Friday, 21 August 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 12. (1989)

In my final year at Goldsmiths' a poster appeared on the English department noticeboard advertising the chance of a scholarship to go to the US to do an MA at a university there. I overheard another student, who was one of the dimmest and laziest on the course, talking about her plans to apply. I was amazed at her sense of entitlement.
Realistically, I probably would have had a better chance of success than anybody else on the course had I applied, but I didn't. By that stage I was living in the flat where I still live now.
Because of all the hostility I'd faced from the Fat Controller, I felt I'd lost my home at the age of 16. It therefore meant a huge amount to me to have a secure home where I was entitled to be. If I'd gone to America, even if only for a year, I'd have needed to give up the flat. I couldn't do it.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 11. (2005).

After I ran out of steam at writing fiction, I went through a phase of doing jokey, throwaway travel writing about my cut price day trips around the UK. Though I didn't take the pieces that seriously, they were well-received at the writers' group I was chairing at the time. One member of the group worked for a national newspaper and thought my travel stuff would work well as a regular column. She offered to put in a word for me at the paper and invited me to pop in to their offices for an informal chat with somebody who had the clout to approve such things.
I havered at the suggestion, saying I wasn't sure about the form, meaning I wasn't sure of the form the writing should take. She thought I meant form in the sense of the etiquette of such negotiations. It struck me that the misunderstanding was quite revealing.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 10. (1996).

Towards the end of my two years performing stand-up comedy, I was getting paid gigs more often. I did two in one night for the same promoter, supporting Mark Thomas. After my set I popped outside for a breath of fresh air. Mark said hello and said, 'I really enjoyed the start of your set.'
I immediately wondered what was wrong with the rest of it. Stand-up's a medium that can make you very insecure.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Random access memory # 47. (1997)

Me and Sean the Obscure went to a free music festival in Clissold Park, Hackney. A very drunk bloke, who looked like he might be street homeless, tried to sell us a bag of what he claimed was weed. It was evident that it was a lump of turf he'd just bagged up fresh from the park. When we politely declined he chuckled knowingly and wandered off to try somebody else.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Random access memory # 46. (1991).

I went on holiday to Portland in Dorset. One night in the pub, I overheard a group of women discussing their sex lives. One of them described having recently got off with a crusty with dreadlocks. Her friend asked if he'd stunk. When she replied in the negative, her friend seemed pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Random access memory # 45. (1977-1978)

At secondary school for a while there was a trend for playing hangman on the blackboard in the lunch hour. The subject was always the names of bands and albums. I used to do well at it because my musical tastes were seen as obscure.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Random access memory # 44. (1978).

There were no music venues where new bands could play in my home town. In the five or so years after punk, bands would put on their own gigs in village halls. Short of a full blown gig, bands would rehearse in the skittle alleys of pubs and invite friends along.
I saw a band called Valley Forge at one of these skittle alley rehearsals. The drummer would later play for the Mob and Zounds and would form Blyth Power.
I think that night was probably the first time I got ill with drink. I didn't feel drunk but walked at least two blocks on the way home before realising I'd left my jacket in the pub.
When I got home I immediately threw up in the toilet. It didn't help that I'd been smoking heavily. The next day my fingers were dark brown with nicotine stains.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 9. (1997)

I wanted to work part-time so I could write. It seemed the only way to find the necessary time. Waiting for my job interview with a new local authority I mooched in the library next door. At random I picked up a book of poems by Adrian Mitchell. A poem about Edward Hopper caught my eye. It said of Hopper, 'He found his thing and did it.'
Even though I didn't know Hopper's work at the time, the phrase struck a chord with me. I felt I'd found my thing in writing and I was finally about to get the chance to do it.
I later came to love Hopper's work but without that chance reference I may never have discovered it.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Random access memory # 43. (1980).

My early teens were characterised by loneliness and boredom. The town I grew up in offered little in the way of entertainment. I was once so bored that I went to see the movie spin-off of the TV series 'Man About the House' twice in the same week. I hadn't even enjoyed it the first time. No wonder I ended up moving to London.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 8. (1997).

Aside from teenage efforts, the first serious attempt at a short story that I wrote as an adult, was accepted by a well-respected UK magazine. I got paid £180. Even though it'd taken me all my spare time for three months to write the story, the acceptance for publication made me feel like the future belonged to me.
Aside from complimentary copies of subsequent magazines I was published in, that £180 was the first and last material reward I received for writing. I had a private joke with myself that if I didn't get paid for writing fiction at least once every ten years I'd call it a day.
When the ten years was up I'd pretty much run out of steam as far as fiction went, so I did stop writing it. It left a gap in my life I've still not filled. I'm not sure I ever will.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Welcome to the working week # 14. (1981).

At my first job I somehow got talked into taking a correspondence course for a trade qualification run by the Builders' Merchants Federation. The learning materials were sent in large format booklets which I was expected to read through in my own time.
As if this wasn't pointless enough already, the training material was full of product information for stuff my employer didn't stock – anaglypta wallpaper, hand-tools that people had stopped using in the Fifties, and architraves that went out of fashion with anti-macassars.
Even looking at the information made me depressed, so I barely skimmed it.
I had to go to Bristol to take the exam. I think I had to pay my own train fare. I failed the exam by a mile. I felt some pride at how little effort I'd put in. I felt it showed my employer didn't have the upper hand.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Random access memory # 42. (1978).

Our form room at school had a long cupboard running along half the length of it, just below the window. At waist height, its polished wooden top was perfect for playing a type of table hockey using our small plastic dinner tokens which we shoved from one end of the cupboard top to the next.
I remember it being played at lunchtime though logically it must have only been at morning break as the tokens had to be handed in at lunchtime.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Who died and made you Elvis? # 4 (1978).

They had prefects at my secondary school taken from the fifth form. When I was in the fourth year, most of the prefects were drawn from those in the year above who'd been at the Grammar school for a year before the town went comprehensive. They were clearly identifiable as a type, even four years later-middle class and often conformist. One lunchtime, one of them came into the form room to remonstrate with us for some now-forgotten minor misbehaviour, and had the piss ripped out of him by most of the people present. He was known as Wingnut because of his protruding ears, so was an open goal as a target for ridicule.
What stays with me is his ill-concealed but impotent rage at being disregarded and disrespected. I found myself laughing uncontrollably. He saw me and it incensed him even more. I realise now that what I found funny was his sense of superiority being deflated.

Friday, 7 August 2015

I remember when it was all fields round here #2. (1968)

We had a galvanised bucket in the kitchen filled with a clear jelly-like liquid called isinglass. Mum stored fresh eggs in there. I'm not sure if we had a fridge at that point. I've just Googled the word isinglass to make sure I didn't invent it or imagine it.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Random access memory # 41. (1968).

The elderly woman next door was known to us as Auntie Alice. She lived with her chain-smoking sister, whose name I forget, and a black cat called Pickles. Alice was tiny. With her stoop, her long neck and wrinkles, she reminded me of a tortoise.
I never saw her sister outside of her armchair and don't remember her ever speaking.
They had some connection with a farm and would sometimes give us free eggs from there. The yolks were deep orange and had the disgusting taste of the fish meal on which the hens were fed.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Family business #17. (1979-1985).

For the entire time I had to stay at the Fat Controller's house he made a steady stream of petty and irrational complaints about me. Mum would pass these on, mostly unfiltered, such was his coercive power over her.
He complained about me leaving the toilet roll on the windowsill, because he said the rain might blow in and make it wet. He complained about me putting ketchup on the side of the plate rather than directly onto the food, because, he claimed, it made it harder to wash up the plates. He chose to ignore the fact that his sons routinely left half their meals unfinished.
He complained about me running on the stairs even though I never did. In fact, I'd pick my way up the stairs on tiptoe with great care because they were always littered with cat and dog shit.
He complained that when I washed up I didn't dry the cups properly and that the damp from the cups was making the paintwork flake on the cupboard shelf where they were kept. This was despite the fact that he had no evidence of what was causing the flaking paint, or that I was any more to blame than anyone else.
He complained about me spending too long in the shower and insisted that I only have a shower every other day. This 'rule' was only introduced after my stepbrothers had all moved out and therefore when demand for the shower was at its lowest point. It coincided with me starting my second job which was dirty and physically demanding as it involved a lot of heavy lifting. As a result of the rule I almost certainly stank. I started my first 'A' level at evening classes around then. I'd go straight from work. They'd open a window when I arrived.
He once complained about me walking down the street with my hands in my pockets. As mum relayed it, his gripe was that if there was ice on the ground and I slipped, I'd be unable to break my fall. This was despite the fact he was complaining at the height of summer.
For the Fat Controller, his use of Mum as a conduit for his griping was a win-win arrangement because he could try and control and diminish two people at a time.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

If you're so clever... # 23. (1975-1976)

I can't remember how often they happened but at secondary school they'd occasionally have a disco at lunchtime in the assembly hall. I always avoided going, by, in effect, hiding in the form classroom. Once, the music teacher who organised the event came and found me and, despite my protests, physically dragged me to the disco. Once there I just stood on the periphery feeling humiliated.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Random access memory # 40. (1991)

Until I moved into this housing co-op I'd had little contact with middle-class people. The ones in the co-op were lovely to me. At the time, Charles was probably the poshest-sounding person I'd ever met. I went for a walk on Shooters Hill with him, his GP girlfriend Kate, and our mutual friend Mary from the co-op.
Afterwards we played Boggle in Charles's flat. Unwittingly, I broke the rules by trying to play the word 'noh', a proper noun. Kate gently pointed this out but I could tell she was embarrassed about bringing it up.
When I got home, I realised I'd stepped in some dog-shit on the walk and had walked it into Charles's carpet. The feeling I attach to the memory is one of social clumsiness and embarrassment, a feeling which, at the time, I often had around middle-class people.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Random access memory # 39. (1968)

We had a woodburning heater in the front room. It was beige, made of some sort of vitreous material and had small windows that allowed you to see the flames. Mum told me the windows were made of mica. The word interested me for some reason.
Some time after my dad died we put the heater for sale, with a postcard advert in the corner shop window. Mum asked me to draw a picture of the heater for the advert.
The heater was replaced by a two bar fire. This was probably an economy measure. There were other similar efforts. Once there was a jumble sale at the church hall, which included a fifty/fifty stall where you got back half the selling price of something you'd brought in. Mum sold one of Dad's suits this way. Clearly, times were hard financially.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Random access memory # 38. (1976).

When I was about thirteen, some time between my mum getting cancer and punk rock coming to save me, I went through a brief phase of solitary nocturnal vandalism.
I went into the sports pavilion at the local rec after dark and unscrewed all the aluminium coat hooks from the changing rooms. This took a couple of nights. I brought the hooks home and eventually threw them away.
I also got into somebody's mini-van which was unlocked. There was a pack of Flash scouring powder in there which I chucked all over the van's interior. Even now I'm unsure why I did these things. I was probably bored, and possibly angry, though my feelings were so deeply buried in those days, I doubt if I knew, even vaguely.

Friday, 31 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 22. (1975).

I went to the local Scout disco for the first and last time. I was wearing Brother M's cast-off red and white zip-up cardigan. A girl came up and started talking to me. She asked my name. I was so surprised and shy that I gave my full name, as if I was being stopped and questioned by the police.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Family business # 16. (1983).

When I was twenty, just after I quit my first job, I cut my wrists with a craft knife in a botched suicide attempt. The cuts weren't severe enough to need hospital treatment but the angry parallel scabs were there for some weeks afterwards.

Dave Workman noticed the cuts. He said, 'That was fucking stupid. You could've died.'

I started a new job soon after, in the garden and heavy goods section of a big DIY store. The manager, Little Man Dave, saw the scabs and asked what happened. I made out that I'd caught my wrists on some packs of greenhouse glass when I was putting them away.

Mum didn't seem to notice. It may have been that I was careful to make sure that the cuts weren't visible when I was around her. Or it may have been that she was unable to see what she couldn't cope with. I can't and don't really know.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Random access memory # 37. (1981).

I was desperate to move out of the Fat Controller's house as soon as I could but financially it felt impossible as I was in a low-paid job. I saw a room advertised nearby and went to ask about it but the rent was about two thirds of my take home pay. I was only dimly aware of the benefits system then and didn't realise I could have probably got some help with the rent. My understanding would have been that you had to be on the dole to get help with your rent. A bloke I knew was signing on and getting his full rent paid. I worked out he was actually better off than I was working full time.
I tried to negotiate a pay rise on this basis, explaining that I'd be better off signing on and it'd be the only way for me to leave home. My employer called my bluff and said they couldn't give me a raise. I had to put up or shut up so I gave notice on the spot as I thought it was the only bargaining power I had. Eventually they relented and gave a me a small pay rise. The manager made out he'd had to pull a few strings and cut me a special deal so I should keep the raise to myself.
About a year later I discovered that, even with the pay rise, I was earning less than Vic who swept the yard, even though I was responsible for pricing all the invoices and doing quotations.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Family business #15. (1976)

I came home from school one day to find the television disconnected and the Daily Mirror hidden. When my mum got back from work she explained all privileges were withdrawn until further notice as a punishment for me not being friendly enough to my future step-dad, the Fat Controller. It wasn't alleged I'd been rude to him, just that I wasn't friendly enough towards him.
Due to my terror of losing any more of my family than I already had, I was chronically well-behaved as a child and this was probably the first time I was consciously punished for anything. I didn't have the presence of mind to question what was going on.
I was taken to the Fat Controller's house and made to apologise.
Years later, me and Brother D discussed this and concluded Mum's uncharacteristic punitive behaviour was almost certainly prompted by pressure from the Fat Controller. It seems an early example of him coercing her into complying with his irrational demands, a practise that went on throughout their marriage.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 21. (1997)

At least five years after we'd split up, La Scala rang me. It was just after Princess Di had died. Discussing the public response to the death I said something sarcastic about florists rubbing their hands with glee because of the public's floral tributes.
She took objection and unexpectedly said, 'We never got on.'
Equally unexpectedly, I burst into tears.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Random access memory # 36. (1977-1982).

I kept the ticket for that Cortinas gig in 1977. For several years it was blu-tacked to the roofbeam in the attic room where I lived in the Fat Controller's house. It got lost at some point. You can see a ticket for that gig online now. When so much is becoming digital, will we be able to forget anything again?

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Gone for good # 2. (2003).

Topknot, my fearsome vegan friend, was incredibly tough-minded and determined but in a rare show of vulnerability she once said of herself, 'What couldn't I have done if I'd been properly loved when I was growing up?' She died within a year or so of saying this to me. The worst of it is, it could've all been avoided.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Random access memory # 35. (1976)

Growing up, it was rare for me to feel good at anything, or to be seen as good at something by others. At school, English was the only thing that gave me this. At secondary school I did a piece of creative writing that the chain-smoking Miss Charlton liked so much she asked me to read it out to the whole class.
A few years before, I'd fallen into an ornamental lake on a day trip we'd gone on with the Holy Ghost Observatory. The water was probably only 3 to 4 feet deep but I went under completely and felt like I was drowning. The composition Miss Charlton liked was a description of that experience. She said it was really vivid.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Random access memory # 34. (1981-1982)

The options for entertainment were limited in the beige backwater that was my home-town. Often we'd need to go miles to another town just to go to a disco. Transport was usually a problem. At least twice, a group of us consciously decided to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the public toliets in Sherborne after a night out, so we could save on a taxi and get the bus in the morning. Inevitably it was cold, so we'd set off the hot air hand-dryer every so often to warm ourselves up.
Live gigs were so scarce that I once went to Dorchester, about 25 miles away, to see a band I'd never heard of, knowing I had no means of getting home afterwards. I tried hitching, without succcess, then resorted to sleeping in a cubile of some public toilets. During the night a policeman discovered me and questioned me. I explained about the gig and why I was there. Eventually he seemed to accept my explanation. He asked if the gig had been worth it. From memory, I think it had been mediocre.
Now it all seems very innocent and a bit odd and desperate. Hard to believe now our options were so few.

Monday, 20 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 20. (1980)

I had a crush on Steph, the sister of my mate Simon. Their mum worked at Express Dairies. Steph used to wear a big, shapeless milkman's duffel coat, with the Express Dairies logo printed on the back. Even in that she looked cool and amazing.
One of the local bands wrote a song about her, with her name as the title. I never heard it and don't know what the lyrics were but I could totally understand why they would want to write about her.
Back then, the people I hung around with nicknamed me Horrid Eddie, for reasons I found too depressing to guess at. The first time I met Steph, I called round to Simon's house and him, me and Steph walked to the Glovers Arms. On the way, we stopped for a joint round the back of the primary school opposite the pub. Steph's black lipstick got all over the roach.
A few days later, Simon reported that Steph had been pleasantly surprised by me. She'd apparently commented that Horrid Eddie wasn't horrid at all. I was quietly thrilled. Not that I was going to do anything about it, but I was thrilled nonetheless.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Who died and made you Elvis? # 3. (1970).

I don't know what primary school teachers are like these days, but I remember some of those at my school being terrifying. Once, unusually, I was chatting to a classmate during a lesson, when I heard Mr Thompson shout at me to stop talking. I looked up to see him fling a stub of chalk at my head with as much force as he could muster, a look of total rage on his face. The chalk hit me full on the side of the head. And Mr Thompson was one of the nice ones.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Who died and made you Elvis? # 2. (1972)

There was a horse-faced teacher at primary school called Mrs Fisher. One day we were doing maths and she made us stand up individually and read out our answers to the questions we'd been doing. It came to my turn and I got the answer wrong.
She screamed at me in front of the whole class; 'You always take forever to do your work and you still manage to make a complete hash of it!'
About ten years later she came into the DIY shop where I was working. I had to load some bags of compost into her car. Even after those intervening years I still remembered the way she'd humiliated me at school and I wanted to kick her teeth in.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Random access memory # 33. (1971)

Primary school had a tuck shop. I now realise what an affectation it was for the school to call it that. You were allowed to go during break-time and buy sweets and snacks. I never used it once, almost certainly because I didn't feel able to afford it.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Family business #14 (1983).

Probably soon after I left my first job, I was walking on the main road near the Fat Controller's house. Charlie, one of the blokes who used to come into the builders' merchants' pulled up beside me in his Jag and called me over. He asked me if I was looking for work. I said I wasn't. He said if ever I was, he'd offer me good money cash-in-hand for fitting kitchens on his sites. It was an offer that surprised me slightly as he would have had no idea as to my ability to put together kitchen units.
Soon after, the Fat Controller was needing some work done on the house and Charlie came round to quote. I could hear Charlie and the Fat Controller talking outside the back door. Referring to me, Charlie said, 'That lad in there used to work up the builders' merchants. He was good – they were daft to let him go – he always did my invoices spot on.'
There was a pause, then Charlie said to the Fat Controller, 'Is he your son, then?'
Presumably because somebody had just said something positive about me, the Fat Controller said, 'Yes.'
I was breathless at his hypocrisy. After four years of treating me like shit, he was now taking credit for me being his son. I could have cheerfully run outside and drop-kicked the cross-eyed prick. Fucking nerve.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Random access memory # 32. (1968).

Occasionally the Holy Ghost Observatory would put on a performance in the church hall, with people doing their party pieces. I remember Mr Thomas singing 'I Belong to Glasgow' and play-acting being slightly drunk. He was unlucky with his teeth – brown and gappy like bits of wood.

Random access memory # 31. (1969)

My home town was once officially identified as the whitest town in England, and certainly wasn't big on difference. At primary school there was one child who wasn't white – a Chinese boy called David. We became friends but he was only at the school for a short while. There was one child with evident learning difficulties, the brother of my friend RS. Sometimes the other kids would torment him at playtime. I remember him stamping around in circles on the playing field, wordlessly groaning at this torture.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Random access memory # 30. (1970).

The local Catholic church formed a major part of my mum's social life. We went with them to Bristol once on an outing to see Mother Teresa. I met her and shook her hand, but my abiding memory is that it was there that I first saw a black woman. She was one of the nuns with Mother Teresa. I was fascinated by her lips, and struck by her calm, still beauty and her huge sad eyes.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Family business # 13. (1972)

Andy R was an only child, although I had no impression that he was lonely. His parents would often take me along on their family outings. That was my main exposure to a family other than my own.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Family business # 12. (1970)

Probably my best mate when I was seven or eight was Andy R. One day I did some forgotten thing that he considered daft. He said, Some mothers do 'ave 'em, they reckon. Usually they say, some fathers do have to keep them, too.' He left a pregnant pause.
His dad, who was in the room, gave him a hard and meaningful stare and snapped, 'Andrew!'

Friday, 10 July 2015

I remember when it was all fields round here. #1. (1986)

When I moved to Deptford there was still half-day closing on a Thursday. The mania for everything being open and available all the time is a relatively recent thing. People forget that.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Random access memory # 29. (1969)

I would read anything as a child, including the local newspaper, the Western Gazette. As it was an old-style broadsheet and I was only six or seven, I had to lay it out on the floor and kneel on top of it to read it. It probably developed my vocabulary. I would ask Mum for the meaning and pronunciation of unfamiliar words.
That's how I learned to pronounce the word 'society' and the meaning of the word 'estranged'. The word 'estranged' came up in a story about a domestic incident between a man and his estranged wife.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Random access memory # 28. (1969)

Mum wrote a letter to her sister Margaret, which I think I must have read over her shoulder. She signed off with the words; 'Must go and get this in the post, then get the tea on. The kids eat like horses.'
I asked her what the last sentence meant. I think it may have been my first encounter with simile. Odd how I remember moments from my linguistic development.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Random access memory # 27. (1985)

I joined a brilliant film society based at the further education college where I did my first 'A' Level at evening classes. Aside from occasional stuff on the telly, it was my first exposure to what might be called serious film. Most of the people who went were drawn from what I saw as the nearest thing the town had to an arty set. I felt oafish alongside them, and envied there apparent confidence and ease.
I had a physically tiring job and nodded off a couple of times during a screening of 'Reds'. Realising I wouldn't be able to fight off sleep, I called it a night and sneaked out early. I accidentally let the door slam shut behind me.
At the following show, before the screening, one of the organisers made a general and admittedly gentle announcement asking punters not to leave before the end of the film, and if they must, then not to let the door slam. This successfully reinforced my feeling of gauche out-of-placeness.

Monday, 6 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 19. (1998).

I went out on New Year's Eve to the Garage in Highbury, with Racing Certainty. Towards midnight I went for a piss and when I came back he was nowhere to be found. I didn't find him again for the rest of the night.
The next time I saw him he claimed he'd been unable to find me and had eventually given up and gone home alone. I suspected this was untrue but he stuck to his story for precisely a year.
The following New Year's Eve I was out with him and Watercolour. Racing Certainty confessed that in the time it'd taken me to go to the toilet he'd got off with a woman and gone home with her. He'd continued seeing her for another two or three months although for some reason she'd always refused to tell him her surname.
I thought his behaviour towards me had been a bit shabby, particularly the dishonesty involved. But that feeling was mostly drowned out by my incredulity that somebody could find it so easy to persuade a woman to sleep with them, when I found attracting that sort of attention so unachievable.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 18. (1984)

The last couple of years in my hometown, between making the break from my old set of mates and moving to London, was a particularly lonely time. For, I think, my 22nd birthday, I went for a meal at a restaurant a few miles outside my hometown. I'm unsure now why I did that. It's possible there was a gig on in the nightclub across the road, but I forget. I was the only customer in the restaurant the entire time I was there.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Welcome to the working week # 13. (1985).

At my second job I unilaterally joined the shopworkers' union, USDAW. I mentioned this in passing to Maurice the storeman. Not long afterwards, in front of a group of colleagues that included the manager, Little Man Dave, Maurice announced that I was 'going to start a union'. Little Man Dave immediately said, 'I'll sack him if he does.'

Friday, 3 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 17. (1987)

Not long after I'd started going out with La Scala we went to see a workmate's band playing at a small community festival in North London. On the way home I wanted to hold her hand. She refused point blank. I found her completely unreadable and perplexing at times like that, and, in the absence of any useful experience, I had no idea how to handle it.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

If you're so clever... # 16. (1987).

Back when video players were still a relative rarity, a workmate at the dole office hosted a film-night at his flat, where he hired a video and invited a bunch of us round to watch. I was invited and went. Afterwards, I realised I'd gone through the entire evening speaking to nobody, and with nobody speaking to me. I had then, and still have now on occasion, a striking ability to absent myself among people.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Random access memory # 26.

At one of our trips to Butlins me and Mum were looking through the programme of upcoming entertainment. There was a hoedown advertised in the ballroom. She knew it was a dance of some sort but didn't understand the name. I suggested it was to do with people downing tools eg putting their hoes down, and relaxing after work. She seemed impressed that I'd worked out the etymology, which I was quietly pleased about.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Random access memory # 25. (1975)

A couple of times, me and Mum went to Butlins for a holiday. There was always live entertainment in the evenings and the theatre where most of it was held was always packed. The compère would ask everybody to shuffle along into the middle seats of each row to make it easier for latecomers to slot in.
Everybody cheerfully did this. I always think of this as evidence that working-class people have got a better-developed collective sense than middle-class people.

Monday, 29 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 15. (1976-1977)

I'm not sure how long the phase lasted but in my early teens I began going out walking alone late at night in my local area. The enduring image I have is of me standing at the top of a hill looking out over the town, knowing that nobody knew I was there and nobody knew where I was.
What sticks with me is the sense I had of being totally alone and my feeling that not only would this be a fundamental feature of my life, but that I had what it took to survive it all.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Random access memory # 24. (1986).

The Saxon at the DIY shop had an affair with a nineteen year old. He would have been about forty at the time. She sounded a bit unfortunate. The Saxon said she was also sleeping with a 65 year old bloke who lived upstairs from her. The Saxon was wholly unbothered by this.
He was careful. The clothes he wore to their assignations, he'd then get cleaned at the dry-cleaners near work. He sent me once to collect them.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Family business # 11. (1974)

I was visiting London with my mum at the height of the IRA's mainland bombings. We went to the Tower of London. All bags had to be searched before visitors could enter. The guard found a tampon in my mum's purse. He chuckled and said, 'That's a good place to keep it.'
My mum, embarrassed, said, 'That's private.'
It occurs to me that he wouldn't have said it if she wasn't a woman alone. I have a cluster of memories like this, of being with her in public and feeling unprotected from hostile attention.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 12.

At my second job the boss had small man syndrome. He liked to assert his authority in petty and irrational ways. He caught a colleague coming out of the toilets about twenty minutes after their lunch break. When challenged the colleague explained he'd been back on the shop-floor for some time but had subsequently gone for a shit. Little Man Dave then proceeded to give him a bollocking for not having a shit during his lunch break. His argument seemed to be that my co-worker must have been able to anticipate he'd need a shit fairly soon, so should have taken care of business on his own time, rather than eating into the company's profits by doing it while he was supposed to be back at work.

Family business # 10. (1974).

On my first day of comprehensive school my mum must have been working. She arranged for me to be given a lift to school by Mr Chown. His son David was more or less a friend of mine and was also starting at the same school.
The school uniform demanded we wore blazers. As I shut the car-door the corner of my blazer got caught. I was too shy to mention it, so spent the whole journey trapped at an awkward angle.
As we got out, Mr Chown said to David, 'Walk tall, son.'
Even then I was conscious that this was the sort of thing nobody ever said to me.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 14. (1986)

At the hostel, a woman who worked in the kitchen took a shine to me, though I was oblivious. Eventually, in frustration, she asked my room-mate to pass on a message that she fancied me. We went on one faltering, awkward date, to a comedy night in Brixton. She was German and the language barrier meant she understood little of the comedy.
I think she was puzzled and exasperated by my failure to detect her interest in me. When she was serving me in the canteen she'd engage me in small talk but I probably just thought she was being friendly. Only in hindsight did I realise she'd been giving me bigger portions of food than the other residents as a hint that she liked me.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 13. (1994)

I was in the Venue, New Cross, with Cynical Pete. While he went to the bar a woman in her twenties came up to me and, without speaking, began to snog me. After a while, she broke off and claimed to have mistaken me for somebody else. At the time I accepted this at face value. Perhaps I thought I've got a double out there somewhere who's identical to me in most respects except the inside of his mouth. I so little expect female attention that when it comes, I either don't notice it or am non-plussed by it.

If you're so clever... # 12. (1985)

When I first moved to London it was quite common for older men to approach me in pubs and start talking to me. Only in hindsight did I realise they might be trying to pick me up. I probably looked a bit of a fresh-faced innocent abroad, and lacking in confidence, so they my have just thought I was a rent boy. I've never expected people to take an interest in me and am rarely conscious of it when it does happen.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 11. (1979).

When I left school, you had to have an interview with a careers officer before you could sign on the dole. Apparently, his view was that one of the principle deciders of what sort of work I should aim for was location. He directed me exclusively to jobs within walking distance of where I lived. I think it's hard for middle class people to properly understand that sense of being treated as an interchangeable unit of labour.

Random access memory # 23. (1986).

I took the East London line to New Cross for the first time, coming to the Co-op for my interview. The cityscape alongside the line was bleak and concrete in a 1970s sort of way and it felt like I was heading for the middle of nowhere. The length of the journey persuaded me a commute to the shop job in Hammersmith was unworkable, though I didn't need much convincing. That choice symbolised a break with doing that old sort of work, and a growing feeling that I had some agency in directing the course my life took.
When I gave notice at the shop and explained I was moving to Deptford, Brian's wife Les said, 'Ooh, it'll be different over there. You'll get a lot of multi-ethnics'.

If you're so clever... # 11. (2002).

The Transylvanian told me she'd found that in her previous relationships one person usually had more power than the other, and our relationship was the most equal she'd ever had. She also said she hadn't felt so loved since she was thirteen, when her mother died in a car crash. She dumped me a few weeks later.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 10. (1985).

When I was working at the Hammersmith DIY shop I developed an itchy red rash around my crotch, and in the gaps between my toes and fingers. Eventually I went to the doctor and it was diagnosed as Dhobi's Itch. I'm not sure what caused it, but I suspect it was the dusty environment at work and some of the materials I was handling. As soon as I left the job to move to Deptford the rash disappeared.

Random access memory # 22. (1986-1990)

I grew up with a sense of scarcity in general, but concerning food particularly. When I moved into the shared house, for the first food shop I did, I bought a tin of hot dog sausages from Costcutter on Deptford Broadway. I opened the tin to find there was nothing in there but a kind of pink slurry. I went ahead and heated it up and ate it anyway, as if it was some kind of soup.
Around 1990, I failed to finish a meal. I remember being conscious there and then that it was the first time I'd left a meal unfinished, and that for the first time I felt entitled to do so. I would have been twenty seven at the time.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Random access memory # 21. (1976-1979).

I remember the future seeming like a huge blank to me when I was in my teens. At school they had a box with index cards of information about different jobs and careers, called 'Signposts'. Only two jobs on the cards appealed to me; writer and light-house keeper.
Light-housekeeping appealed because I wanted to be away from everybody and everything. And writing? I suppose I knew there were things I needed to express that I had no other way of expressing. Writing stories was the only thing I'd ever been praised for at school, and that only rarely.
Career or work-wise, I had little to steer by. Mum's job as a stock control clerk was monotonous and routine and I formed the impression of work as being something you just had to put up with, like everything else.
Another job that occurred to me was prompted by the fact that by the age of 14 I'd read my way through the whole social sciences section of the local library. In one of the social sciences book I'd read about a sociology lecturer at a university who was earning a wage I found mind-boggling,and who seemed to be living a sweet life.
Our neighbour, Johnny Pym, came round one night and in the traditional manner asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a sociology lecturer. He gave a me a look of complete bemusement before moving the conversation on.

Friday, 19 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 10. (1996-2001)

Watercolour tried to fix me up with with a work-colleague of his. He'd arrange nights out and engineer her presence. It took me a while to realise what was going on. After his efforts petered out, I asked him if he had actually been trying to set me up. He was evasive but said, 'Well, she is single.'
She was pleasant enough, but some kind of contrariness meant I didn't pursue things with her. This and many other acts of kindness from Watercolour seem at odds with the oddly casual manner in which he jettisoned me later.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 9. (2000)

Watercolour said of me that he'd never met anybody where there was such a gap between what I thought of myself and what other people thought of me, in the sense of me being down on myself. It surprised me.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 9. (1983).

At my second job there was a lot of heavy lifting. In the advert at the Jobcentre a key qualification was the ability to lift a hundredweight. You had no choice but to wear steel toe-capped boots. The company paid half the cost of the boots and I had to stump up the rest. The unfairness of this rankled, even then.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Random access memory # 20. (1985-1986)

In the first few years after I moved to London I got approached quite often by blokes in pubs. It took me a while to realise they were chatting me up. I'm unsure why that would have happened aside from the fact of me being alone. Maybe I had an unthreatening face that made me seem approachable. Maybe my general aura of low self-esteem made me look like a rent boy.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Random access memory # 19. (1985)

I took a year zero approach to my move to London. I believed then that self-invention was possible, so, with the exception of immediate family I wanted to sever all ties with the hometown where I'd been so unhappy. This, combined with my then habitual simmering paranoia, prompted me to lie to most people about where I'd be going and what I'd be doing.
I told quite a few people I was moving to Birmingham, where I claimed I'd been offered a job in a jewellers. Inconveniently, somebody I worked with had, unbeknown to me, previously worked in a jewellers. He expressed interest and pressed me for details that I hadn't bothered to either research or invent. I was never comfortable or confident as a liar.
I was so keen to kick over the traces that on my first few journeys to London after I'd made the move, I deliberately changed trains at Salisbury to fox anybody who might be following me.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 8. (1979-1983).

All three of my first employers were amazingly sack-happy. In the four years I was in the first job they sacked seven people, including the manager. It taught me a lot about work and shaped many of my attitudes.
The sacking were all handled shoddily, or involved serious ill-feeling.
The Axe Murderer was odd but he knew his stuff and he worked hard, albeit cack-handedly. The afternoon they sacked him, a massive container lorry of kitchen units came in. The manager asked the Axe Murderer to unload the lorry single-handedly then come to the office when he'd finished. When he went to the office as instructed they gave him his marching orders.
Pilfering and dishonesty were the most frequent reasons for people getting the push.
Kev got a home visit from the company which raised suspicions about the source of the materials used to build his parents new garage. He'd also set up a cowboy building firm with the yard labourer BJ. The materials they used were suspected to be of doubtful provenance. None of this was really proved but the bosses thought they had enough to sack them both.
It turned out BJ didn't have a driving licence though he'd been allowed to drive company vehicles. I wasn't around on the day of that sacking though by all accounts it wasn't cordial.
The manager L, said afterwards he'd always liked Kev and felt he'd had a raw deal from the company, a view he held to right up to, but not including, the point when Kev tried to hit him with a brick.
A couple of blokes in the yard also got sacked for theft. I didn't analyse it deeply at the time but I did note that when it turned out that the manager was at it worse than anybody, he was sacked for maladministration rather than theft even though he'd almost certainly been arranging for whole lorry-loads of goods to be illicitly delivered direct to builders he was chummy with.
At my first job in London, I took a week off to sit my second 'A' Level, and returned to find three of my four colleagues had been sacked for stealing. I was never tempted by the opportunities for theft. I didn't want more money, I just wanted to be somebody else.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 7. (1981)

At my first job, I worked with a bloke called Vic. He started as a yard labourer but later worked in the sawmill. He'd often go to the pub over the road at lunchtime, have four or five pints in an hour, then go back to work and cut a load of timber on the crosscut saw.
There was a fairly relaxed attitude to that sort of thing. After one staff Xmas lunch, we all returned to work pissed. Vic's successor Charlie was drunk enough to try and cop a feel with the manager's wife. Visibly swaying as he went, he then sauntered up to the sawmill to chop a lorry load of timber. Still, no-one died.

Friday, 12 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 8. (1997).

I've always felt socially awkward. When I got to know Monkey Trap these feelings were heightened by my sense that she was out of my league even as a friend, let alone as a potential girlfriend.
So that I'd always have stuff to say when we met up, I used to prepare in advance a list of possible things to talk about, as a set of bullet points. I'd have the list in my pocket and if I nipped out to the toilet or had a moment away from her I'd check the list to refresh my memory and keep the conversation flowing.
We met at a creative writing evening class. Coincidentally, the tutor once revealed that her late husband used a similar list-making technique to me.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 7. (1993)

My academic ability was as much of a surprise to me as anybody else. Part of the reason I went on to do an MA was that at some level I believed doing well in my BA had just been a fluke. When I got the letter telling me I'd got a First I immediately assumed they'd mixed up my results with somebody else's.
For the MA I got a studentship from the British Academy for fees and living expenses. I assumed these were available like student grants were available for first degrees. At enrolment, the bloke from admin looked at the confirmation of my studentship award and said, 'Ah, you're the one who got it this year, are you?'
Presumably they were highly sought after and I'd got it in competition with lots of others, which was news to me.

Lifetime underachievement award # 6. (1986).

The people in the shared house weren't exactly rooting for me going to university but they at least took the idea seriously. They treated it as a normal thing to do, which, for them, I suppose it was.
Until quite a late stage I was undecided which subject to do, vacillating between English, because of my dreams of writing, and sociology because of my political leanings. Discussing the sociology option with SP, he said, with what I saw as his usual pomposity, 'If you do Sociology you won't just get polemic.'
When I mentioned that I'd applied to do sociology and English at different universities, another neighbour warned that admissions tutors might think that I didn't know what I wanted. It was more that I hadn't really felt able to want anything before, and wasn't used to having choices.
In contrast my family seemed pretty nonplussed by my plans. When I told my mum of my intentions to go to university she looked at me with the expression of distracted puzzlement she often wore, which always made her look like she was trying to remember if she'd left the gas on.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Random access memory # 18. (2008).

Feeling that I'm not being listened to pushes important buttons for me. I was in Wetherspoons with another member of a local environmental group I'd joined. We'd met up to start work on a website for the group. She offered me a drink and I asked for a black coffee with cold milk on the side.
She returned with a latte, saying that she couldn't remember what I'd asked for so had got me that instead! Even seven years later this irritates me. Even now I think I should have left it untouched just to make a point.

Random access memory # 17 (1986).

Moving into a shared house in the housing co-op where I live in brought me into contact with types of people I previously hadn't encountered socially.
SP was doing an MA at Birkbeck College. I was struck by the rigidly self-disciplined way he worked. He studied in his room to set hours, then would come down for a lunch break which he would time to the minute.
He always had a lunch of cheese on toast with a layer of pasta sauce between the toast and cheese, to form a sort of pretend pizza. On the nights he had lectures he'd get fish and chips on the way home at Mr Perfecto's on the High Street. He'd always make the same joke of referring to the woman behind the counter as Mrs Perfecto.
At the time I was sceptical about his obsessive working practices, though when I subsequently did a degree as a mature student I worked in a similar way.
He was ill at ease with me. He once described me as a brooding presence. I wasn't sure what to make of this, though someone else also called me this some years later, so presumably it reflects something about me.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Random access memory # 16. (1982).

I went to the Samaritans twice in my teens though I'm unsure of dates. You could go along to their building. I went in person because there wasn't the privacy to call from the Fat Controller's house where I was staying.
The first person I saw was a woman who I half-recognised as the mother of somebody I had been at school with. I can't remember what she said, but I found it helpful whatever it was.
The second time, I was seen by a man. He irritated me slightly by recounting a suicidal episode he'd had some years previously, which had inspired him to volunteer for the Samaritans. I felt that I'd gone there for help and we'd ended up talking about him instead.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Random access memory # 15. (1976).

I had such low self-esteem as a teenager, I could hardly bear for people to look at me. This was reflected in my posture, to the extent that people commented on the way I walked. I remember Dean Gundry taking the piss out of me and imitating my walk. His impersonation consisted of walking along, fixedly looking at the ground, never looking up. It surprised me to see myself as others saw me, but also, I think surprised me to have been seen.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 7. (1983)

I spent my 21st birthday alone. The summer before I'd had a speed and acid induced freak-out and, among other things, decided to jettison the friends I'd had up until then, for the sake of my sanity.
I went to the Bell Inn, in a nearby village. There was a gig on by a blues band. It was a week night and I was the only person in the audience. As a thank-you for staying throughout, one of the band bought me a drink at the end of their set. I knew at the time this wasn't how people typically spent their 21st birthday, but I expected loneliness as my lot. In fact, I'm not sure that expectation's ever left me.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

If you're so clever... # 6. (1985)

For my first New Year's Eve in London I was invited over by Kerry and Eric, a couple I worked with in a Hammersmith DIY shop. I didn't fancy it but couldn't think of a polite excuse in time. Madness were playing at Hammersmith Odeon and I would have rather gone to that.
The evening was awkward and uncomfortable. We quickly ran out of stuff to say to each other, but I could hardly make my excuses and leave early. They were probably concerned that I'd feel lonely if I spent New Year's Eve by myself. I don't think I'd ever try to intervene in somebody else's loneliness uninvited. I think people can only find their own salvation with that sort of stuff, myself included.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Family business # 9. (1968)

I had a memory of coming into the school playground with a brown satchel and feeling embarrassed by it. Dad killed himself in November. At Xmas, because we had no money, the neighbours had a whip round to buy us children presents. The satchel was my present. I didn't need a satchel as I didn't need to take in any books. I've a feeling I was told to take it in to school regardless, perhaps in order not to seem ungrateful. That probably didn't go on for very long.
The feeling of shame and embarrassment about the satchel was definitely there at the time. Over the years I've probably added the association with being the object of pity, and people not having an insight into what I actually needed.
For ages I thought the memory was of me returning to school after a break following my dad's suicide. I later found out that in fact I wasn't off school at all after his death, not even for a day.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Family business # 8. (1970)

When I was five and my dad killed himself, my teacher at infant school was Miss Plummer. A few years later, one of the other children who had been in the same class at the time told me that Miss Plummer had instructed my class mates never to ask about my dad. This may have been motivated by kindness but I think it was probably influenced by the stigma and shame surrounding suicide.

Random access memory # 14. (1976)

Bomb scares were big in the 1970s. One happened at secondary school while we were changing for PE. Mr Kitson bellowed at us to get out. We had to run across the playing fields to the school's lower site. I was barefoot in nothing but my Y-fronts.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Random access memory # 13. (1978)

At secondary school a girl lost her finger when a freak gust of wind slammed a steel door shut on it. A rumour quickly got round that it was me who'd lost a finger. I've no idea how that rumour started.

Random access memory # 12. (1977)

Word got round at school that I'd been to see punk band The Cortinas at the local arts centre. In Biology, Matthew Poulton asked me if this was true and expressed disbelief. He said I seemed like somebody who'd be into Val Doonican or the like.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Random access memory # 11. (1978).

A couple of my mates at school formed a punk band. I wrote a couple of lyrics for them. One called 'Jackie Love' was a cackhanded attempt at satire on the gap between the reality of teenage sexual desire and the mythology peddled by 'Jackie' magazine. Out of context and on the page the lyrics just seemed puerile, and the irony was lost, as I quickly realised when somebody copied the lyrics out and passed them round in class.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Welcome to the working week # 6. (1981)

The Axe Murderer, my colleague at the builders' merchants, was a man of unrelenting oddness. He insisted on telling me and the Major in gruesome detail about how the skin on his heels would regularly crack and bleed.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Random access memory # 10. (1991).

About 6 years after I moved to London I was on holiday in Weymouth and saw 'DC' who I hadn't seen since we were at school together. He now had long hair and a substantial beard.
Even though we used to walk home from school together everyday, it took me a while to recognise him. What eventually convinced me it was him was the distinctive way he scratched the side of his nose, a bit like a rabbit. I didn't make myself known to him. My home town was the past and I was trying to turn my back to it.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Random access memory # 9. (1974).

In my early teens, me and Mum went to visit a distant relative in Norfolk. Out on a walk, we came across a rabbit with myxomatosis. I was encouraged to look away while the relative 'put it out of its misery' with his thick, black walking stick.

Family business # 8. (1970-1984).

I remember very few instances of being praised while I was growing up. And as with certain types of memory, the fact that they are memorable is an indicator of their rarity. When I was about eight I copied a picture of a character from the comic I used to get; Whizzer and Chips. Brother M praised the results and expressed surprise that I'd done it freehand.
At school, in art, we were asked to draw an invention. As I'd always been a fan of the Heath Robinson illustrations in Norman Hunter's 'Professor Branestawm' books, I drew something in a similar style. The result got passed round several of the other kids, who admired it.
When I was about 17 my mum heard me singing along to 'Shipbuilding' by Robert Wyatt and said I sounded 'quite nice'.
Soon after, I was singing to myself one day at work. A workmate overheard, looked surprised and exclaimed, 'He can sing!'.
At the age of 22 I did my first 'A' Level at evening classes. The tutor told me I was definitely university material. It was the first time somebody had said something like that to me. Earlier that week, she had coincidentally come in at the DIY shop where I worked, and seen me in my overalls, covered in shit. It may have prompted her to say what she said. I realise now the kindness of that.
Parallel to the English 'A' Level I took an 'O' Level in psychology and learnt about the role of positive reinforcement in child development. Maybe the lack of it early on contributed to me taking a while to find a direction in my life.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Family business # 7. (1979-1985)

My stepdad, the Fat Controller, made a habit of complaining about everything about me. Coward that he was, he channelled his carping through my mother. If he couldn't find anything to criticise, he'd invent something or trump something up. One day I'll list all his gripes here.
Once, Mum relayed his complaint that he'd seen me walking down the street with my hands in my pockets. She passed on his comment that if there was ice on the pavement and I slipped I'd be unable to break my fall. But this complaint happened at the height of summer. I think my lack of confidence was the reason it took me so long to realise how irrational his attacks were.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

If you're so clever # 5 (2000).

I don't fit easily into the social side of work. I was working on the Housing Benefit enquiry desk of a local authority. A bowling night was arranged. I felt I should make an effort and go along.
I felt shy and awkward throughout; a feeling compounded when I overheard one of the other workers refer to me as 'Silent Ed'.

Random access memory # 7. (1997).

Me, Watercolour, and Racing Certainty were in a pub near Highbury and Islington, pre-drinking prior to some unremembered gig at the Garage. Racing Cert dropped his change near the bar. A man nearby who had an eye-patch and, presumably, one eye, helped look for it after Racing Cert's initial failed search.
I told Racing Cert there was an arse-kicking contest planned for later in the evening if he fancied it, and suggested we might have to rope in a one-legged man to bail him out. I miss being funny with people who like me and find me funny. The opportunities are less frequent now.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

If you're so clever... # 4. 2001.

I got to know a woman, Monkey-trap, who was evidently out of my league, but who started giving off signals she might be up for getting romantically involved with me. That never happened, but it got close to it in what, for me, was a confusing and painful way, with a lot of very mixed messages flying about.
She moved to another city but we kept in touch initially. She started an affair with a musician who was in a long-term relationship with somebody else. She told me they'd been friends for a while, but had stepped things up when he came to visit one weekend. Apparently when he arrived he presented her with a brace of pheasants and 'one thing led to another'. The pheasants detail spoke volumes to me about the gulf between us and our respective lives. For days after she told me, I'd catch myself tutting and muttering sarcastically to myself, 'Brace of pheasants! Fucking hell!'

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

If you're so clever... # 3. (1998).

I was in group therapy for a while. I said one night that I didn't want children and somebody responded that perhaps I just hadn't met the right person. I was irritated by the response because I'd put a lot of thought into working out my feelings on the matter.
I'd always been intimidated by the idea of being a parent, afraid that I'd abandon my kids the way I felt my dad had abandoned me. This may have contributed to my avoidance of intimacy. Maybe I feared that anybody I got close to would be thinking in terms of children at some point.
When the penny finally dropped it felt like a relief rather than a loss, like losing a religion I'd never really bought into.
My first serious girlfriend used to say I'd be a good dad, but I felt unequipped. After that relationship ended I had a really long gap without involvements. It may have been coincidental, but soon after I recognised I had no interest in parenthood, I was able to move on and start seeing people again.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Gone for good # 1. (1993 to 2001).

I was introduced to Watercolour by an ex-girlfriend. We were both 30. He was drumming in a band with a couple of 20 year-old science students. He invited me to join them as second guitarist, sight unseen, a gesture of such generosity that I never quite understood it, though I suspected he may have been trying to edge out the existing singer who was dreadful.
I liked him immediately. In contrast to me he was naturally sociable. I found it easy to talk to him.
That first band eventually petered out but me and Watercolour stayed friends for eight years. At the time it was longer than I'd been in a friendship or relationship with anybody.
In the last two years of our friendship we formed a band of our own, a three piece with bass, drums and keyboards. The keyboard player was a constant source of frustration for me.
Watercolour claimed to share the same frustration but didn't want to address it directly. I realised that while he was good at getting people to like him, he hated conflict and wanted a low maintenance life. Soon after we'd recorded four songs intended for a self-released CD he went incommunicado for almost two months, not returning my calls. On resurfacing he announced that, because of the tension between me and the keyboardist he wanted to gig less than the three or four gigs a year we'd been doing.
Feeling this was unworkable, I left the band on the spot.
He took this as the end of our friendship, although his two month absence before suggests he may have already decided this. It puzzled me as there'd been nothing resembling a falling out.
Friendships wax and wane, for sure, but you can usually feel the drift as it's happening. With Watercolour it was more like he'd just thought, I'm finished with this now, I'll go and do something else.
I realise in hindsight that he had form for this sort of thing. He'd done something similar with a bunch of friends he'd moved to London with. He jettisoned them with so little warning that he got a mutual friend to return a suit he'd borrowed from one of them a few weeks before.
I realise now he had an easygoing charm that meant he had no difficulty getting to know new people. He was never going to have to hold onto old friends out of a sense of scarcity.
In a way he was a typical drummer. It's not the most taxing role in a band but they're always in demand, often playing for several groups at once. Maximum popularity, minimum commitment, really. The loss of the friendship affected me badly, though it took a while to fully have its impact.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Welcome to the working week # 5. (1988).

At my first job, I worked with GB. He was a gaunt, ginger fantasist with a couple of faded sailor's tattoos on his forearms, who worked in the sawmill .
He'd cottoned on that I smoked dope at the time, and boasted to me that when he was in the merchant navy he'd smuggled a weight of grass through some port, secreted in piping on the ship. He also claimed that when in the navy, he and others of the crew would extract and drink the alcohol from the well-known metal polish, Brasso. He'd filter it through several slices of white bread first, in order to remove the minutely fine grit contained in the polish.
I wasn't alone in being sceptical about much of what he said. He used to walk into work from the village where he lived and his excuses for his habitual lateness were often a treat.
Once he explained away a twenty minute delay by claiming he'd witnessed a traffic accident en route and police had insisted on taking a witness statement from him.
After a bout of sick leave with diarrhoea, he turned up late. He reckoned he'd set off in time, but, evidently not out of the woods as far as his bowels were concerned, he'd farted and followed through, and therefore had to go home and change.
The company sacked him the day before Christmas. I thought the timing was harsh but he wasn't bothered; he had a partner and kids so was better off signing on.
There were a lot of other sackings in the four years I was there and I think that influenced my developing political perspective. I took the sackings as evidence the bosses didn't give a shit about us. I may have been generalising from a conclusion I'd already reached that it was an unfair world and nobody gave a shit about me. But the fact I started seeing this stuff in class terms was definitely connected with work, and the antagonistic relations between workers and managers.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Welcome to the working week # 4. (1981)

At my first job, when I was about 18, the manager took me to one side and asked, 'Where do you see yourself in five years time? Fancy running a place like this?' I thought, 'Why the fuck would I want to do that? I don't even want to work here.' Occasionally since, bosses have suggested I'm management material. They've probably meant it as a compliment, but I've never taken it that way. One said, 'You've certainly got what it takes.' To me that meant, 'Everybody thinks you're a twat so you're half-way there already.'

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Welcome to the working week # 3.

I worked in Housing Benefits for about 11 years, across various London boroughs. In my experience, most workers involved did the work out of a political commitment to the welfare state. There were rare exceptions. At one suburban borough, a colleague used to check the wedding announcements in the local newspaper, to see if the bride and groom both gave the same home address. If they did, she'd report them to the fraud team to be investigated for their previous cohabitation.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Random access memory # 6. 1976-1980

When I was about fourteen I bought my first guitar. I got it second-hand with a practice amp through a small ad. My aunt bought me a guitar tuition book as a birthday present, which I laboriously trudged through. It took me ages to master an open G and D, which are still probably my favourite chords. It was clear early on that I wasn't a natural. Even three years after I got that guitar I remember my mum coming up to my bedroom at my request to give a second opinion as to whether I'd managed to get it in tune.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 5. 2001.

Previously, a couple of people had commented that I look a bit like Stan Laurel. It occurred to me to capitalise on this and try to get work as a lookalike. I did some perfunctory research and found the 'work' was really well paid – about £200 for an afternoon. There wasn't much in the way of competition either. For a few weeks I checked the back page of the Stage newspaper where lookalikes advertised. The only other Laurel and Hardy were setting the bar pretty low – Stan was fatter than Olly. The idea never came to anything. Advertising to recruit an Olly seemed more hassle than it was worth, although I suppose he only needed to be fat and reliable.

Family business # 6. 1967-1975.

I've got a distinct cluster of memories that attach shame to being short of money. Concerned at my solitary ways my mum pushed me into joining the Cubs. When I moved up to the Scouts, Akela announced in front of the whole troop that if the cost of the uniform was likely to be a problem for my mum, there might be some assistance available. Not for the first time, I wanted to disappear. The Christmas after Dad's suicide, the neighbours had a whip round so Mum could afford to buy us presents. I picked up early on the fact that we were hard up. Either that Christmas or the one after, I left a note for Santa asking for twelve black wine-gums, which I got. When we needed a new garage because the old one was collapsing, the men on our street came round to build the replacement. It was all kindly meant, I'm sure, but no child wants to feel different or feel singled out as an object of pity. As time went on I became increasingly conscious that money was tight. For one birthday Mum bought me a box of old Action Man stuff second-hand from a neighbour. A Theatre in Education group came to my primary school. There was a charge for it. At Mum's request I had to ask Miss Parsons if I could be excused because of the cost. This wasn't allowed and I had to attend. I remember nothing about the performance other than the sense of unease that it was costing money we couldn't afford.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 4 (1987-1988).

Back then, going to university was mostly seen as the preserve of the solidly middle class. I'd left school at sixteen and, among other things, worked as a store-man in a builders' merchants, then later as a shop assistant in a couple of DIY shops. Some saw my going to university as a mature student at 25 as an odd thing to do. At a family occasion during my first year, Brother M said, 'You're an ordinary working class bloke – what do you want to go to university for?' Although he'd sometimes ask about the Saturday job I had in a timber merchants throughout my degree, I don't remember him ever asking about the course itself. A workmate at the dole office where I worked directly before university, expressed dismay at my choice. He said, 'Oh no! You'll turn all middle-class when you go there.' He was only half-joking.

Friday, 20 February 2015

If you're so clever # 2. 1985.

I was a late starter with women. I lost my virginity to a woman I'll call 'K'. She was 17 but seemed older. We met doing a Sociology evening class at a London FE college. After each class, some of the students would go to the pub. She invited me along once. At the end of the evening, when we went our separate ways, she unexpectedly snogged me. Soon after this we made arrangements to go and see a Joe Orton play above a pub in Islington. I'm not sure I even thought of it as a date. I went straight from work at quite a physical job in a DIY shop. I may have changed my shirt but more out of politeness than expectation. I was amazingly unawares. After the play we went to the house in Barnes where she lived as some sort of nanny. We snogged all the way there. She made me cheese on toast then led me by the hand upstairs to her room. We sat on her bed. She said, 'I'll turn off the light because we're both nervous.' She returned to the bed, took off her top and kissed me. She wasn't wearing a bra. I think only at that point did it finally occur to me that we were going to have sex. I was inept beyond description but I was too naïve to realise it at the time. Lying in bed afterwards, she put on the single version of 'Perfect' by The The. As she put it on she said, 'I hate silence'. The choice of track clearly wasn't a comment on my performance. The next morning I went back to my hostel. Standing at the bus-stop I could smell her perfume on me, which made me really happy. We went to the cinema the next evening at my suggestion, but she'd definitely cooled towards me. That was pretty much the end our relationship. I can't remember how she made it clear but she did. I wasn't as crushed as I could have been, mostly because it had all taken me by surprise really. I needed the 'A' level so continued with the evening class despite my initial embarrassment. I think she was going through a bit of an exploratory time in her life and seemed unphased by the whole thing. Partly out of embarrassment at my cluelessness, when I reported back to my workmates about my night out, I claimed we hadn't slept together. The Saxon expressed surprise, saying, 'Really? They're usually dirty, those posh birds'.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Lifetime underachievement award # 3. 1992-2002.

Playing in bands is hard work and finding suitable people to join is even harder. Advertising for personnel has led to some unusual responses. I once had a call from the mother of a possible guitarist, volunteering his services. She said he'd had some sort of breakdown but he was okay now – he wasn't mad or anything, he was just a bit quiet. At one stage I wanted to start a band which did completely improvised music. The small ad in Loot was totally specific – no songs, NOT JAZZ. The only caller was a trumpet player who kept going on about his love of Charlie Mingus, an enthusiasm he clearly expected me to share. He then started in about his musical chops. He said he could read fluently. He meant he could read music. Not adverts. Obviously. Bands seem to attract buffoons. I'm not the only person to think it. One caller replying to an ad said that despite other musical reservations, he was tempted to join because I sounded like a reasonable, intelligent person. He went on; 'You probably already know, there are some right idiots in the world, and most of them want to be in bands'. Fantasists abound. Me and Watercolour had a first rehearsal with a guitarist who, in the pub afterwards, immediately steered the conversation to making a provisional agreement about how we'd split any song-writing royalties.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Random access memory # 5. 2010

I went on a conservation holiday in the Caledonian forests beyond Inverness. Despite the wilderness, it was a claustrophobic experience, with twelve of us sharing a dormitory, unable to stray far from the grounds of the remote forester's lodge where we stayed. Predictably there were a high proportion of hippies in the group. One relatively young woman was disabled by a stroke she'd had in her early thirties. She was subjected to some casual cruelty which shocked me, not least because some of the worst of it came from one of the hippiest of the hippies, who, more than once, referred to her as wobbler due to the lop-sided gait her stroke had left her with.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Family business #4. 2009

My stepfather was a very controlling man. As my mother's dementia progressed he was obstinately resistant to getting Mum a diagnosis, despite endless concerned attempts at persuasion by me and Brother D. On one visit I was trying to persuade him again when he lost it completely and started yelling at me; 'If you're going to keep pushing me like this you can go out the fucking door right now. I'm not fucking having it.' In a way, to me, Mum's dementia was fitting karma for the Fat Controller. For somebody so addicted to dominating others, it seemed there was a sort of justice that he should have this tie with somebody who, increasingly, couldn't have done as she was told even if she wanted to.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Random access memory #3 (2006-2009)

I got an allotment in Lee just before allotments started getting media coverage becoming trendy. The two myths circulated in the media were that it was a great way to save money, and that there weren't enough plots to go round. With my half-plot I needed to spend at least four hours a week keeping it going. It produced enough fruit and veg for me, but assuming I was earning £9 an hour at the time, logically I'd have needed to produce £36 worth of veg per week to break even. Financially it would have made more sense to get a job on the tills in Lidl and spend the wages on veg but where’s the bragging rights in that? The idea there weren't enough plots to go round was, I think, a result of an inflated sense of entitlement from the middle class people who started getting interested in allotmenteering. I was told the plot I took on hadn't been properly cultivated for seven years, as a succession of people had taken it on then abandoned it, often within weeks, when they realised what hard graft it was. The same thing happened with the plot next to mine. I never saw anybody actually working on it, but I'd see occasional evidence of desultory activity. One morning the weeds had been strimmed. Six months later half a row of digging had been done. Over the course of my first year three tenants came and went. I enjoyed the three years I had on the plot. It felt magical when stuff grew. But in the end, pressure of time did for me. I was working four days a week and volunteering two days -something had to give.