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So much of who we are is directly linked to who we have been, and who we have been is in turn directly related to where we first appeared on the planet. And so I’m turning my focus towards the things I recall from the other selves I have been over the years. My life sometimes feels like a series of different chapters, each one whole and distinct yet linked together by the narrative of the as yet unfinished story that is my life. And life being what it is, so much of it seems to slip by without mention.
My earliest memories are sensory and pre-verbal, impressions of shape and colour, texture and sensation that became embedded before I was consciously capable of making sense of them; dreamlike, experiential awareness that for many years I dismissed as the partial recollection of distant dreams but which I now realise form the basis of my earliest awareness of, if not being, then certainly existence: people and places, times of the day, grappling with visual scale and perhaps most powerfully the awareness of that source of sustenance, safety and security; that Significant Other, my mother.
And also, at times, of her absence.
Memory being what it is, the more I turn my attention back towards a particular place and time the more I find coming back to me. Unlike so many I know who have little recollection of their childhood beyond a few key events and some who have no recollection at all, my own past is like a rich tapestry, a warm blanket that I can wrap around myself and take comfort in. Certainly there are episodes that were painful, even traumatic, yet looking backwards through the lens of time even these have tended to acquire the rosy overlay of nostalgia.
At the end of the day, the life we’ve lived is the life we’ve lived. There can be no going back to change things. I’m confident that when I finally face that final curtain that poets are so fond of invoking it will be the privilege of having simply lived and existed that will allow me one final smile before parting, because it’s ultimately the things we come up against and learn to transcend in life, however unwillingly at the time, that truly shapes us and makes us what we are, while the rest we can put down to experience.
I had a privileged early childhood, growing up in a quiet corner of an island that even today remains blessedly unspoilt by the passage of time. I lived in a house steeped in historical romance, surrounded by a substantial garden that for all intents and purposes was my own private kingdom. I grew up believing, initially at least, that the world was a strange but friendly place and I a welcome player on its stage. I had the good fortune to be surrounded by adults who respected the innocence of my childhood.
Sadly, other family members were not so fortunate.
Ashcliff. Just the name inspires feelings of warmth and contentment. As it suggest, the house stood at the base of a 300 foot cliff shrouded in ash, oak and a myriad of other trees, cut through with hidden, terraced pathways and hewn rock staircases that formed the backdrop to my world, while the house itself with its many rooms and nooks and crannies provided the best playground imaginable to play hide and seek and make believe. It was the place that perhaps more than any other helped shape me into the person I am today.
A house can do that.
As a child I was acutely aware of nature. Trees were for climbing, grass was for rolling in and lavender, primroses, daffodils and bluebells were for picking and sniffing. Along with my sister I had a fascination for birdlife. I used to know all their names. In summer I was woken up by the dawn chorus, restless and ready for the new day and totally unable to fathom the reason adults wanted to sleep in when the sun was up at 4 am. Even today the cooing of a pigeon can inadvertently carry me back to those happy early days.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. I had the ghosts to contend with. When my parents used to go out for the evening I was left with my older sister to baby-sit me in what by night could become a sometimes scary and forbidding place with its numerous creaks and groans. I’d sit petrified on the end of her bed as she kept me up late listening to ghost stories and then gleefully send me back along the darkened corridor to my own room. Once she’d calculated I was half way there she’d call out, “Don’t trip over the ghost legs!”
Then there was the mixed blessing of other children – nieces and nephews and the children who stayed in the holiday flats my parents let out to help with the mortgage payments over the summer. As long as they respected my authority over the domain of Ashcliff all was well but should one of them overstep what I considered to be the mark then my life would be plunged into misery. Nonetheless, many of my memories include the shared pleasure of other children. Hide and seek could take all day in such a setting while tepee building was always an popular pastime.
The magic of my childhood was not limited solely to the house and garden. Beyond the driveway was the road, that stretch of weathered tarmac flanked by grey stone walls overgrown with an assortment of flowering creepers behind which were the mysterious gardens of our neighbours and the houses contained therein. It was here that I first discovered the allure of wheels. I would race up and down on my tricycle and scooter as fearlessly as any Evel Knievel sporting a permanently bandaged knee or two from my many sudden and painful encounters with the unforgiving surface of the road.
I’ve always been fascinated by graveyards. I’ve never considered them to be inherently gloomy or depressing because the ones where we lived never were. At the end of the road, just around the corner, stood what was commonly known as the New Church. Built during the 1840s and nestled against a tree studded rocky outcrop it was flanked on three sides by an assortment of sometimes highly ornate gravestones and strewn with hydrangeas, fuschias and an ever-changing array of seasonal flowers. It was here I would spend many a long, sunny hour reading the inscriptions and communing with the departed.
The other church was an altogether more ancient structure. Built in 1070 and situated closer to the sea, I had to pass by the Grimms-like East Dene and through a tunnel of trees to get there. More a chapel than a church, it too was nestled in a sunny, well tended garden filled with raised tombs dating back hundreds of years, their inscriptions long weathered away by the corrosive coastal air. Wandering through the gates of these churches I imagined myself becoming one with those who had once lived and breathed the same air and lived in the same village.
At the other end of the road was the lane leading to the 101 Steps, a steeply inclined descent down to the village of Bonchurch below and my preferred route to the local store where on Saturday mornings I would take my sixpence pocket money, a highlight of my week, and exchange it for a small tub of Ski yoghurt. Once purchased I would cross the road and sit eating it on the low stone wall overlooking the village pond which was back-dropped by a wall of trees which in autumn became a rich tapestry of red, yellow and gold.
Unlike my teenage years growing up in South Australia, as a young boy on the Island it never occurred to me that people might not appreciate my company. I would think nothing of knocking on the door of a total stranger and inviting myself in. Nor can I ever recall being turned away. For me, other people’s houses were simply an extension of my own while their gardens were enticing potential playgrounds which I rarely considered to be off-limits. Had anyone explained the concept of stranger danger to me then I doubt whether I would have understood what they meant.
Best of all was the Landslip, a rugged stretch of coastline completely shrouded in lush woodland with trees hundreds of years old through which wound narrow and magical pathways and sometimes painfully steep and narrow stairways. It was the stuff of fairy tales and myth, with names like the Devil’s Chimney, the Chimney Steps and the Wishing Stone poetically penned by the Victorians who established the walking tracks a hundred years previously. My sister and I would stroll through this sun-dappled wonderland on the way to Luccombe where she used to go horse riding, completely entranced by its stunning beauty.
Compared to the natural and historic beauty of the village itself, the beach at Bonchurch with its misshapen boulders that tumbled beyond the narrow pebble beach and usually strewn with shiny and slippery black seaweed, could have been considered a disappointment by some. But for the young lad I once was it was my first introduction to the sea and therefore a place of great fascination and interest, even awe. The memory of my sister taking me out to a distant sandbank and leaving me there to fend for myself is one from which it took some time to recover.
It wasn’t simply the beach I found fascinating, nor its odd name, Monks Bay. It was what lived there that intrigued me; the things that clung to the side of rocks or drifted in the sea. I was intrigued and unnerved in equal measure: intrigued by the way shellfish would cling so desperately or the way the rock pools teemed with a proliferation of such strange looking life forms; unnerved by the way a crab would scupper so quickly across the sand, its pincers clipping furiously, as it sought refuge beneath a rock or buried itself hurriedly into the sand.
My best friend as a small boy was a black and white Labrador called Judy. Ever patient, ever faithful, always there, she was my constant companion on my many intrepid adventures, from my first successful escape from the play pen to my later travels over hills and down country lanes. I can still remember being small enough to put my arms around her neck next while standing by her, our heads side by side. Never once did she bite or bark or ever give me cause for concern. If dogs were eligible for sainthood she would be a fitting candidate.
The only person I knew who was more scared of spiders that I was my sister. If either of us inadvertently stumbled across one indoors I would be horrified but she would be positively apoplectic, seizing shoes, hairbrushes, indeed anything she could find to rain down upon the hapless eight legged creature as it vainly tried to escape along the skirting board, up the wall of down the hole at the back of the fireplace. And not only did it have to be dead, it had to be completely and utterly annihilated, otherwise it would surely come back to menace us again.
I don’t recall her name, or if I ever indeed knew it. She was simply the lady who lived in the house with the flat roof down the road. I’d sometimes visit her to say hello and I would always wave whenever I passed by the house. She always had a smile and a kindly word. But one day she wasn’t smiling. She came up to me, her face creased with grief and sobbing uncontrollably. In retrospect I think her husband had died. I would only have been six or seven at the time. I didn’t know what to do.
There was a blizzard that descended upon us while I was at school one day. No one had expected it. I was in Miss Howe’s class at the time and I remember looking out of the tall windows with the sills above eye level and seeing it. “It’s snowing!” I cried, upon which we all stood on our chairs to peer out and get a better view. Later that day, unable to get home, I trudged through the snow with one of my teachers to Uncle Les and Aunty Ivy’s house to stay the night. It was such an adventure!
At six I got the measles. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and grinning in amusement as the spotty face grinning back at me. I was confined to bed of course although I didn’t feel particularly ill. I passed the time napping, or playing with my cars on the eiderdown. I had model aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling to keep me amused and I distinctly remember Andy Williams singing about watching the girls go by over and over again on the radio. Mum brought my food up to me and kept me well watered. It was fun, actually.
I have it on good authority that the first word I ever learnt to say was not mum or dad but car. I was obsessed with cars as a kid. I had dozens of them; Matchbox, Dinky and Corgi. They were also one of the first things I learnt to draw. I’d draw them end up, as though they were people standing. Then one day I drew one upside down on its roof. Apparently when Mum asked me why I’d drawn it that way I said, “Because it’s dead.”
It’s funny the way as kids we breath life into objects.
Travelling from the island to the mainland was always an adventure-heralding event. With lunches packed to be eaten later at a motorway layby we would head off in the blue Renault to catch the car ferry. Sitting in the back of the car, lined up waiting for the ferry to dock and release its incoming contingent of vehicle, I would watch, rapt, thrilling to the spectacle of so much metal and iron floating so effortlessly on the still, blue water. Few things could match the excitement of driving on board, watching the island recede and the mainland beckoning ahead.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. My sister’s record player and proud collection of Beatles LPs was a constant source of fascination to me. I was intrigued, thrilled even, by the mechanical and electronic miracle of a stylus producing sound. So it made perfect sense to me to take one of her prized records to bed one night with a needle sourced from Mum’s sewing box. Imagine my surprise when my vain attempt at listening to music in bed failed miserably. Imagine too the horror of my sister the next time she tried to play the record.
In every child’s life there are inevitably many times when the world seems unfair. I was no exception. And when I became particularly incensed, which was usually triggered by Mum telling me “No! Andthatsallthereistoit!” I would storm up the 19 stairs to my bedroom, making sure I stamped as hard as I could on each one, go to my room, slam the door, lay down on the bed and stick my tongue out at God with all the fury a six year old can muster.
I genuinely imagined that God would be horribly offended and sorry for making me suffer.
To this day I don’t know how she did it. With Christmas fast approaching one year my sister taught me how to send a letter up the chimney to Santa telling him what presents I wanted him to bring me. First your wrote the letter, then you folded it, lit the edge and then let the updraft carry it to where he and his helpers worked tirelessly away. To my utter delight I got a reply back one day. It was from Santa and he told me he’d try to do his best.
It helped compensate for the ghost legs.
Penny slot machines were another obsession of my childhood. You found them in the arcades along the Ventnor seafront or on the long-since burnt and demolished Ventnor Pier. Pennies perched precariously on top of each other, so tantalizingly close to spilling over the precipice, and all I had to do was land a penny in the right place and a small fortune would be mine. Sadly, it was usually after I’d exhausted my supply of pennies that the thrilling clatter of coins into brass trays was heard as some other lucky sod reaped the benefit of all my hard work.
One of the most terrifying experiences of my early childhood was going to see Mary Poppins in the old cinema in Ventnor. While the other parents and children around me were enchanted as Julie Andrews took flight with her umbrella and Dick Van Dyke danced across the rooftops of London I sat pinned to my chair in terror watching the Scary White Thing to the left of the screen go up and down behind the iron trelliswork. Looking back I’m guessing it was the ventilation system but to my young eyes it was nothing less than a Big Scary Ghost.
I don’t know why but when I was five or six years old I would fret terribly if Mum and Dad went out for the evening and didn’t return home until late. Not only did I have the ghost legs to contend with; if they hadn’t arrived back at what I considered to be a reasonable hour I would start to panic, convinced that some terrible fate had befallen them in the car. Why I was so fearful I don’t know. All I do know is that the relief I felt upon hearing the car in the drive was overwhelming.
The more I go back and think about the past, the more I realise how much of my early life remains intact and accessible to me. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here but in doing so I’ve come to appreciate how much the past is an anchor to the present. Our early years have a profound influence on who we become. The process of becoming is, of course, an ongoing one. Still, I sometimes wonder at what point we enter the phase of un-becoming. I guess life being what it is, I’ll discover that one all too soon.
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