Friday, 7 February 2014

Second Sight

When drifting off to sleep, it is possible to clear one's head of all thoughts and so allow random ideas, images, or phrases to settle upon the surface of one's mind like leaves upon a body of water. As a teenager I had a theory that these hypnagogic images might hold meaning, that they might describe the previously obscured truths of some hidden, more fundamental aspect of our world, or could perhaps even constitute glimpses of the future seeping through to the present. I'm no longer certain of the degree to which I believed any of this to be true, although to this day I still enjoy it as an idea. Significantly, as a teenager I was a big fan of Dadaism, the art of the Surrealists, and the novels of William S. Burroughs.

I left school in the Summer of 1982 with little that would prove useful in the way of qualifications, heading for a year at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education in Stratford-upon-Avon, of which the first term was to commence in September. My high school was a rural comprehensive some way off the beaten track, and as such had lacked the traditional sixth form, which is why some of us had signed on for a year at Stratford in hope of stacking up a few more O levels. College wasn't quite the big wide world, but it was nevertheless an exciting prospect. There would be no uniform requirement, and we would be able to refer to our tutors by first name; and the town had record shops and a Wimpy bar - an English fast food joint which sadly took something of a hammering when McDonalds first began to stake out its territory on that side of the Atlantic.

One warm night in August I recall drifting off to sleep with a particular thought in mind, a question of what exotic meetings would transpire once the term had started, all the new people and places I would experience. Whatever the future held, my imagination could not be trusted to submit a prediction because I would only be able to imagine something like my school, and the future was by definition  unknown. Therefore I decided that what random hypnagogic images presented themselves would logically come closer to the truth. I had visited the college a few times as my mother had worked there for a while, so I ignored thoughts of that which I already knew and tried to allow myself to drift into visions of places I'd never been within the college building; and suddenly there I was sat in a dark room, cross-legged on the floor with others of my age. There was a girl just across from me, distinct with straight dark hair of which a strip hanging down one side of her face had been dyed purple, specifically the colour identified as rose red in the Directions catalogue as I later discovered.

A month later I began my year at the South Warwickshire College. I enrolled for English literature, numeracy - which was essentially maths for bricklayers, burger flippers and people such as myself - electronics, art, and drama. I had no big plan in mind, no career path neatly charted out before me, and these seemed like classes I would be able to take without falling asleep, and which might prove useful once I had eventually decided what I wanted to do, or at least what I could get away with doing.

Joanne Cluett - or just Jo - was in both my drama group and English literature class where she distinguished herself early on by picking an argument with a tutor. A high percentage of staff at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education were cut from distinctly 1970s cloth, bearded, easy-going men who could have stepped straight out of an episode of the TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, men who were no stranger to either the Genesis album or the jazz cigarette. Our English literature class was taught by Phil and Dave, blonde and brunette variations on a hairy, denim clad theme who took different shifts. Dave was taking the class on the day of the exchange, optimistically herding us towards the love poetry of William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, Adrian Henri and others. He had recited some poem, the identity of which I can no longer recall, then explained how the author had referred to a woman's lips so as to further imply the additional set of lips found down there - as he put it with eyebrows raised in knowing fashion.

'I think that's disgusting.' This was Jo, tapping a pencil on her folder. She offered the comment as though it were a weather forecast, a statement made without obvious intent of confrontation.

'Disgusting?' Dave was a little taken aback by what he perhaps perceived as a prudish attitude. 'That's not disgusting - it's perfectly healthy. What's disgusting is when you want to do it with an Alsatian dog, or in a coffin.'

We didn't know where the hell this had come from and laughed at the joke; and then everyone sank lower in their seats, neither wishing to be involved nor to find themselves called upon to discuss genitalia in front of the class.

Jo, on the other hand, didn't seem bothered. 'I just don't think it's right to have that in a love poem.'

It wasn't an apology, or even a concession to a view different to her own. It was something she felt needed to be said and so she'd said it. I had no opinion on what imagery might be deemed suitable or otherwise in poetry, but I was impressed by her directness. As with most of my peers, I had not quite outgrown my inner school uniform, or shaken off the notion that teachers were grown-ups to be addressed as sir or miss and were as such to be regarded as authority figures. In addition, I was probably equally impressed by a challenge made to poetry as an institution. It is a form I have never entirely understood or appreciated, and excepting the writings of Bill Lewis, Billy Childish and very few others, I've never really been that interested.

'Everything is so black and white with that girl,' one of the other students later observed in Jo's absence. I never quite worked out whether this was true, that she simply didn't do the grey areas of maybe or possibly, or whether this was just something said about someone who made themselves unpopular by expressing a contentious opinion. Either way, it was established that she was somehow unlike the rest of us.

In the drama class, our tutor Gordon Vallins dimmed the lights and arranged us in a circle as part of an exercise in getting to know one another. I wasn't quite sure why I'd signed up for drama, although I have a feeling my mother may have suggested it as something which would do me good, which it quite probably did. I looked around the circle as we all sat cross-legged, leg warmers distinguishing those kids who had opted for drama with the most enthusiasm, and I wondered just who the hell these people were. I found myself considering Jo, sat in the circle directly opposite, and I experienced a powerful moment of déjà vu. This was the hypnagogic snapshot I had seen coming more than a month before. Jo, whom I hadn't really noticed beyond the purple stripe dyed into her hair - still an uncommon sight in 1982 - seemed suddenly fascinating, and I told myself that there was an element of destiny involved, or if not destiny, something which did the same stuff with a less hokey name.

Jo was small-ish, about my height with what I suppose would be called a boyish figure accentuated by her dressing like a skinhead girl - smart with the tight fitting jeans and check shirt, although the hair , sneakers, and an aromatic dab of patchouli dispelled the idea that she might spend her weekends in a pork-pie hat bouncing up and down to The Selecter. Her hair was short, straight, and dark but for the splash of purple. Her skin was smooth and olive. She looked as though some person from India might have involved themselves with her ancestry at some point, or even a Native American, unlikely as that seemed.

Unfortunately I could think of no good reason to introduce myself and talk to her. I didn't presume that she would necessarily be interested in me, or would be flattered by my attention. I knew my opening conversational gambit would inevitably sound ridiculous -  questions about whether she liked something I would probably realise that I didn't even like myself, or pointless observations which may as well be funnily enough I too require a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. My opening came when we were arbitrarily paired up as part of some exercise in which one person lies upon the floor whilst the other gently massages their forehead using just fingertips. Her skin was cooler and softer than I expected, and I was struck by her eyes and the beauty of her smile, which seemed more genuine than any smile I had seen before. It felt like the first time I had been that close to a woman, and amazingly, she seemed to think I was okay. I'm surprised they weren't able to hear my heartbeat at the other end of the college

Often shy and uncomfortable around girls, I forced myself to talk to Jo so as to maintain the momentum of our proposed friendship. This didn't prove to be so difficult as anticipated because on the one hand she appeared to like me, and on the other she didn't have much to say to any of our fellow students, regarding them as silly, overgrown school children, which was a fair assessment. It wasn't that she particularly disliked them so much as that she wasn't part of their world. She carried herself with a sort of wistful maturity I found intriguing, and I reached an understanding of this quality when, having listened to my moaning about some perceived and probably inconsequential misdeed on the part of my parents, Jo sighed and said, 'well at least you have parents.'

This wasn't exactly offered as admonishment, nor as the sort of guilt-tripping it would have been coming from someone with more of an agenda. Having grown up in a children's home, it was simply how she saw it. Lacking the familial safety nets enjoyed by almost everyone else at the college, she'd been getting along under her own steam for a great deal longer than any of her peers. Few of us had yet found ourselves having to pay rent or utility bills, much less deal with landlords or the local council. It was no wonder she seemed for the most part unimpressed.

We didn't exactly become inseparable, but we spent time together, hanging out at break or walking into the town centre at lunchtime. As something of a late developer, my interest was poorly defined, or at least not expressly sexual. There was something about her that drew me on, fascinated. She was unlike any other girl I knew, not least in that she openly enjoyed my company, and I considered her very beautiful. Inevitably the time came when, as we headed for our respective bus-stops, I took a run at the speech I'd been longing to deliver, but this being a first attempt it came out as a probably mystifying assemblage of words resembling a crossword puzzle clue, the intent of which was probably made clear entirely by the blushing. I had a feeling if I tried to express anything more coherent, either it would sound ridiculous, or it would make things awkward and invite the kind of answers I probably wouldn't want to hear. Unexpectedly, Jo explained that it was okay, that she liked me too because - and at this point she glanced back towards the college with a faint look of disgust - I had a personality, unlike the robots.

Months passed, and nothing further developed, and Jo's attendance became erratic for reasons I never fully understood. We remained at the same steady level of friendship. I have no idea what we talked about but her background, her entire life beyond Stratford-upon-Avon remained obscure. She seemed to have a boyfriend, who may or may not have been a biker, but I was never certain. She told me she had taken speed on one or two occasions, and I barely even knew what that was at the time, although I had an idea that it probably wasn't anything to worry about. Then at the end of June, somewhere between her increasingly erratic attendance and the end of the college year, suddenly we were no longer in touch. Whilst I wasn't devastated, it seemed a shame.

Happily it turned out that she lived in Leamington Spa, the town in which I was born and home to the Mid-Warwickshire College of Further Education where I took a year long Art Foundation course having secured a handful of O levels and an art A level from Stratford. Specifically she lived on the lower, less picturesque side of Leamington Spa near the Grand Union Canal, as I discovered by chance whilst wandering around with a camera taking black and white photographs of ruined buildings, as you do when you're on an Art Foundation course. We met by pure chance in the street, and she seemed as glad to see me as I was her. She told me how she had drifted away from the courses at the South Warwickshire College for all sorts of reasons too complicated and personal to go into. It sounded a little like an excuse, but I trusted that she was telling the truth, or perhaps even sparing me something I was better off not knowing. She seemed a little different, older, and her hair had grown long; but her smile was genuine, and she looked amazing.

We met a few times during that year, but it was something I knew not to rely on to too great an extent. I visited her flat on several occasions, a small two room affair scented with incense sticks. This was a novelty as I knew no-one in my own age group who had become so independent as to live in a flat of their own, but I could see it was a struggle for her, still just a young girl of seventeen trying to get by in a country that was turning colder by the day.

One of the other kids on the Art Foundation course saw us together one day, and later told me that somehow he knew her to be a prostitute. I considered this, but decided that it seemed unlikely, but even if it was true, it wasn't really my business. Years later, returning to this theme with the benefit of hindsight, I'm reasonably confident the accusation was just one of those stupid things teenagers say to each other because they can. Certainly a few of my peers viewed Jo as weird and different, and therefore presumably something of a walking target. Circumstance had burdened her with the sort of existence that none of them would have to face for at least another few years, or ever if they were lucky, and I guess that was enough to create a divide; but it didn't make any difference to me because they didn't know her.

On one of my photographic expeditions I dropped by her flat and took two portrait pictures. Both came out blurred due to the lack of a flash, but nevertheless they seemed to capture what I understood of her personality quite well: an elusive beauty, if that doesn't sound too obvious. They resemble the images produced by a Victorian spiritualist and passed off as the ghostly visitation of some Native American princess.

Summer rolled around once more and I moved away, to the village of Leeds in Kent ready to begin a three-year degree course at Maidstone College of Art, a distance of nearly 150 miles. Having developed a letter writing habit whilst waiting for the invention of the internet, I of course wrote to Jo, and to my surprise she wrote back, the first reply coming back to me in late 1984.

Dear Loz,
thanks for your letter. It's really nice to hear from you. I don't think your letters are boring at all. I know I'm not good at writing them anyway, but it's good to keep in touch.
Sorry if my writing is all wonky. I'm on the train at the moment, travelling down to Brighton to visit some friends. It's so expensive (₤17 for the day). I think I will get one of those half priced railcards for students and young people. It costs ₤12 but in a couple of journeys it pays for itself.
Glad to hear that work is going all right for you. I'm still plodding along. I need to do a lot more practice for the typing, but the English is fine and the cooking is great fun. I haven't been doing much lately because I have had my friend's two boys to stay with me during the half-term holiday while she was at work. They are eleven and thirteen so you can probably imagine how tired I was at the end of the week. 
My flat is coming together slowly. I still haven't got anything decent to sit on yet and I probably won't start decorating until next year now. It's been so cold lately I think it would take ages for the paint to dry. Mind you, I've got to strip the wallpaper off because it is chipwood painted over with gloss paint! 
I don't suppose you're really interested in any of this anyway, but nothing else has really happened lately. I've been out a few times but nothing exciting. We went to an auto-jumble the other day which was hopeless and just full of junk, and last week we went to the Waterways Museum (canal boats etc.), and for the first day of the year the bloody place was closed! Just my luck. 
I might go to a party tonight as it's Halloween but I will probably be so tired on the way back. I never got to bed until three o'clock last night and I was on the train this morning at 7.42. It's a long journey - interesting though (I've never been to Brighton on the train before). I hope I don't drop off to sleep and miss the stop! Just going past a lot of old yellow brick houses converted into flats. They look very depressing; and now we're back in the countryside. I really love the country and that way of life, although I do enjoy the town as well. 
Oh - just remembered one good bit of news. I'm now on the phone (going up in the world). I got it in so people can ring for me if they need any babysitting. I don't mind it because I like kids and I'd probably only be sitting in watching the box anyway, so I might as well be getting paid for it. I've got to stop going out so much. I really need to save up to drive. Anyway, I'll sign off now. Hope you don't find my letters too drab. Take care, Loz. 
Write again please.
Love - Jo X 
P.S. Hope you don't mind me calling you Loz. I think I used to at Stratford (say in your next letter if you do).

As she admitted herself, the letters contained little of earth-shattering consequence, but it was enough just to receive them; and as ever, they hinted at a wider world of which I would never be part, but a world she was, so I guessed, getting to grips with if her move to a nicer flat was any indication, along with the return to further education. Even at her most wistful, it always seemed that her occasionally sombre pragmatism served to provide the contrast for some significant glimmer of hope.

I wrote back, describing a college trip to Portmeirion and apparently detailing the possibility of my performing something dubiously musical in Leamington Spa around the Spring of 1985 - although I no longer have any idea what that could have been - and received the following reply:

Dear Lawrence, 
good to hear from you. It sounds like you're having a good time. It would be great if you do play at Bath Place. You could always stay at my place. I have a bed-settee now. I've been in that flat for over seven months now and only just got something to sit on! The flat is coming together slowly. I'm still waiting on the workmen to come and fix the minor repairs but the worst of it has been done. It costs so much to decorate. I got a tin of paint for the hall last week. It cost ₤7.25 and I'm really pissed off - I need just a little bit more to finish the wall and they don't make a smaller tin! 
My English at college is going quite well and I'm still interested, so that's something. The place in Wales where they filmed The Prisoner sounds really interesting. I would like to go there some time. 
I've just started going on a course about Central America. It is so corrupt over there (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica). The course is quite good but the people on it are what I describe as lentils - middle class people pretending to be working class. 
I am going to Somerset on Sunday, to Bath and the west. There is a bike show on. I hope it won't be like last year. We were camping and it just poured down with rain all the while. Last week I went to Brighton, it was so nice to see the sea. I just sat on the beach (well - pebbles) on my own for ages. 
I am babysitting at the moment. I don't like doing it very much. The oldest girl is twelve and really spoilt and nasty, and the other one is two and just whines and needs his nappy changing all the while, but at least it's a few extra quid. Oh well - I'll have to get their dinner on now so I'll sign off. Sorry, nothing interesting to write about but nothing interesting really happens - well, not that you could write in a letter anyway. 
Write soon - it's nice to hear from you, even though it takes me years to write back. Take care. 
Love - Jo XX

That was sadly the last I heard from her, which wasn't a great surprise given that she'd never been particularly easy to pin down, living her life by a timetable of priorities with which I was entirely unfamiliar; which was possibly what I loved about her. I envied Jo's experience of the world, the fact that she seemed to have a degree of control over her own destiny, or at least understood the possibility of the same. She was part of a world I wished to inhabit, probably more than she was happy to inhabit it; and whilst she never became my girlfriend in the way I hoped, she was my first true friend who was a girl, at least since the infants' school, and that was in itself enough.

To be absolutely clear here, years have passed without my thinking about Joanne Cluett or what might have been, because aside from anything - and the fact of this all being thirty years in the past - I think I knew from day one that the what might have been was never really on the cards, and if it had been otherwise, perhaps that brief friendship would not have meant so much as it did. Whilst my attraction undoubtedly had a sexual element, it was then not fully developed, and I suspect I knew on some level that I wasn't ready to go there, even that it would have spoiled things. Sometimes I wonder if that was what she liked about me.

For a long time I regarded that first moment of profound déjà vu as significant, believing it to have been a genuine albeit inexplicable vision of the future and of someone who would become significant for a time. I've since grown up and ceased to believe in cobblers like pre-destination or the future leaking through from an alternate time-track. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

The psychologist Edward B. Titchener in his 1928 book A Textbook of Psychology explained déjà vu as caused by a person having a brief glimpse of an object or situation, before the brain has completed "constructing" a full conscious perception of the experience. Such a "partial perception" then results in a false sense of familiarity. Scientific approaches reject the explanation of déjà vu as "precognition" or "prophecy", but rather explain it as an anomaly of memory, which creates a distinct impression that an experience is "being recalled". This explanation is supported by the fact that the sense of "recollection" at the time is strong in most cases, but that the circumstances of the "previous" experience (when, where, and how the earlier experience occurred) are uncertain or believed to be impossible.
That pretty much covers it for me. It might be nice to believe I experienced some instant of precognition, something genuinely out of the ordinary, but this long after the event the greatest blessing - if that isn't too much syrup - seems that I knew Jo for a few short years and that she had such an effect on me without even really doing anything. I'm sure she's still out there somewhere, and maybe one day our paths will cross and we'll reminisce over what little we can still remember of old times, but the part that matters is done and dusted and will as such remain of value.


  1. Good post. I always thought those images/ideas/sounds in your head between being fully awake and fully asleep had a meaning they probably don't. I sometimes hear the voices of people I know, but not saying anything very important/coherent. I don't seem to have deja vu anymore. I wonder why that is.