Making a Discovery about Writing, Age 11
American kid struggles with fountain pen, London, circa 1968–69
I have my first vivid writing memory dating back to when I was eleven. That was when I really came alive. It was also when I first became dimly aware of what power a writer can have. I couldn’t say articulately then that I wanted to become a writer, but I sensed that something was being born in me.My father had a sabbatical from teaching to work on a collection of late eighteenth-century novels. In 1968–69 we went to live for the academic year in London. My father was working on rare books at the British Museum. My brother and I went to British schools. My mother took art classes south of the river. We all loved that the closest Tube stop for her school was called the Elephant and Castle.
When I was told where we were going for the year, in the kitchen of our house in Columbus, Ohio, six months before we left, I wasn’t thrilled. My back was up against the refrigerator. I remember sliding down it until my bottom hit the floor. I was a fearful kid. I was good at school, attached to order and routine. I was better at board games than at softball or basketball. I could see that this would sweep all the chess pieces off the board.
Perhaps it was that initial terror that eventually turned me into a lifelong Anglophile. In London my parents found an apartment on the top two floors of a house off Kensington Church Street. It was smaller than where we were used to, but by London standards it was big, and in a much better neighborhood than where I could afford to live now. I took a red double-decker bus to my school every day. It had a rear platform open to the elements. The fact that I was taking public transportation to school made me feel very grown up. Nevertheless, you had to watch what you were doing. If you didn’t pay attention you could fall off the back of the bus. One morning, when I was daydreaming on the back platform, and the bus went at speed around a corner near the Buckingham Palace Mews, the bus conductor had to grab my elbow to stop my flying off into the air.
I went to a grammar school called the Westminster City School, which was part public and part private. Supported by the government, the school also benefitted from charitable trusts that went back to the seventeenth century. It had a Church of England foundation and we attended prayers in the morning, though these took place in an ordinary auditorium, not a chapel. We wore black wool blazers, school ties and shoes that had to be polished. It was all boys. There were six forms. I was in the first form. The boys in the sixth form were nearly men. Our lessons were about twice as demanding as what I was used to in central Ohio, the two curricula as different from one another as wine and water. The mother of one the boys in my year, Gwynneth Dunwoody, was a member of Parliament.
The other boys had taken an entrance exam to be admitted. My parents took me in for a meeting with the headmaster after the term had already begun. It wasn’t practical for me to take the exam. Perhaps my being from a different country would be helpful for the other boys, suggested the head. He was thinking of reasons why the normal rules shouldn’t apply to me. They talked of things I didn’t entirely follow. I thought of myself as still basically a kid. This was adult talk. I only slowly realized that I was being interviewed too. I was surprised when the headmaster turned directly to me and said, not unkindly, “Are you intelligent, boy?” How should I reply? “I don’t know.” I swallowed. “I think so. I hope so.”
It was the first time that I’d been spoken to by an adult in which my opinion mattered. It was my first exposure to the English habit of asking a question that is playful and ironic, but which also requires a response that will be weighed up and counted either in your favor or against you. It must’ve been okay. Or maybe the head was just impressed by what my father was doing for his book. I was in. I was soon to learn that this was a mixed blessing.
To start out with I couldn’t entirely understand what was being said. It was much harder than “you say to-MAY-to and I say to-MAH-to.” I’m embarrassed to recall how long it took me to grasp accents. I eventually lost mine, as it was a hindrance, and learned to mimic the way they spoke. One of the first things that happened was that a group of three or four boys cornered me in the cloakroom in the basement. What was America doing in the Vietnam War, they wanted to know.
In the elementary school where I’d come from in Ohio, politics were almost never discussed. These were urban, savvy, politically-aware boys. Again, my opinion seemed to matter. I went home and asked my father. “There is no justification for American to be in Vietnam,” he said. So that was the answer I took back to school. It was the beginning of my taking an interest in what was in the newspapers. If I didn’t, I’d have nothing to talk about and no way to defend myself among boys I wanted to impress. I also wanted them to like me.
We had to use fountain pens. Ballpoints (biros) were not allowed. It was a struggle and I always came home with my fingers stained with blue ink. Over time I grew to think of these as proud battle scars. Our courses were English composition and English literature, biology and chemistry, Latin and French, history, mathematics, and religious instruction. I especially took to Latin and French. The French mistress was a demanding and severe old lady, Miss Hickmott, a type I loved then and have ever since. The Latin master, Mr. Grant, had a crush on me, which even then, I understood. I didn’t regard his sentimental attention as creepy or a burden. His interest encouraged me. He never laid a hand on me. I flourished in the lessons he gave us.
Even though at eleven I was prepubescent, with few signs of maturity on my body, sex was in the air. I was used to a mixed school. I had always chosen to spend more time with girls than boys my own age. To be all day every day with other boys was excitingly new and different. It was sometimes a little scary. Unlike the boys I knew at home, these urban boys were interested in roaming around the deer park in Richmond and in learning how to tie an ascot. They’d get into enthusiastic fights not only about international politics, but also about the Holy Ghost, especially if I didn’t know what I was talking about, as I often didn’t. They were also still boys. When we had to line up to go into the dining hall for lunch they’d reach around and grab your crotch — the first time I’d ever been goosed — if you didn’t defend yourself. This was not an erotic game. It was all about annoying your neighbor.
Once a week we took a bus to a distant playing field in Mitcham. There we played soccer or “football” in the cold and the mud for several hours. I had a friend. We’d stroll off to the sidelines and throw mud at each other from the bottom of our cleats rather than get too involved in the game. Afterwards, the young games masters joined us in the showers. None of the boys had any body hair, but these teachers were as hairy as gorillas. I was shocked and interested, but not really turned on. There were muttered conversations among the boys on the bus going back to school about what these masters looked like naked.
A gang of boys from a rival school attacked me once. They’d smashed a whole tray of empty milk bottles for the fun of hearing them crash on the asphalt. When the grocer came running out, saw me and blamed me for what had happened, I pointed out the three boys who’d run off down the alley. He shook his fist at them and went back indoors. When he was gone, they came back and roughed me up a little. They managed to get my shoe off, which they threw under the tire of an approaching van. They ran off. I had to appeal to the driver of the van. “Please, sir,” which was the way we were taught at school to address all adult men, “you’ve parked your van on top of my shoe.” The attack was terrifying, but the aggression and danger of these boys my own age, was electrifying as well.
If there was a nascent sexuality in the air, there was also the growth of my lifelong love of London. My parents allowed my brother and me to roam over large parts of the town on our own using public transportation. Completely unattended and exhilaratingly independent. I learned the tube map by heart. It spelled out possibility to me. On weekends we were allowed to go on our own to a hobby shop in Holborn where we added to a British model train set I was given for Christmas. We were allowed to go on our own to a swimming pool in Richmond. On school days, we had a long lunch break in which we were permitted, again unsupervised, to wander around in the vicinity of the school. One sunny day I went with some other boys to St. James’s Park. We took off our jackets and lay on the grass. One boy took someone else’s school blazer and threw it over a duck. The duck waddled off with the blazer over its head and swam out into the middle of the lake. The boy’s blazer briefly ballooned and then sank. When after lunch the boy with no jacket explained this to Miss Hickmott, who was about to punish him for being improperly dressed, it was the first time I saw her crack an involuntary smile.
One day we were all invited to write some lines for a school play that was to be about the River Thames. The theater teacher chose lines I wrote to be read out as a prelude to this play. It’s hard to convey the thrill I felt. I almost couldn’t believe it when I first heard the actors, older boys, with deep voices, far above me in the school, who were in fact as gods to me, reading out words I’d written. This was in front of an assembled audience of boys and parents. I could not have said so then, but it was my first experience of my writing’s connection, deep down, to a reservoir of sexual energy. Freud called it the libido. It was like the boy’s blazer in St. James’s Park. But, instead of sinking, it was as if the duck had taken flight with the jacket. I was up and away.