From time to time I’m invited into schools to talk to children about being a writer . Often I’m surprised by the perceptiveness of the questions that children ask. However, there is always some boy who wants to know what car I drive. It’s a question that invariably returns me to the contradictions of my childhood.
Women rightly complained about gender roles in the second half of the twentieth century but being a boy wasn’t all that great either. There was a very clear norm that you were meant to measure up to and I never seemed to get anywhere near it.
This norm was reinforced at Christmas and on birthdays by appropriate gifts. Well-meaning adults would often give you toy cars. I remember turning up at a cousin’s birthday party and being shown into a room where about a dozen little boys, in a display of formation boyishness, were eagerly ‘driving’ model cars around the walls of the room, making revving noises in their throats.
Seeing me standing there, my cousin, a kind-hearted soul, came over and held out his car to me. ‘Do you want to have a go with mine?’ he asked. He pointed out the make and model of the car which were obviously a matter of some prestige. But I shook my head. I was entirely indifferent to the hierarchy of automobiles.
Not that I was unmoved by the delights of motion and speed, however. I just didn't need a machine to achieve it. Regularly at night I dreamt that I could fly, soaring high above the rooftops and chimneypots of East London, gazing down on the streets below as though they were no more than a picture in a story book.
The sensation of flight seemed so real that when I woke I had difficulty believing that I couldn’t do it in real life. Indeed, I would often pass the time as I walked to school, frowning earnestly as I concentrated on trying to leave the ground.
The nearest I can get to flying nowadays is when a story has taken off and the writing is powering itself. My fingers race across the keyboard and there seems to be hardly any space between thought and the words that spring to life on the screen.
But I still haven’t managed to summon up any real interest in cars. When I reply to the enquiry about which car I drive, it’s always a disappointment. The boy with the question had clearly expected something altogether more flashy from a writer, who is surely supposed to be some kind of celebrity. Invariably, he loses interest in me at this point and his eyes glaze over. No doubt, he is driving a vastly superior model round and round the walls of his mind.