Up at the corners

Or; Why Anyone Saying That Needs To ask themselves why they’re in total denial

I didn’t smile much when I was a kid. It wasn’t some Dickensian horror-story about being made to be a pick-pocket or having to go round on a milk-float or frost on the windows inside in the winter. I only went round on a milk-float on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, because that was my Saturday job.

OK, my Milk Clothes stank of sour milk and couldn’t be used for anything else. Jeans on their literal last legs. A white sweatshirt I’d properly grown out of. A horrible blue nylon coat with weird gold fasteners on the front that now, would pass as a diamond-quilted hipster jacket, but not in Trowbridge back then it didn’t. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. The deal, not the coat. The coat was.

We had Radio One on all the time and back then, that was something worth listening to. We also had the Christmas Eve we started way before dawn so we saw the sun rise through the steely high-pressure-over-Sweden blue winter sky, fuelled by home-made mince pies and whisky left out for us in the porch of council houses, next to the empties. I was fourteen or fifteen. It didn’t kill me. I wasn’t driving the milk-float.

For Proust it was little biscuits that reminded him the past was a different country. Not just one where they do things differently, but one where you can only get a visitor visa that goes out of date too soon. For me, bottles chinking together makes me wait to hear the clack of the solenoids, the deep rising tone of the electric motor winding up and then the sound of the float coasting to a halt again. A pipe tapped out on the door of the float.

Frost on the inside of the windows wasn’t special in those days. Pretty much everyone I knew knew all about that, rich and not very rich at all alike. A friend whose house was so big that the first time I saw it I mistook it for a hotel and asked directions to her house there had her own apartment on the top floor of what looked like half of Yorkshire. Her father refused to install heating up there on the basis that heated bedrooms were “bourgeois.”

On the top floor, anyway. They weren’t bourgeois on his own floor. The other floors were fine.  So was the £23,000 he spent on his Purdeys, back when that would buy you a flat in a nice part of Bath.

But little kids generally don’t need to be told to smile most days. I’m not a parent, but I think I can say that pretty safely. If they do there’s something wrong.

Because there was never anything acknowledged to be something wrong, and there is only a finite amount of internet so some other time for that, I didn’t work out there was something wrong. Instead I behaved like a dissociated, self-regarding arse for quite a long time. Sometimes I still do. These days I realise there’s a pretty big difference between self-regard and self-awareness. Usually.

The trouble is – and this is the bit that trips everyone up, including, if not especially, people trying to help – is that when you’re not thinking straight you don’t know you’re not thinking straight. Especially in a culture that doesn’t discuss it, criticises it or tells you to just buck-up and stop being so self-pitying.

It works like this. If you have a white hair in your eye-brow you can see it. When you do there are things you can do. You can accept it. You can dye it. You can pluck it out. But if you don’t know it’s there then you can’t do any of that. And the thing with depression is exactly that. You don’t know it’s there when it’s starting, unless you really, really plug in to what’s going on with yourself. Which sounds like the kind of yurt-hugging thing Kate Archer would say. Which doesn’t help.

Often, all you know is you’re getting in more arguments than usual. Or maybe that’s just me, but it’s a reliable reminder to go for a walk and crucially, don’t self-medicate, because as a friend rammed home to me after trying to drown her own demons, there’s no such thing.

I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as self-medication. When you drink too much and call it self-medication you’ve now got two problems, the thing and the drinking. Except you’ve actually got more than that, because you’ve now still got the thing, plus the drinking, plus the physical and social consequences of that and the stuff you did that you can’t 100% remember entirely, plus most people have zero, but zilch sympathy with drunks. Only drunks think they do. Especially if they’re buying. Obliteration doesn’t help. And it certainly isn’t medication. It’s more denial. Which is how we got here in the first place.

Churchill had it. He ended-up drinking two bottles of brandy a day and slurping mashed-up steak and kidney pudding out of the bowl. That and weeping at the thought of the charred cities the RAF were smashing and continued to smash, because he couldn’t get himself together to say ‘Stop this. Enough.’ A commander who couldn’t command, who couldn’t face down his own subordinate, Sir Arthur Travers Harris. Air Marshall. The man the press called Bomber Harris. The man the RAF called Butcher. This is real history. The nation’s hero was drunk most of the war. Nobody can drink two bottles of brandy and not be drunk. It isn’t possible. Idols always have feet of clay.

For me, trigger signs are not putting the lights on, or if I have to, to cook or wash, just one when a ceiling light would mean I could actually see what I was cooking. That and total silence, no radio, no laptop, no CDs, no noise at all. That’s when I know it’s coming. Just putting some lights on can stop it.

Now I think of it like flu. Once you get it you stand more chance of getting it again. It might kill you if you let it, but the thing is, you don’t have to let it. There are things you can do to make it feel better. Lots of them. And they work, more so if you’re blessed with real friends who watch out for you and spot for you. But first you have to realise you’ve got it. And you know that you can always get it again.







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Faking it


A woman in Wiltshire has just had her car stopped by a fake police car. as Morcheeba used to sing back when I was cool, who can you trust?

The odd thing, the thing about being older, is that I remember this happening before. Wiltshire isn’t exactly a crime hotspot. So two fake police car incidents made me think a bit. The one I remember was in Trowbridge. A real policeman walked over to a police van to ask the driver something and realised he wasn’t talking to anyone he knew from Trowbrodge police station. Someone had faked up a police van and got their fun just driving around pretending to be in the police. They’d never stopped anyone, or gained anything by it. They just liked playing at being a policeman.

In a world where grown adults pay hundreds of pounds to squeeze 18stone into football kit to go to watch a game, maybe that’s not so odd at all, really. Me, I’d have chosen a cowboy outfit. But Trowbridge was always odd. A couple of years after the fake police car another van got someone arrested. It was camouflage. It belonged to whoever had taken over the old army-surplus shop that sold sand-coloured canvas haversacks and Canadian army greatcoats for sixth formers, back when that was what sixth formers wore. As a tip, maybe it’s best if you do break in to the army gun room and steal a Sterling machine pistol, or know who did, it might be better to keep a lower profile than cruising around town looking like you’re auditioning for The A Team. As I said, a strange place, Wiltshire.



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Ecoutez et repetez

Learning how to teach English as a foreign language is making me think about how I learned it. I can’t remember. Everyone around me did. It’s a problem. It’s made me realise something I first had an inkling of when I was supposed to be  learning French at school; sometimes I don’t listen. I don’t always know when I’m doing it, or rather not doing it. I just know afterwards.

We had to write a list of names of things. I put le in front of every one of them.  To this day I don’t remember hearing anything about masculine and feminine nouns before that, although everyone else in the class obviously had. Presumably, someone told them. I still have to look up the meaning of things like gerunds. I was never taught anything about them, including their existence. I don’t remember it, anyway.

The embarrassing thing, apart from everyone else knowing this stuff except me (yes, but I know stuff that other people don’t know, like the man who wrote Biggles came from Hertford) was that these were really ordinary words like chair and car and cat and for reasons that were never made clear, minkey. I think every French textbook family has had to have a singe in the house ever since Peter Sellers first essayed Clouseau back in about 1964. Which was even before I had to learn French. We learned by the example of la famille Bertillon.

Mr Bertillon was a douanier, which sounded to me onomatopaeically like a lorry driver but was in fact a customs inspector instead, a pretty exotic occupation in rural Wiltshire. His wife looked pretty exotic too, with a tightness of knee-length skirt that would have had lips firmly pressed together and arms folded across disapproving bosoms on the estate where I lived. They had two children, a dog, a cat and a minkey. Even more weird, they lived in a flat and went to the baker for bread instead of Gateway supermarket, one of several butchers depending what kind of meat they were looking for (ditto) and ultra-wierdly, made a big deal of going out to eat on Mr Bertillon’s birthday. I still remember him remembering one birthday dinner, each course as well as the Nuit St George, which I got the idea was a synonym for nights in white satin, or maybe Mme Bertillon.

Back then going out for a meal really was a big deal, but possibly rather less of a big deal in Trowbridge than Paris. We did birthday dinners too. You could go to the Woolpack or a pub out at Freshford that famously did food. The pub had a musician playing Harpers Bizarre covers and a stuffed monkey on a hi-hat stand that went up and down in time to the music. I do not know why. All of this was the reason it was such a strange and wonderful thing for Ben to go to Geales in Not Your Heart Away. The only fish and chip shop he would have known was the one you went to on the way back from school discos. They didn’t have seats, let alone a bar upstairs.

The Woolpack meant you wouldn’t have to drive as far. Drinking and driving didn’t come into it, or rather it did, but only on a practical level. Predictably for the times the Woolpack was a Berni Inn. That meant three things. Steak. Black Forest Gateau. A Mateus Rose by any other name.

I wonder now if there were English textbooks in France and what they put in them.

Mrs English: Is oven chips all right tonight? I got some of them faggots from Bowyers you like.

Mr English: But of course my darling. Ah, I remember that meal on my birthday! The keg Double Diamond! The crisps! The bag of chips on the way home. They don’t give you much in there.

Mrs English: Too right they don’t and no mistake. Mind, you don’t want to get done like you nearly did last time, when you went up on the kerb in front of that copper.

Somehow Mr Bertillon’s life seemed more, ‘ow you say. Like a life, really. I’ll tell you all about Bowyers faggots some other time.

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Cow Town, Pig Town

I heard the trailer for Shane on BBC Radio 4 most of this week. I’ve never read it or heard the play, but I heard the Kenneth Williams spoofs on Around The Horne years ago. Where did he come from, that magnificent silent homme?

I’ve had the phrase Cow Town going through my head all day. I lived in Aspen once, but that was a Sheep Town, it being sheep that cropped the range in those parts back when silver was the only other crop there. The town I grew up in, Trowbridge, that used to be Pig Town. It was where Bowyers, the pork pie factory was, where we heard the pigs squealing for hours on pie day, then the silence, then the smell as the carcasses were flensed. Happy days, unless, obviously, you were a pig.

I don’t know anywhere like that these days. Just outside Bury St Edmunds there’s the huge British Sugar boiling plant, where they boil up sugar beet to make white sugar crystals; the Cloud Factory, a friend of mine used to call it, because of the steam that comes out of the place every day of the year and it being East Anglia, merging into the cloudbase not very high above most days.

Sugar Town, perhaps, although Bury St Edmunds doesn’t look as it it has much to do with In Watermelon Sugar, nor, to be fair, with iDeath.

I’m looking for a title, you see. Once you’ve got the title the rest of it will flow. Bound to, isn’t it? That’s my excuse for not writing today, anyway. I can’t think of the title. Nor the ending. I’ve got some of the plot.

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