‘On a sunny October day in 1965, my birth was announced to the three million readers of the Daily Express, where my father worked as a roving reporter and where notice of my arrival would serve as a column filler.’
I came into this world without the intervention of anaesthetic or drugs. My mother coped with the pain of the contractions, and exhortations to ‘POOOOSH!!!’ using the deep abdominal breathing techniques of the Bradley Method, a nascent natural birthing fad of the 1960s. She was nineteen years old, and I was too big for her narrow teenage hips. When she felt that she was flagging, and would no longer have the strength to ‘POOOOSH!!!’ she asked the midwife, a large obliging Afro-Caribbean, to come and sit on her. Between them, buttocks drawn over my mother’s extended belly, they managed, in a last heaving contraction, to ‘POOOOSH!!!’me through the narrow aperture of my mother’s pelvis like toothpaste into the maternity ward of London’s Westminster Charring Cross Hospital. After the the tight passage in the birth canal, and the final grip of the bony pubis gate, my head appeared, the top half pressed into an alarming conical shape, not unlike a coconut. My mother was quickly reassured that I wasn’t permanently deformed, and that I would soon return to normality once the fontanelles, the soft plates that form a baby’s skull, had settled back into a more familiar round shape.
On a sunny October day in 1965, my birth was announced to the three million readers of the Daily Express, where my father worked as a roving reporter and where notice of my arrival would serve as a column filler. For that first day in our lives when we are born all our parents feel that we are like a star born over the world, and of course, I was no different, but as this story will show, a star is a complex astral body illuminating its own inner shadow, fixed in its orbit; travelling through billions of miles, until the fire in the furness of its huge nuclear heart is exhausted and it is no longer able to compress hydrogen into energy. Then they collapse into dying red dwarves. The biggest, the most gargantuan among them, expanding into giant supernova; scattering matter over the universe and filling it with swathes of photonic light waves before finally shrinking into incredibly dense quasars. While the trajectory of our lives may not seem as dramatic in scale and energy, we too are also the creatures of star dust, with our own unique flight path and the story of how we too made use of the sun’s mighty energy.
Initially, I made good progress, weighed a healthy two and a half pounds, and quickly put on weight, but I was a slow learner. My mother, busy with her ceramic art studies, said I absolutely refused to learn to walk, or talk, happily preferring instead to crawl along on all fours, pen in hand, doodling. Eventually I managed to hold my backside off the ground with my feet, and stand prone. Then I refused to talk. I was, despite all her efforts, a large lamp illuminated from within, happy to glow and make noises, but that was as far as it went. ‘Come on,’ say, “Mommy,”’ cooed Mommy but baby glowed, lamps ablaze. ‘Come on, say it, “Mommy”’. Still glowing, but signs of doubt began to dim those light circles of wide-eyed brightness. And again, more forcefully, ‘Say, “Mommy!”’ Confusion, and a slight curling around the lips, a welling around the source of those beams: no utterance, no confirmation that the blazing lamp would ever move beyond smiling and gurgling noises.
Later by 1968, six months later than the average other baby boomer of that generation, I could walk and talk. By 1971, it was time to learn to read. And like walking, and talking, I was going to take my time. I distinctly remember my mother holding up the letters of the alphabet. I was five. She began with A, then B, and finally C: A, B, C. I found it impossible to remember A, let alone B; and C might have appeared like a quantum particle, so fast did it disappear from the realm of my head. The letters seemed abstract. Their shapes momentarily interesting, but no more than any other. I must have sensed my mother’s impatience, which only made me more forgetful, the B so intangible it might have been an algebraic equation. The small coloured letters my mother’s forceful voice insisted had a name — ABC. The drilling went on, and on, but I was not banking the letters of the alphabet in my memory.
Drawing was far more immediate and engrossing at this time. A powerful way to give expression to my inner desire to control my own environment, to place myself centre stage. There was also that need to understand how things worked. Drawing allowed me to decontruct the world around me. I had my sketchbooks and my crayons and my felt-tips. With these I could depict the world I wanted. A world of mountains and clear blue skies, of seas teaming with life, and a world populated with animals and people. The people were cowboys and Indians, and mostly at war. In these drawings, armies of stick men engaged in endless combat, the corpses of the vanquished piled unceremoniously in heaps, broken and useless in death. ‘Where does he get these ideas from?’ my mother asked my father. They concluded it must be from the war in Vietnam, the terrible newsreel images emerging on TV news bulletins; that in some subconscious way, I was channelling the destruction visited by ‘US Imperialism’ on the poor Vietcong.
These paper battles often took place between cowboys and Indians. The Indians were great victims with their feathery head pieces and bone jewellery. They were proud and noble in death, resisting, like the Vietnamese, to the last. They fired back clouds of arrows, which filled the cowboys with bristles who in panic discharged their pistols, all the while haemorrhaging blood from a thousand arrow head wounds. Viciously pinning the gun-toting cowboys to trees and doors, their fellow cowboys, their horses, a stray foot or dog, even the odd bell or water tower; in short, anything that got in the way.
With all this going on, the letter A just didn’t seem that important. There was too, in drawing battle scenes, the eternal themes, the drama of a grand natural setting. In those sketches, there was beauty as well as death. I realised, like all artists do, no matter how junior, that contrast is key, light and shade, the juxtaposition of life and death, war and peace, mortality and eternal rest. For the cruel vitality of war to work, the tone has to be right. The killing fields had to be contrasted with beautiful open countryside. With trees, mountains, rivers, women and children, animals and, of course, big open blue skies; with cumulus clouds floating by like foraging sheep. These scenes of death and carnage needed to be set against a backdrop of serenity, but above all, they had to be illuminated from on high with a blazing bright yellow Caran d’Ache sun. Agreeable and benign, a magnificent beaming out-of-reach patriarch, dressed in all splendour, casting rays of light on the mayhem below. With all this going on, the Roman alphabet with its rigid interpretation of vowels and consonants was simply not engaging enough for my six-year-old brain.
But there was also a back story to this refusal to learn. The psychological and socio-cultural factors that form the backdrop to a human life. In this instance, it was my parents’ marriage and their ambitions, their drives, their successes and failures; where they were headed, our destiny as a little nuclear family, to which I was cast a part, but a part, whose role was an appendage to the swiftly moving carriage that was our own personal road movie, the events that would lead from London in 1965 to London in 1979.