The Best and Worst of Years: 1963

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Indy Lifestyle Online
For Philip Larkin, 1963 was the year of sexual intercourse, Lady Chatterley and the Beatles' first LP. For me, the first was as distant as it was incomprehensible, the second a name that made mothers turn the television off and the third, well, yeah, yeah, yeah, the Beatles I could sing along with. But, the Fab Four - much more my brother and sisters' thing - paled in comparison with the true delights of a singularly good year made up entirely of small things that, uneventful by adult standards, made me a happy and sunny boy.

First, I learnt to ride a (very old) bicycle; then I opened my Post Office savings account with the pound I had saved in old pennies over the past year (it never amounted to more than 21s 6d). I signed my name on the first page of the book in joined-up writing for the first time and felt very important.

I kept my first diary. I bought a Penny Red from the Bridgnorth Stamp Club. I used a urinal and felt very grown up about it. I had a medical and the doctor said I was fit but too thin (not surprising, I hardly ate a thing).

I made my first Holy Communion and deliberately grimaced in all the photos taken outside the white Regency presbytery to annoy old Mrs Peak who kept telling me to smile and that this was the 'happiest day of my life'. I thought it silly: we had a party with jelly after Mass at 11 in the morning.

I read exhaustively and took myself to the public library, pestering the librarians with requests. I liked Lord of the Flies; railway books by Cecil J Allen and O S Nock; How to be Topp; adventure stories (I particularly liked Scott's Last Journey and especially the bit about Captain Oates leaving the tent: 'I am just going outside and may be some time'); I enjoyed escape stories, aeroplane tales (but hated Biggles) and anything about the sea, the stars, peoples of the world, buildings and cities.

In London, I was free to ride on happily regulated red RT and Routemaster buses with all-day Red Rover tickets and explored Wren and Hawksmoor's city churches. I played cavalry and Indians, and Roundheads and Cavaliers, and daleks.

The winter that year was wonderful, with snow lying in banks much taller than the postman; it was so cold, the tops of the milk bottles at school were pushed up by freezing cream; and horrid new diesel trains kept breaking down and had to be rescued by steam engines.

We didn't have central heating (I still hate it) and I enjoyed the long winter rush from steamy bathroom to freezing cold cotton sheets, heavy woollen blankets, eiderdown, torch and book.

I knew the class of every locomotive in Britain and, though I never collected numbers, I spent much time away from school watching Coronations, Merchant Navies and A4s performing their last vulcanic duties from London's great train sheds.

I began writing short stories and illustrating them with coloured pencils; the first was a retelling of Treasure Island. I studied maps and liked to imagine where the aircraft I stared at all summer flew to; the air still hummed with Britannias and Super Constellations, though I liked the look of the Vickers VC10 with its great four-engined tail - and the cut-out cardboard model of the handsome jet that was given away free in Swift. I made Airfix kits following the detailed camouflage instructions for Sherman tanks, Spitfires and Stukas that appeared in Airfix Magazine.

I read Valiant, Lion, Eagle and my sisters' comics, Bunty and Judy. I learnt long multiplication and long division and that 'faith was a supernatural gift from God' and that the best way to cope with Confession was to make up sins, because I couldn't think of any.

I shot with an Airfix FN rifle - plastic bullets taking out birthday cards, Swoppit knights and plaster saints. I made soldiers in Plasticine and found 'Mr Potato Head' extremely funny, except when I left him too long in his shoe box and his head shrank and grew long white tentacles.

I remember only two things that made me sad in that happy, ordinary year of a childhood in which church-mouse finances were counterbalanced by a world rich in books and imagination and so much to see. One was Dr Beeching's closing of railways (I thought he looked like Himmler); the other was when Susan Connolly vanished from my life for ever.

She was Welsh and very pretty with green eyes, freckles and red hair; we talked and talked about everything and she smelt nice. And then the Connollys moved inexplicably to Wales and, despite all my happiness, something had changed. I felt personal loss and real sadness for the first time; 1964 was going to be a very different year.

(Photograph omitted)

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