I can’t be sure precisely when and why my relationship with my father starts to go wrong. In discussion many years later, my mother speculates that as soon as I start to become my own person, with my own interests, tastes, and opinions, his interest in me starts to wane and he sees me instead as a competitor. Maybe. He is a man of firm (some might say obsessive) political views and takes a dim view of differing opinions. Most of the families in our street are conservative (big and small c) – the husband typically a professional (banker, estate agent, teacher), the wife a housewife (single salaries are still the norm). A few doors down from us lives one of the few Labour voters in spitting distance, John Burden, whom my father regards as a buffoon for his political beliefs. He is also a rather eminent french horn player (an artist, even worse in my Dad’s eyes as they never “live in the real world”). John is in fact one of four horn players to perfom on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper sessions. This last revelation pretty much finishes him off in my Dad’s eyes. When they sing All You Need is Love live on the first worldwide TV satellite linkup a few months later Dad is enraged at the idea this is in any way representative of Britishness. Generally speaking the cultural revolution continues to be held at arm’s length in Cuffley – further if possible – although it will find its way in through TV and radio, to be consumed by younger eyes and ears, and eventually in a more relaxed attitude to hair length.
I don’t know the whys. From an adult perspective I can see that my father was a troubled and complex individual, while as a child I came to find him frightening and intimidating. I can more or less pinpoint when things start to go wrong – I am seven and a half. My comics obsession is growing. Marvel Comics are about to be discovered but at the moment my favourite comic is a British weekly – TV Century 21. TV21 contains strips featuring the puppet adventure shows which dominate teatime viewing in the sixties – Stingray, Fireball XL5 etc. Each week the cover takes the format of an imaginary newspaper from a hundred years in the future. In early 1966 TV21 has just started to feature Thunderbirds, which has become a massive hit. One morning before school my comic has arrived and for some reason there is a massive row between my dad and myself. It is one-sided, as most rows with him are, but afterwards I remember scrawling out the headline on the cover which reads “Thank you Thunderbirds”. To you, dear reader, that may seem ridiculous or trivial, but those comics mean so much to my young self and I can remember now the strength of the upset that makes me deface it, the sense that my father has decided I am bad, so of course I must be bad. There are many conflcts and rows to come but in some way my sense of it begins here.
In my early years of school I am studious and shy, unathletic and cautious. I do well academically, but it is several years before a chance remark of mine raises a laugh in class, to my utter amazement, and I realize that I can become “interesting”, if not admired, through making jokes and clowning around. This emerging confidence is not reflected in any public performance. Each summer there are school plays or shows involving most of the boys, and which are performed on the grassy bank outside the school building during open days. My first experience of this is being cast as a tree in Little Grey Rabbit aged five. I am comfortable with a non-speaking part, although my tree costume is so form-fitting I struggle to go to the toilet during the interval. I can remember the anxiety vividly now.
In the summer of 1967 I have a one-line part in a version of Treasure Island and I am so terrified that I refuse to say “Aye sir, foc’sle council”, even in rehearsals, until the line is cut. The following summer I have two lines in Hiawatha, and through my persistent shyness manage to get one of those cut as well, reluctantly declaiming the other line to the assembled parents. But the play becomes a hugely powerful experience for me for another reason entirely. Keble is a boys-only school, so any female parts in plays are given to boys …