THE MASTER AND THE FOOL
When I got off the bus I was outside St Hillier’s Hospital on the Rosehill estate, (which might have been on a hill but was certainly not rosy). The hospital was a big white building that could be seen from many parts of London. London sits within a large artesian basin, through the middle of which the River Thames cuts its path to the sea. The area I grew up in during this period of my life, is called Sutton, meaning South Town, and unsurprisingly it sat on the southern edge of this basin. From certain points of this area, you could look right into London and clearly see landmarks over 10 miles away.
In front of the hospital, there was a park but it was more like a large dog’s toilet area. Walking across it was done at great risk and required a clearly focused mind and body. The beginning of a famous martial arts series in the 70’s, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, often showed the hero walking across rice paper as a test of his stealth. Walking across this park without getting dog shit on your shoes was far, far harder. The place I was aiming for was at the side of the park, a few hundred meters down the flanking road, avoiding the field completely. I wasn’t one to live dangerously when it came to dog poo. Even so, back in those days, dog poo was rarely cleared from pathways either and one would often get to know particular poos over time as they tended to stay in poosition for many months, sometimes years. In fact, they would become almost reassuring in their continuing presence, like homely landmarks, that we would witness getting old, turning white with age and finally, disappearing, whence a slight feeling of grieving would emerge for a second or two. Sometimes a little faint stain in the paving acted as a memorial. After all these years I still remember some fondly, even dog poo can fill one with nostalgia.
When I got to the small school building I’d been told to head towards, it seemed empty, no one was around at all. I carried on investigating and found a wooden gateway that opened to reveal more buildings. It was as if I was being tested. There were noises coming from a building nearby. In my little fantasy world, I had passed the imagined test with honours. In front of me was a gym with windows around it, inside I could see people kicking a kick bag and moving around in karate suits. The man I had talked to in Westcroft Sports center was there too so I asked him if I could join in. He told me to stand in the back row and follow the others.
* * *
For all my resistance to John’s authority, there was a yearning for father figures and discipline that recognised Karate wasn’t just going to offer me a way to learn to fight more effectively, but also it would help me become more acquainted with the world of men, and as we shall see later, women. In most cultures, the beginning of moving from the world of being a child to becoming an adult seems to take a definite turn at around the age of 13 or 14. The need to carry some kind of symbol to mark this transition seems quite common too. I looked at those coloured belts and I wanted one. I wanted to be recognised for accomplishing something because I knew that so far I hadn’t accomplished anything that would be seen in the world of men as worthy.
* * *
If this was a film, the frames would slow down and freeze, then rewind quickly to earlier in the year.
I’m on a bus in Grenoble in France. One of my teachers is trying to help me get my bus ticket out of my pocket, I’m almost insisting that he doesn’t do so.
“It’s ok sir, I can do it,” I say.
I lean over and try to get the ticket but there’s a paper bag in the way. I’m desperately trying to get the ticket.
“Oh let me help you,” he says
As I cry “No” his hand is in my pocket removing the paper bag and even before he gets to the ticket a flick knife falls out my pocket on to the floor. His face turns to thunder as he picks it up. After we get off the bus he tells me that he had trusted me when I said I couldn’t join the group because my leg was hurting, but really it was just a ruse so that I could buy the knife. He then dropped the knife down a drain. I don’t think I lost my temper but I was so angry that something I’d spent my money on had been thrown away.
* * *
Early 1979 Grenoble – France
As part of our French studies at Wilsons, we were encouraged to be part of the French exchange program which meant going to Grenoble. Grenoble was a big city near the foothills of the Alps in France. The idea was to spend some time living with a family and going to a school there for a couple of weeks. A few weeks later the child who we were paired with would then come to England to stay with us in our family homes. When we arrived in Grenoble we were paired with our counterparts, there was a look of contempt from one of the kids and the more I hoped we were not going to be put together the more I knew we would be. My gut feeling was right. Whilst his family and I got on really well straight away, I could feel his disdain for me from the outset. They had a big black dog that seemed ready to attack me at any point. I was scared of it most of the time I was in its presence and I think my fear of his dog was his greatest pleasure whilst I was there.
Most of the kids from Wilsons would not have come from a council estate, so it was ironic that we would all end up living on one as part of our exchange. Even though it was a newish one called the Villeneuve, it was already becoming known as a hot spot for tensions between youths and the police. The stairwell and lifts smelt of piss, and although there was a lack of dog poo I felt very much at home there, it was as if I was back on Roundshaw.
In those days the Villeneuve emitted an air of hopefulness for their dream of a brave crap world, what with its multicoloured tower blocks and a school filled with classrooms with no corners and, and… well that was about it really. But maybe there was a subconscious logic in the architect’s vision after all, while the children played on the grass areas encircled by the blocks of flats, and orange spotlights allowed playing till after the sky had disappeared, it was almost as if the architects wanted them to feel at home, I mean when they’d eventually end up in prison.
* * *
1979 A grassy play area in the Villeneuve.
Some boys in our group are play fighting. We’re showing each other how to get out of certain “self-defense” situations. There’s a Vietnamese boy there who looks a bit like Bruce Lee to the untrained eye so we’re all thinking he’s a martial arts expert. At this point, I haven’t done any martial arts training apart from looking at some Bruce Tegner self-defense books. So, when he’s demonstrating how to get someone in a stranglehold that is hard to get out of I tell him I can definitely get out of it. He takes the challenge, grabs me around the neck from behind, then starts to apply some pressure. I dig my chin into the crease of his elbow then whack my head back towards his face. I hear a crunch. He lets go and falls back. There’s blood coming out of his mouth, but he’s nodding in approval.
I’m still in the mode of trying to be a hard man (even though me, you, and most of the kids from my school know I’m not).
One of the kids from Nigeria, and “not that it matters” but he is black, comes up to me and says “You should meet my brother he does Taekwondo”.
“I’d love to, can he teach me some?”
“I’ll ask him,” he says smiling
“Thanks, do you do it?” I ask
“A little,” he says.
He jumps in the air, spins and does a kick.
I’m very impressed. I feel like I’m mixing with celebrities.
So the next day I go to his apartment. This is definitely a male-only flat. It’s sparse, just a table, cooker, and some metal chairs. There is something unnerving about the place though, it has the feel of a lair. When his brother comes in he says, “My brother tells me you want to learn some taekwondo”, I nod yes. He then kicks the kitchen door with a high roundhouse kick. There’s a loud bang as the door slams shut.
“Come here,” he says “I’ll show you something”
I stand up
“Try to kick me, try to kick me in the balls,” he says excitedly
“I can’t, I don’t want to”
“Go on, try!” he orders.
So, I kick out toward him. He spins around me, throws a punch to my head, kicks my leg away, then grabs me so I don’t hit the floor.
“That’s amazing I say, will you show me how to do that please?”
So, for the next hour, he makes me practice it repeatedly until I start to get it.
When I go away I feel invincible, the rush of delusion feels incredible.
* * *
There’s something that Karate and psychoanalysis have in common. It’s related to bringing people to a more honest understanding of themselves. Our society has created generations of people who have very little understanding of their physical limits because they have never really tested themselves. It was no coincidence that as National Service ended football hooliganism increased massively. Young people want to know themselves because without doing so they doubt themselves, they know that most of the time they are posturing, copying the lines they’ve heard in films. In many ways, society had created generations of excellent actors and I was heading for a leading role.
* * *
The father of my exchange victim was a small thin man with a humped back, glasses and a President Lincoln type beard. The mother was a little chubby with dark wavy hair. I immediately connected with them and felt at home. Each morning we’d have chocolate with loads of sugar lumps to drink, cereal and croissants. I was bouncing off the walls for the rest of the day. In the evening, there’d be a lovely multiple course meal. I probably could have stayed a lot longer, although one day I was in their bathroom looking at the wall-size photograph of a forest, trying to work out if it was my eyes or could foliage really be that luminous, when for a moment I missed home, I missed the grey clouds and rain, I even missed John –a tiny bit-.
* * *
Wherever I went in their apartment that fucking dog followed me growling. For special moments it would bark at me ferociously. I tried to make friends with it, stroked it, fed it, showed it I was truly scared, but it wouldn’t let up. If I was desperate to go to the loo at night it was like running a gauntlet, as he would bark and growl, waking the whole apartment up. After a while, if I woke up wanting a pee I’d be filled with dread. I’m sure my exchange buddy trained him to hate me.
* * *
When I start to write these chapters I make notes about things I want to cover, writing down ideas on my phone, researching old diaries, books, and the Internet. After some time themes start emerging. Once I get to that point my mind will focus in on those issues a lot, so much so, I can’t get to sleep for thinking about them. As I thought about this chapter, especially about Karate, I was struck by how often people ask what grade I am. The simple answer is I wasn’t a high grade and I was never any good. Even so, I loved it, training from 14 until my late 30’s intensely and then petering out over the next 5 years into my mid 40’s. Even now I want to train, but I know my body can’t handle it beyond doing some basics. When people start doing most new sports they dream about success, maybe winning a competition, being respected for mastering something, teaching it to others, and so on, but in reality, these things become the by-product of that activity becoming a way of life, a process that one loves being involved with.
For me, I gained qualifications in painting, I am naturally competent at it and love doing it, but I love doing music more. I don’t have any qualifications in music and doubt I could ever earn any because what I have learned relating to music has very little to do with the formal learning route, but I don’t care, because I love doing music anyway. I have qualifications in other things, but really they were to do with proving to others that I could work in those fields. Whilst I still like teaching, I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, likewise, I’m qualified in relation to computer science and can work in it to some degree but I wouldn’t want to spend most of my time doing so. I don’t have any qualifications in photography, but I work as a photographer and enjoy it. So, this made wonder about our obsession with focusing on qualifications.
During and after the Brexit debate people were told that experts were advising that leaving would be detrimental, and when people ignored that advice they were seen as stupid for believing that they knew better. But anyone who is considered an expert by others will nearly always agree that other experts in their fields will disagree with them on many issues.
In a deck of Tarot cards, there is the image of the fool. The archetypal fool can represent an ability to bring about new ways of doing and seeing things. From the moment we are born we start to play with things and want to master the world around us, not just because we want to control it but because we love the process of learning, discovery and knowing.
Qualifications may be a way to feel significant, but playfulness and mastering things is a way of loving life. I don’t want to criticise our need to feel significant to our peers because I think in many ways that’s important, but perhaps our greatest ambition should be to enjoy doing things for the love of them.
* * *
I was walking around Grenoble with the rest of my schoolmates and a couple of teachers. We’d got close to the Bastille, which was a fortress that was high on a hill when I spotted a shop selling flick knives. I told the teacher that, my legs were hurting and I couldn’t make the walk up the hill, so they let me wait for them there. That’s when I bought the flick knife from quite a concerned looking shopkeeper. He probably thought I’d lost my arms because of not handling one properly in the first place. It would have all gone to plan had I remembered to put the bus ticket above the knife in my pocket. But I must have had a guardian angel watching over me that day.
* * *
1979 Tweeddale Karate Club
I stood in the back row, I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. The teacher was strict and I obeyed. I was at almost the same age as my father when he joined the army. I didn’t know that then, as we hadn’t met yet, but now when I think about it, it seems like it was in our DNA to make way for our warrior archetypes to show their face.
* * *
16th October 2018
The word “Master” has its roots in the Latin noun “magister” which meant “one who has control and authority” but more recently it came to mean “to acquire complete knowledge of”. As one gains more knowledge one realises that no one acquires complete knowledge of their disciplines. Even in the more measured fields of science, there tends to be disagreement regarding the higher theoretical areas. It’s very hard to trust the branding of a theory a “truth” when somewhere down the line someone proves it to no longer be 100% accurate. If we didn’t think of mastering as “to acquire complete knowledge of something” but instead “to acquire a great deal of knowledge of something” then I think people would feel the definition was more honest and have more respect for it.
In 1981 Gwynne Thomas, who was one of the top civil servants under Margaret Thatcher, said to me, “Don’t ever trust people who are labeled as experts. A load of so-called experts just designed a new train for the London Underground and they are too big to fit in the tunnels safely.” Whilst that stuck in my mind I was still star struck by the martial artists I came to meet, even into my twenties. It wasn’t that they didn’t deserve a lot of respect, it was my desire to idealise them that was a problem because it wasn’t realistic.
As we get older or even just progress through the journey of studying something in depth we start to recognise in others, the different stages that we have passed through. At that point too we are passing through yet another stage, but I doubt many of us would believe we have learned all there is to know.
At 53 I can still feel the warrior archetype has a big role in my internal world. I still practice my karate basics (Kihon) regularly and at times can feel my own violent desires, especially if someone pisses me off. That doesn’t mean I would do anything, even if I could, but I am willing to accept that part of who I am is driven by primeval influences.
For the last few days, I’ve been watching Season one of Vikings. I was struck by how many people in our society dress or style themselves in a similar way, and how popular tattooing has become. It’s as if the more sophisticated we are, the more sociologically engineered we feel, then the more people are drawn to reconnect with their more primordial selves.
* * *
I have mentioned before that when it comes to humans, they can’t be reprogrammed completely, I think living in a world where we can program computers and some genes even, many people believe we can program humans too. Behind this belief lies the issue of idealism versus realism. Even in the world of Martial Art this debate rages. Some martial arts end with the word “Do”, which roughly translate as the “art of doing something” whereas some others use the word Jitsu (the pronounciation of this word can change its meaning to that of “do” so some people will argue this point), anyway, it tends to be translated as “realistic”, in other words, the practical way of doing something. Throughout our lives we will recognise this issue in many areas, especially in politics, is it “ideals” or “pragmatism” that we mostly hold our faith in? It is such an important factor that in some instances, what we decide may well lead to our survival or destruction. In some of Shakespeare’s works, the idea that common people had a more practical understanding of the world compared to the idealistic untested beliefs of the court, this theme would surface over and over again. Right now, in 2018, as the Brexit debate ensues, those who want to leave believe that those who want to stay have no common sense, whilst those who want to stay think those who want to leave are not able to grasp the complexities of the arguments.
The fool and the master circle each other not sure of who is who.
* * *
In the early days of World War 2, Vernon, who had a strong Barnsley accent, had been requested by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to come for an interview. He was already well known in academic circles for his papers on French education and for being something of a specialist regarding all things to do with Belgium. During the 1930’s he had traveled widely around Europe, especially France and Belgium, where he had picked up some of the local accents to such an extent that he was now being considered as an agent to work behind enemy lines. One of the interviewers asked in a very plummy accent, “Do you think your Yorkshire intonation might come through in anyway?’
“Ah du ‘ope not,” he said smiling.
After some training, he was covertly taken to Brussels where he helped coordinate the local underground resistance which mainly consisted of publishing pamphlets and disseminating information. One day one of the young teenage boys came to him to say his father had found out he was delivering some of the pamphlets and had beaten his for doing so. Vernon told him it would be ok to stop but the boy wanted to carry on. Just recently our own government has been debating whether to use children as informants, especially in war zones. Yet again idealism v’s pragmatism strikes.
For Vernon, his job primarily required fitting in as a local and most importantly not sticking out in any way that could get him noticed. Outside of reporting information between England and the underground members, life was quiet. time, he settled into life there and befriended a woman who he felt very connected with. When the war ended, he would have to face the trauma of revealing his true identity to those around him. As the celebration party for the members of the underground proceeded he felt a bittersweetness. The father who had beaten his son apologised to his son, explaining to him that it was because he was the editor of the secret pamphlets that he had been so determined to put him off, not only did he not want his son to be in danger, but he was also worried they might all get discovered. If the first victim of war is the truth, then maybe the first victims of peace are those who withheld it. The relationship between this woman and Vernon did not blossom into a romance but they still kept in contact. She eventually married someone else while Vernon became even more involved in educational theory, history, and French studies. He would often visit the woman and her family, becoming a friend to her husband too, who in time she had children with, one of whom was born with an absent lower arm. Maybe this was the son he never had, the one he would have had, or maybe in a way it was a symbol of himself, a boy with something missing. Either way, he felt very close to this child. and because of this relationship, he became interested in how children with disabilities are dealt with in the education systems.
When I was 11 mum and I visited Vernon for the first time. He was already in his late 60’s but was busy writing many books and very involved in the academic world both as a professor and dean at a major university. Every year mum would send me to stay with Vernon in Walmer, near Deal in Kent. He was one of the many father figures that had an effect on me. He tended to be quite direct. If I told him something I didn’t like about my mother, for instance, he’d tell me she was right and why he thought so, but I didn’t mind, he would explain himself and I liked him. Somewhere in those stays he planted some of the seeds to my redemption, I needed male mentors and he was definitely a good one. He would tell me stories about Graham Greene, who he knew and didn’t like and Ian Flemming, who he knew, but resented somewhat for using the word “Spy” in his 007 novels, as they were not spies. One day he told me about a fellow professor whose main interest was in geology. “He had no formal qualifications, but he loved the subject so much and wrote so many great papers on it that the university made him a professor. Nowadays he wouldn’t be allowed into the university, he wouldn’t have been able to pass the entrance requirements. Who is the education system for? If it’s ultimately for the advancement of society then it’s not going a very good job is it?”
Yet again the idealist wants to bring out the best in everyone, the pragmatist says it isn’t possible and focuses on the elite, or possibly those who need help, but can’t help everyone. Which one is the master, which one the fool?
I could be impressed by the men who could roundhouse kick a door in Grenoble but there was something I knew to be more nourishing in the likes of Vernon or Grant my new karate teacher. And in his later years, he bought a gold Ford Capri which rather impressed me because I didn’t expect him to have that kind of car. He was friends with Ian Fletcher, the doctor who was in the magic circle who I mentioned in an earlier chapter, both of them it seems had a penchant for fast cars. Maybe their warrior archetypes were only let out on the roads between work and home.
* * *
September 2018 Dream
I’m in a strange triangular shaped living room, on one side there is a balcony that overlooks the sea where a young girl is, she’s probably in her teens. I go out to her, and say “Hello”. She’s a guest in this kind of hotel which I am the owner of. She says “Hello” quietly. I walk back into the living room and there is another window looking out onto the sea too. I can see big waves coming towards us so I say to her “look, have a look at this“. We look and she says “it’s a bit dangerous living so close to the sea”. I say “Well, this property has been here a long time but I guess there is a risk that I could be in trouble in the future. Especially with Global warming and all that.”
Her parents walk into the living room. I realise they have been guests before. I remember that a previous conversation we had had, had been about the father looking like he was a teacher, when in fact he wasn’t. It’s such a real memory that later when I woke up I wondered whether I had actually had a dream with them in previously, or was it simply a memory in that dream.
At one point, I hear his wife whisper something like “I think he is an unsuccessful artist who’s become a teacher”.
I say, “Are you talking about me?”
She says “Yes”
So I ask “Well, what do you count as a successful artist? Is it someone who has made lots of money and is recognised by their peers?”
To which they say “yes”.
I ask another question “What if they are very unhappy, what about if they don’t even like doing art, are they a successful artist then?”
The husband says “No, not completely” and she nods in agreement.
I then put to them “What about if I enjoy doing art?”
I can see that the other people in the room, other guests are nodding in agreement, they get what I’m saying. I look at them and say
“People are often defined by their peers. They can say they are an artist but if no one else agrees then they tend to be seen as delusional. But success is another matter, that can be measured in all sorts of ways.”
When I wake up I realise the dream is telling me something, it’s telling me not to be a hotelier.
* * *
I was sitting at the main terminus bus stop on Roundshaw. It was dark, raining and cold. A car pulled up across the road, someone was smoking in the driver’s seat and their window was down. They had their car stereo on loud. There were some guitar notes playing, quite long notes with big spaces between them. Suddenly some drums kicked in and a rhythm guitar and bass line thumped through the air. A voice sang
“Sweet surrender on the quayside
You remember we used to hide
In the shadow of the cargoes, I take you one time
And we’re counting all the numbers down to the waterline”
The car’s front wheels span then it shot off fast. I didn’t know it then but that was my introduction to the music of Dire Straits.
* * *
During the middle of our stay in Grenoble, the family I was staying with took me to one of their extended family parties in Dijon. Outside of getting me a bit tipsy on champagne I don’t remember much (maybe I was tipsier than I thought), but at one point one of the guys there took me to a room and insisted on playing me an album of music which he said was fantastic but when I listened to it, it didn’t really grab me. I knew one of the songs from the radio and I recognised the first track, it was the one I’d heard at the bus stop a few years before. It was the first album by Dire Straits, a music band who would become a big part of my and many other people’s lives.
* * *
1979 (April/May) Wallington
Mum had put a camp bed up for my French exchange “survivor” who was less than impressed. I had a big tropical fish tank in my room and his head was positioned at the end of it for maximum disturbance of sleep patterns. Not only was he homesick but he didn’t like anything about England, admittedly mum’s food was not the finest example of English cuisine but who doesn’t like chips, I mean they’re called French Fries for God’s sake. O.K. not by French people. Anyway, he didn’t eat hardly anything and didn’t sleep well, the weather was bad and we didn’t get on. I don’t think he ever came back to England and I can imagine he was one of the many Europeans who cheered when the Brexit vote came through. At one point, he said something that annoyed me. I had a hairbrush on a stick that looked like a lavatory brush, I threw it at him, I couldn’t understand his French but I’m sure it was something on the lines of “How much worse can life get”
I would have felt sorry for him but the memory of his black dog was still raw. And, as you’re getting to see, I wasn’t a very nice person.
* * *
Over the last month or so I have been working on the last few chapters, initially because a piece of my music making equipment needed repairing so I thought I’d use the time to not only write but to have some space from the music album I was working on. During this time as people have come to mind, I have searched them out on the Internet and tried to get back in touch. Overall it’s been a touching experience and helped to bring back many memories. I haven’t heard from a lot of these people for between 30 to 40 years, (I know you might be thinking they were trying to tell me something but just in case they weren’t I sent them a message). For most of them, our last communication would have been by letter.
There was a ceremony around corresponding by letter, and whilst I wouldn’t want to go back to it, it definitely had some elements that I miss. Waiting for a letter and its subsequent arrival had emotional resonance and writing a letter by hand had a measure of romance and linked back to hundreds of years of tradition. Every week I would probably write two or three letters. Up until about 1996 communication was via letter or phone mainly (I’m not counting faxes). After that communication involved looking at a screen and typing or putting a piece of plastic and glass to our faces to make a call. Previously a heavy home phone receiver pressed against our ear whilst we spoke into a mouthpiece microphone, and apart from being heavy the cost of calls tended to limit the length of chatting to.
Lee and I stayed in contact quite a bit, Lee was in a boarding school so had plenty of time to write. We also figured out a way of calling each other for free. We would go to phone boxes near where we lived at a pre-arranged time agreed in a letter then one of us would call the operator and request a reverse charge call (collect call) to the other number. The operator would call that number and ask whichever one of us answered if we were willing to accept the charge, to which we’d say yes and then we could chat without having to pay for hours until it got too cold or a queue of other people grew outside the phone box.
Via these calls and letters, we arranged to meet up at a holiday camp for disabled kids during the summer.
* * *
1979 Holiday Campsite for disabled kids near London
George and Clive had no legs, they were bouncing on a trampoline on the lawn just outside the reception area when we arrived at the campsite. My heart sunk because Clive was the guy who had given me a black eye in hospital when I grassed him up for smoking. George was just plain dangerous and Veronica, the girl who’d held my legs down as he punched me, was there too. They were boisterously play fighting and jeering each other. Lee, who had got the minibus with me from the hospital was less filled with dread. Instead, Clive was wary of him because once when they had come to blows, Lee had unattached the hook from his artificial arm and thrown it at Clive’s head catching him just above the eye. At that moment, their relationship was defined with Lee marked “dangerous”.
The campsite, which was a big field surrounded by trees had a main meeting hall, a toilet/shower block, and a cookhouse to one side of it and tucked into the hillside, just below the main camping area, was an outdoor heated swimming pool. Lee and I were allotted a tent at the edge of the field near the drop to the pool. Another kid who we hadn’t met before was placed in our tent too.
The first evening went as most introductory events go, but from the outset, we made it clear we were aligned with the bad kids. For all the hassle, we might get from the adult world it would not be as bad as the risks involved in going against George or Clive, whilst they were in their mid-teens they had an edge of violence about them that scared us. But even being on their side came with risks.
On the first night, Lee, Clive, Veronica, George and I decided to creep down to the swimming pool for a swim. It was eerie because a lot of steam was coming off the pool whilst all around us was the sound of animals doing what animals do at night. We quietly slipped into the pool, whispering, and swimming as silently as we could. Suddenly I felt a hand grab my hair and push me under water. Even in the darkness, I could tell it was Clive. I struggled, but couldn’t escape, I thought he’s going to let go of me, but he didn’t. I struggled more kicking off from the bottom of the pool, but I couldn’t get above the surface of the water for breath. I started to punch at his hand, I was feeling desperate. I started to think he was going to kill me. I was twisting and becoming frantic, then his hand was gone and I came to the surface. As I gasped for air both Clive and George were laughing.
“You could have killed me,” I said
“We were only having a laugh, what’s the matter with you?” he said.
Veronica was sitting on the side of the pool but could hear what had happened
“Leave him alone Clive, stop being a cunt,” she said in her strong London accent
Lee put his hand on Clive’s head and pushed him down, but Clive batted his arm away.
“Fuck off Lee” Clive barked
“Ya Don Like it whan sumone duz it t’you, d’ya?” Lee said.
“Just watch it Lee” warned Clive
“Fuk off,” Lee said disparagingly.
We slunk out of the pool then made our way back up the hill to our tents. Still wet and shivering we got into our sleeping bags, had a chat then slept.
When I woke up it was to the sound of Lee complaining about something. There was a strong smell of shit. The boy sharing our tent had a colostomy bag which had leaked and due to us sleeping on a hill he had slid towards Lee, who was now daubed in poo. When it came to urine or colostomy bags Lee was obviously not well fated. After Lee had got cleaned up and the tent had been sorted out we asked if we could not share the tent with the guy anymore. Our wish was granted. The downside to this was the kid then told on us for swimming in the pool so we were hauled in and given a stern warning that we’d be sent home if we did it again. A bit later, we watched the kid heading to his new tent, we checked for staff then both us ran past him and kicked his crutches into the air so he fell back. As we picked him up we warned him that if he crossed us again there’d be hell to pay. He cried and we walked off feeling very self-satisfied. To him, we were as bad and frightening as Clive and George were to us.
* * *
Relatively speaking, my misdemeanors were quite mild at this point, but I was certainly heading in the same direction as Clive and George. Clive eventually ended up doing some time in prison then after a period of substance abuse became a beggar. The last time I saw him he was begging outside a station in Richmond. I don’t know what happened to him after that. As for George, I think he ended up in prison, he was extremely violent and even though he had no legs he was a formidable fighter. I don’t really know what path his life took but he certainly identified a lot with his own warrior archetype.
* * *
For a day or so there was a truce between us, even so, Clive thought it was funny to try drowning me again but this time I fought back and started to lose my temper with him. At that point, he swam off. A few minutes later there was a bit of a panic then we realised that one of the kids was being hauled out of the pool. As a couple of people applied mouth to mouth and cardiac resuscitation we could see he was in a bad way. His eye sockets and lips were a purple-blue colour and he was coughing up leaves. A bit later on he died. He wasn’t supposed to have gone into the pool as he had epileptic fits, there would, of course, be an inquiry, changes would be made, but for this child, it was all too late.
Clive had lost his legs whilst playing on train lines, Lee had lost his hand and foot playing between train carriages. Some kids, if they get the chance will take big risks.
* * *
From that point on a somber air hit the camp and a few days later a memorial service was arranged for the kid who died, which his mother would be attending. All of us were summoned to attend the ceremony which was held around the tree in the center of the site. Although Lee and I sat at the back and were out of view of the mother our decision to get the giggles didn’t go unnoticed. One of the older male organisers put his hand over my mouth, his other hand on the back of my neck and marched me away from the service, then pushed me to the ground and quite rightly gave me a full-throttled dressing down. He then placed me in the main meeting room and informed me I would be sent home.
After the formalities of the memorial service ended, people were milling around outside. I could see some of the other kids talking about me whilst Clive, George and Veronica observed from a distance.
The main door slid open and two of the organisers came in.
The man who had pinned me to the ground said “I think your behaviour has been disgusting, you don’t deserve to be allowed to stay here, but Dennis here, he thinks you should be offered a chance at redemption. He thinks you should be allowed to stay if you work in the cookhouse till the end of the week. Do you want to do that?”
I nodded yes.
The other man interjected “Well?”
“Thank you. I’m sorry” I said
“We’ve offered the same deal for your mate too and he’s agreed to the same terms,” Dennis said.
I nodded sorrowfully but knowing that Lee was going to keep me company in our punishment, filled me with joy.
* * *
Working in the cookhouse meant cleaning the pans used for cooking, some were so big that I could sit in them whilst I scraped off the dried porridge. It also involved serving out the food and dealing with selling sweets in the tuck shop. True to our Robin Hood selves we served big portions to those we liked and not so big ones to those we didn’t, and when it came to selling sweets, we gave more change back to our chosen flock than they gave us in the first place. So over a few days, we cemented more allegiance from a few of the kids, and because we got on with our duties so dutifully the management felt we were taking our punishment seriously and felt we were at least learning a lesson.
What this also meant was that outside of our chores we were free to do what we liked. So, one evening we went to for a walk to the local pub, The Spotted Cow. We were 14 years old, the legal age for being in a pub unaccompanied was 18.
“Just be confident, walk up to the bar and calmly ask for a drink,” Lee said.
So, we walked in and approached the bar. A blond woman with short hair said “Hello Gentlemen, what can I get you?”
Lee said “Half a shandy luv” (look it’s the 1970’s)
“And you sir?” she said tilting her head at me
“A snowball please” Outside of a Babycham, it was the only alcoholic drink I liked.
She almost burst out laughing but kept a straight face. “Would you like a cherry on that sir?”
“Yes please,” I said smiling
“Take a seat, I’ll bring them over,” she said.
The pub was empty.
“Ayup,” said Lee, “They’ve got a one-armed bandit, d’ya wanna a go Simon?”
“OK,” I said
“Don’t worry, I’ll ‘elp ya, I play one like this all t’ ‘ime up in Barnsley”
So, I put 50p in and didn’t win a thing, and that was the end of my gambling days (excluding doing the lottery). Losing 50p back then was quite a bit, but in its own way, it was a very cheap lesson.
“You are over 18 aren’t you?” The bar lady asked
“Yes, I’m 19 and he’s 18,” Lee said. Then he reeled off our dates of birth as previously prepared.
“It’s ok”, she said, “I’m just checking”
“Aw don’t worry, we’re always being asked, aren’t we Simon? We look young for our age” Lee said with yet another well-rehearsed performance.
I nod in agreement.
She knew we were underage, but in those days, especially in country pubs it wasn’t a big deal and as long as she asked us if we were over 18 and we gave the correct answers, it wasn’t a problem.
* * *
It wasn’t all plain sailing over the remaining days, Lee and I were seen as being delinquent, especially by the staff, and there were quite a few people who wanted to bring us down a peg or two. At one point one of the Scoutmasters went for me, I can’t remember why, but I expect he had good reason to. He pushed me down and with his hand around my throat said something like “Either he goes or I go!”, yes, I definitely must have said something bad and it probably didn’t help matters when my reaction was to say “Bye then, do you need help packing?”. At that point, he lifted his arm to thump me but within a second Clive was by his side, grabbing his arm and saying. “If you touch him you’ll have me to deal with”. Which probably allowed him to pull back from his anger enough to back off. From then on Clive was much friendlier towards me. I had become his enemy’s enemy.
A bit later, one of the men who worked in the kitchen with us told me I couldn’t hurt a fly, that I hadn’t defended myself against the Scoutmaster’s attack. So, remembering what the Taekwondo guy had taught me in Grenoble I suggested he try kicking me in the balls. This must have been an odd response because he looked a bit perturbed. He probably thought that if he hurt me he’d be in trouble and if by some miracle I managed to hurt him he wouldn’t look good either. For some reason, he too became a bit friendlier towards me afterward. I was beginning to sense that there were complicated codes of allegiance and respect that I hadn’t come across before, namely because men start to recognise that at 14 boys are beginning to no longer be children although they certainly are not men either.
* * *
1979 Tweeddale Karate Club
I had been going to the karate club for about 5 weeks when Grant couldn’t take the session so one of the brown belts called Martin took it and “not that it matters” but he was white. Within about 5 minutes he told me to sit in the corner and face the corner because I had been talking when I shouldn’t have. I knew I had to do what I was told but was still cursing under my breath. After about 20 minutes he said, “Do you think you can behave yourself now?”
“Yes, sir,” I said sheepishly
“Well get in line then”
And from then on, at least in the karate dojo, I did.
* * *
Dedicated to Vernon Mallinson born 27 February 1910 died 1991 – Awarded the Ordre de Leopold II