Friday, 1 May 2015

Leave Home

On Sunday the 23rd of September, 1984, my parents drove me to Leeds with a few boxes of my crap, the bare essentials of records, tapes and Doctor Who books. This was Leeds, the village in Kent rather than the northern city wherein the Who famously recorded a live album. Leeds village was a few miles outside Maidstone, and I was about to begin a three year degree course at Maidstone College of Art. I'd just turned nineteen, I was moving away from home for the first time, and I wasn't entirely happy about the fact.

I recall the first few minutes of my very first day at Ilmington Junior & Infants School fairly well. I had started at the school in the village of Alderminster which had closed down due to there being too few kids to teach in that corner of rural Warwickshire - or something along those lines - and so I'd been relocated to Ilmington. My teacher was Mrs. Daglish. She wore horn rimmed spectacles, perhaps unsurprisingly, and we sometimes referred to her as Mrs. Dagger-bum, because that's how it works.

'This is Jeremy,' Mrs. Daglish told me at the very beginning of that first day, indicating a small wide-eyed boy with a brightly coloured jumper and tidy hair. 'You can sit next to him.'

So I did, and we became good friends, and I believe we remained in the same class right up until we finished secondary school, by which point we'd developed some shared interests, not least being industrial music - for want of a more dignified term. By the time I was halfway through my art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College in Leamington Spa, Jeremy had acquired a girlfriend called Sarah, and she too enjoyed industrial music.

I'd been recording tapes of my own weird abrasive sounds on the family double tape deck music centre - which was the closest any of us came to having access to a recording studio - and Jeremy had been over to record his own version of Throbbing Gristle which, annoyingly, actually sounded somewhat better than mine, at least to me. Jeremy's girlfriend was also quite keen to visit and have a go on my recording set up, and when she did come over, I realised I was quite keen to have a go on her.

Of course I knew this could never be, despite which it eventually was, and mainly due to our writing letters to each other and the fact that she'd been meaning to sack Jeremy from his position as boyfriend for a long, long time but had never quite worked up the courage to do so. Naturally I felt quite bad about all of this, but not quite bad enough to refrain from entering the somewhat indecisive girl when the opportunity arose. Being eighteen and having not yet done it with a nude woman, my hormones had accrued sufficient explosive force to destroy most of central England, and Sarah helpfully insisted that she would tell Jeremy it was all over just as soon as the time was right. Thus did we give in to our most biological desires, or at least we gave in to our most biological desires as much as was practical on a busy Saturday afternoon in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, which delicate readers may be relieved to discover wasn't much at all - sadly not even enough to get you thrown out of a cinema. Even more frustrating was this occurring on the day before I was about to be driven to Leeds with a few boxes of my crap, the bare essentials of records, tapes, and Doctor Who books.

My education had generally taken me in an artistic direction. I already recorded my own music, drew cartoon strips and painted, and by the time I was seventeen it was probably obvious that I was effectively useless where the job market was traditionally concerned, and art seemed to be the way to go in lieu of any better, more coherent idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Nevertheless, I was then just as sceptical of what I regarded as the art establishment and its support system as I remain today, and I had agreed to pursue the fine art degree because I couldn't really think of a reason not to. Furthermore, much as I disliked Shipston, the rural market town in which I'd spent the previous seven or eight years, I was scared shitless at the thought of moving away from home. I had no experience of the world out there, and from what little I knew of it, it sounded terrifying.

So to summarise, I was passing up the opportunity for sexual intercourse, an opportunity which had for the very first time been presented to me as definitely on the cards the previous afternoon, and I was doing this in order to take a course wherein I was fairly sure all that I enjoyed about the process of producing art would be discouraged for reasons I wouldn't even understand, and I was leaving what few friends I had behind, going to live amongst complete strangers and fending for myself; and I also understood that I had no choice in this matter. I was doing this whether I liked it or not. More depressing still, my parents' marriage had imploded earlier in the year and they were already separated. I no longer quite had a home to which I could cling even had it been an option, just one unhappy pappy hanging around in the place we once lived like a sad, confused ghost.

So there I was in Leeds village at the door of a house in which a room had been allotted to me by the student accommodation offer. I couldn't get in because I was the first to arrive and I had no key. My parents drove me into Maidstone, to a house in Terrace Road at which my friend Pete lived and entrusted me to his care. I knew Pete from school back in Shipston, and by absurd coincidence he'd started at Maidstone College of Art a year before me, taking a graphic design course. We were already friends, and it was an accident of fate that we should now both end up in the same county, but lucky for me given that I needed somewhere to stay for just one night. It was a piss poor start to the first evening of the rest of my life, although I guess it could have been worse.

Next day I began college. It was a bewildering experience. I knew a sum total of three people - the aforementioned Pete, then Martin de Sey and Jason Pierce, both of whom had been on my art foundation course back in Leamington Spa. Like myself, Martin was signed up for time based media - film, video and sound as it was then termed. Jason was taking painting, not that it made a whole lot of difference as we'd barely spoken more than three sentences to each  other during the previous year, and he was quite interested in heroin and hippy music, neither of which held great appeal for me, so we had very little in common. Over the months that followed, my contact with Jason was limited to my asking him if he had the money he owed our mutual friend Howard for the leather trousers.

'Just tell him you haven't seen me, yeah?' Jason suggested with characteristic lack of charm, before dropping out and becoming famous with Spacemen 3 and eventually Spiritualized, allegedly pausing only to allegedly mug my friend Carl with an alleged knife in an alleged effort to allegedly raise funds for more of that yummy heroin. What a lovely man.

Thankfully as evening came I was able to insinuate both myself and my belongings into the house in Leeds village. I was sharing with a painting student and a sculpture student, Kevin and Reuben respectively. Kevin was mellow, worldly, and he liked jazz. Reuben was handsome, square-jawed, and apparently abrim with confidence. They both seemed to have a good idea of why they were here and what they wanted to do, and when they opened their mouths, intelligent, witty remarks and observations emerged without any obvious display of effort. I felt conspicuously like an awkward schoolboy, and that the boxes I had brought with me might as well contain an Action Man, a stack of Beano annuals, and a pair of Rupert Bear pyjamas.

Being last to arrive, or specifically last to arrive with a front door key, I ended up in the smallest room of the house, which was fine being as I didn't have a lot of stuff. At last unpacked and settled but nevertheless shell-shocked and still completely out of my depth despite having spent more than twenty-four hours out in the big, bad world, I followed my housemates to the Ten Bells, the village pub. I had discovered pubs whilst taking the art foundation course, and had worked my way up to drinking three pints of whatever was cheapest without throwing up. I liked pubs because I was young and able to get drunk fairly easily, and I was usually more entertaining when drunk so far as I could tell. Alcohol was a great way of levelling the social playing field, I had decided.

In the pub I learned that two houses in the village were rented out as student accommodation, the one at the Square, in which I lived, and Milstead Cottage, a half-timbered dwelling down the road near the shop. Milstead was home to Jim, Steve, Bill, and Jane. In addition to this, a girl from the printmaking course named Lynne rented a room in the home of some big cheese in the psychiatric profession who lived opposite the pub. I quickly discovered that the pub jukebox contained both When Doves Cry by Prince and Desmond Dekker's Israelites, my two favourite songs by which to get drunk and attempt to pass myself off as much cooler than I was, which I hoped to achieve by appearing unconcerned as to whether or not anyone considered me cool. To this end I took up smoking.

I had thus far in my life had two curious puffs of borrowed cigarettes and become fanatically opposed to smoking with the sort of passion of which only the very young and clueless are capable. Then, at the end of the art foundation course, Howard - who is probably still awaiting payment for those leather trousers - introduced me to a special kind of herbal cigarette favoured by the sort of musicians enjoyed by my housemate, Kevin. The experience was weird and euphoric and kind of enjoyable, leading to the relaxation of my attitude to smoking in general.

'Fag?' Jane asked, referring to the packet of Marlboro cigarettes she held towards me rather than questioning my sexuality, given that this was England. We had only just met, and she hadn't realised that I didn't smoke.

'Don't mind if I do,' I like to think I said, and proceeded to smoke as my fellow students offered hints and tips about inhaling so as to get the full benefit, reassuring me that yes, this was a normal cigarette and was thus entirely legal in response to my passing comment on the euphoria of the initial rush of nicotine; and as I smoked I noticed that the combination of a fag and a pint seemed particularly pleasing. I realised then that contrary to received wisdom on the subject, and despite the numerous drawbacks of which we are all pornographically aware at this stage of western civilisation, smoking actually does make you cool, or at least makes you less of a berk. Smoking means that you have other more important matters to worry about, even if you don't.

'Sorry,' Jane later apologised with some amusement. 'I thought you were a smoker.'

'Well, I am now.'

I had my pint and my fag and When Doves Cry had just come on the jukebox again. Maybe things were going to be okay.

Lacking conventional domestication, at nineteen I was not yet fully schooled in the art of throwing stuff away, and often had no understanding of why you would even want to. By December I'd glued all of my empty Marlboro packets into a tower to form a monument to my new hobby. It comprised four individual towers glued together, side by side, and stood on my bedside table about four foot tall.

'I see you've started smoking,' my mother observed when she arrived to drive me back up to Warwickshire for the Christmas holiday. Like Jane, she seemed amused, as though recognising the comic inevitability of my newly acquired habit.

I regarded the monument standing in overwhelming support of my mother's hypothesis and squeaked, 'oh I just found them laying around,' hoping that it would be obvious that this was the sort of thing I did now, gluing old fag packets together because I was an artist or whatever; but I'm getting ahead of myself...

Meanwhile back in September I had survived three nights, and on the Wednesday evening I strolled down to the village payphone and called my dad. 'I'm coming home,' I said. 'It's not working out.'

'Is this about that girl?' he asked, not unreasonably, his tone making it fairly clear that whatever answer I gave was quite likely to further piss him off given how much he and my mother had been looking forward to my flying the nest for a long, long time.

I said I would stick at it a bit longer, just to be certain, and then caught a train back to the Midlands on the Thursday evening.

My diary entry for Saturday the 29th of September reports:

I spent today in Stratford with Sarah, although Heaven would have been a more appropriate name for any place where I'm in her company. I sold her my Psychic TV records. She insisted on paying something for them.

I returned to Leeds on the Monday, put in a couple of days of shuffling listlessly around the college, and then spent the second weekend of my degree course back in Warwickshire. Needless to say the train fare was prohibitive, but it seemed worth it given that I would almost certainly be having it off with a girl any weekend now. My grant cheque for the term had been the full wack, six-hundred pounds or thereabouts of the taxpayer's lovely money, five-hundred and fifty pounds more than the largest amount of money I had held in either my hand or bank account up until that point. I was fairly sure it would last no matter how quickly I spent it.

By the third weekend I had succumbed to malnutrition and was so ill as to be unable to make the pilgrimage back to Warwickshire and Sarah's knickers; well, maybe not malnutrition, but it seemed possible that the acute tonsillitis and mouthful of ulcers may have been linked to recent changes in my diet, specifically a change from  a diet of actual food to one of mainly beer, cigarettes, cheese and onion crisps, and the occasional box of Mr. Kipling's Bramley apple pies when I felt like treating myself.

Sometimes I would buy a tin of baked beans and cook it up, having added a shake of every herb and spice I could find in the kitchen. A pinch from one particular jar of dried herbs might improve a meal, I had reasoned, so all of them would logically render it fit for a king. Eventually I learned how to heat things up, even to combine them based on what I could recall of my parents' culinary efforts and what I saw Reuben and Kevin doing when they got hungry. Instant mashed potato was easy, I discovered, and so I went through an instant mashed potato phase, then gradually developing a new kind of dish which I generously termed my pies, expanded from a crude understanding of shepherd's pie being just baked mashed potato and other stuff. I would fill my Pyrex oven dish with whatever I'd bought from the village shop, choices usually dictated by whatever was cheap and therefore less impactful on funds otherwise earmarked for beer and fags. A diagram of one of my pies drawn in cross-section in my diary shows geological strata of baked beans, cheese, and a cocktail layer of tomato ketchup, soy sauce, and every herb and spice I could find in the kitchen, because that was a lesson I was still to learn. I also recall one pie incorporating layers of hard-boiled eggs and vermicelli, which might eventually have become an acquired taste, but developed a premature fuzz of grey mould inside the fridge before I had the chance to acquire it.

I made another couple of expensive weekend pilgrimages to Warwickshire and was eventually rewarded with sexual intercourse, but by November it became clear that six-hundred or thereabouts pounds of the taxpayer's lovely money was not so limitless a resource as it had initially seemed. The relationship switched to a long-distance footing, which coincided with Sarah and I finding ourselves rumbled by the unfortunate and justifiably displeased Jeremy. He communicated this to me in a series of terse and yet surprisingly reasonable letters, and so the friendship facilitated by Mrs. Dagger-bum's introduction roughly fourteen years earlier came to an end, or at least to a low from which it never fully recovered.

Thankfully, I still had the pint and the fag and When Doves Cry, and I found I was beginning to enjoy the company of my fellow students more and more, and so much so that the appeal of escaping back to Warwickshire had begun to diminish, regardless of the boobs awaiting me at the other end of the journey. Having come through the initial euphoria of having a girlfriend, even a geographically distant one, I began to find that I enjoyed the time I didn't have to spend thinking about how horribly complicated it was, whether Sarah would ever get around to telling Jeremy, and what it said about me that I could do this to my friend of so many years standing. In the case of this last one, it said that I was possibly a bit of a knob, or at least someone with pronounced knob-esque tendencies, so of course I didn't want to spend time thinking about it; and it helped that my new friends seemed for the most part either unaware of my knob-esque qualities, or else were unconcerned.

Bill, Kevin, Lynne, Jim, and Jane at least seemed to think that I was okay. I'd heard Lynne praise one of our colleagues with the words at least he isn't stingy with his fags, and as I too made a point of offering the packet around whenever sparking one up, I aspired to this same category. I seemed to get on well with Steve at least some of the time, although I found him occasionally abrasive, as did the others it later emerged. Reuben and I seemed to get on very well. We liked the same music, which immediately united us against Kevin with his love of jazz and all of its folksy workmanship when the domestic situation became strained, as it often does when two or more people find themselves having to chip in to pay communal bills.

Kevin grumbled some gruff parting shot and shuffled off.

'Synthesiser!' Reuben spat at his back as though it were the magic word which would exorcise our grumpy technophobic demon. 'Drum machine!'

Reuben's father had once received a visit at their home from Brian Eno for reasons I forget, and whilst there, Eno had autographed their coffee table. This impressed me no end, as did Reuben's record collection - including DAF, Chakk, Heaven 17, Shriekback, Cabaret Voltaire and others - and the tape he lent me of some group called Nagamatzu whom he had known back in Ipswich. We also shared a similar sense of humour, and after one particularly disappointing drink at the Ten Bells, chose to express this in song, improvising with a tape recorder as we sat shivering and laughing around the kitchen table. I hammered out tunes on my acoustic guitar, and Reuben improvised lyrics about people we knew. The song about Bill was just a riff with the name Bill repeated at the end of each bar, because we couldn't think of anything bad to say about him. The increasingly abrasive Steve Coots fared less well.

Wanger Coots! Wanger Coots!
People laugh at him but I don't give two hoots!

It wasn't exactly Peter Gabriel, but it did the job. Steve was outgoing and could often be very funny, but it was difficult to really like him. He combined a cloying, needy quality with a bitter and vindictive side which would emerge whenever he suspected that you would rather he piss off and leave you alone; and so he seemed to be forever cycling through some complex psychological resentment of whoever had deigned to spend time with him. Worse still if you were female and found yourself on the receiving end of his oleaginous charm offensive, not least because the level of charm involved was entirely subjective.

He slimed Sarah during one of the weekends she came to visit me. A year later, once I'd moved to another student house in a neighbouring village, he dropped by on the occasion of splitting up with some girlfriend or other, then left a note for Gill - my younger, conspicuously pretty housemate - explaining that he wanted to see her because he really needed a shoulder to cry on. He'd met Gill on one previous occasion amongst mixed company, and they had spoken for about five minutes. Gill hadn't expressly told him to fuck off, which was as good an invitation as any in Steve's world.

Since my arrival in September, our local group had expanded to accommodate Mark Hodder and Sasha Rosen. Mark would have been in the third and final year of the course I was taking, but had concluded that he'd had enough and had thus dropped out, continuing to live at Milstead Cottage whilst he decided what his next move would be. Initially he was a strange, brooding figure who lived with Jim, Bill, and Jane. He didn't seem happy, and I had no idea what to make of him. The ice broke one evening when one of my hard boiled egg and vermicelli pies expressed itself as a series of violently noisy farts erupting from my nether regions during a drunken after hours game of Monopoly at the cottage.

Mark offered some surreal, incredulous, and justifiably appalled observation about the sound of fish being slapped together, which evolved into a monologue about me keeping fish in my underpants. The more it amused him, the more he warmed to his theme, and I couldn't help but enjoy the finely crafted thrust of his mockery despite being its target. It is of course this same vigorous imagery and razor wit, once wielded so harshly against my own sphincter, which has made Mark Hodder the best-selling and Philip K. Dick award-winning author he is today, and I am only glad that he still remembers his old pals from those days, and that he has in addition stopped addressing me as Slapfish.

Sasha Rosen was American, Jewish and therefore exotic in terms of my then quite limited experience. She wasn't a student, but something or other in the psychological profession visiting the family with whom Lynne was lodging. She joined us in the Ten Bells and we all found her fascinating. I believe her speciality was some form of art therapy, and so she offered us free art therapy sessions because I suppose she found us just as fascinating as we found her. My session entailed my forming a picture from coloured plastic shapes on a tray. Sasha interpreted the image as a horse, and discussed it in terms of a fear of horses from which I wasn't entirely sure I suffered. It looked like someone falling from the top of a tall building to me, but the food Sasha prepared was delicious, and there was something very enjoyable in being psychoanalysed, albeit in a purely recreational capacity.

Christmas came and was a fairly miserable affair, my parents having become separate entities with only myself occupying the intersection of the Venn diagram. I was overdrawn at the bank, Sarah had downgraded our relationship to a purely platonic arrangement, and the place in which I had grown up had become strange and only partially familiar. It was a relief to get back to Kent in January.

The new term brought a fresh grant cheque - of which only a little was swallowed by my overdraft - and a letter from Sarah reporting that we could once again resume our relationship if I was still interested. In the name of keeping everything open and honest, this being the way forward following the confusion of the Jeremy situation, she admitted to having spent a portion of the Christmas period boffing some fanzine writer. I was upset, but also fully aware of the irony.

Does she make a habit of this sort of thing?, I asked myself, then wrote back to confirm that I would be glad to resume our relationship, such as it was, being still to receive any better offer. She yet again visited me in Kent, but it soon became obvious that neither of us should have bothered, and so whatever we'd had fizzled out of its own accord. My diary notes how when I met up with her for a drink the following Christmas, she had somehow acquired a strong Mancunian accent, inspiring me to wonder what I had ever seen in her in the first place.

A dramatic overnight freeze burst the pipes of our house on Monday the 11th of February, 1985 - just over a week after Kevin had moved out for reasons best known to himself. I discovered this as I returned home following a day at college. Our house was in a terrace with four others, and was now distinguished as the one with icicles the size of inverted fir trees suspended from upper floor windows. It was like Disney's magic kingdom carved in ice and viewed upside down. I stepped from the bus and approached the house, surrounded by locals from the pub, most of whom had brought along either a camera or a sense of humour. Admittedly it was pretty spectacular as disasters go, and peculiarly, the pipes had burst drenching the interior of the building in such a way as to leave my own small room at the back unaffected. The kitchen and front room, recently vacated by Kevin, were fucked, and Reuben was screwed, as was his record collection and his clothing. Reuben stayed elsewhere, and I stayed put as the landlord made the necessary repairs over the next few weeks, and by Spring, everything was back in shape.

Jane from time based media - as distinct from Jane who lived at Milstead Cottage - moved into the newly refurbished house, meaning unfortunately that Steve became an almost permanent presence. This had the effect of further reducing Reuben's attachment to a house in which the sum of his worldly possessions had recently taken the form of an ice sculpture, and so he and Steve swapped rooms, with Reuben moving down to Milstead Cottage. To give Steve his due, he had redeeming qualities. He was often funny and helpful, but was almost completely unable to take even the mildest criticism. Politely telling him to piss off was therefore never an option had either Jane or myself even been capable of such directness. It seemed crazy to allow him to move in, but Jane reasoned that with his own room in our house, he no longer had justification for sleeping on her floor when it just happened to be really late. No longer being a guest, we could not be expected to entertain him as we had felt obliged to do on previous occasions. I suppose some of this must have worked out as hoped given that we didn't end up burying his body in the garden, but I have a stronger memory of forever finding myself drawn into his passive-aggressive universe of bullshit.

He would hang around your arse all day like a lost puppy delivering speeches on his philosophy of what a wonderful world it would be if the rest of us were more like him, if the rest of us could only be induced to give him a bit of space every now and then. He wrote shitty poems about people failing to do their share of washing up, just like some character from The Young Ones - and with himself very much a less than shining example on that score. He wrote shitty poems which read one hell of a lot as though written about me, seemingly in direct response to comments he can only have read in my diary whilst I was out. He wrote shitty poems about how fucking some unidentified female was like an escape from a sunken helicopter during a bewildering attempt to turn himself into Billy Childish, and he seemed unusually pleased with assumptions of the sex in question being something which had occurred external to his imagination and which had occurred specifically in relation to Jane, who was significantly less flattered by the insinuation.

A couple of times he drove off in a tremendous huff late at night, usually in response to Jane spending time in the company of friends without his approval. The implication of his dramatic exit was usually that here was a man who had been pushed to the edge, who could take no more, but he would always be back next morning angling to find out just how worried we had been. Never in my life have I encountered anyone with such a burning need of martyrdom, and accordingly he formally changed the spelling of his surname to Kütz - as it had been with his Latvian forefathers - and under this name began publishing booklets of poetry about the rape of his homeland, which struck me as funny given that I'd known him for a year and this was the first time he had mentioned it at all. I suppose it was one of the many cuts running so deep that he himself hadn't even known about it.

By Monday the 23rd of September, 1985, one year after I initially left home, I was living in Hollytree House in the village of Otham and had begun the second year of my degree course. I'd spent the summer holiday in Leeds village, mostly avoiding Steve, and making a sort of living from drawing the kind of pictures of people's homes which look good framed above the fireplace. My overdraft had peaked in July at about ₤700 in debt, and by my own impetus I had managed to pay this off and get back in the black.

My entire understanding of the world had changed in just twelve months. I was still single and would remain so for some years to come, and my cooking wasn't up to much, but I had survived more or less without a safety net. Reading the diary I kept at the time, I am reminded mainly of the cold, and of being hungry and miserable. It was probably the hardest year of my life, but of course it had to be done. My mother later admitted that she didn't necessarily have any particularly high hopes for my future as a great artist, but art college had been a means of getting me to leave home and to fend for myself when I most needed just such a push, before the rot set in. Knowing at least one individual who never had that push, a contemporary who remains in the house in which he grew up, and who somehow considers his inexperience equal to the experience of those of us who have had no choice than but to grow up, I am eternally glad that my mother knew exactly what was best for me, even when I didn't.

If the best days of your life occurred during your early twenties at college, I tend to suspect that you've probably been doing something wrong; and if my diary recalls mainly the misery, then the attendant memories have mostly gathered around the details that were worth remembering - the friendship of Jane, Reuben, Mark, Lynne, and others, the fags and the lager, the fart jokes and When Doves Cry, my introduction to the world of having it off, and the fact that I became marginally less knob-esque than I had been the year before.

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