobiography. The initial volume of which, “First Childhood,” begins thus:
I can remember very vividly the first time I became aware of my existence; how for the first time I realised that I was a sentient human being in a perceptible world. I seem to have acquired this state of self-consciousness very much in the way in which one masters the technique of riding a bicycle or of performing some trick of juggling, when, at a given moment and without any apparent reason, it is suddenly found that the thing can be done.
This awakening of my perception was not brought about by any very remarkable incident. There was no salamander in the fire, no tolling of bells to announce some famous victory or the accession of a monarch. Much as it would enhance the interest of my story and lend it a touch of the picturesque, a strict regard for truth forbids me to connect the circumstance with any occurrence of national or even of local importance. The conditions in which this epoch-making event in my mental career took place could not possibly have been more trivial. I was merely standing beside a table in the library at Arley, when, all at once, what had hitherto been a blurred background became distinct, just as when someone who is shortsighted puts on spectacles. Objects and individuals assumed definite shapes, grouping themselves into an ordered whole, and from that moment I understood that I formed part of it—without, of course, a full premonition of all that this exactly entailed. The commonplace features of this first landmark in my experience remain clearly recorded in my mind’s eye; the massive mahogany table with its cloth of crimson velvet, the fat photograph album with gilt clasps that could be locked up as though it were a receptacle for obscene pictures, whereas in reality it contained nothing worse than family portraits; the china bowl full of Christmas roses, slightly frost-bitten as those flowers usually are, a pastel portrait of my grandmother as a girl; in the middle distance my grandmother herself, my mother and a few aunts and, in the doorway, my nurse waiting to take me out for a walk. An ensemble which, you will agree, was entirely devoid of any kind of poignancy, although it may have had a certain charm as a Victorian conversation piece.
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People I have questioned on the subject of the first awakening of their consciousness, have proved strangely uninformative. They could in most cases remember some particular incident that had occurred at an early stage in their lives, but none of them were able to recall the exact moment in which they had realised for the first time that they were human beings. Some even confessed that, as far as they knew, it had never happened to them at all. And I daresay they have managed to get through life just as happily.
The phenomenon I have described took place when I was three and a half years old. Up to that point my life had not been wholly uneventful…