I was an intelligent child. I was renowned for mischief and self-expression. I was loved by my friends and seldom engaged in the persecution of others. I passed my eleven-plus and enjoyed a summer playing football and cricket, burning dried grass and solidifying fraternal bonds. All was not well. I suffered terror and alienation as a consequence of my mother’s drinking and although this experience had become familiar over the years, it was the foundation of an underlying psychological vulnerability, which made me prone to suffering in other areas.
Problems began on my first day at Vyner’s Grammar School in Ickenham. It was far away and difficult to get to and my journey hadn’t been properly planned. I was equipped with a bus pass for two journeys that were inconveniently timetabled rather than the underground pass and bus pass that would have proved more suitable, and which I acquired some time later. I arrived at the school feeling nervous. I’d missed some vital instruction, which made it difficult to grasp what followed. I stumbled around, not knowing where I was going or what I was doing, feeling friendless and abandoned.
Most of my classmates had gone to the same primary school, which served as a feeder for Vyner’s. The few who had arrived from elsewhere fitted in by virtue of their middle-class manners. I was the only child in my class who did not conform to the template. I was hounded by a hierarchical elite, degraded by its leaders, mocked by aspiring underlings seeking the favour of their overlords, and forced to seek friendships of convenience with outsiders who were marginalised on account of their physical unattractiveness or supposed stupidity. And even the dregs were wont to despise me.
I was subject to physical and mental bullying. The physical assaults were not severe but they could happen at any time and the threat undermined my sense of security. The mental cruelty consisted of condemnations of my ugliness and lack of intellectual ability. I was despised on the grounds of my class, my poverty, where I lived and what my parents did. No teachers intervened to save me. They condoned what was going on and seemed happy to join in.
I sought refuge in sport. I was a good middle-distance and cross country runner, although one 800 metres competition proved another source of humiliation. I won the race for boys in our house, through quickly establishing an unassailable lead, and managing to hold off those who pursued me, because they had ratcheted up their performance too late. I could not employ this tactic in the final at the local athletics stadium and ended up last by an embarrassing margin. I thought about falling over and feigning injury to get out of my situation.
I won a cross country race consisting of more than 70 runners and performed well in the race for the first three years when I was in my first year at school. I was in the school cricket team, but the hierarchy operated here as well, meaning that I was reduced to making up the numbers, left out in the field, never given an opportunity to bat or bowl despite my talent. I also excelled at football, played with a tennis ball at break time, and I remember feeling pride generated by my unwillingness to pass and my propensity for scoring goals.
I was a lonely and unhappy child. I was full of dread. I felt worthless and ashamed. I was impotent, frustrated and full of fury. My education suffered. I was absent from school for much of the time that should have been devoted to establishing foundation skills that would have enabled me to prosper in my later school career. This lack of basic, essential knowledge proved telling with regard to mathematics and science and I never recovered from it. It took a long time for the school authorities to take any action in response to my truancy and even when they did it was inadequate and things continued as they had been before their intervention.
This experience taught me that authority is unreliable, that power is cruel, that the group is something to be avoided, and that the measures one takes to avoid persecution do not bring happiness but produce a different kind of pain, sadness and anxiety. It persuaded me that memory is a source of unhappiness that should be countered by attempting to forget.
I was eventually equipped with an underground pass covering the one stop journey from Ruislip Gardens to West Ruislip on the western extremity of the Central Line. I conceived the idea of using my access to the underground to make epic journeys from West Ruislip to Epping and back to Ruislip Gardens, which I discovered took roughly the same time as a day at school, if I factored in short excursions at stations in central London and took other measures here and there, associated with hiding and waiting. I couldn’t emerge from the underground system because of the limitations of my pass, which would definitely have been noticed – or so I thought – had I attempted to pass through the staffed barriers. I ran the risk of having my ticket inspected on trains. This happened quite rarely and when it did, the inspector usually failed to register the starting and finishing points on my pass. On one or two occasions, I was warned for travelling without authorisation, but my innocence, tears of contrition and promises not to do it again meant no further action was taken. Only once did anyone make an attempt to intervene, and I remember this as a rare act of kindness in the misery of these years. An off duty inspector took me for a burger, listened to me attentively and sympathised with my hardships. I sometimes wonder if this encounter was as benign as it seemed at the time.
I don’t know how many times I made the journey from one end of the Central Line to the other but I know that I travelled often enough to work out that I could change from my school uniform into civilian clothes between Hanger Lane and North Acton if my carriage was empty and I had made adequate preparations. Looking back, it seems like I made one epic voyage. What did I do? What did I think of? How did I occupy my time? I became an adept. I transformed myself. I sought refuge from persecution and killed time by investing it with a meaning that is impossible to express.
* * *
I celebrated my 16th birthday in the company of my older sister in Uxbridge in August 1978. My sister had remained in the area around Ruislip and Uxbridge when I moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme with my mum and dad and younger sister in 1975, shortly after the events related above. I took advantage of a loose invitation to arrive without warning on her doorstep in the spring of 1979. I waited outside the front door of the building she lived in for several hours until she returned from work with her admirer (a printer and lover of The Doors) and led me on the first of many visits to The Green Man pub a few yards up the road.
My sister lived in the attic of a rundown town house on Hillingdon Road with her best friend. They were sociable young women, who enjoyed good relationships with everyone who lived in the building and had a large network of friends and acquaintances outside. I was offered a place to live in the attic, despite the inconvenience that my presence must have caused. I stayed there for two or three months before my sister arranged for me to live in a house in Hayes End that was occupied by her boyfriend, who had been offered a job overseas and wanted to retain his tenancy while he was out of the country.
I endured poverty and starvation. I listened to ‘Down in the Park’ by Tubeway Army and wandered around the darkened streets looking pale and hungry. I worked for a news reporting agency at Heathrow Airport for three weeks before taking up employment as a purchasing clerk at EMI Electronics. My interest in music and literature widened and deepened. I wrote song lyrics and poems and fantasised about being the singer in a band:
Enter now the twilight zone,
The brooding realm of melancholy,
The land where everyone fears.
And through the zone there comes a lie
And the lie is labelled ‘thought’
And throws up empty imagery…
Lamenting in the twilight zone,
Forsaking your morality,
Horrendous lust to quest, destroy,
To run from the sublime…
My sister’s boyfriend’s job didn’t work out. He returned home and I had to leave at short notice. My sister fixed me up with a room in the house next door to the place that she lived in on Hillingdon Road, which was owned by the same landlord. Shortly after his return, my sister married her boyfriend and shortly after their marriage, her husband and I had a major falling out, which was a cause of unhappiness to my increasingly unhappy and reclusive sister. It was widely believed that her husband disliked me because he was jealous of the relationship between me and and my sister.
The room that I occupied on Hillingdon Road was like a cell. I felt ill at ease when I moved there. I subsisted on bread and butter. I was assaulted by the occupant of one of the other rooms in the house, who hated me because he thought I was queer. He was not alone in his thinking. It wasn’t easy being a pretty boy. A college lecturer attempted to seduce me at his home, which I left when he went for a piss with a stolen bottle of whisky stuck down the front of my trousers. I drank from the bottle as I made my way home, falling to the ground, arriving with mud on my face and clothing. I was propositioned on Tottenham Court Road, interrogated by rent boys at Piccadilly Circus, and drooled over by the driver of a fancy car who offered me a lift as I waited for a bus home on Uxbridge Road. I was also chased through Uxbridge town centre by a 20 strong gang of skinheads, associated ruffians and louts.
I walked through Southall in a state of heightened alienation. I merged with the lights of Heathrow Airport at night. I burned my body hair with cigarettes, cut my arms, talked to myself in the cold and the dark, performed comedy routines on the streets of Uxbridge after taking magic mushrooms. My sister died when she was 24, on the day after my 19th birthday, and I can’t describe the horror that followed. I was evicted by my landlord at Christmas and returned to live with my mum, making the journey northwards with a severe case of flu, somehow convinced that I was full of love for all living things.
* * *
I wrote the following to the tune of ‘The Partisan’ by Leonard Cohen in a cafe at Hanley Bus Station in 1984:
From the place of ritual slaughter
Comes the sound of voices singing,
“Freedom soon will come.”
Their promise haunts my life.
I have found myself so often
In the cold and lonely courtyards
Where dark nightmares reign
But you have led me from them.
Once extinguished stars shine dimly
And dull stars grow ever brighter
And the hours of hope
Are resurrected by the morning.
And I wrote the following in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent around the same time:
Through summer’s blazing heat
And through autumn’s driving rain
I’m looking for the wise one
Who always will remain
Forever by my side
A voice to keep me sane
To bless me in the morning
And rescue me in again…
* * *
I’ve always been a light sleeper. I’ve seldom been able to sleep before going to bed at night, no matter how tired I feel. My capacity for sleep is linked to my feeling of security, and my feeling of security is associated with control.
Recently, noise from the person who lives in the flat above me has had a detrimental effect on my ability to sleep well. I wake two to four times during the the night. I usually return to sleep fairly quickly after these periods of wakefulness. I’ve taken to going to bed between 11.00 and 11.30pm and I usually get up around 8am on work days or 9.30 when I’m not working. This means that I could be getting 7 to 9 hours sleep on most days, although the periods of waking mean that this sleep is not as restorative as uninterrupted sleep would be.
One of the features associated with my current sleep pattern is the sound of the first bird of the morning. I forced myself to refrain from clock watching some time ago, on the grounds that it proved demoralising and brought no benefit. Occasionally, I hear distant church bells when I stand before my window but this is rare. The first bird of the morning has become a primary indicator of time. To be awake before the first bird calls is not good. To note the call can be a cause for celebration, indicating that I have been able to get some sleep at least. Sleep before the sound of the first bird of the morning is a foundation and sleep after the first bird is a consolidation of rest.
During the last few days I’ve noticed the dawn chorus (or post-dawn chorus) that succeeds the first bird of the morning. The sound is accompanied by a transition from darkness to light. A bird has taken up residence directly above my bedroom and gives voice to a harsh and repetitive call that wakes me after I return to sleep following my recognition of the first bird’s call. I’ll try to remember to secure my window properly in future, in the hope that it will diminish the alarm represented by the dawn chorus.
Sleep difficulties have taught me the value of sleep. I love sleep because I can no longer take it for granted. When sleep was easier to come by, I did not love it; indeed, I sometimes conceived of sleep as an unwelcome thief of time.
Sleep problems indicate underlying distress. The emotional and psychological distress I experience consists of a heightened awareness of negative thoughts and bodily processes, alongside a discomfort associated with these phenomena that gives rise to a fear of being overwhelmed.
I believe that the cause of my distress lies in childhood experiences of trauma and abandonment, which I responded to by trying to create a self-contained fantasy world devoid of threat, in which no-one could reach me to do me harm.
I know that I’m no longer experiencing the trauma and abandonment I suffered as a child. I’ve managed to sustain myself in a benign fantasy world in the past but I don’t currently have the ability to do this. I retreated from something that I found impossible to bear but the place I retreated to was insufficiently defended to secure myself against threat. At times I convince myself that there’s something beneath the anguish, a core of being that was never touched by it, a true and untarnished self, enduring incorruptible and serene.
Anguish is based on something deeper than the certainty of suffering and death; it is grounded in this certainty combined with the experience that death is not yet, that suffering is not exhausted, that we don’t know if death will be known through the process of dying, or if the moment of death will prove to be an experience or the extinguishment of the possibility of experience.
Anguish is based on the certainty that we will experience something that we cannot accurately conceive of. Anguish is the certainty that we will know what can’t be known.
The fact that everything ends in death renders everything futile. But we don’t experience the end until the end comes, and this enables us to engage in thought and actions that seek to link death, or what we imagine death to be, and what we imagine about what happens after death, with birth, which is an event we can’t remember, or with what happens before birth and conception, which is a fantasy.
When I wake up in the morning, I say to myself, “I don’t think I’m going to die today,” and I take it from there. There’s no objective standard by which to judge. Everything is provisional. Everything is contextual. The attribution of meaning is an exercise in shadowplay. I’m concerned with the authenticity of the uncertain. It’s the moment and the perception of the moment that is true or false, authentic or inauthentic. And the moment and the perception are mine.
I think. The critical internal voice is a sign of the cruelties inflicted upon me, but it’s also instructive, urging me to refrain from what is unprofitable. The dominant presence of any thought, or state, or mental occupation, is a restriction as far as other thoughts, states and occupations are concerned.
I act. Action doesn’t require effort when the desire to act is present. Passivity becomes strained and painful. I benefit from my actions and I suffer from them as well.
If day to day existence seems narrow, it’s a sign of the desirability of going beyond. Vitality flares up and diminishes. Significance is not constant. I will be sustained for a time regardless of what I am doing and then I will go down into nothingness.
I have fallen away from a false ideal. The idea of falling away is as oppressive and alien as the false ideal it relates to. The agency of the false ideal is a tyrannical god channeled through establishment authorities.
Love and hate are not constant and undivided but you can’t love what you hate when you’re hating it, you can’t bless what you curse when you’re cursing it, and you can only do good to those who do evil to you by subverting the reality of yourself.
I have a fearful self. My ideal self has been thrust upon me by people who have no interest in my welfare. The idea of being fearless is a fantasy born of a dream. I live in fear, and fear does not leave me for a moment.
I am powerless. Economic and political elites shape the world through the application of theories that promote their own interests, but this power play also takes place in local communities, in families, and in relationships between individuals. The dominant authority shifts, although it’s likely to be the authority that can impose its will on the greatest number of people at any given time.
I can’t delude myself because I am myself and the agency within me that might seek to delude me is undone by the agency that knows what the subverting impulse is up to. The immediate and apparent exists with a force that theoretical notions cannot aspire to.
I am self-reliant. My belief that I lack ‘necessary resources’ is an indication of the extent to which I submit myself to folly, or let myself be duped. What is beyond me is not certain. What is within me is not certain, either, but it’s more reliable than what is beyond.
I am present. I am not what I see but what I see is dependent on my presence. The extent to which I am present is constant but seems to change in accordance with the attention I bring to what I do. I don’t remain in what I’m doing when it’s finished but I’m always doing something and I remain in what I’m doing.
I want to go where I am and I want to do what I’m doing.