Out of body

When I look back on photographs of myself as a boy, which I do far less often than I imagine, a feeling of dissociation comes over me. It’s me, indisputably, and yet it isn’t.

January 1986

As friends stared glassily at photographs of me and the strange little barnacle that in those days passed for my organ of generation I tried to explain that the child they were scrutinising was not me. This was the biological as well as the psychological truth. Every cell in my body had by that time been replaced. P.G. Wodehouse’s typewriter comes to mind as a model of this important phenomenon. He bought his Royal in the 1910s and used it right up to his death. But by then every part of it had been renewed: the chassis, the platen, the roller, the keys – everything. Was it still the same typewriter?

Stephen Fry, ‘Naked Children’ (originally published in The Listener, anthologised in Paperweight)

What do we feel when we contemplate our past selves? I started thinking about this a couple of nights ago when I reencountered Scripps, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, remembering going up to university for interview:

I’ve never particularly liked myself but the boy I was, kneeling in that cold and empty chapel that winter morning, fills me now with longing and pity.

I don’t feel longing or pity when I look at the photo of myself above, grasping the mane of my rocking horse. My memories don’t go that far back (I was two and a half), so I can’t say how that boy felt, but I imagine he’s as happy and excited as he looks. I identify more with what Edmund White writes in his preface to A Boy’s Own Story, a novel he wrote about his teenage self at a remove of about 25 years:

If I’d hated myself as a boy and adolescent, I now felt an affection for the miserable kid I’d once been, a retrospective kindliness one might call ‘the pederasty of autobiography.’

Not that I was miserable often. I’ve been able to find only one photo in which I look genuinely wretched, pouting and red-eyed and sitting alone in a corner. Hints of blotchiness on my face and feet suggest eczema may have been the cause. It bedevilled my boyhood, though my abiding memory is not of the physical discomfort but of my mother’s anger at my grandfather’s repeated commandment, ‘Don’t scratch, press.’ He meant well, but didn’t know what it was like first-hand. She and I both knew it was hopeless.

In other photos I see chinks in my armour that might have been exploited by others. Hints of effeminacy, as I stand limp-wristed in the garden with my yellow plastic spade, or unwrap my Christmas presents with something that isn’t flamboyance exactly but certainly isn’t straight, that could have led to bullying but didn’t. A guilelessness also, a credulity in my expression, that I don’t remember ever having.

Anyway, I made it, I grew up without the assistance of my adult self to hold my hand; but now I feel an unusual desire to be a friend to that boy. I’d like to visit him from the future so I could reassure him that he’d be OK, that he wouldn’t have to go to war, that he’d pass his A-levels (something I think I had occasional anxieties about even as early as primary school, the result, I suspect, of overhearing conversations between my parents about my father’s sixth-form teaching).

I also think, wouldn’t it be cool to introduce him to the music he wouldn’t discover until later. I could have been listening to Weill and Oscar Peterson at a much younger age. As it was, I was happy enough with The Sound of Music, and didn’t feel I needed someone older and wiser telling me what to do.

July 1986

Dubious dress sense aside, he looks such a nice guy, doesn’t he. I’d like to have known him.

Now that I’ve reached the point at which I am envying my childhood acquaintances their friendship with me, some kind of protocol of decency has been breached. I hereby declare an indefinite moratorium on self-regarding blog posts like this, though I doubt it’ll last long. I’ll try to think of something else to write about for a while.


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