The Early Years
I’ll always grab a Grisham off the library van shelf (John of that ilk – The Pelican Brief …The Client etc.) for the good plots and excellent writing, but I almost discarded A Painted House when I discovered that it was “inspired by his own childhood in rural Arkansas”. What is it with these people? They become famous for something – writing novels, punk music or politics – and they suddenly get this ridiculous notion that the world will be fascinated by their tedious life story. Pop stars top a few charts at 17 and write their autobiographies before they’re 21, as if anyone might be remotely interested their early prowess with the conker-on-a-string or their first pseudo-erotic fumblings behind the bike shed. As it happens, A Painted House is very good but that’s not the point.
I think I can claim (though in but a small way) to regard myself as a writer, even if of little or no renown, but it would never occur to me to bore the world (village) with my school days or my exploits as lead banjo in the Wickford Methodist Youth Club Jazz Band (circa 1966), and as to my teenage erotic encounters, I don’t recall having any. It may have been the age of ‘free love’ but it was pretty expensive round our way, especially if you were short, spotty, terminally shy and played the banjo. I believe the guitar players got a bit but I had very small hands.
My most abiding memory of childhood is the ritual of kissing (strictly non-sensual) which blighted my early life whenever an elderly relative hove into view. An aunt, with an over-powdered complexion of ruddy hue and skin the texture of crumpled, sweating leather, would thrust her hideous face downward with the demand, “What about a kiss for Auntie then!”. Cornered within the bosom of my smiling, traitorous family (and seriously threatened with suffocation by the enormous pulsating bosom of the aunt in question) I would then have to negotiate that alpine landscape of paint-clogged creases and hairy moles in search of the least disgusting patch of wrinkled skin upon which to plant as brief a peck as common decency would allow before being passed on to the next ghastly visage waiting in line to inflict it’s vile torture.
Where was Amnesty International then?
My early life seemed to revolve around the Methodist Church whose purpose it was to mould the young mind into a facsimile of the particular image of Jesus it subscribed to, this being (to my young eyes) a soulless, humourless bastion of good works, moral rectitude, absolute sobriety and lifelong celibacy (long hair, white robe and sandals, of course). I became convinced that every activity in life undertaken ‘off the knees’ and without the hands clasped firmly together in prayer constituted a mortal sin which condemned the perpetrator to an eternity of hell and hot damnation. A key element in this moral education seemed to be the written pledge, extracted under extreme duress and held over the poor infant in perpetuity. I can still recall signing my life away to the service of the Lord - a little leaflet with a picture of Jesus upon which I pledged heaven knows what for fear of a graphically described hot reception in the hereafter which scared the pants off me.
Sunday began with Church in the morning and ended with more Church in the evening, leaving the afternoon free for Sunday School. Squeezed into my Sunday suit and with my hair plastered to my head (with Vaseline, for heaven’s sake!) straight after breakfast, I would remain so embalmed throughout the day whilst the Power of God was hammered into my little head and my dreadful sins laid bare. On Monday evening it was Band of Hope where the evils of liquor were forcefully explained and Holy Temperance was beaten into my soul. I was eight years old.
By the age of ten I had been well schooled in the evils of fornication, a sin which was roundly condemned but never explained even in the most general terms. I spent many a sleepless night in those unhappy days wondering if I had ever inadvertently fornicated and praying to Jesus for forgiveness just in case I had. I can remember discussing the matter with friends who had little more idea than I, and eventually agreeing that if we ever found out what fornication was we were certainly going to give it a try. By the age of twelve I had concluded that the Kingdom of Heaven was inhabited by miserable, breast-beating lunatics and not a place that I ever wanted to visit, far less spend the rest of eternity.
Perhaps my greatest sin in later life was in having broken all of those written pledges so earnestly made in my childhood. I’m not very sure about my early pledge to Jesus because I can’t remember what I actually signed up to and I never kept the copy they gave me. If it involved the “thou shalt not’s” like killing, coveting oxen and stuff like that I’ve probably done pretty well on the whole. I’ve definitely failed on the temperance ticket having consumed a fair quantity of beer and spirits over the years but I think I’m OK on the fornication front, probably due more to lack of opportunity than high moral purpose. I have given up the banjo. Still, what’s done is done, and when my time comes, if the Pearly Gates are slammed in my face it will be some comfort to know that I’ll just end up (or down) where all the bad girls go.