The second solid memory is a very real episode, and one which is both proven fact and unforgettable not simply because of what happened, but because of one single photograph which, if I close my eyes even now, I can recall vividly. A black-and-white image, perhaps 2 inches square, of a small boy, smartly dressed, on a sunny day out at the seaside.
The photograph was taken in Southsea along Clarence Esplanade, quite close to the castle and approximately half-way between the sea front’s piers. There were two small boating lakes there, one where you could hire rowing boats and canoes, the other for sailing small yachts and model craft. Over the years I did the former more than once – including further along, just beyond South Parade Pier at Canoe Lake – and the second, in spite of ambitions to the contrary, never. There are echoes of this scenario later, too. If you look for those boating lakes in Southsea now you will not find them. They have long since been concreted over to make way for what was initially the Sea Life Centre (opened in 1986) and is now the Blue Reef Aquarium. As an adult, heading south to visit my parents, we went to the Sea Life Centre once or twice. It was an homogenous and vaguely unpleasant experience once you got over the initial wonder generated as much by the luminous decoration and lighting than anything else.
The little boy in the picture – in shorts, shirt and tie, jacket – is looking remarkably pleased with himself. And so he should. He is standing alongside a bright and shiny new pedal car. It was, as I recall, very red – though obviously the monochrome image doesn’t show this. The front of it was shaped a little like one of those large American cars that boasted slightly pointed, triangular shades across the top of the headlamps, and in the sunlight it probably looked quite a sight, especially to a four-year-old. It had been bought for me by my Uncle Roy, the husband of one of my mother’s sisters; a rare display of kindness from a man who, over the years, seemed to get more gruff, belligerent and unpleasant – some of whose characteristics he bestowed in spades on one of his sons who once shut me in a cupboard at the top of the stairs in their house and left me there for, it seemed, far too long.
Legend has it that I pedalled that car all the way home – probably a distance of about a mile and a quarter – refusing any alternative (though I’m not entirely sure exactly what the alternatives would have been!). It’s strange, as I look back now, that I remember that day, that event, that photograph, more than the pedal car.