When I was seventeen

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It’s time for the annual tradition of saying happy birthday to this blog. On Tuesday, it turned 17 and can now legally drive (no thanks), be interviewed by the police without an adult blog present (hopefully unnecessary) and give blood!

I’m pretty sure I loved being 17 and – while I wouldn’t want to be 17 forever – I’d certainly be happy to relive it once or twice. This is partly to do with the way Sixth Form works in Britain, or at least for me, which begins in Year 12 as former school pupils emerge blinking as freshly-minted students with more freedoms and a more relaxed, collegiate atmosphere but not yet Year 13’s mad crunch of A-Levels, university offers and the sense of everyone parting ways.

Age 17 with Fabio, Josh and Robert at Catherine's 18th Birthday
Age 17 with Fabio, Josh and Robert at Catherine’s 18th Birthday
If I recall, the spilt beer was not my fault
If I recall, the spilt beer was not my fault

Although I have a decent handful of photos from this era, plus some top quality videos from various beloved Nokias, it’s a lot more scattergun than I remember because this was all pre-smartphone. In fact, I’m grateful to Catherine for recently sending me one of these pictures from her 18th birthday while we were reminiscing about our Eton summer school days. I remember it well (and treasured that brief period when teenagers flirted by swapping MSN Messenger addresses) although curiously I don’t seem to have blogged about it afterwards, probably because it took a while in those days for any photos to emerge onto MySpace. So, consider this a belated post from the lost days of being 17 in 2006.

My next MySpace profile photo from the Waterlink Way
My next MySpace profile photo from the Waterlink Way

Back in the present, Randi and I dubbed last week our own unofficial London Restaurant Week as we donned suitably warm coats and splurged on a succession of outdoor dining at places both new (amazing gourmet Indian at Babur) and old (including our old friend the Tulse Hill Hotel). Best of all, last Saturday we walked up to Rotherhithe and finally fulfilled our long-delayed plan to visit The Mayflower pub with Tash and Cormac. Sitting by the Thames again was pretty thrilling, although we didn’t get as close to the river as the guy behind us who dropped his phone all the way down to the river through the slats. Fortunately, it landed at low tide and he was lucky enough to have a friend willing to venture all the way down to retrieve it for him.

Over the river at the Mayflower
Over the river at the Mayflower

Meanwhile, our group all kept hold of our phones and enjoyed a wonderful late lunch before admiring the excellent statues of the pioneering Salters nearby and basking in the sunshine in King’s Stairs Gardens. I always thought it was a bit silly when people single out an area for having ‘lots of history’ (doesn’t everywhere?) but walking around the cobbly streets Rotherhithe is more evocative than most. The next day we were delighted to welcome Chris to our very own back garden as our inaugural garden furniture guest. Having watched countless couples lose their shit on Location Location Location over whether a potential garden was south-facing or not I’m amused that we accidentally ended up with a south-facing garden without realising, but now I can see the benefits.

Of course, our garden can never compete with the full-on private café / nature reserve experience at Josh and Anna’s which we visited again today after seeing my mum on Friday night. Excitingly, Josh had his second dose vaccine appointment booked so after eating lots of pancakes and teaching Cora the basics of multi-party democracy (see below) we walked down to the vaccine centre together and hung around semi-enviously outside. It shouldn’t be long for us now, though, and I’m delighted we thought to inaugurate a new tradition of a post-vaccine pint afterwards. It’s not exactly how my 17 year old self imagined the future, but we’ve all come through alright.

Age 31, explaining positive governing coalitions to Josh's daughter
Age 31, explaining positive governing coalitions to Josh’s daughter
A sofa all the nicer for waiting
A sofa all the nicer for waiting

Since Easter things have been looking up on all fronts: sunnier days, legal outdoor socialising and – finally – some more furniture! Our living room now boasts an actual sofa and chair to binge-watch Friday Night Dinner from, while our famous bean bags have been retired to the loft until the day when a still-unimaginable number of guests visit at once.

On Easter Friday we took advantage of some new freedoms to take the Tube to Rickmansworth and join Erin on the beautiful Chess Valley Walk to Chesham. I last went to Chesham in 2007, purely to see what existed at the Underground’s furthest reaches, and since then the little shuttle service between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer has been replaced by a proper train to carry sleepy hikers back to London. Our energy levels were revived in Willesden Green with afternoon tea and cake at Chateau Self, followed by fish stew, challah and cine film from mum’s childhood and holidays. It’s impossible not to notice that the Californian families looked relaxed and normal at the same time that their British counterparts were still opting to wear suits on a canal boat.

Chess Valley
Chess Valley
Not pictured, because it would bring down the tone: the crossing of the M25
Not pictured, because it would bring down the tone: the crossing of the M25
Chesham! (In case you were wondering, the 11+ still refuses to die here.)
Chesham! (In case you were wondering, the 11+ still refuses to die here.)
Zone neun
Zone neun
We've also picked up some garden furniture, along with the rest of the country
We’ve also picked up some garden furniture, along with the rest of the country

The next day, after a nostalgic walk with my mum to West Hampstead during which Randi scolded us both for not disclosing that West Hampstead is so close by, we returned home to enjoy the rest of the long Easter weekend and totally fail to find the eggs we’d hidden for each other. (Mine was particularly stupid. “I’m not going to look in this box. It’s probably not in a box.” Reader, it was in the box.)

Then, after a short week, we took the socialising up a notch by meeting up with Matt, Laura and baby Cressida Cré (we decided she’s going to need a rebellious teenage nickname at some point, so she might as well have it now) in their five-star back garden. We were absolutely determined to act like it was a scorching summer day, even if we were actually wearing coats, so we bought cider and embraced the post-truth fantasy even when it briefly started snowing. Since then we’ve also eaten fish and chips in Ladywell Fields and stumbled across the outdoor bar within Beckenham Place Park during our post-work walk. Well, it would have been rude not to…

An after-work pint!
An after-work pint!

And this weekend the feeling of returning to something-approaching-normal continued to accelerate. With my hair newly cut and teeth freshly cleaned, on Saturday afternoon we made our way to Peckham Rye Park for a picnic and Irn Bru tasting session (other drinks were available) with Randi’s boss Kirsty and her partner Roger. I may have gotten slightly carried away in the adrenaline rush of getting to meet new human people again, since it was definitely night time when we left, but it was incredibly lovely to be able to talk Labour politics (strong agreement) and where Lilt stands in the pantheon of soft drinks (fierce, bitter disagreement) and I am already hoping for a summer of park-to-pub-to-park.

In fact, we were back in Beckenham Place Park today and they even had a band!

The Alvar Tree Frogs playing under a tree
The Alvar Tree Frogs playing under a tree

Thank you to all those who left comments on my last post as well as everyone who sent messages, cards, flowers and (last but definitely not least) plenty of food to our family over the last few weeks. We haven’t all been under the same roof for a year, obviously, which probably exacerbated the thrown-out-of-time-and-into-a-bubble feeling while we all came together at my mum’s. In some ways it even felt like a delayed Christmas, with lots of cooking and walks around Gladstone Park and finally being able to play a game of Dixit. Shout-out to the free and exceptionally well organised on-demand Covid testing being offered at Willesden Green Library now – an excellent thing to have if circumstances force you to travel!

Dad’s funeral was held last Friday – both in-person and virtually – but there will be a larger memorial service held at some point when everyone can mix more freely. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a way to remember him, you can always pour yourself an Old Speckled Hen and put on David Bowie’s Life on Mars? wherever you happen to be.

The Lexi Cinema's tribute to dad
The Lexi Cinema’s tribute to dad
Blythe Hill on a sneaky South London visit
Blythe Hill on a sneaky South London visit
Excited for spring in Kelsey Park, Beckenham
Excited for spring in Kelsey Park, Beckenham

Coincidentally, but talking of Bowie, the ever-expanding radius of what Randi and I consider feasible weekend walks recently took us to Beckenham where Bowie lived for a number of years. We were big fans of Kelsey Park despite the ever-present danger of the ‘Norwegian troll’ which an older man kindly warned us had disguised itself as a tree and parked itself beside the bench where we were currently enjoying our tuna melt paninis. We reassured him we’d be careful. Yesterday we walked in the opposite direction up to Blackheath and (predictably) ate more tuna melt paninis on the redundantly-named Blackheath Heath. There were no trolls this time, but (a) ‘Blackheath Manor’ was the creepy setting for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, (b) the queue for Gail’s Bakery was longer than a vaccination centre in Florida so for these reasons Beckenham is currently winning out in our weekend tuna melt league.

Other than this nonsense (can you tell the lockdown material is wearing thin?) I’ve just finished Adam Curtis’s latest ‘documentary’ series Can’t Get You Out of My Head. As usual, it’s more of a late-night semi-psychedelic experience where the whole is less than the sum of its parts but you don’t care because fundamentally Curtis is really good at finding incredible archive footage and cutting it together with music. I’ve been satisfying my own archivist needs with my newly-purchased Doxie scanner – it’s a great solution if you want a really fast way to scan documents and photos but is ultra-small and portable enough to fit in a desk drawer afterwards, and I’m not just saying that because they gave me £20 to participate in a delightful product research call afterwards. (Or am I? Too late, you’ve already read it now.)

I also had virtual after-work beers with Sam Carter and, last Sunday, celebrated Census Day with genuine happiness. Perhaps this is not a universal problem, but it’s annoying (to me) to be on a walk to – say – Beckenham, wonder “hmm, I wonder what the population of Beckenham is?”, pull out your phone to scratch the curiosity itch and then have to rely on figures from 2011 because we’re at the end of a ten year census cycle. Had the Norwegian troll even begun to stalk the land in 2011? The people demand data.

Last week, my dad Roger died at the age of 66. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012 and had spent the last couple of years being cared for in a very kind and loving care home, but after a few weeks in hospital he managed to spend his final days in a bed in the middle of our family living room. On Wednesday evening I went to see him, and by Thursday morning he was gone. Since then, our whole family has been together and I feel very lucky – when I think of the possibilities of transatlantic flights or a lockdown hospital ward – that it ended this way.

At primary school
At primary school

I want to write something about his life, but I really don’t want to try and write some ‘definitive’ biography: firstly because there’s far too much to say, but also because there are so many different stories here. Like everyone, he was lots of different things to many people. So these are just my memories and impressions for right now. They shouldn’t take precedence over anyone else’s or all the many, many other memories which aren’t here.

My dad was born in the village of Coney Weston in Suffolk in 1954. He liked to point out that this was the year that wartime food rationing finally ended. His father was a bricklayer and a gentle father to Roger and his older brother Derek. My dad remembered one time when he was being naughty and his dad raised his hand to smack him in anger before catching himself, lowering it and walking away instead. Suffice to say, that gentleness was passed down. In the condolence cards which have been flooding our house since his death, some words keep coming back over and over again to describe my dad: witty, intelligent, kind. I would always include gentle in that list too.

My dad with his dad, George, in their garden as a baby
My dad with his dad, George, in their garden as a baby

I’m a city child, and although my dad came to love London as an adult there are important roots to him from the countryside which will always seem a little awesome and mysterious. He knew the names of trees and what the stars were called. Later, whenever we were staying in the countryside as a family, my dad would always take us on nighttime walks away from lights so we could see the stars which were usually hidden from us. They would have been his only light on the quiet, country roads which he walked alone at an age which would make most parents think twice today.

Dad and his mum, Joyce, in a photo booth
Dad and his mum, Joyce, in a photo booth

As a child in the 1960s, stars weren’t just for the sky but were all around too. An older generation had grown up on war stories but my dad wasn’t interested in toy soldiers: it was all about space rockets, Doctor Who and Daleks. I remember finding a book from this era on the solar system at my grandparents’ house which included speculative illustrations on the lush vegetation which ‘might exist’ on the surface of Venus. Venus, of course, turns out to be a hellscape – a parable of runaway greenhouse gases – and my dad never got his space stations or interstellar space travel either. But it fired his imagination. A few days ago we found a folder at home dedicated to the planet Volox which my dad put together with some school friends. It includes a giant map, shown below, along with several handwritten books including an English-Voloxian dictionary, a history spanning several millennia, an illustrated guide to the native animals and weekly Top Of The Pops music charts for Voloxian pop music. It’s really quite amazing.

These early years also set my dad as forever an internationalist at heart. I mean, honestly, if humanity is only a couple of years away from colonies on the moon and intergalactic trade treaties then should we really stay so attached to our nation states? My mum remembers a family holiday to Disney World in Florida, when I was about 5, which started with a very long queue at the airport to get through US Customs & Immigration. When we finally got to the end my dad – tired and fed-up – complained to the border officer that none of this would be necessary if we could only work things out and form one world government. It’s a wonder we were ever allowed into America after that.

A map of Volox
A map of Volox
Dad and his bike
Dad and his bike
My dad with his dad and older brother Derek outside their home, Whitegates
My dad with his dad and older brother Derek outside their home, Whitegates

At the end of primary school, my dad ‘passed’ the 11+ exam and went to the nearest grammar school in Bury St. Edmunds. Today, grammar schools are much-mythologised by people who lack a real understanding of the momentus social, cultural and economic forces which were at work at the time. It was an era, possibly unique in our history, of rapid middle-class expansion – I say this only because my dad would hate for his memory to be misinterpreted, and he really loved the very different schools which his own kids attended.

With all that said, this was obviously a watershed moment in my dad’s life which would forever put him on a different path to his older brother, his parents and many, many past generations of farmers and farm labourers which he would later trace when he got into genealogy and family history. (If you like the black and white photos in this post, you can thank my dad for scanning, captioning and dating them.) My dad frequently told me the story of his own parents, who left school at 14, sitting him down and telling him that while of course they would always love and support him – and he would always have a home there – at age 11 he had already reached the limit of their practical help for navigating the world of education. He went on to study French, Latin and Maths at A-Level before obtaining a degree in French at the University of Durham. His degree included a year abroad which he sometimes hinted at (a little mysteriously, in my opinion) as a pivotal and important year of development in his life.

Me and dad
Me and dad
One of my favourite photos of dad and Tash, which I took in Queen's Park
One of my favourite photos of dad and Tash, which I took in Queen’s Park

I’m not going to try and trace the next steps where my dad moved to London, fell in love with my mum, bought a flat in Willesden, got married and had three children. But I told his childhood story because it always explained so much to me about how and why my dad was the person he was. He wasn’t showy – in some ways, he was a little shy, and he got really nervous before parties – but his curiosity about the world always won out over fear. He really genuinely loved the idea of his own children going out and having their own adventures, which would be different to his own, and then bringing back their own stories to the dinner table to share. This was part of what made him so popular with so many people – he was great to talk to, because he was more interested in hearing from other people’s lives than trying to impress them. And, overall, even without the space rockets, I think he was continually surprised and delighted by the many good things in his life and the world around him. One of his most famous catchphrases was “Life is good, isn’t it?” – usually after a pint of beer in a pub or on holiday, and always delivered in a tone of happy realisation, as if one shouldn’t necessarily expect life to be good but – by good fortune – it was.

The classic parenting pose
The classic parenting pose

He was also a fount of knowledge about so many things, and a total thumb in the face to people who try and impose an Arts vs. Science divide onto our lives. He loved classical music and linguistics and Proust and Nature magazine. He also loved Star Trek – particularly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine which we always watched together – but he was a bit cold on the Original Series, and that was partly because he didn’t like the dichotomy of Spock vs. McCoy as ‘logic vs. emotion’. Unlike me I don’t think my dad read much of Scottish philosopher David Hume (his favourite was Jeremy Bentham) but I always think of my dad when I read Hume’s most famous line:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

My dad respected reason, and thought reason made the world a better place. But he also taught me something which is totally foundational to the way I think about the world, which is that human beings are an animal species – clever primates – and ultimately what’s important to people is important because it’s important to people and you don’t need to go looking for a better reason than that.

Dad and Katie
Dad and Katie

A tangent about reason and parenting: I distinctly remember being quite young and doing something stupid (like breaking a glass) and my dad was upset because I couldn’t give any good answer to his question: why? To say “I dunno, I just did” was aggravating – it was “irrational”, to use his exact word – because it made no sense, and my dad definitely did not believe that you should patronise children by treating them as inherently unreasonable beings.

He was way ahead of his time in his freelance working arrangements, going into the offices of his biggest client two days a week but working from home for the rest of the week. (This also made him an early adopter of dial-up internet – one of my earliest internet memories is watching images from the surface of Mars load very very slowly from top to bottom in Compuserve.) This routine meant we had ‘mummy days’ and ‘daddy days’ when our respective parents picked us up from school, and sometimes dad worked late into the night to make it all work. If in the middle of all this we were being brats, and he lost his temper, he then felt bad in the same way he would regret getting angry with another adult. I remember he would come up to my room later in the evening, apologise and explain that he had lost his temper because he was tired, even when I’m very sure it would have been my own misbehaviour at fault.

As a result I grew up thinking it was totally normal for parents to apologise to their children, just like I thought it was absolutely unimaginable (and still do) for a parent to sneak through an older child’s personal things or open their post. This was my dad’s liberal, individualist streak and he never wavered from it. Amusingly, he also thought grounding children was nonsense on the basis that it was silly to trap yourself indoors with someone who was being unpleasant. Once, when Tash and I had been bickering for days, he sent us outside to walk round the block and resolve our differences before coming back again. It worked much better.

Dad at his desk in our home office, long before it was cool
Dad at his desk in our home office, long before it was cool
At my mum's surprise 40th birthday party
At my mum’s surprise 40th birthday party
Christmas
Christmas
Dad and his niece, Julie
Dad and his niece, Julie
A professional photo, accompanied by a little Dalek
A professional photo, accompanied by a little Dalek
In Br
Together in Brussels in 2015

As I feared, I have too many memories to cram into one short post. Dad did the weekly shop with us after school, and he used to pacify/reward us by buying us each a jam doughnut from Sainsbury’s for the ride home. He made really great scrambled eggs. He was exuberantly cheerful whenever he came home drunk and red-faced from drinks with friends or colleagues. He once accidentally covered the three of us with the contents of an exploding ketchup bottle. And when I was young he used to make up stories about two rabbits, Rag and Tag, who lived in a warren and a state of semi-permanent war against the weasels. I recorded some of these stories on a cassette tape and I still have them today. At some point, my dad loses track of whether the magician rabbit, Narla, was male or female. The following is a word-for-word transcript of how he recovers:

“…and Narla waved his magic wand… her magic wand… sometimes Narla is a male and sometimes a female, because he changes from one sex to another. I think he might have been a male in this story. But he goes from being a male rabbit to a female rabbit, because he’s both. And the rocks tumbled down…”

The whole thing is casual, and unplanned, and clearly the result of making up a story on the spot. But he just goes with it, because why not? The world is big and full of life of every kind, and life is good. An important corollary is that life is also finite. Of course I wish my dad had lived longer. So would he. But not at the expense of living a lesser life, because he really was happy with the one he had. And he certainly never wanted to live forever. He told me, from a very young age, that asking about life-after-death was like asking about your existence before you were born. If you’re comfortable with your own absence in the past then there’s no need to be afraid about not existing in the future.

And enjoy the adventure.

One small, silly adventure in Devon on a family holiday in 2009

I’ve barely blinked since my ‘snow day‘ post a month ago and now, suddenly, it’s a warm and sunny spring day. Warm and sunny enough, in fact, to saunter down the Waterlink Way and have lunch by the banks of the little man-made stream which runs through the middle of Ladywell Fields.

Of all the cool things we’ve found in this area so far, the Waterlink Way (and specifically our section, the uninspiringly-named River Pool Linear Park) has been the biggest and most delightful surprise. During our one and only viewing of the flat we did ask the estate agent about this promising-looking patch of green on Google Maps but she was unenthusiastic and pointed us in the other direction instead. But since moving here, we’ve slowly realised that it’s basically the perfect path: Cator Park in one direction, Ladywell Fields in the other on a route which ultimately runs all the way to Greenwich. During the day it’s filled with families while at night it’s a peaceful and soothing post-work walk, well lit enough to see where you’re going but not so much to obscure all the stars. And what better than to walk between a river and a railway, with all cars and roads banished from sight and sound? Basically, it’s a little like walking-through-the-wardrobe and expect to be dragged here if you come visit.

Springtime!
Springtime!
One day we'll actually be able to get on a train again
One day we’ll actually be able to get on a train again
Chips by the stream
Chips by the stream
A night-time walk in the countryside
A night-time walk in the countryside

Meanwhile, the biggest advance in our indoor living (and let’s be honest, 99% of living is indoor living right now) was the arrival of our dining table. This was a big deal since we haven’t actually had a dining table we could eat at since the last flat’s table was pressed into service as an office desk back in March, so sit-down dinners with a table and chairs are very exciting and we celebrated by ordering a massive Indian feast, drinking bourbon and finishing the last of the Christmas crackers. (Look, we can’t have been the only ones with the ‘leftover crackers’ problem this year.)

The table also expands out so we can host people (one day) and/or play Carcassonne for the first time in a very long while. We’ve also played two games of Watergate which arrived in a bumper post-Christmas gift package from Katie along with a crossword and some other bits and pieces. Watergate is a two-player board game where one player plays as Nixon and the other plays as the newspaper ‘Editor’ trying to take him down. It should perhaps be promising that Tricky Dicky was defeated in both of our games, although Randi did point out sadly that the equivalent Trump board game would be a multi-day affair where you tried every conceivable path to impeach the President and nothing ever worked. We’ll stick with this one.

Nixon defeated
Nixon defeated
The triumph of journalism
The triumph of journalism

Finally, it was great to catch up with Jan from Groupon days a few weeks ago… and when I say Groupon days, I mean Groupon UK days, which is (a) a very long time ago, and (b) still my most promising source of material for ever writing a sitcom. (Some days I think it’s gone but then everything comes flooding back.) We also hopped over to Penge to wish Sam a happy birthday from her doorstep. To be honest we hung around for long enough that any normal person would have invited us in already, but Sam is clearly rude.