I don’t know if it’s a girl, a boy or a bloody horse!
The decades roll on by. Today is my 60th birthday so I’m revisiting a format I’ve only used once before to share snapshots of my life from the last six decades. Click on the plus symbols to find out more.
It’s my birth day!
Writing this, I’ve just discovered that I was born on a Wednesday*. (According to the nursery rhyme Wednesday’s child is full of woe.° Well, that explains a lot.)
I’m not sure when in the day I was born, but I was my mother’s firstborn and took my time coming out. After a very long, hard labour, the staff on the maternity ward at Southlands Hospital decided, Enough! The doctor pushed inside my mother with a pair of forceps and pulled me out. I was born cone-headed.
My father was working abroad, in Qatar, at the time so the only family Mum had around her was her mother, my Grandma. The 30th July was also Grandma’s birthday, and we celebrated together – in spirit if not always in person – for the next 33 years.
After my birth, Grandma sent a telegram to my father. It read:
MOTHER AND CHILD BOTH WELL STOP
In those days international telephone calls were difficult to arrange and telegrams were pay-by-the-letter expensive. Grandma prided herself on getting all the essentials into the fewest possible letters. The family story later told (and retold) was that Dad said to his workmates: “I don’t know if it’s a girl, a boy or a bloody horse!”
The year of student revolution
The student revolution largely passed me by, though I was involved in a small educational revolt of my own.
I am 10. Being born in the summer has it’s pros and cons. One of the cons is that I never get my birthday acknowledged in class. My classmates – led by our teacher – never sing me “Happy Birthday to you”. One of the pros is that we celebrated at home, in the back garden if the weather was fine. In my memory it’s always fine.
We lived at Twenty-four – 24 St Leonard’s Road in Hove – from when I was five to when I was twelve or thirteen. Birthdays at home involved a table set up in the garden, paper plates and paper hats, sandwiches, cake and fizzy drinks (R White’s Lemonade).
Born at the end of July, I was one of those kids who could have either been among the eldest in my school year or among the youngest. I was among the youngest. In the summer term of 1968, when I was still 9 years old, my school entered me – along with the rest of my year – for the 11+ exams (“the eleven-plus”).
The 11+ – usually taken by 10-year-olds – was then the principle selective examination at the end of primary school. If you passed the 11+ you could go on to attend a Grammar School where you would be prepared for a middle-class academic future. If you failed the 11+ you were packed off a Secondary Modern School where you would be trained to accept your failure and to work in a factory.
Rather than accept this, my mother managed to get me admitted into a private, Roman Catholic school. We weren’t Roman Catholic, but old friends of my mother were and their son was just starting at the same school. There was an entrance test. The only thing I remember is having to read the first page or so of Tarka the Otter out aloud to a young man in a black dress. A cassock I learned later. Apparently I was in advance of my age for reading, behind for arithmetic.
Three years later this school became the Cardinal Newman Comprehensive School, the first comprehensive school in the Brighton and Hove area. Comprehensive schools are non-selective state schools that reject the idea of the 11+ exam. (Well, they used to. I don’t know what has become of that in the last forty-odd years.)
Getting me into that school was an achievement on my Mum’s part that I’m still grateful for. Aged 10 I suspect my birthday would have been a last opportunity to celebrate with school friends from the old school.
I’m 20 years old and I’ve just completed my first year at the University of Leeds. I’m studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Combined Honours – the combined honours being in English and History. The truth is I couldn’t make up my mind which subject I liked best, so I went off to Leeds because they saved me from having to make a choice. In retrospect, I might have been better off – more focused – if I’d only had one subject.
There were other things I couldn’t make my mind up about. I liked punk music but couldn’t make my mind up to shave my beard. (Whoever heard of a punk with a full beard?) I was an editor of the University’s poetry magazine Poetry and Audience (aka PandA), but I was also an active member of the Science Fiction Society. In those days, in that place, in the company I kept then, the combination of poetry and SF was a no-no. But I liked both so I wasn’t about to drop one for the other.
More seriously, more typically, I thought I was heterosexual but was entertaining doubts. While I had a good many female friends, I’d also had one or two spectacular and humiliating failures trying to convert a female friend into a girlfriend.
My best male friend was (probably) homosexual. It wasn’t something we talked about – I only see it in retrospect. But while at the time I never questioned his orientation, I did question my own.
Once again I can’t remember what I was doing on my birthday, but I was certainly at home in Hove because that whole summer I worked in the same antiques shop where I’d spent most of my gap year, 1976 to 1977.
It’s 1988 and I’m 30 years old. A lot has happened in the last 10 years. A lot of issues I grappled with as a student have resolved themselves.
I graduated from Leeds in 1980 and from Birmingham (a Certified Teacher) in 1982. I lived and worked in Bulgaria (where I met the future Mrs SC) and in Finland (where I lived with her for a couple of years). In the summer of 1985 we moved together hemma till Sverige (as she says) and we married in April 1986.
We’ve lived together in Linköping and Gothenburg and now, this summer of 1988, we’ve moved to Sundsvall. Her new employers have posted her there and I’m confident I can find work as an English teacher more or less wherever. My confidence takes a bit of a knock in the autumn of ’88, but at the end of July all that’s in the future.
We chose to move to Sundsvall in June to enjoy a northern summer before having to face a northern winter. We both found the winters in Finland tough – the dark more than the cold. Sundsvall is even further north than Kouvola where we lived in Finland.
I’m not sure whether I celebrated my 30th birthday in Sundsvall. I think I did, but possibly not. I do remember a long drive across the country in the light truck my father-in-law, Lennart, rented. Agneta went on ahead to open the house while her brother Per-Erik and I rode up with Lennart and all our worldly goods.
In my memory we made the trip – more than 700 km – in just one long, sunny day. But I’m not sure if I’m remembering that right either.
It’s 1998 and – I have no memory of what I did for my 40th birthday.
In the early spring of 1997 I crashed and burned. After working increasingly over capacity for three years or more, I suddenly lost all faith in myself and all my energy. It ran through my fingers like water scooped from the sea and left me with a pinch of dry sand and salt grains.
It didn’t help that my depression caused me to break so many promises. I used to pride myself on keeping my promises, but after the crash I let people down to left and right. I still shudder to think of it. For a lot of the ten years we spent in Sundsvall I was, on the whole, happy. But not at the end.
At the beginning of 1998 we moved back to Gothenburg. Agneta had a new post and moved first. I oversaw the packing of our home and the sale of the flat – at a considerable loss. (Now money was a worry too.) And then I followed on. I arrived ahead of the furniture and have an abiding memory of the first night sleeping on a rickety, folding bed in the empty living room. The furniture arrived and we settled in, but somehow 1998 is still that dark, empty room.
Stockholm and writing plans
This year we’ve come around again to a Wednesday.
I’m in a better frame of mind this summer than ten years ago. The intervening years have seen me work in three different capacities in two schools and, briefly, for the National Agency for Education. Many of the days and months have been good ones, but I’ve also gone through three deep depressions. Nothing as bad or as frightening as the first one in 1997-1998, but mostly because I had a better idea of what was going on.
At fifty I’ve decided I can afford to take a year off work. (To write my novel!) I do not know it’s going to be a permanent divorce from school teaching. (Or that the novel will still be uncompleted 10 years later.)
A week or so before the birthday, Mrs SC organises a trip to Stockholm for us both. In secret she has arranged with my sister and brother-in-law for them to join us. We have a wonderful few days together. Stockholm is at it’s very best with the summer sun glinting off the water between the islands.
New decades ahead
And here we are now, all up to date. For my 60th birthday we’re celebrating by taking a long weekend in England, visiting my sister and her husband. Also, of course, seeing my mother who herself is in her 96th year.
[After the event…]
It was nice to be back in England, if briefly. We stayed, Agneta and I, with my kid sister Linda and her husband Jim who drove us around the countryside. We saw mum twice, once in her own home (where I was able to photograph a couple of her pictures of younger versions of me – now included above), once at Linda’s where we had a party.
I’m writing this a few days before we travel, so I can’t say how it turns out. Maybe I’ll add something more here after the event.
*No, I don’t remember days that were 30th July in all these years. But the Internet has its uses, and one is a plethora of calendars where you can check these things.
°Here’s the nursery rhyme…
Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.