An excerpt from

The Socialist Republic Of South London

David Wheeler

I’ll never forget the day I saw my Uncle Jack cry. I’d never seen a man cry before because in those days, you never did. Just didn’t happen. Unless they were all drunk and laughing. Or drunk and reminiscing and maudlin. But everything was different back then. Men were different, I suppose. Or something was. Anyway. Maybe it was just that Uncle Jack was different. I dunno.

It must have been when I was seven or eight. I remember my mum had sent me round to Uncle Jack’s butcher’s shop for some bacon and black pudding. It wasn’t just because Jack was family – everyone round our way said it was the best butcher’s shop on the Old Kent Road. It’s not there now. I walked past where it used to be a few months ago. It’s a discount booze and fags place now.

I know it was in spring for sure, because London’s plane trees had started to get that light green sheen of freshness that seemed, if you were eight, to be some sort of natural beacon of hope after a grey, wet, grinding winter. And I also had to get some hot cross buns from the baker’s. So it must have been around Easter. Now you can get hot cross buns in the supermarkets whenever you like - at any time of the year. Now. Things were different then. And stuff doesn’t stay the same forever. I thought it would. I was so convinced that some things would never change. But I was wrong. Lots of shit changes. Even shit changes if you leave it long enough. Shit comes in different colours to start with, but then it changes. Very much like life, I’ve found.

Anyway, the sun was shining fit to burst and I was eight and on the top table in my class at school and Spurs were doing well that season in the League and Passport to Pimlico was on TV that afternoon and everything was all right in my little world. Uncle Jack was a tall, strong man with broad shoulders and black hair and smiling, kindly eyes, and he was always cheery and smiley with family and with customers, so an errand to his butcher’s shop was the opportunity for some badinage – though I did not know that word yet.

Being family, I went round the back of the shop to surprise him – I always did, maya dorogaya.

But then I saw Uncle Jack cry.

And I don’t just mean cry: he was heaving great broken sobs of sadness that seemed to start from way down below his waist as he hacked with his huge cleaver at the great red and white marbled haunch of something – beef or lamb or pork, I suppose.

I shivered and started to creep back out of the shop. Gob-smacked – though we didn’t say that then.

Uncle Jack happened to look up and our eyes met. In his I saw an unfathomable, unreachable sorrow that froze my soul to its core.

But Uncle Jack suddenly broke into a grin and said, wiping the wetness from his face with his heavy forearms, “S’all right, Tommy. Nuffin to worry about. Best go round the front, kid.”

And he added, as an afterthought it seemed, “Tommy – what you just seen – keep it dark, eh, sunny Jim? Keep it dark.”

So I quickly went round to the front of the shop and pushed the glass door open. The little bell tinkled and Uncle Jack appeared, right as rain, bright as tuppence. With every appearance of a man who had never cried in his life.

“Wotchya, Uncle Jack,” I faltered.

“All right, Tommy. How’s it going? What does your mum want today?”

And it was many, many years before I found out the reason why, on that bright, spring, full-of-promise morning that made you want to stand open-mouthed like a daffodil in the sun and dance for the sheer joy of being alive on this wonderful, amazing planet, Uncle Jack was crying.

I’ve got a lot to thank him for – Uncle Jack. He taught me how to cry. He taught me how to live. And, in a way, a roundabout, circuitous, perigrinaciousy kind of a way, he is why I am here now, sitting in a café, sipping a coffee, waiting for the woman whose laugh and voice and smile and eyes have taught me how to hope and to live again.

But Uncle Jack. Well, I’ll never forget that day. Nor the day I found out why he’d been crying. Sort of. Nor today for that matter. Days? Where do we live but days?

We were a big and close-knit family. My mum and dad were the youngest of families of five and four respectively and I was surrounded by a noisy network of older cousins, jolly uncles, and aunts, who were housewives or maybe had a little job two afternoons a week – pin money, a little bit of extra readies, moulah, brass, mawanga, shekels, spondulicks, wonga, dosh, doshoola, greens. See – I always liked words. And where do stories come from if not from words?

And Sundays were the gatherings of the tribes. At the grandparents’. Alternate weekends. One weekend with my mother’s loud and sentimental bunch; the next with my father’s more reticent, more sober clan.

And Uncle Jack always seemed a bit detached, a little out of place, as if he were dreaming of a life elsewhere, a world elsewhere perhaps, beyond his butcher’s shop on the Old Kent Road.

And the tribe, as I recall it, was very pleased with itself. They had cars – rust-ridden old Ford Populars, but cars! They started to have TVs – all of them in time for 1966. They had foreign holidays that their parents had never even dreamed of. In places their parents hadn’t heard of or scarcely imagined. They had freezers and central heating and children and all the bragging rights that gave you.

And Uncle Jack had those things too. Except for the holidays. I can’t remember him going away at all. He never left the flat above the shop. Except to go shopping. Or for one of the gatherings of the tribe. Or to go and watch Spurs. And my grandparents, his great uncle and aunt, were only a couple of bus trips away or a brisk, quick walk if you were feeling energetic. And he didn’t have a car. Or children come to think of it. No telly.

Uncle Jack always walked carrying some huge hunk of meat in a box that fed us all. And he always refused a lift home. “Gotta walk all that food off,” he’d cheerfully banter, when my father offered him a lift. “Walk’ll do me good.”

And he’d stride off quickly, as though running from some bad dream.

Now – I knew all this. No – I didn’t know it. I had seen it - but with a child’s eyes - without understanding it. I had heard it – but with a child’s ears. With innocence, an unquestioning faith that that was the way things were. We took so much on faith back then. Or maybe it was me. And, you know, it was only when I was old enough to have my own children and my own freezer that I started to put all this together. Like some giant, complicated jigsaw with a big expanse of blue at the top and a swathe of green stuff at the bottom. Really hard to do. Gives you headaches and bad dreams. Like the best things in life actually. But worth the effort. Though I did not realize that until these last few months. And it was only when I found Uncle Jack’s missing piece that it all made sense. And then it didn’t make sense at all. Life can be like that, I’ve found.

So at the time I did not ask Uncle Jack why he was crying that morning when I was eight. It would not have been the thing to do. I was eight. I was English. Eight-year-old English boys did not ask their elders and betters why they shook with tears so much that streams of their sadness dropped from their faces as they hacked huge haunches of meat apart. He wouldn’t have told me anyway. It took him years to tell me. And the funny thing is – in the end, I didn’t even have to ask. I sort of worked it out. Almost. But I still needed help.

I knew my times-tables. I always got ten out of ten in the weekly general knowledge quizzes at school. I had a stamp collection that was clearly and unequivocally the third best in my year at school. I could name all the countries of the Commonwealth. And all the kings and queens of England. In the right order too. I was on the top table at school and I knew big words. And I could spell some of them. Everything was all right with my little, innocent world.

So I didn’t ask Uncle Jack why he was crying. Then. I didn’t ask him then. But I know now. And, you know something, I still don’t understand, maya edinstvenniya.

I don’t understand how he didn’t break down with those big wrenching sobs and gasps and sighs every minute of every hour of every day he walked this earth. As he served his customers. As he walked the streets of South London. As he ate with us all at those Sunday gatherings. On the terraces at Spurs. Every fucking waking moment.

So what were they like the gatherings of the tribe? To tell the truth, I can remember only general impressions. Loud noisy laughter. Everyone chipping in. Helping to prepare the food. Clear away the dishes. A few drinks for the adults. A glass of beer or shandy for my older teenaged cousins. A sip of sherry for me at Christmas. (Wine hadn’t quite reached our part of south London – that was to come. And when it did arrive it was, for a few years, confined to Liebfraumilch, when what we really craved were several cases of Zeitgeist.)

But I remember the talk. And the laughter.

A piano. All of us gathered round the old Joanna. Songs. Carols at Christmas. Sentimental songs of love everlasting and hearts broken by that bastard Life. Bawdy music hall songs full of innuendo that made the adults all laugh like drains. And made the children laugh too – though I didn’t understand and spent endless introspective hours wondering which of my many cousins I could interrogate about why everyone was laughing, without being laughed at and dismissed for being five. Or nine. Or whatever.

But lots of patriotic songs too. Songs they had sung during the war. My parents and their sisters and brothers all knew the words. And, whatever the season, towards evening, when the beer flowed and the scotch came out, the tribe would become sentimental. It was usually the war. Nights spent down tube stations during the Blitz. The blackout. The rations. The sound of the Luftwaffe bombers. Noisy angry wasps. Deep thundering boomings. Random events. The family at number 28 all killed when their garden bomb shelter took a direct hit. The Doodlebugs and the V2s later – their keening whine bringing a chill of spine-breaking fear into all who heard them and Auntie Rita had seen grown men wet themselves in the street. The Blitz spirit – ‘London can take it, but Hitler can’t take London!’ My gran, my father’s mother, hearing that her eldest son (my Uncle Charlie) had been left wounded in a Belgian hedgerow, hearing it from Billy Higgins who lived in the next street (not from the Ministry of War – their telegram – Missing in Action – came later) and who had been in Charlie’s platoon. They had left him with some water, two packets of fags and a white hankie, and had put a tourniquet on Uncle Charlie’s leg before leaving him to the mercy of the Wehrmacht’s medical staff. They wouldn’t hear from Charlie for six years.

“He was all right, Maggie. Just a bullet in the thigh. We had to leave him. He’ll be all right, love.”

He’ll be all right. He was all right. But Uncle Jack wasn’t.

Uncle Bill and my father who together had fought through the desolate desert sands, those deserts of vast eternity, and walked all the way up the hill and all the way back down again and then walked again all the way through Italy. Monte Cassino. A vision of Hell, my father told me later, just before he died. A vision of Hell come down to grab you and force you to look straight into its eyes, smell its dirty, reeking breath, hear its hoarse, wheezing cackle and taste its shit.

And Uncle Sam who’d been in the sweaty rank dank of the Malayan jungle and come back with a touch of malaria and a visceral hatred of anything Japanese. He died before we knew about sushi. And the decline of the British car industry. Lucky in some ways.

And my Auntie Rita’s husband, Arthur, who had ended up in the same prison camp as Uncle Charlie. And Stan, my oldest cousin, who had landed in Normandy and, from the way he told it, had fought all the way to Berlin on his own. And Auntie Doris’s husband who had been a paratrooper and had been at Arnhem and who was scared of heights and flying.

“Well, just got to conquer your fear, ain’t ya? Stands to bleeding reason. World’d be a sorry place if we all only did what we liked, eh?”

Words, words, words. When you’re eight you believe it all. Stories.

But no-one mentioned Uncle Joe who (I later learnt) had spent five years in a British military prison for selling weapons and supplies to the Mafia in Sicily. I met Uncle Joe just the once. He turned up unannounced at our house sending my mum into what she described as a ‘tizz’. He drove a gold Jaguar convertible with leather seats, a polished elm dashboard, wore a silk suit, smelt of brandy, gave my mother a bottle of champagne and left with the young, attractive and heavily made-up young lady whom he’d turned up with. And who my mum, later, in the righteous indignation of the righteously flummoxed, described as a ‘tart’. A word I hadn’t come across before – except in the context of jam or rhyming slang. I liked the glimpse of Uncle Joe that I saw. Though I understood I wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t stupid. Though I now know the tribe was a little stupid. Stupid enough to keep the truth about Uncle Jack as dark as the grave. And Uncle Joe. But they didn’t know about Uncle Jack. Not really.

Uncle Joe pressed a ten shilling note into my hand as he left, and his girlfriend winked at me and laughed so you could see her teeth and her breasts wobbled a bit and her heels click-clacked on the pavement and she set off a tiny seismic reaction in my pre-adolescent loins. I can still feel it. Just about.

Perhaps Uncle Joe was the life that Uncle Jack thought of when he seemed so detached. That’s what crossed my mind back then. But it turned out it wasn’t. No way. And it was all so self-congratulatory. Bragging rights. Tales of derring-do and heroics.

And Uncle Jack took no part. He’d been in the Merchant Navy, never fired a gun in anger, had it easy – so the family myth ran. Had a cushy war. An easy billet. That’s what they said. Though not, in truth, as easy as my Auntie Doreen’s husband who had been in the Bahamas guarding the bleeding Duke of Windsor. Never even saw a German. Unless you count the Duke of Windsor – which I do, of course.

Words, words, words. When you’re eight you believe what you’re told. Stories.

“So Jack,” one of the others would goad, “while I was facing crack Panzer divisions, you were sailing the seven seas, a girl in every port, living the life of old Reilly.”

And Uncle Jack never responded. Never. Not a dickie bird. Only the once.

I remember it well. It must have been Christmas 1964 or ’65. Why then? Search me. He must have been drinking that night. Normally he never touched a drop. But that night he was totally pineappled. Abso-fucking-lutely pineappled. Although I had not discovered then the joy of infixing.

All I remember is his standing up, swaying a little and saying in a quiet voice,

“You lot. You don’t know nuffin. No fucking idea the lot of you. Fucking morons!”

And then he left.

And he left a silence so shocked with his outburst that it wasn’t broken until Auntie Rita struck up the opening chords of ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and we all sang lustily.

After that Uncle Jack did not come to the gatherings until next Easter, preferring to stay alone every Sunday in his flat.

Another piece of the jigsaw. But at the time it was just something that happened. Something I observed. And it became, inexorably, a family story.

We didn’t do feelings back then. The English. Or at least we didn’t do public feelings. That was somehow un-British. As bad as giggling in church. Or swearing in front of children. Peeing in the font. Talking at Sunday lunch. So my parents never commented on Jack’s outburst. Never remarked on it to me, though I did overhear my mother in our kitchen say to my father that Uncle Jack was a funny bugger, wasn’t he, and do you remember that look on his face when we told him we were going on holiday to Spain?

Life just went on in our complacent little world.

As I got older and started meandering through my teens, I started, by a sort of accident, to spend more time with Uncle Jack. He lived close to us; I was the eldest, the geeky, bookish one and the noise from my younger brothers and sisters led me to seek sanctuary in his flat where I could work on homework undisturbed. And, I suppose, we had a lot in common. A bit of a loner. Iconoclastic. A word I would learn about and love in the sixth form. But that word and solving the mystery of Uncle Jack were many years in the future on the evenings and weekends when I lugged my bursting school satchel round to his place and set to work.

Uncle Jack’s flat was spartan, bare, but immaculately neat. He had books which I leafed through on Saturday mornings when he was busy, but no ornaments. Only three pictures. Black and white – from when the world was simpler. They were no-one I recognized. One showed a sailor on the deck of a ship covered in ice and snow, looking off into the distance – a blank of sea and cloud. His grin the only sign of life all around; chunks of ice floated in the water around the ship. The second showed a young woman with shortish dark hair and big, soul-filled eyes. She wore a smile that breathed life and warmth into you if you gazed long enough into her eyes. She stood, frozen in a time I didn’t recognize. She wore a rough uniform of some sort, but with no badges or insignia. A military-looking leather battle top, the buttons undone at the top, so you could see her skin and the initial swelling of her breasts. Behind her a few straggly trees. A forest. Looked foreign. Well – it didn’t look like South London, put it that way. The third showed the dark-haired girl alongside her blonde doppelganger. They were grinning broadly for the camera and cradled in their arms, lovingly, like two fatal babies of death, long rifles which looked like they were designed for hunting. Which in a way, I now know, they were.

And as I gazed into that woman’s eyes – woman’s? She looked like a girl. Not much older than me – I did not know that it would be her eyes and their solemn, laughing gaze that would lead to me being here today – sipping coffee in a café in a city on the River Volga.

Stories. You believe it all when you’re eleven. All the myths, the lies, the stuff they tell you about the stuff they want to keep dark. Words, words, words, maya edinstvenniya.

So how did Uncle Jack spend his free time? Not sure, to tell the truth. Cross my heart and hope to die. Truth. Just words.

He read a lot – I know that. And he was also the reason I had the third best stamp collection in my year at primary school. He’d give them to me in a brown paper envelope – not steamed off or anything but torn off their original envelopes. And they were from all over the place. Spain. Germany. France. Australia.

“Still got mates in the merchant, ain’t I, kid?”

Words, stories – you believe anything when you’re ten. Or eight. I still have a tendency to believe now, at fifty-four. Hope. Faith. Love. The eternal quest.

Turned out, in the end, that Uncle Jack knew everything. I knew nothing – despite all those years of coming top of the class in the weekly general knowledge tests. And, although I’m enjoying this coffee and can spell iconoclastic, I still know nothing.

Mind you, I knew more than some. I remember a school trip up West to the Commonwealth Institute and standing with John Baxter, my best mate, looking at a huge wall map of the world. And John wouldn’t have it that Britain was Britain. On the map.

“Gerroff. We’re an important country – not that poky little island.”

Oh, John – nothing stays the same, my friend. Nothing. There’s nothing you can count on. Except that it’ll be gone. Oh, John. Where did you get to, mate? I lost you along with my stamp collection somewhere down the road. But John’ll be back soon, sunshine. Soon.

And the only obvious thing Uncle Jack spent his money on was football. And books. From the age of eight every other Saturday he took me up the Lane. He used to open at six on Saturday mornings and shut up shop at twelve and then it was the number 49 to London Bridge and change to a number 55 which said Leyton on its board but we got off at Seven Sisters and it was then a tramp up the Tottenham High Road. One of the poorest places in England. Even poorer than the Old Kent Road. Poorer than the North - no matter what they tell you. The streets awash with navy blue and white on match days.

Those days at White Hart Lane. Formative. Words. Where I learnt to swear. Learnt the big words somewhere else.

I worked hard at school. Because it was expected. But there were only three things that really held my interest. Books and sport and stamps. Until I was twelve and then it was books and sport and women. The stamps got lost along the way. And none of these was rationed for years after the war. Unlike just about everything else. Except women. They were to remain a mysterious unexplored dark heart of Africa and where-on-earth-really-is-the-Hindu-sodding-Kush for a while. And they still are. Even today. Especially today. And still rationed it seems.

Books and sport have held their sway. And books about sport – don’t get me started.

Stamps – my introduction to the world. Must have been six. Big kid comes up to me in the playground and says to me:

“I hear you collect stamps.”

I nodded.

“Can I add to your collection?”

“Yes, please.”

And with that he stomped with all his power on my foot. I didn’t cry. Not like Uncle Jack anyway. Seems like I’ve been crying ever since though. Inside. Well, inside mainly. But not today. Not today. Please don’t let me cry today. Not even if I’m happy.

Books were easy. A cinch. Piece of cake. Piece of piss. Books I could do. Comics had started it, I spose. ‘The Victor’ mainly – where I read strips that appeared to show me how my male family members had won the war. You believe anything when you’re twelve. I’d consumed all the things you were expected to read. Swallows and Amazons. Sherlock Holmes. Biggles. Wind in the Willows. The Famous Sodding Five. Words, words, stories – two a penny.

You know, The Wind in the Willows is another reason I’m here now, I spose. Though it’s mainly down to Jack. I hated that book. Still do. What was I when I first read it? Eight? Nine? Whatever. I liked Ratty and Moley and Badger. What I loved about it was that when the weasels and the stoats took over Toad Hall it was just the best thing I’d ever read. The weasels and stoats were so cool. Beyond cool. Coolatastic. The very zenith of coolocity. The peak of coolocitude. Sick, as Talha Ahmed would say. I spent several days walking down the Old Kent Road doing what I thought was my best weasel impersonation. I imagined a whole gang of us weasels going up the Lane and watching the Gooners getting stuffed. Taking over Highbury – now the Emirates, of course. See – everything changes.

But you know how it ends. The weasels and stoats get chucked out and Toad gets his ancestral home back. And that really upset me. And by my early teens it got up my nose. Then it got my goat. Then it hacked me off and pissed me off and fucked me off, until finally, as I got to know more words, it offended my aesthetic sensibilities. Still does. Toad-tosser. Toad cunt. You don’t see that species on wildlife documentaries.

Words, words, words. Stories. At least The Wind in the Willows taught me not to believe all stories. And, while it still annoys me, I now know that it’s all an allegory and the weasels are the working class and their defeat is inevitable because Kenneth Graeme was a closet fascist whose fictive narratives were designed to reinforce the values of the bourgeoisie. Or the élite. Take your pick, sunshine. Take your bleeding pick. So while most things change – Highbury becoming the Emirates – The Wind in the Willows has the enduring ability to annoy me. And the posh-boy spawn of the toad-tosser keep getting elected.

And the one thing Uncle Jack had was books. Thousands of them. Like in the film Zulu where someone runs up to Michael Caine and says:

“Zulus, sir.”

“How many?”

“Thousands of ’em.”

Stories. Words. You can’t do without them. But, actually, if you want to get technical, and I almost always do want to get technical, maya dorogaya – then nowhere in the film does that exchange occur. It’s just words, mate.

And, paradoxically, you probably can do without books. Stories are different. We all need stories. Stories are where we live. Stories to tell. Stories to live in.

Except Uncle Jack really did have lots of books. Which was another reason to hang round his flat of a weekend.

Anyway, what I can’t pin down exactly was where Sherlock Holmes became Hamlet, and Dr Watson Winston Smith, but it happened somewhere back down the road. Where Biggles was exchanged for Phillip Pirrip. And Ginger for Ivan Denisovich. And Ratty and Moley for Humbert Humbert.

I do know Uncle Jack had a big butcher’s hand in it somehow. I remember because for my thirteenth birthday he gave me a copy of Animal Farm. It’s in my suitcase back at the hotel.

“You want to read about animals? That’s the real deal, my son. Better than that Toad any day of the week.”

And that was just the start. Read all of Orwell. Everything. And I found a copy of Homage to Catalonia on Uncle Jack’s shelf. Read it in a day. Read Solzhenitsyn and then – irony of ironies – borrowed Lolita from the local library at Greenwich cos the librarian, knowing my interest in Solzhenitsyn, said would I like to read another Russian émigré? Beautiful, bleeding beautiful.

You like Guinness and Riverdance – you’ll love Finnegan’s Wake! Go on – have a read! You’ll love it! Seen the film?

Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past those wankers at Disney to try.

Words. They can really get to you. Really really really. Got Dr Zhivago in my pocket now. On my Kindle. We never saw those coming, did we? Kindles? When I was a little kid we were all going to be living in lunar colonies, being moon farmers and using the special powers of moon rock to grow the food that feeds the world that reads the papers that tell us shit like that, mate. And all the rest of the smoke and mirrors they use to keep the truth dark and to tell us a different story.

Like John Baxter and the Lane, we’ll be seeing more of books a little further down the road.

Sport was less easy. Easy to play. Less easy to understand. I remember my mum waking me in the night in 1963 to whisper to me that she’d just heard on the radio that Spurs had won the Cup Winners’ Cup. Athletico Madrid. 5 – 1. Easy. And I remember almost not watching the World Cup Final in ’66 because Alf Ramsey hadn’t picked Jimmy Greaves and we were a Spurs house before we were anything else and Greaves was our God and my dad almost willing West Germany to do us over good and proper. Plus we didn’t like the way England played – too reminiscent of Arsenal. And my mum going shopping in Lewisham High Street that afternoon and not knowing the result until she got in and her not wanting to be in because my dad used to shout and swear at the telly – honest to God, I bet they heard him in Wembley – and she bought me a book – one of the Jennings series and that set me off on another false trail. I was still in the Biggles and Swallows and Amazon period and just looking for some words to hang my dreams on. Christ! Biggles! Swallows and Amazons! Jennings! Toad! Wankers. Word wankers. Word-wanking mind-weasels.

Stories, stories – just words. Until you realize you’re living a story. And you’re telling stories. But with no control of the plot. The destination. The final score. The denouement. Our finale. What larks!

And, what’s worse, you have to use words. To tell stories, I mean. The irony.

Everyone knows about ’66. Looking back, isn’t it obvious? Of course, the third goal never crossed the line – I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. But if you’re England playing West Germany in the World Cup Final a mere twenty–one years after the end of the Second World War, what country would you want to provide the referee and linesmen other than the Soviet Union? And the ref and the linesman were in their forties.

Remember the political commissars who, if captured, were routinely doused in petrol for the fun of seeing them burned alive? Remember Stalingrad, moy droog? Remember the siege of Leningrad, maya kamrad? Remember the Red Army soldiers who were used before the Jews to check that the gas chambers at Auschwitz worked, moy tovarishch? Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens dead.

Of course, the ball was clearly over the line. You could tell it was going to be clearly and inevitably over the line on the morning of January 27th, 1945 – twenty-one years before Geoff Hurst kicked the bleeding thing.

Words, words, words. Stories.

Words – you have to be careful with them. And women. I’ve learnt that much. And Uncle Jack had learnt it too. Words and other people can make or break you, maya padrooga.

There’s so much you don’t understand about the world when you are little. Why did the opposition fans hiss at the Spurs fans in lulls and quiet stretches in our own singing? I now know why they hiss a deafening stream of toxic gas, and I’m reminded of the bloke who thought it so funny to add to my stamp collection.

I said twelve with women, but I probably lied. I do that a lot. As you will see. I know Debbie Chapman told me at playtime at primary school how to make a baby. Sounded very queer and would have put me right off except Janet Taylor, one of the twins, told me that Debbie was wrong. Which was a relief. Of sorts. The Taylor twins were exceptionally beautiful, real tasty treats, walking ice-cream with strawberry sauce running down the sides - and even at the age of eight we would drop our pens ‘by accident’ in order to scrabble around on the floor for the chance to sneek-sneak a quick treat-peek up their skirts, our eyes travelling up their perfect pre-pubescent thighs to see that triangle of navy blue regulation school knickers. They were lovely. The Taylor twins, not the knickers. Janet and Karen Taylor – tripping and tootling and titillating off the tip of my tongue perfectly in their tempting, trochaic synchronicity. Often wonder where they got to. The Taylor twins, not the knickers. Hope they are happy. And loved. I hope they have a good story to tell.

And Yvonne Atkins. I will never forget her. I suppose you could call her my first love. We had spent the whole of the last year at primary school catching each other in games of kiss-chase in the playground and I walked her home and struggled to carry her satchel. She had dark brown hair and huge eyes a boy could be lost in and a wide, expressive mouth, and I could make her laugh. I used words to make her laugh. And crazy dancing.

“Look, Yvonne, look! Only I can walk backwards and talk and dance at the same time while clinging to the earth with my special powers, despite my anti-gravity trousers.”

Yvonne would laugh, although I don’t think she believed me entirely. I was always fluent in high-sounding gibberish.

And then – our last term before big school - must have been July – it was steaming hot, humid, clammy – that clothes-stick-to-your-flesh heat that you get in London and you know the day will end in some spectacular thunderstorm with huge gobs of rain, when Gloria Smith came up to me just after the start of lunch in the playground and said,

“Come with me. Yvonne’s got something she wants to show you.”

So I went. Indoors. Up the stairs. Pushed into the girls’ bogs. And there she lay – Yvonne – stark naked. And I stared at something I hadn’t seen on that world map, transfixed by the dark triangle where her thighs met, where the whiteness of her legs became a fuzzy black. An unknown peninsula. Unexplored promontories. My pre-pubescent Hindu Kush. I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know the right word.

“Touch me if you like, Tommy – it might be fun.”

And walking home that night to her house we kissed. It was like an angel had put her hands on me and let me taste heaven – but this angel had no wings and wore no knickers. Oh, so young. Me, I mean. Not Yvonne.

That was Thursday. On Friday Yvonne went home from school in the morning. She had a very bad headache. By Sunday morning she was dead. Brain haemorrhage. I didn’t know until Monday morning. School assembly. All of us in tears. Gloria howling some primitive animal noise. I stood speechless. No words.

Don’t kiss too many angels, Tommy. They die.