It is 18 October 1959, the Sunday after my third birthday, and my grandparents have just arrived at my great grandmother’s house, and they have brought my eagerly awaited birthday present.
I have just pulled open the heavy front door, and I gaze up the slope of the short driveway to where my grandfather’s car is parked on the main road, maybe fifty feet away. My grandmother is sitting in the front passenger seat, and she holds my present awkwardly on her lap, a small child’s tricycle, made from blue and red tubular metal, with its front wheel almost level with her face.
The beige Ford Anglia is in fact jointly owned by both my grandfather and my father. My father uses it during the week to go to work, and my grandparents use it at the weekends for day trips and visiting relatives. On Friday afternoons, instead of driving home, my father would drive to my grandparents’ house to leave the car with them, then complete his journey home on the Underground. On Sunday afternoons, my grandparents would drive over to visit us, leave the car, and go home later, taking my father’s Underground journey in reverse. They maintained this arrangement for four years, until my grandfather had saved enough to buy a car all of his own, at which point we were able to keep the Ford Anglia all the time.
But how excited I am, now that my grandparents have come, and that they have brought my present! My mother has been dropping endless hints that this is indeed how events would transpire this Sunday afternoon, that my wish for a tricycle would be fulfilled, and that my grandparents would bring it with them in the shared car.
And now I am outside, on this bright and warm afternoon, sitting on my new Tri-ang tricycle, all blue and red with its shiny enamel paint. But alas, the bearings by means of which the front wheel turns when the pedals are pressed are too tight, and I am not strong enough to turn the wheel. Even the slightest movement that I am able to produce, applying all the strength I can muster, is immediately rendered useless by the fact that in straining against the pedal I cannot help but turn the wheel sharply to the left or the right, and my tricycle veers jerkily to the side of the pavement and off onto the bare earth at the sides. Any normal, forwards, movement is quite impossible. I remember that I persisted in trying to pedal my new tricycle, but I could not do it, and I remember not just a sense of disappointment, or even profound disappointment, but a sense of dire dread. That my physical weakness was responsible for my plight made me feel personally responsible for the calamity, so that sense of dread was tempered with a sense of guilt.
And now I am back indoors, and we are eating tea in my great grandmother’s front room, downstairs (I and my parents occupy the rooms upstairs), and my grandfather has been out to the garage to find some oil that he has applied to the stiff bearings, and as we eat, he sits gripping my tricycle between his thighs, and vigorously works the pedals with his hands, trying to ease the troublesome bearings.
He meets with partial success, for now I am outside again, again sitting on my tricycle, again straining against the pedals. But this time I am moving forwards, following an approximation of a straight line. Up and down the pavement outside our house I am going! My grandfather is there, and my father, though my mother and grandmother have stayed inside, I think, for this is men’s work. Whether they are there or not, I do so want them to see me going up and down on my new tricycle! Oh, but it is an effort to turn the stiff bearings. I strain with all my might, and I can just about do it, with rather jerky movements, following a rather rickety trajectory.
As the weeks pass, and as I pile on the mileage, I think the bearings gradually lose their stiffness. But in that first hour or so, on that Sunday after my birthday in 1959, the disappointment and dread and the sheer effort required to make my tricycle move has served as a sort of template for almost everything I have done since. My trying to master anything, especially reading and arithmetic when I started school two years later, was always referred to the sheer effort I had to summon that Sunday afternoon. I have never found anything easy or straight forward, acquiring any skill, attaining any objective, starting anything, maintaining anything, finishing anything has always seemed to require such an inordinate quantity of effort that I am astonished by it. This does not seem to be the usual experience that most people have most of the time, and it is a troubling thing. If I could go back with knowledge of the future and do it all again, I would not do half the things that I did in fact do – the sheer effort was too much for too little reward. Any number of outcomes would prove too feeble and disappointing in comparison to the massive effort required to bring them about. If I could undo those things, I would. Better would be sitting quietly and not trying to peddle at all, so to speak. I would have been better off enjoying the few things that I liked and that I could master with a smaller application of effort. For the unpleasantness of trying and trying and trying always clouded any possible enjoyment of this thing that might ordinarily have been expected to come to me – the sort of enjoyment that I think most people understandably take for granted.
I have no idea why I always found everything so very difficult.