Is it possible to be born sad? Maybe that first slap and the subsequent cry sets a pattern for some of our lives. I was born in the late fifties and was a child in the sixties. It was a grey time for a boy like me. The buildings were grey with soot, the roads were grey with oil, television was a series of greys despite being called black and white, people wore grey clothes and even greyer expressions, cars were grey or black, and the skies seemed to be more often grey than blue.
It was a strange time. Whenever the fire siren sounded I wondered if it was a nuclear attack. It never was of course, but talk of nuclear bombs and banning them was everywhere from the playground to the grocers and the Home Service was always going on about it. The Second World War wasn’t even twenty years gone, so everyone at the corner shop saw wars coming at the drop of a hat and there was the cold war to contend with as well - whatever that was.
Back in 1962 I was five. I remember the gloom that surrounded me, a mixture of knowing too much and not having enough. That October I was sure that the world was going to come to an end; the Russians were sailing to
and the Americans really didn’t like it. It hung over me like a cloud despite not yet being six. Even Casey
Jones, Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip (click click) and Rawhide couldn’t pull me out
of my worry. Of course Coronation
Street didn’t help and the tale of that grimy Northern Street (so
different from the Oxfordshire market town where I lived) did nothing to lift
School didn’t help either. I couldn’t do my tables, and mental arithmetic was the be all and end all back then. Not being able to do sums in my head to order made me so panicky that even learning my alphabet became a chore – I think it must have been the orderly progression of the letters because I could read perfectly well. Instead of trying harder, I gave up and dreamed my time away in school, spending more and more time trying to avoid anything to do with numbers. At night I would read in bed until I fell asleep dreading the stand-up times tables test the next day.
When Kennedy was assassinated the year after the missile crisis it looked like the Russians were going to come and get us after all. The Russians had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, the year I was born in 1957 and then two years later Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The space race was exciting, but with Kennedy’s death the fear was that the Russians would win, after all they were controlling the weather and they had thousands of subs surrounding us.
By then of course my character and personality was ninety percent in place, my attitudes set, and the rest of my life would just be not very fine tuning.
The sixties is remembered (or not if you believe the hype) as a time of freedom and love. For me it was the start of my long career in gloomdom and I still have to push back against it today. Of course there were good things too – like the snow of 63 – but generally I remember a sad, lonely, boy who was happiest on his own walking in the countryside or hidden away reading a book. In the few pictures I have of myself as a child I’m rarely smiling. There’s usually a frown, a far away distracted ‘can’t quite remember’ look. Sometimes there’s even panic and fear.
I’m still working on why. But what do you expect from a boy on a bike without tyres.