We caught the train to school every morning, a 12-minute journey south to Brighton. On the opposite platform stood commuters bound for London an hour away. This was 50 years ago and nearly all of them were men and some still wore a bowler hat and stiff old-fashioned collar. They carried newspapers and stood in little groups, or all alone and silent, each on the same spot on the platform every morning. And they seemed to me a terrible warning.
They must have been young once. Now they seemed zombies, slaves to custom, prisoners of routine. Could they not see themselves? Surely they were made for better than this? Where were their lion souls, their soaring hopes? What had worn them down?
Of course we kids were as habitual as they, but we were constrained. We had no choice but to go to school each day. We were doing time, but the moment that time was up we'd be like pigeons when the wicker basket opens. We'd soar and be gone. To what or where it didn't matter, so long as it wasn't here, wasn't this.
There were a few adults on our platform too. They didn't like to share the train with school kids. We were too loud, too loose, anarchic. Sometimes they complained to the school.
"Those boys who were on the 8.21 from Hassocks to Brighton will stay behind after assembly," and the next morning Dave Collier and I would have to seek out the complainer and pretend to be sorry and then listen to the man - it was always a man - deliver a little homily on decency or consideration.
It was a lecture from one who'd given up, who'd surrendered to convention, sold out to safety, betrayed his own boyhood and gone meekly down the path of least resistance to the grave.
I wrote revenge stories in English, stories in which a commuter, always a man, always besuited, always with a job in the city, would be subject to some threat to his routine, some untoward intrusion, his regular seat on the train taken, his crossword completed for him, an intrusion that began a long unravelling and reckoning. The last image of the story would be his wife, carrying a small, ironic present, turning in through the gates of the local lunatic asylum at visiting time.
Well now, I have just had lunch. By way of preparing it I put two slices of bread in the toaster and a wodge of butter in a frying pan and the frying pan on the hob. While the pan heated and the bread toasted I cut thin slices of ersatz parmesan.
When the toast popped I tipped two large eggs into the pan and covered them with a lid. I buttered the toast thickly, laid parmesan on top and when the yolks had turned glaucomic I slid the eggs out onto the toast and cheese. A grind of salt and pepper and then I took the plate to the kitchen bench to eat.
The whole process took eight minutes. I know so because it took eight minutes yesterday and it will take eight minutes tomorrow. Eggs on toast are what I have for lunch.
Shortly I shall go to the supermarket but first I will check that I have not dribbled egg on my Aertex shirt. If I have, I'll go to the wardrobe and choose another Aertex shirt. Aertex are the only shirts I have.
At the supermarket they will not be surprised to see me because I always go there after lunch. At the supermarket I shall go to the regular spots and pluck known brands from the shelves. Today I mean to buy some Branston pickle. It is the pickle I was brought up with. There may be far better pickle on the same shelf, but I shall buy Branston.
Days are long when you're young because they're all different. Today there's nothing much to tell tomorrow from yesterday. All is one in the wicker basket of habit.
According to Wordsworth, we come into this world 'trailing clouds of glory'. But clouds dissolve and 'shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy'.
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight
And custom hang upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life.
I first read those lines in the sixth form. Even then I noted the word almost.