Friday, 26 July 2013

Six Bad Weeks

Anyway, that's probably how Genesis P. Orridge would spell address.

In 1990 I came to the realisation that moving to Coventry hadn't been the best decision I'd ever made. I'd lived there six months and was yet to experience anything to suggest that it might be an improvement on Chatham, and so I began to consider London. I had resisted moving to the capital. It seemed like a nice enough place to visit but I'd never had any desire to live there. Unfortunately just about everyone I knew had moved to London by that point, and it didn't seem like there was anywhere left to go, at least nowhere that wasn't somehow a step backwards. So I bought a copy of Loot - the London based classified advertising paper - through which I found a room in a shared house in Lewisham, roughly the area for which I was aiming on the grounds of my friend Carl living nearby in Bermondsey, and that I knew Lewisham from coach trips which had passed through from Chatham as I came up at weekends to blow my wages on comic books. The problem was of course that this method of flat hunting, conducted simultaneous to a day job held in a different city, was somewhat reliant upon my striking oil with the first thrust of my accommodation spade. I didn't have either the time or energy to embark upon a course of daily late afternoon commutes to London until I finally found somewhere with just the right shade of wallpaper, then going back to work again the next morning.

The first place I went to see was a long, long way from being perfect, but it was in Lewisham, and the rent was affordable, and I knew I would be able to put in for a transfer with my Royal Mail job and get myself moved to an office in that area without too much hanging around. Most important of all, I would be able to get drunk with my friends on a regular basis, some of whom I hadn't seen in a year - an important consideration for a young man in his early twenties; and it wasn't in Coventry. I had been shown around the house by the landlord, a smartly dressed young black man named William Walsh who seemed efficiently likeable and who told me he ran a toy shop near London Bridge; and I felt positive about the future as I began heading home, catching the train from Hither Green station. I had started reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the disturbing tale of an authoritarian future in which childbirth has become  industrialised. My train passed through New Cross as I read the chapter describing the hatchery wherein different castes of citizen are decanted from artificial wombs, their developing brains purposefully retarded by chemical additives according to designated social status. I found the scene unusually depressing, and somehow equated all those disused warehouses along the side of the track with the hatcheries and conditioning centres in the book.

When the day came, a van was hired and my parents drove me down to London with all of my crap - mostly the same boxes of comics, books, and records that have been following me from one place to the next for most of my life. It was a lot of stuff but it all fitted in my new room, just about, albeit with one entire wall obscured by boxes stacked up to head height. It wasn't a great start, but I reminded myself that I had at least made the leap. Similarly troubling was the young guy who had been hanging around as we unloaded the van, occasionally drifting closer in an obvious effort to see what I had; and then the pub at the end of the street in which we all went for a drink once the unloading was finished. There was no piano player, but if there had been I'm fairly sure his medley of Cockney Rejects favourites would have stopped dead as soon as we entered. Silence would have held sway as we approached the bar and a one eyed man casually spat someone else's tooth into the tin bucket that served as communal lavatory. I never went in that pub again, and within the month it was boarded up following a series of regular Saturday night raids by the police.

After a hurried lager, I waved my parents off and told myself I was doing the right thing, contrary to the evidence laid before me - this massive five bedroom Georgian haunted house on Ryecroft Road shared by just myself and someone called Greg. The other rooms were left vacant as the other tenants all moved out, for some reason, perhaps having found accommodation with a slightly less disgusting shared kitchen and bathroom. I say disgusting but truthfully I don't remember too much about it, aside from the fridge which was always full of ants. I never found out how they got in, and so there was no way of keeping them out, and any food stored had to be kept sealed; but still I maintained my brave face.

'Well, Mr. Walsh seems okay,' I told Greg hopefully.

Greg was my age, perhaps a little older but already balding, with the intense gaze of someone who had seen too much. I got the impression that under other circumstances he would have made for pleasant, erudite company, but now just wasn't a good time because we were both living in a shithole.

'You mean William?' He smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile. 'I wouldn't hold too much faith with whatever he's told you.'

Apparently there was some dispute over ownership of the house, which was exactly what I didn't want to hear. Walsh had recently separated from his wife, and each was claiming sole ownership of the property. I assumed that the law was probably a little more complicated than that, so if this was going to be a problem, there would be no point worrying about it until it affected me directly.

I had moved in on the Saturday, and was at work on Monday; or rather I was at the Royal Mail centre on Borough High Street for a week of retraining prior to resuming my job as postman at Catford sorting office. Having somehow acquired the habit of moving every few years, I'd already transferred once before from Chatham to Coventry - this being the beauty of a job with Royal Mail as was: it was easy to relocate, and in theory you could have travelled the length of the country doing the same job in different towns and cities. When first I transferred to Coventry sorting office, I'd been thrown in at the deep end in hope of my picking up the new routes as I went along. This time I was to spend a week learning the sorting, practising with a deck of cards upon which were written the names of all the roads and streets of Catford along with the duty numbers to which they were assigned. Oddly, I can still remember a lot of it now nearly a quarter of a century later - Sandhurst and Inchmery, Arnulf and Arngask, Randlesdown Road and King Alfred...

The Royal Mail office on Borough High Street was, at the time, the place wherein new recruits were trained prior to being sent off to deliver gas bills and adverts for incontinence pants in Deptford or Sydenham or Greenwich. I was a little pissed off at having been sent there seeing as I already had two years experience and had turned up in my uniform to join a class of grunts who still didn't know one end of a sorting frame from the other. Mostly they were younger than myself, barely out of school, and mostly they were quiet - as people who aren't arseholes tend to be during the first few weeks of a new job. The two exceptions to this rule were a south London version of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, and a blonde girl who wore too much make-up, and whose head was far too small for her face. Even more unpleasant was how she appeared to glisten. Her eyes and lips were large and moist, as were her prominent teeth, and her mouth was always open mid-sentence. She was loud and abrasive, and each time she spoke I had a mental image of Molly Sugden scowling as though having detected an unsavoury smell, then remarking how common.

We would all go to lunch together, sitting in silence as Bluto told us how he was going to get one of those Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs so that he wouldn't starve in the event of a nuclear war. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether he was speaking or just burping a lot, and his tiny eyes were invisible beneath the awning of his brow so we couldn't be sure either way. Glisten Girl - she upon whom Mrs. Slocombe would have frowned - laughed her shrill laugh and tried to encourage debate as to which were the best looking members of our group, a subject to which she returned with some frequency. Clearly she was the best looking girl, she informed us, not being funny or nuffin' - but she couldn't decide who was to be crowned her Royal Mail training class King. I got the impression she was attempting to build suspense.

'Nuffin' personal but it ain't you, mate,' she told Bluto, 'although don't get me wrong you're a fit bloke and all that.'

Bluto waved a magnanimous hand to show that he accepted the judgement without rancour, taking a pragmatic view so long as it didn't interfere with his proposed pig-rearing scheme.

Glisten Girl laid her cards on the table, identifying another member of the class as the best looking male, a young admittedly reasonably handsome guy who was obviously keeping out of it because he wanted no association with this noisome slapper.

It was a long week, towards the end of which we were given a tour of the building, principally for the benefit of the three of our number who would be working there once the course was finished.

'Does anyone have any questions?' our training manager asked as we stood in a corridor looking lost.

'There's a fire extinguisher right there,' observed the young man who had spent the week trying to avoid Glisten Girl. He turned to indicate a second fire extinguisher mounted on the wall about fifteen feet away. 'So why is there another one right there?'

Our training manager clasped his hands behind his back and adopted a stern face. 'I'm afraid I can't tell you that.'

'Why not?'

'It's classified information.'

He really said that.

The next week I was at work in Catford with a head full of street names with which I had slowly begun to associate physical locations. I'd settled into my room as much as I was able, although it wasn't comfortable. Firstly it was a hot summer, and the only ventilation I had was in the form of a slatted louvre at the top of the single window. Secondly, next door's dog was kicked out into their back yard each evening at ten and would bark for most of the night. I had never before been driven to consider throwing bricks or sharp objects at a defenceless animal, so this was a first for me; but I couldn't even do that as my slatted window wouldn't open wide enough.

August passed into September without incident or improvement, accommodation misery a minor concern, a work-in-progress as I revelled in the novelty of working in Catford and being able to see my friends. Then the sixth weekend came, bringing with it a woman who knocked on the door, thanked me for letting her in and explained that she was my landlady.

'You might want to go away somewhere this weekend,' she told me. 'We're having a party here, and it will probably be noisy.'

I had no idea what to say to this, so I phoned her ex-husband who told me that he was changing the locks and I was under no circumstances to let her in when she returned. She returned the next day, Saturday, and started to smash the door in, somewhat obliging me to answer.

'I can't let you in,' I told her, 'Mr. Walsh says.'

'Mr. Walsh doesn't own the house, darling. I do. I bet he didn't even mention that, did he?'

He hadn't so I let her in, understanding that I was screwed either way. I wasn't going to argue. This wasn't my fight.

Mrs. Walsh ferried in the booze, the PA system, and at least a hundred guests. Greg hadn't been seen for about a week, and for nine hours it was deafening, dancehall reggae pounding up through my floorboards, myself barricaded in with the door locked. At one point I ventured out in an effort to assess just how bad it was going to get, but the air was thick with the smell of weed - something I've never enjoyed - and I realised I was the only white person there. I had always considered myself a liberal, and true enough everyone was simply having their version of a good time with not a trace of aggression in the air, but I'd been in London a mere six weeks and this was just too much. I went back to my room, locked the door, and got to work on my thousand yard stare.

At two in the morning the police arrived. They knocked on my door and asked me to identify the owner of the premises.

'It's her,' I said, pointing to Mrs. Walsh, wondering if this might bring an end to the madness whilst praying that I hadn't just outed myself as a copper's nark. Apparently this was the answer everyone wanted to hear, and so the party continued.

At about three in the morning, for the sake of keeping myself busy, I began work on an elaborate design on a piece of paper involving runes and other supposedly magical symbols which I hoped would eventually visit something unpleasant and terminal upon the person of my landlord. I still owned Psychic TV records and was thus in some respects a bit of a tool, but it passed the time.

At around five in the morning with the sound of the party still going strong, I urinated in my coffee pot rather than embark upon a Tolkeinesque journey to the bathroom which, in any case, would probably be packed with shagging couples snorting cocaine off each other's genitalia.

At seven I emerged to a deserted house carpeted with empty bottles and cigarette ends. The front door lay in the road, apparently having been taken off the hinges when the police broke in. I wasn't quite at the point of gibbering, but I was getting there. I called the landlord.

'You told them that woman was your landlady,' he reminded me. 'Who do you pay your rent cheque to?'


'That's right, so the damage is your responsibility because you let them in. I wash my hands of you, sir.'

He slammed down the phone and I took one step closer to what felt a little like a breakdown. I phoned my parents but got no answer. I phoned my grandmother who by then was beyond the point of understanding much of what was going on. I phoned my friend Carl who within an hour had a van around my place, driven by his then girlfriend Liz. We loaded up, and high-tailed it out of there, and I spent the next week living amongst all my boxes of crap in his living room in a tower block in Bermondsey until I found another, somewhat nicer place to live in Boyne Road, also in Lewisham.

This is one of many reasons why I will probably always consider Carl the greatest friend I ever had, even when we haven't seen each other for a year.

Inevitably it took a little while for me to get back on track, and I briefly found that I'd developed an unhealthy dislike of black people; but even as I flinched at the sight of John Fashanu on a television panel game, I knew it wasn't really me, and that those six bad weeks had sent me into a minor tailspin. As it turned out, about a third of the postmen at Catford sorting office were black, which restored my thoughts to normal service as I realised I generally got on better with them as a group than with many of the others. They were funnier and as a rule they seemed less prone to bullshit.

Later, as I resumed my sanity, I spoke to my friend Glenn whom I knew from Chatham, and he reminded me that he had himself lived in the capital. 'Those first six weeks are always the worst,' he told me. 'When you move to London, it doesn't matter who you are, the first six weeks will always be shit, but once you get past that, you're okay.'

He was right.

It had been painful, a process roughly akin to giving birth so it seemed, and I had come through the culture shock without turning into Enoch Powell; and most important of all, I had escaped Coventry, and now faced a future which at least seem to offer the option of possibilities. It wasn't perfect, but at least I was moving in the right direction.

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