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Spring 2011

On Being an Only Child

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Geoff Dyer

My mother often quoted with approval the maxim “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Unfortunately she thought this was intended as exhortation rather than warning. The mother’s instinct to indulge her only child was thereby reinforced by a higher authority. I was so spoiled that on the day my parents unexpectedly came to pick me up at primary school in the middle of the morning—I was about eight at the time—I told the teacher that it was probably because they wanted to buy me a toy. In fact it was to go to Shropshire where my grandmother was dying. I was also spoiled because I was such a sickly thing. I spent so much time away from infant school that the truant officer visited our house to see what was going on. What was going on was that I was always ill. When I went into hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids out—a panacea in those bountiful days of the NHS—my parents brought me a Beatrix Potter book each day. I missed having brothers and sisters but I liked the way that I didn’t have to share my toys with anyone else. It also meant I got more presents at Christmas and on my birthday.

This kind of pampering was balanced by the way that my parents had grown up in the depression of the 1930s. They have spent their lives saving. My mother worked as a dinner lady—serving school dinners (i.e., lunches) in the canteen of the school I went to until I was eleven. Later, after I had left home, she became a cleaner at a hospital. My father worked as a sheet-metal worker. They have always been able to make more money by saving than by earning. It has never been worth their while to employ anyone to do anything for them. On the one hand, then, I was spoiled constantly—because I was an only child, because I was a skinny, sickly little boy; on the other, life consisted entirely of small economies, of endless scrimping and saving that became second nature. If I grew up having everything I wanted, that is partly because my desires soon became shaped by the assumption that we could not afford things, that everything was too expensive, that we could do without almost anything. Many times, when I asked my dad if I could have something that had taken my eye in a shop, he responded by saying, “You don’t want that.” To which I wanted to reply, “But I do.” And then, after a while I stopped wanting things. (I now wonder if my father was unconsciously using “want” in an earlier, archaic sense of “lack,” a distinction capitalism has since pledged all its energies to rendering obsolete.)

If I wanted replica shorts worn by my favorite football team, Chelsea, my mother bought cheap blue ones and then stitched the authenticating white stripes down each side. Clothes for my Action Man? My mum would make them. A Subbuteo soccer pitch? She bought a piece of green baize and painted on the lines. We never used a trolley in the supermarket, only a basket. We always bought the cheapest versions of everything. When I was a bit older—about fourteen, I think—and wanted a Ben Sherman shirt, my mother explained that it was just “paying for the name.” We hardly ever went on holiday, mainly because it involved the activity that my dad hated more than any other: spending money. When we did go to Bournemouth or Weston-super-Mare for a few days—never abroad; I did not fly on a plane until I was twenty-two—it was no fun. On the cloudy beach one day I buried my mum’s feet in the sand. Half an hour later, having forgotten all about this, I plunged my spade into the sand and into her feet. Often it rained and so we went to the cinema—something we never did at home—to see big-screen versions of the TV shows we watched at home: Morecombe and Wise, Steptoe and Son. My dad was happier using his time off work to work on the house (concreting the drive, building a garage).

Whatever form it takes, your childhood always seems perfectly normal. It took years for me to understand that I had grown up in relative poverty. If we had enough money for everything we needed, that was only because of the extent to which economizing—a voluntary extension of the rationing introduced during the Second World War —had been thoroughly internalized. As with most things connected with parental influence, this later manifested itself in my behavior in two contradictory ways. As soon as I left home, I became a splurger: if I bought a bar of chocolate, then instead of rationing myself to one or two squares, I would gobble down the whole thing. I became a gulper, not a sipper. But I have also been able to live on very little money without any sense of sacrifice (a valuable skill, almost a privilege, for anyone wishing to become a writer). Going without things that most of my contemporaries took for granted never felt like hardship. I spent years living on the dole, more than happy with the trade-off: little money, lots of time. Even now, aged fifty-two, it is agony for me to have to take a taxi in London.

We lived in a terraced house in a neighborhood full of families. There were always plenty of kids to play with in the lane that ran behind our row of houses. Next to my school—less than ten minutes’ walk away—there was the Rec, where you could play football or just run around. There was no shortage of companions, but always at some point I would have to go back home, back to being on my own, back to my parents. And some days there was just no one to play with. Bear in mind how huge afternoons were back then. For a child the hours stretch out interminably. After my father was made redundant from his job at Gloster Aircraft, he worked nights for a while, at a factory where nylon was made. On afternoons when I had no one to play with, I had to be quiet because my dad was sleeping. When I think back to my childhood now, these are the afternoons that I remember. It almost seems like a single afternoon of loneliness and boredom. I’ve never shaken off this propensity for being bored; in fact, I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t even mind it that much. As a kid I was so bored I assumed it was the basic condition of existence.

When we drove to my grandparents’ damp house—another example of the working holiday: there was always something to be mended or built once we got there—we never went on the newly constructed motorways, which, back then, had a glamor that seems almost inconceivable now that they are synonymous with the opposite of speed, with delays and mile-long tailbacks. It was as if there were a tacit toll on using the motorway; somehow it was cheaper to take the regular roads—cheaper because slower. (One of my dad’s most pointless economies was never to fill up our car with petrol; he always put in just half a tank at a time, so that we seemed always to be stopping for gas.) Doing things slowly was a way, somehow, of saving money. We were always overtaken by everyone. “He’s in a hurry,” my mum would say as someone whizzed past our sky-blue Vauxhall Victor. I remember wishing that we could be in a hurry, just once. Being in a hurry looked like fun. It wasn’t just driving; everything we did was done slowly. I was always waiting. My parents kept telling me that patience was a virtue. I have, as a consequence, turned into a raging inferno of impatience. If I have matured at all it has been in the style of D. H. Lawrence, who said that when he was young he had very little patience; now that he was older he had none at all. I love hurrying. It still seems like fun. I remember how relaxing it felt when I first went to New York, to be in a place where everyone was in a hurry all the time. And yet, at the same time, the life I have ended up leading has effectively recreated those afternoons when I had no one to play with and nothing to do and so had to come up with something to amuse myself. As a kid this meant drawing or making something; as an adult it means writing things like this. I’m not only used to having, I need to have hours and hours of uninterrupted free time if I’m ever to get anything done. And yet, at the same time, I never love the life of the writer more than when I have someone to play with, when I’m down at the park, playing tennis on a Monday—or Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday—afternoon. If you fancy a game, I’m always free.

Our life was completely devoid of culture, both in the selective sense of music, art, and literature, and in the larger sense. There was no community life, none of the remembered richness of working-class life that served as ballast for Raymond Williams and Tony Harrison when they left home and went to university. There was just my mum and dad and me and the television. We bought a record player, but after about a month my dad gave up on buying records (“The Green, Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones was the last). Sometimes we visited relatives, like my Uncle Harry and Auntie Lean in Shurdington. Harry kept whippets. Their house smelled of dogs and I always ended sneezing because as well as being ill the whole time I was allergic to cats and the fine hair of the whippets. My Auntie Joan lived a few doors down, in the gloomy council house, full of stuffed birds, where she and my dad and my other aunts had grown up. Joan kept poodles and her house smelled even worse than Uncle Harry’s. I think these visits were the first things I ever endured. I only had one cousin—herself an only child—who was close to my age. The rest, most of whom lived in another part of the country, were all a lot older. My parents were never very social: my mum had been brought up as a Methodist and so did not drink. Occasionally, in the summer, we would drive out to a pub with a garden for chicken-in-the-basket, but my dad never went out on his own to meet friends in a pub. We never went to restaurants. Basically, except for visits, we stayed home and saved money. I loved it in the winter when it got dark early and we locked the doors and drew the curtains and stayed in.

So: no brothers, no sisters, just one cousin—and no pets except for the occasional goldfish which expired soon after it was brought home from the fairground in a polythene bag full of water. My dad was dead against pets. He hated dogs because they yapped. He hated cats because they were cats. The lack of pets and siblings had a bad effect on me. Love was coming at me in vast quantities from my parents, but because I was never allowed to have pets, I had no experience—apart from the instinctive love of child for parent—of learning to love or to take care of someone or something more vulnerable and needy than me. (Several girlfriends have said that I am a terrible hugger. Basically I just stand there, draped like a coat around the person I am supposed to be hugging. At some level I assume that I am the one who needs to be hugged, comforted.)

It was natural, since I didn’t have to share my toys with any siblings, that I became a collector. I collected all sorts of cards, Airfix soldiers, and comics. I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order. I still love doing this. I spent much of my time making model airplanes and doing jigsaws: things that you can do on your own. (My mother had a particular way of doing jigsaws: we sorted out the side pieces and made a hollow, unstable frame, then filled in the middle. Our approach to jigsaws was, in other words, methodical, rigorous. Work had entered into every facet of my parents’ lives; even leisure activities had about them some of the qualities of labor.) I would like to say that I displayed the single child’s customary ability to develop a rich imaginative life, but I don’t think I did—unless finding ways to play games intended for two or more players on your own counts as imaginative. In my late thirties I bought a flat in Brighton, on the south coast of England. It was a big place, big enough to accommodate something I’d long wanted: a ping-pong table. The problem was that I knew almost no one in Brighton, and except on weekends when friends from London visited, I had no one to play with. It took me right back to my childhood, that table. In its immense, folded uselessness it symbolized all the afternoons I spent playing games on my own. I played Subbuteo on my own—almost impossible, since you have to flick both the attacking players and control the opposing goalkeeper simultaneously. I played Monopoly on my own. I played Cluedo on my own. When I eventually got round to it, masturbation seemed the natural outcome of my childhood.

A few years after hitting upon this solitary activity, I discovered another: reading. I had passed the Eleven-plus and gone to Cheltenham Grammar School, where for the first four years I was an indifferent student. Then, at the age of about fifteen, under the influence of my English teacher, I started to do well at school and began to spend more and more time reading. I passed all my O-levels and stayed on for A-levels. During my first year at grammar school we had moved from a terraced house to a semi-detached with three bedrooms. I wonder if I would have had the peace and space to study if I had had brothers and sisters. It’s impossible to say, but reading and study filled the vacuum of boredom that had been there for as long as I could remember. But reading created a gap as well as filling one.

When I was trying to decide which A-levels to do, my father said not to bother with history because it was all in the past. He also gave me another piece of advice that I have come particularly to cherish: “Never put anything in writing.” From the age of about sixteen on, I found that most of the advice my parents gave me was best ignored. Still, I ended up doing economics instead of history.

It became obvious, early in the lower sixth form, that I would go to university. I would be the first person in my family to do so—I was already the first to be doing A-levels or their equivalent. And then, as the time for the exams approached and it became evident that, unless I messed up, I would get very high grades, my English teacher advised me to try for Oxford. My parents only knew of Oxford through University Challenge. Of course they liked the idea of my going to Oxford, but they made a big fuss about how other parents wouldn’t have let their children stay on at school; other children would have had to start bringing money into the house. I hated this because it was stupid and because it was so obviously untrue. Even if they didn’t know what Oxford was, they were as excited by the prospect of my going there as I was. We had many arguments, in the course of which I often became furious. During one such argument—I forget what it was about—my father and I became involved in a scuffle. My mum tried to intercede and, in the process, my father accidentally elbowed her in the nose. “That’s me nose gone!” she said, a remark so idiotic that I became incandescent with rage. It is strange and unfair but even now, that rage has never entirely gone away. I am angry at the way my parents were oppressed, but at some level I am angry with them for having internalized their oppression.

In Raymond Williams’s Border Country, the autobiographical protagonist tells a friend that every value he has comes only from his father. “Comes only from him.” Many of my values come from my parents: honesty, reliability, resilience: the bedrock values. But there are other qualities I have been attracted to—vivacity, charm, lightheartedness, grace, urbanity, doing things quickly—which had no place in my parents’ world: they were privileges. Also, because my parents had always worked hard—for practically nothing—I never set any store by hard work. My father was very proud of never having been on the dole in his life. During the summer between A-levels and the start of the Oxbridge term, I had a part-time job in a shop, which meant that the pay I received counted against my entitlement to benefit. Effectively I was working for nothing. My father thought it better for me to give up my time to work at this crap job than it was for me to get the same money from the state. It is no exaggeration to say that I hated him for this. My parents’ view of the world was just too simple: it was suited to the Depression but not to the 1970s. I, on the other hand, had the contemporary idea that the world owed me a living.

This became more acute after I passed the Oxbridge exam and got a so-called Exhibition (a form of scholarship) to Corpus Christi College. From then on the gap between my parents and me widened as I realized that, as well as an intangible intellectual world different to the one I had grown up in, there was an actual social world too. This, the classic quandary of the scholarship boy, has been thoroughly documented in many novels. Here I will mention just two representative episodes.

In my second year at university, I came back home for my twenty-first birthday. My mother had made a cake and my father had paid to have it decoratively iced in the shape of an open book with a bookmark down the middle. Printed across the cake, like print on the open pages, was the name of my college: Corpus Christi. It had the look of a shrine or totem, which in some sense it was, an expression of the mysterious and vast symbolic power of books. This mystery, needless to say, was enhanced by the fact that my father never actually read one. My uncle Peter took a photograph of that cake and it seems the proudest thing in the world—and the saddest.

In my final year at university, I came home unexpectedly and turned up at my old primary school, where my mother still worked in the canteen. She opened the door in her dinner lady’s blue uniform. We both started crying and embraced each other. We held each other because we both had an inkling that part of my education was to understand that it was more than just education. I was my parents’ only child, but the life I would go on to lead would be so different from theirs, and the most important part of this difference was the way that it could never be explained and articulated to them by me.

What does this have to do with being an only child? Everything. Let’s suppose I’d had a younger sister. Perhaps she would have been influenced by my example and gone on to university and would have begun to have a different life from the one we had grown up to expect. Then, as a family, we could all have moved along together. Alternatively, if my brother had left school early and led the life that someone from my background might have been predicted to lead, it would have bound me more closely to the world I had come from. There would have been more ballast. Either way, there would have been an intermediary. I wouldn’t have been the oddity, a weird exception that no sense can be made of or conclusions drawn from. I had a friend who went to Cambridge while his brother left school after A-levels. For a while they drifted apart but then, in their different scenes, they independently discovered a common interest: drugs. I like to think that if I’d had a relationship like this with a brother who had, say, left school early and then worked as a bricklayer or an electrician, we would have been more of a family. It wouldn’t have just been my parents and their son who had gone to Oxford and led this strange life of doing nothing. As it was, my parents remained cocooned in a late-twentieth-century version of the 1930s. For a time, while I was at university and in the years immediately afterwards, I tried to get my mum to read proper books (Jude the Obscure, Sons and Lovers: novels that initiated and articulated the process we were living through) and to get my dad to read the Guardian. I played them some of the music I was listening to (Keith Jarrett), tried to get them to try different teas and real coffee, to eat nicer food. They didn’t like any of it. (From time to time we still have conversations about diet. “You know, you really shouldn’t be eating eggs and chips the whole time,” I say. “Well, we’ve been eating them for our whole lives and it’s never done us any harm,” says my dad. “You don’t think that the fact you had cancer of the rectum and have had a colostomy counts as harm?” “Get away with you,” says my dad. “That was nothing to do with that.”)

If there is a special loneliness that is intrinsic to the single child, there is a particular isolation that attaches to the scholarship boy or girl. Most people come from families with brothers and sisters. And most people in the world I have been part of for the last twenty years are from middle-class families: they speak the same way as their parents, they go to the same things, have similar interests. The terrible truth is that, ostensibly, I have more in common with my wife’s parents—her dad is an academic, her mum a piano teacher—than I do with my own. Almost everything that counts for anything in the world I have been part of has been learned, acquired. Most of the things I grew up knowing about are irrelevant.

Except—and the importance of this can hardly be overstated—my parents have a sense of humor! They’re funny. What greater gift can parents pass on to their children? In my impatient maturity, anyone without a sense of humor bores the crap out of me. This is not the only way in which something I picked up from my parents manifests itself. My parents, as I have said, laid great stress on being reliable, punctual, dependable. We are encouraged to think of reliable people as boring, dull, and perhaps for a brief while, after leaving university, I briefly flirted with this, in that I was drawn to carefree, careless people. Then I realized that unreliable, dishonest people are the most boring people in the world. One of the advantages of the way that new social opportunities open up to you—and for me this began happening after university—is that you can have it both ways: there are plenty of people out there who are fun, pleasure-loving, clever, and reliable. It’s got to the stage now, in my early fifties, where I try to minimize contact with unreliable, unpunctual people. For different reasons—for my parents it was a moral judgment, for me it’s just impatience—we have ended up sharing an aversion to particular forms of behavior. Especially lying. I am told that if you have brothers and sisters you learn to lie—about each other, or in collusion with each other to your parents. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that I have grown up with almost no capacity for lying. (I like scams and dodges but that is different; that is part of a battle of wits.) My parents made me believe that as long as I was honest everything would be okay. I am still almost incapable of lying in real life. And it took me a long time to learn how to do so on the page.

It wasn’t until 1987 that I really understood how liberating the task of writing fiction could be. I was twenty-nine and writing a book based very closely on the life my friends and I were leading in Brixton, South London. At that time I was going through a phase of wishing very badly that I had a sister. I’d had these longings before, but never as intensely. It came to me in a flash—and it should be obvious by now that this is not the first time that I have belatedly realized something that everyone else has either known for ages or taken for granted—that if I wanted a sister I could just invent one! It was as easy as that. And not only could I invent a sister, I could invent the perfect sister—one you were sexually attracted to. Friends who have sisters say that only someone who didn’t have one would think in these terms but I think that hint of incest added a useful quality of unease to the novel. Anyway, it worked. I never again had a craving for a sister.

Geoff Dyer is the author of Out of Sheer Rage, The Ongoing Moment, and many other books. This essay is part of his new collection from Graywolf Press, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.

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