Sunday, 20 December 2020

Family History: the Northern Asbestos Mines

When my paternal grandfather turned 13 he was asked what he wanted to do for a living. He said he'd like to be a farmer. They then asked what his father did, and he said he worked down the pit.

The next week, my grandfather left school and started work down the pit. 

Perhaps to acknowledge his farming intentions, he was put in charge of the pit pony, which hauled coal up out of the mine all day long. A lot of his job was spent reassuring the horse that descending into a pitch black hole in the ground was a really good idea. He stuck with this until the 1960s when the colliery was finally closed, and then - aware the mines had not been the best for his health - took a cushy job at the new asbestos factory that opened a few years earlier on the same site.

Eventually, by 1990 the world market decided it did not need quite as much asbestos as it thought it did and the factory closed down. So my grandfather retired and had a very long and happy retirement.

Now I hear an Amazon warehouse has opened on the same site, and my cousin is manning the drones packing up goods for transport around the country. Funny how the worst possible jobs have endured across a century in the same location. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A great mind lost in the mediocrity of our realm

It was with great sadness I learned that my high school history teacher, Mr Tarbett, had passed away. He lived his life so thoroughly and keenly it is perhaps surprising he didn't pass away sooner, but sad it still is.

Ones first impression of Mr Tarbett was often unfavourable. Giant, bearded and aggressive, he stormed around the school in a tattered, chalk-dusted academic gown glaring at anyone who failed to meet his approval (that is, most people), in a world where teachers were otherwise gentle folk in summer dresses or lounge suits.

His lessons were enigmatic and confusing. In particular, A Level history lessons were often little more than personal rants about his personal life: the machinations of his ex-wife, plots to bludgeon the teenage thieves of his wine-by-post deliveries with a weighted baseball bat, an ongoing appeal to raise funds to have a hitman assassinate the head, Mr Franklyn. That sort of thing.

One might almost have imagined these were clever historical metaphors for what we were learning in class, but as little was ever discussed in class I don't think this could really be the case. I do however recall board rubbers thrown at Damien's head, off-colour comments on Simi's breasts and a long stick used to poke the inattentive during lessons.

Homework was where the learning came in: we were set essay questions to research and write, and real research was necessary. Unlike literally every other lesson, we hadn't already been given the answers. Mr Tarbett was also a strict marker. Where in other lessons one could routinely get 90% for little to no effort, Mr Tarbett was scoring me 40% on history essays where I couldn't really imagine doing any better. I mentioned all the facts, answered all the questions.

It took me a term or two to start to figure it out, but we were being taught far greater lessons than what happened in the past. Through his criticism of our essays we were learning how to think, argue and write. How to evidence, quote and persuade. I'm sure we learned far more than we needed to ace the course, and indeed what I learned from Mr Tarbett ensured university was a very easy ride. Arguably much of my twenty year career has been too. Really I'm still writing history essays at heart, just the history is a lot more recent.

When I decided I wanted to apply to Cambridge - on the day of the deadline for doing so - the head of sixth form refused and said I would only embarrass myself and the school. I stormed round to see Mr Tarbett at lunchtime and he stood up for me, forced Mr McLintock to give me an application paper and just told me to go for it. Everyone else had received weeks of support and encouragement, I was given half a lunch break to scribble down my essay.

Whenever anyone asks which teacher had the most impact on my life the answer is never hard to find. I only hope now he's gone that there will be others in future generations to replace him.

Music and Me

We were not raised with music in our household. The radio was only turned on at breakfast if it was snowing and we hoped it might be announced the school was closed, and in the car we only ever had talk radio, probably Radio 4. So entwined is that experience with my acute motion sickness that I still cannot listen to bass-heavy news radio without feeling nauseous.

Exploring my godmother's cupboards as a five year old child I came across the soundtrack of the Jungle Book, which she gifted to me there and then and thus became one of only two vinyl records I have owned in 40 years. I listened to it twice, as it was such an effort to persuade my parents to get the record player down from the attic.

Of course we ate breakfast cereal, so in 1985 we collected the tokens to get all of the Weetabix Top Trax cassettes. Sadly we had no cultural context for listening to music, so these tapes were put away in a cupboard along with the rest of the toy collectibles and barely ever listened to. In fact I only recall listening to the tapes once, early one Saturday morning when everyone else was still in bed. I pulled out a tape and quietly listened to L'il Michael Jackson sing 'ABC', then put the tape back where it belonged and did nothing more about it.

Imagine if it had been any other song, perhaps some avant garde piece by the Flaming Buffalos, and this could have been a story about a musical epiphany that led to a lifelong fascination with the musical craft, rather than a story of a child who felt listening to music was an act of mischief and not especially rewarding, who three decades later cannot name a single genuinely inspiring music act, and so has to make up the improbable-sounding Flaming Buffalos.

The other vinyl record I owned was the Sam Brown cover of 'Can I Get A Witness', which I bought in a slight fluster in 1988 at a new (and naturally doomed) local record shop which had opened in town. I was aware music was something people my age should be interested in and decided it was important I should participate, so entered the shop accompanied by friend Scott Barron to provide moral support. It was a bit of an impulse buy and I have no idea if it was any good as the needle on the attic record player was broken by that point, so I never got to play it.

I was no better at playing musical instruments either. This was not something that was ever encouraged, and while we were given plastic recorders in primary school and tutored in their use for six or seven years, I never regarded it as being something of any particular importance. I would toot on it at random for brief amusement, then get on with my real schoolwork.

I recall this all came to a head in the third year of Middle School, when the waxwork-skinned music teacher Mr Campy tested is all in class: each pupil had to perform a piece, and then they got to leave and play in the yard. I was really anxious as I'd done no practice, and he worked through each classmate until it was just me and him left in the room.

"I saved you to last so you wouldn't be embarrassed," he said in all seriousness, then looked me on the eye: "Because I know you'll be terrible".

I blew randomly on the recorder and then fled the room in tears, and hid in the toilets.

Thankfully I look back and feel I can now confirm this had no lasting effect on my overall academic record. However, I've never played a musical instrument since.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Great White Bat of Aragometh

I've been off ill for the past few days, and have spent my time huddled under a blanket on the sofa doing exactly what any gentleman should do when his toddler is at nursery and his squeamish husband is out at work: binge watching schlocky horror movies on Netflix. Watching all these demons and tortured spirits parading on screen got me thinking about the ghosts of my own childhood: the Ghost of Darkness and the Ghost of Light.

I think my brother introduced me to the Ghost of Darkness when I was about six years old, when we still shared a bedroom. He explained with the patience of an elder sibling that the Ghost would come into your room late at night, and should he find you still awake he would kill you. I asked, of course, how late 'late' was, and it seemed the definition was 'when the central heating switches off'.

I'd thus lie in bed wide-eyed until 8.30pm, when the clunk of the boiler switching off would resonate through the room and my parents would switch off the landing light. Plunged into darkness, there would follow the clunk-clunk-clunk of the radiators cooling down, and my mind of course raced to the assumption it was the Ghost of Darkness rapping his claws against the window.

Hauling the blankets over your head was a clear sign you were faking sleep -- my brother had so kindly explained -- so one instead had to lie perfectly still, face exposed for the Ghost's inspection, eyes kept shut but not too firmly, lest he sense any weakness and pounce.

My brother was not scared at all, as he assured me he enjoyed the protection of the Ghost of Light. Of course, I had never seen the Ghost of Light so could not rely on such defenses.

I would say my brother was being some sort of dick, but I imagine he just wanted to get me to go to sleep at night and stop bugging him with chatter. I am just as guilty now anyway, as ten years later in order to get my toddler cousin Alexander to walk home a bit faster at dusk I introduced the tale of the Great White Bat of Aragometh, a giant beast which comes out at night and swoops down to seize young children with its claws and drag them deep underground to feed. 

Sure we got home on time, but two years later he was still concerned about that bloody great white bat.

My Life as a 13 Year Old Cannibalistic Serial Killer

Next week I'll be visiting my old middle school to attend a parent forum where the school will be seeking feedback on sex and gender education. It set me thinking back to the sort of gender education I received at the school almost three decades ago - in particular how they helped me come to terms with and understand my homosexuality - and I realised that in actual fact we didn't discuss sexuality at all. Not one bit of it.

In fact, it took two decades of life before I was able to talk to anyone about this stuff. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I first came to understand I was gay while watching a rerun of George & Mildred at nine years old, but I didn't then actually get an opportunity to speak about my sexuality with another human being until I was about 19 or 20. Sure, there were other gay people at school (I now learn), but like me they were all hiding so far below the horizon we couldn't even find each other.

It's hard to imagine in these liberal times, but back when I was thirteen there wasn't a single popular gay role model in western culture. My brother was  outraged at suggestions Frederick Mercury might be gay even as the latter lay dying of AIDs. Boy George meanwhile demonstrated such a level of gender fluidity there was still some debate in my household whether he was a boy or a girl, and the thin end of the tolerance wedge that was Julian Clary was still a year or two away. And Hollywood Montrose? We genuinely just assumed he was a woman.

Although it seemed association with homosexuality would effectively be career death for any celebrity, there was one small class of person whose homosexuality was still readily discussed in detail: the queer cannibalistic serial killer. Bumbling along through life one day I happened to glance at a copy of a monthly murder history magazine in the local newsagents, and quickly saw the featured killer of the month - Dennis Nilson - had been a gay man who preyed on other men.

Finally! I thought... a chance to learn about my kind.

I pored over that magazine for weeks, taking in every detail of Nilson's personal history and psyche ... yet never really certain which details were part of the universal homosexual experience, and which were unique to queer cannibalistic serial killers. Loneliness and mild self-loathing, for sure. Picking up young men in a club, sounds good. Wanking them off in a filthy bed, okay. Strangling them with the telephone wire ... getting into dodgy territory there. Storing the young man's head in the fridge ... well that just sounds unhygienic. Reading the details I began to think there might be a good reason homosexuals were so vilified.

The sad thing is that as a gay child I had to go to great lengths to disguise why I was so interested in this story, so I had to subscribe to the entire murder history magazine series just to create the illusion it was the murders I was interested in, not the man-fucking. There was literally a greater fear in those days that ones child might be gay than they might be unnaturally obsessed with serial killers. To maintain this cover, I ended up learning a lot about Doctor Crippin, Ted Bundy and others of their ilk. My dad even told my hairdresser about the magazines, and she exclaimed "What sort of sicko reads that sort of thing?" and I hung my head, cheeks burning with shame but also pleased my real secret was buried behind this cover.

I can confirm now, after forty years of being a gay male, that wanking off young men before strangling, dismembering, boiling and eating them in fact plays an extremely small role in the overall life of the modern homosexual. We are a much more culturally varied race these days. Things were perhaps simpler in Nilson's day, but I do so prefer things as they are.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Country Boy's First Trip To The City

I remained a rather lonely misanthrope throughout the first year of university, and it was only as the year was drawing to a close that I began to hang out more with the likes of Olivia and Ted. Somehow Ted and I ended up agreeing to go to Paris on holiday together during the 1995 summer vacation (I say somehow, but I think he invited everyone in the room - including his girlfriend - and I was the only one to say yes). It thus became necessary to make My First Trip To London As An Adult. 

I took the coach from Leeds down to London, which is a miserable and long journey, and arrived at Victoria coach station completely overwhelmed by its size and complexity. I was at that stage a country boy who still considered Cambridge to be large and exciting, so suddenly finding myself in such a vast metropolis felt like I'd landed on Coruscant. 

I was to spend the evening at Punam's house, and was thus required to make the rather ordinary tube journey from Victoria to Finchley Central. This sounds pretty easy these days, but I recall walking down the steps underground to regard the tube system for the very first time and wondering whether or not it would just be easier to turn around and go straight back home. 

Acquiring a ticket was a serious mystery. Back then the machines were giant black mechanical monsters rather than touch screen computers, and you had to know stuff like how many zones you wanted to travel through and pull the appropriate lever, oil the grommet and crank the gears. I didn't even know what a zone was. Working out which colour line I needed was even more complex; there are literally a number of different tube lines in London. It also hadn't occurred to me that there would be trains travelling in each direction, and so rather than heading north I soon found myself at one point passing through Brixton. As the only thing I knew at that time about Brixton was it's role in the London riots, I felt a bit out of my depth.

After finally meeting up with Punam - who admitted she should have probably picked me up from Victoria, but had forgotten I was new to this sort of thing (this sort of thing presumably being modern life) - she took me into town to show me the highlights. We saw Big Ben, which was of course shorter than I'd expected, and then somehow later found ourselves on Oxford Street, where we explored Hamleys. 

It didn't take long for Punam to realise how uncomfortable I was riding on all of the escalators. We only had one escalator in my home town, at the Presto supermarket, and they never had it turned it on. Punam thus took me to John Lewis so I could spend a half hour practising mounting and dismounting the escalators there (a very wise choice, as John Lewis has escalators with a short warm up area before they actually turn into stairs, making it an ideal test ground). We also ate some food in the basement of Oxford Street Plaza, which at the time felt amazingly sophisticated, but looking back with the wisdom of an extra 22 years I now know to be a cheap and chavvy place I wouldn't ever think visit. 

Eventually we went back to Punam's house and met her parents, who were very jolly and spoke very little English (at least, in front of me). I recall Punam's mum was especially keen that I enjoy my visit, and at one point insisted I put my feet up on the coffee table. I was very comfortable as I was and said there was really no need, but so eager was she to be a good host that she physically took hold of my legs and lifted them onto the coffee table for me. I thus had to sit there for an hour, eating my noodle dinner, with my legs awkwardly and painfully propped up on the coffee table, to avoid causing offence.

In the morning, Punam took me back to the tube station, showed me how to buy my ticket and gave me strict instructions on how to get to Waterloo. I thus arrived at the Eurostar terminal without any problem, and promptly bumped into Ted who had been travelling on the exact same train. 

Rick & Ted's Tres Bonnes Adventure will, I assume, be documented as a separate memory at a random point in the future.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Women I have spurned

It’s been quiet here at the Memory Project HQ thanks a recent three month trip around Australasia, however now that I’m back and my friends have harassed me at length I’ve finally got round to writing a new entry. So, as the evil twin of my tale of growing up gay in the Yorkshire countryside, here are my memories of those girls who’ve tried to be more than just friends:

My first girlfriend was a creature called Cathy McCoy, whose name is wholly unobfuscated here as I’d dearly love to be reunited with her. Cathy and I were best friends the moment we left the womb and – as I’ve noticed is common practice – our parents insisted we were sweethearts and would one day marry. For some reason we accepted this conceit and a happy few years were had living the dream: holding hands, frolicking in the garden ... actually, this is about as much as I can recall, although I do remember that we were utterly inseperable until we were about four years old and her parents moved to Darlington and I didn’t see her ever again.

That isn’t quite true. I think about a year or three later we went to visit the McCoys in Darlington, and it turned out we had nothing much in common anymore. They also lived in quite a grim house, and I sense that Mrs McCoy wasn’t married to Cathy’s father anymore. I suppose in this sense I didn’t ever see the Cathy I knew again, since instead I saw a paupered and broken version of her. Maybe I will obfuscate that name after all.

I stuck to boy friends after that – the variously queer John How and Alistair Howtown, as reported elsewhere in this blog – until I must have been about eight years old, and for some reason Alistair decided I needed a girlfriend. The relationship was formed as all relationships were back then: my friends convened with Sarah Barkur’s friends behind a curtain at the youth club disco to strike up negotiations (I seem to recall I was checking out Nicholas Cheetam’s naked body in the Home Economics room at the time – I suppose I’d forgiven him since Tiggergate), and then later the union was announced to Sarah and I without our participation.

“Okay”, I said, curious to see where this would lead. Sarah was after all a perfectly pleasant looking girl with strawberry blonde hair, and it couldn’t hurt to at least try having a girlfriend.

Regular readers might predict this wouldn’t work out well. Sarah and I had an awkward goodnight kiss, then the following morning at school (Youth Club was on a Thursday, this was all before alcohol was even invented) we acted awkwardly around each other for the first two classes, and then at breaktime Sarah sent an ambassador to my usual hanging out spot among the rocks at the back of the playground.

“Sarah is calling it off,” the diplomat explained. “Sorry, kid. Sometimes love ain’t easy.”

No indeed. That was probably my shortest ever relationship.

A few years later, when I was more comfortable with my sexuality and yet more certain of my lack of interest in the ladies, Sheila Polhammer invited me round to her house to assist with her math homework. She took me up to her room where we could concentrate on the math without disturbance from her insane Austrian father, but when we entered I was surprised to discover we would also be working without disturbance from our math homework. It was a tiny room, filled mostly with a bed.

“Sit down,” Sheila demanded, so I sat sharply down on the floor and got my math books out of my bag. “No, on the bed,” she insisted, packing my books away again.

We sat on the bed for a while, making awkward conversation. She asked me whether I was a good kisser, and I turned the question round on her by asking whether that was her four inch black and white television she had on her bedside table. This evasion tactic did not last long and Sheila moved in for a kiss. I moved about three feet back and asked quietly whether the portable television was battery operated or needed to be plugged into the wall. This was a limited coping mechanism as the room was only six feet wide and I didn’t have many more questions to ask about the specifications of her portable television. And so it continued, and so I grabbed my bag and ran out the door.

I was particularly popular during the second year at university, when Darien brought an extremely inebriated Penny Porter to my room and explained patiently and with only a hint of romance that “If you want her, you can have her.” I didn’t want her.

The same year Ted, Olivia and I went on a party cruise to Ely in a long boat which powered along the Cam. We’d been invited by the indomitable Rotsy, who’d taken the starring role in our recent production of Jeeves & Wooster. On the seemingly innocent pretext of going out to see the stars, she took me out onto the front deck and planted a long kiss on my lips.

Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. So I said the first thing to come into my head.

“You taste like pasta,” I said, meaning bland and wet.

“A good thing I like pasta!” she responded, meaning rich and spicy.

We spent a long time out there, her kissing me and me using diversionary tactics such as pointing out how quickly the trees went past, and how clever it was they used parallex scrolling to create the illusion this was all happening in real life.

At the end of that term I went to Denmark and unwittingly became husband to the pig-fearing Eleanor, as previously documented.

After graduation, Zack and I went off to America for a few months to sell books door-to-door. While living in Hershey our next-door-neighbour Michelle developed something of a crush on me. Michelle was not frightened about being forward, as demonstrated by her decision to write “I want to drink your hot cum” in permanent marker on the dashboard of our car. Early one morning the three of us went to the pub because it was raining and we didn’t feel like getting wet selling books door-to-door (in Southwestern terms, going to the pub just because it was raining was second only to child sacrifice in terms of evil). As the weather cleared up in the afternoon, Michelle suggested I should go selling in Anneville, and offered to come along and give me a hand. Being too drunk to walk straight, this seemed like a very good idea.

Well, would you believe it but turning up excessively drunk to try to sell books to middle class parents in a heavily religious town in which the sale of alcohol is forbidden transpired to be a really bad idea. Halfway through one demonstration Michelle decided to grope me, pulling open my flies, and to distract my potential customers I babbled too much about their fabulous fishtank. We were kicked out of the house, but if the owners thought that was the last they’d seen of us then they were very disappointed. They discovered us about five minutes later in the middle of their lawn: me virtually passed out from drunkeness, Michelle straddled over my inert body trying to pull my clothes off and screaming at me to fuck her.

It didn’t happen, thank goodness. I suggested we go back to the pub for more booze and – after about an hour of her screaming at me to go home and fuck her in her fucking water bed – Zack finally arrived to drive me home.

We moved away from Hershey the following morning.