Do you remember your first active memories? Your moments of ‘coming online’ as a human being. I have just a handful.
Hot and moving fast. No. Nonononono.
Merely sense impressions – the sense is beyond words, and as it turns out, before them too. But the panic, the not comprehending that heat, that sense inside of wrongness, the need to escape – that stays with me since before any of it had words.
Babies cry for many reasons. I was crying because I was hot and I wanted to not be moving like this. Doors rushing up to meet me – Bang – and then more corridors, a breeze on my skin barely registering. I reached up. I was beginning to reach up a lot, beginning to integrate it into the things I did. There was material across me. Not the good kind, the go-to-sleep kind, some other kind. I couldn’t move, and still there were doors, and voices making noise, and banging, and always the heat, and the feeling of badness, of wrong. I screamed, grabbing the straps across the bed that stopped me sitting up, feeling the metal of the sides that hemmed me in and stopped me getting out, stopped me getting off. Stopped me stopping this thing, whatever it was.
Then there was blackness.
That’s the first ‘memory’ I have per se, the first experience from which the emotional and visual stimulus clings. I don’t pretend to know it as the first thing I remember – I have at least two other such memories where the vague fug of the universe first notably crystalised into experiences, and I couldn’t ordinarily put them into an order for you. But having checked with higher sources – which is to say my mother – I can at least reasonably reliably tell you I was ten or eleven months old when this happened.
And what was it, this nightmare of strapped-down, overheated whistling through corridors?
Gastroentiritis. I’d been taken into hospital for the first time since I’d left it with my mother, with a stomach bug and a fever that had been diagnosed as fairly serious, and I can only imagine the whirling trip down corridors and through banging doors was, in reality, nothing like as scary as my memory of it feels. The not-knowing, the sudden switch-on of ‘feeling’ about a thing, is what makes it scary to me still. I don’t know where I’d been until that moment, or where I was or who I was after it, so that sudden pin-sharp moment of knowing anything, albeit a wordless, emotion-drenched state, is what adds the power to that memory whenever I look back on it now.
Perhaps the point is that, as David Copperfield says, most people will tell you we don’t remember anything before a certain age. He (and presumably Dickens) doesn’t believe that’s the case, and says so, and citing examples of very early memory as his proof, he concludes that most people have got it wrong.
I have a memory from when I was ten or eleven months old, so I have no option: I’m with David.
I’m sitting, moving along our street, coming to the corner where we turn and go down the biiiiiiig hill before going back up the other side to get to gran’s house. I’m warmly dressed, and see the pebble-dashing of the last-but-one house on our street – and decide in that instant I don’t like it. It’s the first actual, conscious thought I ever remember having in what at least approximate words. ‘I don’t like this.’
I mention this for no other reason than its truth, though some might say that as a future journalist and editor, ‘I don’t like this’ is rather a prophetic first active thought. It’s also not, I should mention, the first thought I ever expressed in words. That came later, and if you can believe it, is moderately worse than having an active opinion about pebble-dashing.
The first sentence I ever uttered in company was not “Mum” or “Dad” or any of that sweet familial nonsense. No no.
The first sentence I ever uttered in company was “No touch a cock”.
I kid you not.
This was not, I ask you with increasing desperation to believe, an invocation against infant self-pleasure. Quite apart from anything else, no-one in my family was particularly religious, so I don’t believe for a moment they’d have cared what I did with myself. Sadly, or perhaps now I think about it, thankfully, it was more pedestrian than that. When held in someone’s arms in my gran’s house, or even when on the ground, there was a heavy old timepiece with which I was fascinated. I have no recollection of the fascination itself, only that people were always telling me, for fear either of me getting jammy fingers on the thing’s intricate workings, or quite conceivably pulling it down on my own head and requiring another dash to hospital, ‘No toucha clock’.
So, clearly having heard this imprecation a number of times, one day I appear to have just come out with it myself – or at least, to have come embarrassingly close without quite getting it.
Anyhow, there I was, having just formulated the thought ‘I don’t like it’ in regard to pebble-dashing. My mother, who always talked as she pushed me, dug out a treat – a small packet of Maltesers, with a clown on the front. She opened them and handed them to me. Maltesers, for any American friends, are chocolate-covered, malt-flavoured honeycomb balls. Technically they probably have enough energy to power your iPad for a good day and a half. We give them to children. Because we’re tough, that’s why.
So now, with the dislike of pebble-dashing forgotten, I was warm, sitting down, with a woman babbling at me, and I had a mouthful of chocolate. As a baby, I’d been small, and an apparently half-hearted feeder, so I was probably due to be quite a stripling of a child and an energetic youth. But there, sitting still, expending no energy but still getting where I wanted to be, warm, full of chocolate and with a woman talking to me, I experienced my second active thought: ‘I am completely happy.’
I like to think second thought has paved the way for the lifestyle choices that have made me the physical wreck I am today.
I also still hate pebble-dashing.
My next active memory is of a reservoir.
It was a bright day, but there was quite a breeze, and we’d gone up to the local reservoir for a breath of fresh air – Mum, Dad and me. They weren’t talking much that day. The idea came up to take photographs of each other – Dad took Mum, Mum took Dad. Then they sat me on the wall of the reservoir, the dark, cold-looking water down below and behind me. And then they moved away. I turned my head to look down at the water. Again, I’m not sure this idea had words to it, but the notion came to me that if I just kept turning, moved my body a bit, I’d fall. Fall all the way down into the water. It wasn’t a worrying notion. In fact, it was quite an attractive one. I thought I might see what that was like…
Then something slammed into me, into my mind. A fear. Falling was bad. Falling was really bad. Falling was cry-worthy. I cried, suddenly panicked, suddenly sure that just sitting there, gripping the slab of the wall, something would happen – some wind would blow me sideways, or the urge to turn around would grab me again and I’d fall, down down down into the water, where I didn’t want to be. Dad came back and held my arm, and I stopped crying. He shifted sideways, reassuring me he wouldn’t let me fall, but keen to get out of the shot so the picture would show me just on the wall on my own. As soon as he let go of my arm, the fear surged back into me, and the tears rushed back, and so did the sense of the inevitable turn, the urge to fall and the terror of what the fall would be like.
Mum had a try, but with exactly the same results – as soon as her grip went from my arm to my hand, where something told me it wouldn’t be enough if I suddenly was to fall, I freaked out. The pictures show me looking nervous, full of tears – and always connected at the edge of shot to one or other of them. None of us could explain what had happened – I’d been quite enjoying the day till then, the wind, the water, the curious urge to turn round and look down.
When we got home, I was later to learn, my grandfather had died while we were out. That was why a breath of air had been so needed, why they weren’t talking much – my gran’s house was quiet, tense, filled with nothing but coal-fire heat and the sound of my grandfather’s lungs shredding to bits on the rack of his coughs. We’d gone out, and the sound of the coughing had stopped.
I was eighteen months old, almost exactly.
The next memory I have that really sticks out is of my next trip to hospital. I was three or four, and I’d been having trouble for a little while. Bathroom trouble. The doctor prescribed not a pill or a potion but an operation. He said that would make everything better again. He called it a circumcision.
I have no idea to this day how my mother, and I’m fairly sure it would have been my mother – my father of course had important legend-building business to do, and his idea of a cogent medical debate had been to convince me once that if you unscrewed your belly-button, your bum’d fall off – explained the procedure to me without me absolutely freaking out and saying the three year-old equivalent of ‘You what-now? They’re gonna cut a bit off me?!’
It’s probably worth pointing out here that I had my headstrong moments as a child – once, halfway through a haircut, I decided I hated what the hairdresser was doing, jumped out of the chair and ran all the way home, with my grandmother in tow. I’d done the same thing when the dentist had said he was going to stick a needle in my gum but that it wouldn’t hurt. The evil bastard lied, I ran home, and spent the rest of the afternoon at my gran’s with a face swollen and numb on the left-hand side, talking like the Elephant Man, and dribbling lukewarm tea down my front. So as I say, how my mother convinced me to go for this operation, I can’t even imagine.
I do remember not being in the slightest concerned about the thing though. Pshwar – operation. Hospital. Not a problem. Generally, tantrums notwithstanding, the impression I get of my young self from those days is of being a fairly easy-going creature – clearly if you wanted me to shut up, you stuck me on a couch and gave me a bag of Maltesers. I don’t know whether the run-up to the operation was a particularly heavy Maltesers session, or whether I simply didn’t know enough to be concerned.
The time arrived for the operation without me having to turn another year older, or do a risk assessment, or indemnify everybody involved against being sued for mishandling my genitals (this was still the 70s, the National Health System still worked and we hadn’t discovered profitable outrage yet), and I was duly put under the ‘fluence. I did that thing every cocky kid does. I said ‘Well alright, I’ll breathe the gas, but it’s not going to have an effect on me, because I’m just too-’
When I woke up, something was wrong. Mostly, I think, the colour. The ward had an overall note of cheery yellow to it, but this – this was more bright light and green gowns. I blinked myself to fully awake.
‘Is it over?’ I asked.
One of the gowny people came and looked at my face, then pulled her mask down, revealing a sweet young girlish face of her own, with wisps of blond hair visible. She smiled to reassure me.
‘Not quite,’ she said. ‘Nearly. D’you want some more gas?’
‘We’re nearly done here,’ said a male voice from lower down the table. Somebody had the troublesome piece of me in a sort of scissor-handled clamp-like thing.
‘No, I’m alright,’ I said to the young blond girl. ‘I’d rather stay here and talk to you.’
She looked away, I assume for confirmation, and then nodded. ‘Are you embarrassed?’ she asked. I remember distinctly this feeling like an oddish question.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Should I be?’
She seemed to shrug. ‘Some boys would be.’
‘Some boys have more to be embarrassed about,’ I said, grinning up at her. I swear, to this day I don’t think I knew what I meant, or if I meant anything at all. I just wanted to seem nonchalant, as though it was an everyday thing for me to have my penis in a scissor-handled clamp-like thing, with a bunch of people all looking at it, handling it and doing things I could only guess at to it. If you really think about it, the desire to make that seem like an everyday occurrence is probably a little messed up.
She burst out laughing. I loved that sound, but even more, I loved the look of her face when she laughed. I think right there, something was born or awoken in me – the desire to make people laugh when they seemed to feel awkward. That notion of making a situation easier with a joke, which can either make people really valuable in your life, or make you want to hit them with sticks. I owe that urge in my life to the blond nurse who, I was slightly disappointed to find, in talking to me, had stopped being the person holding the scissor-handled clamp-like thing. I went into overdrive. I had got her laughing. Maybe I could get the rest of them laughing too. Again, really a good idea when they were operating on my penis? Probably not, but I wanted them. The details blur, but I told joke after joke, story after story, until, one by one I got them all. The blond nurse’s shoulders were shaking and her eyes were wet, but she managed to put her stern, professional face back on, and touched me on the shoulder, as if to locate my off-switch.
‘We’ve really got to get finished now,’ she said, ‘then you can go back up to the ward and have a drink.’
‘You carry on,’ I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ Again, that one I don’t think was even intended to be funny, but she nearly lost it again. She put her mask back up over her face, and a lovely bright spell blew over. They finished what they needed to do and I was wheeled, eventually, back up to the ward – a little bit of anxiety then, with the repetition of corridors and laying down and heading towards doors that opened in front of me – but now I was the hero of the day, the brave soldier, chatting and joking every chance I got. I’d gone down into that operating theatre a boy who had trouble peeing. I came back up…well, still a boy, technically, and now with a crown of thorn-like stitches around what was clearly a very different piece of equipment to what I’d had before – I wondered if they’d actually given me a transplant while I was there – but I’d learned a grown-up lesson. If you can make other people laugh while your dick is in a scissor-handled clamp-like thing, you’re probably going to be alright.