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.