Friday, 28 February 2014

The Grand Old Man


The Grand Old Man took a contemplative sip of his ale - something flat and fruity with a name suggesting it had been brewed by immigrants from the late seventeenth century - and continued his account of The Two Towers, specifically Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation. He and his wife had just returned from Clapham Picture House and we'd met in a pub near their flat. I had missed a pause in the monologue whilst he didst sup from his most stout and hearty beverage. I could have interrupted, but I hadn't.

Perhaps I'd learnt something from that earlier occasion during which he spoke without pause on the subject of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. We had been in a different pub, and despite my two previous jovial attempts to change the subject, he'd continued to deliver his views upon the oeuvre of a film maker whose work I had never seen, and which I had no strong desire to see. I had looked at my watch, noting that the address had continued unabated for a record breaking forty minutes, and so as he paused for breath I had said:

'Go on then - push your spectacles up your nose and say as my producer said to me...'

This was a reference to the shaggy dog stories comedically delivered by Ronnie Corbett on BBC Television's The Two Ronnies. Perhaps it wasn't that funny, but it seemed a more diplomatic expression of dissatisfaction than put a sock in it, you boring fucker.

The Grand Old Man had glared at me from behind his circular wire rimmed spectacles. He'd cleared his throat of frost, and then resumed the speech in that same monotone, an even mumble amongst which not all of the words could be clearly heard, delivered at the slowest pace possible without conceding any gaps which might allow for interruption.

I had been put off Tarkovsky at art college by a profound dislike of the sort of people who tended to enthuse over his films. Tolkien was at least more familiar, but the Grand Old Man could reduce almost any subject to an endless, beige slurry of verbiage regardless of how exciting it may once have been under discussion by almost anyone else in the world. It was like having a conversation with a bee hive.

I'd already told him about how at school I had requested Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as my reward of choice in the school prize-giving. I'd done well in English, but typically there was a catch, namely that the school budget only ran to one volume, so I had to pay for the other two myself before they could be presented to me by Mr. Harpum, our headmaster. I read The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers when our family went on holiday to Anglesey, starting the third volume during the car journey back to Warwickshire; but I'd lost my momentum. The endless battles bored me rigid, and I'd forgotten who was fighting who and why. I never finished the trilogy.

The Grand Old Man fetched out his pipe.

Oh for God's sake, I thought.

He didst then stuff within the bowle a plug of tobacco most merrie and did light up, leaning back inst his seat to momentarilie savour the shag. This constituted another pause in the monologue, and I could quite easily have leapt in with a conversational detour of my own - what books I'd been reading, the living hell of working at Royal Mail, the myth of anthropophagy in fifteenth century Mexica society or whatever; but I was stalled, silenced by this pipe-smoking vision, freshly astonished by his slow transformation into a character from Last of the Summer Wine.

I had tried smoking a pipe myself at one stage. This had been back in my twenties when a casual observer might have justifiably opined that I was trying too hard. The fact was that I found my pipe very relaxing and conducive to contemplative thoughts, and when these thoughts cohered into something worth saying, it felt good to illustrate one's point by waving the pipe in the air for emphasis; and even better if one's statement concerned some distant object which could be indicated with a jab of the stem and described as being over yonder. Then, whilst resident in Chatham at the end of the 1980s, I attended a live gig by the duo Rocking Richard and Whistling Vic Templar. I vaguely knew of Whistling Vic as former drummer of The Dentists, and found myself impressed as he slammed out a rhythm on a minimal kit whilst calmly puffing away at his pipe. We discussed preferred brands of tobacco after the performance and, noting the elegant cut of Vic's suit, I realised I was an amateur and that I probably resembled a crazy person. Later my friend Carl would offer disparaging comments as I sparked up on the beach at Dover, referring to an acquaintance who had supposedly contracted oral cancer as the result of smoking a pipe, and so I stopped.

I'm not sure if it was health or more sartorial concerns that put an end to my habit, but clearly some were better able to accessorise with a pipe and a plug of tobacco than others. Vic Templar had been one such person, and sadly I was in the others category, and so immediately recognised that the Grand Old Man was trying too hard. As I considered this, I realised he had resumed his monologue. I'd lost track and tried to focus on the words and what he was saying.

'Sharon and I shall be returning it to the library within the next few days.' He spoke as though offering a Victorian urchin a shiny new sixpence by which to purchase the most splendid turkey for the Christmas table. 'If you like, we could reserve it in your name so that you may then read it for yourself.'

'Sorry. What are you talking about?'

He gestured unnecessarily with the stem of his pipe. 'The Lord of the Rings - Sharon and I shall be returning it to the library...'

He droned on and I now recalled enough to fill in the missing pieces. He'd been telling me about Tolkien's trilogy, specifically explaining means by which I might get to read the three books for myself, crucial elements of the plot I should look out for, and details I was sure to find amusing.

'You're talking about The Lord of the Rings.'

'Yes.'

'I've read it. Do you not recall me saying about half an hour ago?' It was a stupid question as I knew full well that for this Grand Old Man those interludes in which others spoke were regarded as time in which to compose the thrust of his next address. I'd spent ten minutes giving account of the circumstances of my reading The Lord of the Rings and how I hadn't found it sufficiently engaging as to inspire me to bother with the third volume; and somehow he'd still spent the last half hour regaling me with the revelation of that film with all the wizards and dragons being based on a book written by a clever man from Oxford as though I were about fourteen. He'd also missed the point that I hadn't even liked the film.

None of this was surprising to me, but it always came as a shock to have my poor impression of the Grand Old Man so rudely confirmed by some new idiocy, because I wanted to think better of him. I wanted him to surprise me by occasionally failing to be a dick.

One year, as I returned from a couple of weeks in Mexico City I called him on the telephone, vainly imagining that he would be interested in hearing how I'd got on in a country over five thousand miles away with a very different culture.

The phone rang three times before he picked up. 'Hello Lawrence - sorry it took so long for me to answer. Sharon and I were doing our exercises.'

'Right. So how are you?'

He chuckled, apparently indulging me. It clearly hadn't taken him a long time to get to the phone, but he needed to claim that it had in order to justify the next statement. 'You know when you get to our age, you really can't afford to skip your daily exercise regime,' followed by more geriatric chuckling.

I was lost for words, mainly because I knew it would seem rude were I to call the Grand Old Man a stupid wanker. I was forty-three years of age, and doing a quick calculation I reckoned that this would make him about thirty-seven. So convincing was his affected senility that it appeared he had forgotten he was five years younger than I. He worked in an office, filing and archiving. I worked in the pouring wind and rain, a six day week of carrying heavy weights around on my back, and yet somehow he still had so much to teach me.

'Well, I'm back from Mexico,' I said.

'Of course. How was it?'

'It was incredible.'

'We've also had some time away.'

'Yeah?'

He took the next ten minutes to explain how he and his wife had been to Norfolk, specifically to King's Lynn in search of a shop from which one could purchase a very specific type of tweed. Most of the monologue focussed upon the subject of tweed, its availability and so on. It would be hyperbole to say that it was the most boring monologue I had ever heard, but it was at least characteristically true to its author.

That evening in the pub, as I pointed out that I'd already read two thirds of the long, boring book that the Grand Old Man clearly believed I should read, and that I had said as much at length at an earlier point in the conversation, there ceased to be any purpose in my being there. I had to be up for work at five in the morning, and I may as well have spent the evening talking to the television screen, answering back to an unresponsive Jeremy Paxman, which I could at least have done in the comfort of my own home.

I left, walking the long road back up towards the library and East Dulwich. I thought of all the people I'd known for whom conversation was never anything more than a platform for the dispensation of their wisdom, all the people who tell me how much I will enjoy the art gallery I've already visited, and which they would know I've visited had they been listening, all the people who can't quite hear others over the sound of how awesome they believe themselves to be. Perhaps it is insecurity, overcompensation for a fear that their own views or even lives amount to much less than they would like, and so they take on the persona of some great orator, imagining themselves surrounded by admirers eagerly savouring each word as though it were a gift, something of more lasting value than just a practised bore talking about himself.

'Twas in the great snows of the winter of 1997 that I was given pause for thought upon the most fulsome brew that men do know as Jamie Theakston's Old Peculiar. Having fortified ourselves with a brisk stroll in the grounds of St. Dunstan's, we did then go forth to the alehouse...

Maybe such things would be best written down, or at least delivered with some basic awareness of one's audience; but if nothing else, such persons do at least give the rest of us something we should wisely fear turning into, and an illustration of how sometimes, when you have nothing to say, it can be good to just keep your mouth shut.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Jobseeker


In September, 2009 I handed in my notice at Royal Mail - a company with which I'd been employed since 1988 - and moved back to my mother's house in Coventry, England. The job had changed beyond endurance thanks in part to the interests of shareholders taking priority over those of anyone intending to either send or receive something by post, and life in the capital had becoming difficult to sustain. South London had succumbed to a tide of website designers, DJs, media consultants, and other overmoneyed types who had found ways to get by without actually having to work for a living, and the attendant surfeit of wine bars, restaurants serving overpriced food on square plates, and boutique shops which didn't actually sell anything; all of which conspired to drive the average rent up beyond what I could reasonably afford on the wages of a back-breaking forty-hour week. I had moved three times in four years, and each new flat had been smaller and more expensive than its predecessor. It was getting depressing.

I say moved back to my mother's house in Coventry, although she'd actually bought the place a few years after I first left home at the age of eighteen, so I'd never lived there before. It seemed a desperate move at the time, but I had to do something to break out of the cycle that had me trapped in London. It was time for a change and I had a sort of plan. I had a novel to write, and I needed to raise money for a move to the United States whilst rationalising all the crap I'd accumulated over the years - books and comics all going on eBay, slimming the bulk of what I would end up having to pack, and hopefully bringing in a few shekels so as to pay for the shipping of the stuff I wasn't selling. So for the first time in twenty-one years I was unemployed, and having paid a massive wodge in tax for the entirety of those twenty-one years, I didn't think it would be too cheeky of me to sign on the dole whilst looking for whatever temporary work I could find that wasn't going to interfere with either my flogging comic books on eBay or writing a novel - or at least arguing with a micromanaging editor about writing a novel.

The dole office was on Torrington Avenue in Tile Hill, a few miles from my mother's house. It was depressing as such places invariably tend to be. There was an expansive lounge area filled with the kind of seating which affects a sort of casual conviviality entirely at odds with the prime directive of those who work there. The chairs say hey friend, relax and let's check out some employment opportunities, which can be done on a series of touch screen PCs mounted within durable moulded housings designed to stand up to the kind of violence which can erupt when jobseekers go nuts. The unemployed mill around as they wait for their names to be called, all ages and races, mostly looking like they want to be somewhere else.

Those working the desks down one side of the office will ask what you have done in order to find employment since your appointment two weeks previous. Their purpose is to get you back to work, or more specifically to find a way of taking your name from their books. Doubtless there are well-meaning and good-hearted souls amongst the dole office staff, but it isn't really in their interest to care whether or not you're likely to be fulfilled cleaning toilets for ten pence an hour, and they're there to impress upon you that benefits may be withdrawn if there is any reason to suspect you're spending the day sat on your arse watching children's television and chugging pot noodle rather than out and about battering down the factory gates in search of honest graft.

'I don't want to seem like I'm being fussy,' I told the woman who was handling my case, 'but I've been in work for two decades, I've got a degree, and now I'm writing a novel at the specific request of a publisher, so I don't feel it's asking too much to expect a certain standard here. Do you know what I mean?'

She did, and I expect she held back from pointing out that my benefits could be stopped were I to refuse any work that had been offered, because it would have sounded bloody stupid. Additionally, she probably had an idea that my fine art degree was effectively useless, but pointing this out would have been tantamount to admitting that the entire system was inherently flawed.

'You were a postman, weren't you?'

I nodded. 'I would have put in for a transfer to Coventry, but it could have taken years to come through with the way things are going; and unfortunately they're not recruiting right now.'

'So are you going to try for that when they start recruiting again?'

'Yes.' I wasn't actually sure of this being as twenty-one years of shoving pizza leaflets through letterboxes had felt like more than enough, but it seemed like the best answer under the circumstances.

'So what do you have there?'

I handed over the slips printed out from the touch screen PC I'd been using earlier. She looked through. They were all gardening jobs - probably a poor choice in the middle of winter, but it was something I could do.

'Would you like me to call any of these to arrange an interview for you?' She almost had her hand upon the phone.

'No. I'd like to think about it some more.'

'How about this?' She pushed a slip of paper back to me as though fearful that I was about to change my mind. It was a chess match in which she had now granted me the opportunity to show willing.

I took another look. The job was gardening at some large house, five days a week starting at seven each morning. The pay was marginally better than what I was receiving in unemployment benefit.

'Where's Baddesley Clinton exactly?'

She tapped at her keyboard then turned the screen so I could see the map she had summoned. I could see that the village was near Rowington, a fair distance from Coventry.

'That looks quite some way.'

She brought up the actual figure. 'It's twelve miles.'

'That seems a lot, and I was really hoping for something closer. I would be travelling by bike as I don't drive.'

Twenty four miles a day - there was no way, not for that money.

'You could take the bus.'

I studied the winding spaghetti strands of road criss-crossing rural Warwickshire to a village so small that I'd never heard of it despite having been born around these parts. I could take the bus, I supposed, but that would most likely entail having to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon and then back out again. I was fine with playing the game and making a show of greeting each supposed job opportunity with a display of hopeful enthusiasm, but three hours spent on a bus every day was too much to ask.

She read my mind. 'You will recall how the jobseeker's agreement determines that anything within fifteen miles of your home must be considered an acceptable travel distance, and refusal of any offer of employment falling within that range could be seen as a failure to actively seek work?'

I smiled, recognising this as simple interview strategy. I hadn't actually yet had an offer of work I could refuse.

'I'll think about it.'

I didn't.

Some months later, just as I'd begun to build up a reasonable head of steam on eBay, it transpired that Royal Mail in Coventry were once again recruiting temporary staff for the summer period. Whilst it wasn't a job to which I was eager to return, it would be regular money and it was one I could do, and I felt fairly confident I would breeze the interview seeing as I'd require no training. Further to my hypothetical eligibility, I'd already worked as a postman in Coventry some twenty years earlier prior to putting in for a transfer to London, and so I took the online test and received an interview date.

Back in 1990, Coventry Royal Mail had been located at a single large sorting office on Bishop Street. This desirable central location had since been sold off in the name of ensuring a restful night's sleep for shareholders, with the workforce divided up between two warehouse style mail depots on the outskirts of the city.

I recognised the woman who interviewed me, and she seemed to feel she had seen me somewhere before. I explained why I'd moved from London, and why I was now reapplying, and why I hadn't instead opted for a transfer. I told her that given how I was working towards moving to the United States, a temporary position would suit me down to the ground. We spoke some more and she said she looked forward to working with me soon. I left, heading for the bike racks and against all odds ran into a more obviously familiar face.

'Steve Prewitt!' He was older, and he'd lost the mullet but there was no mistaking him. We hadn't exactly been friends, but I'd laughed at his jokes and he may even have laughed at some of mine. He was one of those people whom you might not quite call a nice guy, but who was at the same time very funny and difficult to dislike.

'Mellow!'

I winced, recalling how this had been my nickname twenty years ago. My hair had been long, hippy length, and hippies were popularly regarded as being of a mellow disposition. The nickname performed double duty as I was prone to becoming easily and vocally irritated by the minor frustrations of the job, and could therefore hardly be considered mellow. By the same logic an unusually slow postman I had known in Catford, whose regular route had been centred around Conisborough Cresent, became known as The Conisborough Flyer in the fashion of a rural Victorian steam engine. This nickname was eventually shortened to just The Flyer, prior to revision as Plater, which was something to do with a hypothesised gift for cleaning dinner plates using his enormous tongue.

Steve and I compared notes and quickly caught up in so much as it's possible to catch up with someone you haven't seen for two decades and didn't know particularly well in the first place. It was genuinely great to see him, and I promised that we would see each other again fairly soon, so of course it transpired that I hadn't got the job after all.

My failure was dissected back at the dole office, and we identified the problem as having been my honesty. I'd told my interviewer why I would be very happy to take a specifically temporary job and given reasons in detail. I should have remembered that Royal Mail recruits temporary staff partially so as to have a resource from which permanent staff can be selected, because it's easier to get rid of someone who turns out to be useless if they only have a temporary contract; in other words, they weren't actually interested in temporary staff at all, contrary to the advertising.

I was running out of places in which to look for work, or at least to look for vacancies by which I could demonstrate that I was actively seeking work. Everywhere had the same crap jobs advertised over and over - jobs that no-one wanted because the pay was terrible and this was 2009 rather than 1825. I began looking on Gumtree, a classified advertisements website which I decided, being somewhat adrift of the places a person might ordinarily look for work, could at least yield something a bit different. Most of the Gumtree jobs entailed stuffing leaflets in envelopes for a pay equivalent to ten pence every three years before tax, but I found an opening for a proofreader which seemed potentially interesting. A few of my friends had recently undertaken proofing work, hammering the words of the less conspicuously literate into something resembling language for a fee, and it was a line of work I'd considered for myself on and off.

I sent samples of what I'd written - mostly excerpts from the novel I was working on - and received by email a few passages of text I was asked to beautify so that my prospective employer might see whether I had what it took. It turned out that I did, and so next came the real work - the copy of some long-winded publicity material along with a letter explaining that if the managing director was happy with my work, there was the chance of a permanent and fairly highly paid position. This was a small company, one that had just started out, and here was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. It was obviously bullshit, but I had nothing better to do so I played along.

The text requiring my attention read as though composed by someone for whom English was an unfamiliar language only recently learned, and it comprised many, many paragraphs singing the praises of a stage hypnotist named Derek Pasty in unusually defensive terms, as 
though the reader had already decided that this man needed locking up. The major problem as I saw it was that such a high percentage of the word count had been spent refuting imagined accusations that it came across as the work of a nutcase, which it probably was. It may as well have read Derek Pasty is a very good hypnotist, and you can trust him because he will not rape you. I wish to God I had kept the original borderline Surrealist text, that I hadn't eventually consigned it to the electronic dustbin of my email account, but sadly all that remains is my own translation retaining only a little of the creepy quality of the original:

If you're reading this, chance is you're looking to hire a stage hypnotist, so it gives me great pleasure to introduce one of the best.

I have worked as a hypnotist for a great many years, well over several decades, so I am aware of the often uncomfortable relationship between stage hypnotism and those hypnotherapy practitioners who feel that stage hypnosis gives their profession a bad name.

However, from my extensive experience in the field, I conclude that, when conducted in a safe and ethical manner, stage hypnosis serves only to encourage a healthy interest in hypnosis as both therapy and performance. And that is why I am happy to recommend the services of my good friend and student Derek Pasty, accomplished magician and hypnotist.

Derek takes a unique approach to stage hypnosis, combining psychological suggestion and traditional magician's craft to coax his audience into performing unusual stunts, creating the illusion of hypnosis without actually hypnotising anyone.

Pseudo-Hypnosis is a practical alternative to traditional stage hypnosis, and can be safely performed at any venue where hypnosis is either prohibited or otherwise difficult to stage due to regulations. Moreover, Derek's shows are exciting, fun filled, and can be tailored towards both family and adult audiences, providing quality comedy entertainment for your private party, special event, or charity fund raiser.

Alternately, if a show comprising genuine stage hypnosis is required, Derek has the requisite liability insurance and experience of procuring the necessary performance of hypnotism license from local authorities. His show, if using genuine hypnosis where circumstances allow, is presented in strict accordance with the 1996 amendment of the 1952 hypnotism act, and neither pseudo-stage hypnosis nor genuine hypnosis is ever performed upon persons under 18 years of age.

As mentioned, Derek is in addition an accomplished magician, regularly performing close-up magic in restaurants, on stage as an illusionist, balloon modelling at outdoor public events, or even one-on-one fortune-telling (for entertainment purposes only!). His highly original magical routines are presented through a winning combination of psychological misdirection, sleight of hand, and mind-reading with results that never fail to make a great impression.

Whether close-up or stand-up, whether it be an intimate or a public setting, Derek's magic is ideal for receptions, trade shows, restaurant events, or private parties. Whatever your requirements, if you want to entertain, astonish and delight your guests, Derek Pasty has a show tailored just for you.

So in summary:
There's this guy called Derek Pasty, who definitely isn't me, because I'm a professional with all sorts of qualifications which I don't have time to go into here. So this guy who isn't me won't really hypnotise you, so you need not worry about any weird or funny stuff, although he can hypnotise you if you really want (and as I say, he's a good boy, legal and all that, definitely nothing too strange). In fact fuck it, he'll even make balloon animals if that's what it takes. He'll do anything! But nothing bizarre or illegal, as I said. I really can't stress that last point enough.

Derek's agent - or whatever he was pretending to be - was pleased with my work, and told me there would soon be more where that came from, and that if I played my cards right I would probably be a millionaire by this time next year. First, however, he had to pay me, and so he enquired as to where he should send the postal order.

This was the point at which I began to suspect I was probably dealing with a cranky shut-in rather than a seasoned confidence trickster. Reasoning that this person had only my email address, and couldn't really do much with just that and a home address, I told him where I was living. Surprisingly the promised postal order never arrived, and nothing more came of this brief engagement.

Many months later, about a year after I had initially signed on I joined an employment agency who found me temporary work with Parcel Force, which is probably another story. Doubtless I could have gone to an employment agency straight away, but I had taken a dim view of them from experience with agency workers at Royal Mail. These people were hired to do the same work as everyone else at a significantly lower rate of pay, and if they didn't like it, they could go back to the job centre and see how far that got them.

My impression of staff at the Torrington Road dole office in Coventry is that their main priority was to get you off the books, to put an end to your claiming jobseeker's allowance - as it was quaintly titled - either by square-pegging you into the round hole of some job that had only become available because they couldn't even get a robot to do it, or by pissing you off so much that you withdrew your claim, preferring instead to seek an income in crack dealing, car theft, or burglary, none of which would be the problem of the Department of Work and Pensions. The elephant in the room, the truism which dare not speak its name was that simply there really were very few decent jobs out there, the rare exception being if you were the lucky one who got picked from the three or four hundred people who had turned up for an interview. The UK economy was such that employers required obedient carbon blobs to perform those menial tasks which couldn't be automated or shipped out to a country with even less value placed on human dignity in respect to employment laws, but they didn't want to have pay for such work. The argument as to why this should be is possibly larger and more complicated than I am prepared or even able to set forth here, but the salient points are that even complete dummies deserve to be paid a decent wage for what work they undertake, and that those who bleat about the rights of millionaires and ask will no-one think of the multinational conglomerates? should probably feel free to delete themselves from the great tapestry of human existence right now.

I worked for twenty-one years as a postman, and all that time I paid roughly a third of my wages in tax. Of all the reasons I may have resented paying that tax, the piddling percentage going to those understandably reluctant to engage with the sort of shitty underpaid work I would not do myself never occupied my thoughts for a single second; which is because I'm a grown, reasoning adult with a sense of decency informed by sources other than what I've read in a newspaper.

It's not that difficult to understand.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Blinky


It was September, 1989 and I was stood in a room packed with comics professionals, trestle table upon trestle table of big name writers, artists, and editors from Marvel, DC and others. I'd just returned from either the lavatory or from buying myself a massive stack of X-Men comics in some other room of the convention, and as arranged I had found Charlie just where he said he would be, but it seemed that he had made a new friend. The instant I laid eyes upon Blinky, I saw him for what he was - the enemy, the kind of person about which I'd been warned but whom I hadn't really believed could exist in our universe. This was a man without any Elvis in him. As Blinky spoke, I felt as though someone had stepped across my grave, and then stepped back and dropped their trousers to deposit a fecal calling card. I was in the presence of the supremely cloying, of that which inspired the conviction that I must get away even if it meant chewing through one of my own limbs in order to effect an escape. My thoughts would from now on be filled entirely with the matter of how much longer I would have to remain in his odious presence, unable even to conceptualise some sweet future hour in which I would be far away from Blinky, and his blinking, and his athletic name-dropping. Suffice to say, I thought the guy was a bit of a knob.

I met Charlie Adlard back in 1985 as we were both taking a fine art degree at the Time Based Media department of Maidstone College of Art. We became good friends almost immediately. We both liked science-fiction and the music of Simple Minds, and we shared the same faintly puerile sense of humour. A further parallel was to be found in our mutual reluctance to adapt fully to self-consciously Bohemian college society. Charlie tended to dress smartly, at least to job interview standards, always appearing very clean and well groomed; and whilst the same could hardly be said of myself, neither of us particularly enjoyed jazz, free-form poetry, inscrutable European cinema, marijuana, or any of those other beatnik staples our fellows seemed to regard as cultural essentials. Whilst I attempted to pass off grumbling and poorly-executed music videos as art, Charlie's sensibilities often seemed even more at odds with the core values of the course. Having a more openly populist view of film and video, he'd been accepted on the strength of, amongst other things, Sweet Dreams, a home made horror feature shot on super 8mm film which figured amongst his earlier associations with the living dead, effected on this occasion by theatrical make-up rather than ink on artboard. We collaborated from time to time, helping each other out on various projects, Charlie acting or presenting in a few of my admittedly crappy video productions; and Total Big - the group I was in with my friend Carl - supported Soul, a noisy widescreen rock band for which Charlie played drums; and probably most significantly, he got me hooked on comics.

More or less the entire student body of our college had travelled up to London in order to attend a protest march against proposed education cuts, and during a break between chanting and waving placards, a few of us inevitably ended up in the pub. Charlie and our mutual friend Gareth - another Time Based Media student - had nipped off to a comic shop called Forbidden Planet, and now returned with their spoils, which in Gareth's case included a couple of issues of The Dark Knight Returns.

'You bought a Batman comic?' I asked, incredulous, my mental cinema awash with a slightly paunchy Adam West frowning, fist to palm as Robin exclaims Holy Robert Louis Stevenson, Batman.

Gareth's response was probably something more coherent than Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Any More!, but I expect it duplicated the thrust of one of those magazine articles that had begun to appear under such titles. I examined the comic and was impressed by the quality of art and printing, but it still seemed like a strange thing to me. Nevertheless I guess The Dark Knight Returns had sparked my curiosity because some months later, Charlie and I were wandering around the Maidstone branch of Sainsbury's when, passing the magazine rack, I picked up an X-Men comic, specifically issue 211. I didn't really have any sort of comic habit, having given up on 2000AD a year or so before thanks to a sudden surfeit of unusually poor strips - The Mean Arena being one such offender - and I'd had no contact with an American Marvel comic since junior school.

'This still exists,' I noted.

'There's quite a good story running in there at the moment.' Charlie was clearly familiar with the title, and for some reason I found this surprising.

'Who's that supposed to be?' I indicated the snarling figure on the cover. 'I remember Cyclops and the Angel and that lot, but I don't think I know this one.'

'That's Wolverine.'

'What does he do?'

'He has a metal skeleton and he extrudes claws which can cut through almost anything.'

I was suddenly aware of being a full grown man - at least in the physical sense - whilst finding this unfamiliar X-Person intriguing as a concept. It seemed there was a contradiction in there somewhere, or at least something of which I should probably be ashamed. If only it didn't feel so damn good.

'I think I will buy this.' I placed the comic in my basket, boldly, as though having emerged from a notional closet.

Within the year I was a connoisseur, tracking down back issues, collecting obscure editions of other distantly related titles through which some sprawling storyline had taken a detour, and making a monthly Hajj to the comic shop Forbidden Planet by means of National Express coach. Parallel to the onset of my addiction, my friend Carl had introduced me to the more underground comics of Robert Crumb, Bill Griffiths, Jay Lynch, Drew Friedman and others, either responding to my increasing interest in the medium, or else attempting an intervention in the hope of saving me from the spandex ghetto. I took to producing my own comics, inspired in equal parts by the mainstream titles, the undergrounds, my own abandoned formative efforts from a few years earlier - which had in turn been inspired by the strips in Sounds music paper drawn by Alan Moore and Savage Pencil - and, most significantly, the fact that I was bored absolutely shitless with video art and needed some sort of creative outlet.

College came to an end, and by 1989 Charlie and myself, still united by an appreciation of X-Men comics, had arrived at similar artistic places albeit by different routes. He too was keen to pursue a career as a comic artist, and exhibited an endearing faith in my ability to crank out a half decent story. I'd been drawing my own absurdist pseudo-underground strips for various fanzines, but my ability fell some way short of my ambitions with respect to more mainstream work of the kind which would at least catch the attention of 2000AD or similar; and so resumed our creative partnership.

I had written some of a strip called Berserker, a generally lamentable effort involving telepathy, psychokinesis, aliens, the theories of Richard S. Shaver and all the usual stuff all bundled together and named after a Gary Numan album. Charlie did his best to illustrate the script I had provided but was hindered by the fact that it didn't actually have a story. Nevertheless we soldiered on, at last producing a few short eight page strips titled News From Nowhere which turned up in small press publications such as Inkling and Sideshow Comics.

We began to attend comic conventions, lugging samples of our work around in the hope of it catching the eye of a larger publisher, notably at UKCAC - the United Kingdom Comic Art Convention unfortunately acronomised as yoo-cack - held at the University of London in September, 1989. I had never before found myself surrounded by quite so many comic book enthusiasts, and never having been a fan of crowds, the experience was bewildering, even with the excitement of showing our work to persons whose comics we'd been reading. Marv Wolfman in particular stood out as a name I somehow recalled from as far back as the 1970s, and as the then current writer of the New Teen Titans of which I was a fan; in addition, he was not only American, but Jewish and from New York. This made him seem very exotic and exciting to me. He considered the work that Charlie and I had lain before him and smiled indulgently, this probably being the ten-thousandth time someone had tried too hard to impress him that day.

'I like what you guys are doing, but this thing with the originality of your ideas,' he began in response to some bumbling crap I had offered by way of an explanation. 'Well, I mean you can have a guy with a banana in his ear,' - and at this point both Charlie and myself thrilled at the broad and unfamiliar American pronunciation of banana - 'but I mean, Banana-in-the-Ear Man may be original, but you still have to tell a story.'

We remained awestruck for the next few minutes, energised by our encounter with greatness and oblivious to the fact of our having fallen a long way short of making a sale. We joked about producing a Banana-in-the-Ear Man strip for the sake of having created by Marv Wolfman tucked away in the corner of the title page.

After a few more attempts to sell ourselves as the next big thing I began to experience convention fatigue, possibly due to Charlie having a bit more drive than I did. I went off for a wander, either in search of the lavatory or to buy myself a massive stack of X-Men comics in some other room of the convention.

When I returned, Blinky had already introduced himself and was now schooling Charlie on how best to get ahead at comic conventions. He had scripts and he needed an artist, and his confidence in his own talent was terrifying to the point of bordering on the obnoxious.

His name wasn't Blinky, obviously, but I've renamed him a quarter century later after an involuntary tic which caused him to blink at least once a second, sometimes twice. Whilst it is undoubtedly poor form to make light of this one unfortunate physical characteristic of the boy - and he was a boy, fifteen years old at the upper limit I would guess - specifically referencing him by a name directly mocking what I suppose could be classified as a disability, I do so on the grounds of his being a thoroughly unpleasant tosspot who would later engage himself with a number of bewildering attempts to sabotage Charlie's eventually burgeoning career, so screw him and his big red shoes.

Blinky was young and precocious with an unpleasantly smooth face which was yet to require the attention of a razor blade, and always appeared to be looking down upon whomever it was addressing at the time; and he spoke just a little too quickly, a faintly upper class whine cultivated in an affluent suburb of north London, a voice which lent itself to dismissing the listener as uninformed.

He was speaking to Charlie at ninety miles an hour, somehow effecting to sound both excited and yet at the same time oddly jaded by his own words, as though this undeniably wonderful information was the sort of thing which really anyone with half a brain should know. The information was something to do with a man called Neil, referred to with the familiarity of a personal acquaintance, someone with whom Blinky would be meeting later. Furthermore, it turned out that we would also be meeting him, because Blinky had recruited us as his street team in my absence. After a few minutes I realised he was referring to Neil Gaiman, just then beginning to accrue some fame in comic book circles.

'Well, we'll just have to see what Neil says.'

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I understood then that my initial assessment had been correct. This person was a tool, someone for whom status was directly related to relative fame within the established parameters of fandom. This, as Mojo Nixon would surely concur, was a person with no Elvis in him, the human personification of a beige cardigan or a packet of cheese and onion crisps consumed whilst reading a Batman comic.

We bustled along in the crowded hall, the three of us apparently subsumed by Operation Blinky. I wasn't sure what to make of this development. Charlie seemed to be okay with the guy, and I wanted to trust his judgement. On the other hand, I myself was fairly secure in my reservations, but found myself unable to really clarify them with enough resolve to be worth voicing. Operation Blinky came to nothing because, it was surmised, Neil was probably too busy or something.

In the months that followed, Charlie began to find paying work, notably regular strips in collaboration with Tim Quinn for the BBC's Number One magazine and The Sunday People. He'd even drawn a few strips written by Blinky, notably the portentously titled They Call Him The Marshal which, so far as I could tell, seemed to be Pat Mills' Marshal Law for some reason revised as a straightforward superhero adventure; but the partnership hadn't worked out so well, because Blinky was essentially a nutcase. My understanding was that Charlie had admired the kid's ruthless networking more than his scripts, and a visit to the family home in north London had been awkward and uncomfortable. Blinky's parents were good people, but the boy had revealed himself as prone to the weird temper tantrums of the unbalanced.

Meanwhile the two of us had worked together on a four part story titled A Reflection which we hoped might be picked up by Trident Publications, publisher of Mark Millar's Saviour amongst other titles. Charlie's artwork was really coming into its own by this point, but my writing was at best probably unremarkable, and A Reflection never found a home. A few years later it became subject, along with David Britton's Lord Horror, to discussion in an article on crime comics by Paul A. Woods which was featured in an issue of Knave, the monthly gentleman's interest magazine, but that was otherwise the end of that. We'd also produced a number of other prospective efforts, complete stories - such as they were - fired off to Marvel, DC, or IPC in the hope of their landing upon a sympathetic desk. After a while it became obvious that Charlie's ambition and enthusiasm had somewhat outstripped mine, as had his ability. This never became a subject of contention, but was simply the way things were. My main focus remained on the shorter, more underground strips for fanzines which I drew myself, and which I found more fun to produce.

At the next UKCAC we attended I was surprised and a little irritated to find we were met once again by Blinky. I'm fairly certain that by this point Charlie was already drawing in a professional capacity at some level, although Blinky still seemed to regard us as potential ladder holders by which he might continue his ascent towards caped destiny. On the first morning I found myself stood in a reception area as Blinky set a video camera on a tripod, directing us with tersely delivered suggestions. Charlie was helping in some capacity, but I don't think he knew quite what was expected, so perhaps we were a posse, the guys stood around in the background making funny shapes with our fingers so as to present the appearance of something so large that it must be taken seriously.

Neil had promised Blinky an interview for some private project, unless it was Alan or Grant or someone else with whom this pushy and faintly unpleasant schoolboy preposterously affected to be on first name terms; but Neil or Alan or Grant or whoever was running late had failed to appear, consistent with all odds. Blinky's elder and entirely more personable brother made some suggestion which was greeted with a snappy dismissal of the kind which inevitably arises when an important person finds himself obliged to rely upon incompetent inferiors.

Unsure of quite what I was doing there, I found myself talking to Phil Elliott whom I'd spotted passing through the reception area. Phil Elliott is a comic artist and designer now best known for his work with Escape and Fast Fiction, the seminal English small press publisher and distributor. I knew him better as the artist of The Suttons which had appeared in The Maidstone Star, which had been my local newspaper for a while. He seemed pleasantly surprised that someone should remember The Suttons and we enjoyed a briefly conversational chat about life in Maidstone. Blinky hovered around at the periphery, apparently hoping to deduce whether I was talking to someone who might be considered famous. I'd heard him endlessly gibbering on about X-Men comics, Watchmen, Frank, Neil, Grant, and so on and so forth; and in my mercifully limited experience I had not had him pegged as someone with even the slightest interest in comics beyond the caped and mainstream variety.

'Excuse me, Mr. Elliott, I wonder if you could spare five minutes for a short interview.'

Blink. Blink. Blink.

Luckily for me, my friend Carl had also stumped up the price of admission that year, and he had no intention of being drawn into Blinky's web of low-level sociopathic manure. I knew Charlie had grown weary of the Machiavellian little turd, but not so much as to allow for the necessary cessation of manners by which he could tell him to piss off. My own tolerance was less robust, and Carl understood this so we went off to browse for comics, this being why we had come to UKCAC in the first place. At some point later Blinky tracked us down and deposited himself at our table as we sat drinking tea in the canteen. Charlie was off somewhere showing samples of his work to a publisher, he told us. Blinky explained that he was proud of Charlie, apparently somehow unaware that we both knew Charlie substantially better than he did. Another thing Blinky had somehow failed to appreciate was that we had nothing in common with him and no interest in what he had to say. He began to offer his unsolicited views on Batman, Wonder Woman, what Neil thought of this, that and the other. We finished and got up, then began to walk away. Blinky followed, reluctant to deprive us of his monologue. Carl and I walked faster and Blinky increased his pace accordingly, still talking all the while. 

'On the count of three.' Carl took a deep breath, a quick glance to ensure that I understood as his voice sank to just above a whisper. 'One - two - three—' We ran, sprinting away from Blinky as fast as we could without falling over, howling with laughter at the absurdity of the situation, that such a schoolboy act should have proven necessary. We never saw him again other than as a distant face to avoid observed as it moved within a crowd, and neither did Charlie further enjoy the benefit of his advice so far as I'm aware. In any case, Charlie's efforts were beginning to pay off as he began drawing Judge Dredd strips, and then secured a regular gig as the artist of Armitage in the Judge Dredd magazine.

Blinky, apparently having abandoned his attempts to break into comics on the strength of They Call Him The Marshal and whatever else he'd come up with, settled down to writing about what others were doing, producing a comics industry fanzine capitalising on the cancellation of the long-running Speakeasy. The fanzine has done well, and is still going even now. It began on the premise of there being no publications then covering both comics and music; just as there were no publications specialising in both American foreign policy and celebration cakes, or classic cars and ironing. So Blinky's Charivari as it wasn't actually called stepped in to fill the presumed gap, covering comics just as Speakeasy had done before even to the point of recycling some of the regular features of its predecessor, alongside reviews of records by Nirvana, Suede, and all those other bands struggling to get by without coverage in the many, many existing music papers and related magazines. I saw a few issues but all I can recall - aside from a tone of self-congratulation and constant reminders of which famous people had praised the magazine that week - was one of those big head caricatures accompanying some review, badly drawn macrocephalic Kurt Cobain and that Dinosaur Junior bloke bumping fists to represent a cool and awesome meeting of awesome minds, which was of course awesome; and Blinky's scathing summary of the Armitage strip in Judge Dredd magazine which hilariously observed that Armitage was also the name of a company who manufacture ceramic toilet bowls, and the art of Charlie Adlard was like something found in a toilet bowl.

I expect he was referring to poo. Do you see? 

Ha ha.

Charlie continued to slave over a hot drawing board, getting promoted from one title to another, before ending up as regular artist on Image's absurdly successful Walking Dead, the enduring appeal of which means that Charlie now lives in a hollowed out volcano complete with ICBM and his own private army.

You probably won't have read about that in Blinky's Charivari, but never mind.

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.