Friday, 1 February 2013

My Struggle

I'm sceptical as to whether anyone genuinely has much of an idea of what they want to do with their lives at the age of eighteen or thereabouts. I vaguely hoped to achieve renown for weird, unlistenable music, so I signed up for a fine art degree at Maidstone College of Art specialising in Time Based Media, the institution's recently rebranded film, video and sound department. I reasoned that this was a place where I'd be able to continue churning out a shambolic noise, cleverly passing it off as film soundtrack, inevitably become famous and thus not have to worry about getting a day job once the three years were up. It didn't quite work out that way, and with hindsight I realise neither my music nor my efforts in the fields of film and video were particularly remarkable. Significantly though, I met Carl Glover and Charlie Adlard whilst at Maidstone College of Art, and also Glenn Wallis of the groups Whitehouse and Konstruktivists and who wasn't at art college but lived a few miles away in Gillingham. Celebrity watchers might like to know that I also met Mark Hodder and was regularly subjected to cruel but nevertheless accurate observations made by Traci Emin with regard to my hair, at the time modelled on that of Alan Moore, but anyway...

After three years I had a degree but none of the anticipated fame, and I moved to Chatham, it being near to Maidstone and home to a thriving live music scene. During the last year of art college I had played guitar in a band called Total Big with Carl singing and our friend Chris New playing drums. As I moved to the Medway Towns - a Kentish sprawl encompassing Chatham, Rochester, Gillingham and others - Chris moved to Dover so we bought a drum machine and named our duo The Dovers in his honour. We played numerous gigs all over, probably nothing too outrageously musical but fun to watch according to those who turned up.

I was still dabbling in my own noisy music, perhaps with reduced enthusiasm, but was also considering becoming a cartoonist having been faced with the possibility that I might not end up quite so famous as hoped. Inspired by the likes of Robert Crumb and Bill Griffith I began drawing my own strips, some of which showed up in local small press efforts, and one of which got me low paid but regular work drawing a strip for Brian Moore's Head football fanzine - a continuing story which ended up running for maybe seven or eight years. At the same time I began writing strips, or at least attempting to write vaguely mainstream efforts in collaboration with Charlie Adlard who would draw them in somewhat more accomplished form than anything of which I was then capable. Charlie hadn't quite fitted in back at Maidstone. He dressed well, had manners, wore jackets with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, liked Simple Minds, and was above all a conspicuously nice guy. We had hit it off immediately through a mutual interest in comic books and possession of a sense of humour. As a brief creative partnership, we had a few collaborative false starts, but completed a few things which we hawked around the comic conventions hoping to get noticed; but ultimately I lacked the patience and returned to my underground roots, leaving Charlie free to become sickeningly successful with The Walking Dead and others.

After two faintly miserable post-degree years on the dole, the formerly generous English taxpayer began to look at me askance and suggest I find work seeing as I had conspicuously failed to become famous as projected. This was how I ended up as a postman. As a school kid giving up my paper round about five years earlier, I'd vowed that never again would I wake at an ungodly hour in order to tramp the streets shoving stuff through letter boxes, so the irony was difficult to miss, not least because I stayed with Royal Mail for the next twenty-one years. Oddly enough, at the time it turned out to be exactly what I needed. It was money, and it obliged me to hang around with people who neither knew nor cared about Genesis P. Orridge, Carl Andre, or that miserable hat-wearing fucker out of The Mission; people who - much to my surprise - turned out to be one hell of a lot funnier and more interesting than those who did care about Genesis P. Orridge, Carl Andre, and that miserable hat-wearing fucker out of The Mission - even if they did like football and Coronation Street and that. Who would have thought...

After two years living in Chatham, and still lacking fame either as underground cartoonist or guitarist with The Dovers, I'd grown restless, and so transferred my job to Coventry. In Coventry I lived with my dad who had recently moved there from the market town of Shipston-on-Stour where I grew up. Almost immediately I realised this move had been a mistake, so I transferred again to London on the grounds that at least I knew some people living there to whom I wasn't related, notably Carl.

We picked up where we'd left off with The Dovers, and I started working for Royal Mail in Catford, drawing more and more cartoons, self-publishing some of them, and also joining Konstruktivists, the group formed by Glenn Wallis. Perhaps conscious of having fingers in too many pies, I later strategically withdrew from Konstruktivists. It was nice that we had released a few CDs through World Serpent Distribution, but it was difficult being in a group with a guy who lived two or three counties away. Despite intending to concentrate on my own dubiously musical efforts, I somehow got recruited to play guitar and keyboard for Academy 23, the group formed by Andy Martin and Dave Fanning of The Apostles with whom I'd been in correspondence since the early 1980s. Gigs were played, music was recorded and put out on CD and vinyl, until in roughly 1995 I became somehow tired of being me, and of almost everything I'd been trying to do up to that point.

Academy 23 had become UNIT, with added progressive rock time signatures requiring more patience and ability than I could muster; I'd just split with girlfriend number two; the world of small press cartooning had taught me that I actively hated the work of all but a handful of other cartoonists; and the relative success I was beginning to enjoy as a cartoonist for football fanzines was serving only to bring in requests for stuff I had no interest in drawing.

Somehow this coincided with a newly developed fascination with Prehispanic Mexico, specifically the culture generally but wrongly remembered as Aztec. I dropped everything and started reading whatever I could find. I knew myself well, and that I had a history of dabbling, of getting bored and leaving things unfinished; and whilst I wouldn't exactly have called myself a moron, Richard Dawkins' lecture Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder and conversations with Andy Martin had impressed on me that I didn't really know much beyond trivia - Doctor Who, comic books, art history, industrial music, flying saucer lore and so on. I was dissatisfied with myself, realising I had spent many years as the sort of gurgling clueless berk I would have crossed the road to avoid. From this point on, I vowed whilst holding a flaming sword aloft to the blood-drenched heavens, if I do something, I'm going to do it properly or not at all. This is my brag.

With hindsight, it felt as though I'd spent many years in search of something of poorly defined qualities, never really coming close - not exactly purpose, but something of that nature. Mexico, or at least my interest in Mexico seemed of more inherent value than a pile of tatty unexplained mysteries of the mysterious paperbacks or Throbbing Gristle bootleg tapes. Possibly my brain just needed something to work with besides novelty.

Anyway, I got deeper and deeper into Mexica culture - Mexica being what the Aztecs called themselves at the time - to the point of requiring specialist literature because I'd read everything else; and I resumed painting - having dabbled some years earlier but packed it in when I hit a dead end - more or less painting as a point of focus for the whole Mexican thing; I started writing unjustifiably pompous essays on the subject, really just thinking aloud and working out ideas; until it got to the point where it would have been ridiculous to continue without actually having been to Mexico. I'd never before left England, but it had to be done, so in September 1999, I went to stay in Mexico City for a couple of weeks, and I think it sort of changed my life, even if I can't quite say why.

As the twenty-first century got under way, I found myself with all this obscure knowledge of Tlatilco and Zacatenco pottery phases, obscure Goddesses with names like Chiconahui Izcuintli Chantico, and a burning need to do something with it all, to vent the ideas with which the subject had inspired me. The paintings became a hypothetical book, an aspirationally definitive bestiary of the entire pantheon of central Mexican Deities - something which to the best of my knowledge remains yet to be compiled with the level of detail I envision. A decade later I'm still working on this, slowly due to having become sidetracked into writing fiction.

Never before having considered this point, I recently realised that I've been writing fiction for some time, at least so far back as  collaborative efforts with Charlie Adlard and strip cartoons written and drawn for Brian Moore's Head. Excepting Philip K. Dick, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and - I suppose - comic books, I had never been a particularly avid reader of fiction - at least not up until about 2008 - but I had read the odd Doctor Who novel; and so ended up trying to write my version, set in fourteenth century Mexico because I was pretty sure that sooner or later someone else would use the same setting and they would most likely get it horribly wrong, so it was an attempt to stake out territory in some sense. Smoking Mirror - as it was called - was rejected, although by this point I had become increasingly disillusioned with the somewhat insular Doctor Who microcosm, much preferring the distantly related Faction Paradox mythos created by Lawrence Miles, and so I forged ahead, doing it all again as a Faction Paradox novel with the benefit of lessons learned. This I finished just as Mad Norwegian press announced they were to discontinue the line of novels instigated by Lawrence Miles, and just as my landlord died.

I had lived in the same place since 1995, just over a decade, a slightly damp but otherwise wonderful basement flat with a garden in East Dulwich, with Bill, my amiable landlord, occupying the upper floors of the house and none too bothered about charging a fortune providing he had a tenant who wasn't an arsehole, which apparently I wasn't, so it all worked out well. This was 2006 and the beginning of a couple of rough years made all the less bearable by my having become romantically involved with a girl who was basically insane. She was related to both Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, and back in about 1985 she had an affair with a member of a well-known weirdy music outfit, a guy I'd been writing to at the time, and still know to this day. The sheer coincidence seemed too big to ignore, and I'd been alone for so long that my cherry had grown back. Also, I'd been living in a bubble of reasonable rent and relative security for ten years, and I now found that I could barely afford to live in London. Initially I moved to a smaller flat costing half of my weekly wage, then when the rent increased, I moved into the smallest room of my girlfriend's house - or rather the house her mother had bought for her.

She didn't work, or at least no more than a few days a week conducting door to door surveys. Everything was the fault of someone else. She had two shelves groaning with self-help books and had been a regular attendee at self-improvement workshops run by an extremely dubious therapy cult, and had thus learned to argue like some bizarre conflation of rottweiler and lawyer. She spent three years telling me where I was going wrong, how I should be running my life, explaining how my reluctance to join her creepy therapy cult constituted a direct assault upon her self-esteem, and for the final ten months taking rent off me. She made it clear that I would soon be asking for her hand in marriage, and that it had better be a decent ring - not some old shit from Peckham market. She was horrible, and I knew I had to escape by whatever method presented itself before the situation became so bad as to redefine suicide as a reasonable option. I did this by finding a place to live - tiny and costing almost two thirds of my weekly wage but better than the alternative - and hiring a bloke with a massive van to get me and all my crap out of there in double-quick time.

Life immediately became better than it had been at any point since 2005 when I returned from my most recent trip to Mexico. My Faction Paradox novel had drawn the interest of a publisher who took up the line in the wake of its initial cancellation, and I began to consider writing more seriously. Also at this point I met Bess, an American woman whom I immediately recognised as the person with whom I was supposed to be all along - not believing in destiny or any of that crap, this is unfortunately the only way I can put it; and years later, now married and settled, my views have not changed in this respect. Anyway, as I met Bess, I had been tiring of London for a long time, and had in addition spent a good few years with one eye cocked in the general direction of Mexico as somewhere I might consider living had things turned out different. Bess being from Texas, one-hundred miles north of the Mexican border, just seemed too good to be true, one of those ridiculous points of synchronicity which seemingly drew us together, or at least had us boggling with disbelief - both having the same birthday being another good one.

It was meant to be, we decided, and so it was.

Twenty-one years with Royal Mail and nineteen in London had been enough for me, so I packed it all in and moved to my mother's place in Coventry, there to write my novel, get some short stories under my belt, and flog one half of all my accumulated crap on eBay so as to pay to ship the other half of it to Texas. Bess and I jumped through all the required legal hoops and after eighteen months I had my green card. I moved to San Antonio and we got married.

It's now eighteen months later. I'm writing daily, even getting paid for it on occasion with more work to come, looking after a house and garden bigger than any in which I've lived before, and married to the woman who really did turn out to be the girl of my dreams - and I'm aware how that sounds but that's just how it is.

All this time, I suspect I've been looking for something, and although I'm still not sure exactly what it is or how to describe it, I believe I've found it. It might be easy to beat myself up with all the if I knew then what I know now, but there really doesn't seem like a whole lot of point. I suppose it's a bit vexing that I'm a fat, old man approaching fifty, but I guess that's just how it goes; and had I not made the journey - to briefly wax Waltonsy - I probably would have ended up in the wrong place. There's a popular line around these parts - not quite a joke, something between a zinger and a bumper sticker: I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here just as soon as I could, and that's probably as good a summary as any for these last 2,792 words.

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