Saturday, August 07, 2010

I was born in Barrow-in-Furness on the Twentieth of March 1970 in the Roosecoat hospital, the son of Brian, a plumber in the local shipyard and Elizabeth, a housewife.

I had a happy childhood and with regard to my mum and dad, I have no complaints. I was their second child. I have a sister older than me by six years. The four of us lived in a terraced house, in housing built for the shipyard workers, until I was eleven.

My parents wanted a garden after years of nothing but a backyard and back streets and eventually we moved to a semi-detached house on the outskirts of the town. “It lifts the spirits, a garden,” my dad used to say, looking out at it. At that point he would have been twenty years into his thirty-three year working life in the shipyard, in his early fifties.

There had never been much money around, and it was even scarcer now, with the new mortgage, my sister in her second year of A-levels, me starting senior school and needing a new uniform. In order to help out with the family finances my mum took up various jobs, cleaning, working as a dinner lady and finally taking on a long stint as a Home-Help, a job she kept up until she retired. She was the oldest of nine children and hadn’t really had a childhood herself, helping her own mother to look after them all. Looking after people was what she knew.

.My dad wasn’t demonstrative, but he was involved with us and cared for us in lots of ways that other dads didn’t, especially when it came to us getting an education. What he wanted more than anything was for us not to have the kind of life he had had, a life of manual work, the shop floor, or clerking. He wanted something better for his kids. Though he couldn’t identify exactly what that better thing was, the way to get there, to be in a position at least where you had some choices, was education. My dad was naturally intelligent, naturally curious, keen on words and what they could do, but no-one had encouraged him when he was a boy and because of that he pushed us to do well in school. As a child and as a teenager I was a daydreamer and so his success was limited, there was disappointment and there were battles.

Like most bright teenagers from small towns, by the age of sixteen all I wanted to do was to escape. Even so, I failed all my O-Levels and had to take them again the next year under the threat of a job in the Shipyard. The second time I got through enough to go on to take A levels and eventually went to University in Leeds to study English and Philosophy.

At Nineteen, going off to University a year later than everyone else, having smoked a bit of dope and crashed on friend’s floors after gigs in Manchester and Birmingham, grown my hair and built up a collection of the right records, I thought I’d seen it all, and it was a shock to me to suddenly be among that many intelligent and articulate young people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I was conscious of my own background, my class, my accent, how narrow, really, my experience of life had been and how unsophisticated I was, in a way that I hadn’t been before. I was loud and opinionated back home, especially when I was drunk, and while I could get away with it in the gang of small town punks that I gravitated toward, at University it was a different situation. There I was run-of-the-mill. Provincial.

Like a lot of outwardly confident people I had a fragile ego and it was badly bruised. My sense of who I was and how the world worked became more tentative. I was already in the habit of drinking and I wasted my time, talking, reading everything but the books that I was supposed to be looking into, listening to music, getting stoned, hanging out with all the other guys too smart to do any work, the guys in bands, the ones who were going to write or make films, whose unconventional ideas were going to blow everyone away, but who somehow never quite got round to finishing anything, who were always about to, or in the middle of, or abandoning one brilliant project for another even more certain to win them the acclaim they insisted they didn’t really desire.

I was waiting for things to happen to me, waiting for The Big Thing, for my indeterminate but evident genius to be recognized, for my prized outsider status to be embraced, my parents scrimping and saving, working nights and overtime to keep me there, the prodigal, wasteful son they had their hopes invested in.

Then, toward the end of my degree, at the age of twenty-two, I fell in love.

I have been in love twice in my life. The first time it lasted for five years and ended badly, as these things seem to.

She was called Rachael. She was beautiful, highly-intelligent, witty, artistic, middle-class, black and lost, and she seemed to me, at the age of twenty-one, to be everything I could possibly want. We fell in love immediately. For the eight months or so until University ended, while we were still cushioned by student life, it was rapturous.

Love can make you ridiculous, especially if you have a tendency toward grandiosity. I pitied people who weren't us. I felt that no-one had ever overflowed with exalted feeling as passionately as we did. That we were among history's elect, in the pantheon of great lovers. Love lifted me up out of the mundane, and more than ever the future felt that it was mine for the taking, that some kind of glory was on the horizon.

After we left University everything went wrong and we spent the next three years slowly dragging each other down. We were in a spiral of self-doubt and self-destruction. I drank almost constantly, we rowed furiously, we blamed each other for being trapped, for our own lack of courage, our own hatred of the world, of “real-life” and our fear of what it would do to us, how it wanted our souls in exchange for a few miserable, material things. My self was all I had. It was the thing I'd invested all my energy and all my hope in. I couldn't stand to just give it away, see it smashed up. That was like suicide.

But what we did was like suicide, anyway. We took low-pay, low-skill jobs, that asked nothing of us in terms of attitude or commitment, that didn't require us to give up too much of ourselves. Even so, my ability to stay in a job was poor. I started in DSS offices, got sacked for being late too frequently, for being hung-over and reeking of beer, for spending too long in the smoking room, or the toilets, reading the book that never left my back pocket.
I took temporary work in a bank stuffing envelopes, got sacked again, even more quickly and for the same reasons, couldn't face another office and slowly slipped down the ladder into factory and warehouse jobs, not even the skilled work my dad had managed. We hung onto the student life long past the point that most people had wised-up, going out every night, forming a clique with all the others who refused to participate.
Drugs, books, theories, music, these were the only things I cared about, the only things that seemed meaningful, and the more extreme, the more unpalatable or offensive, the more anti the way things were, the better.

We slid into an edgy, grey world of eternal hangovers and come downs, hours of tedious menial work, horrendous fights, wild fantasizing.

The last year we lived together she was systematically unfaithful to me and I, having nowhere else to go, having no resources, nothing but debts, lived with her in a stupor of depression and denial before I cracked, one cold day in February and left for good.

Had I been stronger or less easily angered, less defensive, more certain of what I wanted things might have been different. But we were drowning, clawing at each other, dragging each other under. During the last year of our lives together I used to lie drunk on the floor of our living
room, in the tiny back-to-back we shared behind the Royal Park pub in Leeds, lighting cigarettes from the one functioning grill on the gas fire, waiting for her to come home, knowing deep-down that she wouldn't be. I used to wish that she would die. I wished for it truly and wholeheartedly.
I prayed that she would be killed in a car accident, any way that would relieve me of the responsibility of leaving her.
I dreamed that some impersonal force, the hand of God, would save me from her, in the same way I needed it to save me from myself.

I was at a dead end. There was always my parents house to return to but I was such a mess, physically and emotionally that I was ashamed to go back there. I hadn't been home in three years and couldn't stand the idea that they would see just what their hopes had come to. Two days after I left her, on February the twentieth 1996 I ended up in Castleford.

I spent two weeks sleeping in the spare room of a man I worked with, who was good enough to take me in, then another five months as a lodger in his brother's house.
The first man was called Andrew Hanson. His brother was, of course, Robert Hanson.

After two nights crashing my friend Nick’s sofa, I got on a National Express coach down at Leeds bus station and got off a few hours later in Castleford.

Andy met me there, roll up in his mouth, sipping from a can of Tenants, his thick, grey hair plastered to his head with the rain. He had another three cans hidden in his jacket pockets. He immediately offered me one and I opened it and drank it down quickly. I needed it. I was starting out on my new life.

Andy had been my boss for two years, from March 1993 to December 1995. While most of the people I had graduated with had slowly drifted off into respectable positions, I had ended up working in the warehouse of a jewelry factory in Leeds. There were just the two of us in there and we were responsible for offloading the supplies from the HGVs that pulled into the loading bay every day, stacking and storing them and taking them across to the main factory as required, through a complicated series of coded security doors and checks designed to make sure that no one could steal anything.

The warehouse was big and draughty, and the unsealed concrete floor meant that the air was permanently filled with concrete dust, something which played havoc with my colds in Winter and my hay fever in Summer. I had a cold more or less permanently during those years. The pay was poor, there were no benefits, no sick pay, no job security at all. The only thing that redeemed it were the long stretches of inactivity in which I could read, our lunchtime visits to the pub and our secret, afternoon drinking sessions in the upstairs part of the warehouse where we squatted amongst cardboard boxes filled with files and drank bottles of extra-strength cider, ears always on the alert for the main door at the other end of the warehouse slamming closed behind a manager come to make sure we weren't slacking off.

I went home drunk every day for two years, all my meager wage spent in a pub on the industrial estate, two minutes from the place I earned it.

Despite the nearly twenty years difference in our ages, Andy and I got along well, we identified with each other immediately. Even if he was suspicious of students, my long hair and scruffy clothes reminded him of how he'd been at my age. He was an older version of the type I had always gravitated toward. Neither of us wanted any responsibility, neither of us wanted to be the boss. Andy had been one for a while at a mattress-recycling factory and then left the job for this one, taking a big pay cut on the way, finding the disciplining and sacking people, the middle-management attitude he was supposed to display and the values of his work colleagues alien to him.

I respected him for that. And even if I had the advantage of more formal education than he did, what difference did that make? I was clearly cut from the same cloth, filled with animosity, averse on a deep level to everything in the world of work, its triviality, its responsibility, the politics, the personas.

It was work itself I objected to, not the type of work. The obligation to work had always hung over me like a prison sentence. There was no job I wanted to do, no work that could ever have gratified me.

On cold winter mornings the two of us would sit close to the gas heater smoking roll ups, swilling down mugs of Nescafe, trying to fight off our hangovers until lunchtime arrived. We were always immersed in a book, hoping that the first lorry wouldn't turn up just yet. Give me ten more minutes of this, just let me finish this chapter, it's raining, sleeting out there.

At those moments I almost felt as though I was at home, the two of us in a little bubble, united in rejection of it all. It was almost cozy, and somehow it allowed me to continue my education, perhaps even compensate for all the time I wasted during the years I was supposed to be studying. I read everything, history, politics, philosophy.
I was on fire with reading in those years, though how much of it all I really understood is a good question. It all seemed essential to me. It was vital to know as much as possible. A survival strategy, good armour.

We were going nowhere, but then, where was there to go? He was stuck in the middle of his life, nostalgic, bitter about how his generation had wasted all that they'd been given, all the education and idealism that had ended up in money grubbing and self interest, I was stalled at the start of mine, couldn't imagine any way of getting it off the ground alone.

We did what anyone would do in that situation, we drank. We drank first and foremost because it got rid of our hangovers and restored us to the state of well-being non-drinkers wake up to. That first pint felt like a homecoming, a restoration. It made our minds sharper, freed up our tongues for the scorn and criticism we wanted to heap upon the world, sitting up there in our little room among the boxes. It felt good to get drunk in work, not just drunk but pissed, and then go straight back to the pub for a post-work pint or two to keep on putting the world to rights, indulging in fantasies about how in a year or so we would escape, how all this drinking was temporary, the prelude, the necessary preparation somehow for the triumphs, for the daring to come.

I was going to form a band. Though I couldn't play any instruments or sing I had friends who were skilled musicians and I imagined hooking up with them, bending them to my will, producing something epochal. Perhaps I would go into films, making subversive underground shorts that would excoriate the film-making world with such brilliance that although they would be shocked and chastened they wouldn't be able to deny me.

I wanted the only thing that could satisfy my ego, my indolence, my desire, to be an enfant terrible. Andy for his part would write a lucrative series of detective novels or pulp horror of the kind he bought for twenty-pence a go from second-hand shops and raced through in the grim, enclosed hours in the Warehouse, tossing them aside disdainfully at the end with a snort, certain that he could do better.

We would show them that they had underestimated us. That we weren't where they were, with the money, the cars, the weekend breaks, the dinner parties, not because we weren't smart enough but because we spurned those things, because we had our sights set on something higher. It was just a question of deciding when and where exactly to start, of taking the decisive step. It was always there, the possibility of something greater, sweetening the present, keeping us trapped in our lives, a consolation and a cage. And when we were drunk we made fervent promises to ourselves that we would start tomorrow, no more talk, the moment is here, this is how I'll begin, this is how everything will change. And then the next day, too hungover to do anything but drink to take the edge of it we would grow passionate and certain again, our eyes shining, supporting each other's flights of fantasy, always just on the edge of success.


Mike B said...

Hey I liked this... is there more to come?

agata pyzik said...

I loved this. I'm waiting for continuation.

Anonymous said...

Carl - One day, with a little effort, you will be Mayor of Gipton.

Vexing the dull the ear...


Jeff Wode

Anonymous said...

sage words, jeff

your wodianisms are always welcome in this neck of the blogs...