Earlier this afternoon I finished reading William Boyd’s absorbing, and in parts deeply affecting, Any Human Heart.
It, like his earlier and also highly recommended New Confessions, is an autobiography of an imaginary character. It’s a form of writing that is at least as old as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and one which might credibly be described as the original form of the English novel.
To an extent any autobiography is that of a fictitious character though, there are invariably passages in any memoir where the author glosses over something that casts them in a bad light, or simply misremembers an event through simple human fallibility.
I’ve done some things of which I’m quite ashamed, and I’m not going to tell you about them. I’ve done a few things of which I’m fairly proud, and I’m not going to spend too much time on them either.
What I am going to try to capture for you here is all the wasted time. All those days squandered while I waited for something to happen offstage that would make my life special. The borrowed hours.
Most of them, as you may be able to tell, have been spent watching the television.
In my life I’ve made music, written books and magazine articles, done a few other interesting things. Most of my life, though, has been taken up with just waiting to do those things.
It might be seen as a terrific luxury to have had the time to sit and contemplate, when most of my contemporaries have been too busy working to think. It might equally be seen as wasted time. Depending on my mood and the weather, it could be either.
My wasted days started early. I was an only child until I was eight. Then my sister came along, followed a year later by a brother. Two more brothers came along soon after. Thebiggest gap between any of those four siblings was 13 months, the smallest 10.
Their father was by turns feckless, absent, and appallingly violent. My hard-pressed mother soon came to rely on me as a free childminder while she went out to work or (sometimes) recuperated in hospital after one of her regular beatings.
I can’t pretend I did stellar childcare work. My method was, in the main, to arrange the kids in front of the TV and watch whatever came on. I remember Rainbow and Button Moon being on almost constantly in those dull, crappy 1970s afternoons.
There’s no reason why I couldn’t have read improving books while my sister and my brothers were being anesthetised by The Clangers. I didn’t though. For one thing there weren’t a lot of great novels knocking around our house. Or any novels come to that.
One summer I got myself a little job sweeping up at the local builder’s yard. I must’ve been about 13 or 14 I think. I gave some of the money I earned to my mum and spent the rest on trashy sci-fi paperbacks. Heinlein, Asimov and (especially) EE Smith owned entire weeks of my life.
I don’t think anything that I read in those yellowish pages ever helped me in either my work or social lives.
Whenever I wasn’t reading, I was watching TV. Gerry Anderson sci-fi puppet shows such as Stingray, Thunderbirds and especially Captain Scarlet were particular favourites of mine. In the mid 1960s there was an all-pervading sense that the future was coming soon, and that it would be great. It’s impossible to describe to anyone born after 1970, that optimism. It seduced perfectly rational adults – to a small boy who had known nothing else optimism about mankind’s spacefaring future was as natural as breathing.
The blitz-blackened bodies of the Second World War – which ended a mere fifteen years before I was born – had been swaddled in a thick blanket of bullshit. World War Two only impinged in my life in the pages of Commando Picture Library comics and in the films on TV which always seemed to star either Kenneth More, Trevor Howard, or John Mills.
I was particularly impressed with legless air ace Douglas Bader. His stubborn, self-obsessed determination to send as many young German men to their deaths as possible seemed ineffably heroic to me. I even, for a while, affected the strange double-legged limp that Kenneth More had developed when he starred as Bader in the 1956 movie Reach For The sky.
People say that what kids watch on the television doesn’t really affect the way they think in the long run. That’s flannel. Everything I know I learned from the telly.
Except for what I know about sex. I learned all that from pornography, but we’ll talk about that some other time.