1982. The UK. The Falklands War erupted. The lowest temperature on record was captured by a lonely weather station in east Scotland, at −27.2°C. Unemployment exceeded three million, the highest since the 1930s. The IRA bombed Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, killing eight and wounding forty-seven. Thatcher’s Tories were top of the opinion polls. In every kid’s Christmas stocking there was a copy of When the Wind Blows, depicting a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. I was seven.
I don’t want to lose your sense of intrigue straight off the bat, but I was a sickly child, matted with eczema and, later, permanently trailing a hankie. The umbilical cord had noosed around my neck upon my grand entrance, rendering me mute. I brought with me a special delivery of postnatal depression and was soon registered as ‘failure to thrive’.
Around our house they called me the Grizzler. My super-powers included a sixth sense for the acutely unfair, and internal combustions at perceived slights. My parents also bandied around ‘sulking’ or ‘sulking again’, but those words didn’t do it justice. When wronged, their youngest child was a kamikaze pilot in a nosedive, unwilling or unable to pull up. Empires should collapse.
‘It’s not the end of the world!’ Mum would exclaim, in an ascending tone. Dad’s favoured description of Mum was ‘wittering’. Mum’s nickname for Dad was ‘Eeyore’. We all did the Myers–Briggs personality test one time and came out as introverts with tempers rising. Long car journeys were marked by the sucking of teeth, bursts of road rage and the odd hiss of ‘tedious’ or ‘bollocks’; a Mexican wave of low frustration tolerance between the two front seats. It kept me on high alert, every tut triggering a spike of cortisol.
Sometimes I’d study Dad’s eyes in the rear-view mirror as he steered us through European holidays of crumbling ruins. His handsome brows would draw upwards in an expression even a child could recognize as aggrieved. Some silent cinefilm of lost chances seemed to be looping eternally. Trying to smoke us out of the picture with repeated stabs at the cigarette lighter only served to jack a bit of dopamine out of those rusty neurons. He’d take the edge off by shoving Olivia Newton-John in the tape deck.
I liked to creep out my family in this way: sitting bolt upright in the back seat until they noticed me watching, nibbling on a plait. As a journalist I’ve made a career of it. Sometimes I’d lie down and cry undetected into the upholstery of the back seat, lost in some tragic fantasy involving one of their deaths. Outside of the car, we all kept to ourselves.
It’s fair to note that we are English, but there was more to the sense of foreboding than that. My mother worked in social services and my father was descended from a long line of Essex cops – a paradoxical dynamic right there. Our house itself was a police state, which Mum would attribute to his childhood when he was out of earshot. It meant our mealtime manoeuvres were closely scrutinized for plebeian plate scraping, too few chews or using our forks like shovels. Some Sunday lunchtimes a tear might plop into my wholemeal apple crumble; but discreetly, since governance operated under the popular wartime maxim: ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’
My older brother and I got lots of advice like that. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ All variations of ‘shh’, really. Part of me has grown up similarly conservative. I think a lot more parents could be employing ‘If in doubt, don’t’ these days. Hapless Gen Y and Z #dreamchasers are taught to ‘Shoot for the stars, baby!’ They’re told they can achieve anything in life they set their minds to. It’s heartbreaking for them when they find out they can’t.