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.