I wrote two weeks ago about the potency of photographs and now I've been and gone and found one that has all but knocked me flat.
I'm cleaning out my study prior to tearing down a wall and I'm trying to be ruthless. But it's hard to ditch the past.
I pull out files of stuff and boxes of paper I haven't looked at in years and which, for that very reason, I clearly don't need and won't miss, and yet . . . and yet . . . to drop them unexamined into the great black bin bag of destiny seems a dreadful step to take, so drastic and irrevocable.
It feels like binning one's life.
So every folder, every envelope has to be scanned before it heads into oblivion, in case, just in case. And of course, even the dross is fascinating: the letters, the scraps of diary, a folder of my own school reports.
"Bennett," said my teachers, almost to a man, "is making sound progress," because, when you've found the right phrase, there's no need to cast around for others. The only variation needed, as applicable, is the addition of a not. My mate Dave got a raft of nots.
And then in one of those paper folders in which photos came back from the chemist's, a little colour snap, perhaps three inches square, taken by an Instamatic camera in 1973. I was 16. And how.
Boots with heels, flared purple trousers, a purple polo-neck sweater, a necklace chain of some description worn outside that sweater, and a hat. A hat! I never wore a hat. But for a photograph, to make a pose, I wore a hat.
My hair is shoulder length, its colour ginger, no, not ginger, tangerine. The fringe is all but in my eyes.
I'm posing in the back garden of the family home. Behind me a scrap of lawn scattered with leaves, then the flank of the house next door belonging to genial Bill McGill, a pensioner who didn't say or do a lot but drive his big old Rover to and from the Hassocks Hotel.
In my right hand is an old split cricket bat. My left hand rests on the black plastic saddle of a Mobylette, my first and unforgotten little motorbike, a feeble thing that needed help from the pedals up hill but that represented liberty as nothing has since, except perhaps a passport.
These details are poignant only for me. But the point of the photo is the sixteenness. We have all been 16.
At 16 the end of childhood becomes visible. You've turned puberty's corner. You could, astonishingly, have children of your own. Your body's bung full of juice. And yet there's innocence there, as well.
The youth in this photo is far more boy than man, a boy playing dress-up, in flares and hair he hopes are shocking but are actually the uniform of his crowd.
The wish is to make an impression, to convey a sense of identity, but the grub within the clothes is still unformed, still malleable, still undecided.
There's a famous photograph at a similar age of Laurie Lee as he set out from his home in southwest England to walk to London and begin his adult life.
Lee wrote like an angel that's been at the honey. "…from the long empty face," he said of the youth in the photo, "gaze a pair of eggshell eyes, unhatched." That's it, exactly, unhatched.
Sixteen. It's the age I always found most rewarding to teach, the age of in-between, the age of forging an identity, of trying on selves, of seeing who you are and whether it tallies with who you want to be.
Of falling hopelessly in love. Of grunting sullenness and soaring elation. Of peaks and troughs on the emotional graph that rise higher and plunge lower than at any other time in your life.
At 16 you look out over the future, not as a path ahead, but as a landscape through which to forge a path. The choices are limited only by your nature and your courage, which are much the same thing.
Now, almost half a century later, the unknown future has become the known past. The choices have been made, the path, such as it is, forged.
The self is long since settled on, the nature known, and none of it is any longer negotiable. I stared at the photo long and long, as Whitman stared at animals. And I didn't clean out my study.