When we left the house I grew up in twenty-one years ago – the Friday before the release of Definitely Maybe and The Holy Bible, and just as the last Russian troops were leaving the former Soviet empire, when everyone assumed that would be the end of the story, for good, forever – a box was thrown out in the process. Probably not even recycled. It contained the teachers’ notes for most of the schools programmes we had followed during my primary-years home education (all but one of the music programme brochures has since been recovered via eBay, but most of the others are still missing) and relevant material for the various children’s clubs I had been a member of, at the end of a culture which, for all that it very obviously does not represent the full social scope and range of Britain during its core period, deserves a full, definitive study (Valerie Grove’s biography of Kaye Webb suffered more than anything else from being by Valerie Grove, and managed, towards its end, simultaneously to internet-bash and Gordon Brown-bash in the same sentence). The material from my brief membership of the Junior Puffin Club before it ceased to exist in that form (some of it was on eBay, but slipped through my fingers), the material from my substantially longer-lasting membership of the Young Ornithologists’ Club (Facebook friends may have seen my recent thoughts on this; for the record, all but two of what I assume to be the relevant magazines have been recovered, again via eBay) … and, I am pretty sure, the material from my membership of a club which shared its name with an ITV children’s programme, the same programme from which I believe (it was found at what is now ITV plc’s base in Bristol; the programme concerned was made by HTV West) the footage of a current inmate of Stafford Prison, who was loved and appreciated by millions of people in a way that none of the others ever really quite were, drawing a former wrestler from Leeds and saying to him that “we go back a long way together” comes.
I have never searched for any of the last-named on eBay.
There you have it. You have the one. You have the other, too, not to mention the fact that William Mayne was never allowed to sit next to a child at any Puffin Club gatherings, and had already been dropped from Oxford University Press in the year that Eleanor Graham had retired from Puffin, six years before the club existed; it was known, sort of, but at the same time it wasn’t known. I myself know that I was one of the lucky ones. Had I had the same condition and been born twenty years earlier, I shudder to imagine what might have happened to me. Some of the children who were abused in Rochdale had similar conditions and were only very slightly – a year or two, in some cases – my senior. Alienated as I was from the state education system, I used – based on a misreading of what was itself a deliberate misreading; while not as explicitly political as Anthony Buckeridge’s only non-school story (I wish he’d written more), A Funny Thing Happened, whose conclusion is an unbelievably direct metaphor for a completely unreformed feudal community accepting and coming to terms with the Attlee legacy and inheritance, the Jennings books portray an infinitely nicer and more pleasant world than the vast majority of prep schools came anywhere near in the 1950s, and are very clearly the work of a socialist painting a picture he wished could be real – to imagine myself attending a prep school, blissfully unaware of the reality that someone as socially introverted and private as me would have found everything infinitely harder even than I already found it. And abuses in such schools were still, in quite a few cases, an occupational hazard.
So it is obvious that my childhood takes on a strange look at this distance; living, largely out of my own choice, in a world that was already largely ceasing to exist, I created an entire private universe. And, as I now know (previous pieces on here may be of relevance), private universes can only ever crash and crumble and leave you on the cold hard ground, staring at the world beyond with less knowledge than ever of how to get back into it. The fact that for people like me they are usually the only way to live doesn’t mean that I don’t know that you can’t permanently and sustainably continue to live in them.
And when I have gone somewhere, I never go back to it (I have never revisited the town, or even the county, in which I grew up since that day, which was also in the week “Parklife”, the song, was released as a single). I never re-read any of my old stuff, even the Sea Songs era (though doesn’t the last post I wrote there seem newly relevant after tonight’s match in Cardiff?). The embarrassment is always too profound; there’s always something that jars, leaps out at you, hits you in the face. That is why, although the childhood memories I wove together when I wrote a 2001 piece which I alluded to in my last essay here are still very strong and potent in my mind, and I know exactly how I combined them and how I worked them out in my head, I have no desire to return to the piece itself. It’s far too blithe, far too superficial, far too basic and emotionally incomplete, getting to the surface but no deeper. I doubt whether most people could do better at 20. I also know that the temptation to write like that in times such as those (it was April of that year, as I recall), when minor differences as to whether to vote Labour or Lib Dem in which seat, and which would be the best option to push the Tories even further to the fringe, were major national headlines, is much greater than the temptation in times such as these. But in the end that piece was the work of a very young man for whom childhood was maybe not even the day before yesterday yet, just yesterday; what I am writing now is the work of an adult who can grasp what all this stuff actually means and who understands, as no 20-year-old really can, what time actually is and what it actually does. It contained far too many aspirations to be TV Cream / Andrew Collins “normal”; if I couldn’t be that kind of “normal”, and if its gatekeepers mocked me for not being so (as they already were doing), maybe I could out-normalise them, hyper-normalise myself, pretend that my narratives were on that level and maybe they actually could become so and I’d be what I couldn’t be. I have no such ambitions now. It is the “Tracy Jacks” syndrome again, to keep the argument within Britpop (which seems weirdly appropriate, since so much of that movement was about, initially, ironically aspirational “normality” which so quickly and unequivocally became the real, plain thing); as a Melody Maker critic memorably observed at the time, Damon Albarn’s obsession with being normal just wasn’t normal. It was the sign, as we’ve all realised since, of someone suffering very much the same internal crisis that I was seven years later.
There are some people I never google, because I want to keep them there. There was one particular poster on the political newsgroups in the early 2000s whose support, rooted in an aggressively urban version of Leftism which has always differed quite fundamentally from mine, for the invasion of Iraq more or less amounted to “the Rolling Stones were inspired by the blues so we have a duty to do this” (Michael Gove was saying similar things in The Times already, but not quite the same thing). With one exception, I doubt whether most of my eventual readers ever had any contact with this man, or knew his name. I’ve never sought him out in any other context. But he, more than anyone else, was the reason why Carmodism, as it developed (in the sense that Mark Sinker observed that John le Carré and David Hare were “totally bamboozled by Thatcherism and Murdoch and America and ‘the 60s'” which are “all connected without going the full Carmody” – my italics), took shape. How to come to terms with the fact that a culture I so loved, and valued and cherished so passionately and saw as a great progressive development, could be used openly to justify something I so fervently abhorred? While heavily influenced by Ian MacDonald, and framed (consciously, I hope in retrospect, and aware of the implications) in the slipstream of his decision to leave this world, the reassessment of everything I thought I knew which came out in the way it came out came almost entirely from my encounters with someone most of my acolytes and critics alike never had the slightest idea even existed, and who I had met in a part of the internet which was already becoming archaic and falling into ghostlike disuse. I’m gruesomely intrigued with how he dealt with the way that the people he regarded as his ultimate enemies, the people against whom the war had to be fought – the Etonians, the “toffs”, the shire types – openly embraced what was in effect his position and took it up as their own from 2005 onwards (if the invasion of Iraq happened today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Daily Telegraph might use the socio-cultural arguments he invoked in favour of it unequivocally and with those words in that order, whereas in 2003 even its Murdochian rival could only print them in an adjusted, diluted form). But not enough to want to know how, and if, he actually did.
Similarly I have had no contact for a very long time now with someone I once thought of as a very close friend, and who instinctively responded and related to my thoughts on Minnow on the Say (which also contain a line which in the post-Yewtree context seems creepier, perhaps, than it once did, however great our desire not to judge by association); the sadness of the last political years would, I know, have eaten away at him even more than it has eaten away at me, because he actually was there the first time. I am forever haunted by his words to me shortly after the 2005 election – before Cameron had emerged as the leading choice by any means – that a Tory comeback rooted in pop culture had become inevitable. I know all too well that The Guardian‘s refusal to print the letter I wrote them (and to which his words were a response), probably ten years ago this week, suggesting that there was nothing surprising about Cameron having his particular tastes, and that there had already been a long-term connection between Toryism and pop culture such as the paper was deliberately refusing to admit existed, tells its own story about what is still, even now, even after all that’s happened, a deliberate and active form of denialism in some cases, which lingers on painfully refusing to die. John Harris wrote the article concerned. Of course. If the person I’m writing about is reading this, perhaps he could tell me. But I still won’t google. There’s less pain that way.
I don’t have the letter concerned, or indeed the vast majority of my emails from when email was still dominant. That wasn’t planned, or deliberate. But I don’t wholly regret that it worked out that way. What I do still have are the books of poetry – in some cases in my family since the George Mitchell Minstrels could have number one albums, imaginary cream in non-existent coffee – on which I was brought up and which, whenever I’m in my deepest mood of melancholy, are still there. Reading them is my passport, my voyage, my journey to a place where what makes no sense in normal life – that word again – suddenly does make sense, where order and structure and art on its own terms can make sense of my being. But even then, I knew that on its own this could not convey everything, and there are other books too, books which convey and describe the dismantling of that world, the loss of that certainty. Somehow I never read those so often, precisely because I know they’re truer, and so are a harder fit for self-comfort and self-justification.
When I was a child, the Jennings and Famous Five books (both of which I loved and could re-read to the point of exhaustion) could still just about be superficially updated – decimal currency, jeans in the cover illustrations, dates and number plates subtly changed – and the vision could be sold on credible capitalist terms; such was the delusion of the heritage boom (in the context of most of what surrounds it, the Jimmy Young-voiced ad in the clip linked to above, fourteen months before Michael Ryan, is the sight and sound of capitalism eating its own and Cameron, Johnson and Osborne, who knew where it could lead them even then, cheering it on). How could anyone, even then, have thought that anyone possibly could take seriously the idea of a Billy Bunter book in which his postal orders were for decimal amounts? What audience did they think they could ever have? Who on earth were they aiming at? The answer, I regret to say, was me. Toryism as if the market didn’t exist was where I existed in my head. Only as an adult would I realise the full implications of this, the extent of the lie which was being sold, and in different forms and under different names, is still being sold. Adulthood can make the memory of childhood turn as nasty as it is calming, as threatening as it is reassuring, as much a force for self-hatred as for self-comfort, and in no sense whatsoever any kind of solace for self-respect or self-justification.
My copy of Minnow on the Say is to all intents and purposes – it would appear – the original text, perhaps with the odd casual, unthinking use of then unremarkable phrases (as late as 1978, the broadly liberal Monthly Film Bulletin editor Richard Combs surprisingly let through Tom Milne’s use of the phrase “n***** in the woodpile”, and if I ever knew that what may be seen as racist was simply generational, if there were ever a case where I knew the David Irving defence would not just be weasel words as it obviously was when Irving himself used it, it would be in the case of a critic like Tom Milne) discreetly removed, but there is a curious moment where the OUP of 1989 has presumably changed a reference to a text of 1588 to being “over four hundred” years old. I remember the anniversary of the Spanish Armada myself – remember the TSW-produced series using the well-worn News 39 to News 45 technique, the sort of thing it gets harder and harder to believe was ever shown during ITV’s children’s time – but I would never have had any sort of problem with acknowledging that it had not been that long ago a reasonable amount of time before (as long ago, precisely, as “he’s not staff and he’s not village” and Just-Like-Eddie and Gang of Four not getting on Top of the Pops and “Fade Away and Radiate” are now). Because my life was so dependant on it and existed so much on its terms, I always knew that there was something called The Past, and I knew there was something called The Present, and I knew what separated them and how and why they played by different rules, observed different social norms and conventions and assumptions. And it never surprised or flummoxed me that people who seemed real, in terms of fiction, could know things I didn’t know, and not know things I did. The gulf did not seem remotely unbridgeable.
But then I know, now, that most children do not have anything like the developed sense of passing time that I sort of had – even without knowing the full implication of it – even then. For them, at least in my childhood, something like that may have seemed subtly and sociologically necessary, as a sort of reassurance, as a sort of grasp and grip. But could it have been believed? Maybe, back then. But not now. Adding a proviso like that is a means of sealing your own project’s built-in obsolescence, in total contrast with (but dangerously easy to confuse with) the status of the work itself.
What would have been the “yesterday” which much of my childhood reading was from the day before? Maybe the 1970s, which were scarcely talked about or really understood, yet, at that point (the house in which I grew up was one of the few in which ABBA hadn’t fallen down a memory hole, where this album seemed more real than life itself on gapingly long afternoons); the day before that seemed easy to walk into, not to envisage right in front of you, nor even see as quite the next room, but maybe a few paces down the corridor.
But when you reach genuine adulthood, you realise that what was a few paces down the corridor has become a permanently locked door, and when you attempt to prise it open, you are both there and not there, your 20-year-old self in some ways more of a child than you were as an actual child. It’s not just the obvious narrative of, in Dennis Potter terms, Mickey and Sylvia waiting; it’s also that you’re now familiar with Angela Lambert’s No Talking After Lights (which, like that series, perhaps deliberately confuses its timings; a clearly specified 1952, but with “Stranger in Paradise” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” played and playing to death) and, thus, with the utter inversion and destruction of the tropes of an imagined past, the sheer vicious cruelty and failure of real life. That was childhood too. We just didn’t want to talk about it. And girls’ boarding schools were the least of the problem.
And so when I went back into Minnow on the Say this week after an, alas, incomplete political epoch’s absence, I was struck much more than I would once have been – how could anyone possibly, seeing what is finally being closed off for good in front of us, not be? – by the dominance of the overriding trope of genteel poverty, such a recurrent post-war theme; the family who had once had an assumed status in the local hierarchy reduced to near-penury, only saved from being isolated from the one place they knew by the sort of thing that only really happens in children’s books (and when that increased equality eventually receded, those families would never become central again, would in many cases in fact end up as servants themselves). I know better than I once did the implicit reactionary politics of many who would have lamented that situation, mourned that socialism had upset the natural order; I’m not suggesting the writer necessarily suffered from them, and indeed in my direct personal company she seemed to come from very much the same, essentially liberal humanist, world that I do, but it seems less abstract, more in our face, in the knowledge of what actually is happening, what cannot be avoided as it could in the days of the 2001 government’s abolition of politics (how could I not know more now, knowing what Florence Welch’s grandfather had to say about Noddy?). And the dangerous historical precedent of Birmingham as the great other, the great threat, is now better understood; I know that it didn’t start with racism – Stanley Baldwin, after all – but I know where it was leading and what it was getting bound up with, and I know what happens when the core, the motor of the country is excluded from that country’s central narrative and mythos; after all, it is happening all over again, right in front of us, right now (the sceptre of EU withdrawal is as much about doing that within England as it is about casting the last and longest shadow over the idea of Britain). They are not simply words on pages now as they once were, only marginally more meaningful than they are to the computer on which I am writing this.
I know, in short, why adults don’t usually read children’s books. Well into my adulthood, I didn’t really know this. I can’t now see myself reading them as if there were nothing else as I was capable of doing even a few years ago. And I am maybe that bit more critical of someone like Kaye Webb, who was without doubt a great enabler of the post-war public culture, a great encourager and a great force for good … but I know better now the difference, articulated (I think; somehow – and yes, the reasons are the same I articulated earlier – I haven’t looked at the archive reviews on the BFI site yet) by Robert Brown in a 1983 Monthly Film Bulletin review of the Children’s Film Unit version of William Mayne’s A Swarm in May without knowing the full implications of what he was saying, between “children’s culture” and “culture for children”. I was never able to create a culture of my own as a child, nor was I able to collaborate with any of my contemporaries to create a new one almost by mistake or by fate. In my late twenties, I dreamt of the childhood I never really had. The camaraderie, the togetherness, the solidarity (in the truest sense) with the children I was with in this dream … it was as if I had willed into being something that never really existed, never could have existed at all. And there is nothing that hurts you more than being confronted, by your own imagination, with the difference between your imagined self and your actual self.
I also understand far more the motif of death halfway through Minnow on the Say (and the obvious absurdity of flashing forward to some notional, almost open-ended post-1988 time a world in which men lost in war, and lost men half gone from this world imagining that they might return, are the unremarkable norm, not disproportionate – and newsworthy precisely for that reason – South Atlantic or Gulf exceptions); it starts to hit you harder and more dramatically at this age (and I must now be past the chronological age – and these times are so different that that is about all that age then and now have in common – that Philippa Pearce was when she wrote it), not just a literary norm which is observed because it has to be observed in the same way that you clock on at a certain time and clock off at another. Maybe, when history had been suspended, death seemed more like clocking off than it had done before and would again.
And above all else, I can’t grasp the social norms and ways anymore, can’t imagine myself walking into them, as I sort of walked into their last echoes a few times as a child, fanning embers and turning dreams to life. I know what they are alright; it’s just that I can’t imagine what it would have been to live in them. In some ways, there has been a reversal of my response to different elements of this story; once, the motifs and passings and rituals were just names and ideas and the broader narrative background was remarkably un-strange considering how long ago it already was, not remotely creepy or even eerie, just something that could come to life in the same way that a tourist guide or brochure or an old newspaper or magazine could. Now the relationship has turned around with age; the social signs and appeals to myth and memory are fully understood, and they aren’t always understood more positively as a result, and the wider backdrop has become a painting you can’t leap into, not a collage in which you could imagine yourself hiding quietly and contentedly.
It’s always like that, staring your past in the face, because that’s the closest you can come to staring yourself in the face as well. You realise what made you what you are, and where you can’t go back, and where you can. And the anthems and unremarkable observations of another time echo through your mind not as the superficial signifiers they once did – understood on the page, but not pushing through to the soul – but as genuine emotional stones carved deep out of you, not just something you can shake off and which can be described but not felt, but as spiritual dividing lines, going deep to the soul and staying until your last moment. No surprise, seeing how they come from a time when, for most people in the West, death seemed far closer in life, far more real. I once took out of a vast array of cassettes which it seemed as though nobody except me would ever buy – more in the next posting – an album called Home is in Your Head. Never have those words been truer, more necessary, more an emergency, more the only possible path.