Soo from Silk Screen Views invited me to write about my journey as a writer. When I began, I quickly discovered I could ramble on for quite some time, meandering over many topics. Here then, in an attempt at tidiness, is the first of three shorter posts I have provided to Silk Screen Views, touching on some aspects of writing in my personal life.
It was in 1968 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was nine. Pink Floyd was a group of fledglings in psychedelic outfits and The Beatles was a force that could not be stopped. Looking back from where I sit at my computer in Australia in 2013, so many sad and so many wonderful things have happened in the world since.
I was a child of Irish Catholic parents who had skipped over the British Channel in the search of work. As the family’s story goes, the textile factory my father had worked at was burnt down by the IRA. They simply crossed over on the ferry with their cases and their first two in tow. No passports. No work permits. There were five of us kids in all, two born in Dublin, the remaining three, myself included, born in a semi-detached in Luton, 30 minutes north of London by train.
I attended St Margaret’s Junior School and at the age of nine I had a teacher who read to us from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It was an extraordinary world we dipped into at the start of every school day and I did my best to imagine the astonishing images the words described. I don’t think we ever got to the end of the book.
I remember the teacher well. I’m imagining her right now. For all I know she is long deceased, living only in the memories of her past students. She was a tall woman, timelessly old and with witchy-poo reading glasses. The glasses hung about her neck on a thin, white chain. I give you this description to show I remember her. However, though she shared her love of story with us, she had little direct influence on my decision to be a writer. That claim belongs to another teacher – same school, same year. And unlike the first, this second teacher is faceless to me. But I do remember the fear she struck into all of us.
One day, the faceless teacher instructed us, a class of thirty or so, to each stand and announce what we would be when we grew up. Not what we wanted to be. What we would be. As if we could all see the future, and it was simply a matter of revealing it to the teacher and our classmates. I’d never given it a moment’s thought, of course.
As each fellow student gave their answer, the teacher’s only response was to enigmatically nod. No one was asked to elaborate on their choice and no one was given any form of affirmation. Then she would impatiently signal to should sit down again, and the next student would have to pull themselves to their feet and declare something.
There was the expected parade of occupations (expected now anyway, by me in hindsight). There were doctors, nurses, train drivers, pilots and astronauts… But there were other things as well. One girl said she was going to be a theatre actress, and a lanky boy said he would be an acrobat. Not that I ever saw any evidence of his ability in the playground.
It wasn’t a bad range of occupations from us, I guess, given most of us were working class kids from Irish migrant families with parents with little education. No one said factory worker, interestingly. Or teacher, for that matter. Or priest or nun, though we were in a Catholic school. Or mother. Apart from the actress and the acrobat, the more creative endeavors were on the downside.
I was sick to the stomach as it came closer to my turn. As it was, I never spoke up for fear of being laughed at. So I was greatly relieved when it occurred to me what I should say: I would be a gardener. A few months earlier, I’d brought home some daffodil bulbs. I’d found them in nearby Stockwood Park. There had been many, all dumped in a heap. Nobody seemed to want them. I took as many as I could manage and I planted them in our tiny front garden. Come spring, which was the time of the teacher’s interrogation about our futures, I had been amazed when they actually sprouted and blossomed. My parents were startled, as we’d never had daffodils before.
When it was my turn I stood and said, “A gardener.”
I remember how I said it, with my eyes wide, thinking of my cheerful daffodils peering through the fence and out onto the double-decker buses that shuddered up and down our road. It was like I was discovering something about myself at the same moment as I was uttering the words.
“That’s a woman’s job,” she said. For once the teacher actually responded. I suppose she’d been so taken aback by the idea that a boy would say such a thing.
My face burned with shame as I realized that I, a boy, had called out something considered a woman’s job. I was too young to see the stupidity in her statement. I felt such a fool and dearly wished I could take back the words. I forgot to sit at my desk, forcing the teacher to wave me down as she moved onto the next student.
I clearly recall thinking later about another job. Something else I could do. I’d recently read a whole book by myself and felt proud of the achievement. The book was called The Forgetful Robot and was about a lonely robot that had become lost on the moon. On the cover, the robot looked very sad and I found myself often looking at the picture.
I liked the idea of writing stories too. But this time, I kept the thought to myself.
For more information about Steven O’Connor and his work, check out his website.