I was an awkward teenager, or at least I felt awkward. Whether my awkwardness was apparent to those around me was something I never discovered, and I lacked the apparatus to deduce what anyone thought of me at any given time; so mostly I assumed they regarded me as idiotic just to be on the safe side. I was occasionally clumsy, both physically and mentally. I often found myself lacking the words with which to express myself, which was probably for the best. Had I greater intellectual agility, I probably would have realised that I didn't actually have anything much worth expressing.
Myself and a few others formed a band when we were at school. We had a couple of instruments which we couldn't play very well, and we used cardboard boxes for drums. Every weekend we'd convene around a tape recorder to improvise scatological interpretations of children's television theme songs. I still have all of the tapes. Unsurprisingly they're not quite so funny as we thought them at the time, although some are funny for reasons other than those intended. Here's myself telling a joke at the end of one of these tapes, specifically Nine Inch Turd in the Cassette, my debut solo album recorded as the Post-War Busconductors;
There's this pig and er - hold on. Oh yeah. There's this pig- this farmer buys this pig and erm... at market one day, and he takes it home, and he's very proud of this pig and erm... gives it a bit of food and er... he's okay and then one day he catches this sort of disease and he's walking along eating this apple, and he walks past the pig sty, this farmer... and he's just finished it and he's got the core and he thinks ah the pig can have the core, I mean they eat anything don't they? So he throws it in and erm... you know the pig up until then, it hasn't had anything to eat because it hasn't been his feeding time yet and so erm... anyway he gives it this apple core and er... you know - later on he feeds it, and er... That night he goes to sleep. He has this funny dream. Then when he wakes up in the morning he thinks hey, that's funny - my alarm clock can't be right. It's still dark. And so he er... well, you know looks around, opens the window. Well he just manages to... press it open, and this smell of shit comes in. Oh God - it's horrible; and er... and he realises that all this is shit because incidentally this farm is in a valley - a really bad place for a farm, all the same and erm... so er... luckily the telephone is upstairs because you know the shit just comes up to the top of the stairs; and he phones up all these people and eventually they dig him out, and after a few months he slowly works out where all this shit is coming from. It's the pig, you see. It's caught this disease, and even if you give it a tiny little something - you know like erm... give it an orange slice or something. it does a massive great pile of shit - an average of one inch of food - one square inch of food to about ten square yards of shit, so you can imagine it's pretty bad...
To cut to the chase, the agriculturalist stops up the pig's anus with a cork and sells him to three African gentleman of differing heights - the traditional big one, normal-sized one, and little one of so many children's racist jokes - crucially neglecting to mention the creature's digestive issues. The three African gentlemen return to the jungle with their newly acquired pig, and to a sadly inevitable encounter with a representative of a species of Cork Pulling Monkey. The punchline, for what it may be worth, is you should have seen the monkey trying to put the cork back in.
It takes me over six minutes to tell the joke, and it just isn't that funny. The most depressing aspect of this is that, without access to either my diaries or the cassette tapes recorded by me and my friends, I would date this to when I was twelve or maybe thirteen, because that feels about right. The material transcribed above was recorded on Thursday the 1st of January, 1981, so I was fifteen, two thirds of a year short of turning sixteen. I'm not sure if it's simply that I was a late developer, or that I now have a disproportionate quantity of friends who had already read Plato's Republic by that age, but the fact stands that at the age of fifteen, I probably didn't have much going for me beyond some rudimentary aptitude for drawing pictures.
More recently, roughly half way through the nineties, I couldn't help but notice that as I approached thirty, I still suffered from a certain social ineptitude. I felt awkward around people almost regardless of whether they were friends or complete strangers. I was prone to stupid, melodramatic utterances, things which I thought might impress my peers yet which I would later recognise as idiotic; and I was hardly what you would describe as a hit with the chicks. I lacked confidence in some respects, and I suspect this was because on some level I was at least sufficiently intelligent as to have recognised my own limitations.
I experimented with blaming my parents, as I expect most people do at one point or another. They hadn't loved me, or had never said so out loud. Neither of them had ever hugged me, I reminded myself whilst ignoring the obvious point that we simply hadn't been that kind of family and we found such ostentatious demonstrations of affection awkward. They had separated and divorced when I was seventeen, leaving me traumatised, which was proven by my being unable to remember anything much of that year. It had been so horrible that I had forgotten all about it, just like all those guys who fought in 'Nam.
I told myself this stuff because it was as good an explanation as any, and it seemed in tune with the zeitgeist, Kurt Cobain and others issuing forth with primal screams lamenting that day the school bully had taken his milk and called him a gaylord. The problem was that it didn't ring true. I knew I'd had an average but generally decent childhood, perhaps not one speckled with gold stars of well done, Lawrence, but no-one had ever beaten me, and I never went hungry, and the old pee and em hadn't driven me over to Banbury and left me with Gary Glitter when they fancied a night out; and I knew that in the unlikely event of my ever becoming a father, my parenting would probably be of about the same standard as their's had been.
I have seen a psychotherapist, or at least a person with psychiatric training of some description, on three separate occasions. Each time the spectre of the dramatically bifurcating family life of my teenage years has been brought back as a possible source of delayed trauma. On one of these occasions I was invited to hug a massive Teddy whilst crying in order to let it all out, or something. I complied, miming the release of repressed emotions because I'd realised it would be easier than explaining that I really didn't feel anything about it, and all of this delving around in the supposed depths of my allegedly tortured subconscious was getting boring, even annoying.
Here's what I remember.
My parents were married. Occasionally they would have rows, but nothing overly dramatic or involving broken crockery. My mother didn't seem particularly happy, but there were things that made her happy. My father was the same, although I don't remember a whole lot of traditional father-son stuff because I don't think we really knew what to say to each other. I suspect he regarded me as being a bit weird, which is probably fair. I vaguely recall one incident of my going out to the garden to fetch something or other, slipping my feet into my mother's platform heeled sandals just for the sake of having something on my feet. I was wearing brass curtain rings on the fingers of one hand, four in all - one for each Beatle.
'Do you think he's all right?' I heard my father ask a few minutes later, clearly bewildered and probably envisioning my future life of casual homosexual encounters in an assortment of opium dens; and I remember this when I find myself inspired to ask similar questions of my stepson, who is presently twelve.
My mother took a degree in English literature, and then a job. I have the impression that something of an extra-marital nature may have occurred between herself and someone at her workplace during this time, an impression formed mainly from the contents of rows which began to flare up with unusual frequency as I was turning sixteen. One row seemed to refer directly to me, and I heard my mother lamenting that he just goes on and on and on all day and he won't shut up, which I found upsetting because I had assumed that she found our apparently-not-so-little talks fascinating. It upset me so much that my cries of anguish were heard from downstairs, and so my father came up to console me.
He talked about your mother and I, and I knew then that there was something seriously wrong because he was addressing me as though I were an adult, and that whatever was wrong wasn't just about me.
Then they separated, or specifically my mother vanished, and a couple of weeks later it turned out that she was renting a flat in Stratford-upon-Avon. She'd been unhappy for some time, and it was just one of those things. I lived alone in the house with my father for six months, and then moved away to live in a student house in Kent as I took a degree. He had seemed like a broken man, going to work, coming home, not saying much but just trying to get through to whatever came next.
More recently I discovered the diaries I kept at the time, but details referring to my parents' imploding marital situation are limited to occasional references to them rowing yet again, then the faintly acidic acknowledgment of occasions of my mother deigning to grace us with her presence in the immediate wake of the separation. Considering the reams of shitty portentous poetry I was inspired to write at that age, you might imagine some of it would refer to betrayal, generational disillusionment and so on, but no - it's mostly the torment of some girl at school failing to notice me, which was usually because I was still working up the courage to speak to her.
Contrary to my later yearning for something to blame, my parents' separation left little impression because it had occurred just as my small world was already experiencing upheaval, and because most of it had occurred off camera, expressing in details discovered after the fact. It left me with little reason to apportion blame because it really was just one of those things, a situation which became shitty simply because we aren't living in a perfect world, and a situation which resolved itself in a particular way because it had no other option; with the bottom line being that I probably would have done the same in any of the available roles.
We're all still alive, and all still talking to each other, and with no-one under any illusion regarding what actually happened, what hadn't been working right and so on; and so I suppose this means that for all of my incoherently idiotic qualities, for all of my development seemingly having been scheduled about five years short of my physical age, I was at least sharp in some respects, specifically in being unable to endure so much of my own bullshit as to rewrite circumstances and misfortune as unrequited trauma. If I was kind of slow, at least I understood some things, and knew uncomfortable truths to be preferable to appealing lies, if that doesn't sound too pompous.
So here, against all expectations and contrary to anything I could have predicted, here I am married and living in Texas with a stepson who is probably more or less as I was at the same age, give or take some small change. The more I dig into my own childhood, the better I seem to understand him, and the more I'm inclined to let it go when he talks rubbish or appears to behave in a selfish way.
I'm just making this stuff up as I go along, but it turns out that this is all any of us are doing, or have ever done. It's the best we can do, and usually it's enough.