Misadventures in… always being two steps behind
This was originally sent out as a newsletter on Monday 12th March via TinyLetter https://tinyletter.com/NorthernWrites/letters/of-always-being-two-paces-behind
I’m not sure what age I was when I was first sent out in to the world on my own?
I can vaguely remember a hand holding mine as I went to primary school in Neasden, or maybe it extended to the first couple of weeks of Perrin Road in Sudbury? I know it was there for my first day at St George’s, my third primary school in as many years, but for how much longer?
There was definitely a long walk or 92 bus ride up Harrow Road in the morning light, but when that became a solo affair is unclear.
Even in a non-school setting there was a clear sense of early freedom — cut adrift from the… the… I don’t know what word I am grasping for here, as I can’t ever remember my mum wearing an apron let alone controlling me with its strings. When exactly did I first cross the imaginary threshold of where Perkin Close became Chestnut Grove, out of sight as the road stretched far beyond the limits of where a parent could see — or to the council estate where friends lived on the other side of the train tracks — physically and figuratively.
Six? Seven? Eight? Less said about the odd trip to the corner shop for 20 Rothmans — though I was allowed to keep the change as part of my reward!
I know it came to a head by age 11 when I was shipped off to senior school in town; a tube ride away. There was a group of us at first — five boys rattling along to Holland Park together. It didn’t last long. The five soon became one as my oversleeping or lack of desire to be in on time meant that no one wanted to risk the detention my attitude might bring.
Why am I writing this?
As I tried to keep pace with our soon to be nine year old on Saturday, full of enthusiasm for her new bike, an early birthday present, I started to wonder what kind of grip the bogeyman has on us now? Am I always to be two paces behind our children until they reach an agreeable age — but what age?
I am confident that at nine I would walk to school, go to the park or generally hang around the local shops. I would go to friends — or claim I was going to friends but disappear with them to the green space behind the imposing flats on Harrow Road, opposite Butler’s Green in Sudbury Town. We’d disappear after lunch with “be home before it gets dark” ringing in our ears — and then fail to understand that it stays light till long into the night in the summer months. No dinner on those evenings.
It was normal. Not “we used to leave our doors open” normal, but to be out all day — away from our parents — with a ball at our feet and a packet of mojos in our pockets. That’s pretty much my childhood summed up in a sentence.
So why not now? Why can’t a nine year old ride to the park, do a couple of laps, dump her bike by the swings and come home in her own time? Innocently (idiotically) I still think a child’s upbringing could be similar to ours. Is it because there is more traffic on the road? Does the Childcatcher lurk around every corner (to be honest, I was more put off by Catweasel and he was one of the good guys)? Do we just wrap our kids up in cotton wool out of media driven fear — or is our hands on nature born from a positive position where we simply want to spend more time with our kids?
So many questions.
There is something in the fact that the world is just a busier place. No kids ever play out on our road because it is a “convenient” cut through to the local supermarket, thus avoiding the traffic lights and the junction at the bottom. As car after car hares along with no idea who lives on our street, it’s unimaginable that we’d let our kids ride their bikes up and down as we once did. Fearful of that squeal of brakes as another car rounds the bend and carries on regardless — of child, of life.
So what age? When is it acceptable for a child to be set free. To roam the local streets, to take a bus in to town — to disappear to even further reaches without us there, without us knowing? The answer is that I don’t know. If we lived on a quieter street with school friends nearby then I’d consider nine an OK age to head out the door and to, well, what is the modern equivalent of “let the phone ring twice when you get there”?
Until then, until that age, I’ll be that person two steps behind a child straining at the bonds that keep her closer to me. To see her bike ride off into the distance with a whistle that curtails both her speed and enthusiasm.
It is hard — for her — but I just don’t know if there is another, happier way?