I had a perfectly conventional childhood, though it had its undercurrents. Listening into adult conversations, complete contempt for authority and being obsessed with telly and radio might not be much of a hobby, much less the basis of a promising career. But … that was me as a child.
I skipped being a baby and went straight to teenager, and just waited for everyone to catch up. Except they didn’t. No-one noticed I was a teenager in a toddler’s body. They all just thought I was a contrary little sod.
I used to eavesdrop on my parents’ conversations whenever I thought they were holding onto “good information.” Which was most nights. Whispering was no use. I had sonic ears. Anytime a holiday postcard plopped down on the mat, I got to it first. Anything in a sealed envelope that had someone else’s name on the front was a massive disappointment. Particularly if it couldn’t be steamed open over a kettle and unobtrusively re-sealed.
I just liked knowing things other people didn’t know I knew. It could be the simple rustle of Christmas presents being wrapped through several walls in a house made of solid sandstone. Or just casually sliding a glass tumbler up to the lounge door to catch Miami Vice after everyone thought I was tucked up in bed. I did all this at constant risk of someone swinging the door open in my face at anytime. (They never did.)
I also liked knowing things before other people did. And telling them. Because having found out what was going on, I was compelled to share it.
When I was four, I discovered there was no Santa Claus. No magic key. Zilch-o. But I did the decent thing and spilled the exclusive to all the children in our block of tenement flats, ensuring my mother was ex-communicated from all coffee mornings. Forever.
That was nothing compared with two years later. I badgered her to tell me how babies were made and promptly re-told same facts in a booming, Messianic David Attenborough style, to my wide-eyed audience. Some grimly ignored me and carried on playing with the Barbie caravan; others ran out the door crying saying I was making it up. A recurrent “shoot the messenger” leitmotif of my life. This savage shooting-down of this messenger would push most normal kids down. Not me. Undeterred, I knew I needed to cultivate my other passions if I was going to make it as a journalist. But how? The only other thing I was really good at, apart from eating, was staring at people. A cardinal sin, particularly for anyone British.
Long after I’d decided staring at people, sizing them up and wondering what they were thinking was even “a thing”, the Orwellian term “people watching” came into vogue. I suppose I should be grateful it did, as it gave me the social cover I never knew was necessary until then.
Later, as a teen, the two biggest things in my life were story-telling, and Einstein’s injunction to ‘remember your humanity and forget the rest.’ Which might explain why I had several dozen pen-pals by the time I started high school. When my parents signed up to international aid agencies to sponsor impoverished Third World children, I was thrilled. Not just because this was a hand-up to young people in real need. But because I was tasked with receiving and opening the mail – with the added bonus, I could dispense with the furtive business of opening it over a boiling kettle.
Along the way, I got to correspond with many of those young people from around the globe, hear their stories and of course, tell them.
I haven’t stopped listening to and telling people’s stories, since.