I have a theory that every childhood has its optimum point of receptiveness: the time when the openness to sensation and sense of wonder of the early years has yet to dim, but once some acquired knowledge and social skills can start to be used to find ones way in the world. For me, this blessed point was around the age of seven and that was the time that my parents took me on holiday to America: Seven days in New York and three days in Princeton.
I tend to remember everything anyway, but these ten days seem to contain an unstoppable bounty of memories; the long haul jumbo jet with the pleasure of being given gifts and puzzles and drinks and a dinky orderly meal and headphones to Bernard Cribbins introduce songs by the Muppets, the criss-crossy roads and seemingly much brighter daylight of New York, a forth of July parade where I am presented with a helium balloon, new and unfamiliar breakfast cereals, the coach journey from New York to Princeton that takes an entire day and then being shown a map of America and seeing what a tiny distance we had travelled, the great staircase of MOMA, a trip to Chinatown where I am given a small red rubber dragon, a Broadway matinee of Peter Pan where the principle boy flies out into the gallery and the pirates are funny and the dog is clever followed by daddy taking me to an ice cream parlour that serves 120 flavours where I choose coconut.
I imagine that I must have radiated more charm on holiday than I did at home. On a bus, an old lady compliments the little English boy and tells us how if I was staying with her she would enjoy taking me to Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. My mother is pleased by this exchange, both because I am managing to make a good impression, and that the love that she feels for me is reflected in the responses of strangers.
Which is not to say that my memory is rose-tinted - I never trust those whose childhood recollections present an unceasing flow of delight. Surely childhood is as much about frustration and feeling afraid or hurt as it is about happiness?
In Princeton I drink gallons of orange juice and develop a rash.
My mother has an aura of fear and fluster that strangers can be quick to pick up on - on a sidewalk a hairy and ragged-looking individual sees us and adopts a demonic pose that makes my mother cry out and hold me close to her. "He's probably on drugs", my daddy explains. Once we have crossed the road I notice that the hairy man is now joking with a companion and looks quite normal, and am not sure about my father's judgement.
Most trying of all, while the three of us are walking downtown, my father spots some distraction and goes gadding off after it. We become separated and mummy has to get a taxi back to the hotel with me - the driver has large aviator-style sunglasses and an air of quiet authority that impresses me. Back in our room my mother - who does not take well to the cross-Atlantic time difference - has to have a headachey lie-down all afternoon. When my father arrives back they argue. "You selfish PIG!" mummy tells daddy. "You pig!" I parrot back, entirely taking my mother's side in this dispute. "Now, now! Don't say that" responds my father, prepared to take this criticism without response from his wife, but not from his son. When you are seven years-old, and trapped in a small hotel room in a foreign city with your angry unhappy parents you can't escape to the playground or the garden.
One evening I find myself sitting alone on a sofa in the lobby of this hotel - we must have been about to go out and my parents gone back to the room to fetch something. I decide to pass myself off as a real American and integrate myself with the city. I walk out of the hotel and onto 46th Street. What shall I do now? Many people are walking fast in both directions. A man amongst them is on roller skates. He looks like a suitably interesting person to engage with. I make eye contact with him. What would be an appropriately American thing to say? "Hi!" I announce. "Hi" he replies, perplexed, before he skates off again. Satisfied with this exchange, I return to the lobby and my place on the sofa. My parents come back to collect me. I don't tell them about my expedition, not because I think that I've done anything wrong, but because I am not sure that I can convey the meaning and significance of my action. It was an instinctive thing that one does, hoping that its significance will become clear to oneself in later years.
It takes me almost twenty years to return to Manhattan, from the last months of Carter to the last months of Clinton. I sometimes find it amusing to review the progress of my life as being like a microcosm of a nation state, with booms and depressions, alliances and wars. Retrospectively, this period seems like some kind of pinnacle of good fortune - through having stable employment and not having to pay rent, I have a surplus of £6,000 in the bank. I am twenty-seven years old, one of the lowest rungs of adulthood and the latter reaches of being genuinely young. I have lucked into staying, free, for a week at a marvellous apartment that resembles the set of Friends on Bleeker Street. This is with my friend Polly, an actress training at the Actors' Studio and her landlady, an amazing old lady of Broadway, who carries sixty years of theatrical history on her shoulders.
It is in this blessed coalescence of circumstances that I find myself walking through Greenwich Village on a Friday night, a young man with money in his pocket and supposedly ready for pleasure and experience. I'm even dressed in a white suit, a costume that I've always wanted to wear. The only problem is that - I can't think of anything that I want to do. I feel rather tired and uncertain of what the time is. I wander around for a bit, milling in crowds and looking at the shop fronts and restaurants. I am amused to see an establishment that promotes itself as 'Mr Slinky's bar and celebrity hangout', but resist the temptation to go in to see if Tom Cruise is hanging out there tonight. Around me are unceasing crowds of people who actually belong here, or at least who make a better fist of making it look as though they do. I give up the ghost and go back to the apartment, where I read an act of When We Dead Awaken and try to get to sleep.
In this journey from boy to young man some sense of venture has clearly been dissipated. The impulse to catch the eye of a roller-skater and say "Hi" seems to have gone.