I think it was for my eighth birthday that I received a pair of binoculars. They were not toy binoculars but proper grown-up binoculars, hefty, with a binoculary smell. Naturally I was very pleased with them, but I was also distracted by two items that I found in the box. The first was a small sachet of granules which ate moisture that would otherwise get inside the lenses and spoil them. I would of course go on to encounter many more of these granules over the years, in leather goods, in the packaging of gadgetry, even in drawers, but this was my first exposure to them. You never forget the first time. The idea of these moisture eating granules intrigued me, as did the thought that moisture might get inside the lenses and ruin the binoculars. Where did this moisture come from? But what fascinated me more than the granules, perhaps more than the binoculars themselves, was the other item, the five year guarantee. I was eight years old, and this felt to me like a ridiculously exuberant promise from the manufacturers, a Lifetime Guarantee in all but name, and it made me dizzy. Looking forward in time as an eight year old I was holding the binoculars the wrong way round, time stretching out impossibly in front of me. Reversing the perspective as I prepare to enter middle age, the telescopic lenses have a foreshortening effect, as, for example, I blinkingly realise that those episodes of Saturday Night Fry that I have just listened to on YouTube first entered my consciousness over half a life ago.
It is the fate of binoculars never quite to live up to the excitement that their acquisition generates. They are in this respect very much at the same end of the toy box as spy kits and invisible ink pens, or walkie-talkies, wherein their potential is never fully realisable in the eight-year-old universe. Who is to be spied on, what secrets are to be encrypted, who will hear the over-and-out? It doesn’t matter. The function of these playthings is not to be found in their use, but in the giving and the receiving, and in the first heady moments of possession.
Those childhood years of Action Man and espionage were rich and fun, but as a teenager I was deprived. Attending a school alongside fifteen hundred boys, my only exposure to girls were the tantalising glimpses through the bus or car window as the traffic inched its way up the Palatine Road, the whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. Shining with grease and spots, of course.
I was not even able to take solace in technology, as the other boys did. Our household budget somehow never stretched to one of the VCRs that were laid out, with their gaping cassette trays, in the Littlewoods catalogue. This, combined with my relative geographical isolation, meant that I was never invited to the weekend video club meetings that clustered in the outer lying suburbs, and so I was excluded from the informal education of Escape from New York, or The Life of Brian, or Porkies, and from the Monday conversations as the retelling lubricated and reinforced the social networks of the video-owning classes. I once forced my way into one of these sessions one afternoon by resolutely staying on the bus as the others talked excitedly of a trip to the video shop, and then more or less just following them home. They didn’t seem to mind, but the video that we shared was King Frat, and I always got off the bus at my own stop after that.
I was further deprived of the natural recourse of the awkward and excluded teenage male, as our house contained neither computer nor computer games console. Actually strictly speaking it had contained a ZX81, but once I had deployed the customary two line program to fill the left-hand part of the TV with my name, the device lost its novelty, and was put aside. For some reason this dipping of the toe into the lukewarm waters of early ’80s home computer did not progress into the more fruitful areas of the Spectrum, or Commodore 64, or even Atari. Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Defender were therefore holiday amusement arcade treats only, but my lack of practice meant that these machines just ate my money, and I always felt more comforted by the capitalist allegories of the coin nudging cascades.