Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bigger, brighter, cleaner, younger


Being the youngest - by far - of four, I spent most of my childhood Summers alone.

In between the prolonged periods of lonesome melancholy, where I imagined people of my own age to be having a good time together as the sun went down, there were some truly dreamy, meditative times spent sitting by water, staring into the green murk of the Basingstoke canal, or the limpid pools of a woodland spring which was close to our house.

During one such session, I acquired my first grown-up bicycle, as my eyes focussed on the upper parts of its green frame in the gloom of the near matchingly-tinted water.

I hauled it out and took it to the nearest police station, and in three months it was legally mine. It had 'cow-horn' handlebars fitted. Any other style of handlebar was deeply uncool in the early 1960s, but the boys who sported them were usually of the type which my mother disapproved of. You know, Council Estates, etc.

"Although cow-horns give the wrong impression," I creepily said to my best friend's mother, "I do find them very comfortable as compared to drop-handlebars." That did the trick - as well as my Hook Heath address - she thought I was a very nice young man.

For the whole of the following Summer, I spent at least two hours late in the day, riding a figure-of-eight circuit up and down the private road outside our huge house in Surrey - with the same pop-song going through my head on a loop - until I rode myself into an escapist trance.

Halfway through this short route, there was a tall, Lombardy Poplar which almost cut the neglected footpath in two, and one of its thick roots had lifted the tarmac of the road to form a tiny ramp which I rode over repeatedly, the front wheel lifting a quarter of an inch off the ground as I did so.

I looked up the private road from space the other day, and the Poplar is still there. I can't tell you how reassuring that was to me.

Seated pillion on this bike was my girlfriend from America, who didn't really exist until I got her out of my system with the help of a series of real American girlfriends, about twenty years later.

The imaginary one was always blonde, with blue eyes and an unfathomable, inscrutable attitude to life, but the real ones were always very dark with eyes to match - but just as inscrutable.

I don't know where this obsession with certain aspects of the USA came from, but I guess it was our little, black and white T.V. and a yellow, soft-cover , pictorial book about an American boy who goes on a river-boat holiday with his parents, befriending an old man and a toad.

The uniquely American, 1950/60s concept of 'Summer girlfriends' and 'Winter girlfriends' was strangely fascinating too - they even had a choice of two, whereas I had none. Everything was in abundant excess in America.

I remember listening to or reading the sort of end-of-season conversations that took place between boys and girls, based on a mutual acceptance of the inevitable end to their relationship, caused by God and the weather, rather than the simple fact that they had ceased to like each other.

"It breaks my heart to have to leave you, but Fall is approaching - there's a chill in the air."

"Me too. I hope we can be boyfriend and girlfriend again next Summer. So long."

I would be thinking, 'I'LL HAVE HER, YOU BLOODY IDIOT!", as they said their fond, tearful farewells.

I was on this little road outside the house one day, when an enormous, 1950s, finned, American muscle-car pulled up with a very American-looking man driving it from the wrong side of the bench seat. It filled the private drive.

The man called me from the open window and asked if this was where I lived. I said yes.

"I have a son of your age and we have just moved to the area. He's lonely and could do with a friend to play with. Shall I bring him round at five tonight?"

I excitedly agreed - not only would I have a playmate, but it would be an exotic, American playmate to boot.

When I got indoors, my parents asked me what the conversation with the man in the big car was about, and I told them. They were outraged at the cheek of the fellow for arranging a visit to me without consulting them.

Five o'clock came around and the big car rolled into the drive, giving a mighty blast of its two-tone horns. Through the kitchen window, I could see the boy seated next to the man, with an expectant look on his face.

My parents told me to come away from the window and to not - under any circumstances - go outside. I begged them to let me go and meet my new, foreign friend, but they refused.

The man gave a couple more blasts on the horn, then gave up completely, crunching the car across the gravel drive and out of my life forever.

That was probably another reason why I found America so fascinating, mysterious and unattainable when I was a kid.

30 comments:

  1. Funny that in the 60's, most American girls wanted to know a Brit. London was where our music and fads were coming from and we were going wild for anything British, especially The Beatles. All you needed to attract an American girl was long hair and a guitar.

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    1. I had short hair, a BBC accent and no guitar. I did get myself a collarless jacket and some pointed Chelsea boots, though.

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  2. What a strange and blinkered attitude. We still see it lingering on in various remote corners of England, sadly.

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    1. We even kept ourselves from our near neighbours - something to do with privacy.

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  3. I would have played with you Tom …… I could have put on an American accent and chewed gum !!!! I used to find America fascinating too …. I used to love the ' I Spy ' books and had one on cars. There was a section on American cars and I wrote that I ' spied ' them in America { I had never even been there then !! } I was a little bit of a cheat when it came to my ' I Spy ' books !!!! XXXX XXXX

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    1. Also being the youngest of four I used to play alone, I would have played with you behind the shed with a Norfolk accent.

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    2. You've just ruined 'Cider With Rosie' for me.

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    3. It doesn't take long for me to say the wrong thing does it?

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  4. What's with the tourists in front of the museum?

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  5. Dear Tom,
    I loved this post.
    Imaginary friends. I know a few. No need to get them out of one's system.
    As to (real) winter- and summer-friends: there sounds a bell. Husband just brought the last load of my diaries to Berlin - one hadn't to be American for that concept...
    Your parents forbidding to play with that American kid reminds me of not going to Bremen's "Beat Club" where I could have met them all - the Stones, Sunny and Cher, the Kinks, and, and and... When I complained bitterly to son about that silly interdiction of my parents, he looked at my incredulously: "Why didn't you go anyway?" I looked at him stupefied: till that very moment it had never occured to me that I could have done this. OMG - such a waste!

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    1. You could have made the short trip to Hamburg and see The Beatles in that underground car-park too.

      Hind-sight is good.

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  6. I would have played with you too, Tom, but you wouldn't have played with me because I am younger. But I was a tomboy and if I was closer to you in age, we would have had much fun. Plus I'm American. And I never got the summer relationship thing - it always bugged me. Probably because I was never in a summer relationship.

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    1. We have a long history of Brits playing with younger girls here. It's in the news right now. Even being dead didn't put off our most prolific offender either, so I am sure you would have had a great Summer, should you have been hospitalised any where between North Yorkshire and East Sussex.

      The great thing about cold-storage is that the seasons have little effect on the relationships.

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  7. I loved this post too. You're a wonderful storyteller, Tom.

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    1. It's all exactly how I remember it, but thanks for that, Sherry.

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    2. I loved it too
      Because in so many ways we all experienced something similar

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    3. If this sort of thing is loved, it is because we all know it.

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  8. So much about your privates. And bicycles. And horns. I don't know where I'm going with this but I think I know where your adolescent dreams were headed...

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  9. Bloody foreigners; your people were quite right. American indeed!

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    1. You have made a difficult choice - to be surrounded by bloody foreigners in France, or bloody Gays in Brighton.

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