Possibly triggered by my inability to make sense of my maternal family tree, I sort of thought it’s about time I wrote down some of my memories from as early as possible onwards. There are a lot and many are jumbled, several no doubt implanted and many embellished by yours truly to such an extent that the exact truth is lost in time. Not that anyone should care. I am, after all, one of many with nothing exceptional to add to the overall frothing milk pan of human progress. A Baby Boomer, from a middle class nuclear family who was given a decent chance to warm up for life in leafy Surrey as the country around me faded as a world force and became the sort of muddled place it is today. Personally and patriotically I think being a little muddled is no bad thing; far better than being certain about things. That way only leads to hubris and ill fitting clothes.
I may post extracts here from time to time. I will at least start at the very beginning…
In The Beginning
Birth is one of those occasions when you’re present but have to rely on others to tell you how it went, like being blotto on your eighteenth or having three hernias popped back in under a general anesthetic (yep, I’ve ticked both of those boxes; see the Seventies and the Teens).
I don’t think the birth was particularly special or spectacular. My mother was of a generation where oversharing was limited to criticism of my manners and not her experiences of birth. All I know is:
- It was natural.
- I was an eye watering ten pounds and twelve ounces.
Mum did like to tell people the following that are tangentially linked to my debut:
- She was offered thalidomide and rejected it;
- Her teeth, which had been perfect before I appeared, pretty much crumbled like poorly mixed concrete afterwards; and
- She was advised not to breastfeed me; I don’t know if she accepted that advice.
I joined a household of three, four if you include the dog – a boxer called Rusty. My mother, Barbara, my father Desmond and my older brother by 17 months, Gordon. We lived a few miles from my paternal grandparents – another Gordon and Gladys – at the top of Whyteleafe Hill on the North Downs in North Surrey. Inside the first eighteen months the family shrunk by one grandfather but thereafter remained pretty constant, including a dog (albeit the son of Rusty) for the next fifteen years.
At the time, November 1956, we were a pretty typical nuclear family. Dad worked in the City of London, commuting every day to Plantation House, near Fenchurch Street Station where he was a commodity broker for Bunge, buying and selling tea and coffee and wheat, etc. Mum was a stay at home housewife, who as were many of her time, treated as a second class unit by society behind the male wage earner, but who was the formidable centre of our family. ‘Housewife’ as a job description, sounds so dismissive, but the range of functions she was expected to undertake was huge: she ran the house finances, quarter-mastered and catered, cleaned and mended. She painted and repaired, teaching herself electrics, plumbing, plastering and woodwork. She was gardener, child carer and teacher. She was events’ planner, party manager and hostess. She made and mended clothes, she shopped and she negotiated with a range of crafts and works-people. The list was pretty much endless, while dad bought and sold stuff and had lunch. Oh and played rugby at the weekend.
I knew none of this in the three and a bit years of the Fifties that I lived through. Winds of Change and You’ve Never Had It So Good passed me by as did Sputnik and the Munich Air crash. I mewled and dribbled, ate and shat… pretty much that’s it. I was a bottom shuffler, deciding it was a perfectly fine method of locomotion for one whose beginnings were as a pretty huge lump. It was some years before I was prepared to challenge myself to 10,000 steps a day.
If it says anything about me, it was I didn’t rush but equally I wasn’t rushed. My first word was, unexpectedly ‘butter’ – again this is hearsay, but so often repeated I like to think it true. It suggests class and an early appreciation that it isn’t saturated fats that are society’s dietary bête noire.
If I have one memory from those years, and this too may have been implanted, it is being in a pushchair, with my mother acting as the pusher. As she told it, we were on the way home from dropping Gordon off at the nursery school he attended, some mile or so from our house. It would probably be the Spring. I’m not sure what made us stop but it was soon apparent we were looking at a bird, holding a snail in its beak and beating the snail onto a stone to either break the shell or dislodge it from its home. Mum told me it was a thrush. I can still see it, could take you to the exact spot where it happened, but did it? It is so very clear yet I have no other memories of that pushchair or being heaved around by mum. And at one level it is rather touching, a true country scene; at another it is redolent of the violence inherent in the dog eat dog nature of the world. Am I over thinking it? Probably. As we will see, I do that all the time.
I think I can fairly assume that I enjoyed those early years. There are a lot of photos of me as a small child looking slightly bewildered but generally content. I’m round of face and fair of head. I’d had about as much hair as I do these days. There’s even one of me being kissed by my brother. Goodness knows how the photographer persuaded him; the bribe had to be huge. Though on close inspection I look like he’s probably just spat in my right eye…
As we will see, my brother loomed large in my life as we struck out for the Sixties, as large as he loomed over my pram for that photo. He may have been only some seventeen months older than me, but, as I began to appreciate there was a world outside of a radius limited by my waving arms and kicking legs, I also began to appreciate how enormous was that gap. It took me the best part of two decades to stop trying to close it, if I ever have.