Friday, 28 August 2015


In June, 2004, I finally went mad; not mad as in drinking quite a lot, having a curry, then climbing atop a bus shelter with my trousers worn upon my head, nor mad meaning I walked through the village one Sunday wearing a rather unusual hat like one of those tediously middle-class fuckers who used to write in to John Peel's Home Truths radio show; no - my madness took the form of serious clinical depression, according to my doctor. Work at Royal Mail, and by association my own life, had been getting steadily more difficult since at least the mid-nineties, contrary to the truism that a job will become easier as one accrues experience and seniority. Each year, the management made more cuts in the name of savings. Each year, we were asked to do more and to do it quicker until the demands of the job began to border on the impossible.

Then at some point around February 2004, the hearing went in my right ear, replaced at first by a jangling noise, next day becoming something sounding like one of the less tuneful Merzbow albums. I had experienced tinnitus before but only infrequently, usually after going to see a gig and having forgotten to take earplugs with which to deaden the sound; but this was different - just one ear and so loud that it prevented my sleeping for the first couple of nights. Worse still, I'd begun to suffer dizzy spells and had experienced trouble crossing the road, or indeed doing anything which required me to turn my head.

Something was very clearly wrong so I went to see the doctor. She shone lights into my ear and told me it looked fine. She brought in another doctor who told me that I should take care when listening to music with earbuds. The advice seemed useless, not least because it contained no actual diagnosis of my problem. I listened to music a lot whilst at work, and so accordingly took great care regarding volume and how many continuous hours I would spend listening to CDs of enthusiastically violent rap music. Working without music wasn't really an option, because it was the constant soundtrack of drive-by shootings and territorial violence which was keeping me sane. Months passed, and neither the work nor the ear were getting any better. Return visits to Crystal Palace Road Medical Centre brought no new understanding beyond the reality of lengthy NHS waiting lists for specialist treatment.

On Sunday the 4th of April 2004 I wrote in my diary:

I feel approaching normal for the first time in almost a week. I am able to string two thoughts together. I am not completely knackered. The ear infection has waned a little, the blockage and horribly jangling high frequency noise are mostly gone, although the tinnitus remains.

I rose at eleven after an enforced lay-in - I needed it, plus my enthusiasm for consciousness is not all it could be at the moment. I'd had a slightly restless night with dream after dream of work related horror without any actual symbolic content. I stayed up and watched Brassed Off last night, which seemed apt. The part where Stephen Tompkinson hangs himself from the colliery pit head may have been intended as humour, seeing as he was dressed as a clown - albeit very black humour - but it didn't make me laugh.

Work is unbearable - really, really, really unbearable. We are expected to do what is tantamount to ten hours work in an eight hour day, and it absolutely cannot be done. The carrot on the stick is a five rather than six day working week, but it isn't worth it; not when all the me time is spent in recovery; and why should this be exactly? Because Tom Willis - who has never actually done the job - believes the Royal Mail has to change, as he phrases it - another one of those meaningless mantras employed by corporate cock suckers in service of making themselves appear thrusting and businessy.


Why does it have to change?

It was working before, just about.

Now it's fucked.


I once at least had the minor satisfaction of doing a pointless job well. Now I can't even say that much, and it's become a Kafkaesque exercise in moving bits of paper that no-one wants to read backwards and forwards between sorting frame and pouching box until someone finds time to deliver it to the house containing the dustbin into which it will inevitably fly unopened.

I cried my fucking eyes out on Monday when I was finished, having got a mere third of the shit delivered. I was crying yesterday too, stood before a sorting frame about twice the size of what I'm used to, just staring at those massive piles of shite knowing I had no chance of getting it done, and even with at least another four hours to go. It's killing me.

I described another minor breakdown similar to the above in greater detail in a letter sent to Allan Leighton, predatory corporate carnivore and then chairman of Royal Mail. The letter, dated Tuesday the 4th of May, attempts to explain at length why the changes to Royal Mail working practice which he had implemented were impractical from the perspective of us poor cunts trying to do the job.

Two weeks ago, after finishing (barely) at two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, I went to the café as is my custom. I bought a newspaper, ordered a very late breakfast and sat down. First I found that I could not actually read the paper. I could not keep an entire sentence in mind for longer than it took to read. Then my food arrived but I found that I could not eat it. So I just sat there, staring into space, crying - a grown man of thirty-eight sat in a café crying without even knowing why.

Surprisingly he never replied. Maybe he wrote back but it was mislaid in the mail, the hopelessly inefficient mail.

I was beginning to lose it. My snapping point occurred on one particularly improbably heavy day as I opened up my pouching box. A pouching box is either free-standing or attached to an existing post box, a kind of safe in which a Royal Mail driver will deposit additional bags of sorted mail when the mail for a designated delivery route is of such volume as to exceed what the postman or postwoman is able to carry under their own steam. It was, as stated, an improbably heavy day, and so much so that I hadn't finished preparing my mail for delivery until just before noon - a task which would once have been done by eight in the morning at the latest. This left me two hours in which to deliver roughly four hours work, but I just had to get on with it and do what I could, and any mail left undelivered by the time I was due to finish my eight hour day was simply not my problem. I'd done all of those little closes off East Dulwich Grove - Steen Way, Deventer Crescent and the rest - and I was at the pouching box. I took out my key, unlocked the box, and wrestled the grey mailbag onto the ground. I took one corner and tipped everything out, then started picking up the individual bundles of mail, noting the addresses so as to stuff them into the front basket of my bike in the right order - Matham Grove, Tell Grove, the lower numbers of Glengarry Road...

I stared at the addresses unable to work out why none of them made sense. These were the wrong bundles of mail. These were bundles of mail which should have been in the bag dropped off at the pouching box outside the working man's club, half a mile down the road. This mail should be in the other box. My driver had mixed up the bags. There was more mail here than I could carry on my bike, and it would requite two or three trips to set it right, to take this mail down the road and fetch back the bundles I needed right now, but for some reason I couldn't seem to fit all of this information inside my head in one shot, and apparently I was talking to myself and had been doing so for a couple of minutes. The day had been kicking me in the arse since five that morning, and this was just one kick too many.

I couldn't think.

I stuffed the bundles of mail back into the bag, then the bag back into the box and locked up. I cycled back to the sorting office and went in. Something was wrong with me, but I couldn't quite tell what.

The sorting office was empty but for Lee, the manager, and some agency worker. The two of them were talking, and talking slowly, and I badly needed to say something, to explain what had happened but I couldn't interrupt, and I had a feeling that whatever I said would sound mad. I felt as though I was about to explode. All I could hear was this person I had never seen before in my life telling the manager about something which didn't matter, droning on and on and on, never ending, blah blah blah...

Feeling an upsurge of something unpleasant and unavoidable, I went to a different part of the office - a safe distance - and attacked one of the sorting frames, mainly headbutting, some kicks and a few thumps - really putting everything into driving my fucking skull through that stupid sheet of stupid fucking shitting fucking shitting pissing fucking metal. I screamed in pain but couldn't get it anything like as loud as it should be. I screamed so loud that my throat hurt but it wasn't enough. Hopefully I would be sacked, and would no longer have to deal with any of this stupid fucking shitting fucking shitting pissing fucking stupid shit. There was no conceivable future in which this situation was going to sort itself out.

To my astonishment, Lee understood completely. I tried to explain what had set me off, and how I had lost the ability to think straight, to hold more than a few basic thoughts in my head at the same time. I recall words interspersed with manic flourishes of laughter, just like when you see a crazy person in a film, and I was amused - maybe even a little pleased - to realise that it had come naturally and that clichéd mad laughter was really a thing. I may even have shared this observation with my manager. In any case, he seemed to get it and told me to go home and not come back until I'd sorted myself out.

'Your mental health is more important than this fucking job.'

I could tell that he meant it.

So I went home, then took another trip down to the medical centre and had myself signed off for a couple of weeks with stress, or serious clinical depression, as it was described to me. My panic response, the instinct which would have inspired fight or flight under other circumstances, had become jammed on eleven as a result of month after month after month of working under such back-breaking conditions whilst upper management told us that it wasn't enough. This explained the bursting into tears for no obvious reason apparently. This made me feel a little better, an authority figure telling me that my job was definitively shit, as opposed to scowling and asking if I couldn't just put a little more effort into it.

Every so often a missive would come down from on high, from Allan Leighton himself, stressing how we really needed to start pulling our fingers out so as to ensure the future success of Royal Mail as a business. We're all in this together, he would tell us, so let's crack on. I suppose he imagined us all stood around sneering in our respective sorting offices - huh, men in suits, what do they know?

'Hold up, lads,' one of us would cry like the first worker who really gets it in a 1930s Soviet propaganda film. 'This bloke's speaking our language!,' and thus would we crack on.

Working a back-breaking eight hour day and still having trouble paying the rent, or being paid a million pounds a minute to blow shareholders in some board room - we were a team, all cogs in the same machine, apparently.

I went home and spent a couple of weeks as a walk-on part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, making the most of the sick pay which I really felt I had earned; and I knew that I couldn't go back to Royal Mail. Before I'd signed up back in 1988, I'd had an interview with London Underground. Apparently I had done well on the interview, but I wasn't offered a job. It seems that this had been down to the answer I gave to one crucial question.

You're on your own on the platform late at night, just yourself and a gang of fifty rowdy skinheads, obviously pissed, all busily kicking someone's head in. What do you do?

'Well, I would advise them to behave and to conduct themselves in a more orderly fashion,' I squeaked, 'and then I would call for assistance.'

This was the wrong answer I was later told, because it means you're either an idiot or a liar, and London Transport are reluctant to employ people who are likely to get themselves kicked inside out by fifty rowdy skinheads. Now knowing that this was obviously the wrong answer, it seemed like I may as well try again, and so I applied and was interviewed, and was told I would be given a start date at some point soon; but the call never came. I went back to the doctor and was signed off as mad for another month without feeling even remotely guilty, and I continued to wait.

Eventually the word came back. The hold up was due to the fact of my having been to see a doctor about my ear during the previous six months, and that doctor had recommended me to a specialist, bringing about a Kafkaesque situation. We've written to your doctor asking for him to write to the specialist to write back to your doctor with the results of your consultation so he can send them to us, and that was the last I heard from them. I made phone calls back and forth, then eventually gave up and reluctantly shuffled back to the sorting office around September. I had been away for two glorious months and had even begun to remember what it was like to not feel knackered and pissed off all the time. Unfortunately things had changed since I had been away. Lee, our manager, had been pulled on the grounds of his inability to bully workers into delivering square pegs unto round holes. In his place was Audrey.

My doctor had told me I was to insist on light duties, not least because my ear was not significantly better, and I had experienced a resurgence of the problem with my balance.

Audrey was a slender, hawkish black woman with shoulder pads and a harsh, barking tone. I knocked and went into her office to introduce myself. 'I'm afraid you'll need to put me on something light for a week, or so, because the—'

'Let's just get this straight, Mr. Burton.' Her voice rose to  unnecessary volume, sharp stabbing words with the sort of emphasis you employ when setting a five-year old on the right path; and she was smiling, which seemed kind of weird. 'You do not come into my office and tell me what you are going to do or what you are not going to do. Do I make myself clear?'

I tried to remember the last time I had been spoken to in this way, but couldn't because I've never been in either the army or prison.

'If you have a problem then you come and tell me about it, and I make the decision about what you can or cannot do. Do you understand?'

I either nodded or grunted, some token acknowledging that I wasn't resisting arrest, and that there was no need for the taser.

She introduced herself as a sort of postal celebrity - although I hadn't asked - describing how she had come over from Camberwell sorting office, airdropped in on the strength of a solid reputation for getting problem offices working. Such was her popularity that she was known as the people's manager to some, so she claimed. She seemed to be working by the assumption that I could be restored to fully operational status through bullying alone, and seemed strangely crestfallen when I told her I had an appointment for an MRI scan in hope of discerning whatever the hell was wrong with my ear. I had denied her some small pleasure, because it might be something real. She was silent for a moment and then testily informed me that I would need to bring her a letter from my doctor confirming the appointment.

I was assigned to inside duties for a week which meant I saw a lot of Audrey, and heard a lot of her as she patrolled the office loudly explaining her own excellence to whichever subordinate happened to be available. Each time she passed my way she seemed to be in the middle of expanding upon her thoroughly Darwinian views of the sick, the lame, and the useless. I had the impression she didn't like me very much. The next week I went back out on a delivery regardless, because it was better than being stuck inside listening to Audrey with all her theories of success - every morning I like to begin the day with some uplifting Gospel music, and other soundbites which could easily have been quoted from The Silence of the Lambs or American Psycho.

In December I had the MRI scan but nothing was found, and eventually my ear set itself right of its own accord. Thankfully I managed to sign for one of the better walks in the office, and whilst Audrey remained an abrasive and often unpleasant personality, she seemed to thaw a little, at least towards me. I had stopped caring, and had adopted a policy of agreeing to whatever unrealistic demand she made, then just going ahead and doing whatever was practical in the time given. Weirdly, being white, I no longer seemed to be a target. For some reason she really seemed to have it in for young, black males. Had she herself been white, I suspect the issue may not have been quite so readily dismissed when formal complaints were made.

There is a theory presently finding increasing support in psychiatric circles that mental illness is, in a majority of cases, an inevitable by-product of capitalism. In the March 2015 issue of Southwark Mental Health News, Robert Dellar summarised the correlation quite succinctly:

People with diagnoses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the exponentially growing varieties of "personality disorder" of which there are currently about five-hundred, are affected by these states in ways which very often lead to withdrawal, isolation, hopelessness, confusion, chaos, inability to look after themselves, to distinguish fantasy from reality, and all too often, suicide. These situations can often be proven to be caused by concrete social factors. Their progression and the possibility of their alleviation, or at least their co-existence with a decent quality of life are influenced without exception by concrete social factors.

I've known some mad buggers in my time, and whilst a few were undoubtedly already playing with a stacked deck, the above seems to pretty much nail it, and certainly rings bells with me. Week after week, month after month, year after year I struggled with a job often so demanding as to mean that the remainder of my free time was mostly spent either asleep or recovering from the day's labour, because rampant capitalism given free-reign will tend to human centipede its workforce into disposable biological profit generators by whatever means it can get away with. In our case this included sending out an employee satisfaction survey every few months in the mistaken belief of our being so stupid as to believe it meant they gave a shit; and I suppose it helped shareholders sleep better at night, in the event of concerns of our well-being ever troubling them, which I find unlikely.

I always took great trouble over those surveys, ticking the boxes - strongly disagree in most cases - then giving reasons with assorted home truths in the space allowed for those who responded other. The surveys posed hypothetical statements such as I am very happy with my job and feel that I am adequately paid, or I am confident that as an employer Royal Mail has my best interests at heart. I don't know a single person who would have ticked strongly agree, agree, or even no opinion to any of that sort of thing, and yet a week or so later, the results always came back the same. The manager would gather us together and tell us that most Royal Mail employees were very happy in their work, but some were just a teensy weensy bit fretful over job security, although they didn't really like to mention it because they felt confident it would all be sorted out in the end.

Somehow we got the impression that the employee satisfaction survey was a waste of time. I regularly concluded mine with hyperbolic intimation of suicidal thoughts, made partially for the sake of indicating strength of feeling; and yet the one time I was called into the office to give account of my supposedly confidential answers was the time when I adopted a more sarcastic tone, ticking strongly agree to anything with which I strongly disagreed, and suggesting I would be happy to have half my wages cut if I could just be sure it guaranteed superior investment security for my superiors.

'You were joking, right?' the manager asked, regarding me with some caution, as though I had properly flipped. I don't think he'd had much experience of sarcasm at such levels of toxicity.

'Yes, I was joking.'

He seemed relieved, and most depressing of all, I could tell he understood. He probably felt the same.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Out of the Woods

As 1993 swung around, I was living in the largest room of a shared house in Lewisham, living otherwise alone and very much aware of approaching the ten year anniversary of when I'd last had a girlfriend. The ten-year anniversary of my last having experienced naughty naked nudity with a lady of the opposite sex was still a little way ahead - 1997 to be specific - but as things stood I had no reason to doubt that it was going to be an anniversary I would celebrate with a lonely beer and Death in June records. Life in London was okay but a bit solitary, and work at Royal Mail was often tough. I had discovered the music of Death in June through being a member of a group called Konstruktivists, with whom Death in June shared a distributor in the form of a company called World Serpent. At the time I subscribed to the view that Death in June were simply exploring controversial or otherwise transgressive ideas and imagery, and that when they sang songs likening, for example, a high-ranking members of Hitler's Nazi party to a bouquet of preciously scented flowers wreathed in a legacy of golden tears, I tended to give them the benefit of the doubt, appreciating the startling image for its contrast of beauty and horror. It hadn't really occurred to me that the theme of such a song might actually state a belief of the gentleman in question having been a right nice bloke and someone to be admired.

I was slowly slipping off the deep end, and I was dimly aware of the process. Both the cartoons and the music I produced, by which I justified my existence, were becoming increasingly cranky and prone to the psychological quirks of the terminally insular - cruel humour and a delight taken in provocative authoritarian imagery. I was heading down the bitter road trodden by fifty-year old men who never leave home but continue to live in the houses in which they grew up, eventually marrying someone resembling their own late mothers. I was developing a condition which might best be described as an ingrowing personality, the end result of belief in one's own bullshit - the lies we all tell ourselves in preference to owning up to either flaws or failure. Thankfully this was the point at which Mandy showed up.

Mandy was a friend and former flatmate of Christine, girlfriend and her indoors to Carl, my bestest pal. We met each other a couple of times in mixed company at pubs, but the encounters had not made any significant impression upon me, probably because I had been sat in the corner nursing a pint and frowning whilst thinking really hard about Death in June records, about no-one understanding me, and about how none of them could ever hope to appreciate the pain of my daily existence, a pain which I bore without complaint because I knew it was my duty and my burden to be so much more deep and meaningful than everyone else. Thankfully, the encounter made some impression on Mandy, and an impression which was at least different to the one I had been straining to project.

She sent me a card on Valentine's Day, which pretty much knocked me sideways. It wasn't that I never received Valentine's Day cards so much as that when I did they were usually sarcastic to some degree. Detective work followed, resulting in conclusive proof of source and sincerity, and then a phone number; and I phoned her up just like that. It had never before occurred to me that this was how it worked, that you could just phone someone up if you knew they liked you, and you could phone them up with some sort of expectation of things moving along. Until that point my understanding of the politics of sexual attraction was based on the idea that if you liked someone, it was best to make sure that they never found out. So much for that biology 'O' level.

We met one Sunday evening in a pub on Lewisham Way in New Cross. It was a date, I suppose you would say. I'd had my hair cut specifically for the occasion. We talked and she laughed at my jokes, which wasn't something I had anticipated. She told me that she really wished I hadn't had my hair cut, and that I should probably shave off the ludicrous beard I'd been cultivating in hope of it making me appear intellectually florid. We seemed to like roughly the same music, and even though everything seemed to be going swimmingly, just like on the telly, I still couldn't quite bring myself to acknowledge the reason for our both happening to be there in that pub and at that time. This seemed to amuse Mandy no end.

'I er um,' I suggested helplessly. 'Well it's just that like er I um sort of well we er you know well I,' and so on and so forth, and then a kiss just happened as though brought on by some intangible force, as I suppose it was. I stroked her hair and said, 'you have a really nice skull,' then immediately realised that I had just told my date she had a really nice skull. I was unaccustomed to any sort of physical contact, and this was the thing which had occurred to me and the words had just fallen out of my mouth. She seemed to understand, although that didn't keep her from laughing at the absurdity of a significantly weird observation.

We settled into a routine of dates here and there, getting to know each other better, mapping the territory of our relationship. We went to see a ton of bands together - Suede, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Manic Street Preachers, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails, Lydia Lunch and others. Then on Friday the 14th of May, 1993 as we sat drinking in the Nag's Head in Rochester, Kent, Mandy suggested we should consider looking for a place in which we would live together. I recall the proposal having been made in the Nag's Head, and the date is written on a Polaroid photograph taken at the time. We had gone down to the Medway towns in Kent for a day out, and the Polaroid SX-70 camera went everywhere with me. It had been a Christmas or birthday present and I'd had it since 1981, but had never really got much use out of it because the film was so expensive. Now I had a job and a weekly wage and could afford to splash out the occasional fifteen quid on one of those cartridges of ten snaps and the necessary flash bar, although somehow I was still too cheap to buy myself a proper camera, which would have paid for itself within a month at the rate at which I had begun snapping photographs. Being in a relationship at long last had made me suddenly conscious of the passage of time, of how many years already seemed to have passed without consequence. My life was moving forward, and I took to documenting people and places as though I knew I would never see any of them again. Accordingly I have over three-hundred Polaroid photographs mostly commemorating my drinking habits between the years 1993 and 1995.

Mandy and I had been seeing each other for about three months before deciding to look for a place together; and the first photograph taken at our new shared flat in Derwent Grove, East Dulwich is one of myself, sat in the kitchen in my Royal Mail uniform smoking a fag. The date written at the bottom of the picture is 16th of December, 1993, which was a Thursday, and so I assume we must have moved in around the beginning of the month. We had not yet even known each other a year, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time, and neither of us was getting any younger.

Our relationship was neither the smoothest nor the most tempestuous in human history. Sometimes it was fun, and other times it was a pain in the arse, but most of the time it was nevertheless better than being single. Mandy was an extrovert with an occasionally raucous, even somewhat volcanic personality, whilst I was roughly the opposite. I had always imagined that true love - as seen on television - would be intense and all-consuming once it came my way, because my belief in smouldering love affairs of the kind which might be soundtracked by Cocteau Twins albums had remained more or less unchanged since I was about thirteen. I had difficulty adjusting to the realisation that this wasn't how it worked in the real world, and so I was quite insecure and needy, alternating with brooding and bitterness at the universe having betrayed my vision of perfect, everlasting romance.

Mandy's younger sister, recently finished at university, came to live with us with the intention of finding work in the capital, which she eventually did. Some days I found this awkward, even a little crowded, and at other times it was something of a relief to have another person there, meaning it was less awkward on those days when Mandy and I didn't seem to have a whole lot to say to each other. Then about a year and a half after we moved in together, I moved out, having found a cheap but generally decent flat in which to live in Lordship Lane. Mandy had been pursuing a course of art education and would soon be moving to Norwich to take a degree, and I wouldn't be able to afford the place in Derwent Grove on my own so it had seemed a good idea to take the new flat while it was available. This left just the younger sister, Zoe, although she appeared to be on the verge of moving into her own place anyway, which was what she did. It turns out that it also left Mandy somewhat homeless given there still being four months to go before she migrated to Norwich, and so she came to live with me in Lordship Lane for a while.

This was a strange time, neither one thing nor the other. It was obvious that things weren't entirely great between us, and whatever we had shared would soon be drawing to the end of its natural life; but on the other hand we didn't really discuss it. It was just there, something which was going to happen and which had to happen regardless of how anyone felt about it. Worse still, Buster our beloved cat was run over within weeks of moving to Lordship Lane. He was large and black with a white bib, about four years old, and we loved him. Losing him was horrible.

Eventually September rolled around, and by wearisome coincidence my thirtieth birthday was also Mandy's final night in London. We had some friends around for a drink and a send off, but I found it a strange, sombre occasion. At the end of the evening she said, 'don't go funny on me,' because she knew me well.

'I won't,' I said, feeling as though I was helping out in my own crucifixion. As relationships went, there was some room for improvement, but it was nevertheless the only relationship of a kind which included me, and I couldn't even work out how I felt about it coming to an end. About a month later, I wrote:

Things have calmed down a lot. Mandy has gone to do a three year degree in fine art so I guess that's the end of that. I felt fucking gutted for a few days but I feel pretty good right now as it happens. My flat is clean, tidy, organised, and run along lines so strictly efficient as to put the golden years of Mussolini's Italy to shame.

Mandy had moved, and we had seen each other once or twice since when she came to collect what remained of her stuff. We even wrote to one another, but we now had separate lives and I really needed to get on with mine; and unfortunately in order to do so I needed to do something with all those conflicting emotions, because I needed my relationship ragnarok to be as dark and important as it had been in my imagination; plus I was now free to mutter and mumble about everything that had irritated me during the previous three years. I went funny, just as Mandy anticipated.

I nursed that resentment for years, telling myself it had all been her, not me, and all the usual crap which is better than facing up to the reality of your own bullshit. It made me feel better about the present. The truth was that I had gone into the relationship as the pure little soul, sat alone in his room clutching a single rose, unwilling and ill-equipped to engage with the real world; and the real world had accordingly kicked my ass. I eventually came to realise this during the last few months of my next relationship, another decade down the line. I had gone into this one with eyes open, anticipating a smoother ride through having learned from previous mistakes; except I hadn't really learned from previous mistakes and it all went tits up, albeit for entirely different reasons. Then one evening I found all of my old Polaroid photographs and began scanning them in a fit of nostalgia.

Marian looked on with a faintly acidic expression. 'I'm not sure how I feel about you looking through pictures of your old girlfriend.' Marian's position regarding her own history was, so far as I could tell, that it served to explain the psychological misery of the present, and was the source of those obstacles which she must overcome in order to attain acceptitude of holistic winningness and developmental emboldenation. In practical terms this meant destroying old photographs, or at least tearing them in two and burning the half featuring the person whom she would no longer even name, and then blaming everything else on her mother.

I thought of Marian attributing all the evil of the world to the legions of those who had let her down, then considered those old pictures of Mandy, pulling faces with a pint in her hand, howling with laughter at a bus-stop after some gig, stood on the beach in Anglesey proudly displaying the package of Pennywise brand sanitary towels which would fall from her bag at Crewe station only to be retrieved by actor Kevin Lloyd - then better known as Tosh Lines from The Bill - with the words 'I think you dropped these, miss.'

At least you could have a laugh with Mandy, I thought to myself, realising that this particular extended lesson had at last reached its punchline.

Another five years have passed, and it is Thursday the 28th of May, 2015. I am in a pub in London, an unusual situation for me given that my default setting is now married and sort of Texan. I am back in the old country visiting friends, specifically Carl and Christine on the occasion of their getting married. Mandy is also around somewhere, so some form of circle has probably just been completed. We meet and it's strange but wonderful as we talk, and as we talk without my finding myself filtering everything through the usual residual cynicism. We've both been through different kinds of sausage machine since we were last face to face, nearly two decades previous, but we seem to have come out of the other side, out of the woods you might say. Mandy is now a successful artist and soon to be a teacher, which she credits to my influence with far more generosity than I feel I deserve. Her life has followed an unorthodox course, but one which has at least been more interesting than it looked like being when first we met; and of course the same has been true of my own life. Were I able to go back, I would tell my younger self to lighten the fuck up, to take the moment for what it is, and to refrain from imposing upon everything expectations of Biblical scale importance; although I know my younger self wouldn't listen, and in any case maybe the important thing was that Mandy saved me from the evils of an ingrowing personality, even if it's taken me a while to realise as much.

We spend most of the evening talking, catching up, and comparing notes, and it's not as though no time has passed because actually it's much better, and to my own very pleasant surprise I realise that I am proud of this woman, and proud to know her.

So I got there in the end.

We both did.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Bob the Raspberry

It is Friday night, a cold and miserable December in 1984. We're all crammed into the unheated cottage of uneven floorboards for warmth, music, and the downing of enough cheap booze to fool ourselves into believing we're having the sort of wild time you're supposed to have when you're nineteen. Bob is leaning forward, speaking in confidence but unable to quite pull it off because he never really got to grips with discretion and is in any case already too drunk.

'That one with the red hair,' he says. 'I could really do something for her.' He probably means Amanda, who could almost be Mary Poppins but for the short cropped hair dyed bright crimson.

'Oh yes?' prompts Alison, amused but uncomfortably aware of the direction in which the conversation is heading.

'Yeah - and I could do something for you and all. Do you want to come to bed with me?'

She laughs, but it's very awkward. 'Erm... no.'

Bob looks up to me. It's difficult to tell whether he's glaring, or if that's just how his eyes are. 'If he wasn't here I could say more,' he growls. 'Is he your boyfriend?'

'No. He's a friend.'

Phew. Bob sighs his relief, a theatrical noise which almost makes light of the uncomfortable situation. 'I didn't think your taste in men was that bad.'

I barely know Bob. He isn't a student, but someone from the village, a regular at the White Horse which is our local pub. He's probably in his early thirties, conspicuously single, and Hollytree House - in which Alison is presently living and which serves as the venue of the party - has been traditionally populated by young female students, some of whom are - as Bob has quite clearly noticed - a bit on the tasty side. You can't really blame him for trying.

It's awkward because I've been following Alison around like a lost puppy all evening, hoping for some opening - conversational rather than gynaecological on the grounds that in an ideal world one will lead directly to the other. If I can just talk to her without interruption, if I can just get some time in which to reveal my sensitive side, if I can just...

Except I already know on some level that any effort I make in any romantic direction will be inept and intrinsically comical and is hence doomed even before I've broached the subject of my record collection. I'm wasting my time, just hanging around like this, but I can't help myself; and in some sense this situation serves me right.

Somebody told me that Bob suffered from polio as a child. This is why he alternates between crutches and a wheelchair. He has the legs of a ten-year old boy. He is like a weird human ball, a balloon with two useless strings dangling beneath, and he delights in how uncomfortable this makes the rest of us with our Ben Elton™ brand student politics, and our reluctance to say anything which might somehow make us look like arseholes and in turn reduce our chances of getting laid - pointing out that Bob is actually a disagreeable tosser, for one obvious example.

'What's the hardest part of the vegetable to digest?' he asks, savouring the horror on our faces because we've all heard the joke before, but in exclusively able-bodied company.

No-one says a word.

'The wheelchair!'

We laugh, but we're all trying to work out whether this is the empowerment of the differently abled through the deconstruction of offensive stereotyping, or just some poor fucking cripple jumping through hoops for attention, helping out with his own exploitation. It's okay to use the word cripple because that's how Bob describes himself. Well, okay - he doesn't, not exactly...

A year or so later, we are now sort of friends, or at least drinking buddies. Bob wheels back from the bar of the White Horse carrying one pint at a time, apologising for the delay which is due to his being a raspberry.

'You're a raspberry?'

'Raspberry ripple.' He looks at me like I'm stupid. 'I'm a fucking cripple, ain't I? I thort all you students were supposed to be intelligent.'

This is also what I once believed, but I've been taking my degree at Maidstone College of Art for almost three years, and I'm beginning to wonder. To be fair, it's not that my colleagues lack intelligence by any means, but somehow I have failed to really connect with them. I don't understand them or what motivates them, and sometimes the bewilderment seems mutual. I've been living in the village of Otham for nearly two years, and by this point have made friends with some of the locals in the pub, people my own age or a little older with no connection to either the art college or any related or conspicuously Bohemian demographic. I find their company refreshing and direct. One advantage of living in a house in which I am the only male is, I suppose, that I serve as an ambassador for those locals eager to make an impression on my housemates. They find it is easy to talk to me without giving the game away regarding any ulterior, more blatantly testicular interest in the other residents of Hollytree House; although some of the regulars are clearly less bothered about subtlety.

Dez is one such individual. When my housemates are around he wheels out clichés like the one about how they could both make beautiful music together, or he asks what a nice girl such as herself might be doing in a place like the White Horse without any trace of irony. He resembles Dickie Davies, presenter of World of Sport, and he seems to be drunk and happy most of the time. Communication is rendered almost impossible by his inability to focus on any one subject for longer than a minute, and most of the time he is lost in a quiet, happy world of his own.

'How's it going, Dez?'

He chuckles, smiles and begins to sing. 'People are strange, when you're a stranger...'

'That's the Doors, yeah?'

'Faces come out of the rain,' and more grinning, more laughter as he sinks into his seat swaying gently from side to side. He was a child of the sixties, so he once told us, although no obvious vestige of his supposed former hippiedom remains beyond the playlist of his internal jukebox. Apparently he's married, but we've never seen his wife in the pub. The quality of their relationship is probably quantified by how much time he spends here, and how none of us have ever seen him sober. Maybe she just doesn't like the Doors, which I can understand. I don't like them either.

On the other hand, I have myself come to feel something of a stranger over recent months by terms which both Dez and Jim Morrison would possibly recognise, because it's 1987 and this is the end of the road I've been on more or less since I started school. I am about to find myself squozen from the metaphorical nozzle of the education system, deposited as an incoherent and unemployable dollop upon the cold, grey cake of reality. I have no idea what I am going to do or how I am going to move forward. I have no discernible skills for which anyone in their right mind would pay me a wage. I've spent three years taking a degree course, studying film and video in a fine art context, and from this study I have learned that I have neither aptitude for nor interest in either film, video, or fine art. Up until this point it has been easy enough to coast along, picking up the grant cheques, paying the artificially reduced rent, and hoping something will come along before I'm in the position of having to worry about it; but the free ride is over. I have my useless degree, and I've spent the summer at Hollytree House, hanging on for as long as I can before the arrival of fresh students obliges me to find somewhere more expensive under my own steam. Most of the people I know have gone home to parents for the summer, so it has been just myself and the locals from the White Horse, more or less. Peculiarly, I am now one of them because I am no longer a student, just another hairy no-hoper drinking and smoking to kill time between dole cheques.

Okay - it's not so bad as all that, because I have at least learned that I am capable of making friends with regular people, people who couldn't give a shit about the films of Tarkovsky, people who don't engage themselves with projects, who don't have a show coming up in a small privately run gallery on the Upper Fant Road. Mostly we talk about music, or life and how generally shit it can be, or anything that's funny; and we drink because it provides a sense of continuity in a world of uncertainties.

Dave was the first of the locals to talk to any of the students, possibly being a little younger than most of his colleagues - closer to our age - and less inclined to join in with the ribaldry of fuckin' student scrounger arty wankers dyed hair pouff smoking that marrer-banana are you a boy or a girl, mate? Dave is well-dressed and looks sharp, like he might play the congas for Modern Romance. I think he works at Topman, but he's very funny and he likes New Model Army so he can't be all bad. Sometimes he brings someone over to our table and has me recite the lyrics to Vengeance because I know them off by heart. This is part of a campaign in which he hopes to convert others to the cause of New Model Army, so dutifully I oblige.

Escaped the net in '45, hiding out in South America,
Protected by money and powerful friends,
Hoping the world has forgotten by now,
All the things that you did in the Nazi Death camps,
The people that you tortured and killed.
You can live your life in expectant fear,
Sure some day you'll be made to pay.

I believe in justice
I believe in vengeance
I believe in getting the bastard, getting the bastard, getting the bastard...

I gulp my lager, face red from having been put on the spot whilst nevertheless enjoying the attention. Mark sits, but seems unimpressed. This is Dave's friend, a biker with the leathers and the thin spiv 'tache across a face otherwise reminding me of Bill Beaumont, captain of the England rugby team.

'Don't you think that's great?' Dave asks, incredulous.

'Not especially.'

Anyway, we talk, and weirdly we become friends over the next few evenings. Mark is intrigued by the fact that I've taken up cartooning, mainly for my own amusement. He mentions Ogri as drawn by Paul Sample in the back of Bike magazine. I remember Ogri well from reading it when my dad was a subscriber, and suddenly we have things in common.

Mark loves bikes and spends his spare time taking them apart then putting them back together again. He seems to have become something of a local authority in his field, and has a gang of little followers from around the Senacre Wood estate on the edge of Maidstone - impressionable school leavers with bum fluff moustaches who burn around the country lanes on their tinny little fizzies - a fizzy being a 50cc motorcycle of the kind you ride if you're not yet old enough to legally ride a more powerful machine. I confess to Mark that I always hated those little twerps, and so he regales me with hilarious accounts of the feckless ineptitude of his little band of acolytes. He too finds them somewhat comical. This is all conversationally alien territory for me, and not the sort of thing about which I would ordinarily give a shit, but Mark is witty and a nice bloke, and he spins a fine yarn.

We almost have a little gang now, myself, Dave and Mark, then those on the periphery such as Dez, Bob the Raspberry, and AJ.

It's difficult to figure out AJ, the bearded man-child with the squeaky voice. He seems kind of simple, but slips into nasty comments with worrying ease. Bob has become similarly difficult. His humour is a means of dealing with his disability, and because he finds it funny to make people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes he just takes the piss and needs to be reminded that we're not all the enemy. My friend Paul Mercer comes over for a drink one evening and we sit in the pub trying to come up with names for our band. Alun Jones has left Apricot Brigade and I have joined as replacement, but whereas Alun played drums, I'm operating a drum machine and playing a Roland SH09 keyboard. It will, we suppose, be very different to Apricot Brigade, so we need to come up with a new name. Our ideas are dreadful, and Bob wheels himself up to our table to suggest Artific - a variation on the word terrific which includes art because both Paul and myself were at art college. It's a terrible suggestion, but it makes a pleasant change to find Bob in jovial frame of mind, as opposed to roaring drunk and hell bent on offending as many people as possible. Sadly it doesn't seem to last and he becomes an increasingly distant figure as September approaches.

'Ain't choo bought no girls wiv you?'

'Not today, Bob.'

'Fat lot of fucking good you turned out.'

Months pass, creeping in terrifying fashion towards the date at which I must make a decision about what I am to do with my life and secure alternate accommodation before I'm physically turfed out. I'm trying not to think about it too much, but at least I can commiserate with the guys at the pub.

It's got to the stage where now, as I return from Maidstone on the bus, sometimes I'll stop off at Mark's house in Senacre Wood to see what he's up to. Usually he'll be out front, underneath his bike fiddling away. His place is easy to find because he's painted a six foot tall bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale on the door of his garage, and made quite a good job of it. I stand around in my long, long coat - acquired from Oxfam and traditionally beloved of Joy Division fans in the early 1980s - and we talk as Mark continues to piss about with carburettors and the like.

'That's the problem with working on one's machine,' he announces, getting up and reaching into a pocket. 'I keep forgetting to smoke.'

So we have a fag and talk some more.

My cartooning has achieved focus in the form of an ongoing strip which I have a vague plan of publishing as a series of fanzines. It's the story of the band I'm in - the Dovers - although most of it is either heavily embellished or completely made up, and I'm improvising as I go along with no clear idea of where it's going. The story entails Chris, our drummer, being reborn as an all-powerful force of evil named Dark Chris, and the manager of our band is former president Richard Nixon who now lives in a flat in Lewisham. Mark himself has entered the story as idol and leader of a bike gang comprising slightly clueless juveniles. He seems to appreciate my inclusion of the cartoon version of himself.

One evening he drops in on me at Hollytree House in order to inspect the progress of his latest adventures as a cartoon character, the scribblings as he calls them. Unexpectedly he has bought a notebook of his own poetry with him. I had no idea he had any creative instinct, but I guess he had no really good reason to mention it before, and probably hasn't had much encouragement. He reads some out, and I record in my diary that I am surprised and impressed, which I state as someone who generally isn't well disposed towards poetry as a medium. Mark is a dark horse, testament to my realisation that there's really no such thing as just some ordinary bloke. As I have long suspected, the dividing line between the wildly creative visionaries of art college and all those sofa-based product-sponge consumers out there on the other side is something we have invented in order to make ourselves feel special. This is the first thing to make me feel good about the prospect of life beyond the art college safety net.

Eventually, following a series of bus journeys back and forth between Otham and Maidstone, and Maidstone and Chatham, I have a new place to live in the Medway towns, specifically Glencoe Road. It's a bedsit - one large bedroom with a sink and a cooker in the corner - and is basically crappy, but it seems like a step in the right direction.

Bob lives with his mother opposite the White Horse. I've never called on him before, although sometimes I've met him at the gate and we've both gone across the road to get drunk. He's been off-ish of late, but I'm moving out of the village and that seems a big enough development to justify my calling on him. One last drink and then I'm off.

'What jew fuckin' want?' he jokes.

I explain.

'Well have a nice life,' and he closes the door, and I realise he wasn't joking. I suppose it wasn't completely unexpected.

I have a final pint in the White Horse, alone, and that's the end.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Richard Littledawkins

As Romana brings me my plate of breakfast sausages and a glass of freshly decanted Irn Bru, I turn my attention to this morning's edition of the Daily Record, the cover of which occupies itself with the matter of the so-called baptism of Princess Charlotte, the new royal baby whose nativity has so engaged our attention these last few weeks and charmed the hearts of a nation. Justin Welby, the self-styled Archbishop of so-called Canterbury opened his address at the St. Mary Magdelene church, Sandringham with the words, 'it seems that different forms of ambition are hard-wired into almost all of us. At a baptism our ambitions are rightly turned into hopes and prayers for the child, today for Princess Charlotte. Everyone wants something for their children. At our best we seek beauty, not necessarily of form, but of life.'

Some of us also seek reason, and stuff what makes some f****** sense, your worship, if you know what I mean; and when I say sense I don't mean wearing a dress just because some imaginary sky goblin has told you to wear a dress like a girl or you will go to hell, some imaginary sky goblin who is about as real as the f
****** tooth fairy. Hasn't he heard of reason or logic? What is f****** wrong with the man? What the f*** is he talking about? Hopes and prayers for the child? What? Prayers to some bloke who doesn't f****** exist, fat lot of f****** good that will do. Unless they mean prayers to the absolutely real and living God, except - duh - oh wait a minute! He don't f****** exist either, you soppy f****** f***er! Duuuuh!
* * *

The other day as I was perched at the cusp of my favourite chair awaiting for the advent of Poetry Please, my favourite Radio 4 show providing there's none of that silly God stuff on there like there sometimes is, I happened upon the music of one of the young urban stars of so-called grime which is a kind of music made by the kids from the streets. This particular kid from the street was a young lady named Aretha Franklin and her latest big grime tune, presumably the one presently acquiring the most rewinds in the bashment clubs and that, is called Save A Little Prayer, which is no doubt setting the hit parade on fire even as we speak. Whenever I wake up, sings young Aretha, before I put on my make-up, I save a little prayer for you...

Clown make up, I shouldn't f
****** wonder - a big red nose, orange wig and purple crosses for eyes, because if you're saving prayers for someone, then you must be a bit thick, like a real duh-brain. Just as a point of interest, Aretha, precisely where do you save these prayers, and when you have enough of them, can you like spend them on sanctity or some other thing you've just invented which isn't real and is an idea or the way something is and not something physical and made of actual stuff? Do you save them in a special box of dreams or something? A special box you got from Santa Claus, or someone else who isn't really real and whose existence squares poorly with contemporary standards of reason and science? Get a brain, moron! No wonder pop music is so rubbish these days when this is the standard. The Duran Duran one was much better.
* * *

'What be this, Romana?' I roared demandingly as I examined the plastic figurine, a horse of some sort, but bright pink and with big eyes like Marine Boy used to have in that show on the telly, back in the seventies when everything was a bit better. It turned out that it was a talking horse from a show called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Romana bought it for a Christmas present for her young niece, Rowena.

So let me get this f
****** straight: it's a pretend horse - just a model, not a real one, which is why it's much smaller, so small in fact that one really has to question whether it would appear as such given that equestrian biology would need to operate by very different means were it scaled down to such diminutive dimensions, and that such a creature would have a much higher metabolism; and a pretend horse which we are supposed to believe can communicate using the English language despite there being no conclusive evidence of same; and a pretend, unreal horse from a show describing friendship as being magic when Friendship is a Simple Matter of Biological Determinism would actually make a lot more sense, but as usual no f***er thought to consult me, the bloke who actually knows about that stuff. Anyway, the most annoying bit is that this mess of unreason wrapped within nonsense should be given to commemorate the birth of a person who wasn't actually born in the first place, so it's all a big f****** waste of time when you think about it. I call bullshit.

* * *

Some Islams were in the news again recently. I can't remember what they done but they probably blew something up or cut someone's head off or something, because it's always something like that from the Religion of so-called Peace.

Yet say anything about it and they call you all sorts of names, which is great providing you're not living in one of those cities in England where the lefties have let them have Sharona Law, because you probably wouldn't be able to hear because they would of chopped your ears off for listening to Aretha Franklin, even though they're all on the same f
****** side when you think about it, the stupid c****. did you know that they weren't aloud to show Blue Peter in some supposedly British cities when Richard Bacon was on it in case some Muslims saw it and got offended? That's a true story.

* * *

It has recently come to my attention that a certain national supermarket chain will henceforth no longer be stocking Toffos, the chewy toffee sweets supplied in a cylindrical storage unit of paper and foil. Back in the 1970s when everything was better than it is now and before one was required to seek written permission from Germaine Greer and George Galloway before telling certain kinds of entirely harmless jokes, Toffos were advertised by a cartoon cowboy man who spoke slowly, saying that a man has to chew what a man has to chew whilst being menaced by superstitious and irrational Indian braves.

Never mind snout! Next thing they will be banning alcoholic drink from the boozer just in case some Islams see honest white men drinking after a hard day doing an honest day's work of the kind you find yourself having to do if you're not an immigrant being paid four-hundred pounds a day to claim dole by the leftie irrational religious government, and get offended. You couldn't make it up! They come over here and they all think that when they die they will get to have it off with some girls who've never done it before, but that is an irrational thing to believe. Haven't they heard of science? Why don't they get a dictionary and look up the words logic and reason? They shouldn't believe it just because it says it in some book - I mean the Torah or whatever their one is called - not that there's much difference because they are all the same and they are all irrational - not the dictionary, obviously. Unless it's like the Jesus Dictionary, because there probably is one somewhere. I'll bet it's in America. The Jesus Dictionary would be no good because it would have no logic or reason in it. Just ask a scientist if you don't believe me. You would look up the definition of universe, and it would just say God made it, except he didn't! Silly buggers.