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A Baby In A Glass Jar

Reflections on a biology lesson

  • 13 March, 2023
  • Alex Nye

As a teenager I wrote the following: ‘It was an ordinary biology lesson, and a preservative jar was produced and unscrewed. Inside it was the rubbery figure of a tiny human being that had only managed to survive the first three months in its mother’s womb. It hadn’t even seen daylight, and yet it possessed eyes, though tightly shut. It was placed on a paper towel where the preservative liquid dripped from its dolphin-like skin; and we all surveyed it, but it wasn’t like a real human being. Five tiny projections of skin formed fingers on one hand, and almost unnoticeable glossy enamel pieces on the end were its fingernails. Upon its huge head was a great blood clot that showed maroon and brown through the skull. Its rubbery limbs and intricate features made me think of a baby doll, and as the teacher toyed with its arms they sprang back as if made and moulded from a melted plastic material. Could this little replica be a model of all of us before we become human beings? It was hard for me to believe that this was all part of life, and that it was hit and miss as to whether one survived as a normal baby.

So innocent and untouched by the severe outer world, it looked. Never had it breathed the air, or touched a blade of grass, or been embraced by someone who loved it. I noted how the poor little infant was curled in the crouching position which Nature designed especially for birth, and its expression was full of ignorance that a world even existed. It had not run its fingers through a swell of undulating grass, nor scampered across a field with the wind howling past its ears. It hadn’t even kissed or been kissed, nor reached up into a tree and grasped a handful of shivering paper leaves. Yet still it appeared to be content.’

I was fifteen years old, being educated in a grubby comprehensive in the 1970s when it was still okay to examine a baby foetus in a glass jar, probably dripping with poisonous formaldehyde, next to our asbestos pads and Bunsen burners. I was completely open to the abundance and wonder of life’s experience and I soaked it all up in awe.

Earlier that year we had a visit from a Careers Advisor who asked us to flick through a file of index cards and select those we found inspiring. I picked out two cards, feeling the stirring of genuine excitement: journalist, and museum curator. I had been to a museum in London on a school trip, and knew that I loved places of learning, filled with airy galleries containing everything we needed to know about the planet. I also knew that I loved writing. So, I duly turned up at the Careers Advisor’s office, carrying my precious index cards which would be a gateway to my future, mapping out a ladder of aspiration. He’d never met me before, but he gestured to a chair with a sigh, looked at the first card – journalist – threw it on the table, shook his head and said, ‘They won’t want a wallflower!’ Then he looked at the second card and rejected it with just as much vehemence. ‘You can’t do that. They don’t do archaeology at your school!’ ‘But?’ I could almost see him glaring over my shoulder before shouting ‘Next?’

In the 1970s, King’s Lynn in Norfolk, where I grew up, was not a particularly encouraging place to harbour any big dreams. Girls still weren’t good at science or maths, so everyone said. But everyone knew I could write. Even I knew it.

I went home after that biology lesson, sat down and wrote a piece of prose, inspired by my reflections on that baby in a glass jar. The school knew nothing of it, but my mother read it, and encouraged me to enter the WHSmith Young Writers’ Competition — a national writing contest judged by Ted Hughes. 33,000 people entered, from all over the United Kingdom. ‘The Baby in a Glass Jar’ was chosen as one of the ten winners and published by Heinemann. When the school found out I’d won a writing competition they couldn’t believe it. My Home Economics teacher frowned and hissed through her teeth, ‘She still forgets all her ingredients when we’re making Christmas pudding.’

I thought about that Careers Advisor and his pessimistic take on life: I knew that no one could stop me from buying a typewriter and clacking away on those keys to express what I felt about the world, and at the same time push at the boundaries and obstacles that people loved to put in my path, on my own terms, without much encouragement or help.

What I remember most about biology – apart from that forlorn foetus in a jar – is the raw wonder of learning about life, and also a little rat we once crucified on a board. I’d expected its insides to be messy, spilling out visceral ooze, but it was as neat as a pin, like clockwork or a piece of delicate machinery. I loved the language of science: photosynthesis, osmosis, chromosomes, corries, ice floes, erosion, glacial melt, oxbow lake. I once carried a bucket of worms at arms’ length, making a great charade of being disgusted as we walked up from the playing field (this time we were cutting up worms to see if they survived if we sliced the right bumps in their undulating bodies). I loved it all — it was about life, the planet we live on, deep time and shallow time.

I wrote my first novel when I was supposed to be studying for my finals. I scraped a degree from King’s College and kept writing. I forgot all about Ted Hughes being the judge of that competition, and when I next heard his name, I saw him as part of the cohort of male writers and poets who were habitually listened to while women, mostly, waited their turn to be taken seriously.

Then one day when I was clearing out my parents’ study, I came across some old newspaper cuttings, celebrating the pride my parents had felt at the success of ‘A Baby in a Glass Jar.’ I realised two things: firstly, it was reflective nature writing, and secondly, Ted Hughes had read it, and deemed it fit to win. How could I not have remembered that? He had, therefore, encouraged me, and I hadn’t even noticed.

In London recently, I visited the National Archives, and examined an exhibition of letters and poems penned by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I stood for long minutes with my nose pressed against the glass, lost in time, realising that this is what writing is always like — an attempt to reach through, fall through even, that glass barrier that separates us from what it means to be alive. I think I’ve spent my entire life pushing through that barrier, trying to touch or hold what lies just out of reach. The tenderness I felt for that baby in the glass jar was clumsily expressed, but my teenage reflections on a biology lesson managed to touch others. I wrote about the baby’s waxy texture, its delicate features, and how hit and miss life is, based on such arbitrary principles of chance and accident, how some suffer more than others and there is no fairness or justice in any of it.

It’s a lesson I’m still wrestling with, more than forty years later, a preoccupation which exercises my mind, whether I’m writing or not: what it is to be human, to have survived at all. My typewriter has since been updated to a quieter keyboard, but the battle and the journey continue, just the same. The sense of wonder is as wide, the universe just as vast, and there are still no answers forthcoming.

Alex Nye is the author of seven novels, mostly historical fiction for adults. Her first novel, Chill, won a 2007 Royal Mail Award for Scottish Children’s Books and her first short story won the 1981 WHSmith Young Writers’ Competition, judged by Ted Hughes.

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