Sunday, 8 February 2015

Death Cab For Cutie

Stewartby Middle School, June 1988

There comes a time in your life as child where you realise, contrary to your previous beliefs, that  you’re not the centre of the universe.  Events will overtake your life. And there’s very little you can do about it.


I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events.  My guess is it started sometime in spring 1986.  My father had a falling out with his immediate superior at General Accident. The way the story was told to me was he either had a choice of accepting a lower grade position at his branch in Preston, or transferring to another branch on the same or higher grade.  As was my father’s way of thinking, he took the latter.

I’m not sure why he did this.  Maybe he thought, as a 31 year old with a young family and a mortgage to support, he couldn’t take the financial hit of less money.  The problem was, he had to take whatever requisite grade position was available. He took one in St. Albans, 250 miles from Preston.

To be fair to him, he did try the commuting option for a while, and I presume this was sponsored for a limited time by the company. A week in a hotel at a time is expensive, though, so he looked for a home somewhat nearer to Hertfordshire than where his family was based. Eventually, (the South East was expensive even then), he found something in Marston Moretaine, a speck-in-the-country village between Bedford and Luton.


The date for our house move to Bedfordshire was set for 7th January 1987.  Christmas 1986 was the worst I ever had. My parents got me a reasonably expensive Transformers set, but despite their consumerist expectations, it wasn’t enough to dispel the gloom of the impending house move to a place I knew nothing about.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never had a good Christmas in the 28 years since (though working in retail never helps).  My father could have been more considerate to his family’s future, but I guess some things are more important than your children’s happiness.

I had a valedictory final day at Whitefield Primary School on the first day of Spring Term in January 1987.  And then I bade my classmates farewell.  I’m sure my teacher was glad to be rid of me.


Now, I don’t know how British Primary School Children are helped to adjust to Secondary School Life, because it never happened to me.

A small word about the differing education systems in the country.  Most County Education Authorities use a simple Primary  (kids aged 4-11) and Secondary (kids aged 11-16) system.  This is what I understood and was educated to go through.   Unfortunately, Bedfordshire operated on a tripartite system of Lower (4-9), Middle (9-13) and Upper (13-16) schools.  And I, aged 11, was dumped straight into a middle school with no warning.

At a Primary school, you stay in the same classroom with the same teacher for the entire school day. When you go to Secondary school, you have to move around to different classrooms to different teachers for different subjects.  My guess (though I never experienced this myself) is that new First Year Secondary school pupils ( or Year 7s, as I believe they’re called nowadays), are given a lot of guidance and help to adjust to an unfamiliar system.
Bedfordshire Middle Schools operated like Secondaries, and I was never told this.  On my first day at Stewartby Middle School, I went from Assembly back to the classroom I’d come from, only to find my erstwhile teacher instructing a class of 13 year olds in English.  I had been given a timetable showing where I was supposed to be, but nobody had taken the trouble to explain it to me.  As I’ve often said, I learn the most important lessons in the hardest way possible.

Through the tears, I eventually figured out the whole thing.  But I realised that this was the level of support I should expect to be given by those who had a duty of care towards me.  My parents took me away from what I knew, and left me to fend for myself.  The education system didn’t take into account where I’d come from and left me to fend for myself.  So, what does a child does a child learn from these experiences? Well, mainly that those who are supposed to be looking after your best  interests  don’t really care that much.  You have to work it out yourself, and probably suffer greatly in the process.

There was more to come. Stewartby Middle School had a very large catchment area, due to the fact it was based around a brick factory village in the middle of nowhere.  Pupils were bussed in from the surrounding villages in the morning, and bussed back out in the afternoon. Baffling as it may seem to anyone who had actually been there, Marston Moretaine was reckoned to be a big place, and required two busses. 

As it happened one day, during my first couple of months at Stewartby, I missed the Marston bus I was supposed to be on, for reasons I can no longer recall.  I wanted my parents to pick me up.  But no, they took the logical (for them) step of forcing me on the other bus.  I’d taken great pains to become familiar with the routine of my bus, and having to take another distressed me greatly.  Of course, they didn’t care.  Suck it up, man.  You’re 11 after all.

I was poured off the bus at Church End, Marston around 20 minutes later.  As I remember, another pupil (one of the more sympathetic ones in the top year) was deputed to take me home.  I got as far as the front door of my house and collapsed in distress.  My mother took my into the kitchen and hugged me until I stopped crying, probably about 30 minutes.
As far as I can remember, this was the only (and probably last) time I had physical contact with my mother after the age of six.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Look At Me I'm Wonderful

I never wanted to be a writer.  It just happened.
When you’re young, you realise there’s a lot of stuff out there.  And even if you realise the world is not exactly wonderful, it’s New.  Because you’ve not been around to see much of it.  And so it was with comics for me.

Stoke-on-Trent is much maligned, probably rightly, for many things.  But it did contain the first comic shop I ever went to.  Before this, I’d got the odd American comic, rather than a UK reprint.  You could occasionally find a few random issues at a newsagents.  I’ve no idea how they got them, but I knew there wasn’t a consistent supply.  So when I discovered Hanley’s real, actual Comic Shop (at the time called “Fantasy World”) in 1988, to me I may as well have discovered the Holy Grail, the Wreck of the Titanic, and those missing episodes of Doctor Who all at once.

I was 12 years old. I didn’t have much in the way of disposable income, but I spent it all on Marvel comics (which were 50p each back then, my recollection is they went up to 65p in Summer 1989).  The most popular was the Uncanny X-Men, which I found incomprehensible.  The Incredible Hulk was better written, but had almost unreadable art.  I bought plenty of back issues.  To this day, one of my proudest possessions is my copy of Hulk #103.  In fact, pretty much every comic I bought in my 10 year buying period is contained in this room in which I’m typing this.


You will not be surprised to learn that I was socially isolated as a teenager.  I know the reasons why now, but I didn’t then.  I had plenty of things to say, just no way to say them and nobody to say them to.  My parents were bored and irritated by me, and my siblings (aged 10 and 2 in 1989) were somewhat limited in conversational abilities.  There wasn’t anyone at school I had things in common with.  It’s good to be unique, apparently, but it’s very hard work.

One of the ways I was different from everyone else at school became apparent in Computing lessons.  My school had a whole pile of ancient 8-bit and slightly newer 16-bit machines on which to demonstrate what was laughably known as “the future of the world”.  Being kids, they all preferred the games.  I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the graphics programmes and Desktop publishing/Font software.  So much better to create stuff than just consume an experience.  But tell them that.  Both pupils and teachers included.

So, I got the bug to produce my own magazine.  I had the subject – comics being pretty much the only thing I knew anything about. I just lacked any way to do the stuff at home.  We got a halfway decent computer in 1991.  An Atari ST, a technology even then around 6 years old. My brother wanted a Commodore Amiga on the grounds that it had “better games”.  Being older, I won the argument.

I amassed my personal Publishing Empire on the cheap.  Something else I didn’t know at the time was the market for software for the ST was declining, and lots was being given away on the cover disks of magazines.  This was the way I got my DTP program, a 1987 version of Timeworks Publisher in 1992.  And on that I learned to do everything, as it was so limited I had to be creative.

By early 1993.  I had everything I needed for production.  Even the extremely noisy 24-pin  dot matrix printer.  I decided to test the market. 


But what to do for content?  Amazingly, I had not considered that to do a magazine, you had to have stuff to put in it.  Oh well, I decided, I’ll have to write some stuff myself.  So I did four articles and various things.  I remember one was about Guy Gardner, and another slagging off Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood (picking the difficult targets as always).  After a couple of weeks of bashing out this nonsense, I had enough for a sampler issue.  I placed a classified ad in the trade paper of the time, Comics International.  I didn’t let on I was only 17.  I think most people guessed eventually.

It was this way I got a free copy of Battleground, the premier comics fanzine of the time.  I read it.  Took a while, as it was produced the old fashioned way – on a typewriter, using the technique of shrinking down and physically pasting the columns up.  It was hard work.  But that was nothing compared to the actual text. Apparently, comics were a serious medium.  Worthy of comparison to films and real literature.

At this point, I had never read anything but Marvels and DCs.  I had no idea what the writers in Battleground were talking about.  But it was serious stuff.  By god, was it serious.  It quickly became clear to me I couldn’t compete on this level, being a teenager and having had no experience of art or life in general.  No, I had to do something else.  But what?

Other people were more encouraging.  Well known comics letter column correspondent Rol Hirst got sent a copy by me, too.  God alone knows what he thought of my amateur kiddy scribblings compared to his background in English Literature.  But at least he read (and admitted reading) superhero comics.  But he wrote back in suitably positive terms about my attempts at article writing.  And gave me a free copy of his comic, The Jock, too.  “Does anybody pay for stuff in comics fandom, or do they wait for the free stuff to be sent to them?” I wondered.  I’ve never met him, but we’re still in contact to this day (Hi Rolbert, if you’re reading this).

I liked the nice things people said about my efforts.  But that wouldn’t help me fill up the other twenty pages of fanzine I had to write.  So, what was I going to do?  The answer was more obvious than I expected.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Button Up Your Overcoat

I’m sure you’ve read all this, and have gathered an opinion of how well I’m able to cope with the things life throws at me. Well, depends how you define “cope”, really.  If by that you think I can get through it all without hanging myself or generally massacring humanity, then fair enough, yes.  But if you think I’m able to stumble through the lot with complete equanimity and indifference to what happens, then you’re wrong.  Horribly wrong.


I am not well.  I have not been well for at least 30 years, if not my entire life. Other people, from my parents, my teachers, my doctors, and my immediate superiors at work have not realised or understood this.  In many ways, it’s not their fault.  I’ve tried my best to hide it.  After all, how far can you get in life if you say “I’m a fucking basket case, and can’t cope with all this shit.”?  My guess is not very, so I don’t say anything.

Whereas I have Asperger Syndrome (look, I have an official diagnosis and everything, from a REAL psychiatrist rather than an multiple choice internet test), I don’t necessarily want people to know this.  It would be wonderful if people had no prejudices about others who were Neurologically Different, but no, people don’t work like that.  I’ve regularly heard people, hopefully unknowingly about my status, talk disparagingly about people who are “Aspergers” or  “autistic”.  I can’t say anything.  Boat rockers not welcome.

And so, I try my best to fit in.  Whether I do it well or not is not for me to say.  My sister-in-law describes me as eccentric.  Well, that’s what she says.  Who knows what she actually means?  As a defence mechanism, I always say “I’m not eccentric.  Everyone else is.” Which cannot be disproved, but nobody would actually believe it.

I do try hard.  Despite what other people would say.  I go out, I talk to people.  I interact with them .  Possibly not in the way they’d want me to.  I’ve found that people would rather talk about utterly irrelevant subjects (football, reality TV)  and for that I can’t say anything.  I have a feeling I’m blamed for this, because it’s my fault I have no interest in the “normal” things.

But nonetheless, I do try.  Eventually, if I can get the people conversed with down to two, or at best one, I can get to subjects I can talk about.  I’m sure I’ve bored many of the barstaff at pubs with my alleged conversation.  Unfortunately for them, there are no drinks to pull, so they have to appear to be interested in what I say.  I have no illusions about my own personal charisma.  I just assume I’m slightly more interesting than cleaning.


Alcohol is a harsh mistress. Better, I’ll admit, than a real girlfriend. While it costs a lot and makes you miserable and ill, it only does so for about a day.  After which you can choose whether you want to indulge again.  In a relationship, however, your significant other is at you all the time. No matter how bad you feel.

I get drunk fairly regularly. There are many reasons for this.

I’ll admit to liking the taste of beer, whisky and various cocktails. I’m sure such knowledge is not news to anybody who knows me. But that’s not the reason I go out. I have enough alcoholic drinks on my shelves as home to kill me twenty times over.  I could get drunk at home for ages, and for free too.  So why do I go down the pub?

In many ways, my regular life is very socially disappointing. I work with a lot of people in retail, but I don’t have anything in common with them.  They are, I hesitate to say, normal. They watch TV, they drink and fight and screw and argue and make up and generally have what psychologists would term an emotionally fulfilling life.  I wouldn’t be able to cope with that.  My life is based around ruthlessly cutting out emotions so I can whittle everything down to a level I can cope with. If ever I go out with the people I work with, I have to leave early before I get angry or upset.  If they ask later, I just say I was tired.

My days off are Sunday and Monday. And, by god, am I grateful. I’ve tried going out on Friday and Saturday, even in the places I normally go.  And I cannot cope.  I cannot cope with the regular, normal members of the human race being crass, crude, loud and drunk. I have to hide in a corner and wait to go home.  Sometimes the barstaff who know me ask if everything is ok.  I lie and say yes.  Easier than explaining my emotional state in a noisy and crowded bar.

Even when I go out on the quiet days, it never goes right.  It starts off ok.  I can cope when they pub is empty, or only has a couple of people in.   But the more crowded it gets, the more I have to drink to blot it out.  I’m sure you’re saying now “Then why the bloody hell do you go, if it’s that obviously distressing?”. It’s both simple and sad to explain.

I can’t relate to real people, as described above.  The people who work in the pub are the closest I have to a family.  Sure, I have a real family, but the vast majority of them are simply carrying too much baggage about me, are too far away, or too busy to deal with me.  Whatever can be said about pub staff, they’re always there.  Whether they actually are interested or just want to ensure my continued custom is not for me to say. 

I hope they do like me as a person though, despite the obvious and massive flaws described above. As someone told me recently, I do make it bloody hard for people to be friends with me.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Beautiful Zelda

The internet is a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that it brings you into contact with other people.  The curse is that it brings you into contact with other people.


I got the internet in 1997.  April 1 1997, to be exact.  Make of that what you will.  I went into the Hanley branch of Dixons and bought a Pentium 100 PC on credit.  That same day, I also bought “A People’s Tragedy” by Orlando Figes and the complete works of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  As I said, make of that what you will.

I got the lot home somehow, and managed to fix up the 33.6k modem.  That was all we had in those days.  You hooked it up to your home phone and not only hoped for the best, but were charged 4 pence a minute for the privilege.  And if you were (slowly) downloading anything, your connection was cut and you had to start again.  Laughable as it may seem in this age of streaming video, instant news and Skype the majority of your time in the 1990s was spent waiting for pictures to load.

Because the bandwidth was immensely limited back then, we had to find other ways to communicate.  We didn’t have forums, and had to subscribe to something called “Usenet”. This predated the World Wide Web, and was basically a hierarchy of servers, called “newsgroups” you could send messages to, both new and in reply to others. It worked, in a basic way.  Though I’m sure kids today would be as incredulous as we were when we were told TV used to be in black and white.

My major hangout was a newsgroup called “”.  The subject at hand was a game called, yes, Creatures. Apparently based on artificial life and intelligence, it consisted of sprites of cute little furry animals walking around, bouncing balls, and saying things like “bub bibble”. In retrospect, I think the game’s creators simply put a backstory in place to make it seem more complex and engaging than it actually was.

Anyway, I talked to other players on this newsgroup, and there was some kind of community going about it.  I even did my own website about it.  Microsoft Frontpage and Cooper Black were my best friends back then, and if nothing else I’m grateful the Wayback Machine doesn’t seem to have taken snapshots of the WWW that far back. I’d never live it down.


Probably to my misfortune, around this time I was introduced to a program called ICQ. This was a novel (at the time) internet instant messaging service.  Most of the people I was in contact with on were signed up to it.  I had conversations with many people on it.  Attention seeking teenagers, pot-smoking New Zealanders searching for their birth parents,  Finnish web designers, people with cancer from Sheffield.  I talked to them all.  Whether I should have invested what I laughably call my emotions in such people is another matter.

The two people I was closest to on ICQ were Lis, a mature student from Cheshire and Emily, a teenage girl from Elmhurst, Illinois.  Talking to both at the beginning was a struggle, as both had self-esteem and mental health issues.  But eventually we formed some kind of bond and, despite the fact I never physically met either of them, they were my closest friends.

Lis was a problem case.  A student studying potato blight, she suffered badly from depression and was in constant dispute with her mother.  We talked of many things.  Software piracy, chocolate bloom, the perils of being isolated and single in your early 20s.  Despite the fact that, in her words, she “preferred women”, I fell in love with her.  It was terrible, and it got in the way of our friendship in the end.  After one particularly catastrophic argument, she told me “Learn to think of someone else but yourself for a change”, and cut me off.  We rarely spoke after that.  We tried, but it was never the same.

Emily was different. She only communicated with me in one word replies for a couple of months.  I’d like to say I saw something behind her terse and taciturn nature and persevered thus, but in reality I was so desperate for friendship back then that I took whatever was on offer, no matter how unsatisfactory.  She was resolutely immature, as should be expected of a 16 year old.  Emily’s main rejoinder whenever I said anything was “Meh”.  I detected a certain lack of interest in life in general.

Eventually, she opened up too. Despite her obvious low self-esteem, she proved quite the flirt.  Possibly she was surprised that any male would be interested in her, even a self-admitted 22-year-old basket case from across the Atlantic.  I even made plans to go and see her in America.  Like many things in my life, it didn’t happen.  Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t.  It could never have matched up to what I imagine it could have been.  She eventually broke off contact and went to college.  I haven’t heard from her in nearly 10 years.


It’s now 2015. None of us are young any more.  Lis is 40, and Emily is 31.  I’ve not been in contact with either for many years.  I last heard from Emily in 2006.  We exchanged a few emails via her Livejournal, which mainly seemed to concern The Sims 2.  Lis, well, I sent her a Happy Birthday email when she was 38 (I remembered it as her birthday is the day before mine).  I never received a reply and left it at that.

The lesson I learned here is that, despite what I say, how long I say it for or how much personal  information I exchange with people, I can never be really close to them.  I cannot give them what they want.  In fact, the ease of communication the internet provides is more of a curse than a blessing.  It does enable you to write what you could never say out loud, but that doesn’t mean what you actually communicate to people is either sensible or healthy.

I should never have hooked up that modem,  to be honest. I should have stuck with the Orlando Figes book and the Bonzos.