The local secondary school was one of those bland post-war comprehensives where the once bold and innovative Bauhaus inspired concrete and glass had been allowed to peel and fade and grow moss. The flat roofs let in water and the windows let in a bracing breeze. Changing demographics had made a colony of prefab classrooms necessary and they rotted and stank even more.
Looking around at my spotty, specky, bushy or greasy haired colleagues on that first morning I despaired. I looked over at the girls’ line and they didn’t look much better. That first day there after the summer holidays, the stink of ripe plimsolls, the acrid fumes of Jeyes fluid and the lardy fog of cheap meat brought back all the horrors of the last time I’d been here and I vowed to myself I wouldn’t let the same thing happen all over again. Besides, I’d spent much of the summer with Jessica and she’d let me touch her nipples so there was no way I was putting up with this sort of crap.
I looked at the options and decided which subjects were least daunting. I felt fairly confident about this. I wanted languages and history and biology and, of course, art. Maybe music. I was very aware that I mustn’t be too good at anything in case it meant my life changed too much and left me with less of an advantage. The ideal was to do slightly better than before, but with less effort. As it was, just doing that bored me to tears and got me into trouble for handing work in late and for being too messy, exactly as before. If anything it was harder to get the work done because I’d done it all before. On top of this I had to endure physics and chemistry, metal work and technical drawing for two years and PE for all four, not to mention some nauseating school lunches, interminable school assemblies and the dreary company of my idiot peers.
I remember very little about those first two years and what I do remember is repetitive, uninteresting, and humiliating. My teachers were bored and uninspiring and often pettily vengeful. Meanwhile my parents were impatient or indifferent with me. My so-called friends talked rubbish and looked like morons and none of the girls would even speak to me. Only the knowledge that if I didn’t concentrate I could be here doing it all over again in another life kept me alert. Basically, I spent a lot of time at the library and listening to the radio and keeping up with my drawing. I also spent a lot of time down in the Wendy house once mum and dad had gone to bed, looking at my porn collection.
In the third year, when I was fifteen, I had the feeling things might change. I went and got my hair done for a start. Up until then it had been all over the place but I wanted something a bit like Paul Weller. Then I insisted Amelia came with me when we went to get my new uniform. I didn’t trust dad to do the right thing. Also, I remembered that teenage boys don’t always smell too fresh so from day one I made sure I showered in the morning and kept myself clean and fragrant. I don’t know if anybody else noticed especially. Nobody ever said anything but I felt a few notches cooler anyway. I’m sure even my parents would have been impressed had they been paying attention. There were a few occasions when someone – a teacher or one of the other pupils, would do a double take, as if they somehow hadn’t expected me to look or speak the way I did and needed to radically reconsider their attitude toward me. That was very gratifying.
Next I realised I’d need some money. I got myself a paper round – evening, not morning (there are limits) and then, a year later, up-graded to a shelf-stacking job at the Co-op. I used the money mostly to buy records and I got a stereo for Christmas from Justine.
This was crucial. I suspected that being into the right music would make all the difference to my chances of getting in with a cooler group of friends that year. I kept an eye on what was going on in the NME, the Old Grey Whistle Test and the Annie Nightingale show on Radio 1. I liked John Peel but I preferred listening to his voice than to the actual music he played, most of which was pretty dire. Actually my tastes were not very radical but I knew that The Specials and The Cure for instance were going to be infinitely cooler than Madness or Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I didn’t really like The Clash (except White Man of course), which was a shame because everybody else thought they were very cool, but I did like The Sex Objects and Ian Dury, which easily made up for it. My secret weapon though was the fact that I knew who Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were. Anyway I couldn’t stand being associated with the nerds any longer and had no interest in hanging with The Lads who seemed to do nothing that didn’t involve shouting and running. Also I didn’t want to have to talk to the girls like that. Teenagers can be so very adolescent.
I did want to talk to girls though, and to do that, the fact was I needed mates. Although I was still generally most comfortable on my own, I couldn’t be seen as a sad loner any more. Soon I would be able to legally get into gigs and pubs and parties and everything would be so much more exciting. It was essential I found a group of mates to do those things with.
I wasn’t well practiced at getting on with people. The thought of having to hang around and try to get noticed seemed demeaning and I couldn’t bring myself to do it openly. I had to find a discrete way in. Of all the people I knew, Adam was the obvious target. He’d always been kind of cool, even in junior school and we’d played together a bit back then. Plus I knew he was into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and what was more, he had a bunch of moderately cool friends he hung out with – Tall Colin; a mild mannered, prematurely be-stubbled giant, Small Colin; squeaky voiced, delicate, and later gay and Alex; far too pretty, far too charming, far too knowing and almost impossible to compete with when it came to chatting to girls. I started hanging around with them at breaks and trying to act like I belonged. None of it came naturally. I stood by and listened in and waited for my chance to make my contribution but they talked about people I didn’t know and made obscure jokes about events I hadn’t witnessed. I couldn’t pretend to be amused because I couldn’t take the risk they’d know I was faking. I’d hoped Adam would help me out but he never said very much either, just an occasional aside. He was just too cool. I’ve been accused of being slightly in love with Adam before, and maybe I was, a little. If I’d been a woman I suppose he’s the kind of man I’d have wanted to be with. He just had this presence, or charisma about him, even as a teenager, with that easy, knowing smile, effortlessly holding himself, while all about him... It was Alex did most of the talking – he was witty and good with voices and with chatting to other groups. He seemed to know everybody and if there was something going on, he’d be the one to ask. Tall Colin also was very funny in a goofy, self-deprecating way and also seemed somehow essential to the balance of the group. Small Colin on the other hand made his occasional contributions in waspish tirades and grotesque character assassinations that were always worth waiting for. In contrast I was quiet and self-conscious and felt it was obvious to everyone else how I felt. Previously I’d have just retreated to my solitary place out of the way but this time I persisted. I don’t know what made this possible. Perhaps suspecting for the first time that everybody with half a brain is awkward and self-conscious at that age helped. A couple of times I spotted Tall Colin, apparently so easy going, upset by Alex’s thoughtlessness, and Small Colin I realised was always a bundle of nerves. Actually I got in by being friends with them, the Colins, more than through the more obvious route. Anyway, as time went on I too knew who the stories were about and could laugh along (even if it wasn’t that funny). I finally felt comfortable enough to leave the nerds and move across and sit with them in class when Clive, an old friend of Alex’s from the previous year was moved up to join us and a seat next to Small Colin became available. With six of us the pressure was much reduced and I could feel I belonged without always worrying about being too far from the centre.
As a group we could be reasonably cool. We were understated, humorous, and friendly. We didn’t need to throw our weight around. We didn’t need to act up in class but it was plain we knew the whole school thing was a farce and didn’t need to be taken too seriously. We got the work done and had a laugh with the cooler teachers and kept ourselves to ourselves. Furthermore, we had style. While everyone else had huge knots in their ties and flares and their shirttails hanging out, we were immaculately turned out in skinny ties and drainpipes. I got a pair of Chelsea boots from Amelia for my birthday, which was very exciting. As with The Specials, we may not have been as flashy as some of the other bands nor as obviously dangerous, but we were not to be messed with. What’s more, The Specials knew how to play their instruments.
With hindsight I suppose fifteen is a difficult age for any boy, even without the help of an old soul prompting from the wings (I have good reason to think that both Andy and Alex were old souls too. We tend to flock together). We all wanted to go into Brighton and see bands and meet girls other than the ones at school. We wanted to stay out late and get pissed and wake up in strange beds. I wanted to travel and be a painter. Alex wanted to live in London. Tall Colin wanted a Porsche. Small Colin wanted to come out. Adam, disappointingly, just wanted to make a lot of money. As it was none of us had any money to speak of. We all had to be in by eleven and all but one of us – Tall Colin, had unpredictable voices and soft patchy fuzz on our faces. Tall Colin by way of contrast was an acne casualty. I was always lucky that way but I had horrible stinky feet and tried to wash them as often as possible, even at lunch times some days in case anyone noticed.
Worse, none of us as far as I could ascertain were getting so much as a finger on a woman (Alex excepted but even he, I suspect was mostly fibbing). I’m not sure if the longer perspective made it worse or better. In previous incarnations I think I simply looked on hopelessly, yearning and fantasising without the slightest idea of what I could actually practically do about the situation. Now I had a better idea what to do but still didn’t seem to be able to put it into action. My past experience had taught me that I would be able to chat to a woman, buy her a drink, arrange a date, go out for dinner or a film. But we were only fifteen. At school, chatting to girls consisted mainly of teasing and posturing, a little playful violence, and finally, at least if you were at the rougher end of the school (form 3.4 and below), probably a fair bit of semi-public groping, snogging and possibly shagging behind the bins. It just all seemed so... crass.
To make matters worse, I’m not sure when exactly, but inexplicably, a lot of the girls in the class above (form 3.1) had blossomed into stylish young women and were rumoured to be sleeping with men significantly older than themselves – possibly as much as ten years older. We didn’t stand a chance. I had a major thing about Camille, partly because I felt there was some sort of connection there and was sure something was going to happen between us, but also because I thought she was a magnificently elegant, classy girl. She’d glanced my way a couple of times but I’d not had the faintest idea what to do about it. The idea that she might like me I instantly dismissed as preposterous of course. They were all, she and her friends, Carly, Cathy, Sally and Tina, in contrast to us, a study in nubile sophistication. If I’d got my hands on any of them it would have been like a warthog accosting a gazelle (a gazelle with big scary horns at that). I was in the same class as them for Biology, French and Spanish and a few times they caught me looking and their distain was totally emasculating. I felt like I was thirteen again. I might as well have been a squashed toad, crawled in off the road.
We were caught in the middle, Adam, Colin, Alex and I. Our own women (in form 3.2) were mostly of the bright but plain variety, gauche, frumpy and prone to excessive giggling. And even they didn’t fancy us. I reassured myself that I was doing the groundwork but this stage did seem to go on for ever.
Of course the best way to get on in the way of teenage kicks was to be in a band. Adam had a guitar he was practicing and Tall Colin had borrowed a bass from somewhere. There were some drums at Adam’s parent’s place which I’d always fancied having a go on. His dad had been a roadie back in the sixties apparently and he’d acquired and restored a whole load of miscellaneous instruments. He was hardly ever about and his mum didn’t mind so Adam let me loose on his dad’s tabla, djembe and bodhran. I should admit at this point that we never actually got round to playing a gig, or even for that matter, playing a song all the way through but that didn’t matter – we were in a band. We called ourselves the Dark Machine mostly but the name varied depending on our mood. I was for calling us Purple Willy’s Band but was overruled – not because it was a bad name, but because Adam’s mum might object. I still think it was the right name. It fit with the whole Beefheart / Iggy Pop sound we were aiming for. Most of the time though, we sounded like a very badly assembled New Order.
The other possibility was The Disco. One evening a week we all headed for the bright lights of Shoreham-by-Sea, to the Harbour Club – a sleazy venue above the place where they kept the canoes and dinghies for the Sea Scouts. I don’t think I ever saw it in daylight, but at night it was a sticky nicotine brown space, dimly lit orange by the streetlights shining through the curtains. There was a DJ’s old twin deck there and speakers and some sofas and a drinks machine and we hung out with the scary kids from Lancing and played pool, sipped coke, listened to our records on the PA and discussed the possibility of having our first gig there. I don’t think we ever spoke to any of the other kids, and anyway their women looked very rough indeed so what would have been the point?
In the end I did manage to get through the whole academic part of the experience reasonably well. Although I was very slack about it I knew I could do it when I needed to and during the last six months I surprised everybody with my studiousness. The mocks were a bit of a joke but by the time the exams proper came around I was ready. I had a bulging portfolio of paintings, collage, prints and drawings plus a variety of 3D work to present. The theme had been Wasteland and I’d done a lot of studies of weeds and rubble and decaying household objects and my tutor had been keen for me to tie it into the T.S.Eliot poem. I didn’t understand a lot of what that was about but it was ambiguous enough to allow me to put some life studies in, which was what I was mostly into at the time, for obvious reasons. My Spanish was, I thought, very strong and my French wasn’t bad. The biology was a bit hit-and-miss though. I found the exact details of nomenclature and numbers a good deal less exciting than the big ideas. I wanted to write about conservation and palaeontology and evolution but instead I had to focus on bread mould, kidneys and wheat seeds. I had a similar problem with history. None of the detail means anything without the big picture. Anyway I did ok, even at maths.
Hanging out with Adam and the others also proved less fruitful than I’d hoped. I suppose I’d always thought, observing from afar, that the kids who had a social life were having a great time but apparently not. As with The Lads we all despised, we tried to look as if we were having a laugh when actually a lot of what we said was fairly pointless and actually quite tedious (and eventually a bit desperate). I can’t remember a single important conversation. My carefully crafted music collection was especially useless. I’ve discovered since that it is simply not done for the higher status males to take seriously the tastes of their lowlier peers. Indeed it is common for these alpha males to give out cassette compilations of their own personal favourites and latest discoveries to other lesser males as a form of patronage. Male cliques based on sports rather than music probably have similar rituals. I of course was never anywhere near being an alpha male and I wouldn’t ingratiate myself so I just went back to listening to what I liked – by then mostly Nick Drake and Scott Walker, Joni Mitchell and Brian Eno. How miss-fitting can you get?
I knew most of the time I was just playing a part anyway, and sometimes my real self would come out and say something and they’d all look at me and wonder what the hell I was on about. Sometimes I’d look over at Adam and he’d look at me and the expression on our faces said the same thing – ‘What are we doing here?’ but we didn’t have much to say to each other either beyond that. To be fair though, I think we were all faking. We were all trying desperately hard to be cool all the time when actually, we weren’t. The difference was Adam and I knew it and the others didn’t. Needless to say we all spent the entire time totally celibate (all except Alex, allegedly). In desperation, on a couple of Saturday evenings I made clandestine forays into Brighton hoping to get a glimpse of all the things I was missing, trying to get into a gig or a club. They wouldn’t let me in but it was a good place to be, wandering about down on East Street and on the seafront. It was 1981. Everybody was there. Everybody looked amazing and with the Stooges and the Stranglers playing on my Walkman I knew anything could happen.
Nobody knew where I was. Nobody knew who I was. I was there to observe.
As the last year of my compulsory education came to an end I spent more and more time in my room painting or out in the country walking. For my sixteenth birthday and Christmas that year I’d got a lightweight tent from Justine, a waterproof coat from mum and dad and a pair of walking boots from Amelia. As soon as the exams were done I hitched to Cornwall and spent two weeks wandering around on my own down there.