The First Day of School.
I was really looking forward to my first day at school, no I really was. Having suffered a traumatic birth and some subsequent ill-health I had spent a lot of time indoors and hadn't had much opportunity for social contact. In fact the only other persons of my age I had had anything to do with a couple of cousins. I was not well prepared to deal with the complex social demands that school present.
But school would be a new experience and I eagerly anticipated the first day unaware that I had to go back on the second day etc etc. It was early September and the terms intake were all sat on chairs in the corridor outside the headmistresses office, accompanied by a prospective parents, mostly women I noted. It was the year 1963, each child went into the office to be processed and allocated a classroom. It seemed to take forever. Eventually our names were called and my mother and I dutifully trooped in. I can't recall much about the interview except for a particular situation that was to be a recurring theme in my life the headmistress asked my mother my name and she had a best voice supplied it. Upon hearing it a strange look developed on the face of the headmistress, it was a look I came to know well.
It was a mixture of polite confusion and mild disbelief. The headmistress asked my mother to repeat my name which my mother duly did. The headmistress seemed to be having trouble with the form, in later life I came to sympathise with her difficulty.
' So his name is Shane?', she said. My mother informed the headmistress that was indeed the case.
' That’s an unusual surname.', the headmistress replied.
'Norman?’, my mother asked.
' Norman?' The headmistress said, a look of confusion crossing her face.
' Yes.', my mother replied now equally as confused as the headmistress.
' His surname is Norman.'
At this point the headmistress vigorously crossed out an entry on the form.
' So what is his Christian name then?', she asked. My mother blinked.
' Shane, I just told you that.' The headmistress looked even more confused at this point and started to sound slightly impatient at my mother's seemingly incomprehensible explanation on what exactly my name consisted of.
' So his Christian name is Shane?'
' Yes', my mother replied beginning to sound exasperated.
' It's not Norman then?'
' No Norman is our family name.'
There was a brief pause in a conversation as the headmistress tried to absorb what to her seemed a travesty of the English language.
' Shane?', she asked.
' Shane', my mother once again replied a slight edge creeping into her voice.
' I have never heard of a Shane before.' The headmistress observed.
' Haven't you ever read the book?', my mother asked wondering what sort of teacher we were dealing with here.
The headmistress continued to look blank and I think at that point my mother decided that any more discussion would only serve to exacerbate the confusion further. The headmistress tried to make the appropriate corrections to the form but in the end screwed the thing up and started all over again. This move was a portent of things to come. After a couple more points of clarification were elucidated Shane Norman was duly enrolled into class 1A of the St Johns Infants School.
To save readers the same confusion that was the besetting the headmistress perhaps a few points of history should be addressed here. My father was a great fan of Western novels and movies. There will always a few Louis Lamour novels lying around (as well as quantities of soft core pornography, more of that later) I read a couple of them but couldn't really get into the genre.
However my father was a fan in a big way, and I was named after the hero in a very famous Western novel by Jack Shaefer. There was also a movie with Alan Ladd as the star. It was a forerunner of the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns where the mysterious hero comes out of nowhere and puts the wrongs to right, using the simple expedient of killing all the bad guys. It was slightly more sophisticated in that the story was told from the perspective of a young boy. The name was enigmatic enough in the book. In the UK in the 1960s it was incomprehensible.
I was therefore named after a famous cowboy, my brother was named Gary after Gary Cooper another famous Western movie star. It was not until the early 1980s when the Australian soap opera Neighbours became a cultural phenomenon in the UK that people began to recognise that the name Shane is a bona fide Christian name. Up until then the only Shane I knew of was Shane Gould a famous Australian female swimmer which only served to complicate the issue even further.
With the paperwork finally completed I was allowed at last into a real classroom, and for the life of me I cannot recall anything about my first teacher. In fact the only thing I can remember from that first day was getting a Chinese burn from my cousin because I was in her place in the sandbox. I doubt that my early academic career was very distinguished (nor my later one for that matter) I was sick a lot, and spent significant aounts of time at home with various ear and throat infections. At some point I recall getting some form of serious chest infection; it was the first time I can recall becoming anxious by observing the anxious behaviour of the people around me.
I think my mother was a soft touch there, I only had to put on a certain introspective wearied look and clutch my stomach and I was in. I grew very accustomed to the particular strawberry flavouring that was used to make penicillin palatable to young children at the time. I suspect my mother was a very lonely individual and any form of company was welcome. Staying home and being pampered was very enjoyable, but in retrospect a good dose of pragmatism might have accelerated my emotional development somewhat quicker.
Apart from struggling with such academic challenges as addition, subtraction and learning to read The Cat in the Hat there were many other things to learn. Social issues loomed large, and in fact still do. The challenges of learning to deal with the existence of other people left me as woefully unprepared as I was for dealing with number theory. I had no concept of the way I came across to other people. If I had a thought I vocalised it and the world of television was still very real to me, as real to me as life in the school playground. Nowadays a child would probably be medicated for such behaviour and in fact in retrospect many members of my family exhibited and were to exhibit signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
The main problem for me was the existence of other humans. I realised that it became very easy to get a reputation for being different. In the school playground that was not a good thing to have, unless you were either armed, could become invisible, or was an expert at martial arts. Eventually I learned to become invisible and that skill stays with me today. Nowadays though I need it less often. It was not until much later I learned to consider my rather unique view of the world as a strength. For the time being I was just a weird kid.
There were many new experiences to come to terms with. For most of my early life I had been confined to either our house or to our long garden. I had therefore never come across some of the social rituals that were required at school. For some reason I had not been informed of some of these requirements before I attended my first day. The first of these was pissing against the wall. The first time I needed to pee at school I scurried off into the communal toilets and found a line of boys standing in a row pissing against the wall. I was appalled, what were they doing? I dived into the nearest cubicle shut the door and did what I had to. On exiting I faced a barrage of confused stares, what were they looking at? They were the ones peeing against the wall!
I then noticed that they were actually urinating into what looked like upside down toilet bowls screwed to the wall. I had never seen anything like that before. I mean, if you were an alien and had never seen a bowl urinal before, I mean its function isn't obvious is it? It looks like the pee would just fill up the thing and it would dribble back out over your shoes. Most of the boys there had used this device from an early age in public lavatories and didn't see this is unusual or out of place.
What was out of place of course was someone using a toilet cubicle for what I came to realise were called Little Jobs. The cubicles were generally accepted as being only used for the Big Jobs unless all the urinals were in use. This was an unwritten and universally accepted law, known by everyone except me. Still confused by the articles on the wall I quickly exited the toilets forgetting to wash my hands in the process further cementing my growing reputation as being a weird yokel.
I determined that I had to learn how these devices worked and tried to hang about nonchalantly outside the toilet until everyone else had vacated. My education had yet to include the fact that male toilets were the last place you hung about outside, nonchalantly or otherwise. Once the coast was clear I snuck inside and inspected these mysterious devices.
It became an obsession to find out how to use these bizarre contraptions. Looking at it the thing resembled an egg with the upper and outer third of the circumference removed. It became obvious that all you needed to do was to stand close to the thing, aim the anatomy and fire. Being taller than many children of my age I had a quick practice and found it relatively easy to deliver the goods on target. I could imagine some of my smaller classmates having problems.
Then it struck me, there were four of these devices bolted to the back wall in a row. I would have to pee in front of other people! Having been taught for the last three years that peeing was something one did in Private, I was now going to be forced to perform in public. At that moment someone else entered the lavatory and I decided it was time to run away and have a very disturbed think about all this. Clearly there was much more here to be learned than long division. It was a long time before I was comfortable with peeing in public, and I noticed some of my classmates had problems performing even in their late teens. I wasn't sure if becoming comfortable with such an act was a positive sign or not. It was just one of the many social adjustments I would have to make in my school career. Nowadays as old age and prostatism begin to take its toll I find it just as difficult now not to pee in public. How things change.
As I get older, nostalgia seems to become a greater part of those secret conversations we all have with ourselves. I doubt I had an idyllic childhood, but certainly the preschool memories do not contain the painful events that would come later. My parents lived in the same house for 38 years until illness and changing circumstances forced a move. The house was pre war and boasted an outside toilet for many years, necessitating scary nocturnal visits. I would sit there listening to the sounds of the night and let my imagination run riot, it was always handy if you had constipation though. We did not have hot water on tap, and any heated water we required had to be produced in a large cylindrical electrically heated device called a copper.
Only two rooms in the house had provision for heating, the main living area called the front room and one bedroom. During the years I was in that house we tended to move bedrooms depending upon the increasing number of siblings. My brother and I pretty much shared a room for the whole period we live there. This sometimes had its problems, particularly for my brother which I will recount later. For the most part my brother and I in our early lives were as close as two people could be.
The house consisted of one kitchen one living area, an outside toilet, and three upstairs bedrooms. You got to the bedrooms by climbing 16 incredibly steep stairs to a small landing at the top. I know there are 16 because one of our games was to see how many steps we could jump from and land safely without crashing through the front door which led directly into the small hall at the bottom of the steps. I think I got to about 14 steps before winding myself after a hard landing and deciding that survival was the better part of valour. Above the stairs high up in the ceiling was a large glazed light that let some illumination through from the small windowed panel in the roof. A significant amount of rain sometimes came in with the illumination as well, requiring my father or the infrequently attending council workers to use two ladders to ingress into the roof space and effect repairs. The only other illumination in that high hallway was from a 25 W bulb hanging from the landing ceiling by old rotten rubber cabling.
In winter the house could be viciously cold, with only a small area of the living room being capable of being adequately heated. I often watched my mother making the fire after we had come in from play, crumpling the newspaper up and laying the kindling in such a way as to sustain combustion of the pieces of coal placed on top. I would then watch the growing tongues of flame take hold and consume the bundles of wood and paper. Sometimes the flames would take hold in the coal and it would start to glow, and sometimes not. Then we would have to wait shivering in the cold and often darkening room until my mother finally got the beast under control.
It was an art and later when I undertook the task I realised how difficult it was and how easy it was to lose control and end up with just smoke and carbon, without the precious heat to combat the freezing rain slapping against the windows. I recall one cold dark evening reading a book by the firelight, a thick jumper slightly compressing my sore throat, and watching the firelight creating dancing shadows on the opposite wall. You could almost imagine the shadows as living creatures leaping and dashing across the flocked wallpaper.
In the early years we had a long narrow garden like the serfs of old. It ran down to an old gravel road along which cars infrequently travelled. That garden really was idyllic it contained seven plum trees, a peach tree, assorted peas and potatoes and other sundry plants such as rhubarb and gooseberries. I often raided the rhubarb and gooseberry plants, the raw vegetable matter doing things to my digestion that required more nervous trips to the toilet in the dead of night. Trying to cope with diarrhoea in an unlit outside cubicle with the rain slashing down outside will remain an everlasting memory.
The garden, although not spacious by some standards was roomy enough for two small children to lose themselves all day in various imaginary pursuits. We would dig holes, play soldiers, climb the trees and hunt for lizards and various other small creatures. My memories have always been very visual; I often remember the peculiar types of light in various situations. I distinctly recall going out to play one morning and watching the sun rise above the roof of the house slowly burning off the morning dew. If I close my eyes I can still see now the watery blue of the English sky and the long shadows the light cast as it arced through the branches of the peach tree which for some reason never seemed to bear fruit.
Also at the end of the garden was a very large railway embankment that ran along the whole Western side of the Council estate of which our house was a part. The branch line was closed some years later, but I have many memories of the excitement I felt when the steam trains shushed along at the end of the garden. The embankment was resplendent with acres of stinging nettles. Dotted within were clumps of blackberries. In September it was a great challenge to harvest the blackberries, without getting stung to death by their guardians.
Thus I had a wonderful environment, relatively safe and in immediate reach in which to play. The only things missing were people to play with. The children of our immediate neighbours were significantly older than either me or my brother. We had the occasional visit from neighbour’s children down the street, but mostly it was just me and my brother. My brother seemed to find me perpetually amusing, and was unable to restrain himself from laughing at my frequent misfortunes. One afternoon we were throwing a plastic aircraft to each other, an occupation that created great hilarity. In fact so much so that I lost control of certain bodily functions. My brother lay in the dirt and howled as a dark blue stain spread across the front of my light blue shorts. Often it was just me, for some reason I found early solace in solitude. I could happily live within my mind, creating games and scenarios without the benefit of any company.
I am not entirely sure why we had such few visitors. I know my parents didn't like many people, and seemed to discourage friends. I don't think my mother had many acquaintances amongst the neighbours. I struggle to recall her welcoming anyone apart from immediate family. Even then many of the relatives seemed to inspire negative comments once they had gone home. The consequence of this was that I really didn't know many people of my own age and had little chance to interact. This was to create a number of problems in the future.
Television played a great part in my early life. There was a batch of children's programmes transmitted at about lunchtime including the historic Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men. Even today you can say schlobadop in polite company and raise a smile from a certain generation. In those days television was only broadcast at certain times and apart from certain programs aimed at school classes nothing happened until the afternoons. We would eagerly await the music heralding the start of afternoon children's programming. It was a piece that started slowly mainly strings I think and then modulated into a faster almost Irish jig sort of thing us children would often hop up and down to.
For some reason I was perhaps more easily influenced by television than other children. Because I had such few examples of real people to interact with it was easy to lose myself amongst the characters portrayed on the black and white flickering screen. Perhaps I just had a good imagination, although I often lacked the ability to discern where imagination ended and reality began. Doctor Who used to scare the crap out of me, but I was not alone. Whole generations of children used to watch the programme from behind the family sofa. At an early age I became fascinated with the concept of space and space travel. I think the Mercury program was in operation at that time, and I can recall the disappointment I felt upon learning that humans were only able to orbit the planet and not travel beyond.
I still don't understand why, but my interest in the universe and the planets served as a massive barrier between me and other children. Perhaps it was because I didn't wish to talk about much else, and they either found me boring or more likely they couldn't understand anything I was going on about. Coupled with my habit of speaking loudly and quickly whenever I became excited about a subject I guess in retrospect they had a point. Sensing this negative reaction, but being unable to interpret it other than feeling vaguely uncomfortable I was disinclined to pursue social contact and therefore reinforced my preference for solitude. It also made me a poor choice of invitee to birthday parties, in which I would either try to take over the proceedings or just babble on loudly and quickly about subjects that made even the adults raise their eyebrows and look knowingly at one another.
Thus the early years went past relatively uneventfully, although I was starting to show signs of the social and emotional dysfunction that was to confuse and concern many of my classmates. My mother if she was able would I am sure disagree; one of the few things about my parents that I am absolutely sure of is that we were very important to her. I am sure she made many sacrifices for our welfare, and to my eternal shame I know that I never acknowledged that fact. Until perhaps now.
Fireball XL5 was one of the earliest Gerry Anderson productions, which would ultimately lead onto shows such as Thunderbirds (still the best ever children’s TV show in my opinion)
So how did all of this start? Well I suppose the whole saga began with my birth. I was born on the 19th of April 1958. This therefore made me an Aries. I believe that Adolf Hitler was born near to the same day. Apart from sharing the same portion of the Zodiac our careers were essentially quite different. Apparently I should have been born approximately two months later but decided to come early, possibly due to my mother’s consumption of antidepressants combined with 80 cigarettes a day
For whatever reason I was born underweight (1.75 Kg) and had breathing difficulties. In those days my situation was what the medical profession referred to as serious. I was taken away from my mother shortly after birth and she didn’t see me again for three weeks. Actually my birth had been difficult in more than the purely medical sense. When my mother had announced that her labour had commenced everyone was pretty unimpressed.
The reason for this had less to do with indifference and more to do with alcohol. It was a Saturday afternoon and her immediate family were all gathered around the radio drinking and listening to one of the live soccer matches. Soccer was like a religion in my family, everybody played it, watched it, talked about it, and regularly got drunk listening to it. This of course was in the days before television was freely broadcast and cost as much to purchase as a family car. So on this particular afternoon when my mother announced my incipient arrival my father, grandfather and various uncles were not best placed to respond.
After a while she managed to get the message through that something had to be done, possibly on the kitchen table. A conference was held and it was decided that she had to go to hospital, and for that a car would be needed. No one present owned a car so one of my uncles was despatched to the house of another of my uncles who did. Some considerable period passed before both uncles turned up with a vehicle. This was an Austin something or other that had been purchased sometime before 1936. By then the party celebrating my birth was well under way.
It was decided that this was going to be a family event. So everyone piled into the car, including my grandmother, my father, a few uncles, my mother and me. Whilst my uncle had been away securing a car someone had had a brief period of sobriety and phoned the hospital to tell them that a high-risk birth was on its way in. We didn’t have a phoned so entailed a trip to another uncle who did. It turned out he was listening to the same soccer match so he came along for the ride as well.
At some point during the journey the uncle who was driving rounded a corner a little too fast. One of my other attendant uncles was thrown against the ancient door of the car, which obligingly opened. Had he of been more sober he might have been seriously injured. As it was he performed a multitude of rolls across the highway and merely knocked himself unconscious against the kerbside. He was picked up and unceremoniously dumped into the back boot of the car in the hope that he would revive.
Pausing only to drop my unconscious uncle off at the Emergency Department we continued our headlong rush into the Maternity unit. Waiting at the door were a group of Doctors and Nurses who had been pre-warned of the imminent high risk birth and were ready to spring into action. There was a brief discussion in which everyone attempted to give a clear history of my Mother’s condition, onset of labour pains etc. At the same time several rounds of drinks were dispensed amongst spectators and medical staff alike.
A trolley was produced and the whole ensemble sped off down the corridor. It was about half way towards the Maternity Unit while they were trying to calm the cries of the distressed patient that everyone realised exactly why their charge was so distressed. She was disturbed because she was my Grandmother. My mother and I (by now the only two sober members of the party) were still in the car. A rapid dash back to the vehicle and a hurried exchange followed. For some reason my Grandmother (still protesting) was left outside.
In those days virtually nobody was allowed into the birthing room, but I gather my actual birth was rather traumatic for both my Mother and myself. I was whipped off to what passed for an Intensive Care Unit back then leaving my Mother and attendants to wet the baby’s head. When the party was finally over the inebriated group of Fathers, Uncles, Nurses etc decided to wander back to the car. When they got there the first thing they noticed was that it wasn’t there.
It was eventually found in another nearby car park upside down with my Grandmother inside and still complaining. Apparently a group of Teddy Boys (a forerunner of many of the youth minorities) had come along and found the car unattended apart from my Grandmother. They had taken the car and treated my Gran to a hair-raising joyride around the local area. When they had tired of my Grandmother’s screaming (it was easy to do) they had politely turned the car onto its roof and left it there. It took ten people to turn it upright and they also had to pay a fee to get out the car park. Such was my entrance into the world. My uncle and myself spent the next three weeks in Intensive Care (I had breathing problems, he had concussion) and neither of us has any clear recollection of that day. Perhaps that is far and away the preferred option.