I was born in 1969, the year of the first moon landing and the death of Jack Kerouac.
I entered the world in the front bedroom of the Down family home in Welling, Kent. I do, however, consider myself to be a Londoner, as my school-teacher father and ward-sister mother moved us to Kenton, Harrow when I was three.
That was where I did my growing up; in and around Kenmore Park First and Middle School, playing with my friends in garage blocks and on council estate grass verges. It was a bit of a shock, at age 11, to be plucked from this innocent existence, on the strength of a story I had written, entitled “The Swan”, for an entrance exam to University College School, Frognal, Hamptstead. The title was given to the roomful of fresh-faced hopefuls, who proceeded to spin delightful yarns about beautiful, graceful, reed-dwelling birds while I set to work on a bleak, doom-laden, tale centred around a remote country inn.
At the interview, when asked about my hobbies, I cast around and hit upon the notion that I collected model badgers. When asked how many examples I owned, I reached into my pocket and produced a small, stripy-snouted, porcelain figurine – “one”, I replied.
Somehow my literary talent and quirky imagination won the day and I found myself entering a new and unimagined world of privilege and affluence; thanks, in no small part, to the passing of my paternal grandfather who had, ironically, never experienced any such thing. William Harold Down had spent his working-life as tenant landlord in a wine merchant shop (“Down with the wickets, Down with the wine”) in Burgess Hill, Sussex; running an illicit bookmaker’s service on the side. He ended his days in a nursing home after running through his local park in his long johns throwing twenty pound notes around.
I was always among the first children at UCS each morning as my Dad drove me in – not exactly on his way to work, but he liked to be sure I actually arrived! Although always something of a rough diamond, I managed to fit in. I was unaware, until years later that, after one of my visits to the Headmaster’s office, my father had struck a deal whereby I spent one summer holiday pumping weights in his school gym and was, in return, put into the school rugby team at tighthead prop. I made the position my own and served 2 seasons in the school 1st XV. This, and singing in a school-based punk band called The Hell Fire Club, boosted my status. My abiding memory from this time, apart from the thrill of performing on stage, is the taste of Silvicrin hairspray running down from my jet-black mohican into my panting mouth on a drizzly pre-season training run in the Lake District.
At that time UCS had one famous son – Roger Bannister – but, from my generation, it produced Will Self, Hugh Dennis and Alex “The Beach” Garland. Of these three, though I have never met him, I fell out with Self due to his over-use of the word “shibboleth”; have only read fragments of Garland, which I thought could have been written by any UCS boy of our era; but I shall never tire of Dennis’s hang-dog face and dead pan humour.
I was the only member of my A Level English group, tutored by jazz pianist Dave Lund, not to apply for Oxbridge. I had intended, for most of my early teens, to apply to art school but, during my time at UCS, I had a Saturday job stacking shelves in my local Waitrose; I befriended some of my fellow workers and reverted to type, spending less time up in Hampstead and Belsize Park with the UCS crowd and more time rolling around Kenton causing trouble or hitting the clubs in the West End. One of these new friends was a talented artist, Carl Captieux, who was bound for St Martin’s Central School of Art. I was no longer the best artist that I knew and this, together with a poor grade at O Level, took the wind out of my sails as far as art was concerned. I carried on writing lyrics with various guitarists and keeping the diary I had started in 1980, but other creative activities ended with UCS.
My higher education had a false start when I didn’t achieve the grades I needed to read Philosophy (my other passion) at UCL and I ended up in Pontypridd, at Wales Poly. It wasn’t for me, and a run-in with a drunken group of squaddies resulted in my swift exit. I only returned to Wales for their trial. I retreated to Kenton and spent the next few years living in bedsitland and doing a string of jobs, which included a spell as a Research Assistant in an office overlooking Buckingham Palace Gardens. While there I started drawing cartoons for use in research presentations, but this was ultimately unfulfilling, and I eventually reapplied to UCL, gaining an unconditional place.
Before embarking on my Philosophy degree, I worked as a waiter in Vancouver, Canada then travelled around Mexico, working my way through my college reading list. That was the start of a love affair with the bottom end of North America which continues to this day, though at the time I was led around by a girl with a guide book.
Back in the UK, I enjoyed devoting the next three years to sorting out my metaphysical position and tackling the big questions which had always nagged at the back of my mind. This was the same degree as undertaken by Hanif Kureshi and one of the Dimbleby brothers (it matters not which!). I bought a motorbike and spent the holidays working the bars at a south coast caravan park. From UCL I went to Brighton University for a PGCE Early Years teaching qualification and met the girl I would marry eight years later. Infant teaching is a female-dominated world and I was one of only three men on the course (one was gay, one was married, the other was me), Rachel Howard was the pick of the thirty girls.
After two years of teaching Nursery and Reception classes in the London Borough of Hillingdon, I returned to Mexico City to teach at the Edron Academy, British International School. While there, in addition to my Infant class, I taught the Theory of Knowledge component of the International Baccalaureate, edited the school newspaper and wrote and directed a whole-school Christmas play entitled “Mr Pearson’s Christmas Time Machine”.
Rachel had joined me at Edron but, after being hospitalised with salmonella and undergoing brain scans, she was advised to live somewhere less polluted! We travelled through 13 Central and South American countries on our way back to Brighton. In 2001 we married at Highley Manor, the country seat of Percy Bysche Shelley and in 2004 and 2006 respectively Liliana Elise and Eloise Eleanor were born to complete our family. We lived in 7 properties in 8 years after returning to the rat race, climbing from 2 bed flat to 6 bed house before jumping off the property ladder to settle in the delightful, Sussex village of Ferring.
When the girls were 8 and 10, we got itchy feet and decided to show them some of the world. I got a job at Panaga Shell School in Brunei, on the South East Asian island of Borneo, while on sabbatical from my English job. We travelled together in 13 countries over the next 2 years, before returning to the UK.
I am now doing what I should have done at some earlier point on my journey in writing and illustrating children’s books. Seeing Liliana and Eloise’s innate, unselfconscious, love of drawing and story-writing as young children made me realise what I once had and inexcusably lost.