The Boy Who Walked
By Nick O'Hara
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
To look at them is to be transported back to two decades of memories they carried me through: a view out across Yosemite Valley to Half Dome; the hordes of Marrakesh's Jemaa el-Fnaa; red Himalayan Magnolia in Sikkim; the Bedouin’s handsome German Shepherd in Wadi Rum. All told, five continents and everywhere in-between.
Cleaned up for posterity and self-indulgent nostalgia, leather shimmers like the first autumn conker, polished one final time upon retiring them. Thin cracks like veins form a maze of tiny capillaries, betraying twenty years of use, and intermittent care in earlier years. On the left boot a hole pierces through the inner lining; a long tear penetrates the rubber join to the sole. The toe’s shiny outer coating is worn away, revealing a softer brown hue, card-like to the touch.
My Brasher walking boots were a graduation present from my father, in the year 2000. They served me well through mountain trails and even steeper travails through tumultuous early adulthood. They carried me into early middle age – well beyond their prime and, perhaps, mine. I clung to them, until it no longer felt disloyal to replace them.
One memory, above all, is forever etched into their leather: Udaipur, Rajasthan – a highlight of a six-month trip to India which quenched my thirst for Mughal history and architecture, with the addition of Rajput added for good measure. Like so many other Indian cities, Udaipur was a bustling hive of colour and chaos. Noisy cargo on motorised and manual carts went nowhere fast on dirt-dust streets thronged with humanity and freely-roaming livestock. Sari-clad women beat garments clean on the ghats of Lake Pichola. Privileged westerners like me, with varying degrees of self-awareness, marvelled at it all.
Upon arrival in Udaipur, my then girlfriend and I visited the Monsoon Palace (Sajjan Garh Palace), perched on the high hilltop overlooking the city. Maharaja Sajjan Singh, fascinated by the astronomical realm, had wanted to glimpse the world that lay above the clouds. He commissioned the building as an observatory; however, this was cancelled with his untimely death in 1884, aged just 25 (coincidentally my age when I visited). The white marble structure became an extravagant residence instead, eventually providing the location for Kamal Khan’s residence in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy.
By rickshaw, we climbed the snaking mountain road and reached the palace’s panoramic viewpoint as late afternoon light was turning. High above city and lake, an Egyptian Vulture glided warm thermals as the sky became pale crimson. Framing the peculiar large yellow bird, stretching into vast expanse, silhouettes of mountain peaks disappeared amidst dusky haze.
Life pre-Brasher boots seems like a different world. There was an unshakable optimism to those times, yet sinister darkness too. People lived segregated beneath the same clouds; they felt the same rain on their skin. Some were trapped behind authoritarian walls; others free to believe in the myth of markets, remaining trapped still to this day. A 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign advert claimed it was “Morning in America,” whilst in Wall Street Gordon Gekko told us that greed was good. Each time an adult mentioned the Cold War, I imagined distant soldiers fighting in snow.
My first glimpses of the world came through the television set. In the UK, non-BBC TV shows were interspersed with commercials often portraying gendered domestic roles to sell washing-up liquid or laundry detergent. A popular tea brand saw fit to parade monkeys in human clothes with human voiceovers, a coffee company inflicted a silly, ongoing flirtation that lasted years. Rutger Hauer moved from Blade Runner to dark Irish stout (you know the one), and then there were those Castrol GTX adverts, in which a thin stream of oil would sliver its way over the orange and green-branded can, or through engine tubes, accompanied by rather ominous music and narration from a classically trained Shakespearian actor.
Mine was an unremarkable childhood: divorce, state schools and – initially – suburbia. I was born a stone’s throw from Fratton Park’s floodlights, which towered over Victorian shoebox rows housing working-class dreams. James Callaghan was British Prime Minister, himself born in the same city some 66 years previously – one of only a few truly notable people born in my hometown. Most famous of all: Charles Dickens; and the great civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Almost a hundred years ago, Peter Sellers – star of The Goon Show and Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther – was born on the corner of Castle Road, by Southsea Common, in a flat above what has been the Mayfair Chinese restaurant for as long as I can remember. Nowadays my father and stepmother live a short walk from there. When I visit, with us each wearing our walking boots, we pass it on our strolls through neat cobbled streets with history at every turn. We go to Old Portsmouth, looping around fishing boats in Camber Dock, inhaling salty air and fruit de mer, accompanied by a symphony of seagull chatter. Down the high street, the view from The Point across the harbour takes in Gunwharf Quays and Spinnaker Tower; behind it the tall masts of ancient warships spanning Tudor and Victorian days of Britannia past. Back above the Hot Walls, often leaning into strong Solent gusts, we witness maritime movement and the Isle of Wight beyond. We pass Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson’s statue and the roofless old Garrison Church. I always look up to see Sellers’s blue plaque adorning the wall of the narrow corner townhouse.
Portsmouth was recently proclaimed the UK’s ‘second coolest city’ by travel blog Nomads Nation. Quite an accolade for the deprived south coast town I knew. Both culturally and architecturally, with seemingly endless rows of old terraced houses, the city could be described as ‘East London … by sea.’ The local accent lacks the almost west-country twang found in neighbouring Southampton and the New Forest National Park, because Portsmouth was infiltrated by cockneys who migrated there for its naval and dockyard jobs, bringing distinctive characterful tones and tough edges. Southsea, ‘my’ neighbourhood, is more akin to Clapham South. The blog noted a con – ‘nightlife can be a bit intimidating.’ Some things don’t change.
However, I was only a weekend visitor in my early years. My home was 10 miles west in Titchfield. Our little village by the River Meon, dating back to the Sixth Century, was known locally for its medieval abbey and for the major cultural event each year coinciding with the Michaelmas half term: the Titchfield Carnival. Started in 1880, the annual fixture brought unrivalled excitement and buzz to our young lives. A funfair rolled in to the edge of the village for the weekend, though I think the Carnival parade was only on one day. Everything was organised by a local committee called the Titchfield Bonfire Boys, and attracted tens of thousands. People crammed three or four deep onto tiny pavements along the village’s narrow Elizabethan streets to watch the procession of floats, each with its own sound system and displays of varying degrees of impressiveness. Amidst music, everything buzzed: chatter and hum of fast-food van motor fans, the waft of frying onions hitting the sinuses. A milestone event each time was the Carnival Queen competition, with a local teenage girl being crowned by a hired celebrity. One year through the crowd we glimpsed Leslie Crowther, host of TV game show The Price is Right, sprinkling stardust on our village.
The parade happened twice on Carnival Day, before the sky turned dark as crowds flocked to the fair for fireworks and the huge bonfire. Flashing colours danced off the gleaming eyes of kids talking double-speed, bouncing and hopping, tugging the arms of laughing parents. We overindulged on candyfloss, popcorn and an assortment of chocolate fudge and other treats which tantalisingly sweet-scented the air; and didn’t seem to exist anywhere else outside of that long-weekend in October. I never got through more than a third of a toffee apple before being defeated, at each attempt, year upon year.
Two summers before my father gave me the Brashers, I started my second year of university as an exchange student in San Francisco – on a campus where, 30 years earlier, Joan Didion had gone to watch a revolution. A quarter of a century on, I still salivate thinking of my first five-dollar burrito at La Taqueria on Mission Street, the afternoon I arrived. Released a few days later, tracks from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sizzled everywhere for a semester, wafting like kitchen fumes from every available vent: dorm rooms, wound-down car windows, store fronts.
San Francisco began to feel like home, though giraffe-neck palm trees served as a regular reminder of its foreignness. When I opened my mouth, my own foreignness spilled out: and people were far more receptive than they’d ever been back home. San Francisco was exotic to me, and I to it. That period was so formative, and for many years I had recurring dreams of leaning pine umbrellas on steep inclined streets; of wooden Victorian treasure boxes with little bay windows overhanging faded concrete sidewalks which sloped down, eventually, to blue sea. I longed to return, believing I had, in fact, left my heart in San Francisco.
In The White Album, Didion wrote: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Her words bring to mind the groups that have claimed and shaped San Francisco, each time remaking it anew in their image. I try to picture the energy sparked at Six Gallery the night Allen Ginsberg rose to give the first public reading of Howl. Alongside Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder et al, Ginsberg fashioned a new cultural landscape, collective and enduring. Those Beat Generation poets ignited such subversive fervour in the 1950s that, seventy years on, a sense of deference to conventional norms has still not returned to the city by the bay. They paved the way for young hippies to ‘drop out’ in Haight-Ashbury a decade later, which then created a safe environment for homosexuals from across America to flock to in the 1970s, establishing a community in the Castro where you could come out and live free. Maybe Didion’s quote is never truer than when applied to San Francisco.
When I eventually made it back to the city, after an absence of almost six years, my dreams were shattered. Before, it had been a city of future, of personal discovery, where I could create a path to anywhere I desired to go. Now it was my past. I no longer burned with ambitions quite so bright or big; I’d discovered the promise that ‘anything is possible’ was a lie.
I felt aching loss: aside from my best friend from that time, Yvette, revisiting the old haunts with me, I’d lost touch with the other friends we’d been close to. Being pre-social media, we couldn’t look them up. There was no Vince and Rishi to ‘smoke-out’ with, Kyla had moved to Brooklyn. It taught me that places are brought to life, given meaning, through the people we experience them with and the moments we create together. Very seldom do we realise what we are creating in real-time, but only upon later reflection … sometimes holding old boots.
In two subsequent decades I haven’t returned, unable to face the possibility that the magic it still holds deep within me might once more not be rekindled, disappointing me all over again.
Perhaps the meaning of a place can be understood as a simple equation: place = people + moment. But memories of eerie yet reassuring fog drifting in from the Pacific through the Golden Gate, silently creeping to hide the red tops of the bridge, suggest there is more to consider. People + moment alone doesn’t fully explain what shapes a place, nor what inspires those people to create those defining moments.
Those early years in Titchfield village were fairly inauspicious. We lived in a small, modern three-bedroom terraced house in an estate called Garstons Close – an early 1970s development of modest brick houses, laid out neatly in crescents and cul-de-sacs, as was popular in British suburban design at that time. It was a fairly smart development, set out with small lawns, fern trees and concrete driveways large enough for one car. Amongst wild mint and other shrubs, a profusion of alba cortaderia selloana pampas grass dotted the estate.
Not long out of their naval marriage quarters, my parents had bought the house in 1974 and were its second occupants. There was an integrated garage, roughly half of which protruded in front of the rest of the house adjoining the garage next door, above which a long sloping roof with a white dormer window housed the main bedroom. There was a small wooden and glass cubicle porch, entering into a pass-through living room extending the full length of the house, which was not very long at all. To the left, at the rear, a little kitchen looked out onto a small garden.
The living room was of its time: brown carpet, mustard walls, golden soft felt three-seater settee and matching armchair, finished with tassel trim edging. Dark-green felt curtains completed an interior style nobody would choose nowadays. An extendable oval teak dining table at the far end of the room was accompanied by a matching sideboard my mother still has today. It might even fetch a few quid as a retro piece, and has been well maintained down the years, including a spell when part of my weekly chores was to polish it.
Garstons Close had a sufficient number of similar-aged children who could go outside their houses on any given day to find a ready supply of playmates. We polluted largely traffic free roads with our bicycles and shouting – for children on bicycles on housing estates do not simply talk to one another. There were lots of rusty old budgies, choppers, grifters and drifters, and as the decade reached its middle the BMX and curved handlebar racers had become all the rage.
Our parents were perfectly relaxed about us being outside for hours on end, not needing to know our exact whereabouts. I suppose they knew enough people in the area that their children were never more than a few phone calls away from being located. It was too modest an environment to be overly romanticised in recollection, but Mum had some good friends on that estate – especially Cathy Redrupp, with her boys Dominic and Daniel, who were close in age to my sister and me.
In recent years I’ve dreamt of Garstons Close, of turning back time.
They were different, more innocent times … but every generation says that about the past. Maybe, in reality, it’s only the younger version of ourselves that are more innocent. When we reminisce on childhood days, the harsher edges of the times themselves are easily obscured by our candyfloss memories.
The right boot has a hole and tear virtually identical to the left. Looked at from behind, the soles wear away in mirror images of each other. The inner side is intact on each, but they slope outwards to nothing, evidencing my irregular walking gait.
It dawns on me that they represent not merely a portal to my past; these old boots are part looking glass, conveying a reflection of me. They’re also a material connection to my father, to joyful memories of him … and of long periods staring out of windows.
As I hold them, a question emerges: should we return to the places of our past, or are they better preserved in our memory?
When I was three years old my parents separated, divorcing not long afterwards without the need for lawyers to be involved. Dad moved out to rent a room in a shared house in Southsea, taking the white Fiat Panorama Estate, with its excessive rust around the windows and wheel arches, with him. When he came at weekends to collect my sister – Alix – and me, he would take us straight out for lunch somewhere in car journeys enriched by the folkish poetry of Paul Simon and Don McLean.
During the week I would speak to Dad on the phone at least once, often for more than an hour. I always ended our calls with the same words, “I love you with all of my heart, and I always will.” I missed him so much during the week, I yearned for him.
He became a figure of great curiosity for me. I knew him as a weekend fun person who took us to Marwell Zoo or Paultons Park, singing his beloved Elvis songs, providing anecdotes about his heroes Muhammed Ali and George Best. On a July Sunday in 1988, alongside our stepmother, he took us and our stepsiblings on the most important outing of our childhood: to march across London to Hyde Park, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the headline speaker at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Rally. I was nine years old and, from that day onwards, knew I was part of something far bigger than myself. When I returned home, I felt out of place.
Dad would tell us how the Navy had provided for him so much that his poor Catholic Belfast upbringing had not. He spoke fondly about his shift to social work and the senior colleagues who had taken him under their wing, later regretting he had left social services at all. He described the exciting new realm he’d entered during his heady psychotherapy training days at the Metanoia Institute in Ealing. He would recite, verbatim, passages from The Prophet, and slip into a psychobabble that would sometimes make me cringe – and nowadays makes him cringe. Oftentimes we would reach our destination, in those car journeys, only for Dad, Alix and I to remain for several minutes, the engine turned off, as he continued to impart insight to us two little souls, totally in rapture to our beloved daddy. He encouraged us to think on matters of great significance and formulate views. To this day, I don’t recall my father ever telling me I was wrong … nor that I should agree with him.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Those were uplifting times with Dad and Alix. He created a sanctuary for the three of us in which we could truly be ourselves. And yet, there remained an enigmatic quality to him. Lean, a mid-length mop of brown hair without parting, always wearing jeans. To me, he resembled an Irish Dustin Hoffman figure living through a real-life, though less dramatic, version of Kramer vs. Kramer. He was something of a ‘New Age Man.’ I wondered what he was like on a Monday morning when he got up for work, or when he returned from work on a Wednesday evening. My father was, on one level, a mystery to me.
Our weekends together were bittersweet. Sunday night always came, bringing with it gut-wrenching sadness as he dropped Alix and me off in Titchfield and departed back for Portsmouth, leaving us to navigate the week feeling his loss.
A ritual developed in which we would wave him off from my bedroom window. Dad would try to lighten our mood by prancing around the front garden, Michael Palin and John Cleese rolled into one, entertaining us one final time for that weekend. Obscuring himself behind one of two front lawn fern trees, his right arm and leg would emerge to form a scissor motion, fanning in and out, in a fashion that surely would have qualified for the Ministry of Silly Walks if incorporated into forward, or sideways, motion. Then the moment we dreaded, but knew was coming, that never got any easier, arrived. By the time his hand was reaching to open the car door we were bawling our eyes out, every time he departed. I look back on it and think about what it was like for our mother, inheriting two young inconsolable children just before bedtime. I think about what it must have been like for him, driving off and leaving us. Whether his heart also felt like it was shrinking.
Garstons Close provided a support network, and for a while Cathy Redrupp and another neighbour-friend, Pam Merritt, used to give my mother Daniel Redrupp’s and Mike Merritt’s outgrown clothes. Though, like Danny, Mike was two years older than me, he wasn’t bigger, and his clothes were often too small. But we were grateful. I wondered whether our receipt of those hand-me-downs was a result of my parent’s divorce; whether that’s what children of divorce inevitably got. Either way, and not because of the charity, I vowed that when I grew up, I would get married and never divorce my wife.
Eventually, I couldn’t bear being away from him, and on the Good Friday of 1991, I went to live with Dad. In making one selection in a binary choice, a zero-sum, we are forced to reject the other option – even though we may not, in fact, want to reject anything at all. Whilst it is true to say that I needed to escape what was by then a difficult home environment, the overriding reason had probably always made the move inevitable. I just wanted my dad. But I never wanted to reject my mother. My throat tightens and eyes well up even now, more than 30 years on, as I reflect on that event.
On the Easter Sunday, two days after I had moved in with him, Dad drove me back to my mother’s house. I rang the doorbell and my stepfather answered, ashen-faced, and without saying a word, motioned for me to enter. I soon realised the reason for his silence, walking in to find my mother and sister sobbing uncontrollably. I was 12 years old and had caused such pain. It was the price I paid for getting to see what my father was like first thing on a Monday morning before work, and what he was like on a Wednesday evening when he returned home from his day. The memory of guilt has never left me.
A few months before the COVID tsunami struck, Dad and I visited Titchfield – my first time back in 25 years – during the most earth-shattering moment in my life. I had a seven-month-old son across the Atlantic whom I’d not met, nor even been shown a photograph of. I was preparing to petition to divorce the woman blocking access to him.
The visit proved to be a homage to the past, a homage to nostalgia itself. It revived Dad’s memories of seventies early married life; for me an eighties childhood.
We arrived and donned our boots. Almost twenty years old, my beloved Brashers were falling apart and no longer waterproof.
“You’ve still got them,” he said, smiling.
“I can’t bear to let them go.”
“But they’ve had it … let me buy you new ones.”
“Maybe next year,” I said, grinning back.
We walked East Street, South Street, saw that Barry’s Meadow was still there and that the Coach and Horses was not – another of England’s many vanished pubs. We went to St Peter’s Church so I could check that the painting of Jesus with the fishermen was still there above the entrance. The musty aroma of old pew and ancient tile was among the most evocative features of the day – like the painting, it had not changed. I gazed up at it as I had on many occasions several decades earlier, the nearest I ever got to feeling close to God, or even remotely wanting to.
Wandering through the village’s memory lanes, we were surprised at how much smaller everything had become. We walked up to Garstons Close to find that little had changed and that everything had changed, as the cliché goes. The estate looked tired, yet still felt like a haven of sorts. The pampas grass had vanished, probably too wild for more manicured contemporary tastes. Just as with each turn we had made down in the village, I could sense the ghosts: the Merritts and Redrupps and other neighbours; my late grandparents, uncles and other relatives who had visited us there; my sister and parents. Even my younger self, whose divorce pledge I was breaking.
In that moment back on that estate I wanted so desperately to have the opportunity for what Americans call a ‘do-over’ with my life. Turning away from the old house, as though on cue, I saw a small group of children riding bicycles. There was my time machine, it brought such sweet sorrow. In that moment, it felt as though everything I cherished had been disappearing all my life.
Whatever our dreams, none of us can rewind the clock. Not even a billionaire president. Trump wanted to rerun the Reagan-Gekko era of my Titchfield days – that was the offer contained within the slogan on red baseball caps, the notion underpinning his stated purpose in seeking office. Inevitably, his impossible mission of recreating the past failed.
As with San Francisco, and even Portsmouth, I felt detached returning to Titchfield. I was once, at different times, anchored to all three, absorbed into their concrete fabric. After more than two decades living in London, Berlin and Brighton, I’m now cast adrift. Reflecting on Didion’s words and the places I’ve known, I realise that I don’t belong to any of them anymore; I no longer claim them hard enough.
Eventually we come to understand the aphorisms we’ve always heard. Nothing lasts forever. If we revisit the past, maybe we shouldn’t go back wearing old boots.
Back down in the village we chatted to an elderly man who had taken an interest in the two outsiders who stood gazing at the empty old bakery, as though casing the joint. We explained our connection to the place; he didn’t recognise our surname and established that he hadn’t known us back then. He told us that funding for the village’s major event had ceased a couple of years before. The carnival was over.
 Joan Didion, The White Album
 Ibid (‘In the Islands’)
 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Nick O’Hara is a communications strategist and avid walker who splits his time between southern England and northeastern Spain. His writing has been published in Salon, The Irish Post and The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. He recently wrote and produced the docuseries podcast Gridlocked: Why the 21st Century is broken and how to fix it.