There’s something about dwelling on mortality that reminds me of childhood. I think about mortality a fair bit. There are fewer things more tragic than an unhappy childhood; a wasted one is regrettable but a miserable one is far, far worse. Let us all be thankful then, because I had a great childhood. I miss with all my heart my younger self – the simplicity, the fun, the relative lack of pressure and worry; no worries about money and plumbing and wedding invitations and dying friends and car servicing and putting out the bins and phone upgrades and liver disease and prostate cancer and so, so much more. Thanks to Mum and Dad and Brother and Sister and an assortment of family pets (Rupert the budgie, Tiger the cat, Stan the tortoise, Clarissa the little bird, and of course the nameless rescued hedgehog that went mouldy in a cardboard box in the garage one winter). Thank you for giving me a childhood worth remembering: a time when I was free of cynicism and not a little bit as bitter as the Seville orange that I am today. What the hell happened?
I still have a black and white photo of myself in my wallet. I’m as bald as a Buddhist monk (what goes around comes around) and wearing a romper suit that defies all the laws of fashion. I am clearly being supported by Mum’s loving arm as I sit on her lap and what is most glaringly apparent is that I am very, very happy. I have a ridiculous, rosy laugh on my face and whatever alternate face Dad was pulling out of shot to achieve that it was definitely worth the effort. Most early photos look almost angelic (odd, I know) but there are tell-tale signs of what was to come: gently gingering hair (it was once much blonder), goofy, buck front teeth, a mischievous twinkle and a never improving sequence of criminal NHS glasses; clunky of frame and jam jar bottom of lens. Romance was never going to be easy.
For someone who prides himself on his appreciation of music my gift for producing bearable sound was wafer thin. Evidence exists that I tried and failed with the piano at an early age but that was merely a rehearsal for later melodic disasters. I managed to pass Grade 1 on the cello, just, thanks to my heavy handed tutor, a voluminous spinster who wore every colour of the rainbow, provided it was black. She lived what seemed like a half-hearted bohemian existence and although I can’t verify this she was definitely the sort of woman who might have owned lots of cats. I wouldn’t recommend you take up the cello, by the way. They weigh a lot and they cost a lot and you have to wear them on your back like a stupidly shaped rucksack and no one sane will ever offer to carry it for you because they’ll know it’s your fault you got the damn thing in the first place. I never warmed to it and the final straw arrived in a church recital for which I had not offered one moment of practice and so spent the time essentially miming the cello and sweating, mere inches from the front row, as the instrument slid slowly away from me. But even that should be classed as a triumph compared to ‘The Violin Years’.
‘The Violin Years’ of my early teens were nothing short of a resin dusted, semibreve car crash. I would have to get the bus once a week to play an instrument I hated to a standard that even a one armed simpleton could have bested. I was taught by a very patient Hungarian widow, who was almost always very kind, but I could see in her eyes that she knew my heart wasn’t in it. A badly played violin is one of the worst intentional noises one can create and since I declined to dedicate enough time at home my progress was glacial and as with my other stringed nemesis I literally scraped through my Grade 1, as birds dropped from the trees and windows shattered in nearby conservatries. The game was up when I began to record my first practice of the week on a cassette and then just played it back at volume for half an hour each evening. When Dad walked into my bedroom to find me watching England v Cameroon to the background of that very cassette there was a brief pause as we exchanged looks, followed by a bollocking that I will have to leave to your imagination. The violin was returned and I never did see the Hungarian widow again. I doubt she was bothered. Bollocking aside, neither was I.
Distraction was always something at which I excelled. I would say I was academically capable, arguably more than, but to say I frittered my potential would be a gaping understatement. Given the choice of homework over Lego, well, Lego won every time. I still have a primary school report that basically says that my approach to academia was to smile sweetly and look busy whilst doing almost anything but the task I had been given to do. I was afforded the advantage (retrospect insists there are a few disadvantages too) of a private education and rather miraculously I managed to avoid being bullied through almost all of it: I’d like to think it was my charming nature and speed of wit that saw me through, but you may disagree. When I applied myself I did rather well really but the inconsistencies that likewise blight my adulthood were sown at an early age and so my bad reports outweighed the good by at least 2:1. It didn’t matter because I loved school, at least I did when I wasn’t getting rumbled for some daft episode or other, and if you love going to school then things could be a lot worse. I also had a 7 year crush on a French teacher whose surname rhymed with ‘cauldron’, and that kind of helped too.
Returning to Lego, which is comfortably the best manufactured toy ever, it was here that my imagination was best focused. There were few things that couldn’t be built with my Lego collection and if they couldn’t then they weren’t worth building anyway. And when I got bored with Lego I could make rifles using plastic Meccano (I always liked playing with guns; if I lived in America I would have a formidable arsenal by now. Worried?) or break out the Matchbox cars, the Tonka truck, the Airfix soldiers (never patient enough to paint them or build the models), the Action Man or, as a festive treat turn the Christmas tree into a forest base for my Star Wars figures and then surround it with a fort made of clunky wooden bricks. And all of that would see me through hours and days and weeks and holidays and months and years and not one second of it was less than fabulous and perhaps there is no harsher reality than that everyone must grow up some time.
I was always as happy in my own company as I was with the company of others and so could flit between the two as required. I claw my brain for early names but I’m struggling. I think my first kiss was with Nicola Andre (no relation to Peter, I hope) when I was 6 or something and I remember rather fancying Gemma Robinson (no relation to Tommy, I hope) with the ginger ponytail when I was 9, but nothing ever came of it. Then there was Sandie Meyer (no relation to Julius Lothar Meyer, the 19th Century chemist, though they were both German so…..) who lived down the road when I was 11 and who briefly became my girlfriend at some point, but that ended sharpish when my brother told me he’d seen her kissing someone else, which I thought was a bit off since that was one rung further up the romance ladder with her than I had been. Like I said – romance not a strength.
Pity not, my tragic childhood love life was suitably diluted by all kinds of hijinks elsewhere – tree climbing, bike riding, hide and seek, navigating round the bedroom without touching the floor, lighting whole boxes of matches at once, cops and robbers, bombing in the pool, pissing in the pool, watching Indiana Jones and, of course, birthday parties. Hundreds of birthday parties. That’s why birthdays get so slight when you grow older – you know you’re never, ever going to come close to that buzz again; a cocktail of KP crisps and jelly and Tizer and a VHS from Ritz and silly bloody giggles and cake in a bag to take away and who cares what present you bought because you didn’t have to buy it anyway. It was also very important to pick good friends: the ones with swimming pools and mini snooker tables and bigger TV’s and so on. Stop me if I sound shallow, they just happened to be my friends.
There are all sorts of things which set themselves up in childhood that still have tiny little traces today. I could happily read an Asterix book again, or watch an episode of The A Team. I still miss Top Of The Pops, in spite of what Jimmy Saville did to it. Mind you, I used to love Jim’ll Fix It too. I secretly would still like to go on a camping holiday in France like we used too (me and the family that is, not me and Jimmy Saville) – like the one where I wore white shorts and laughed so hard at lunch that I wet myself and dropped chocolate spread on my lap at the same time, or the one where my brother nearly strangled himself running into a washing line. I miss a time when nobody had allergies or mobile phones and when historic sex crimes were just something people would suddenly remember about 30 years later. I would still be very happy with a plastic Christmas tree and if you gave me a big box of Lego I would happily get stuck in. And when things are tough I occasionally wish I could go all the way back and start again but I know that that will never happen and worse that if it did I wouldn’t necessarily have what I do now. Besides I’d only make different mistakes or, knowing me, the same ones and there would be a melancholy in knowing that it would never be quite as good as the first time. You can’t go back, they say. Well, for once they might be right.
G B Hewitt. 29.02.2020
Do they still make Rusks? I loved Rusks. I can’t quite remember when I finally managed to shake them off but it could have crept into double figures. Explains a lot.