As the oldest of four, I could never quite shake the feeling that my parents considered me as something of an experiment – something to shape and mold In Their Own Image, if you will. To a certain extent, that probably holds true for most firstborns, but it is also true that if there was an awards show for The Most Hilariously Ill-Advised Things Parents Do In Good Faith, my folks would probably take home a large percentage of the trophies, and the organisers would still have to introduce several new categories just for them. Over the years I have discovered that many of the more traumatising events that took place during my formative years make for excellent small-hours conversations with strangers in kitchens around the globe, so I have decided to treat you to a (heavily edited) version of the more noteworthy paedagogic measures. So, without further ado, I shall launch straightaway into the story of how my mother and father thought that a tee-total approach to refined sugar would somehow result in a sensible child that would Just Say No.
As my extended (less Hippie-inclined) family never tires of telling me (or the various humanoids I have over the years introduced to them), I had my first piece of (very dark, unsweetened) chocolate when I was about four years old. Any attempt on my grandmother’s side to slip me “regular” (i.e. supermarket-bought) sweets was met with suitable disapproval, and any exciting, glittery-wrapped wonders were quickly pried from my chubby hands and replaced with rock hard, home made “biscuits” or, worse, apples. Delivered, of course, with an educational lecture on the dangers of rotting milk teeth and childhood obesity. What joy. However, even the keenest of all eagle eyes are sometimes averted, and thus it came to pass that on one blessed day, my sneaky gran managed to press a chocolate lollie into my eager hands. In the two seconds that it took my mother to discover her mother-in-law’s outrageous audacity, I had already ingested about half of it – the damage was done, I had tasted the rainbow and I wanted more.
With almost tedious predictability, I became obsessed with sugar. Because my parents’s disapproval of sweet things didn’t extend to their own consumer behavious, I knew there was shedloads of the stuff hidden all over the place, and I conducted regular searches where I would scour the entire house for anything glucose-related. Nothing was safe: if I could find them, I’d eat cough drops, rock candy and even my dad’s disgustingly strong Fisherman’s Friend mints. My mum’s hiding places were always a bit rubbish, maybe because she prefers savoury, but my dad’s were usually pretty sophisticated – I reckon he got tired of finding empty bags of his favourite liquirice allsorts in the drawers of his study, so he decided to up his game. (A routine that would repeat itself in years to come, although the desired commodity was now booze.) Looking back, I can’t quite work out why I never thought of disposing of the evidence – I’d always leave the empty bags behind, got found out and was consequently grounded. Being the reality-negating hippies they were, Ma and Pa Damsel were also very fond of that old favourite of all liberal parents, the “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” routine. “We thought we raised you better than this”, they would say, and shake their heads sadly.
Either way, my relentless pursuit finally broke them, and I remember the event that triggered the eventual agreement with astonishing clarity. I was six, and I had somehow managed to obtain an invitation to the birthday party of Jule, the coolest girl in my primary school class. (How my nerdy, bookish, teachers-petty self achieved that, I’m afraid remains a mystery to this day.) Anyway, for the very first time I was exposed to such a mountain of freely available chocolate that I have to give myself credit for not fainting on the spot. Alas, that was as far as my restraint went, because for the rest of the party, whilst my friends were playing musical chairs, hit the pot and other lark, I was busy making my rounds around the glorious chocolate table, stuffing my face with everything that was on offer. I made major inroads, and even my friends (who were no strangers to the delights of industrially refined sugar) were asking, with increasing degrees of puzzlement, how on earth I hadn’t upset my tummy yet. But I was oblivious. I had to make the most of that day, even if it hurt – I knew that something that good would never, ever happen again.
End of the story was, when my mother picked me up in the evening, I vomited all over her environment-friendly cotton overcoat. And over the driveway at my friend’s house. And down the side of her bicycle, on the back of which I rode until I was 7, because she didn’t trust me in traffic (in hindsight, probably a wise decision). With alacrity I continued to spew half-chewed Maoam in cheerful fountains the whole way home, and I had never felt so good in my life.
The next day, we came to a truce, and weekly rations were introduced. The quality of the products provided was still poor, and I had issues with the percentage of health store produce among the regular stuff, which was higher than strictly desirable. But it was a start.