Aidan Smith: What I learned from the seven-year-old me

Aidan dreamt of joining Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the space race.
Aidan dreamt of joining Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the space race.
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Artist Steve McQueen’s bid to photograph every seven- year-old in London has left Aidan Smith feeling nostalgic.

Where is Derek Jarvis who could pierce the foil top on his milk - delivered to the classroom in third-of-a-pint bottles every mid-morning - and glug it back in a never-beaten two-and-a-half seconds?

Where is Robert Thomson who announced on the first day of school “I cannae tie my laces”, then turned this into a song-and-dance routine which banished all our nerves?

Where is Scott Strachan, the only kid with an inhaler who regularly had it nicked off him through a combination of cruelty, ignorance and fascination with an object which looked like a tiny raygun?

I know where Keith Taylor is. He went on to fly army helicopters and then commercial aeroplanes and therefore got the closest to every seven-year-old boy’s dream back in 1964 - to join Yuri Gagarin in the Space Race. Keith remains my joint oldest friend along with David Whittle who became a storm-chaser, a financial assessor of natural disasters around the globe. But where is Graham Chapman who was supposed to fill in at centre-half for the school football team, allowing me to assume the goalscoring hero’s role, but slept in on that crucial cup-tie morning? And where are Elaine Sinclair, Lynn Murray, Barbara Reid and all the girls?

The artist Steve McQueen has got me thinking back to what the world looked like at seven because he’s been doing that himself and it’s inspired his latest work. He’s going to photograph every seven-year-old in London for Tate Britain and what’s been called one of the world’s most ambitious art projects.

“At some point in your life you look backwards and ask: ‘Where is so-and-so?’ and ‘What’s happened to them?’ I just wanted to reflect on how I got to where I got to,” says McQueen. “People have passed and died. People are doing well, not doing well. Those kind of trajectories, those kind of paths – I just wanted to go back to the beginning of a certain kind of consciousness.”

Though it will be a work without commentary it can’t help but have one. This is the year of Brexit and, viewed anytime in the future, it will make a political statement of some kind. McQueen’s class photo from when he was seven has him as one of a handful of brown faces in his London school. There were none in P3 of Edinburgh’s Flora Stevenson Primary in ’64. We were as white as those milk bottles, as the inedible mashed potatoes in our school dinners, as the gunk which spurted across the classroom, spraying the back of the teacher’s gown, when Derek Jarvis jammed his penknife into a golf ball.

We didn’t have diversity but we seemed to have everything else going for us. And maybe ’64 was the gold-medal year for being seven because that was when Michael Apted shot his documentary Seven Up! “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” goes the Jesuit motto. Apted chose a cross-section of kids - there was a poor boy who didn’t know his own father and a rich one who, it transpired, had been told by his dad to say he was already reading the Financial Times – and caught up with them at seven-yearly intervals for what grew into TV’s greatest-ever factual series.

At Flora’s we may have been belted for golf ball explosions and mashed potato protests but we had the Beatles. What a wonderful time to be alive, to be seven! In Seven Up! another of the posh kids complained of the Fab Four’s dreadful racket and the length of their hair but surely that was yet more prompting from pater. By seven, your brain has grown to 95 percent of its adult weight and suddenly your horizons are stretching out further than the Road Runner’s yawning desert floor. In ’64 the Beatles set off on their first world tour. In ’64 there was the first spaceflight carrying more than one astronaut. Soon, the rockets would have room for all of us. “Bet you a tanner they will,” declared classmate Stuart Dickson.

But I should temper these reminisces. In our house there’s always someone being seven and right now that’s Sadie, who’d be entitled to lead a cry of “Nineteen-sixty-bore!” when I overdo them. The other day, to illustrate my sermon about how in life we can’t always get what we want, I revved up YouTube for the commercial for the Johnny Seven gun. It launched - guess when? - in 1964. I was - guess what? - seven. But despite the stars seeming to align for me and the most-desired toy for boys, I couldn’t find one under the Christmas tree. I was convinced the kids would get the message but then my eldest son pointed out, not unreasonably, that I could hardly complain about him being addicted to the Fortnite shoot-’em-up video game when I probably fantasised about wiping out the Flora’s staffroom with grenades and a hail of bullets.

Likewise my daughters have the perfect riposte to my teasing of their totally-whatever Disney accents when they suggest - correctly - that I must have talked like Top Cat and Deputy Dawg during my own American obsession, all the while collecting Civil War bubblegum cards and sending off for gizmos from the back of comics like the specs which revealed the naked form underneath clothes (I never got them either - foiled by not having a zip code). So I’m looking forward to seeing McQueen’s project. You might question whether, in the age of the selfie, the poses will be entirely natural, but I hope the kids beam with hope and ambition. Soon the future will be theirs. Me, I didn’t get to play centre-forward and - just to confirm - never made it to the Moon. One more thing: it’s not 1964 anymore.