Thursday, 30 October 2014

Family business # 3. 1979.

I was 16 when Mum remarried. I moved in to the Fat Controller's house the day after she married him. There was meat pie for tea. He offered me a second helping, which I accepted. Later in the evening, in the presence of my mother, he attacked me verbally for being greedy, ranting that there was a tradition in his house that the dog got the last slice of the pie. I just about had the presence of mind to point out that I couldn't have known this, and that he had offered me the second slice and nobody else had wanted it. Further attempts at reasoned self-defence were short-circuited when my mother flummoxed me by backing him up, saying, 'Well, it did seem like you were doing it on purpose.' For ages afterwards I'd repeatedly return to this exchange in my head. Full of self-doubt as I was, I laboriously reasoned it through. If he didn't want me to have the pie, why offer it to me? And how could I be 'doing it on purpose'? I'd have needed to a) know that the dog usually got the last of the pie (which I didn't) and b) know that when he offered me the second slice he didn't mean it. Over the next six years of living there I learnt two things from the Fat Controller. One was that reason counted for nothing in the face of his mania for domination and control. The other was that some people will treat you as badly as they can get away with for no better reason than the fact that they can get away with it.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Family business # 2. 2008-2012.

In hindsight, early signs of Mum's dementia were there well ahead of her eventual diagnosis in September 2009. Late 2008 my Xmas and birthday presents never arrived, though Mum was convinced she'd sent them. Early 2008 she rang twice leaving an almost identical message within hours. Brother M reported her sending him two birthday cards that year. Around then I had an odd conversation with her about a breadmaker somebody gave her. She said that it didn't bake the bread but just mixed the ingredients. She seemed to think this was normal and was how it was supposed to work. I noted at the time that her husband the Fat Controller had done nothing to help her with this. These clues were the start of a slow-motion bereavement, where her mind gradually disappeared over the next four years.

Lifetime underachievement award #2. 1984.

I saw the film 'Educating Rita' in 1984, the year before I did my first 'A' level at evening classes at the age of twenty two. I remember it as inspiring, and as part of what prompted me to get an education and go to university as a mature student. Ironically, the education I later got probably led me to take a cynical view of the film when I watched it again some years later. On returning it seemed sentimental about working class life, university life and the transformative power of getting a formal education.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Random access memory # 2 (2012)

About two years ago I had impingement syndrome in my shoulder, a condition where the rotator cuff round the shoulder becomes inflamed and painful. I had to go for physiotherapy for about 6 months. The physiotherapist was tiny and beautiful. Inevitably she was required to be fairly hands on. It was heartbreaking as a reminder of how rare it was for anybody to touch me at the time. Halfway through one session I thought I should have flossed and worn a better shirt. Made a bit of an effort. Tragic really. I don't come from a tactile family. I've gone through life expecting nobody to touch me with a bargepole. There's probably people out there who feel hard done by if they haven't had a thorough seeing to for a month. Me, I'm grateful if somebody occasionally looks pleased to see me. Poor me.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Lifetime underachievement award #1. (1994)

I was signing, on having just finished my MA. Doing the MA made me realise that I'd been premature in deciding to give up on writing fiction. It was clear that as far as the need to write was concerned, I was stuck with it. The problem was buying the time to work on my fiction. Part of my plan was to source an income by donating sperm. A clinic at London Bridge was paying £17.50 per sample as expenses, though you could only donate at three day intervals, to maintain quality. At that rate I reckoned on making a regular £35 per week. I had a thorough interview about my medical history, then was invited to give a sample for testing. You didn't get expenses for the initial visit, presumably to deter opportunist one-off wankers. I was shown into a medical looking room by a receptionist who gave me a little plastic pot. Above the sink was a set of instructions, including the requirement no to use any kind of lubricant, including saliva, as this could contaminate the goods. The notes also pointed out the stack of porn mags neatly stacked nearby. Finally there was something to the effect that if volunteers struggling to finish then one of the nurses could help. I thought this was asking a lot of them, though I think in hindsight any help would have consisted of a finger up the bum and some manipulation of the prostate, which while not much fun for anyone was at least appropriately medical. I set to work unaided, but it was an effort. There was chatter from the office next door which was putting me off but I didn't feel I could go and complain. Eventually I got there. As I came, I lost balance momentarily and stamped on the pedal of a stainless steel pedal bin adjacent. The lid banged against the wall with a resounding clang that I fully expected to bring people running. I went in a for a follow up interview some days later. The crisp and efficient nurse said my sample was very good in terms of quality and volume, but didn't freeze well so they wouldn't be able to use my produce. So that career plan went nowhere. Things have since moved on in the sperms trade. Now it can be sold fresh and prices have shot up to about £75 per portion. Recently I saw a postcard in a Peckham newsagent's window where somebody was advertising their sperm for sale direct. I think if you were looking to buy some sperm, you wouldn't start by browsing the small ads in a corner shop. It's not like it's an impulse buy.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Random access memory #4 (1984)

I'm guessing I began the habit of making to-do lists when I was about twenty. Before that I had no need to as I had no idea what to do. I had no aims except a vague unfounded hope I'd one day be on Top of the Pops. It felt pointless making plans because I assumed I'd soon end up killing myself as my Dad had done. At twenty, a bout of drug induced paranoia prompted me to walk out my job as a store-man in a builders' merchants. That and the ensuing botched suicide attempt jolted me out of my torpor. A sense of my own agency emerged from somewhere and the list making began. I still find it essential, though often dispiriting. It's a brave soul who revisits their old to-do lists. Mine , collected, would seem a lifetime archive of falling short. Accidentally looking at an old list can be chastening. The routine stuff of paces to go and groceries to buy is bearable. Those trivial cancellations and delays aren't the problem. But above and beyond those daily things is the meta-list, often unwritten, whose content stubbornly fails to shift, year in, year out; get on with writing, get on with music, make more friends, make an effort at finding love. Still, better the aim you fall short of than the one you don't dare have.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Random access memory # 1 (2013)

In Spring last year, I went on a conservation holiday in Sussex, clearing rhododendrons on a National Trust property. The group was an odd mix age wise; there was a handful of 18 year olds and the rest of the group were just the wrong side of fifty. It seemed an oddly specific demographic, as if the holiday appealed to people going through an aimless phase in their life. The exception to the age make up was one woman of about thirty. I sensed the holiday wasn't what she'd hoped for. Over the course of the week disappointment settled on her like dandruff on a vicar. The lead volunteer had an uncanny and unfortunate facial resemblance to my stepfather – the only person I've ever wished dead. I was doing well at not holding it against him until he insisted on betraying his South African roots with a sequence of racist asides. On a couple of occasions he referred to a group of black guests at the same centre as 'kaffirs' and to the children in the same group as 'picaninnies'. In hindsight I should have bollocked him, but he showed himself to be so jaw-droppingly thick skinned over the course of the week, I'm not sure it would have registered.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Who died and made you Elvis? #1 (2009)

I've had quite a bit of experience of voluntary work of various sorts, taking a fairly broad reading of that term. This has included conventional volunteering in the third sector, as well as unpaid self-organised activity like being involved in the housing co-op where I live and a period of activity in my local Friends of the Earth group. All of it inevitably raises questions about power and authority. At work, instructions are issued by the people who are presented as the ones entitled to issue instructions, and the people instructed are expected to go along with what their told. A lot of the assumptions underlying that process are treated as invisible most of the time. However stupid the instructed may think the instructions and the instructors are, to a greater or lesser degree, they tend not to openly question the authority of those doing the telling. And it sometimes appears to me that the people used to telling people what to do, at some level, believe that people go along with what they say because of their innate leadership qualities and the brilliance of their ideas, overlooking the influence of their capacity to impose various sanctions on the disobedient. But organisation on a voluntary basis or free labour, lays a lot of this stuff bare. If people are working together in a way where they have no coercive power over each other, the power to instruct crumbles. An instruction without the power to enforce it is just a suggestion. People in situations based on free labour often struggle to get out of worker and boss mode, even if they aren't used to being a boss. It's as if they can't easily drop the idea that somebody's got to be in charge, then feel hurt or at least puzzled that people aren't going along with their ideas. They apply the structures of the workplace, or sometimes those they're familiar with from other areas of life. More than once I've heard people referring to the group they're involved in as like a family. In practice this seemed to coincide with a view that one or two people should make the decisions while everybody else got treated like children and had to rely on pester power to exert any influence. So often, we're used to organising based on the principle that it's the singer not the song. It's hard work, (in fact harder work), organising things on the basis that everybody has the power to exchange information, ask questions and make suggestions, and that the ideas that get acted on are those chosen democratically on their merits.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

If you're so clever...# 1 (2009)

I suppose it's still worth thinking about why there's been so little intimacy in my life. I think with women, a lot of the time they think of me as perfectly likeable but in a safe asexual way. TLA once texted me that she was feeling sad because her mum had gone to make her will. I texted back not to be sad because umbrellas don't make it rain. She replied I was like a lovely reassuring cup of tea. An admirable quality maybe, but not the sort of thing that makes people want to drag you to bed.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Welcome to the working week. # 2 (1978)

When I was about 14 and still at school I had a part time job as a warehouse assistant at a local supermarket. In the loading bay there was massive compactor for compressing rubbish. It consisted of a huge metal block on a hydraulic system which moved backwards and forwards, crushing the waste that was thrown in there. Above the block was a wire cage. This would be lifted and the waste material thrown in. The machine was prone to jamming so one of our tasks was to get inside the compactor while it was running and hang by our fingers from the wire safety cage above the crushing block We would then kick free any rubbish that got lodged. There was a metal ledge about three inches wide round the edge of the crushing area that you could balance on. If any of us had slipped or lost our grip we could easily have been cut in half. It didn't occur to any of us to complain. I for one had very low expectations. Although I've got no illusions about the sort of stuff people do to each other in the name of work, it seems odd to me now that we were made to do something so pointlessly dangerous. The rubbish could have been just as easily dislodged with a broom-handle. But as I soon came to learn, particularly in manual jobs, there's sometimes almost a macho pride in doing stuff the dirty way or the hard way.