A couple of spare hours between meetings led me, (not for the first time) to Jarrold’s department store here in Norwich, more specifically their basement book store. I love books, and it was whilst perusing the biography titles that I happened upon a compendium of essays by various famous people originally featured in Big Issue magazine. The theme was ‘What would I tell my younger self’, with 16 seeming to be the chosen age for revelation. Politicians, rock stars, authors, sportsmen and women, film stars and other well-known public figures had downloaded their nuggets of wisdom, by turns funny, thought provoking and wistful. It got me thinking, what would I tell my 16 year old self? An intriguing, if slightly narcissistic thought don’t you think? Well what would I……..?
Let’s see now, 16 – hmmm. It would have been 1972, the height of glam rock with Bolan, Bowie and all things glitter (yes even him), filling young people’s minds with new found ideas of sexual expression and just plain old fashioned fun (remember that). I would have been in the throes of completing my 5th form year, with O level exams looming just over the horizon. I was an underachiever, basically lazy and lethargic. A ‘couldn’t care less, why does it matter to me’ kind of attitude, but then I was 16 and that comes with the territory. So, I guess I would try and tell myself to stop pratting around, knuckle down, do some work and get good grades, probably exactly what my parents told me at the time. Goodness knows I had the potential (as it was I scraped 5 passes which luckily was the benchmark for applying for any decent job).
I would try and explain to myself, as I did to my own lad when he was about the same age, that all my school chums were nothing other than competitors in the real world, and that if I didn’t achieve they would leave me stumbling behind. But how do you export adult wisdom to somebody as naive and uncomprehending as I was at that time? In fairness to the youthful me, our school teachers, icons of enlightenment and profundity, were not much better. I remember my ‘career’ interview, whereby a certain Mr High, quite ironic really because he was only about 5 feet tall, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. Needless to say this question was met with a look as blank as a virgin sheet of foolscap (alright then A4). I remember his subsequent pep talk quite vividly, it went thus ‘Well if I were you I’d leave school as soon as you can and get a job, at least then you’ll be earning some money’. Even me, so wet behind the ears I had a permanent trickle down the back of my neck, though this was, how should I say? Oh yes, total bollocks. But I left the room simply glad to have gotten a potential embarrassing interview out of the way in such short order. Career interview? What a joke! But then Mr High, he slightly better employed as our woodwork tutor, was more likely than not shoehorned into the role of careers master because nobody else wanted to do it. He was handed the short straw. You can imagine the other teachers clubbing together to make sure that poor old High, who was late for the meeting, was handed the poison chalice. ‘Sorry old chap but it’s the only job left’. I’ve just remembered that Mr High had a habit of throwing wooden mallets at wayward pupils should they infringe the etiquette of the woodwork room. For a teacher to do such a thing now would be unthinkable, and would result in lawsuits, shaming, dismissals, grovelling apologies and social media cancelling. We took it in our stride, mainly because him being so short, even a well aimed throw was only likely to brush your thigh. Wonder what happened to him……
All I really wanted to do was get home from school, hurriedly change, even more hurriedly cram my tea down my throat and join my mates to play football. We played football all the time, everywhere and anywhere. At school we played before assembly, during morning tea break, during lunch breaks, as part of the sports lesson and any spare time in-between. We played with proper leather footballs, the kind that left your foot numb when you kicked them and your brain oscillating across your cranium should you be fool enough to attempt a header. We played with tennis balls, half a tennis ball (great for curling if you hit it right), power balls – that takes some doing believe me – and once the rubber stopper off the leg of a table. As long as it could be kicked, we kicked it. Perhaps I would tell my younger self that I would never make the England team, and to concentrate on important things like logarithms and algebra. On the other hand, perhaps I would be better encouraging myself to keep practising the noble art of footy and forget trivial bullshit like trigonometry and algebra. Goodness knows footy has subsequently given me great pleasure both watching and playing, whereas I’ve never, not once, ever had to use logs, sines, cosines or algebraic formulae in anger, or peace for that matter.
My real aspiration, apart from the obvious one of rock star, was to be a fighter pilot. I wanted to fly Lightnings, I wanted to fly beyond the speed of sound. I still do. Me and my mates used to spend our school holidays watching these silver monsters thundering around RAF Coltishall a few miles north east of the city. We would walk or cycle there, prop against one of the yellow crash gates to spend the day revelling in the sight and sound of tons of high tech jet fighter ripping across the Norfolk skies. That I wouldn’t swap for the world, but I would perhaps have steered my young self along the path of a career, a real career, in the Air Force. I could have done it with application. I’d never have been clever enough to fly one of those things, but I could have got close enough to revel in their glory. Yes, I would encourage my spotty adolescent self to find out more, join the Air Training Corps, get my bloody hair cut and just do it. Things would have been different then, but that’s doesn’t necessarily mean better of course.
This is a wildlife blog, so mention should be made of how wild places and wild creatures featured in my life in those heady days of the early 1970s. The answer would be quite heavily. With my lifelong mate, I spent a lot of time, the time not playing football or watching jet interceptors, rummaging around in bushes, shrubs and undergrowth searching for birds’ nests. In those far off days such practice was not frowned upon, and was undertaken by just about every schoolboy. All of our peers had a collection of birds eggs, even such illumine as Bill Oddie openly confesses to doing the same. It was just what you did. But then of course there were millions more birds about, so our pathetic pilfering hardly dented the reproductive aspirations of the proliferation of bird life all around – song thrushes more abundant than blackbirds can you believe. And both abundant in the true meaning of the word. But 1972 marked the beginnings of change, a change towards behavioural observation. During 1972 we began to record the contents of nests, where we found them and their ongoing fortunes. We started to paint birds, photograph them, write about them and watch what they were doing. The seeds of a more mature involvement in their natural history were beginning to germinate. If I could advise my 16 year old self, it would definitely be to steer me towards greater hands on involvement with the conservation movement. To immerse myself in the evolution of a more enlightened attitude towards wildlife. That would certainly have been a life well spent.
And then girls. Yes those mysterious, curvy, moody, uninterested (in me) creatures that suddenly seemed to blossom from some gangly, bespectacled annoying sister person (I had one of those too, in fact Ive still got one) into sultry, sexy, desirable, squidgy …..things. Just what were you meant to do with them? It was all quite different then in the dark ages of power strikes, flared trousers and Brut. We matured later, we didn’t know the rules, we had no road map. We were left groping in the dark, or rather that’s just what we weren’t doing. Oh dear, totally hopeless. I vividly remember, and my fellow protagonist and me howl with laughter about it over a pint even now, when the belle of form 3F, Sarah by name, together with her mate Joanna, agreed to meet us for a date one Saturday afternoon. There they were bedecked in fashion attire, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick et al, and there were we stepping off the bus in our dark blue raincoats. It got worse. Not having the foggiest clue how to entertain these sirens, we treated them to an afternoon of pleasurable scrutiny of the latest airfix model kits in a nearby hobby shop. Somehow we weren’t favoured with a second date. To our credit, later that evening we were both rolling around on the floor, tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks in realisation of what a couple of total nobs we were. As I say we laugh about it to this day, and the tears still roll. What would I say to my 16 year old self in this regard? Hell’s teeth that’s a toughie. You see if I could give me advice that episode wouldn’t have taken place, and years of gut wrenching mirth would have been denied us. On reflection, I don’t think I would tell myself anything about girls – you can only find out how to cope with them through bitter experience.
I suppose in essence, the best bit of advice I could have given to my embryonic self would be to always try and be yourself. Just do it, don’t give a damn what anybody thinks, says or does. Believe in yourself and your goals. Make it happen. Make it happen for you, because only you can achieve or stop yourself achieving. Sound advice? Possibly. Would I have listened? I didn’t have the wit to comprehend. When all said and done life takes its own course, it all pans out the way it was meant to. And looking around at what I have and the things I’ve done I cannot be anything but content, proud and happy. I’m not content and happy obviously – that would be too much to ask – but I have no reason not to be. Most importantly, I have no fundamental regrets. I was able to tell my dad I loved him before he passed away, and that we would all look after mum. That was all he wanted to hear. It’s worth everything. I do regret no longer being able to say similar things to people who are no longer here, or perhaps being able to apologise to those people beyond my reach for a small number of things I said or did that I now realise were wrong. Show me someone who doesn’t feel the same. But overall I think my 16 year old self contained the nucleus of being alright. Sure I was a bit dopey, hot blooded, ignorant and daft. That’s what being 16 is there for. I could have worked harder at school, but where would that have led? Perhaps I’d have been wealthier. Big deal. No, going back and trying to change the course of your life is a flawed concept. I’m here and now because I was there and then. To alter that would be an unwise and dangerous thing. I’m raising my glass (I am too, it’s full of rather nice wine) to my 16 year old self. Good on you sonny you turned out ok.