PLAYBOY: How are you like Reacher?
CHILD: We’re both rational. I’m not in any way a spiritual person. If I can’t see it and it can’t be proved, I don’t believe it. We’re both observant. I notice a lot of things, and I try to explain them to myself.
PLAYBOY: Do you share Reacher’s willingness to insert yourself into dicey situations?
CHILD: I would like to be that person who doesn’t walk by. Most of the time I do, but if there’s something egregious, I try to help. One night I was walking on Broadway, and a cab had stopped. The driver was a skinny Sikh, and he was trying to eject his passenger, a fleshy, frat-boy type. The driver was worried this kid was drunk and was going to throw up in his cab, so the driver was throwing him out. But the guy wouldn’t leave. It was a mismatch, this little driver who’s paying $150 a shift to lease a cab and this boorish frat boy threatening to screw up his night. So I crossed the street and helped the driver out, because I think at some point you can’t just walk past.
PLAYBOY: Did the frat boy tell you to fuck off?
CHILD: He was aggressive, but he was too drunk to be a threat unless we fell and he rolled on top of me. He sort of stumbled, and I held him up by the collar. He was probably 24 and had a job on Wall Street or something. I mean, these guys are not tough. I was brought up in a different time, in a place where the physical was more serious than it is now.
PLAYBOY: You were raised in Birmingham, in England’s Midlands. Was it really that hard-core?
CHILD: Birmingham is the New Jersey of Great Britain. It was a sort of inarticulate society where if you had problems the only recourse was violence.
PLAYBOY: What was your first fight?
CHILD: My elder brother, Richard, was a spindly kid, and I was big for my age. Family legend has it that when I was three and he was six, someone was pulling his ears, and I waded in and fought off this kid. A few years later my parents explicitly said to me, “You have to look after him.” We went to Cherry Orchard County Primary School, which was in this blighted industrial landscape and had the stump of a dead cherry tree in one corner. My first duty at recess was to make sure Richard was all right before I could go play with my friends.
PLAYBOY: What made the Birmingham of your youth such a war zone?
CHILD: There was a tremendous tribalism, which supported a bullying culture. If your parents were more aspirational than somebody else’s parents, you were marked out. If you were doing well in class, you were marked out. At the age of 10 or 11, when you switched from elementary to high school, if you got into a good school, it grew worse. I got a scholarship to the best high school, King Edward’s, founded in 1552. J.R.R. Tolkien went there, as did Kenneth Tynan. The old building is a beautiful Gothic brick structure designed by the guy who designed the houses of Parliament. I had to get in and out of my inner-city neighborhood twice a day. I wore the school uniform—a blue blazer with a purple and yellow tie—and it was a badge of shame that essentially got me attacked. I had to fight because I was acting above myself.
PLAYBOY: Every week?
CHILD: I would say every day, more or less.
PLAYBOY: A fight in which a punch was thrown?
CHILD: Pretty much, yeah. Every day I got off the bus and walked the last half-mile home, which took me down a border road, in terms of territory. In Birmingham some streets were yours and others were not. There was a definite demarcation. To get home, I walked down this road. There would always be two or three kids there waiting to give me trouble. Routinely, we’d have a fight. I wouldn’t wait for them to start anything. I knew why they were there. I walked up and hit them, and they hit back.
PLAYBOY: Is this when you learned how to head butt?
CHILD: I saw somebody do it, and I imitated it. For a while I head butted someone once a week. I also had a knife, and typically you’d have a bicycle chain, which you’d swing or wrap around your fist as a knuckle-duster. Once or twice some kids, including me, got double-edged Gillette razor blades and sewed them under our lapels. If anybody grabbed us, they’d shred their fingers. It was serious shit. I finally got to the point where I didn’t want to be hassled anymore. I said, “If you pull a knife on me, I’ll break your arm.” That happened twice. I turned the guys’ wrists inside out, forcing the elbows. This sort of mayhem was expected. No one was arrested. The most the police would do was come by and clip you on the ear.
PLAYBOY: What did your parents say?
CHILD: There was a gigantic gap between us. My father worked for the Inland Revenue, the British equivalent of the IRS. He’s a Northern Irish Protestant, hates Catholics and has an imperial stance about the superiority of the white man and the inferiority of colored people. My mother clung to the middle-class dream of seeing me and my three brothers become pillars of some kind. I don’t want to disparage them. They were doing their best with no overt malice and certainly no negligence. But it was dour and negative. There was no basis for communication.
PLAYBOY: How long did your head-butting period last?
CHILD: By my late teens most of the aggression was petering out. My teenage years overall were fantastic. It really started happening for me in the spring of 1969, when I lost my virginity at the age of 14 and a half. Somebody’s parents were always away, and there’d be a party at that house. The entire purpose was sex—sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a Friday night. There were a bunch of boys, a bunch of girls. There was snogging. Then it went a little further. Then I went to bed with this blonde 14-year-old. The next thing I knew her 16-year-old sister was in there with me too.
PLAYBOY: That sounds better than brawling.
CHILD: It was. The late 1960s and early 1970s were wonderful. Everybody was in a band. It didn’t matter whether you had talent. If you took the entire male population of Britain between the ages of 14 and 20 and divided it by four, that’s the number of bands you had. I was in one called Dark Tower. I played guitar, badly. We did covers of Steppenwolf, Cream—derivative, blues-based music. We played Digbeth Civic Hall one New Year’s Eve. It was a genuine gig. We got paid.
PLAYBOY: Was there a great music scene in Birmingham?
CHILD: Yes. One time I remember rehearsing, and this well-spoken older boy—he was 19, which when you’re 14 seems totally grown-up—came in to check out the facility because his new band was rehearsing the next night. Sure enough, the next night he showed up. He helped us shove our equipment off; we helped him shove his on. This well-spoken young man from the area was Robert Plant, and his new band was Led Zeppelin. This was their second rehearsal. We heard them play their first song.
PLAYBOY: How fully did you experience the Age of Aquarius?
CHILD: In 1969 I went to the Isle of Wight Festival; in 1970, the Bath Festival. It was a great era, especially because my parents were so backward looking. They were worried about the kind of dangers you might encounter in the 1950s. The dangers of the 1960s and 1970s were not on their radar. They did not know what drugs were. They were only concerned that I might get drunk. One time my mom found a cube of hash wrapped in silver paper in my pocket and gave it back to me. I think she thought I was saving metal for the war effort, as they did in the 1940s. She had no clue. It was the same as having totally permissive parents. I was uncontrolled and unmolested.
PLAYBOY: Yet all the while you were getting a superb education.
CHILD: It was odd. King Edward’s embodied an old-fashioned model that was already going out of date by the time I was there. For a kid like me, British society was structured—the class system. For 100 years, this had been the way out. You went to this school and then to a good university, and you might become a solicitor or a doctor. That was my parents’ hope. But the system was dying on its feet. King Edward’s was all Latin and Greek. I possessed a pragmatic intelligence rather than an academic one. I didn’t struggle intellectually, but I felt parallel to the place. I didn’t understand it. What was the point? Give me a problem, and I’ll solve it. Give me a task, and I’ll do it. Tell me to study Virgil and Homer, and I’m asking why.
PLAYBOY: You might have chafed, but you didn’t rebel. You ended up going to law school. Was that to please your parents?
CHILD: It did please my folks, but that was not my reason. It was just that after having been to a school like King Edward’s, you were on a track where you had to go to university. In the British system, you do the pinnacle of exams at secondary school. Based on your grades, this says which university you’re going to. I did these exams in June, and then I traveled around Europe with friends. I got back, and the exam results were there, and they were decent. But I’d basically forgotten I’d taken them, and school was about to start. So I went to the library in Birmingham. In the reference section there were university prospectuses. I found one that, by the pictures, looked good: the University of Sheffield in Yorkshire. It had a vacancy in law, which in Britain is an undergraduate degree. I thought about it a minute and decided, Great. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, so there would be no professional imperative—I would not have to graduate at the top of my class. But law was an amalgam of things I was interested in: history, language, economics and politics. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, it’s a fabulous degree.