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22 February 2008

No-one to blame but myself

In the throes of a two month alcohol detox and a tour Richard pauses to reflect on some of the finer

By Richard Herring

I am whizzing up and down the country on my latest tour. It’s going well and I still haven’t had a drink this year and am feeling a thousand per cent better (and there’s well over a stone less of me to love/hate depending on your perspective).

From my perspective it is excellent. Join me! Join me!

My mind is already turning to my next show though and I am thinking of doing something based on my childhood. My dad was the headmaster of the school I went to, which in hindsight has probably had massive psychological effect on my later life and I am interested in trying to unravel that and discover if it has anything to do with my choice of career and lifestyle and my basic insecurities. It would be nice to have something else to blame for my deficiencies. I am great at passing the buck.

So I’ve been trying to squeeze out my earliest memories, but have realised how difficult this is and how unreliable the human brain can be, especially when asked to assess its own life.

It is almost impossible to determine the genuine memories from the false ones. I feel as if I remember the moon landing, or at least the launching of the rocket and yet it seems unlikely. I was barely two years old when this happened. But I have a fuzzy, black and white memory of sitting around the TV and seeing flames coming from the boosters. It’s only a moment of recollection, like a few grainy frames of otherwise destroyed film, but I have a real sense of the excitement around me. Of knowing something was happening, but not being able to understand it, beyond the fact that all that noise and bluster and fire on the television was exhilarating.

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Yet is this a real memory or just a projection of what I think I would have felt? Was it the launch of another rocket I remember? Or am I actually recalling seeing a repeat of the event a few years down the line? Or is it just totally invented?

It’s harder to place other memories and to be sure of how old I was when they happened. I remember living in Pocklington, which we left when I was just four, but the only coherent reminiscence I have of that time is when I was out for a walk (with who? My sister maybe? Or some forgotten playmate? Surely there must have been an adult with us too) and we discovered a chick that had fallen from its nest into the road. It’s orange beak and bulbous eyes come vividly to mind as I think of it. We took the bird home and we tried to feed it and save it, but of course we failed.

Pocklington also seems to be associated with an incident where my family were visiting an elderly relative and I bounded up the stairs at the front of their house and rang the bell. An old woman came to the door and glared at me through the glass, not knowing who I was. I can still see her confused and disdainful expression. She was ready to tell this young bell ringing hooligan off for disturbing her. I remember being scared and running back to hide behind my parents. But maybe this didn’t happen in Pocklington. I don’t think we had any relatives there. And maybe it happened at some later date and somewhere else.

I think I remember the day we moved to Loughborough, but again this memory is in the vivid colours of a 1970s photograph of our arrival. I recall having a box of Jelly Babies or liquorice allsorts, but I am sure that this is only because in the photo (which I haven’t seen for a good while) you can see I have hidden the box under my jumper. So is it a memory of the day or a memory of the photo? More weirdly when I think about that day I recall eating a banana once we arrived at the house. But I only ate half a banana. That’s just come back to me. Why would I have stored that irrelevance up somewhere in my brain? It’s so boring that I think it must be true. And I am sure it’s not just the photo. I was four by now and moving house was a big day and I definitely remember some of it. But the photo has definitely informed the memory. We lived at 160 Leicester Road, Loughborough (I am pretty sure) and I used to be able to remember our phone number… but beyond it possibly having a 6085 in it, I don’t any more.

Do I remember eating dirt in the garden and then coming into the house covered in mud (possibly whilst visitors were there) or have I just heard the story enough times to convince myself I do? And was that Loughborough or Pocklington? Or was I 28 years old and it happened in Balham? I think I remember the texture of soil in my mouth. Worms may have been involved. But this is a very unreliable memoir.

I remember being on holiday (probably in Arran) and standing by a stream throwing stones into the water. I lost my balance and fell in myself and went head over heels and got caught up in the current a little. I definitely recall the spinning around and the confusion and fear I felt, but I am sure that time has exaggerated the descent. I feel like I went over a waterfall, but am sure the stream was much too tiny to match up with the memory. And once again somewhere there is a vivid colour photo of me throwing a blue rock into the stream and I might mostly be reproducing this. And I might have been as old as six or seven when this happened. So that’s no kind of earliest memory at all.

It’s actually quite embarrassing how little of my first five years I can bring to mind.

The first big event that I have a proper recall of is finding a stray kitten inside our Guy Fawkes Night bonfire in our back garden with his side badly burned. But was he burned in our fire or was he just hiding in our as yet unburned bonfire after being injured elsewhere? Not sure. I seem to remember him being inside the construction which would suggest we hadn’t lit our fire at this point. I think this happened in Loughborough so I was at least four and maybe older. I remember the injury though and the vet coming to look at him and the cat being in the garage. He got better. We were allowed to keep him. Good old mum and dad for letting us and for paying for the vet bills and stuff. I wouldn’t have considered that back then. We called him Oscar. After this early brush with death he lived to a ripe old age (in cat terms anyway). He died when I was 18 and away on an archaeological dig. So that’s over twenty years ago. Good old Osc.

Anything else? Anything earlier? Anything specific? I remember a little plastic and cloth cap I always used to wear. It was yellow, and maybe red or orange. I remember my mum uncharacteristically losing her temper with me (and I bet I was really annoying) and being frightened and her then being sorry and hugging me. I remember running into a little slide at nursery school and cutting my cheek. That might have been in Yorkshire. I remember the Loughborough nursery school because we used to have to go to bed in the afternoon and I hated that. They also had a TV with none of the insides in it, which you could get inside and pretend you were on TV. I really liked that. Isn’t that funny? Maybe I should try it again. It’s probably my best shot at being back on telly.
I remember making my mum and Nannan laugh with a little puppet show using finger puppets. I liked their laughter, even though now I see they were laughing as much at me as with me. That is was my audacity and cuteness that amused them rather than the tightness of my gags and the plotting of my story. I was probably six by then though, so that doesn’t count.

I also pooed myself at infant school once and nearly got away with it. I tried to cover up the smell by claiming that a naughty dog was doing poos outside. My clever ruse came unstuck though as I was wearing shorts and some of the faecal matter worked its way out on to the classroom floor. The teacher asked who had done it and I ran off to the toilets crying, which I think confirmed my guilt. That was at Emmanuel school. I would have been five. Though I shat myself at school a few times when I was about nine or ten. I think this was something to do with it being considered shameful to be known to have defecated in the school toilets. Kids would jump up and try and look over the cubicles if you were in there and taunt you. So I chose to use my underwear instead. What an idiot. But I was nine or ten. That’s not a first memory. That’s an embarrassment from a time when I remember much and yet still understand little. And not a story that should be gracing the New Statesman website.

I am hoping that if I really push this that I will remember something horrific (more horrific than a pant full of warm shit) and thus discover the reason I seem to have forgotten so much, because there was some terrible incidence of abuse that has made me repress those infant years. But so far nothing springs to mind. I think the fact that my mum slightly losing her temper is scorched on to my memory files probably shows how well I was treated. She was a bit weepy. It was probably her time of the month. I couldn’t have known that then though.

I have to conclude that I have so few memories, because so little memorable happened to me. There’s a part of me that wishes I had repressed stuff for some dark and sinister reason. I could use it to explain away by deficiencies as an adult. But alas I remained unbeaten, undefiled and unpaedophiled and I won’t be writing a best selling book about it.

So injured animals and a face full of mud and a pant full of faeces. These are my defining images of infancy. I don’t think I have anyone to blame for who I am now but myself.

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