What I enjoyed about ‘Peanuts’ is hard now to say. Charles Shultz’ strip cartoon appeared in The Observer’s colour magazine, which my parents bought on Sundays, and each week, I devoured the four-panel tale.
Snoopy’s fantasy’s life as a pilot, Peppermint Pattie’s obdurate athleticism, and Charlie Brown’s fruitless quest to kick a football or hook up with the Little Red-Haired Girl clearly spoke to me at some level. Perhaps it was as an oblique meditation on navigating the social order at the cusp between child and adulthood. Its allusions to Vietnam, Watergate and the Russian space program certainly went over my head.
I was 11 in the year of the driest summer for 200 years. By the end of May, even the Yorkshire moors surrounding our town were parched. The heather was brittle and brown, grassed public parks turned to dust and the stone walls and buildings radiated a baking haze. For months, it seemed, the air was uncomfortably hot before I rose from bed and was roasting by the time I settled for the night.
A half-term trip to Scarborough with my parents ought to have provided welcome relief from the searing weather. The long drive there and back, however, was an ordeal, with short-trousered legs sticking to the plastic seats as my father’s car rarely got out of second gear on the traffic-clogged roads.
My two memories of being in the seaside town, however, are happy ones. We visited a ‘Dayville’ ice-cream parlour – my first. Its American-diner decor affected film-set glamour, and the galaxy of possible ices contrasted starkly with Britain’s usual vanilla-only offering.
Earlier in the day, I had been allowed to make a solo exploration of the sea-front shops. These crammed emporia of novelties are an enduring institution. Then as now, every inch of wall, floor and ceiling was festooned with pocket-money priced plastic eye-catchers. Buckets and spades might have been their ostensible staple, but beyond the crab nets and postcards was a world of brightly-coloured gifts and gee-gaws among which seaside sauciness was alive and well.
After careful consideration, I purchased a half-sized pack of ‘Peanuts’ playing cards. From the box in which they came, to the gloss of the cards and the reproduction of the illustrations, they were imbued with an exotic, American quality. I have never much enjoyed cards, nor ever deployed this deck in any kind of game but simply owning them affirmed my enthusiasm for Shultz’s stories.
I took my Peanuts cards to school, of course. Toys branded with film and television characters were a rarity at that time, and I expected to gain kudos by displaying my booty.
The beating heat made for listless lessons- particularly in classrooms built in the 1950s with acres of glass and little ventilation. Teachers struggled to stay on two feet, much less engage the class. We entertained ourselves by flicking from our rulers chewed up balls of soggy paper in the hope that they would stick to the ceilings.
As a geography lesson ground towards its conclusion, I handed my treasured cards around my friends for admiration. Revere them as I did, though, my attention wandered. By the time I looked up, my cards had passed from my immediate group of friends to a table of girls, now enacting a terrible scene. I watched helplessly across the room as Deborah Carely drew a moustache over Charlie Brown’s lip on the outer cover. My angry cry brought the class to attention, but before the teacher could intervene, the bell had gone and thirty ‘year sixes’ (in today’s idiom) crowded towards the door.
My cards were handed back through the crush. Holding them in front of me, however, the defacing was as clear as it was devastating. I choked for a moment, and angry tears formed in my eyes. I wiped these away as my temper rose.
“I’ll get her for this”, I shouted, as my wits returned to me, and I started pushing my way through the packed corridor in pursuit of the vandal.
Deborah Carely and I had been in the same class for the two years we had spent at middle school. Clever, sporty and attractive, she was among the pre-eminent girls, at a time when social circles generally followed gender lines. She had dark, bobbed hair and her uniform had a crisp, tidy quality that my cheaper, less well-cared for clothes never achieved.
I had paid her little attention, save to notice that she could top our class with apparent ease. By contrast, it required a rarely-applied effort on my part to keep up with the more able pupils.
The main door on to the school yard disgorged, and the playground started to sort itself into its usual knots and cliques.
I looked around, blood up, keen to exact revenge on my tormentor. I saw her, standing with three or four friends at the same time as she saw me. My rage must have been evident. As I started to run, so did she.
My pace was driven by fury, and I sniffed violence in my nostrils, but there was no doubt that Deborah was quicker. Her navy skirt and sky-blue shirt disappeared across the playground and into the ball-game cages, as I got into my stride. By the time I crashed through the mesh door, she had charged through a lazy game of football and was on the field beyond.
She turned and laughed at me from 100 yards distant as I joined her on the field. As we tore over the grass, my lack of interest in games and PE started to tell. Hurt was enough to keep my going, but I could soon feel the sweat running down the sides of my body, and I knew that if I stopped moisture would break out all over my face.
We chased from one side of the field to another. After a while the on-lookers and hangers on who had run beside us, hopeful of witnessing our denouement, gave up the game. Now I pursued her alone. Every now and then I would drop to a walk to catch my breath, and so would she – each time turning to give me a taunting glance.
The field was dotted with groups of children – four or five girls were affecting to sunbathe, with their skirts pulled up as far as modesty would allow. There were boys earnestly playing Top Trumps and a couple of groups defying the sticky torpor with skipping ropes.
Cat and mouse continued throughout the break period, until, at the far end of the field, where there was almost no one playing, she dropped to walking speed. We were in a corner, and I realised that she was trapped. My jog remained purposeful until I caught up with her and confronted her face to face.
I suddenly became unclear what exactly how I was going to exact revenge, now that she was within touching distance. I reached forward and grabbed the front of her shirt, pulling her towards me.
“Go on then, what are you going to do?” she said.
I was relieved to stop running and, as I struggled to catch my breath, could conjure up neither suitable punishment, nor tart riposte. Her dark eyes bore into me and a smile played across her face as my mind fumbled. I opened my hand and let go of her shirt. “I didn’t mean to upset you”, she said, before pulling away with a laugh. Then she broke into a run back towards the school building.
I made my way back rather more slowly, trying to understand what had happened. Pushing my hands into the pockets of my grey nylon trousers, I found my Peanuts playing cards. Then, looking down at the defaced image, I licked my right thumb and rubbed the blue mark above Charlie’s mouth. The biro line smudged on my first pass, and was erased with a second.
I gave Deborah little or no thought until June 1980 – when she was the first girl with whom I enjoyed a proper kiss.