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The wedding picture

Wedding image

This image was sent to me out of the blue the other day by my mother via Facebook Messenger. It seemed somehow incongruous that a snapshot from a bygone age would arrive in such a thoroughly modern manner. Still. I suppose that we’ve all got pictures like this in dusty biscuit tins somewhere at the bottom of cupboards. But given the events of the last few years this one struck a deep resounding chord with me.
I’m the little chap at the front, by the way, the young fellow in white with the somewhat less than masculine stance. Although in my defence one is never really going to look macho wearing white shorts and a bowtie. I guess I must have been three or four at the time and if I really strain I do actually have some sort of dim recollection of that day, well of those shorts anyway. Standing next to me is my elder sister. We both look so innocent, as should be the way with the very young; she not knowing that she would run away from home at the age of sixteen and be mother to two of her own girls within three years; me never guessing that the shock of hair I was casually sporting at the time would also run away from home by the time it reached thirty.
Standing behind me with an inscrutable expression on his face as he watches, presumably, the best man snog his new bride, is my Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack was semi-famous in Burnley, the location for this picture, for apocryphally playing football for Blackpool, for bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Garrity of Freddie And The Dreamers fame, and for most definitely possessing a black belt in karate, which he ofttimes used to dispatch much larger men after closing time.
Directly behind him is George Wright, my step-grandfather. Despised by my own father but loved by the infantine me, George was a long distance lorry driver, one-time stand-up comedian and former sheet music salesman on Blackpool Pier. George liked to boast that he always carried £100 in cash. (When he died it was discovered that his stash was actually newspaper sandwiched between a couple of tenners.) George also had a strange penchant for having his Brylcreemed hair combed by yours truly. As a child I would spend hours and hours combing and brushing his hair as he sat and watched TV. He a special stainless steel coiffure set that he would bring out for this purpose. George would literally purr with delight as I did so. It wasn’t until years later that it struck me just how bizarre and possibly perverse this seemingly innocent activity might actually have been.
Before George died of cancer in the 1970s, he paid a visit to our house in Bristol. I remember watching him eat chicken, chewing it to a pulp and then spitting the remains on to his plate because he could no longer keep his food down. ‘I’m getting t’goodness out of it,’ he would explain in the same heavy Northern accent that sometimes advised that the best way to play snooker was to ‘hit it where it shines…’.
Directly behind him in the black bow tie is my father. I’m guessing the tie was the one that he wore when he was ‘singing in the clubs’. A fact that he would proudly remind people of ad nauseum. How I loved and hated and loved and hated and loved and hated my father. He was a source of pride and terror to me; something I’ve never really gotten over. He was an autodidact, a working class hero, an abused child, a Labour councillor, a bully, a sloth, semi-alcoholic. A mass of contradictions that even he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand me either, and probably didn’t even try to.
In the picture he looks handsome and content. When he died last year he was apparently in the running to become mayor of Weston-Super-Mare. For a control freak like him this missed opportunity will have been a source of frustration that he carried to his grave. We spoke maybe five or six times in the last thirty years. How I loved and hated him. How I despised him. How I respected him. How I wanted to be him.
Standing right behind the bride is his wife, My mother. She sought to protect me from my bullying father’s all too frequent ‘good hidings’ by smothering me with love. Literally choking me, squeezing the air out of my lungs with love. For this reason it’s difficult to determine if she’s looking at the bride or actually craning her neck to stare over at me and check that I am all right. She looks pretty in the picture, I think. I like the beehive and remember the choking odour of cheap hairspray that used to saturate the house. When I was a kid I used to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor, sexier than Wilma Flintstone.
Towering over George Wright and my mother is Uncle Ken. He was a former Royal Guardsman and stood something like 6’ 4” in an age when 5’ 11” was considered tall. When he left the guards he worked on the trains; sometimes I would be playing football at the end of my grandmother’s street and see the train go by, him standing filthy-dirty in a heap of coal, shovelling it into the burner. When he wasn’t doing this he was drinking. And when he wasn’t drinking he was beating up Auntie Shirley.
If you look over to the right, that’s Auntie Shirley. She dressed as a bridesmaid and even though the photo is old and grainy you can see those teeth of hers that were always her defining feature. She was a naughty girl, was Auntie Shirley, and always mine and probably everybody else’s favourite. Running away to London at 18. Married to her handsome guardsman soon afterwards. Four kids. Lots of laughs. And lots of bruises. I particularly remember the bruises. The black eyes. The split lips. And I recall with crystal clarity the abject poverty that even we were shocked at when we went to her terraced house when I was a kid.
I also remember her kindness: of how I called around unexpectedly in the late-70s and when I said I liked the record she was playing she took it off the turntable and gave it to me without batting an eyelid. She didn’t have much but what she did have she was happy to give away.
And I remember the last time I saw her: about five or six years ago when I visited Burnley and she was in the latter stages of leukaemia. Of how I crept into her bedroom and held the fragile yellow hand of the jaundiced body that lay motionless on the bed. And of my cowardice later when I avoided seeing her again later because it was simply too hard for me to take. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to provide her with the comfort that she probably – most definitely – needed.
She’s glowing in the picture, though. Young and cheeky and effervescent and toothy, which is how I’ll always remember her.
To the right of Auntie Shirley is my grandmother. She was a former bus-conductress who fractured her pelvis in a road accident in the 1960s and never worked again. People used to say that she looked like the Queen, and if you hold this picture up against a £20 note you will probably get what they were talking about. She’s even wearing a coat like the Queen’s and holding her handbag in the same manner.
Some said she had Spanish blood in her, others that she was Jewish. Although in truth I can’t even remember where I got that information from, or indeed if I’ve simply made it up. What I do remember, however, is her love for me. And the oasis of safety that she provided for me as a child. I remember her dog, Sheeba; I remember the ornaments on the mantlepiece that used to fascinate me, I remember the bowl of fruit on the window ledge that seemed to be eternally self replenishing.
And her kindness was not only limited to me: when she learned that Uncle Ken’s violence also extended to his children, she took in the eldest, a girl named Lynette, my cousin, and legally adopted her. She brought Lynette up, gave her opportunities that she would surely never have had if she had stayed with Auntie Shirley.
I remember when George Wright died and my grandmother took Lynette and I on a tour of Europe, not wanting to waste the ticket she had previously purchased for her recently deceased husband. And I recall sitting with her in a Dutch bar listening to her explain that the last time she had visited they had played ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, a song that George loved. Of course, naturally, inevitably, the song stuck up again the very next instant and I was left to comfort my grieving grandmother in the awkward, clumsy way that only a fourteen-year-old boy can.
Eventually Lynette left home to join the army and years later paid a surprise visit to her adopted-mother-cum-actual-grandmother. And this is what killed our grandmother, who was so shocked to see her darling Lynette turn up expectedly that she had a massive heart attack and tragically died instantly.
These are the people whom I know and remember in this photograph but there are others faces that I dimly recognise. Is that Auntie Florrie standing to the left of Shireley? The little old lady who was actually my great-grandmother, the woman whose house was adorned with home-made rag carpets and who kept a commode in her bedroom? Is that Uncle Jordie on the far left? Auntie Florrie’s quietly spoken husband who worked down the pit and painted exquisite toy soldiers as a hobby? I don’t know but I’m sure my mother will tell me. The woman who has just messaged me while I was writing this to tell me what a ‘bonny little lad’ I was.
Not so bonny any more. Not so bonny…

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The Great Tea Wars (2001) – A Modern Parable

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It would be an over exaggeration to claim that Ian was delighted when Linsey offered him a cup of tea. Delight was really not the word. Nevertheless Ian was at the very least pleased with the offer: he was new to WMP and Linsey was tall and busty. It was far better than being ignored. Even when the beverage in question arrived and it was rather less than steaming and tasted more like rusty puddle water than anything that had allegedly originated in the exotic Chinese sunshine.
Ian was careful to drink the tea with a cheery smile. Whenever Linsey looked happily towards his desk he raised the cup to his lips and gave the thumbs up like Paul McCartney announcing the breakup of Wings. It was his first day in his new job and already he’d made a friend.
However, little over an hour later Linsey’s happy demeanour began to change. Her smile rotated 180º and the crease of a frown was seen to distort her features. It took a while for Ian to comprehend the sudden change. And when he did he could have slapped himself around the head for being so dim. Of course! What an idiot! Linsey wanted him to return the favour! She wanted him to make her a cup of tea! What a delightful place to work this is, thought Ian, everybody friends together; everybody making each other cups of tea. Why there’ll probably be a biscuit run soon.
Linsey introduced Ian to Sally, a small hunched figure, whose attempts at surgically removing 20 years from her age had left her with a face like a burns victim. Wouldn’t it be lovely, said Linsey, if Ian made Sally a cup of tea as well as making one for her? Wouldn’t it be lovely indeed, agreed Ian. Heading to the kitchen to undertake his side of the bargain.
Ian certainly put some effort into it. He really wanted impress his two new friends. He washed the scum off the cups, warmed them, made sure to use the freshest boiling water and was able to deliver quite possibly three of the best cups of tea that had ever been made in this country since Catherine of Braganza forced Charles II to drink some back in the seventeenth century.
And then it was four: soon Maggie was added to the little rota, and Tom. And Lucy. And Malcolm from the picture library. Debra from accounts. The tea rota quickly became a living, breathing entity. It was like Woodstock all over again. Everybody loved one another and delighted in the creation and consumption of sacred tea. It was a branch of Communism that actually worked. Karl Marx would have been proud – and he would have been delighted with the unremitting quality of brew that was served up. But like all self-perpetuating systems there was a flaw in its flue. And in this case the flaw’s name, amongst others, was Jon.
Jon was in middle management and the wrong side of forty. Like a lot of people of that age he had a face that he deserved, which looked like it had had three previous owners. Like everyone else at WMP Jon was impressed by the exotic flavour of Ian’s tea. And he was also happy to join the rapidly growing ranks of the tea rota. What he wasn’t happy too do, however, was actually make the stuff. Why should I? thought Jon. Somebody else can do it.
Within a fortnight the tea rota had begun to swell out of all proportion. It was beginning to reach an unmanageable size.
The unlucky person whose job it was to make tea for everyone now had to patrol the office with a notepad, writing down the particular likes and dislikes of the tea rota’s members.
Some wanted sugar. Some no sugar. Some wanted milk. Some no milk. Some wanted almond milk, some soya. Some wanted decaffeinated tea, some wanted Earl Grey. Some liked their tea hot, others liked it tepid. Sandra from production refused to drink her tea unless it was in the cup with ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps…’ emblazoned on the side. Murray the maintenance man would only drink coffee. It was a logistical nightmare. Something had to give.
Clever, devious people such as the aforementioned Jon from middle management sought to circumvent the tea rota. Whenever it happened to be his turn to make the tea he would arrange it so that he was engaged in a long telephone conversation. ‘Sally, would you mind getting this,’ he would mouth, with his hand cupped over the telephone receiver, ‘I’ll do the next one.’
Of course, there was never a Next One for people like Jon. And he was not the only one displaying a peculiar talent for avoiding tea rota duty. Ian could not help notice that Linsey was always doing something in the Ladies whenever it was her turn. He felt betrayed. It irked him that the person who had been his tea rota co-creator was always in absentia.
Ian began to hate Linsey. It was a gradual thing. Suddenly it did not seem to matter that she was tall and busty. That was purely incidental. The important thing was that the ugly cow never made tea. And as for that wanker Jon in middle management…
The weeks went by and the hatred and resentment swelled like an unlanced boil. The once jovial atmosphere at WMP was replaced by an atmosphere of mistrust and loathing. Woodstock was over and all that was left were empty Coke tins and plastic bottles full of piss. Utopian Communism had been replaced by grim Conservatism in which those who had exploited those who hadn’t. A fuse had been lit. An explosion was imminent.
As always, alcohol was the catalyst for the looming explosion. At the office Christmas party Linsey danced with Jon and neither of them stood their round. Drinks were bought for them with nothing in return. The office separated into two distinct factions. Them that did. And them that didn’t.
After the Christmas break the dids studiously ignored the didn’ts. The didn’ts merely shrugged, as if to say they didn’t care a hoot for what the dids did. Needless to say the dids didn’t make tea for the didn’ts. Civil war was a whisper away.
And then one morning Ian had had enough. Although nobody could have guessed that it was to be the very last time, Ian made one final tea round.

Clutching his notepad he made one last circuit around the office and took down everybody’s last orders:

Linsey, tea, white with no sugar
Sally, tea, black with two sugars
Jon, tea, white at no more than 70º in temperature
Malcolm, tea with lemon
Sandra, Darjeeling, microwaved for precisely 16 seconds and then gently fanned for six minutes
Chris, cream tea with scones made from Yak cream
Trevor, decaffeinated latte with a lactose free chocolate dusting in the shape of a heart with an arrow going through it

And so the list went on. Each person an individual. Every person making their own particular demand. For one last time Ian put the kettle on. He’d been hoping to ask Polly from editorial to do this for him, but she’d gone away somewhere.

Ironically, Jon was the first to notice that something was wrong. He’d already drunk more than half of his cup of tea before he began to cough. At first he thought it was just a tickle but the cough quickly grew worse. And then he felt a painful burning sensation in his throat. As he climbed to the feet in absolute agony, Jon could hear other people coughing. The noise was accompanied by the sound of groaning. One by one the entire second floor of WMP fell to the ground. Within five minutes every staff member was dead.

Everyone, that is, except Ian. Who stood alone, silently impressed that Amazon had been so efficient with his cyanide order. It had only taken a day to arrive and they had posted a card through his door telling him to pick it up from his neighbour when he got home. Ian would certainly use Amazon again.

Naturally the papers couldn’t get enough of it. The story of the  serial killer who wiped out an entire floor of co-workers dominated the headlines for more than a week. At the trial the judge looked at Ian like he was a cross between Ted Bundy and Tony Blair. He was given a life sentence, as well as a lucrative advertising contract with P G Tips.

*****

Life in prison was even grimmer that Ian had imagined. Locked alone inside his cell for 23 hours every day, Ian had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his behaviour. And then, on his seventh day in captivity Ian was finally allowed to interact with another human being. In the exercise yard, a young prisoner approached Ian with a welcoming smile: ‘It’s not so bad here,’ he said. ‘You really do get used to it after a while.’
‘Is that right?’ said Ian grimly.
‘Listen,’ said the other man. ’The name’s Brian – fancy a nice cup of tea?’
’No I fucking do not!’ replied Ian.

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Dan’s Dead

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It was a dreadful, barren windswept January morning that made you feel like setting fire to your own underpants just to earn a brief respite from the monotonous despair. The summer was something that had happened to someone else a long, long time ago. The winter winds were a medieval instrument of torture that scourged any exposed flesh, turning white to red and red to blue. The days were shorter than this –> Sentence. The nights went on forever; a lot longer than this sentence even if you filled it with lots of useless inappropriate words such as porridge, ambulance and suppository.

But something was about to happen and if this was an interactive ebook there would be a little button for you to push that made a sound like this: ‘Dum-de-dum-dum-duuummmm!! However, because it isn’t remotely interactive you’ll just have to imagine it.

Nobody noticed Dan as he moved slowly into the school playground. Why would they? He was an unremarkable kind of boy. The sort of kid who wasn’t even a household name in his own household. Ginger hair. Freckles. A nose that never seemed to stop running (although even Dan could never exactly understand what it was running from). Nobody noticed as he picked up the largest stone he could find and lobbed it at a window with all his might. Lots of heads turned towards the crash of shattering glass but not a single person spotted Dan.

Nobody was looking when Dan went up behind Billy Crumpster and gave him a hefty kick up the fat, spotty backside which brought tears to the eyes of the hated school bully. “How’d you like that?” smiled Dan, remembering the years of misery that he had endured at the hands and fists of this walking lump of vitriol and blubber.

“Yooowwwwww’ howled Billy, as a few of his lump-headed cronies tried not to snigger. “If I find out who did that I’ll… I’ll… Murder them!”

Nobody seemed interested when Dan took his place at the back of the classroom to watch in silence as the despised Mr. Nicolas took to the stage. “How on earth did I land myself with an ugly bunch of cretins like you lot!” said the red-nosed teacher in his customary cheerful manner. “If anybody dares to interrupt me I’ll have their guts for garters!”

Mr. Nicolas was Welsh and taught French. Or was he French and taught Welsh? Nobody really knew. He was particularly fond of throwing things at his pupils. (By that I don’t mean he lobbed things at his own eyes. That would be stupid. I mean his pupils – the children whom he taught French or Welsh to.) Chalk. Rubbers. Pens. Razor blades. Grenades. Anything that he could get his hands on really. He thought that picking on the kids was part of his job description. If he managed to make one or two cry he considered it a perk of the job. Like many grown-ups he wore a wig – a really cheap one made of nylon that was fixed to his head with superglue from the Pound Shop. Mr. Nicolas thought that it made him look rather fetching in a Hollywood movie star kind of way. Which is why a look of sheer horror spread across his face when he suddenly felt a cool breeze waft across the top of his head and realised that his nylon wig was missing and that he no longer looked like Brad Pitt. “Stop that noise immediately!” he yelled, caught between trying to cup his hands over his shining dome and finding something large and blunt to throw at the roomful of giggling schoolchildren. “If I find out who’s nicked my hair system I’ll make their life a misery!” Adults call them ‘systems’ because the don’t like the word ‘wig’.

Dan had never had so much fun. At break he managed to block all the teachers’ toilets with bubble gum. The headmaster had to roll up his trousers to ungum them and ended up covered in teachers’ poo. At lunch Dan put salt in the sugar bowls and dandruff in the pepper pots that he got from the scalp of ‘Flaking’ Stevens in Year 5.

And nobody had a clue that Dan was behind this wave of mischief.

He was enjoying himself. In the afternoon Dan put chilli powder in horrible Mr. Grimes’ underpants. The PE teacher spent the next hour doing a peculiar kind of breakdance that made the cross country team wail with laughter. Finally he had no choice but to run for a shower that was boiling hot one minute and freezing cold the next. When the thoroughly miserable teacher eventually managed to wash away the chilli powder he was forced to put on a dress. Somebody had stolen his own clothing. Someone whose name happened to be Dan.

Dan had always hated school. It was a place of misery. A place where bullies bullied you. A place where teachers taught you that life might be bad now but you wait until you grow up. But all of a sudden he was having a whale of a time. During the afternoon break Dan set off the fire alarms and turned on the sprinklers in the staff common room. The teachers were deafened and soaked to the skin. And before the final bell sounded Dan had one last trick up his sleeve. As the soggy teachers attempted to rise to dismiss their classes for the day they found they were unable to move. Someone had nailed their underwear to their chairs. You can probably guess who.

By the time that the school began to empty there were a lot of happy smiling faces. Many of the children had never had such a good time. Some such as Billy Crumpster, for example, didn’t look quite so happy. Most delighted of all was Dan. And if anybody who knew him could have seen his face they would have agreed that they had never seen him looking so pleased with himself. For the first time ever Dan had actually enjoyed going to school.

Perhaps being dead wasn’t so bad after all.

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Rubber soles – The Shoes From Hell

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It is the summer of 1976. The long, hot, scorching summer of 1976. It is the dawn of punk and the inauguration of an upsurge in safety pin sales totally unanticipated by market forces. As we sit swatting flies, rock legends Chicago, Pussycat and Dennis Roussos take turns perching cheerfully at the top of the music charts. But all the talk among those yet to buy their first razor is of the Sex Pistols: the snarling, spitting pop combo from North London shortly to be responsible for a whole generation of bad hair days. There is a wind of change in the air; the sense that something is happening, that something is spiralling out of control, the feeling that nothing will ever be the same again. And there is a man. A thirty-six-year-old man who, for the purpose of this sorry exercise in grim futility, we will refer to as my father.
Even now, the only thing I have to say about that afternoon is: What could he have been thinking? Just what exactly was going through his head?! The more charitable among you might be prepared to put his peculiar behaviour down to some form of mid-life crisis but I’m not so sure. All I know is that with just one – albeit woefully – misjudged action my father managed to wipe away a sizeable portion of any respect that I held for him and become, from my fourteen-year-old perspective, quite possibly the uncoolest man on the planet.
And what was his crime?
I’ll tell you what his crime was but first allow me to backtrack slightly and attempt to provide you with a brief pen picture of the person who committed this heinous violation of good taste. Bear with me for the odd paragraph or two and try to let me put you in the shoes of such a man:
Let’s see… You’re on the wrong side of thirty. You have a wife and three kids. You have a mortgage, a second-hand car and a steady if not particularly well paid job at a local factory. You have a garage – an allotment even – and on weekends you usually go to the pub and meet up with the family to play cards. Very nice, some might say – nothing too unusual but very nice all the same.
Then one day you hear a noise on the radio. A noise that shocks you to your very core. At first it doesn’t even sound like music because it is totally unlike any kind of music you have ever heard before. Screeching, anarchic guitars are wielded like machine guns against drab convention; the singer – if you can call him that – makes no attempt to sing but instead hurls himself at the microphone like some kind of demented daemon. Try as you might you cannot get this sound out of your head; it seems to follow you around wherever you go. Prodding you, nudging you, forcing you to remember a feeling buried deep in the pit of your memory.
Then you see pictures of the originators of this cacophony of chaos: underfed, anaemic teenagers dressed in mutilated clothing, spitting defiance and warm phlegm in the direction of anyone who happens to wander by. And no matter how much you try to ignore these images they will not go away. Despite yourself, you find yourself being drawn towards whatever it is that is occurring. Finally, when you can bear it no more, you take a long, lingering look in the mirror at the person you have become and realise that it all could be slipping away from you. So what do you do? How do you react to the realisation that your youth has been eroded away by mediocrity and routine?
Well, what my father did – according to all available evidence – was to go for a total change of image. Something that would perhaps bring him more in line with what people were wearing at that pivotal moment in sociological history. Nothing too drastic, mind you. Nothing too OTT. Just enough to let everyone know that he had not yet achieved middle-age; that he could be as hip as the next man when he set his mind to it.
***
It was Saturday afternoon. My sister and I were sitting in the living room watching TV when my father arrived bearing the package that contained the physical manifestation of an inner struggle that had obviously been going on for some time. “I’ve got something to show you,” he informed us breathlessly.
Looking nervous and excited, my father began to peel away the brown paper that covered this mysterious object. Whatever it was, I noted, it was oblong in shape.
In many ways it is a great pity that my father had chosen to keep to himself the details of whatever had caused him to take such a radical step. Surely if the Punk revolution was having such an effect on his senses it would have been far better to share this torment with someone else – someone, say, like myself. For one thing, (having read up on the subject) I would probably have been able to advise him on the most suitable locations for the insertion of safety pins; likewise, I may also have been able to offer my opinions as to the most effective means of making one’s hair point northwards (soap, actually, not hairspray or gel). More importantly, however, with a little rumour-mongering the occasion of the unveiling of my father’s new alter ego could quite possibly have evolved into a seminal family event – a Wonder Years moment, no less. A moment etched into celluloid time, such as the occasion in which that little American kid on the programme stole his first kiss, or when his dog died – a moment of extraordinary revelation to be accompanied by several paragraphs of schmaltzy, heartfelt self-awareness, delivered in an apple pie American accent: one of those rare episodes that can bind a family together.
Either that or it would have been even more buttock-clenchingly amusing.
The brown paper fell away and my father slowly began to open the box that he was hugging to his chest like a new-born puppy. What could it contain? What was inside the cardboard receptacle that held the key to the wardrobe of this unprecedented act of reinvention? Were we about to see my father discard the hosiery of establishment and step into the leathers and zips of the New Age? Would he soon be sporting a stud through his nose and a pair of bondage trousers? Just what had he bought?
The box fell open to reveal a pair of very large, very black, platform shoes.
My sister and I began to laugh as the expression on my father’s face quickly moved from one of anxious anticipation to a grimace of confusion and, finally, to one of excruciating embarrassment. Then, as our eyes pleaded with him to put an end to this act of couturiel suicide, he removed his normal shoes and stubbornly manoeuvred his feet into their modernistic replacements.
These were no ordinary platform shoes. With eight-inch heels forged from the purest moulded plastic, they filled the room with their dreadful presence. It was as if someone had scraped away the silver from the shoes that Elton John had worn in Tommy and then sold them to my dad. Already a tall man, his head now brushed the ceiling as he tottered before us and waited for our reaction.
We laughed some more.
***
Being today more or less the same age that my father was when he purchased his tribute to the Glitter Band, it is tempting to claim some form of empathy with his ill-conceived attempt at a makeover. But I simply cannot. Naturally, having myself evolved into someone who teenagers now refer to as ‘middle-aged’, I am not immune to the same sort of pangs, insecurities and gaping chasms in one’s knowledge of youth culture that led my father up the path of insanity. However, even though I am nowadays often forced to lie through my teeth when anyone mentions a pop group that happens to be in the top ten, I still cling to the conviction that, if and when my hormones demand that I make such a transformation, I would likely make a better attempt at becoming someone else than my father did. I would not, for instance, replace my current attire with the tartan kilts and crimson lip gloss of Steve Strange and his band of New Romantics from the early eighties. Nor, for that matter, would I grow what remains of my hair and slip my portly frame into the tight jeans and willowy blouses of Deep Purple circa 1973. I am more sensible than that. At least I hope I am.
Actually, in the end he turned out to be more sensible than that. In fact, the attachment between those shoes and my father was over before the wedding vows had even been spoken. The sum total of their relationship was confined to that Saturday afternoon and that room – and our mocking laughter. Those shoes very quickly took on the status of a one-night stand: stealthily discarded and given rented accommodation amongst the mothballs and copies of Readers Digest at the bottom of the wardrobe. He wore them once and only once.
***
There is, unfortunately, an aftermath to this brief meander down memory’s back alley. Perhaps even a lesson to be learned somewhere along the way. It’s what can happen when the sentimental among us allow our misguided perceptions of what constitutes fair play to take precedence over less ethereal qualities such as good sense and reality. It’s the reward I got for attempting to soften the blow by making it known to my father that those shoes, after all, weren’t as bad as our laughter that day had implied. My intention had been borne of genuine feelings of sympathy concerning his predicament; my desire had been only to make him feel a little better about himself, to restore some of the self-confidence that he had lost as a result of his aborted stylistic metamorphosis. It was the wrong thing to do.
Never being less than a thrifty sort of person, my father took my words of encouragement to be some kind of hidden signal. Extraordinarily, he somehow managed to reach the conclusion that I, in fact, had suddenly and mysteriously developed an overpowering urge for those shoes to become part of my personal property. And so he gave them to me!
The actual exchange of goods was presented to me as a fait accompli; being a constituent of a household in which the less senior members rarely possessed more than one pair of shoes (and one pair of plimsolls or daps as they are known in Bristol (pumps in Burnley)), which were replaced only when they were worn out, my father waited until my current pair were literally on their last legs before furnishing me with the items of footwear that would soon become my life’s greatest burden. Thus in one easy movement that was both cunning, cost-effective and seamless in its execution, my father hoisted the remnants of his afternoon of middle-aged madness onto my shoulders. Or rather, he provided the shoes for me to step into. Instead of reinventing himself, he reinvented me.
And so I spent the summer of 1976 a pimple-faced relic from a bygone age. The prisoner of a pair of shoes that proved an instant conversation stopper wherever I hobbled. Eight-inch heels that steadfastly refused to succumb to my numerous attempts to destroy them on the way home from school so that they would have to be replaced. A chick magnet whose poles had been irrevocably reversed. Unscuffable, unburnable and with an apparently unlimited lifespan, those shoes enabled me to experience the summer of punk from a vantage point many metres above my contemporaries.

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A nice surprise

After I posted the second part of my epic ‘My Visit To A Shrink’ here yesterday I happened to check out one of the kind people who posted responses to the piece.

Being biologically dim and off the pace I’d never heard of something called ABC Tales. If you don’t already know it’s a site that invites people to post short stories. So I posted yesterday’s blog and was very pleasantly surprised to discover that it had been nominated as ‘Pick Of The Day’.

I don’t know what the exactly means, but I suppose it’s better than being nominated as ‘Abject Wanker Of The Day’.

Here’s a link:

ABC Tales

13

My visit to a shrink #2

For anyone out there interested (and I’m not entirely sure that even I am interested) I visited my therapist for the second time on Monday. (Although I don’t know why I’m calling her ‘my’ therapist; she certainly doesn’t belong to me.)

I didn’t learn very much this time (does one go to therapists to learn stuff?) except for one small, very minor thing: I’m really not very good at going to therapists.

Being someone who is pathologically early (she said we’d address this issue at some point in the future if we had time) I was early. She was late. And all of this set my mind off, not necessarily into a panic, but it got me thinking as I sat there in a grubby NHS waiting room next to real sick people. Why was she late? Was it my fault or was it hers? Previously she had told me to wait in a particular place at 10:00 am and she would come to meet me. Had she not shown up because I hadn’t announced my arrival at reception? Yes that was probably it.

I waited until 10:05 and with still no sign of her I decided to be proactive. I would go and look for her.

I’d only been there once before but somehow my radar managed to find her office among the dozens of identical looking others. But as I went to tentatively knock on her door it suddenly sprang open, leaving us standing face to face. If I hadn’t been paying attention and been able to stop myself it’s highly likely that I could have ended up punching her on the nose three times. I don’t know what Freud says about hitting therapists. He probably wouldn’t encourage it.

There was a shocked silence. It was as if by coming to look for my tardy therapist (she’s not mine, by the way, really she isn’t!) I had broken some kind of monumental head-case rule. She looked at me for several long moments, like a granny staring at a mugger, and then she sort of said something like: ‘oh’. I couldn’t be sure. She’s got a very strong Chinese accent.

I broke the awkward silence by apologising for being early and for her being late. I told her that there was nothing suspicious about me coming to look for her. Really there wasn’t. I was quite normal actually and I could prove it. Then she asked me to go away and sit back in the waiting room which I said I would but didn’t because – let’s face it – who likes waiting in waiting rooms? Instead I loitered on the stairs outside her office. If I was still smoking I would have had a fag. 

All of this meant a few minutes later when she came to collect me from the waiting room I wasn’t there, I was standing on the stairs. And once again there was an awkward silence as she blundered into me, almost falling over in the process. She gave me another shocked look and another ‘oh’. 

It wasn’t going well.

We went into her office and I politely asked if I could take a seat. She gave me a shrug, which I quickly translated as meaning ‘why are you asking me if you can sit down? What a stupid question…’ Or perhaps she thought I was actually going to take the seat, pick it up and exit the building with it under my arm. I apologised for being polite and her silence indicated that there was obviously something uniquely strange about somebody being polite. I told her I was always polite on account of being well brought up. And as the words left my lips I couldn’t help but wonder that if I was so well brought up why am I seeing a therapist about my nasty and abusive father? Then I apologised for apologising.

There was a silence. Then another silence. And then, finally, the silence was broken by another long silence.

We stared into each others eyes. It was very intimate. One of those occasions when you know that if you break the stare the other person has won.

She won. I looked down at my feet and then gathered my senses for another bout of protracted staring. I’d get the bitch this time, I thought. Then she finally spoke: ‘What would you like to talk about?’ she asked.

What would I like to talk about? ‘Nothing,’ I replied. 

Of course I don’t want to talk about anything, I explained. Why would I? I’ve only met you once before and you’re expecting me to launch into ‘when-I-was-a-kid-my-dad-was-horrid-to-me’ mode. When I talk intimately, I explained, it is usually with someone whom I know intimately. Or when there was alcohol involved. Perhaps, I suggested, we could both retire to the nearest boozer and after three or four pints of Guinness I’d talk about anything she wanted. Liberally. Honestly. Word-tumblingly. And in comfort. 

She demurred. Then it was back to the silence. And the staring match. 

I talked about Chinese people. It seemed somehow appropriate. Of how I’ve known very few of them in my life. And of how their seemingly innate placidity always made me feel clumsy and unsophisticated around them. She didn’t offer any reaction to my observations but simply continued staring deep into my eyes. Didn’t the woman ever blink?

I talked about my illness. About being an undiagnosed hyperthyroid for several decades and how it fucked up my life. I spoke about this at great length. I even managed to bore myself. And finally she showed a reaction. She frowned and in so many words told me to stop ‘telling stories’ about myself and articulate my real feelings. She said that my illness was undoubtably a direct result of my childhood. 

Now it was my turn to frown: such a comment seemed like an overwhelmingly childlike simplistic cliché. But I didn’t get time to tell her this because instead I was launching into a description of Phatic Communion – a form of communication in which words were used not to communicate but to fill empty spaces. She said she’d never heard of it but that I was doing it now. Of course I was, I told her. Naturally I was.

I told her a few jokes, which she didn’t find funny. I told her the same jokes, slower this time, having decided that I was talking too fast for her the first time. They still weren’t funny. Fortunately, I was not paying for any of this. David Cameron was.

When she wasn’t staring at me she was staring at the clock, whose fingers stubbornly refused to move and then decided to move at x10 speed. And all of a sudden, just as I was beginning to tell her how my father never allowed me to have friends as a child, it was all over before it had begun. An object lesson in how to waste an hour of your life in the most unenjoyable, awkward way imaginable.

I got to my feet and held out my hand. Once again she looked appalled. In therapist land shaking hands was obviously another monumental faux pas. I apologised for attempting to shake her hand, telling her it was because I was well brought up.

Then out of habit I apologised for apologising one more time. Better luck next time, I thought, as I headed for the pub and the pint of cold, frothy Guinness that awaited my arrival.

Three hours later another therapist was listening patiently to my life story, gently pouring me placative pints and offering me the occasional packet of crisps.

7

My visit to a shrink #1

So I relented and even though I’ve openly scoffed about them for years and years and years I went to see a counsellor. That’s a mental counsellor. A shrink. Not my local Labour counsellor.

She was/is oriental. Aloof and mysterious. Like Yoko Ono. And as expected she sat and said practically nothing for an hour, prompting me to fill the awkward silence by wittering on about myself ad nauseum. I talked principally about my father who died last year, an expiration which prompted me to lose a little grip on my life and head for the anti-depressants. These innocent looking little round pills quickly robbed me of my emotion and the ability to ejaculate.

We covered a lot of ground in an hour. I like to bullet point things if you’re interested:

• I started producing art (first in the form of drawings, then words) because I was afraid of my father (who was pretty rotten to me when I was a kid).

• My father taught me to fear adults, which is why I locked myself away in a box to draw and paint and finally write. As I’m doing now.

• I associate the production of art with safety.

• I am detached from the real world. I live an existential existence, observing from a distance and eschewing involvement with real people and actual situations.

• The only people I interact with are the people who choose to enter my box, i.e. my wife and kids.

• Most of my books are about me. I already knew that.

• Most of my books feature parental retribution. I already knew that.

As far as I’m concerned these bullet points are reasonably true. And I may have mentioned that I already knew that they were true. But there is something about having to articulate them in front of an emotionless stranger that somehow reinforces the point.

I have seven more sessions on the NHS, which is jolly decent of them, my therapist says that she is going to encourage me to ‘heal myself’.

I will keep a sort of online diary, not for you in particular but as always for me.