My parents have lived in the same home since 1961: the newly-built semi in Upton we moved into when we returned from Indonesia (cost: £2,800). So, as previously mentioned, when I visit them I stay in the same room I slept in from the age of six to 18. Unless you belong to the landed gentry, that must be a pretty unusual state of affairs.
I’ve been coming back several times a year since I left home for university in 1973, and the view from “my bedroom” has barely changed since 1961. At least, that’s what I would say until I examine the view more closely. Car ports come and go, garage and extension roofs get replaced, and solar panels have just started to make their appearance. Despite the impression given by these photographs the Wirral is hardly the sunniest place in Europe and I do wonder how much electricity is generated.
But that’s not all
When I venture into the loft I find my childhood toys.
The boxes of Lego and Meccano have long gone but there’s a still model train set, cars and aeroplanes, soldiers and ships. Below, for example, is a shirt-box full of tanks (for some reason I had a thing about the Tiger) and two small armies of hand-painted Airfix soldiers – accompanied by a camel (which must have come from the Afrika Korps set). I had obviously discovered camouflage, although some of the colours are a bit weird.
All of it could go into the bin and no-one would be any the wiser or worse off… but there it continues to sit in the loft, doing no-one any harm. I can’t bring myself to dispose of it, but I don’t want to take anything back to London (and my wife would leave me if I did).
Some of these models look like they were painted yesterday, because they’ve not been played with for more than 50 years. Here’s a slightly blurry German soldier, less than a centimetre high: I’ve painted his face, hands, uniform, helmet, boots, rifle, knapsack etc. He is one of, as I said, literally hundreds. I kept them in old Nescafé jars.
The thing that strikes me now is the incredible patience and concentration I must have possessed all those years ago, as well as a steady hand, neither of which I have today. It is a concrete reminder of how one changes, both physically and mentally. Or declines, to put it bluntly.
Hopefully not every change has been for the worse
I was different back then, of course – but just how different?
I was half-listening the other day to a discussion on the radio about whether or not your personality is fixed from birth. The consensus, as I understand it, has changed over recent years. It would seem from studies (of twins and adopted children) that about 50% of your personality is down to genetic factors whilst the other 50% is strongly influenced by your environment. I suppose most people would instinctively go along with that. Parents do like to believe that their children see the world in broadly the same way as they do, just as they physically resemble them; but they also believe that a good education can turn these youngsters into happy, morally responsible and productive citizens. That the right experiences will improve what nature handed out.
You might imagine that being surrounded by these redundant tokens of childhood might give me an insight into what I was like as a child or young teenager. The truth is that although I remember quite a lot about what I did, and certainly what I spent my pocket money on, I’m not at all clear about why. Why was I so meticulous about looking after my things? What did I want from life? What in short, did I want to be when I grew up?
No, it doesn’t give me much of an insight
Being an only child I spent a lot of time alone, relatively undisturbed in an era when there was but one TV in the house and nothing on it for most of the day, so reading books was a major pastime. But most children read a lot in the 60s. The model-making came through Dad, a former naval draughtsman; it was generally another solitary activity, though not invariably. Although I did have plenty of friends I was never bored when I was on my own. I wasn’t mad about sport and I was generally happy exploring my own imagination, then as now. But there was no grand plan, no burning ambition to become a musician or a doctor.. Whilst obsessed by detail I didn’t consider the big issues of life. I’m not sure my friends did either – not while we were still at school.
When I go back home it is not just that my toys and schoolbooks, as well as the streets and the accents, remind me of my childhood. My parents, who are both in their 90s, are still around to indicate what I might – perhaps probably – will become. In one single rude word: old. But as someone (I think it was me) once said, “There’s only one alternative to becoming old”. Of course they have both changed a huge amount but their personalities, in all their unique complexity, are still alive, and changing, within them.
One thing I can say “for certain” is that I have more doubts than I used to have. Oh, and that I am less impatient… if grumpier at the same time. It’s a bit like a horoscope: if you squint a bit you can believe that any sign describes your personality to a tee. All that tired stuff about “the more I find out the less I know”, even about yourself, rings true when you arrive at your Third Age. I’ll be back next week for another reminder that, with my old age pension just a few months away, I still haven’t grown up.