Childhood Recollections

September 10th, 2004

I had two mothers; my birth mother who gave me up for adoption, and my new mother, the late, great, Mrs Winterson, complete with Gospel Tent and rolling pin. She wore headscarves and crimpelene dresses, a corset and a full-length apron, bedroom slippers around the house, and 200-denier stockings outdoors. She believed in the power of Jesus, Armageddon, and herbal medicines. I had no jabs and no pills as a child, and although this was the 1960’s, every day in winter, she sealed my chest in brown paper and Vick. I was the only child at my school who rustled.

Armageddon was a bit of a problem when I was growing up. Mrs Winterson was keen on Bible prophecy, and spent washday poking clothes into the seething 1950’s twin-tub with one hand, and reading the Book of Revelations with the other. This last book of the Bible is full of hermeneutic messages that can only be interpreted by the Faithful, seeking to know the day and the hour of the world’s destruction and Jesus’ return.

On Mondays, when I arrived home from school, I took up my position at the mangle, turned the wheel, and listened to Mrs Winterson’s latest theories. They were always impressive, but when Armageddon failed to combust, she staged mini Armageddons at home.

First she rowed with all the neighbours, including our local shopkeepers, who then refused to serve her. As we couldn’t buy food, she sent my Dad up to the allotment to kill the chickens. He hated doing this, even though he had been in the D Day landings, and killed more men than he could remember. I learned early how to wring a chicken’s neck, and I suppose it was a useful childhood skill, just like learning how to grow vegetables, which we did seriously, because we were poor.

Poor is better than rich for a child’s imagination. The luxuries we load on our kids now, from designer clothes to video games, leaves little room for a child to develop his or her own resources. Children are bored because they are boring. A child who can’t entertain herself or her friends with made up stories and a cardboard box is a child that will become a discontented adult.

If a child has enough food, warm clothing, shelter, and love, she doesn’t need a truckload of toys and daily entertainment. We couldn’t afford things at home, and none of my friends had much either. One of our favourite games was to borrow a hearthrug, put it on the pavement outside the terraced houses, and sit round it in a circle. We’d spin a milk bottle, and the person it pointed at had to sit in the middle of the rug and tell a story or teach us a song. I don’t want to idealise my own childhood – it was far from ideal, it was mostly bonkers, but looking around me now, I am sure that we are killing off the most precious asset our kids are born with – their imagination. I am a writer, not because I had a nice middle class home and parents who read to me every night, but because I had to entertain myself. Like a lot of lonely or troubled kids, I invented my own world. Lonely and troubled kids nowadays, sit in front of their computers, and work within the parameters of someone else’s invented world.

One thing is certain; I was often unhappy but I was never bored. As an adult I have never been bored. Learning early to be imaginatively active and resilient is what the Navy calls ‘character building.’ It is something more than that too; it is a reminder that life has an inside as well as an outside.

Kids who know how to live in their heads are aware that not everything important is happening outside. In a world obsessed with twenty-four hour shopping, instant fortune and instant fame, it is vital to have a touchstone unconnected to the endless demands of the world we live in. Our imagination is such a touchstone; if we can find satisfaction in ourselves, we will not be so dependent on the seductions of the marketplace. It is a pity that we are teaching our children that satisfaction is always on the outside – more stuff, more excitements, more things to do to fill up the hours. When we can fill up the hours ourselves, we are free.

I have two godchildren, both girls, and I make a point of only giving them a fishing net and a box of paints when they come to stay. Their parents are careful to limit TV and video watching, and they are both encouraged to use their minds. Both girls have a quality of innocence that their peers lack. Some people say they are young for their age, although both are top of their class. Last week, the youngest, who is five, asked me if there was such a thing as fairies. I explained that as little people with wings and special powers, probably not, but as emblems of the everyday magic in our lives, definitely yes. ‘There’s always magic’ I said, ‘You know that.’ She nodded thoughtfully and went away quite happy, and later I heard her telling her sister that there are no fairies but there are fairy things.

That’s good enough for me. My own years in the Gospel Tent taught me that life has an inside as well as an outside, that you can expect miracles, whatever the source, and that not everything in the world is easily explained.

My mother was a great one for ghosts, and she often pointed out the precise whereabouts of an apparition.’ That’s your dead Granddad’ she said, whenever there was scent of mimosa on the wind.

It’s true that I longed to grow up and escape, and I left home at sixteen. It seems to me now that just as we deprive our children of a genuine childhood, turning them too quickly into sassy knowing little adults, we then extend their adolescence for far too long, and let them live at home until they are thirty.

The immature blandness of many young people is a direct result of their deprived childhood. They may have been cosseted and schooled, but their imaginations have been neglected. Neglected kids are not just the battered ones on the Council Estates; they are also the ones with super-powered parents and everything they asked for.

Can’t buy love? Well, you can’t buy childhood either. Like everything precious, it is priceless. Its values are not ours, and one of the reasons we enjoy kids is that they remind us of what we so easily lose – time to play, time to love, time to dream.

I don’t want to be a child again, and they certainly weren’t the happiest days of my life, but they were the days that allowed me to become what I am, and I don’t regret that.

Having kids of your own, or being involved with other people’s kids, is a way back to the time we spent ourselves, and if we are wise, we can repair parts of our own life through the children we love.

When Mrs Winterson was angry with me, which was often, she used to shake her head and say ‘When we adopted you, the Devil led us to the wrong crib.’ I know I disappointed her, as she disappointed me, indeed the battle between us was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness.

But none of that matters now, and playing with my godchildren I find that it’s never too late for a happy childhood.