My Earliest Years

My Earliest Years

Of course I don’t remember anything about the start of my life, so I went around to my parents’ house to ask them about it. We sat on the green sofa in the living room of their bungalow and looked through some of my old baby photos, chuckling at my chubby round face and thick dark hair, and how I was dressed from head to toe in hand-knitted baby clothes.

I was born on a cold winter’s night in Hitchin, an old market town halfway between London and Cambridge. It was November 1967. The Labour party was in power under Harold Wilson, workers’ strikes were fairly commonplace, race relations were strained, and the Vietnam War was still rumbling on. The Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet and the Beatles made Yellow Submarine. On Britain’s streets, the miniskirts and slim-fit suits of 1960s mod culture were giving way to the new hippy fashions of frayed flares, garish prints and headbands.

Compared with the complicated and long-winded birth of my big sister in 1965, my arrival was relatively straightforward, and my parents soon brought me home to our three-bedroom semi-detached on Bearton Avenue. This house was quite a step up from their previous place, a maisonette in Upper Norwood, near Crystal Palace in southeast London. In most respects, we were a traditional family of four — Dad went to work, Mum stayed at home, and my sister and I kept them both very busy indeed.

My 27-year-old Mum, a slender blue-eyed woman with short brown wavy hair, had a traditional Silver Cross pram with four solid wheels and spokes, proper bouncy suspension and a hinged hood. I was wheeled out into the garden in the pram every morning to gurgle and look at the sky, listen to the birds and snooze in the fresh air. The pram had a seat for my sister to sit on when Mum walked us down to the greengrocers. She left me outside on the pavement while they went in to do the shopping, and this was considered perfectly normal and safe to do in those days. This sturdy pram served our family well over the years — when we were older, it was converted into a go-kart, so its last journeys were spent covered in screeching, grubby children racing down hills.

My tall, bespectacled 30-year-old Dad was involved in the design and development of the early digital computers, working at the pioneering front-end of the dawning of the digital age. By 1968, he had landed a good job in nearby Stevenage at Hawker Siddeley Dynamics — a rocket and weapons manufacturer that was later to become part of British Aerospace. Dad was an electronic engineer on the team tasked with developing the autopilot for a satellite launch vehicle for ELDO, a European space research organisation. After that project wound down, he moved to a guided weapons project at GEC in Stanmore — but he quickly grew exasperated with his rather useless and absent colleagues, and left to join the London office of Honeywell, an American company. Honeywell designed and built some of the early commercial computers, which were enormous in those days. Dad’s new job meant sidestepping out of engineering and into sales and contract negotiation; he sold the first pair of Honeywell computers that could speak to each other, a rare thing in those days.

By 1969, we had moved to a town called Bricket Wood, closer to London, and we stayed there for a few years. Mum’s days were spent going to coffee mornings and running around after my three-year-old sister and me. She and her friends were firmly of the make-do-and-mend generation, having grown up in the 1940s and 50s when Britain was still recovering from the hardships of war, money was tight and things were still in relatively scarce supply. Holes in socks were darned, torn trousers were patched, outgrown coats were passed on to friends, and toys came from jumble sales. My sister and I had two new pairs of Clarks’ leather shoes each, every year: sandals for summer and sturdy shoes for winter.

Unlike my more confident sister, I was an anxious, clingy baby and didn’t want to be separated from my parents even for a minute. I got into the habit of waking up and crying during the night if they weren’t in the room – one of them would come in and settle me down, but, if I opened one eye and saw them tiptoeing out, I started wailing again. This went on night after night, for over a year. My poor exhausted parents, it must have been teeth-grindingly exasperating for them. They resorted to putting a mattress on the floor at the foot of their bed in the hope that, if I was scared, I would creep into their room and go back to sleep without waking them up. My nocturnal antics reached an ear-piercing crescendo when Mum was pregnant with my little brother; they eventually got me to shut up by promising me an eggcup full of raisons in the morning if I stayed quietly in my bed until morning. This simple act of bribery did the trick, and I have slept pretty soundly ever since.

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