Life consisted entirely of small economies
|Steven McPherson @ Itch/|
Geoff Dyer remembers the poverty and pleasures of a being an only child @ Threepenny Review.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.
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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.)read more