Thursday, 15 September 2011

Episode 15: Lesser spotted creeper

We've all ridden the beast of self-humiliation. At Turrets, I'd constantly sit at my desk, or sometimes even wander around the class, singing squeaky voiced versions of popular chart-toppers, unhestitatingly upping the volume if I thought the lyrics merited it. The urge towards social suicide continued at Shrapnel Park when I was caught by class seductress Suzie Chewitt one morning and asked which tune I was massacring. 'What is life?' by Olivia Newton John. Maybe it was the spiritual aura surrounding me, but RI (Religious Indoctrination) was a particularly successful lesson in terms of getting girls. Following my one kiss with Wendy, which was a virtual rape, I'd still not managed to find myself a girlfriend. I was feeling pretty desperate, but the hairstyle for the first time gave me the courage to try a joke with the less popular girls.The policy paid off! One day, a paper aeroplane crash-landed on my desk. From Chewitt!!! Would I go out with Linda Grubb? She may have had greasy hair, a dental brace and acne, but as I explained to Seamus, she had 'a nice figure' Well she wasn't fat. I was so pathetically grateful for the attention that I agreed at once, resulting in two or three double dates where nerves ran riot. I still could hardly believe that after two years, a girl considered me attractive and I was desperate not to make any wrong moves. Communicating only through notes chucked across the class from Chewitt and Linda to me and Bertie Woollen (the other parties in the arrangement) and terrified of the prospect of having to go out with her alone, I finally cracked and got Seamus to pack her in for me after a respectable four weeks. The respect for the other class failures towards me had been substantially boosted. However this was only the start. The next landmark was probably the Third Year Christmas disco. I didn't have any higher expectations than usual, but on the night, things just seemed somehow to fall into place. An old pair of trousers I thought I'd never use again suddenly came back and started working. The hair, by now sculpted permanently into the Alessi-style parting seemed on form, and the look, which in a flash, I'd decided to model on fifties American bowling alley chic combo, 'Racey' suddenly came right. The disco was a happy if girl-wise uneventful occasion. I did the 'Jilted John' dance, revolutionary to those looking on, played the fool a little, and even mixed it up with the harder elements like Kane and Heifer, who seemed in good spirits. Unseen eyes were watching however.....

Daz FX

Daz's chemistry dictations came too quickly for the classes' most lethargic member. Such difficulties might be turned to my advantage. Perhaps through having a less well-developed wrist than the majority of my classmates, my pleas for him to slow down a little led eventually to me being afforded a little idiot's licence. Other teachers were less easily taken in. Maybe it was the problem of confronting a subject seemingly unrelated to the world I lived in, but Science proved a particularly volatile period. From flunking my Biology O-Level for refusing to dissect a fish, to slicing Bentley's finger open during a barbaric 'experiment' causing him to feint and crack his enormous head (and lips) on the floor. Even going as far as staging my own Bentley incident, leaning back and pretending to topple backwards from my stool and knock myself unconscious. (Bentley having done this two weeks earlier during a sex film) They had to rub more than Vaseline on his lips that day. But which one of us was really cracked?

Ritual in the dark

Back at a showbound Shrapnel, Beverley warmed my cockles with the declaration:
"I know somebody who fancies you!"
I came, plopped and dribbled and said something like,
"I couldn't give a shit! Tell me the slag's name and I'll kill her!"
Anything to give the impression of non-needing indifference.
Beverley pointed to a girl on the far side of the playground.
"....Madeleine Seal."
The jaws of those around me dropped open. I'd been playing myself in with pretty unspectacular female company so far, but Madeleine Seal was big fish.
"Tell me more" I didn't say, while pushing the conversation relentlessly in this direction. Every word of Beverley's discourse was an orgasm.
"Oh, she said, 'Who was that boy doing that dance at the disco..?' Well can you pair us up for the party?"
I let the statement hang in the air. It was the unreality of the working class Pools winner. Though in this case, it was the spectacle rather than the substance that counted. In truth, she wasn't actually that attractive. In fact, she had legs like tree trunks. I saw her running once. It was horrible. But she had a dark exotic look and an aura of experience. We wanted her for who and not what she was.

The outfit assembled for the crucial night therefore, and all I can say is that the hair must have been in good form, comprised flared black cords over 10-hole Blackburns with a ghastly green fuzzy felt shirt, but you could get away with things like that then if you had the confidence. Beverley agreed to meet us at the library and Seamus and I headed off in Father's car...Nerves are playing havoc as we pull up at the entrance. Thank God. She isn't here. We can all go home now. I can imagine the headlines on Monday.
"Yeah! Leonard stood up Madeleine Seal!"
"Well, (shrugs) I was doing something else."
But Seamus thinks he can find the road. And he does. And we arrive. Nervous as I am, this is nothing compared to the terror inside. Why aren't the lights on? What's going on in the front room? Now I'm getting serious shakes. Stumbling and blinking, I head for a small free space on the floor clutching my box of chocolates, luckily landing 'Monkey' Glands as a conversational partner, his 100 mph fun and games chatter for once a welcome island of sanity in this shocking mystery.
"All right, Leonard? Madelaine's over there waiting for you...!"
"Fuck...shit!" Mumble mumble.
At last a chance to exploit my monotone 'pitched to the general murmur' voice.
Eventually things took their course and we ended up together. That would be the end of the matter. I wandered home with Weisman in ecstasy and relief. The next day incidentally was appalling. Hornets were beaten in foul conditions as usual and I was nearly booked for swearing.


After and before the party, the glimpse into a tacky subculture that is Beverley attracts reluctantly. Always with Beverley there is participation of Saturday. Days out in Dragnam. Trips to London. Lots of being outdoors on a precious day free of school duties, usually following morning football training.
And our enchantress herself, though a little chubby, exhibits a powerful personal magnetism. No shame amongst male class members in a Beverley mauling. One Saturday in particular left an impression. Dean hung around the pair of us. I've no idea why. Who could hurt his feelings? And the threat of sex added a certain edge to the atmosphere. Dawdling round to Dean's Victorian terraced dwelling. One parent dead. Another shortly to die. A blast on Dean's video thing. I lay against the wall, vulnerable, virgin. Beverley walks over with those big predatory eyeballs and with little more than an afterthought begins to suck my throat. I can feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead as Beverley increases the pressure. The feel of this vamp is something incredible but my basic fear of sex and taking matters to their inevitable conclusion leads me after a minute or two to cry halt. What a pleasure decadence being! To be seduced, but not like a girl, for looks, vulnerability. In the aftermath, with violently large marks appearing on my neck, I can offer the excuse of 'What will my girlfriend/mother say?" Of course, I couldn't give a shit for my mother's opinion, but the thought of lust being visible to blood relations is repellent, and as far as girlfriends go, I've already encountered great problems in maintaining enthusiasm for romance.

Later in the evening, we head to Rottenbrough to see an indifferent Kung-Fu movie. Maybe we have a couple of snogs, but the satisfaction is in knowing no relationship will follow, but something more than friendship has occured. On Beverley's part, a lust for ploughing through the boys at hand. For me, a shot of the hippy free love experience. Of course though, they made it disgusting.

Jesus was my bumchum

People are always making deals with deities:

"I'll set myself on fire to sit beside Buddah."

"Bring this plane down safely and I'll never fly Air Romania again."

The latter pledge I've kept to this day, which I think goes to show my seriousness regarding spiritual matters. Right now I was looking to strike a bargain to keep this whole Barnsley business off the front page. My mum was godparent to the lead singer of a Blackpool Christian band who'd toured with Cliff Richard and who wrote McCartney-style melodies with a Lennonesque lyrical twist - a surprisingly potent combination. Sing his praises round town (or the school playground at least) for a while?


Because I was young and liked to get into the spirit of things, I gave the whole 'He is the answer' business quite a shot. I started scribbling punky slogans in praise of God in my rough book and was seen to adopt something of a 'Take me Lord' stance, rather in the manner of offering my throat to Beverley that afternoon round Krapt's. About the time Barnsley offered me a 'forgotten, not forgiven' sweet at the 1979 England vs Luxembourg friendly, I decided I could loosen the collar on the old hair shirt a bit, amending my creed to 'I am the new Messiah!' Mind you, you can't beat the peace of mind an idiot belief offers you. Even if it means temporarily relocating your ego from the centre of the universe. I used to quote from the old punk testament:

'In order to gain everything, you first have to sacrifice something.'

My religious instincts first manifested in Tottenham Hotspur FC. Religion being something you followed in the face of all logical reason, as I would probably have put it at the time. My first religious encounter came a few doors up the road at The Church of The Peculiar People when I was four or five. I remember being led into a windowless room and invited to let the holy spirit enter me. My step-nan, who was mad, was a regular at the church, and no doubt it lent her comfort when she wasn't going for my mother with the dress scissors, but she belonged to an age where seances and mediums were a way of relating to the mysteries of existence. We stood on the brink of the Seventies and needed to create our own sensory wonders.

I stood apart from conventional religion having not been christened as the vicar wouldn't do the children of non-church goers. To me, he had right on his side, but I think my parents were a bit put out. Somewhere around the age of eleven, it was suggested that a reconciliation between church and family might be effected if I was willing to submit to the ritual drip. I declined, but I'd still talk shop about Christianity with anybody who was willing to listen right up to school leaving age, especially my girlfriend's mother when I was being demonised for wearing studded wristbands.

"Yes, you're right...the church rejected me too....and I've had sex at 13 with..... 'a person', and I'm not telling you 'their' name either..."

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Episode 14: The Immaculates

Christmas '78 meant cold and an uncommon amount of time spent at a family friends' house. The Immaculates, as they were ironically named, considering the youngest boy had no feet, were a brash configuration. The boy blunder was a habitual escapist and liar. His elder brother Alan was an overgrown braggart, cocky because of his size and needlessly cruel to his sibling. He in turn, was at the mercy of his appalling father Dennis. Decency prevents me from listing the depths of crassness he descended into, but suffice it to say, death was too kind for him. His wife Jean was by some margin, the nicest member of the family: blonde, pretty and just about in her 30s, she was the only "Aunt" I had who could vaguely be called young. Extrovert in manner, she had a pearly queen glamour that was just the right side of tacky.

Den's speech was full of phrases like "You're the only one 'ere not working!!" and "I've got the 'ump wiv youse!" Rather in the way that cockneys seem genetically incapable of understanding their own double standards, this frequent four-letter word user instructed us to "...Cover yer ears if they start swearing!" when we watched The London Weekend Punk documentary. He kept giving me presents up to my sixteenth birthday, and expected kisses for them in return. In Dennis's world, money could always buy you love. Personally, I preferred taking my swimming trunks off in front of Jean while she pretended to scold me and that didn't cost a thing! She was a true enlightened South Londoner. Passion was in the air that December.

"If there was a girl in here now" said Alan, "I'd show her any part of my anatomy she'd care to see..."

Soon he showed me what I'd been waiting for. Delving into the corner of his bedroom, he emerged with his pornographic magazine collection. I read it and was horrified to find descriptions of "white hot spunk" and 'searing climaxes' I took it all completely literally and feared burning myself once I'd learned how to masturbate. Then there was about three pages describing a woman doing stuff to her vagina. It read like a description of open-heart surgery. Revolting.

The attractions of spending an evening at The Immaculates were basically material. There were bowls of Mini Bounties and Mars Bars; 'afters;' a heated outdoor swimming pool and a house-sized teddy bear called 'Bulky.' Nowadays we'd be strangers from opposing planets, but most of Christmas '78 belonged to them. It was from the Immaculates that I set out to buy my first Punk 45', reckoning they were too liberal (or ignorant) to recognise it as anything other than just a good rock and roll record. I was also introduced by Alan to the delights of Yes's 'Tormato' album. He played it incessantly during our table tennis tournaments, probably to put me off, but the delights of the LP followed me well into the new year, the strange synthesizers and Nordic imagery evoking a cheap mystery and matching the romantic confusion stewing in my brain.


After two years with the New Wave effectively banned from the house, I was now venturing regularly into Rottenbrough. Each trip was a fear-filled affair. The bus would take you haltingly into hell. The boneheads and their bootboy associates were everywhere and nobody it seemed could stop them. The only hope was to pass yourself off as a non-target. It was a game of bluff. The keys were a Harrington and a pair of steel-capped DMs. I invested in some 10-hole 'Blackburns', fibbing my parents they'd be useful in the snow. That winter, I'd trudge to the bus-stop, jeans hiked up for full Martens exposure. The rubber soles adding another inch to my already hairstyle-boosted height. One Saturday, with the snow scuppering the transport schedule, I fell into conversation with a similarly stranded youth. Despite being somewhat older and considerably more streetwise, he let slip he went to 'Raffles', the only private school in the area. This was immediately to my advantage. Shrapnel had recently 'run' Raffles (he kindly informed me) and the DMs seemed to confirm his view that at base, I was Shrapnel, and due at least some deference. Finding out what school someone went to was usually the next question after asking their name. Assessments were swiftly made and a strange, stupid aura became attached to the answer. Danelaw and Swarfega had acquired psychotic reputations, St Bartholomew's, Buttercup Row and the Cleric Green schools were generally regarded as wimp territory, and everybody's else's standings was open to negotiation. This was possibly all in my head more than anyone else's but I remember once when Martin went to a Swarfega school disco, being surprised in the extreme when he hadn't been in some way attacked...

Skating on thin ice.

I am not one of them. I accept merely to feel a little truant glamour rub off. Beverley must have badgered me into accompanying her. Best do as she says. She possesses knowledge that could be to my advantage. Also present are Solomon, Seamus, Dean (a harmless clown who lies compulsively) and Beverley's friend, an unstable girl with a full-time criminal father.
Ice-skating seems an awful prospect, but we must get it out of the way, with any luck, with several pauses to look at record shops. People crawl out from all places as we approach London. Every minute is measured personally in T-minus go home. Solomon collars some Punks as we walk into Rough Trade and I hear The Pop Group album playing. The music is wild and strange though later I don't like the 12". Beverley gazes at a poster of Bowie in pegs and a sailor top. The laughing gnomes's "A right little orgasm!" The Punks drone on as Solomon adjusts his dog collar.
"Steps back in amazement...!"
Two Essex pricks pass. I'm sure the Punks could have them, but they saunter on. Heard it all before.
And onward via constantly changing buses towards the ice-rink. Where is Queensway anyway? Such is my lack of knowledge of surrounding areas that we hadn't left Rottenbrough and I thought we were in Dragnam. By the time we got to Sicklow, we could have been on the other side of London. Abandon me now and I'd never see home again. Arriving at the rink, everybody zooms up and down on the ice. After an hour, I still haven't learned how to corner properly. Is everyone having a good time? This is our day off. Tomorrow means homework and the god-damned Saxon Hornets. Was it all worth the effort? Beverley gets confused and buys "Headlights" by Driver 67 instead of 'Car 67', then goes into one. She took me to the market to get her 'best of breed' guinea pig gold medal engraved. I skirt around the centre usually, but Solomon's stall might yield something on a Saturday-with his delicious 30-something manageress. Lots of Kate Bush mums round here at the moment. His own included. Trouble with a Scottish Genesis fan wanting 'Sooty Bendabar!' Solomon gives him 'Spot The Pigeon'. These Jocks can take over an entire shopping centre when lathered. Courage forged of granite or tins of McEwans. OK individually, only menacing if you're part of the English mass. Caught here by the child-nabber last month. He took me to his stall and gave me a pound to screw together a series of rods so he could trade. I couldn't follow the process at all. He had to do most of it himself. The bonus of missing the first couple of lessons wasn't worth the stress. I steer clear of the market as a rule. You can lose yourself in those Saturday shopper expeditions. A couple of girls at Solomon's stall invited me to meet them in Debenhams in ten minutes time....But that dirty mush of fruit and vegetables and bitter cold air as the light drains out of the sky. The shouts. The inhuman trader bartering noises. Autumn burnt into your pale English cheeks; the water soaking through your improperly tied boots. Better here at tea time. Less risk of a confrontation in the five o' clock exodus..

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Episode 13: Love and Affection

The whole era was mounting. I bought Joan Armatrading and Bruce Springsteen albums and began to buy what could vaguely be described as fashionable clothes. With Seamus's forwardness, a second mass cinema date was somehow arranged. As previously mentioned, 'Grease' was the film of the hour. The whole thing held no appeal for me whatsoever. I hated rock and roll and John Travolta and Olivia Netwon John made shit pop records that dominated the charts instead of my punk favourites, but Seamus liked Elvis and as this was the current box office attraction, we targeted it as bait.

One rare piece of good fortune over the previous two years had been Wendy Longson. A good looking, muscular girl with enormous knockers. Wendy's non-stop chatter was the only reason she wasn't more popular. She was obsessed with outdoor sports, mostly canoeing, which with her powerful physique, she triumphed in. She was also intelligent and friendly and when I asked her to come to the film, she immediately accepted on a platonic basis. Hah! Now I could put childish notions of friendship aside and claim it as my first score.

By the time Saturday came, I'd begun to believe my own publicity. The crowds were huge as I stepped off the bus and I felt obscurely that they had come to witness my date with destiny. Seamus had a natural inclination to cheat and despite being small, pushed into the front of the queue, dragging me with him. We'd made it into the cinema, which would have been impossible if we'd queued up properly, but we'd had to take a chance that the girls would be inside waiting for us.

No sign in the foyer. Running along the back of the cinema and in and out of the auditorium eventually drew the attentions of the manager who I argued with half-heartedly before he threatened to throw us out. Seamus remarked afterwards: "I thought you were going to hit that bloke!" Me, thirteen, pale and skinny. Him a tatooed, fifty-year old teddy boy yob. It was a ridiculous notion. Hah! I was good at faking aggression.

We watched the film, which wasn't too painful and Seamus seemed to be enjoying himself. Almost every song had made the British charts. Even I liked a couple, and the cinema sang along to the hits. No sign of the dates though. Bah! It was never going to happen.

We filed despondently out of the back. It was now dark, but waiting at the front were Solomon, Wendy and the rest of the group. Some misunderstanding. I can't remember. Strolling through the darkened precinct, nerves jangling with the real prospect of attack, we came at last to the safety of the bus shelters. Solomon and co shunted off. This was my time. The opportunity would not be wasted. Despite Wendy's excuses for not coming into the doorway with me, I was going to be unreasonable. The night fell still, my lips pressed against hers. The last kiss two long years ago. But this was a new technique. Like a stand-up tonsillectomy. I was not finished. I held her in the correct stance. A few exchanged phrases and one more to finish. Seamus hung around in the background. I walked back to the bus-stop in ecstasy and relief. I could now lie and exaggerate from a firm basis. And I had a witness.

I let the news circulate on Monday. There was no need to brag; the inquisitors swam around. Having friends like Woodlouse and Weisman helped, who could generally be relied upon to blab anything around the class, especially if told in confidence. The rumours that we might be going out together circulated on the minor grapevine for a few days until a firm denial from Wendy prompted the hasty equivalent from me. So, the initial obstacle had been overcome. It was now time to find something a little more permanent.

The sum of the square

The end of my tether had been reached. 'Fuck Barnsley' I scrawled in the margin of my Maths book. Anyone who called me 'Innes' on a regular basis was heading for a fall. Blue, white and grey arms shot up and down around me. Unacknowledged fascist salutes to the tyranny of learning. I joined in as often as I could, readily abasing myself before the possibility of recognition.

Next morning, we joined the line shuffling along the corridor towards Assembly. I didn't see the human express train coming in the opposite direction. A moment later, I was seized by the collar and dragged at twice my previous speed back in the direction I'd come from. Shock turned swiftly to the realisation that I'd forgotten to erase my insult before handing in my Maths book the previous afternoon. It was a time for cowardice. And some razor-sharp thinking. The image of the polite and co-operative boy I'd sporadically tried to cultivate would now have to save my life.

Barnsley released me at his desk and pointed towards the book.
"What's this!!!?" he yelled.
"Dunno sir!" I cringed. Such deference was strictly contrary to my principles but I was fighting for my future domestic life. However, almost immediately I saw my uncertainty had come to my aid. Whereas the numbers stood obediently to attention, my 'literary hand' had followed it's usual forward-leaning slope. Similar, incidentally, to Weisman's. I was back off the defensive.

"Get yer 'ands out of yer pockets!" roared Barnsley.
My instinctive fear (of my parents' reaction) still hadn't corrected my habitually slovenly stance.
Barnsley hissed at me.
"Did you do this!!?"
"No sir!"
"Looks like your writing to me...!"
I shrugged hopelessly.
"Who do you think it was then?"
"Woodlouse?? Weisman..??!"
"It might have been..."
I reckon it was the flamboyance of the 'Fuck' that had got to him. The 'F' was like something out of Byron. It was the mockery of the effeminate.
Barnsley chewed on his pencil.
"Wait there while I fetch Mr Whiskey-Gommorah..."

I was through the worst. Our year head was an alcoholic who drank to initiate a dialogue with his problems. True, he was always too befuddled afterwards to draw conclusions, but at least he wasn't looking for anybody else to blame. Whiskey entered, looking harassed at having been dragged away from his morning coffee break and his tuts as he picked up the book were immediately one step removed from the offence. He started flicking back through the pages, trying to work up some spiel along the lines of, 'Seems fine up to now, Mr Barnsley?...Strange to go and spoil it all like this?" But in truth, it wasn't that good. Just about tidy enough to engender doubt.

"...Has anybody else had this book?" asked Whiskey, suddenly glimpsing a way forward.
"A few people....Woodlouse...Weisman..."
Whiskey wouldn't know the names, but he'd repeat them to Barnsley.
"Well then..." declared Whiskey.
"I suggest you sort out between you who did this...then come and see me!"
"Yes, sir!"
It was a bit melodramatic, but who cared? There was a parents' evening looming and Barnsley might still be looking for trouble. I wasn't out of the woods yet. Right now, it might be wise to consider taking out a little insurance...

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Episode 12: Names can never hurt you

One way of stabilising King's behaviour was to give him something he could relate to. At the beginning of the Third Year, it seemed we might finally have found common ground. Ever since he'd arrived at my 13th birthday party with a copy of 'The Gay Song' and 'Looking after number one' (Was he hinting at our respective outlooks?) he'd been making noises about forming a band. Rather as he instinctively deferred to me on matters of athletics, he also recognised an equal in his enthusiasm for the New Wave, though he actually bought the records, and I suppose, lived the life, if not as yet embracing the image.

I'd managed to buy some time in Woodwork from having piles of shavings poured down my neck and getting my work chucked in the bin, by getting his enthusiasm going for a band entitled 'S.O.D'. This comprised my friends (plural) and his. Kane had wanted nothing to do with the project, telling us he thought it was childish, though there may have been a tinge of jealousy as he was so unimaginative that King hadn't bothered asking him to join anyway. Eventually, we were whittled down to Shane 'Rat', Seamus Dildo, Pieter Puke and 'Filth Pathetic' (myself). Following my earlier songwriting experiments, we embarked on a punkish series of compositions such as:

Call Sherlock Holmes! (Pieter)
Please love me forever (Shane)
Power to Me! (Filth)
The Devil (Shane)
Let's live together! (Filth)

Seamus began rapidly to tire of the game and Pieter was disgruntled by my slights at his disco ballads. Shane was fully committed to the enterprise however, and before kicking off the lunchtime football tournament he'd foisted upon us, insisted on loud renditions of his favourites in the middle of the lower school playground. Hunched over my rough book, we delivered the Seventies wannabe anthem.

I want a lot of money
And I want it right now
I'd even mug a granny
If I thought I knew how
I wanna be a millionaire
I wanna grab the lot
I wanna rule the world
Because I don't see...
"Why no-ottt"... (after Johnny Rotten)

Power to me
Power to me
Power to me
'Cause I wanna rule the universe'

The earth will be the first to go
And then will be the sun
Nothing's gonna stop me
I don't care for anyone
The Solar System's next in line
And then the universe
They'll all be dragged away
Inside a great galactic hearse

Repeat Chorus

It was during this rendition that Mervyn Peters met his fate. Power to him!
When Pieter and Seamus lost interest, I had the pleasure of Shane's company for several Saturdays where we made our first and only recording, 'The Death March'. Instrumental accompaniment was confined to a spooky-sounding electric organ as Shane took the part of the deceased narrator, imploring his followers to remember him (in a squeaky cockney voice) as "a friend...and a bruvvva!" which was certainly more sentiment than his demise would ever evoke. He asked me to copy out The Pistols' 'Belsen was a gas' for a story he was writing about the Jews, and when my mother found it in a drawer (not fair! At Solomon's house, he uncovered his parents' 'literature' - and you can imagine of what kind...) I put the blame on Shane, got him banned from the house and made my life a little less onerous for a while. We changed the name of the ensemble to 'The Graffiti Group', Shane having rejected my initial suggestion of 'Porno Pigs Band' as too controversial, but deprived of a regular rehearsal space, he gradually forgot about the idea, or at least, I hoped he had.

Wogga Matter?

Where did you filth crawl from? Attempting to grow up in the late 70s or early 80s was to be acquainted to some degree or other, for most of us, a damn sight closer and more frequently than we would have liked, with the NF, BM and the ignorant dirt that made up their membership: SKINHEADS. And I'm not bothered whether they were left-wing, right-wing, fucked up latent homosexuals (not a few as it turned out) or apolitical, 9 times out of 10 they spelt SCUM. A mixture of the psychotic, the sadistic, the cowardly and the ignorant; a damn sight less menacing when they were on their own, showing how far their courage usually stretched. In towns lacking a large ethnic minority, (unless it happened to be Asian), where they walked, ordinary people parted. Nobody seemed able or willing to stop them. Years later, when I faced down a couple in a club, I counted it as courageous an act as fronting a boy sticking an air rifle in my face when I was 12. For they had no level of moral inhibition whatsoever. SKULL FEATURED SHITHEADS!

Back in The Secondary School Yard

After the first day of the new term, I was ill with despair. The old firm of King, Kane and Heifer had settled into their usual routine of nicking people's equipment and my Pavlovian temper made me an ideal person to target. After a hectic chase round the class and a few token shouts of defiance, I managed to retrieve whatever had been stolen and just about kept the whole thing under wraps. I knew it couldn't happen twice though. This year just had to be different. A re-arranged class with the intelligentsia creamed off meant an influx of less academic and more available girls. It also meant worry with the addition of Woodwork and Metalwork to the syllabus. After the first lesson, I lived in constant fear of being thrown into the furnace. Everyone poking around with their hot stick and my absence of practicality. I smashed up my lunar module kit in frustration after making slow progress. Bah! I had no time for fiddly things.

However, things were about to change. A couple of lessons into the year, (predictably slow to non-existent progress being made on my part), tired of the perspiration drenched pudding bowl on my head making an eye drip, I decided to slick it back. Shock and amusement showed on the faces of my friends. Damendra (studious, friendly Indian) suggested it looked a little like a 'DA'. 'Grease' was the sensation of the moment, so there had never been a better time to make the move. As an experiment, I kept it up through Music, the last lesson of the afternoon. Up and down it went over the next few days as I decided whether to stick with the old, safe style, or strike out for the raw, unstyled, off-the-face look. The height advantage was a tempter. With the DA, I switched from just under average height to average plus an inch or two. A year or two extra in age I would also think. The new style was here. My image changed from a nondescript basin loser showing occasional aggression when provoked, to 'the boy with the hairstyle'. Perhaps this was the breakthrough at last...

A couple of weeks into the term came the chance to find out. The news of the first mass date eventually filtered down to myself and the lowly failures I hung around with and who were my friends. Normally this would just mean agonised misery as I knew there'd be no chance of a score. But the hair for the first time gave me hope of participating. Most of the good-looking girls had been booked by the time I got wind of events, but I'd noticed a fairly reviled yet I thought rather attractive girl by the name of Sarah Evans sitting at the back of the class. So with the DA still a conversion and not yet fashioned into the off-centre parting, I settled on my target. Unfortunately I let my choice leak to Solomon and Seamus, then realised I only had only that Friday lunchtime to make my move. I couldn't shake them or any of the other nonentities as I scoured the playground for my quarry. As soon as they saw me, they zeroed in and proceeded to shadow my every movement, locking themselves into the only potential piece of excitement that period. Having not spoken to any of the new influx in the few weeks since the beginning of term, let alone having asked them, or anyone else for a date, I was hyped to explosion on nerves, and all around, Solomon and Seamus bobbed up and down shouting, "How can we help Leonard?" and laughing, and generally meaning exactly the opposite, the minor urge to see a friend make progress trounced by the pleasure of sabotaging his plans. "What do you want us to do, Leonard!?" squeaked Seamus, almost as hyped as I was. " Fuck off....!" I screamed. "Fuck off!! Fuck OFF!!!"

When I saw her, the walk to the dinner queue was the longest of all. She'd spotted me 45 yards away, a figure akin to Jesus, leading an ever increasing band of hovering failures. I couldn't bring myself closer than 10 yards with the accompanying flock before shouting "DO YOU WANNA COME TO THE PICTURES?" She said, "No" or shook her head, or something, and I melted away, pursued by Seamus, Solomon and a few persistent hangers-on. Reflecting now, it seems unsurprising she declined my invitation. An acceptance with a third of the class listening would have been unlikely. But at the time I was appalled. Even though naturally I blamed the others for cocking it up, I didn't really comprehend the situation as I do now and took it all extremely personally.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Episode 11: The Biggest Racket

My friends seemed to keep a calendar of what sport suited the time of year. Football; cricket; tennis, Football, cricket etc....I had only two categories: the football season, and the rest of the year when I would refuse to play cricket, because it didn't interest me. Tennis I could play anytime. I was a schools doubles finalist in the second year, thanks largely to Derek. He was shit hot. I was shit, but I'd been whacking the ball around for a few summers now. Usually into other people's courts. We played 'til sunstroke and a yob would break the drinking fountain. I'd joined a club the previous summer as an opportunity to play table tennis and hear Punk on the record player. Practically nobody talked to me so I had no incentive to improve my game. Cliquishness originated in tennis clubs. However, Rumpkin Simpson had recently deserted Derek for Heather Lacquer, so his choice of doubles partner was limited. I think he actually picked me to start arguments with opponents. He knew I had a shaky grasp of the rules and would argue interminably over a 'foot fault'. I also suspected that everybody who played tennis was middle class and looking for ways to cheat me. I also had incidentally (on a good day) a serve.

We made it to the final by winning a couple of matches and our opponents defaulting on about three more. To be a winner didn't come easily and I found myself regarding the Hornets with increased resentment. This quickly passed. At Shrapnel, we touched the hem of school privilege for the first time; nodded at vaguely by teachers in corridors and receiving a mention in Assembly on the morning of the final. That Friday, we were allowed to leave school after the first lesson and walked through the playground to Whiskey-Gommorah's waiting Rover. Barbara Kent and Susan Stacey were inside. They'd made it to the girls' final. I squeezed in beside Barbara, my leg hair bristling as it brushed against her thigh. Whiskey revved the engine and my heart began to pound. Shrapnel was having a good year. Our football team had won the Schools Cup 7-0 (King and Kane covering themselves in glory) but Doubles was more my thing. Derek and Susan maybe. Me and Barbara. I breathed deep and got drunk on nervousness. Fifteen minutes later, the sun baked like clay on my face, we pulled into Beaufort's Grove. I stared at a dream-like scene. A warm summer haze. The grass hot and perfect, and the whole institution cordoned off by trees as a haven of English gentrification. Our opponents hadn't turned up yet so Whiskey-Gommorah waved us in the direction of the practice court.

"Why don't you have a bit of a knockabout, eh boys?"

Likeable, unconventional, shell-shocked Whiskey.

We wandered onto a delicious choc-mint 'Dalek Death Ray' lolly court, the likes of which were familiar only from TV. Middle-aged people parted at my mildest behest. Our game took flight that first half hour and I matched Derek stroke for stroke. After 45 minutes, I admit our standard had started to drop a bit. After an hour, it was time to stop. Immediately. Give up now. Derek was flagging, but I had gone completely to pot.

We sat against the fence, suddenly aware at the enormity of what we'd done. Those fucking swots had known we wouldn't be used to this luxury and had deliberately let us play ourselves out. And look, here they finally were. They asked for a fifteen minute warm-up and we weren't going to argue. Every extra minute of recovery time for us was essential. The fact that they would then be at their peak was immaterial. Right now, I couldn't have beaten an egg.

Our two enemies sauntered onto the court and started unveiling their expensive clothes and equipment. The taller of our opponents had a large racket and put a strange spin on his service that didn't seem to have much effect. Their kit belied their ability. This was their tactic: intimidation. Ours was unconventionality: uncoordinated kit and tactical improvisation. All the other matches were entering their final phases, if not already completed. But our ordeal was still to come. Whereas nervous energy would normally now auto-pilot us to triumph, all I felt was numb. All my natural adrenaline had evaporated and I could barely get the ball over the net.

Derek dug deep into his resources. Somehow we went 3-0 up. The match went on. By sheer concentration, I was remembering how to play. Then we lost six games in succession. One set to love to the Slazenger boys. The second set began. We were playing so badly and they were so talented yet they were only just beating us. As a counter to indulging in an elitist pastime, both Derek and I would hang around at the back of the court rather than follow the 'one back' 'one at the net' formula. At this level it didn't do much harm as Derek in particular would simply fire his smashes at whoever was unlucky enough to be up front, which would usually hit them, or force them to play a stroke of self-defence which never went anywhere. I've not seen this tactic used in the professional game and perhaps it's considered bad sportsmanship, like Bodyline bowling, but it was certainly effective, at least if there was enough power in the stroke. As my serve made a comeback, we went 3-0 up again. Then they won the next six games and we'd lost the final. I remember the last point as if it was yesterday. I ran further than I imagined possible to return a ball that was autographed match point. I got it as far as the net. And flash ponce was waiting to tap in the winner. I was flummoxed. I felt cheated. I knew that if we hadn't had that sixty minute practice before the match, I wouldn't have played so badly. I threw a Mcenroesque tantrum in the changing room and swiped my badge from the sympathetic official. I felt like smashing his court up, beaten by those posh cheats...Next year, I teamed up with Ferdie Parr as Derek had wisely got himself a new partner. Yet to no avail. The managed to lose even before we did. Whereas with Derek, I'd had no coaching and no style; over the following months, I had developed some style (with no coaching). Ferdie though, was as bad as I'd been the previous year. We scraped through to the quarter finals where our by now generously over-stretched luck ran out. The competition ended the following year so I confined myself to occasional matches for the school, with indifferent results.

As one sports obsession was wilting on the baseline, another was hitting a brick wall. James Hunt's season of glory, and it was a remarkable year by any standards, had managed to almost completely pass me by. It was only by chance that Hornets changing room banter alerted me to the possibility of the Marlboro McClaren Man becoming World Champion that afternoon. Like the proverbial magic lantern given a Castrol GTX polish, the whole Formula One circus was suddenly illuminated. The cars were going through an incredibly colourful and weirdly shaped few years: Black and gold cigarette packet-style Lotuses; Patriotically panel-marked blue white and red Brabham-Fords; Bug-like, six wheeler Tyrells. I was knocked completely off my feet. Hunt inhabited an alternative universe to my own, and just like Luke and Obe Wanker in the Milleinium Falcon, his latest escapade was running into trouble. Hunt had got his nicotine-stained fingers on the prize amidst the monsoons and track spray of Mount Fuji the previous year, but now he was trapped in a technologically redundant vehicle, outpaced by the visor-screened, hideously deformed figure of Nicki Lauda. I concentrated on directing the force of my nervous energy towards him from the sanctuary of my living room on Sunday afternoons. It seemed as real as lending support in the flesh at Silverstone amongst all those flag-waving idiots. You could buy beautiful Matchbox miniatures and race them round the lounge, mirroring Hunt's heroic slides back through the field while watching the sun sink below the horizon and fretting over homework still undone. I felt for him a couple of years later when he finally ran out of competitive resources. He'd struggled against mechanical failures and the bigotry of the English sporting press for too long. But he was still an idol in my eyes. Much more so then when shacking up with Jane Birkin or being patronised by Morecambe and Wise in his championship summer. Within three editions of its launch, his monthly magazine was impossible to find. Few seemed to care as he walked away from the track that final time. The millionaire playboy who'd risked his life to save that of fellow driver, Ronnie Peterson. And his decline afterwards drew something akin to mockery. But I admired him tremendously.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Episode 10 Bootboys

The idea of the Saxon Hornets hatched back in the summer of '75. Today, half a dozen  teams compete in their black and gold strip and their reputation in Rottenbrough league football is formidable. But in my day, things were tougher. The Hornets formed out of the worst half of the Turrets Juniors team, the nicer boys being almost by definition, sporting liabilities. I persuaded them to come training and with much hassling of my helpful father, put together a team in time for the 1975-6 season. A hammering was a regular feature of the Hornets enterprise. As time went by I developed a phobia of Sundays when the massacres would take place. Still, for most of the season, I led the Hornets' quest for tragedy. I was nominated Player of the Year by my father-manager and threw in the towel finally after four and a half years of fear and despondency. But Hornets' buzz lives on.....

Something else that made secondary school weekends unique was the Scottish Sunday Post. I don't know what claim this tartan tabloid had to our living room, maybe a sop to daddy's highland ancestry, but I knew that buttered scone and hot Tetleys hits throat thrill of Sundays stretched out of the fire lapping up stories of sectarian violence on the Clyde. I became obsessed with the idea of the Scottish hard man. It was the Post that alerted me to the TV premier of 'Just a boy's game,' the Monday Play blueprint for my nightmare north of the border vision, and rarely was there a more drizzlingly depressing portrayal of a culture in thrall to the feud. If you want to know how Simple Minds created 'Reel to Real Cacophony' or what lent The Skids their grandeur, or alternatively, why Vinnie Jones, Guy Ritchie and the whole Brit gangster shtick just won't do, see this programme and salute the musical clans that made such fear and adrenaline resound.

Solomon and Seamus

The giving, as opposed to the taking, as in giving money to perfume and clothes manufacturers, and taking stuff back when your relatives weren't completely satisfied, remains my abiding memory of Christmas shopping with Seamus. We gave over our entire Saturdays to the task, scouring Rottenbrough for knockdown versions of whatever we'd been asked for, and hitting the department stores where I watched Seamus swap labels on perfume bottles, literally saving himself pounds....I always associated Seamus with the market, although Solomon worked there more often. He was the original artful dodger, though the one time he did a full Saturday, he was paid in change, which was desperately short of the 50ps he'd expected to discover...Saturdays revolved around Solomon's second-hand  stall. Collecting the singles I'd missed over the past couple of years was a jumble of thrills. Even though remembered from a couple of years back, seen on Top of the Pops or occasionally heard on the radio, the full power of the tracks really hit me when played at volume. Solomon was crucial in this respect, already visiting Rough Trade at 12. his fascination for New Wave and the independent labels at this stage eclipsed even mine. The Police's debut single, only 500 made, he let me have free because he hated it and I thought it was brilliant. Of course, it rocketed in value once they'd become famous. Solomon won out in the end though, swapping the Jam's debut with me in order to re-obtain his freebie. Two weeks later, my rarity was rendered worthless by a reprint. You couldn't hold it against him though. Solomon was always there first: With the Rezillos wraparound shades, the biggest marbles in the school, and a willingness to walk on the wild side, or at least, scurry nervously, and in Rottenbrough, this was sometimes the only safe form of locomotion.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Episode 9: Cycle of Despair

So your bike's boring the pants off you, and you're tired, yet secretly excited, by talk of Coupe de Menthes and Ten-Gear racers as you cower in one of the semi-safe areas of the playground with your 'Trump Cards' willing yourself invisible. In the end, these two wheel contraptions that won the Japanese the war or whatever become a kind of obsession. You know you'll never get one. And someone will nick it if you do, but you can't be seen dead in public again with your Noddy trike. Raleigh convertibles may be beyond your grasp, but there's always the working class alternative. Destroy your own safe and sensible big wheeler. Wrench off the handlebars and stick on a pair of 'cowhorns'. Tear away the mud-guard and flaunt your dirty back tyre, as brazen as a monkey's anus. You've got yourself a 'Tracker'. Just like safety-pinning your flares or pulling a bit harder on that ripped up school jersey....Who am I kidding? The old jalopy never adapted to its new image. The cowhorns made no hands steering an even more impossible dream and no mud guards meant a sack of dust and the dirtiest rear end in town. But customising, once grasped, is a principle you never lose sight of.

My Bloody Valentine

Even the reproach was considerate:

"...You're not supposed to write your name in it, Leonard!"

The card fell in the drawer and the class howled aloud with laughter. Oh, I could have died! But in truth, it wasn't the first time I'd let my affections get the better of me. At 6 or 7 years old, I'd let the 5 or 6 girls in my class know my feelings through a series of Valentines handed out as they passed my desk. I noted with pleasure the smiles and waves from those I was acquainted with, but Liz Willbery took hers straight to Mrs Wallis.

"Leonard, can you come to the front, please?"

Speaking quietly, with the class supposedly working, but straining desperately to hear the conversation, our overseer began, "It's nice  we're all friends here..." in a manner hinting she could imagine a less appealing version of my 'friendship' come puberty. Luckily, a veil descends over the rest of the discourse, but I recall a feeling of pride at having been martyred on the altar of cupid. And was it really any surprise I should offer a Valentine to our Geography teacher five years afterwards..?

Brother where art thou?

The essence of an only child is isolation. They tend to be either ridiculously introspective or idiotically social in order to hide their crippling urge to be stand-offish. Leaving the room suddenly, having won everybody over with their bonhomie, because fundamentally they feel the best conversations are had in your own head.

And they invent great toys, or at least games, which involve a multitude of characters, but can be played by only one, though occasionally they might ask others to join in, recognising swiftly the futility of trying to find others with similar outlooks.

My personal preference was for sporting contests using plastic figures from box-games such as 'Subbuteo' or 'Soccer Strat'. One way of idling away the hours was to balance four such markers, bearing the name of a favourite performer from the world of track and field, at the top edge of an angled picnic table. Dropping a dice near the base, the vibrations would send the figures hurtling down the surface, and in a matter of seconds, gold silver and bronze positions, or more likely, progression to the next round, would be decided.

Christmases were more social. It was games all the way. The oh-so generous 'let your parents open their amateurishly wrapped gifts first so that you can have an orgy of frenzied paper tearing all to yourself at the end' policy usually paid dividends. Such decadence rolled round only once a year. Who wanted your pleasure or disappointment interrupted with rounds of "Aren't you lucky??!!" or "That's nice!" Or even worse, having to conjure up an expression of undeserving gratitude. Then 'Let the games commence...!' as your parents fucked off to the drinks cabinet and you got stuck into your presents with your cousins in your pyjamas, or got stuck into your cousins in your pyjamas with their presents. Rebound, Crossfire, 'Olympics' (naturally) Donkey Derby (with Sid James:) These were our creme de menthe and egg nog., though you could consider yourself lucky to have struck gold in the December 25th exchanges.. Taken in by Palitoy and Ronco again! The instructions and intricate board game arrangements were the inevitable mid-day, lunch due, losing interest corollary to the initial rush. Never fear. Days and weeks of softly-softly, "My games's brilliant but..." bargaining lay ahead of you. The ones you played forever might arrive months down the line with fading elastic and lost balls you'd adapt the rules for, or if you could be bothered, write to the manufacturers to obtain anew.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Episode 8 Skate-Rot!

The Rottenbrough skatepark was finally a reality. And for a town known largely for its anonymity, it had proved an unexpected triumph. I'd watched the project take shape over the past eighteen months, suffering King's snorts when I asked the developer where they were putting the swimming pool. I never went overboard about the results anyway. The surface was coated with a non-stick substance guaranteed to unglue each rider from his board at the slightest movement, except of course, the 'cognoscenti', speeding around their designer bowls, and excuse me "pool". They could execute turns in the half pipe when we couldn't even slide from one side to the other without breaking our limbs; we stained the concrete with sweat and sent our boards flying from the Snake Run like missiles. 

The glory of the affair was short-lived however. By Christmas, skateboarding was entering its final phase. 'Skate-Rot's one moment of glory came in a dying issue of "Griptape", the industry monthly, where local hotshot, Lee Scallywag, got a flattering write-up, but for him, as for all who had nailed their colours to the skateboarding mast, it was too little, too late....A Sunday evening though. The smell of a bonfire in your lungs. The horror of the new school week looming ahead. Rolling up and down your twenty yard strip of tarmac. The decision to go out after tea scuppering any chance of feigning sickness. The tears in your eyes from the bonfire smoke. Or at least, that's what you would have claimed was the cause....your inability a secret of the night...Suddenly, you're thrown forward as the wheels hit a stone and your knees strike concrete, protected only by the pads that this night alone you chose to wear. Would you ride your luck forever...?

I knock at every door

Darkness fell like a miserly shroud and we set off on our carol-singing expedition. Such compassion in the face of other's suffering. The rain began to fall. I had Derek, an umbrella, and two hymn books for company. It was November but a good idea wouldn't wait. My book had a huge drawing of a penis on the front. Our class had managed to intimidate 60 or so such texts from rivals through hushed threats in Assembly, so choice wasn't lacking, but at 3.30, my well entrenched guilt led me to snatch the first two to hand from the store room and stick them in my bag, exiting with the flushed look of the inexpert thief - a pretty standard look actually.

"After three...One, two, three, "Silent Night, Holy..."
Silence from Derek. Then a shriek of laughter and he was off. He'd got twenty yards before I was able to reach him and swear fully in his face.
"You fucking bastard. You'd better do it properly next time!"
"I promise...I promise!" pleaded Derek.

But he didn't. The scenario repeated itself and eventually, I threw my hymn book at him, leaving it in the gutter, and walked off home in the rain.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Episode 7 Red Remembered Knees

Moves happen all the time when you're a youngster. Or I suppose they don't. We seemed to be constantly on the move. Though rarely very far. The great upheaval happened only once. The idea of going to live in a shop was presented to me with the smoothest of glosses and the wrench was altogether bearable. Living on the coast near the marshes, site of so many great English ghost stories, made the last year at Crablow wraith-like and bizarre to look back on. My news book is full of stories about mining disasters and cycling up alleyways, but I know I was going to ground, practically withdrawing from after-school society. The evidence belies the conviction. There I am at seven, surrounded by friends at my leaving party, the first signs of progressive era hair tickling my collar. Pop still hadn't quite penetrated our pre-junior school nostrils. If a drama teacher put the radio on, boys would still clutch each other and dance round the room an an ironic waltzing style. Still, I'd be up front, shaking it with the young ladies. What hopes that young teacher must have had for me. IRA bomb-scare evacuations were more our forte: or afternoons trapped in corridors by older kids, exciting in the sense that you pretended to be a prisoner of war pitted against the Germans, and escape was permitted by any means necessary. Blood stains on your knees the size of saucers. The wrong colour rosette handed out for a sprint hurdles victory was a travesty to match that of the Guildford Four. Stinging nettles and dock leaves. Daring to burrow under the fence and run and touch the climbing frame of another school. Continual daring, a little further, a little higher, and running away. Running everywhere. Running always, or on bikes. Skinny ones with legs like tree trunks. No long trousers in sight. Electrifying imaginary happenings that never took place, such as your first group practice on the bandstand at the age of six; winning poetry prizes, having your cap nicked. Strange days out on the marshes with the mires, and after you'd left, returning nine months later to find your friends playing up the alley as though time had stood still.

And now, a new town, a new dwelling. Creaky and older. Left alone as your parents worked downstairs in the shop. The terror to turn round bent over the bathroom basin. More so to exit those four square walls of light. Horrifying dreams of your father as a murderer The story of the former proprietor's demise in the passage leading to the shop, just behind the door that was always locked at night. And yet the security that existed within that brown walled chamber, watching Hadleigh or Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Hoping Pops would bring you something in from the shop after closing. Bolting up the stairs to your bedroom at night or jumping down them during the day. Another story of another staircase where he'd sat as a boy with next doors twins, projecting images from his father's cine-camera onto the front door interior. The fear of being caught, and then afterwards going downstairs and finding all the furniture in the living room turned strangely on its end. No explanation. And the cries and signing of hymns the next days as the elder twin was carried from the house, completely mad. The constant cold in the upstairs bedroom. No evidence of psychic activity this time. Merely a hard times disdain for central heating that made for continual movement and the early onset of cracking joints.

But the celebrity of living in the local off-licence, bettered maybe only by being the son of the sweet shop owner. Until a certain age when you overtook even him with your Bensons and Indian Pale Ale. No videos or intruding on each other's territories then. A meeting point which made for perfect eavesdropping on the local gang who's who. A castle's grounds to defend against wrongdoers, with barbed wire and snowballs and yards and yards of crates, wooden or plastic, cracked and cutting or alive with splinters, the leather gloves for heavy lifting jobs. Out of use, the ideal place for building all sorts of dens, hideouts, pit shaft cave-in reconstructions; advice bureaus. You name it. And then, after five years, a transfer to an up in the world 'semi', reachable by skateboard and luxurious for a year. Then, a year later returning to live in the same location. The day of moving back in; the great flood and frozen rivers of Brown Ale, Cherryade and Cider. Cresta botles burst open during the Christmas shutdown. It's a shopkeeper's life.

Episode 6 The ole' wrist action

"Good game!" exclaimed Bruce Forsyth. And he was right. Games were good. Before drugs and video came along to keep the kids happy, if you wanted to have fun, you had to earn the right, spending ages memorising the instructions to interminable board games, or running round with toy machine guns yelling, "Dead!!" Cards were popular as well. The only people who play cards nowadays are students, hankering after a childhood they don't actually seem to have left behind ...But we were no technological retards either. 'Pocketeers' was the miracle of the hour: miniaturised, clockwork or spring-driven devices that mimicked the characteristics of grander board games or amusement arcade machines in a package about the size of a Galaxy, with sometimes equally addictive results....The tiny one-armed bandits I could take or leave, likewise the magnetised Formula One race-track, but my favourite waste of time was a silver ball bearing you had to dribble through a plastic maze while a twenty second clockwork motor slowly ran down. Magic!

As for playground pastimes, traditional games like conkers were being eclipsed by a new generation of alternatively patterned and coloured marbles, up for competitive grabs for those prepared to crouch over drain-hole covers at breaktimes, numbing their fingers flicking them into saucer-shaped handle grips. On the sporting field, cricket was dull, dangerous and dauntingly supervised by fanatical teachers, but back home, a ping-pong bat propped against a front door, protecting an encyclopedia 'wicket' might offer hours of distraction as you sped down the hall to unload your spinning sphere. Weekends disappeared in a frenzy of kicking a ball against the wall of the garage, then I'd dribble a circular object around the carpet and 'Kung Fu' scraps of paper 'til collapsing in front of the telly to watch,'The Water Margin'. Sometimes darts came into fashion. '77 was a good year I remember. I was having a session with Terry when The Sex Pistols came on the radio:

"The country's in a right bleeding state," said one. "What can you do about it?" asked the interviewer. "Make it worse," The Pistol replied. Perfect. What was the point in throwing darts or indulging in marathon ball dribbles when someone could target your anger in three seconds flat? Away went the dartboard once more.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Episode 5 The house that wasn't home

I was still staying in contact with a few Turrets acquaintances. Former five-a-side pal Garry had offered some relief from the horrors of Shrapnel the previous summer with his 'Evil Kenievel' and Scalextric', and when the second year at Shrapnel concluded, I was up early to make the fifty yard dash to his house, only to be told by his mother he was down the garage again with his step-dad, Garry was now a part of my junior school past. I turned and walked up the hill toward Terry's.

Things hadn't changed in Tel's terminally time-warped head.
“...Coming over the rec?”
I smiled, pleased to re-enter a less complicated universe. The days fell easily into a pattern with Terry that summer. With his 'Shoot' pull-out table and a series of rolls of the dice, we created our own alternative First Division battle, hoping to rouse our White Hart Lane footballing heroes from their coma with our voodoo. The thrill of repositioning the cardboard tag indicators a couple of places higher or lower on the table after the latest round of dice rolls would be enough to bring tears to my eyes. Then the equipment would be packed away in the drawer, to be retrieved only upon my calling next day.

While Tel's domestic life was other than blissful, most of the furniture having gone to pay his father's gambling debts, his garden was a bohemian paradise, brimming with unkempt paths and bushes from where I could spy on his stereotypically oppressed mother, stretched out on a lounger and offering her lean, cigarette-addled form to the sun. On August afternoons, the shadows cast by the trees lent an enchanted Shakespearean still to the occasion. As well as three dozen copies of 'Shoot', Terry leant me a pair of cricketing whites which I made sure I was wearing when Maureen was around. We were alone in the kitchen one day when 'Three times a lady' came on the radio. Maureen looked at me strangely and asked me what I thought.
I told her it was a load of soppy crap.
“...Aaah, just wait 'til you're courtin', Lennie!” she gushed.
I felt pleased she considered me capable of such achievements. In fact she was a little premature in her reckoning. But when I finally did get a girlfriend, I still didn't like slow discs.

Within a month of starting back at Shrapnel, my friendship with Terry was as if it had never existed. We never saw each other again and he never asked for his 'Shoots' back. It's not hard to see how kids like Terry go off the rails. I met 'dad' a few times. An unfriendly, desperate-looking man with a cockney accent transplantation reject. No wonder Maureen was always a bit valium-ridden and put upon. If it wasn't the strain of bringing up two kids virtually single-handed, it was the uncertainty of knowing whether she'd have a home in which to do so the following week. When I said goodbye to Terry that final weekend, I was leaving a world where I knew we could never be brothers. He was a good friend, but by October, I didn't really miss him. He put a sporting block on the reality of a life I couldn't relate to enough to sympathise with. Locked inside his football dreamland, where he would maybe one day make good, though he almost certainly didn't...

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Episode 4 Play For Today

Playground justice existed at Shrapnel in the most base and corrupt form imaginable and meted out by murder incorporated: King, Kane and Heifer. This sham democracy obliged all concerned to participate in the infliction of violence and humiliation on those who'd transgressed playground sporting ethics - accidentally kicking a ball onto the roof of the canteen at lunchtime, for instance, or being the last to touch it on its journey, meant having to pass along a tunnel made up of the outside wall of the boys' lavatory and a line of press-ganged pupils, kicking and punching with varying levels of enthusiasm until the condemned man had completed his passage. The victim was allowed to counter attack, but this would simply work to the advantage of the three tyrants who would then have a real excuse to lay into them, though come their turn, few would risk such ferocity, confining themselves to a few feeble pushing and slapping movements, variously risking a smack in the mouth....'Bulldog' was another occasion for random unjustified violence. We had to admit, we quite liked this one. One boy would stand in the middle of the yard, charged with grabbing and keeping hold of whoever was trying to reach the other side of the playground. The individual caught would be obliged to team up with his captor and the next cross-playground charge would be that little bit more challenging. The last to be taken eventually won. Oh, and you had to shout "Bulldog!", like you were selling newspapers for the Young National Front. If you were seized, a short struggle was permitted which might lead to a few punches being thrown, usually by King, Kane or Heifer, who considered it a dishonour to be taken. Most memorable of all was the gobbing pit, a railed off area with a concrete staircase leading to the boiler room, into which the football would inevitably get booted during some mammoth breaktime session. The offender would then be obliged to retrieve the ball from the bottom of the steps, dodging a hail or trickle of mucus, depending on who it was, from those hanging over the railings. These vultures would then have to face the consequences of their actions as the victim re-emerged. Or not.

All in all, such injustices as happened at Shrapnel never occurred quite often enough to provoke the counter-reaction we all felt obscurely had to come. I remember being off sick once and learning on my return that the trio had challenged the class to a mass bundle. Only Seamus had showed up. And got a smack in the mouth for his troubles. I was almost crying with frustration. Here at last was our chance to put these bastards in their places. And it could have happened. If only I'd had a lunchtime to work on their psychology a bit. It could have been our Treblinka or Sobibor. But getting the 12 cowardly men to act on their own initiative was another matter. We were receiving all, a lesson in the psychology of dictatorship.

Generally speaking, the violence at Shrapnel was more organised than infant or junior school rumbles, which might involve half the school marching towards each other chanting 'Leeds' or 'Liverpool' and indulging in a bit of harmless push and shove. Except for the odd grudge encounter, most would emerge pretty much unscathed. I didn't take part very often. It seemed a bit wimpish to me. I was more likely to be found trying to form another club, something about which I had an obsession for many years. It's easier to face and maybe change people's thinking in a small group rather than with the weight of playground tradition on your shoulders, though I don't claim that as my main motivation. Alternatively, if your passion was for less planned activities, you'd simply walk around chanting the name of the game until attracting a sufficient number of individuals with whom you'd dutifully link arms and march towards the most promising-looking recruitment grounds in a kind of mobile rugby scrum. It was common to hear one word choruses of "War!", "It", and other attestations to man's inherently social nature.