09 July 1999

Travelling

February, 1986. Birmingham New Street Coach Station. Four tired figures, mother, son, brother, sister. Behind them, fifty hours between Faro and London and then a National Express on which they were confused by the variety of crisps. Portugal had only plain and salt 'n' vinegar.

Two days earlier we left, and he stayed behind - though only just. He had come onto the coach to help with luggage and say good-bye, but the driver was in haste to leave and pulled away with all five of us on board. I remember him sleepily stumbling, clambering as quickly as possible to the front in order to persuade the driver to stop, and felt something for him then, something perhaps akin to sympathy, but not quite. The only other time he was shouted out of the house by my mother, and was wearing nothing but a dressing-gown.

Mud

Weston is a seaside town. It thrives on the summer, becomes quiet and sleepy in the winter. It lies on disputed territory: while we lived there, it was a part of the more industrial Avon, alongside Bristol; recently it has reverted to the more rural Somerset. Of course, these artificial boundaries mean little in real terms, but the consensus among my contemporaries was that Weston should be a part of Somerset again. And if accents are anything to go by, the Westonian accent is most definitely at home on the sleepier side if the border.

Weston; what is there to remember about Weston? Even before we moved into the flat on the hill, my mother would be picked up for work every morning by her boss, and my brother and I would get a lift to school as well (the stepfather had to leave for work around four in the morning); this boss changed his car every year, went on holiday and bought one from Germany or wherever: because even with the extra cost of transporting them back to Britain, it was cheaper to buy them abroad. Later we would get a lift with children from the house at the back, who went to the same school, the daughter older than me, the son younger than my brother; we went in a pea-green Mini, which was a tight fit, one adult and four children with bags and books. Travelling along the back road through the woods to Worle and to pick up my mother; always listening to Radio 2, and the same presenter with the same quiz every night, which sometimes ran for weeks on end before anyone got the answer. Two weeks of hell when the stepfather had to work late, and so my brother and I had to stay with a baby-sitter after school, a hotel at the bottom of their hill where the children took great delight in belting us with plastic sticks, while their parents looked on oblivious; the only possible sanctity was the television room, but even then we might be quietly watching one moment and have a thug land in the middle of the back the next (when we complained to the mother stepfather, we were told it was only for another week).

We got to know the people next door quite well. The people above, an older couple with a rodent-like dog were a bit variable; it was always up and down, always off and on. Sometimes they would lead out of a window in their kitchen and talk for hours; other times, they wouldn’t speak to me or our family for weeks, for no apparent reason. Across the road was a large woody space, where there were supposedly rats, and where someone wanted to build a block of flats, but never did.
Getting up on Saturday mornings to help on the milk-round (I was paid more than two twenty pence pieces by this time); my brother rarely if ever went along, preferring to catch up on sleep. Knowing at which houses there were dogs so they didn't surprise you: on one round the were two particular dogs, which I referred to as The Dog (‘the’ with a schwa, rhyming with ‘ugh’) and The Dog (‘the’ rhyming with ‘tea’). On another round there was a magnificent, huge golden Doberman called Zeus, probably the most regal dog I had ever seen; and he got to know me quickly and didn't bark. Knowing at which houses you might be offered tea, and sometimes 'biscuits, and organising the round so that these were as evenly spaced as possible. One old lady would, every week and without fall, complain about the price of things, how a packet of biscuits cost three shillings, how that was terribly expensive, and I would think: but they stopped producing shillings in 1971; before I was born! When my stepfather eventually became a foreman at the depot, the range of rounds increased since he had to fill in for others who were sick or on holiday, and sometimes we might spend half our time driving around the countryside.

It was during these times that I got on with my stepfather best. I could work, was generally good with the money, and didn’t complain; though I could talk a great deal. My stepfather seemed to appreciate the help and company. To come home at two three four in the afternoon, tired mucky useful, gave me a sense of importance, and even a certain feeling of solidarity with my stepfather. This might have evaporated by evening for one reason or another, for one put down or another, one argument or another between stepfather and mother, where I would invariably side with the latter; but while it lasted it was worth something, a ritual I valued enough to look forward to the next weekend and its inevitable ebb and flow.

Move

We moved to Weston-super-Mare in 1983. We had been visiting with more and more regularity, eventually every weekend or fortnight, and the motorway between Birmingham and Weston was travelled along so often that I got to know the precise length of time the journey took: on a clear drive (and there were enough trips to talk of the average time on clear drives) it took more nor less than ninety minutes between door and junction. My mother found a job in Worle, at the far end of Weston; my stepfather found a milk-round in Bridgewater, some way to the south; he'd have to commute, but not too far. We moved into rented accommodation just off the sea-front, at the top of a high pink house.

“What do you want to go there for?” the stepfather’s relatives had challenged in their grey and dreary accents: “It's been dead for fifteen years. Weston-super-Mud!” As if Birmingham were alive, I had thought. There were the woods up on the hill behind us, running for miles along the back of the town, and no more than ten minutes away; the beach in front, no more than two. From the front-room window I could watch the tide crashing against the sea wall, throwing waves thirty feet into the air; best in the evening, when the sea-front lights were on, swinging madly in the winter wind. Often we went out on nights like this, running under the waves, trying to avoid getting wet but delighting in it if we did. The four of us would rush about, the brothers and our mother shrieking wildly, the stepfather smiling indulgently, joining in sometimes, sometimes running with the mother to the protection of a wind shelter while the boys continued the game. Then there would be fish-and-chips and the taste of sea salt in the air, the hot greasy bundles warming our hands. Then gradually home, dry, off, and a drink before bed; we had no television.

The stepfather grew up on a council estate. Our mother had owned the house in Birmingham, or was at least a large part of the way through paying a mortgage. She decided to give the stepfather joint ownership of the new house in Weston, when we found one. He'd never owned a house and she reasoned that the sense of ownership, along with the experience of living outside Brum in the Weston we loved so much, would revitalise their relationship. Both would readily admit it was turbulent, that it had it’s ups and downs, but now, out of the grey and dreary city, everyone knew that spring was in the air.

The house, when we found it, was on the hill, halfway between woods and beach, on the corner of a road. It was actually the ground-floor flat of an elegant old Victorian house which had been split into half. The front of the original house, facing the beach, had been made into three flats; the back, facing the woods, into a house, the cellar of which, since the original house was on a hill, was on the same level as the ground-floor flat which we bought. At one time there was even discussion with the neighbours about buying their cellar and expanding the flat further back, but the plan never came to fruition.

If anywhere, any one house, could be said to be home, it was this one.

We visited the house several times before buying it, and became superficially friendly with the present owners; at least so it seemed to me. In reality, my mother and stepfather were haggling about the price, trying to get it down a thousand or so, although admittedly in friendly terms. My  brother and I were frequently invited, and got to know the house well before we moved in, before the deal had even been finalised. There was a vase full of marbles in the back bedroom which fascinated me, and I mentioned to my mother that I wished the vase could stay when we moved in; but it didn’t.

Finally, we visited the house one day after school, but no-one was in; my brother and I played at something in the garden while the mother stepfather looked around the house. We’d done this before, just gone to look, because looking at something expensive helps to decide whether or not it’s worth it. This time, however, the mother calls us, says that the kitchen door was open: shall we go in? The stepfather, conspiratorial, echoing, come on, come on. The two boys unsure about going into someone else's property when they're not there; playing in the garden, all right, we know them, but going in? But if the mother stepfather is prepared to…

Of course, they had bought the flat, and the door hadn't been open, but they had bought the keys with them. That night we all slept at there, bringing sleeping bags and quilts and other essentials up from the other flat; cooking toast on the open fire, excitedly falling asleep late in the night.

Brother

My brother was born a year and three-quarters after me, just before our father left, and wasn’t at all impressed with the new man about the house. He was a sickly child, allergic to everything, and ate only selectively. Our mother despaired, I wasn’t much bothered, and the stepfather wasn’t keen: understandable, given my brother’s frequent retorts. My mother recently said that she didn't love him enough, and my brother knew it; though this might be sentimentality on her part. There was always a rivalry between the brothers, sometimes friendly and sometimes not, and one which I couldn't understand. My brother was possessive and jealous about friends, and under no circumstances wanted me present when they were. If photographs were being taken, he had to draw attention to himself, feet or fingers entering the sides of pictures in obscure places, strange faces being pulled in family shots. He became a master of the awkward look which wouldn't be noticed when a photograph was being taken: to stick his tongue out would be too obvious, and he would be told to put it away, but he devised a myriad of more discreet alternatives, ways of posing which appeared innocent at the time, only to be discovered later to everyone's horror (retrospectively, amusement, although my mother sometimes permits a low sigh). There is one collection of family photographs, taken to celebrate the birth of our sister (I was eleven), taken by a professional and no small amount, which display an artist at work.

Portugal probably represented the most harmonious period in the early relationship between my brother and I: we literally had no one else. We formed clubs with only two members (The Asterix Club), wrote fantasy game-book stories for each other, learnt karate together. There was quite simply nothing else to do. And once when my brother was being picked on by a local Portuguese boy at the karate school, I wrenched the local boy off and proceeded to pick on him instead.

Things deteriorated back in Britain, back in Weston; old jealousies concerning friends reasserted themselves, only with more fervour, since we were both going through that tedious phase known as adolescence. My brother insisted on having the last word, and regarding my brother as being argumentative for the sake of being argumentative, and thus irrational, I wouldn't let him. I couldn't see the point in all the arguments, and thought that my brother must surely see reason, so couldn't understand why he was being so stubborn. Eventually we resorted to violence and for an argument and reason forgotten, I threw my brother, freshly out of a shower and naked, down the stairs. He caught himself on the way down.

This situation improved dramatically when I when off to university in Wales; during the first holiday back, over Christmas, a much more relaxed pair of brothers talked to each other, and my brother showed me some poetry he'd written. He's embarrassed by that poetry now, saying that they're juvenile love-poems. But it meant a great deal to me.

Father

“Don't want you…” - but my brother didn't say, “…want my daddy.” Probably because daddy didn't stay long enough after his birth for my brother to form any memory of him. Not even I, almost two years older than my brother, have any memories of our father at home in Birmingham. Well, a vague one perhaps, something about coming downstairs one morning to find his father painting the walls purple; but that has been thoroughly refuted by his mother on numerous occasions. "Him? Painting? No bloody chance!"

So what became of the father? A legal secretary, as was my mother, he left, allegedly as unreliable with money as with cassette-players, and his sons saw him only occasionally. At first everyone would meet in a cafĂ© somewhere, and then the father and sons would go off together for a while, maybe overnight (at one point he lived above a fish-and-chip shop); and later, when he had moved to Stratford, the two boys would visit for weekends or the even odd week during school holidays. If increasingly infrequent, these were enjoyable occasions, at least for me: we could get away with things there that we couldn't at home; there might be presents, small perhaps, but there; exotic foods that my mother and stepfather would never buy, like traditional lemonade, and little bowls of peanuts and things to go to bed with. And Stratford was much prettier than Birmingham: the Shakespearian half-timbered houses, the park over the river, opposite the theatre, where there were splendidly weeping willows along the bank. Of course, it wasn’t all wonderful, often somewhat boring: many visits to pubs, like 'The Rose and Crown', where my brother and I would be left to watch science fiction movies in the children’s lounge, which wasn't so bad after all. But there was a certain element of pride in the father, which sometimes manifested itself as bragging enthusiastically to friends about his children for a while, then instantaneously forgetting about them, having settled into a familiar bar-room scenario. Not that Joe's father was an alcoholic, in the sense of being compelled to drink vast quantities of alcohol before crawling home drunk; that never happened while we were staying. But he was very sociable, and it was in bars in particular that he liked to be sociable. And we often got hungry and had to pester him for crisps.

Once we went to a holiday camp, and enjoyed ourselves immensely: for a whole week there were games, swimming pools, activities of all sorts, and discos. And plenty of bars. I even won the junior disco dancing competition, which was, it has to be said, nothing short a miracle. But perhaps I was less self-conscious in those days. The only bad thing about the whole week was one afternoon when my father instructed us not to disturb him for a few hours and to play outside, for no apparent reason: perhaps for an afternoon rest, though it may just as easily have been sex, but at the time we were of course far too young to think of things like that. But eventually I needed the toilet, but couldn't find one, and didn’t want to disturb him, so had to shit under a bush. A few minutes later the father opened the door of the chalet in which we were staying.

Story

But when my mother wrote a story, years later, it is always in the semi-detached house in Birmingham that I imagined it taking place. The bedroom, in which my brother and I slept, where we scratched the paint off the walls with the nose tips of toy metal aeroplanes, where Father Christmas left presents late one year, from our father; the small landing, on which a grandfather clock once stood; the stairwell, the steps of the staircase curving to the left at the bottom, where I would sit, the darkest place I could find, and play the late present, which turned out to be a space invaders game; the next bedroom, and the bathroom beyond it.

The story caught my imagination, and it continued to haunt me all through university: for some years I interpreted my mother through the story she had written, and regarded my mother as some kind of tragic archetype. I began composing my own poetic version of the story, but never got further than a fourth verse; now all I can remember is the first:

Tired and weary, she lay there alone,
Tied to this small room, confined to this bed;
Sleep came but slowly, and troubled by dreams,
Waking to four walls in restless fatigue.

The story went on: she was ill, made so by a thwarted, meaningless life, tied to a man who she could not talk to, because although they spoke the same words, they meant different things by them. He went out to work, healthy, fit, vulgar and humorous, and on returning muttered a few words before retreating downstairs to watch TV, while she withered in chronic depression, unable to do anything. It had become a way of life, just how things were, and no matter how much she hated him and his vulgar working class vitality, she could not muster the strength to leave. And so she stayed, spiralling endlessly downward.

Something brought this situation to a climax, but I am unable to remember what; something the husband said, some trivial word or gesture; and she, stumbling across the landing towards the bathroom - he just beginning to descend - she focused everything into one small, insignificant action, pushed him in the back; he slipped, fell, and crashed down the stairs, curving to the left at the bottom, and colliding with the solid wall. She pauses, catching her breath, then continues to the bathroom, and then back to bed.

Needless to say, it wasn’t only in my mind that the woman in the story was a symbolic representation of my mother.

Home

Home; Birmingham was never that. Home, it seems, is not a place for me, but a more of a feeling - though of course I’m viewing these things retrospectively. When asked where I’m from, I have difficulty in answering, pausing to think. which must strike others as odd; and I usually give contradictory information. The places have changed so often that the feeling of ‘home’ is, at best, no more than associated with a place; but it still is not necessarily a place or house in which I actually lived. And all these arbitrary, indistinct feelings seem to date from post-Brum.

Leaving the motorway at the junction to Weston, night-time, rapid deceleration into the amber glow of streetlights; the curve of the road to the right into a slight depression and then up again. Walking across the playing field at Appleby, through the woods and along the river, into town to buy lunch-hour chips. Another afternoon in Weston, winter, a ground floor flat we rented for a matter of weeks, curled up before an electric fire with a new fantasy game-book, a great big thing in which one could even cast spells, all of us occupied, my mother making tea, the stepfather still in Portugal. One evening in Halle, by the Saale, arm in arm with my girlfriend, never having been there before, not even my native country and barely able to string a sentence together in German. Arbitrary and indistinct, and I have difficulty in identifying precisely why these memories, and not others, should be so implanted in my mind as representing Homeliness. Weston and Appleby, probably, have their fair share of these feelings; my formative years no doubt, although I never actually lived in Appleby, just attended school there: the family circled around the town at a radius of some twelve miles, living in four houses in as many years; although I lived in five.

Hence the practical difficulty in finding answers to the question; however, the answer usually comes in one of three forms:

- I'm from Birmingham, originally
- the Lake District
- Wales, most recently

it should be noted that the second of these is stretching the truth a little, since Appleby is not the Lake District, but in Cumbria; although the Lake District is also in Cumbria. And I shall not go into the entire chronology here, since it would take too long; but it should be further noted that I don’t say I from Weston: because it’s too far back. At the time of writing, I left ten years ago!

Brum

Birmingham is a grey and dreary city: its colour, its weather, its accent. An industrial dream. A colleague of mine from the former East Germany told me how Birmingham was the first place in Britain she visited when the Wall came down; how, with a Masters in English, she was unable to understand the bus conductor. And the sun does of course shine, does occasionally break through the monotony of clouds, but somehow it only serves to remind of the grey and dreary default. If there is such a thing as grey and dreary sunlight, it is in Birmingham. And it is the rain that I remember more than anything else, rain lashing against the street, thunder rocking the sky, and my grandfather’s story that thunder is the anger of the god Thor throwing his great war-hammer.

Birmingham; what is there to remember about Birmingham? The Bull Ring shopping centre, huge, fabulous and imposing to a child of six. The stepfather’s rumours of racist violence, and my wariness when the next group of black youths passed by, half-thinking that they must all be concealing knives. Rumours which must have had some general effect, for  one primary school gym lesson, with no apparent reason and no apparent understanding of what the words I was speaking really meant, instructed a girl to “go back where you came from, you black monkey,” and was made to stand in the corner until the end of the lesson. Standing there, I had the opportunity to consider the words a little more carefully, at least in the manner of an eight-year old, and if I didn't fully comprehend their significance, I recognised that I was embarrassed at having to stand in the corner, that I should put brain in gear first. I resolved a childish resolution to never say anything of the like again, and never did.

But a young boy is impressionable, even when his trust in a stepfather falls somewhat short of conviction. My younger brother had summed up that latent antipathy with more eloquence and less introspection than I ever could, bellowing with startling frequency “Don’t want you, want my mommy”. It became a kind of leitmotiv for my brother, and even when he grew out of saying it at every possible opportunity, it was taken up by the very object of his discontent, who would tease my brother with it whenever either was in a bad mood. And both found ample opportunities for bad moods.

The stepfather had grown up in Birmingham, was a resident through and through, born on a council estate just before the end of the war and narrowly escaping military service when it was abolished in the sixties. He had witnessed a great influx of cultural diversity and was given to that platitudinous form of racism which, in one breath, would agree wholeheartedly with Enoch Powell and then enthusiastically and in fine storyteller-style describe the Sikh weddings he'd attended - the magnificent dress, the bountiful food, the exotic atmosphere. And the impressionable child absorbs all this, as everything else, unequipped to find his way in this morass of opinion; he plunges down a path, leaps before he is able to look: he insults a girl, and is made to stand in the corner until the end of the lesson. His resolution is passed and held, but how can one unabsorb an attitude? The ambiguous anxiety remains, easily discarded on the occasional moment when it arises fleetingly; but remain it does.

Trouble at school: for painting my face, to the hilarity of my classmates; made to stand in the corner again, this time outside the staff room still paint-covered, the teachers barely containing their laughter; younger, in nursery, for daubing fingerprints of shit all over the toilet wall, for no reason other than there seemed an inexhaustible supply. Success: still in nursery, discovering that it was a teacher’s birthday, and asking my mother for a little money during lunch hour in order to buy some small gift with a couple of classmates; my mother giving me a spider plant, and the teacher being overwhelmed: she loved spider plants, but her cat had eaten the last one.

Little memories: a family who were apparently related to Newton, but were too embarrassed by the name and used a different one. The Sunday School over the road, which my brother and I attended without much conviction, just as our mother sent us there without much conviction, because it was the proper thing to do. A school questionnaire, about what type of house one lived in; absorbing a little of my mother’s attitude, I decided on semi-detached, though really it was only the end of a terrace. A little black cat who came to stay which we called Sweep, and eventually responded to his name; shortly afterwards it was discovered that he actually lived just up the road with an old lady, but he’d decided to move out and she was worried sick about him. A border collie called Shelly, whom we adored but had to leave because we were allergic to her beautiful long hair. The little corner shop at the other end of the road (we lived on the next corner down) and little twopence sweets, chews with sherbet inside them. Helping out on the stepfather’s milkround, and being given two shining new twenty-pence pieces in a matchbox as payment, and being overjoyed.

And there's the odd photograph: one of me in a new cub-scout uniform, next to the house, the Sunday School building behind, my brother’s foot prominently entering the picture on the right in an attempt to be noticed. Another: younger, sat in a chair, clutching a large torch, long red curls cascading over my shoulders, looking distinctly girlish. But then, long hair was the fashion at the time.

First words

Buggerbuggerbuggerbuggerbuggerbuggerbugger

Rachmaninoff

It seems I should have been born to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. opus 18; to the second movement to be precise. This is not so strange: parents, after all, often do strange things at the birth of their children, actions which display some occult significance comprehensible to themselves alone. In this day and age of the high-precision stopwatch, it is but a small matter to chart the progress of a child into this world - head out, all out, cord cut - with only a negligible margin of error. The uses to which this invaluable kind of information can be put are, of course, as multitude as the stars in the heavens. There is that unfathomable form of telepathy whereupon the father is able to empathise with the mother’s pains of birth. Or there is Pavlov's Baby, delighting in hearing that same, soothing music once again, only this time a little more clearly. Whether I was intended to join this latter group is unknown, though unlikely. Indeed, it is safe to assume that my mother thought that a piece of music which she found relaxing and beautiful would calm her sensibilities at the moment when her first son entered the world. (I once heard a story about someone's grandmother, who had a limited grasp of biological science: whilst on the way to the hospital to give birth to her first child - I don't know whether it was her last - she raised the question of how the baby would make its exit; the husband, a little perplexed no doubt, replied that the baby usually came out the same way as it went in, at which point the lady in question declared in no uncertain terms that in that case the baby could stay right where it was, she was having none of this giving birth business.) And my mothers chosen piece of music was the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. opus 18. Indubitably preferable to whale-song.

My mother still has the cassette. It has a curious cardboard cover which surrounds the whole case, with a fractured photograph of rich autumn trees on the front and a pink reverse, the like of which I have never seen. And indeed the birth took place in October, so to have played the tape would have been all the more appropriate. But it was not to be. I was not to become properly acquainted with Rachmaninoff’s Adagio sostenuto until I was some sixteen years old and revising for exams. Requiring a little instrumental music, without vocals and words to distract my concentration, I discovered it languishing in a box of miscellanies. It subsequently received more frequent airings than during the entirety of my childhood, having previously only seen the light of day on intermittent Sunday afternoons, with my mother's vain attempt to inject some modicum of culture into a sonic environment composed almost entirely of an album of Bread covers, another of Bob Marley covers, and Shirley Bassey. Though it may also have been the case that my stepfather was asleep.

So, it was not to be. My escape, if it may be called that, came completely without intention. It rests on nothing more than the haste of my emigration from one world and immigration into another. I was born too soon: my abruptness surprised my mother, and there was quite simply no time to ready the tape. Perhaps even the avid stop-watcher would have been forced into defeat. And. so, at home, in the grey and dreary Birmingham of a presumably grey and dreary October 1973, I was born without the accompaniment of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. opus 18.

It should be further reported that the activities of the father at the time of my birth are far from clear. Whatever it was, it was sure to have been calculated to cause the least possible trouble. Perhaps, on reflection, it was to ready the tape.