My childhood was both utterly conventional and highly unusual, at the same time.
The conventional part was growing up in a textbook, nuclear family of mum, dad and two kids, in a detached house in a commuter village in Fife, Scotland. We weren’t rich, but my parents — who both grew up on Glasgow council estates and left school at 15 and 16 with few qualifications — had worked hard to afford a home of their own and the ability to take a family holiday abroad each year.
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We weren’t a political house, but we were a dutiful one. No protest marches or party memberships growing up, but a distinct sense of civic duty — voting, paying taxes and supporting the monarchy. A Daily Express through the week and a Sunday Times on the Sabbath, plus Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell on the BBC at Six o’clock, in the background while Mum made tea. Even if I hadn’t turned out to be a Conservative with a big ‘C’, I was raised in a household that was conservative with a small one.
The unusual part was that my family were rocked by the sort of private cataclysm that utterly unpins every comforting routine parents hope to build for their children. When I was five, I was hit by a truck and severely injured. I broke my leg, smashed my pelvis, crushed my femoral artery, severed the main nerve down the front of my right leg and suffered so much internal damage my mum was told I might grow up unable to have children.
I spent weeks in a specialist children’s hospital in Edinburgh, first in traction and later in a full body cast — plaster of Paris starting under my armpits and reaching my toes on one side and my knee on the other. When it was finally removed, with me screaming in fear at the circular saw, I was put on the long road back to recovery. The surgeons had saved my life and my right leg (initially it hadn’t been clear if they could rescue either) but if I were ever going to walk again, it would be only after painful months of physio, hydrotherapy and analgesics.
It is not much fun being the only child at primary school with a zimmer frame. I hated it. I hated not being able to run as fast or for as long as my classmates. I hated being told to sit out some parts of PE. I hated not being able to bend or do gymnastics or put my ankle up to my ear as most children can with the flexibility of youth. Some kids might have retreated inside themselves, become bookish or engrossed in daily newspapers, or otherwise divorced themselves from the rough and tumble they could no longer be part of.
Not me. I have a competitive streak a mile wide; I am dogged and cussed and contrary. If I couldn’t do something, then I’d just keep trying until I could. So my early childhood wasn’t about learning or engaging with the world around me — it was spent blocking out everything that didn’t immediately help me climb trees, play football, build dams down the beach, climb out my bedroom window onto the flat roof of the conservatory below or partake in a hundred other physical labours — just to show that I could. And that I could keep up, too
The world was for other people to worry about. I wanted to play with my friends, pretend I was Roberto Baggio on the football field and teach my poor dog to jump through a raised hula hoop for treats.
The thing that made me think that — maybe — the world was worth paying attention to wasn’t a speech in the House of Commons or a public debate on the state of Britain. It wasn’t Live Aid or Band Aid or a Blue Peter appeal. It wasn’t Princess Diana holding the hand of a patient with AIDS or the Lockerbie Bombing. It was something that happened a thousand miles away in a country I’d never visited.
On 9 November, 1989 — the night before my eleventh birthday — the communist government of East Germany announced they were opening the border and that future democratic elections would be held in the country. The people of East and West Berlin, watched by border guards, started dismantling the wall with picks, sledgehammers and even their bare hands. The pictures of crying, hugging and dancing on the hated barrier that had divided families, countries and a German-speaking people was immensely powerful.
I hadn’t paid any attention to similar unrest that had occurred previously in Poland or Hungary, but I somehow knew that Germany was different. That this — if not an end in itself — signified that an end was coming. I don’t know if I thought that the Berlin Wall was the iron curtain that kept ‘us’ from ‘them’ but it was clear in my head that ‘we’ — as in, the West — had won. The forces of freedom, democracy, property, individuality and fairness under the law had triumphed over a nameless, faceless communism designed to suppress the individual, impoverish the citizen and crush the human spirit.
I also knew it must be momentous because I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the specially extended Nine o’clock news.
Not long after the wall came down, I found myself dragged along to a debating competition my sister had entered through school. While the judges went off to deliberate, the floor debate took place, with the chairman inviting contributions from the audience. I’d sat next to my sister’s friends so my mum didn’t have a clue my hand had snaked up, until she heard me reedily give my first public speech, off the cuff and without notes. I’ve no idea what I said, or even what the motion had been, but in my battered black chords and a hand-me-down paisley pattern shirt, I had to correct the chairman who called me “the young gentleman” before launching into my argument.
The English teacher who ran the debating society made a mental note to look out for me when I followed my sister to secondary school the next year. My newfound interest in current affairs meant there was something other than sport I could be competitive at. And I was — all through my school and university career. Debating took me to countries I would never otherwise have seen and introduced me to people I would never otherwise have met.
While I might have gone on to play tennis for my club, football for my school and squash for my university, it was debating which saw me all the way to the world championships, into my first career as a journalist and into the job I have now.
And I would never have been confident enough to stand up and make that first floor speech at 11-years old, if the fall of the Berlin Wall hadn’t ignited my interest in world events. The fall of communism liberated more than just those under its yoke.
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