So I signed up for this writing class, and already, week 2, we have homework. That’s cool, this is why I signed up: I need and want to be kicked into writing. This is good.
But it is also tough. I almost talk or think about experiences from my childhood. I never write about being a child. It’s not that these were bad times; not at all. It’s just that childhood doesn’t really interest me. I think this is part of why I’ve never wanted to have kids.
If my writing, now, is mainly about freedom and adventure, childhood, by contrast, strikes me as a time of limited freedom and of mainly staying put. Those are good things, of course: a base of stability that makes an itinerant, comfort-zone-busting adulthood possible. I just don’t think of my childhood as particularly unique or interesting, and it’s certainly not what I write about.
There exists a whole genre of childhood memoir, though. Indeed, it’s a publishing trope: the white-cover, handwriting-font, dreadfully evocative title (‘daddy, stop!” or whatever); books like these. This, it seems, is the kind of thing one is supposed to write about childhood. And, honestly, it’s a competitive, mine-was-worse-than-yours space that makes me shudder. This is not to downplay the awful things these people have been through. It’s just, I don’t want to read about it.
However, writing about childhood is, I suppose, for writing groups, a staple of memory work. It’s one of the few things that all writers have access to: memories of when they were children. And so, week one, this is our homework task:
Write a page about an childhood encounter / experience between you and a parent.
I struggled to think of what to write. Childhood was: balloon animals and taxis dressed up as floats in a parade. Then I went to school, where some kid took all the pastel crayons and wouldn’t share. Some good teachers. Some bad. I liked drama class. A couple of kids were nasty to me. I came home from school and told my mum about it, and she said to stop fussing. I sat in my suburban bedroom with a hamster that ran miles on a noisy wheel. The nasty girls were still nasty. Then I grew up a bit and went to high school. Now the kids weren’t nasty, they were just cooler than me. I was bad at hockey but forced to play it anyway. I liked art class. I ran after boys. I was a bookworm. What can I say?
Struggling, I dug through the box of photos and cards that I brought to Sydney with me. And there I found a newspaper clipping, a version of this obituary of David Williamson. Now, DW, as David was always known, was not a friend of the family as such. He was more a connection between me and my dad, through SSC camp. And so I wrote about him and about how he, obliquely and emotionally, connected my dad and me over the years between my adolescence and my mid twenties. Here’s what I wrote:
I’m 14 and I’m in a damp field in Perthshire. I’m at my first SSC summer camp. SSC used to stand for Scottish Schoolboys Club, a Scouts-like organization that, from its foundation in 1912, took city boys on character-building adventures in the Scottish highlands. Since it started accepting girls in the mid seventies, the SSC has laboured under initials that no longer stand for anything. But, although I don’t know it yet, the SSC will turn out to be an important part of my life. For years after I leave school, I’ll come back to this same Scottish field, salmon-like, as a volunteer.
But for now I’m 14 and I’m standing in a field. It’s July, so the daylight would be long: it doesn’t get dark until around 11pm. I say ‘would be’, because my memories of Scotland do not contain weather at all: the sky is almost always grey and close, like living inside Tupperware. It feels timeless, liquid.
I’m next to a marquee in and out of which teenage kids are chasing, shouting, laughing. I’m not running with them, though, because I’m standing by one of the folding tables that hold plastic bowls of warm, soapy water. Tonight, I’m on dish-washing duty and we’ve just had dinner, which we still called ‘tea’. I remember that we’re washing oven dishes onto which burned lasagna is baked hard. Someone else is with me –I don’t remember who– and we’re doubtless bitching about having to wash up when we could be doing what teenagers do, which at late 1980s summer camp is lounge around in the long grass listening to REM. Instead, now, I’m fairly certain we’re whipping one another with our dishtowels and doing exactly nothing with those lasagna pans.
An old man approaches our table. He has stopped at every table on his way to us but, as he’s an old man, we haven’t noticed. Teenage noticing is very specific. But he stops, and I’m startled to find he knows my name. And not just that: he knows my dad’s name too, and he asks after him.
I have just met David Williamson, universally called DW, the grandfather of SSC camp. Born in 1920, DW has been camping since his own schooldays; indeed, he was at the same school my dad and I were at, which was Heriots*. DW has volunteered at camp since well before the second world war.
Throughout my angsty teenage years I’ll awkwardly converse with DW every year at camp, keeping him up with what Ed, my dad is doing, telling him about goings on at Heriots, and generally being embarrassed and formal, in the lavish and improbable way of teenagers, that any adult is asking me anything.
And then I leave school at last, and come back to camp as a young officer –the wartime terminology is still in use, even now. And DW and I have the odd conversation, although I never get to know him well. He’s funny and charming, but above all, he’s ancient. None of us really knows how to talk to him. When my friend Graeme tries bullshitting him, pretending to DW that he, Graeme, knows more than he really does about one of DW’s pet interests, DW gently takes the piss, calling Graeme ‘a stalwart camper, a proud Herioter … and a very boring man’. DW’s deadpan tone and his comic timing cause bursts of laughter.
DW died in 1998, twenty years ago this May. By then, though, I was living in Poland, and I didn’t go back to Edinburgh for the funeral. I wish I had. My dad went, and although he arrived early, there was already standing room only in the biggish church in Marchmont. Even more people gathered by the door before it was over. Describing DW’s funeral was one of the few times I’ve seen tears in my dad’s eyes. He said, ‘the only person who would be at all surprised at the turnout is DW himself’.
*Interestingly, Hogwarts is supposedly based on Heriots: https://www.rabbies.com/en/blog/8-essential-harry-potter-sites-edinburgh and http://pottertour.co.uk/blog/george-heriots-school-harry-potter.html