Simon Mark Smith (Simonsdiary.com)

Simon Mark Smith’s Autobiography Chapter 37

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Chapter 37 – Part 1

Introduction

“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel” These are the famous lines of Horace Walpole, lines that I’d try to slip into every one of my English A level essays. Fortunately, I was in good company as Walpole himself repeatedly used them in numerous letters. Back then, that was the equivalent of sharing a post on social media. They say you can never get too much of a good thing, but I bet my English teachers weren’t so sure.

Walpole’s words rang true to me at the time, they were funny and sad simultaneously, what’s more, they could easily act as an example of post-Modernism, given the same object, life, in this case, is viewed so differently due to the subject’s opposing perspectives. In that way, Walpole was way ahead of his time.

Upon reflection though, I came to see this quote, as flawed, after all, do we not usually think and feel at the same time? Our reactions to most things are rarely just thoughts or feelings but a mixture of both. Even in our saddest moments, there may be flashes of dark humour. Likewise in our joyous laughter is there not also a touch of fear for what is to come? Still, if you are able to react to life with thoughts only, then he was right, life’s a blast.

As I approached the end of 1982 school was going well, I’d already passed my Art A level a year early and if things went to plan, I’d hopefully get 5 A levels all in. Just 3 would be enough to get me on to a university course, so, I was feeling positive about the future. I’d also got more drawings published in the school and national karate magazines, plus a prize for my summertime essay on Graham Greene. After the prize-giving ceremony, one of the school governor’s wives and I flirted together which felt far more rewarding than the £5 book token I’d received earlier.

Reading the diary pages for these months, my overwhelming feeling was of cold, wet, wintery nights, or snowy, grey sky days, but for all that, things felt like they were going in the right direction.

*                      *                      *

Bettie – Rēzekne 1937

Bettie was my father’s eldest sister. Had she not met Chanan Chesler, then maybe her mother, my grandmother, Esther, wouldn’t have agreed to Samuel, her husband and Ruedy her eldest son, going to South Africa. Bettie was Esther’s firstborn and had been like a second mother to the rest of the children. But now, she started to yearn for a life of her own.

Chanan was not particularly handsome. He looked as if he’d been slightly stretched but to Esther, there was something about him that reminded her of her own father. When Bettie presented him as a possible husband Esther encouraged her to marry him, even though she knew she’d lose her daughter’s support and company.

In 1938 Bettie and Channon got married just a few weeks before Esther, Boris and Eliezer set sail. The wedding had been quite a large event, full of their friends and family, all dressed up in top hats, suits, and long sparkly dresses. In the photos, they looked like 1930’s film stars which given they were poor was all the more impressive. Bettie wore an elegant, plain, white figure-hugging gown, in her eyes there was hope and excitement and in Chanan’s, there was Bettie.

Chanan worked hard in Rēzekne as a tailor, but when an opportunity arose to work in Riga, they grasped it. Within weeks they started their new life in a one-room apartment in a house filled with other young people. The building wasn’t far from the river. They would feel its cold damp air touch their skin at night and breathe it in deeply. It was as if they’d moved to another world.

*                      *                      *

Sarah – Part 1 – November 1982

In the last chapter, we’d got to Christmas 1982, but I want to rewind a little before moving on. Back in mid-November one of the girls, I’d chat to on the bus to school told me she wanted to send me something, so, I gave her my address. A few days later a letter from her arrived. It was light-hearted, with a good smack of humour but at the end, she asked if I wanted to come to her place for tea one evening the following week. Even I wasn’t so naïve not to realise this was a bit of a come-on. The problem was, I didn’t feel any romantic feelings for her, although that didn’t stop me from finding her sexually attractive, especially since she had a pretty face and large breasts.

I should have been straight from the start, but I knew by doing so I’d scupper any chances of us getting up to anything. Had I said ‘look, if you’re after a bit of fun, I’m up for that, but if it’s a relationship you want, sorry, I’m not feeling it’, she might have told me where to go, but who knows, she may not have. Even that would be taking advantage though. After all, if someone’s into you, they’re likely to take what they can, hoping more will develop later.

These are exactly the kind of concerns no one ever taught us about and are not as obvious as some may think. As far as I was concerned someone who I found a bit sexy was up for an adventure. I hadn’t set out to deliberately be hurtful, but I didn’t consider her feelings either. When we next saw each other on the bus, she asked if I’d got her letter, I told her I had, and then she tentatively asked if I wanted to come to dinner one evening. I said I did, and she seemed overjoyed.

*                      *                      *

Body Fascism

People have been revered and reviled throughout history for being fat, and currently, depending on the culture one finds oneself in, the same holds true. The West has stigmatised fat people for centuries and during the 1980s this was no less so. Even today with all our social awareness and sensitivity to many issues, fat people are looked down upon. Not only that, whole industries exploit these attitudes to feed their consumers’ desires to eat less and be less. As much as people focus on this issue in terms of health, it still comes down to physical appearance.

How we look is one of the most influential factors in our lives, of course though, it’s not the only one. Some of the themes in this and the following chapters relate directly to these issues. Understanding the significance of appearance in our dealings with others doesn’t just come from values based on social league tables, but includes our genetic, instinctive, and biological drives, cultural values, and tastes derived from individual experiences. The point is no matter what we think is a kinder way of being, our ‘baser’ drives have a profound effect on how we react to each other and who we’re attracted to.

Given I’d experienced rejection and stigma because of how I looked, you’d have thought I’d have been particularly empathetic when it came to others who were stigmatised because of their physique. That wasn’t the case at all. Maybe I was externalising what I’d experienced, as in, I was taking power by becoming ‘the oppressor’. However, it may just have likely been because I was a shallow, inconsiderate, 17-year-old, driven by all the wrong reasons teenagers are prone to.

The term ‘body fascism’ became popular in the 80s, but way before that there were plenty who focused on people’s physical appearance. For instance, ballet dancers of either sex were only acceptable in certain sizes, no one questioned it, and even though some people have pushed the boundaries recently, they haven’t been pushed that far. Of course, none of this is new, the Women’s, Race and Disability rights movements were acutely aware from their outset of the barriers faced simply because of physical appearance. However, no matter how unfair we may believe this to be, we all know, our looks play a substantial role in our lives.

At 17 I’d already navigated inner journeys about my own, and other people’s physical forms. I was very aware that both girls and boys objectified each other’s bodies. I could feel it intensely in myself too. There had been a girl on the bus to school who’d regularly wear a short skirt which revealed most of her thighs. Sunil and I would mouth ‘wow’ when we saw her, and for days afterwards, I couldn’t get the image of her legs out of my mind. To me, they were beyond beautiful, and I wanted to feel them gently touch my face.          

It’s all very well trying to curb our inclination to objectify parts of other people’s bodies. But doing so will likely end up merely being a lip service that pushes ‘shallow’ feelings ever deeper. Instead, allowing people to accept such desires as being natural, while also getting them to remember there’s a real human, with feelings, attached to those ‘bits’, might be a more realistic compromise.

After decades of feminism, there’s more physical augmentation of both sexes than ever. Is this partly the result of a clash of cultures, where some want to deny objectification, while others idolise it, or maybe it’s a symptom of consumerism, where we’ve become both the consumer and product?

When it came to my own shallow preferences, I liked women with hour-glass figures, medium to large breasts, long, short, curly, straight, dark, blonde, or ginger hair; full lips; large noses; freckles; pale or dark skin; And when it came to height, with some restrictions, they were all appreciated. For someone who was socially speaking, ‘not a catch’, I was fussy, I was a body fascist.

*                      *                      *

One day I was telling Ann and Paul about how shallow I was when it came to who I fancied.

Ann looked at me and sighed ‘Don’t worry sweetheart, I think you’ll find you’re in good company’

Paul looked at me and smiled as he chewed on his food

Ann looked at me quite firmly over her glasses ‘My granny used to say, men fall in love through their eyes, while women fall in love through their ears’ she paused for a second then laughed.

I interjected, ‘Isn’t that a bit sexist?’

‘Maybe’ she said, ‘But there’s more than a grain of truth to it, don’t you think?’

I nodded

‘Just because something is sexist’ she continued ‘doesn’t mean it’s completely wrong. It’s the revenge of biology sweetheart.’

*                      *                      *

Abbie (Part 1)

After the summer holidays, my relationship with Abbie declined incrementally. Firstly, after several last-minute cancellations, I felt taken for granted and got the hump with her. Then in December one of my schoolmates informed me she’d told him I was annoying after I popped into where they worked. On top of that, he said he’d seen her snogging a bloke who I disliked intensely, especially as he was involved in persecuting another girl I knew. So, after Abbie let me down a few more times in a row, I stopped calling her, knowing full well she’d soon get the message. The thing was, it wasn’t just a loud silence I sent her, it was an act of retribution aimed to hurt.

There was something about my inability to talk things out when it came to anger that I’d picked up from mum. She could be very reactive when it came to being slighted. Instead of talking things out when a problem arose, she’d just ignore whoever had annoyed her from then on. True, that was, in a manner of not speaking, one way of saying something, but using words would’ve probably been far more constructive.

With regards to the bloke Abbie allegedly snogged, who’d also persecuted this girl I knew, well, he was someone I’d taken an immediate dislike to way before any of that happened. I don’t know why he decided to target the girl, but one of the things he, along with a few of his cohorts did, was place an abhorrent object on her doorstep. The girl’s younger sibling came across it, immediately informed their parents and while initially calm, later became fearful of the malice waiting and watching in the morning lack of light.

Later that day the girl’s dad collared the ringleader, who denied all knowledge but couldn’t stop smirking throughout the whole meeting. The situation ended with a warning and a threat, which was answered with an ‘I didn’t do anything’, followed by an almost comical gulp, then copious amounts of indignation.

A few months later I got talking to one of the ‘gang’ members, she confirmed they had done it, but wasn’t sure why the ringleader had taken such a dislike to my friend, but he did and from then on, she became the focus of his hate-campaign.

When I found out about Abbie snogging this bloke, I probably was a bit jealous, but she’d previously had other boyfriends who I hadn’t felt like that about, so I’m pretty sure his behaviour and my previous intense dislike of him were the main contributing factors. From then on, I didn’t want to talk to her. Well, I did, because I missed her, but I felt so angry, I didn’t.

Cruelty – Groups Part 1

The importance of group dynamics in our lives and their effect on ideologies cannot be understated. Even without putting a name to it, most of us will be keenly aware that once we’re involved with a group, we’ll behave differently. Although many aspects of group dynamics are learnt through experience, there are intrinsic, instinctive parts of us that naturally “know” how these dynamics work.

We are built to seek out allegiance and are extremely sensitive to the slightest hint of betrayal. The glue that holds the group together is made of a common cause, without which the faction will fall apart. Questioning this common cause will not only threaten the group’s power structure but its whole reason to exist. Dissent, no matter how accurate, tends to be met with anxiety and suspicion rather than curiosity. The point is, from the beginning, allegiance is more important than truth.

Joining a group can be both terrifying and reassuring all at once. There’s something about the rigidness of allegiance that resembles the inhuman nature of archetypes and their lack of empathy and compassion. If you go against the group, that’s it, you’re out, you’re cancelled, or worse still, you’ll be out for the count, and it might be infinite. “Just one wrong word could be your last”.

Groups come in limitless guises, from those built around family, friends, religious beliefs, interests, work, and political persuasion, to those of culture, language, identity, race, shared experience, national identity, and world citizenship. It’s impossible to avoid becoming a member of a group. Even if you completely shun all other humans, you’ll still end up joining the ‘avoiding all other humans’ one by default.

It’s always good to remember, there are two types of people in the world. There are those that divide people into two types of people and those that don’t.

*                      *                      *

Uniform

Just as in the previous decades, music in the 80s interweaved with fashion. The New Romantic movement had its uniform by which teenagers could ascertain from a distance who was cool or not. It probably wasn’t quite as bad as I’m making out, and for me, maybe because of my disability, I was given a free pass anyway.

I didn’t like dressing up much, I’d look at myself and think my body couldn’t carry it off, so didn’t even bother trying. In my own way I did take on a group identity though, it was an anti-fashion, anti-group, and anti-political stance one. I was just as concerned with my image as the rest of us, and just as proud of not being part of a group as anyone who was. But as you are already aware, not being part of a group doesn’t make us group-less.

As I looked around, I recognised I wasn’t alone, there were other members of this ‘non-group’ group, and just like all the other factions, we were drawn to each other. We were the outsiders, but unlike the ones that dressed up, we were, as far as we were concerned, far more ourselves. When it came to being cool, we were not. When it came to parties, clubbing, drinking, getting high, and having loads of fun, we preferred listening to music in dark rooms and having a chat over a cup of tea and a slice of toast. It was no wonder I was destined for a life of Rock ‘n Roll.

The Influence of Groups

The term groupthink was first used in 1972 and set out to demonstrate people would put aside their own personal beliefs to keep the peace when working within a group. Back in 1838 a French philosopher, Auguste Comte, believed science could be used to study groups and societies, he also believed by doing this, those who understood the underlying processes, could “guide” the groups to their will.

It’s very easy to both over and underestimate just how much influence our peers and society have on us. If we question why we like or believe certain things, a lot of the time it’s because that’s what we’ve been taught indirectly by those around us. The food, colours, political and religious beliefs we’re drawn to, even what we find attractive about others, all are partly influenced by the societies we live in

In 1981 I started to buy (and read occasionally) books about sociology and psychology and soon came to realise that both viewpoints ought to be considered when trying to understand ourselves. I also found that while I wanted to know more about how others dealt with their inner angst, most psychologists were writing about mice running around mazes while the sociologists were warning of overcrowding issues because they’d witnessed too many mice in a mouse city becoming murderously aggressive and depressed.

Anyone who’s ever kept mice as pets will know they all have their own individual personalities, as I read those books, I couldn’t help but wonder if the psychologists ever thought about that. As I’d later find out Hans Eysenck did propose that each organism created variations in their response to stimuli as a result of their personality, but for the most part such subtleties were set aside. Still, these variations were a bit of a spanner in the works when it came to social sciences. As with most ideological models of behaviour, the same holds true of sociological ones. The urge to simplify the world often requires ignoring the complexities of reality, the consequence of which is a very limited portrayal and understanding of human behaviour.

Freud and Jung were a completely different story, although they too could be overly dogmatic about their own theories, they still absolutely fascinated me. The problem was when I spoke to people who worked in either the Psychology or Sociology fields, they completely dismissed Psychoanalysis. As far as they were concerned the results of therapy could not be accurately measured, it was more of an art than a science, therefore it wouldn’t attract funding, so as far as academia was concerned, it was a non-starter.

It’s not surprising that those who study sociology see happiness being found via improving society, whilst those who study psychology see it in terms of developing the self. As the decades rolled on it was sociology that gained greater traction with politicians. After all, they were also inclined to see the world around them in terms of groups rather than individuals.

If governmental funding bodies believe such and such research clearly shows a way to improve people’s lives, then they’re far more likely to finance those projects. During the ’70s and 80s sociologists were seen as the new saviours, and sociological modelling is still used by our governments today, to predict behaviour amongst the masses. Even though lots of this modelling has been inaccurate, especially concerning Covid19, you’d think our leaders would be more reticent to put their trust in them. Instead, they continue to tell us they’re following the science. But, as most of us are aware, the scientific community is not one homogeneous group, so what our leaders are doing is following the advice of certain factions who they believe know best, but how exactly did they come to trust those over the others?

*                      *                      *

Sarah – Part 2

Even though I liked Sarah, especially as she was a good laugh, I was adamant I didn’t want to go out with her. So, when I went to her place, I joined the family for dinner and had a good chat with her and her parents. All the way through the meal though her grandmother looked at me as if I’d stolen the family silver, so when Sarah invited me up to her room to do some ‘homework’ my principles stayed downstairs with her grandmother and the silver.

There’s a scene in the film ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ where the grandfather says to his teenage grandson that he should have as much sex with girls now because when he’s older it’s not going to be an option. With a similar thought, when Sarah lay on her bed and patted the empty side for me to join her, I did.

We could hear the TV’s canned laughter blaring from downstairs as we balanced precariously on her single mattress. The kissing started, while items of clothing got loosened and unfastened. Half-naked, and touching each other in all the wrong places, she asked me if I might want to go out with her. I shook my head and told her that if she lost some weight, I’d consider it.

I know, I still shudder thinking about this. Maybe I thought or didn’t think, this would be a good way of bringing matters to a close, but it didn’t. Instead, for the next few weeks, there were phone calls, arrangements, cancellations, letters of anger, and escape artistry. Eventually, much to my relief, she told me to ‘fuck-off’, and I hoped that was the end of it. Only it wasn’t because for decades afterwards, I would cringe at my appalling behaviour.

A few years ago, I got in contact with Sarah to apologise to her. When I did, she told me she didn’t remember the incident. Maybe she was being polite, but even so, I still hated myself for being such a prick. Yes, I know this is one of many incidents as you’re probably becoming aware, but this one really did pierce my conscience. Paradoxically, although I had focused on Sarah being fat, had I connected with her I don’t think it’d have been such an issue. Later, there were a few ‘voluptuous’ women who I did get deeply involved with, so being fat wasn’t completely off the kitchen table, or single bed.

Still, maybe my rejection of her was partly connected with my own feelings of inadequacy. Had she been a catch in the social hierarchy of ‘beautiful people’, I doubt even the lack of connection would have been an issue. But given she was stigmatised, as I was too, being together would have confirmed the belief of our peers, that we were indeed less worthy. My rejection of her was partly due to my own feelings of being seen as ‘second-class’. While I didn’t deliberately set out to use girlfriends as status symbols, there was something of that in the mix. There was also another aspect to this, I associated fat women’s bodies with my mother’s, which I found very off-putting.

Shortly after things died down between Sarah and I, it crossed my mind that the constant phone calls and badgering I’d experienced during my great escape from her, might have been how Abbie found my continual requests to meet up.

*                      *                      *

The Common Sense People

1982

As I sat in Sutton Library reading through Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”, one of the themes that came up was something that rang true to me then, and even more so now. This was the idea that those in charge, had lost contact with reality, meanwhile, the common people still had their feet on the ground. Both groups looked at each other with deep distrust and would mock one another at the slightest opportunity. The play is split into two halves, one set within a pastoral backdrop, the other within the royal court. Shakespeare wanted to show that sometimes there needs to be a bit of balance between those with sophisticated ideas and those with common sense ones.

I too wanted to understand both sides, but I soon realised that while our common sense may help us build an internal model of the world and be of great value when we start to study things in-depth, it has its limitations. Take the idea that gravity and speed affect time, that is hard for us to know beyond a conceptual realm. Or if our sun was the size of a grain of sand then our galaxy would be over 50,000 miles across (many times larger than the width of the planet earth) and to top that off there may well be more than 2000 million other galaxies in our universe. And what of infinity or before time? These are all beyond our common sense.

Conversely, when a scientist says, ‘before the Big Bang there was no time and therefore asking what previously existed is irrelevant’, my common sense asks, ‘Well what was before that, and what was before that, what was at the beginning, and if there was a beginning or God, what was before that?’ My common sense cannot fathom an effect without a cause.  My point is, sometimes, no matter how firmly our feet are planted on the ground or how high our minds can rise through the universe, sometimes, neither has the answer.

 *                     *                      *

2003 – Image

I was in a nightclub in Northern Ireland with a friend. Again, it was a cold, icy, November night. My friend laughed, lent towards me and said, ‘Fuck! My brother’s just come in. You know me and you, we do all our music and arty stuff and spend all night chatting women up, and we still don’t get anywhere. Well, my brother, who’s fucking fantastic looking comes in here and women just fall at his feet!’

Then I remembered Eddy Murphey’s stand-up routine about ugly singers being sexy simply because they sang, and said ‘Fuck this, shall we go back to the studio?’ My friend shook his head slightly, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea let’s go to a sing-along at a pub around the corner’.

A few hours later after singing our hearts out we went home together alone. Ahead of us, silhouetted by a misty light, my mate’s brother was thronged by a group of girls dancing and laughing merrily around him.

I thought back to Ann’s words about women falling in love through their ears and wanted to update her. Women probably fall in love through lots of senses, whereas for men the visual world tends to take precedence, especially at first. Just as she said though, it’s still connected to biology. When women consider who to mate with, their choice will likely be more considered than a man’s because the consequences of it will be greater for her. Therefore, she’s more likely to gather as much information as she can, from as many senses as possible, from the off. Well, that’s what a psychologist told me. Obviously, they’d never gone clubbing on a Saturday night.

*                      *                      *

2022 Image is Everything

In the 1980s looks were important, I mean, really important. It was so bad that disruptive protests against beauty contests were common. Now, 40 years on, things have come a long way. Thanks to the internet, political awareness and smartphones, the image is, well, absolutely everything. Swipe a picture of me to the right to add me to your life. No thanks? Then swipe left.

*                      *                      *

The Latvian Lindbergh – 1939

A few months after Bettie and Chanan moved to Riga, Bettie took a lunch break in the office common room. Whilst sitting at the table she noticed a headline on an abandoned newspaper.

“The Latvian Lindbergh Herberts Cukurs, had just returned from a 2,900-mile flight to Palestine.”

It was the word Palestine that caught her eye. But as she read, she was even more intrigued. The paper went on to say that he had enthralled Riga’s Jewish Club with a talk, complete with photographs, describing the sights, sounds and smells of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. Cukurs spoke with wonderment, amazement, and even enthusiasm, about the Zionist enterprise in Israel,”

Cukurs had become a household name and national hero in Latvia, renowned for his dash and daring. He was the kind of adventurer who not only built his own planes but dreamed up bizarre trips and odysseys. He had already flown from Latvia to The Gambia in an open-cockpit aircraft he’d cobbled together from cast-offs in 1933. In a country where resentments towards the Jews was never far from the surface, he was one of a kind, considered a friend to the Jews of Latvia, and often seen with Jewish intellectuals in Riga’s cafes. He was the face of hope and the future.

*                      *                      *

Nationalism and Internationalism

In Bob Dylan’s song ‘Licence to Kill’ he sings “They say that patriotism is the last thing, to which a scoundrel clings”. The ‘they’ he refers to could well be Samuel Johnson who wrote ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. The thing is this quote is often misinterpreted as Johnson, himself, was very patriotic. A year before he uttered the above sentence, he wrote a book called ‘The Patriot’ in which he stated:

‘‘A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers everything to the common interest.’

These are hardly the words of someone who believes patriotism to be a bad thing. The patriot he was referring to in his ‘scoundrel’ lines was the Patriot Party. As far as he was concerned their use of the word ‘Patriot’ was completely inappropriate because they hadn’t proved themselves to be patriotic in any meaningful way.

*                      *                      *

After both World Wars people were naturally very wary of nationalism and still today patriotism is viewed suspiciously as a means to mustering people into making rash decisions. In many ways, tribal identity and racialism had been at the heart of Nazism so, it seemed logical to many, especially academics and political leaders, that in order to avoid repeating similar wars, dismantling nation states and replacing them with Internationalism, Globalisation, and world citizenship may well be the answer.

The problem didn’t disappear though as many people still saw their proximity to one another, physically, culturally, historically, and ideologically as important values that created allegiances. No matter how often the people were told their nationality was just a matter of chance because most of us do not choose where we are born, and the definition of a nationality is extremely vague and hard to pin down, they still identified with their country. Even when there are many sub-cultures, classes and ideologies within a society, a national identity still exists. For those at the other end of the spectrum though, they looked at their homeland’s past and couldn’t find anything worth feeling proud about.

For me, there was a middle ground, one in which I could accept that there’s both a lot to be proud of and ashamed of too. And while I completely understood we’re naturally tribal, and our allegiances are partly caused by our nature, we can still identify with others beyond our borders and recognise we’re interdependent, both on a local and international level. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard for those who took extreme stances either way on these matters, to accept some form of soft nationalism, as well as being internationalists at the same time. One did not automatically cancel out the other, but maybe I was just being a naïve and idealistic teenager.

*                      *                      *

Karina Part 1

You’d have thought that I’d have laid low after my experience with Sarah but about a week after I’d sighed a big sigh of relief about getting out of the mess I’d created, I went to a bookstore where I spotted the cashier looking a bit bored, so decided to chat her up. As we spoke about Christmas looming, she told me she had nowhere to go on Christmas Day. Although I couldn’t invite her to my parents’ place, I did suggest meeting up for a few hours if she fancied the company.

‘OK, yes let’s do that.’ She said ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m Jewish, but it’d be nice to see someone’

‘Anyone?” I laughed

She beamed, ‘Yes, anyone’.

She told me her name was Karina and gave me her number.

As it turned out we didn’t meet on Christmas Day, however, our paths would come to cross soon after.

*                      *                      *

Diary entry – Tuesday 23rd November 1982

‘Someone upset me today at the library. This fat bloke who I’d met once before, I don’t know if he was after a fight, but anyway, after I made a cheeky remark to him, which wasn’t aimed to hurt, he said “Just because you’ve got stumpy legs and stumpy arms”.’

There was a ruffle of stifled laughter from those sitting around us. Had I not been there they could have laughed unhindered, but my presence fragmented the group because of its unspoken ideology. ‘Jokes about people mustn’t be to their face’. Possibly their smiles resulted from an appreciation of his daring, but even that was curbed by the rules being broken.

After his comment, I moved away from him and asked to sit with one of the girls I knew on the table next to us, but she said I couldn’t. Even though he’d broken a social rule his words had turned me into a persona non grata. I realised how precarious and reliant on others my status within the social hierarchy was. It was as if I’d suddenly entered an alternate reality and could feel anger coursing through my body. Memories of being taunted on Roundshaw came to mind. Then just at that moment, Harriet, a girl from my life drawing class came over and asked if I wanted to join her. Relieved, I said yes, which rather saved the day, as I was only moments away from whacking the fat bloke. ‘We then had four cups of tea together, after which I felt quite ill.’

*                      *                      *

Enemies

The original oriental martial arts were not split up into factions that taught only throws and holds, or kicks and strikes, they combined all these things and a lot more. At some point, though they were divided up into different disciplines and it didn’t take long for people to say one school was better than another, that their one was the most realistic or effective.

The same happened with science, originally natural philosophy included an overarching approach to what would eventually become many different offshoots, such as Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Astronomy.  Just like Martial Arts, it’s very hard for one person to specialise in every department, so, individuals had to focus on one if they were to have any chance of understanding their field in depth. The negative side of this though was not only were all the experts unaware of all the other experts’ insights, but they started to have a bias toward their way of seeing things.

Psychiatrists may approach patients’ care with drug therapies. A sociologist might say poverty is the main factor, a psychoanalyst might say the abuse they suffered through their childhood was the most likely cause. One can’t help but wonder how an expert in all three fields would approach things. My guess is they’d bring all the methods together rather than exclude one over the other. People are very quick to blame governments for a lack of mental health support, but the scientific community’s fragmentation also plays its part in this failure.

*                      *                      *

Geographers see mountains, rivers, seas, and deserts dividing us. Historians, tell us stories we see repeated in the actions of those who call us friends, while biologists, would they deny the wildness in our DNA‘s unravelling, or place our trust in the hands of those whose DNA unravels differently to ours? We are naturally drawn to seeing others as our enemies, especially when their beliefs and allegiances do not chime in tune with ours.

If my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and my friends are close, but my enemies are closer, then what will they do when they find it’s me who’s my worst enemy?  

*                      *                      *

16/12/82 – Fight with Gerard

There must have been something in the air at Sutton library that week. Again, I was sitting in the café chatting with a group of friends, when one of the blokes mentioned I did karate. Without hesitation, another guy called Gerard, who was known for being a Territorial Army soldier, laughed loudly and said, ‘There’s no way you do karate.’

I looked at him and shrugged. ‘Well, I can prove it if you like’.

Gerard leant towards me and sneered ‘Oh yeah, how are you gonna do that?’

I was taken aback. ‘Well come outside and I’ll show you’

He smirked and nodded in agreement ‘Ok then, can’t wait to see this’

So, we went out the main entrance and walked to the right where there was a concourse. He stood about 10 feet away from me, so I did a high roundhouse kick followed by a spinning back kick. I thought ‘that should do the trick’ at which point he ran at me, which is something I hadn’t expected at all. He then body checked me which sent me falling backwards. As I hit the ground, he came to a stop, his legs on either side of my hips. Without thinking my legs came up and clamped to the front of his thighs. As fast as I could, I pulled him down. As he fell his head very slightly clipped a light protruding from the wall, and then his body hit the ground with a thud. My temper erupted, I lifted my artificial leg towards the sky and was going to slam it down on his groin but before following through I shouted, ‘Have you had enough, or do you want some more?” To which, partly shocked and partly amazed, he said. ‘That’s fuckin’ impressive, I wasn’t expecting that’. I was thinking the same, his attack, my defence, all of it seemed to come from nowhere.

*                      *                      *

Evelyn and Bill – November 1982

Evelyn (the woman I’d watched getting undressed a few months previously, the one the other neighbours shone their torch at), you remember her? Anyway, she and I kept bumping into each other, especially if I was taking the bus from Carshalton High Street to Sutton. Even the route to the bus stop meant our paths would cross regularly. Evelyn was around 17 years older than I, but that didn’t seem to be an issue when it came to us chatting. As we’d walk, she’d laugh at my teenage thoughts, but at the same time, she’d be genuinely interested in what I had to say. Likewise, I’d find her stories and opinions about things had me laughing and intrigued too.

One grey cold Thursday afternoon, as I walked back from the High Street, I heard Evelyn call my name. As I turned around, she was walking quickly towards me. She stopped and laughed, then made a gesture of being breathless.

“I was calling you for ages, didn’t you hear me?”

I shook my head.

“You’d have an excuse if you had your bloody headphones on. You must have been lost in all those deep thoughts you have.” She laughed again which rather took away from the compliment I thought she’d just made. “When I get in, I’m going to do some tea, do you want to join us?”

Touched by the gesture I said, “Yeah, that’d be great thank you.”

When we got to her place Bill and their kids were already in. I sat in the front room and chatted to Nicky while Kate sat quietly drawing. I can’t remember how it started but Nicky thought throwing a cushion in my face would go un-responded to, however, after years of play fighting with my brother I picked up the cushion next to me and swung it back at her.

‘Oh, my Gawd!’ she said, ‘you are so dead.’ She then picked up two cushions and banged them one after another across my face. I stood up and did a grizzly bear impression, at which point Kate decided to join in too. Within 1 minute we’d decimated the living room.

Evelyn’s voice came over our laughter. ‘Erm, I think you better stop now’.

Evelyn and Bill stood in the doorway laughing.

‘Yeah, c’mon kids’ Bill added smiling, ‘Let’s stop now before someone gets hurt. And anyway, dinner’s almost ready.’

‘Aww but I still owe him one more hit Nicky said whacking a cushion against my arse.

‘That’s enough’ Bill said calmly.

I turned to Nicky and said ‘I’ll get you later’

She looked a bit worried, then in a matter-of-fact voice laughed. ‘No, you won’t’

We tidied up the mess all hot and dishevelled, then got summoned to the table. Evelyn went upstairs saying she was too hot and a few minutes later returned wearing a white T-shirt and no bra. I couldn’t help but look at her breasts even though I tried not to make it obvious. I then noticed Bill looking at me, I looked at him, he raised an eyebrow a little, so I tried even harder to avert my eyes. Well actually, I spent most of the time checking out where everyone else was looking so when the coast was clear I could catch a quick look. 

*                      *                      *

Helen 1

Back in the summer, when I’d done my voluntary work at the local hospital, I got to know Gill who was one of the nurses there. It turned out she lived around the corner from me so, I’d occasionally pop in for a cuppa and a chat with her and her flatmate Tessa. One afternoon they introduced me to their new flat sharer Helen, who was also a nurse. Helen had long blonde hair, a 1960’s style fringe that came forward in a line, long legs, a thin body, and a face beautiful enough to look out from any major style magazine’s front cover.

It’s possible there might have been something in the water that week because the day before, I’d met the school captain from one of the local girls’ schools and fell completely head over heels for her too. The difference with Helen though was as soon as we started chatting, we connected.

In the earlier chapter on love, I talked about taking time to get to really know someone, not rushing in and being wary about that initial emotional blast. But for most of us, having a relationship where that doesn’t happen would leave us feeling something was amiss.

At the time, the connection I felt for Helen could have been simply a result of me finding her beautiful, but with hindsight, knowing that for the following few years we’d be friends, and even 40 years later we’re still able to chat for hours, it’s possible the power of our first meeting was based on us sensing a potential friendship. It’s also probable that because I didn’t believe I had a chance of getting together with her romantically I relaxed and that allowed her to not feel pressured too. However, that wasn’t the case for the first month, during that time I couldn’t help but be in love with her.

*                      *                      *

The First Rule of Love

There were lots of girls I fell for when I was younger, but the ones who fancied me tended not to be those I was attracted to. At the time I’d think, ‘Surely, one day, I’ll fall head over heels for a girl who’ll feel the same way?’ It never crossed my mind to ever question whether feeling infatuated was a prerequisite for true love or to wonder if the manifestation of being ‘in love’ automatically put those I fell in love with, off.

I am sure there are plenty of people who fall for each other mutually, but equally, there are many who get caught in more unequal dynamics. Back in the love chapter, I mentioned the yearning involved in courtly and chaste love, and how it was recognised as being an almost sadomasochistic pleasure worthy of savouring. At 17 I had no way of taking on board just how important a factor that was. Neither could I have fathomed how little being ‘in love’ had to do with a sustainable long-term relationship. Instead, I wallowed in feelings of unrequited love and wrote long poems about it.

I used to think that the first rule of love was ‘those who want you, you won’t want, and those you do, won’t want you’, but the first rule of love is ‘what you think is love, is most likely not’.

*                      *                      *

Intersectionality – Part 1 2022

Our gender, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, caste, disability, weight, physical appearance, and height are some of the many aspects that form our social and political identities. Some of these factors, along with others, maybe the cause of both discrimination and advantage. Well, that’s what Intersectionality sets out to highlight.

The main edicts of intersectionality are firstly, all types of oppression are linked, therefore you can’t get rid of just one, they must all be dealt with. The second relates to the first, as in, there are common experiences shared between different oppressed groups, and these may be the basis upon which cooperation and joint action may be taken. And thirdly oppressed groups may also repress others. I’m sure some would argue I’ve got that wrong, but it’s probably in the ballpark enough to be of use here.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘Intersectionality’ in 1989 when she recognised that black and white women faced similar yet different issues partly because of their skin colour. When I mentioned the disabled drummer at the end of the last chapter, both of us, me, and the black guy recognised that not only did we share some common ground, but we were both able to act in an inconsiderate way unknowingly.

The problem with intersectionality is, besides, some previously oppressed groups no longer being oppressed, which disproves point one above, it’s far too blunt a tool. The reason I say this is because so many other factors are just as, if not more, influential in our lives. For instance, charm and determination are very likely to have far more impact on our individual destiny than societal oppression will.

At the heart of much of this is the issue of victimisation. If we only see ourselves as being ravaged by the system, then of course the remedy lies in correcting it. The problem with seeing ourselves as victims is it absolves us of any responsibility for our failure. However, if we recognise who we are as well as how the system works both being extremely influential factors, then we can approach the solutions from both ends too. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this issue was also reflected in left- and right-wing ideologies. The left tended to focus on societal flaws, the right on our individual ones. For me, though, both were important, which probably explained my own leaning towards the centre-ground. Mind you it’s worth keeping in mind, that in a Capitalist system being a victim might get you some money, then again it might pay you handsomely for not being one.

All of this doesn’t mean intersectionality isn’t of value, it is. Still, there is something underlying many contemporary theories such as intersectionality and critical race theory that is often held up as sacrosanct, but as with most ideologies, it has its limitations too. What I’m speaking of is equal opportunities.

The idea of a fair world being one in which opportunities are not limited because of who or what we are is very seductive until it’s put into practice. Again, I’m not suggesting we dismiss it, only we accept there may be some limitations. For instance, how far should this doctrine be applied? Of course, skin colour shouldn’t mean extra barriers are put in your way, likewise, when it comes to gender and sexuality the same holds true. But should those with a good education step aside for those without, in other words, should advantaged people be levelled down? We could go further, should beauty and personality be taken into consideration when assessing someone’s advantage? You may argue that everyone should be levelled up, but in the real world, equal opportunity policies often result in people being levelled down. Quota systems, positive discrimination, and mixed ability classes are all examples where both levelling up and down occurs, often simultaneously. Is exchanging one set of oppressions for another justifiable, and if so, to what degree should the new oppressive activities be implemented?  After the Russian Revolution, anyone who’d benefited beforehand was persecuted and often murdered. Even if you think that was just, the consequence was a society that lived in fear and continues to do so to this day.

Still not convinced there should be limitations to equal opportunities? Let’s get even darker. Politicians regularly promise a new world order, where everyone will have a good lifestyle, but until robots become our slaves there will always be those who are enslaved in one form or another, well that’s if we wish to maintain the lifestyles we enjoy in the West. Equal opportunity policies are not going to be extended to everyone else in the world in the near or distant future. If that was attempted the standard of living in developed countries would drop considerably while those who currently suffer awful living conditions would barely notice any improvement.

This is the open secret that underscores the dream of the automation era. Slavery and oppression are the foundations upon which our society exists and it’s the common denominator in all successful empires throughout history. So, if you truly wish to implement equal opportunities for everyone, then how big a cut to your standard of living are you willing to take?

*                      *                      *

Abbie part 2 – December 1982

Christmas was fast approaching, school was over, and most evenings were spent seeing friends or going to the pub. One evening I went to the Whistle Stop pub in Sutton, Jules was there with her new boyfriend and Abbie was with another group of friends. We all smiled politely at each other but didn’t talk. As I was leaving a mutual friend told me Abbie said she was going to call me soon. A few days later she did. We arranged to meet up the next day but at the last minute, she cancelled.

*                      *                      *

New Year’s Dave

As the clock struck midnight and 1982 ended, I was standing in a pub in Sutton surrounded by strangers. Dave from karate was nearby though. A short while earlier he’d stopped a fight when a bloke brandished a screwdriver with a view to stabbing someone. Without any hesitation, Dave took it off the man and said, ‘Come on, we’re meant to be celebrating, there’s no need for that.’ There was relief in the guy’s eyes as if Dave had saved him from his own irrational feelings.

As those bells rang and everyone cheered, the reveller in front of me put his arm out to shake hands. I hesitated very slightly as I didn’t want to shock him by jutting out my stump.

‘Oh’ he said ‘So, you don’t like shaking hands then?’

Before I could utter another word, he pulled his arm back ready to strike me. His friend grabbed his arm and nodded towards my arms while loudly whispering, ‘He hasn’t got any hands’. The angry guy looked down and stepped backwards. He put his hands up in a surrender position and distraught, shouted over the din, ‘Oh shit, I’m really sorry mate’.

‘It’s ok’ I said, ‘I just didn’t want to put you in an awkward position’

‘Fuck’ he said ‘I feel awful, let me buy you a drink’

‘It’s ok’ I smiled ‘but thank you, and sorry too’

At that point, Dave, who was slightly inebriated, came up to us, put his arms around me and the hand shaker and giving us a big group hug shouted ‘Happy New Year Geezers’.

Chapter 37 Part 2

*                      *                      *

New Year’s Day 1983

After my New Year’s Eve escapades, a woman I barely knew, and her boyfriend kindly offered me a lift home in their taxi. If I’d have had to walk it would have been a struggle, but even so, I still got home in the late early hours of New Year’s Day.

When I got up around midday, John was very disapproving of my bad start to the year so threatened to kick me out once I reached 18 (which was just three months away). He also added he wasn’t going to help finance me if I wanted to go to college.

I’d already thought he might say something on those lines, so a few weeks beforehand I’d visited the careers office where a Mr George, who dressed in Victorian style clothes, complete with a pocket watch, reassured me that I’d get a full grant because John hadn’t adopted me, so, only my mother’s very low income would be taken into consideration.

I looked at John and said, ‘I won’t need your money.’

He laughed, ‘What do you mean, you won’t need my money, how are you going to eat and pay your rent without it?’

I calmly replied, ‘I’ll get a full grant’

John shook his head, ‘Not with my income, you won’t’

I shrugged, ‘The grant officer says they won’t look at your income’

I thought he’d be relieved not to be expected to help fund my further education, but at that precise moment control was the primary issue, therefore, he couldn’t help but get the last word, ‘I think you’ll find they will, so you better buck up your ideas!’

As he marched out of the room I muttered ‘Happy New Year to you too’ under my breath.

He marched back in, ‘What did you say?’

I said ‘Happy New Year’

He looked at me suspiciously then wished me a Happy New Year too.

*                      *                      *

January 1983 – Wilson’s

Term started just a week after New Year’s Day. There was heavy snow, well in other countries it’d be considered a light covering but in the UK anything over 2 inches is deemed treacherous, consequently, the buses stopped running. For us school kids this meant trudging, sliding and snowball fighting our way to school as slowly as possible. When I got there, I entered the main foyer where Ms S was shepherding those of us stupid enough to have made it in. She was probably the only member of staff who’d made it in too as she only lived around the corner.

Seeing she hadn’t left after all was a surprise, a good one. As we chatted in the lobby, she told me she’d be around until Easter. That meant we’d get to spend some time together, which we did. It might not have been full of the activities I’d fantasised about, but it did include seeing her at weekends a few times and going food shopping together, which let’s face it, is a big part of most romantic relationships.

My mock A level exams would be starting the following week, so I was supposed to be revising most of the time. Surprise, surprise, not a lot took place. At one point one of the other guys in my year, who was doing computer studies, asked me to play around on a couple of music and drawing programs he was working on. There was no way back then that I could have envisaged just how big a part computers were going to play in my life, especially music and art applications. Nevertheless, I was instantly drawn to this world, so much so I bought a ZX-81 micro-computer a few days later.

These were very early days in the development of home computing, and what could be done with them then was very limited compared to nowadays. It would be around 5 years before they’d start to become particularly useful for home users and another thirteen years before they became a big part of everyday life. But, in 1983, most users were solely preoccupied with programming. Some programs could be purchased but they were very rudimentary and as they were stored on cassette could take a long time to load, and even that was very hit and miss. The computer I purchased, which was second-hand, only had 1 kilobyte of RAM, which meant if I typed more than 1000 characters of code it would freeze up, at which point it would have to be restarted and all my work lost. Home computers back then felt full of promise and, well, that was it.

But for all that, if you could mark a moment when a new era started for me it’d be somewhere in the first few months of 1983. My introduction to computers, an expanding social and love life, and the beginning of the end of living at home, it all started then.

*                      *                      *

Amanda – Part 1 – January 1982

In the second week of January, I attended a wedding. During the reception, the woman sitting opposite me started rubbing her foot up my leg. At first, I thought something had gone wrong with my artificial foot so when I looked under the table and saw a white stockinged foot tiptoeing up my leg I resurfaced. She looked at me, pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. We both smiled secret joke smiles then burst out laughing.

By that point, we’d already been chatting for a few hours. She was pretty, had short blonde hair, blue eyes, and deep red lips. Her name was Amanda. As we prepared to set off home, she asked me if I wanted to go to a pub with her. You’d have thought we’d have been full after the wedding reception, but when I suggested we go to a Chinese restaurant instead she couldn’t hide her relief.  ‘Thank God for that’ she said, ‘I thought it was just me still feeling hungry, I was worried I was having a nervous reaction to marriage.’

I laughed, then showed her a couple of slices of wedding cake I’d ‘acquired surreptitiously’, she then opened her handbag to reveal two finely wrapped slices too. We nodded slowly at each other like comedy secret agents.

As soon as we navigated the formal goodbyes we shot off to a local Chinese restaurant where we had a ‘small meal’, then popped into a pub just before they closed. After that, we slowly walked back to her place where we began the first goodbye ritual. She leant towards me and put her hand on my chest.

‘That was a good meeting’

I smiled ‘Yes, it was, it was really nice’

Our lips touched, and then with a small gap between us, we paused, our warm breath flowing over our cold faces.

The front door opened fast, we jumped apart faster. Her father stood there assessing the situation. He smiled. ‘I thought I could hear someone on the doorstep.’

‘Hi dad, this is Simon, he just walked me back from the wedding.’

He dipped his head very slightly, ‘Ah, nice to meet you Simon, thank you so much for accompanying Amanda home.’

I nodded back, ‘Nice to meet you too’

As he turned to make space for Amanda to enter, he said ‘I look forward to meeting you again Simon.’

‘Me too’ I said

Amanda and I looked at each other as she stepped into the house and almost miming, she asked ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’

I quietly answered, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m free.’

She started closing the door, blew a kiss and mimicked holding a phone to her ear. ‘I’ll call you.’

As I walked home, I smiled at how well the night had gone. But, Helen, who I’d only met once was still in my mind. When I thought about the strength of feeling I’d had for her on our first meeting and this one with Amanda, the dream of ‘what could be’ outweighed what ‘had been’.

Still, over the next few days, Amanda and I spent quite a bit of time together. We went to a pub, visited her friends, and when she came to my place she patiently indulged me and my new toy, the computer, even going so far as to help program it. I wasn’t completely oblivious to what was going on. Whenever the coast was clear of ‘parental observers’, we’d kiss. But the following day I visited Helen, and once again besides the lack of kissing or even the promise of it, I came away feeling even more drawn to her.

*                      *                      *

Karina Part 2 – 22nd January 83

There was a computer fair going on in Sutton Library which pricked my curiosity. What had previously been an alien world was now a wonderous one, waiting to be discovered. As I perused the stalls, I realised I knew nothing about computers. I had no idea what all these bits of circuit boards were for, or what words like RAM meant, but as I got to one of the tables I heard a voice directed at me. ‘I remember you. We were going to meet up at Christmas, weren’t we?’

I looked up to see the woman from the bookshop, Karina.

On the backfoot, I stuttered ‘Yeh, yeh, yes,’ I paused while I thought of excuses. ‘That’s right, I was going to call but I didn’t want to push it.’ Another panicked pause followed, and with great am-dram concern in my voice, I added ‘Did you see anyone at Christmas?’

‘Yeah, I was fine.’ She elongated the fine just long enough to make me feel bad. ‘But if you fancy popping round to my place tomorrow evening, you’re very welcome.’

I was relieved not to be told off. ‘Yes, that’d be great’

She looked at all the bits of computer hardware on her table, then waved her arm as if magically producing them to me. ‘Are you interested in any of this?’

I laughed, ‘I don’t even know what they are’

She tutted, raised her eyes, and laughed. ‘You’re no good, how am I going to get rid of all this rubbish for my boss with customers like you?’

*                      *                      *

Karina – Part 3

We’d arranged to meet at The Whistle Stop pub, then go to her place after. When I got to the Pub, she was with Suzie. You might remember her. She was the one that guy was warning me about while seeing her on the QT. She was being very ‘bubbly’ and started chatting up a bloke near us, so, Karina suggested that ‘now’ would be a good time to set off.

The night was cold, as we chatted en route we waddled along the icy pavements like two little dragons puffing steam.

As we got to her place, she opened her door. ‘We’re here, welcome to my humble abode.’

As soon as we got into her flat, I saw she had a guitar.

‘Do you play?’ I asked

‘Yeah, do you want to hear me sing?’

As long as a hot drink was involved, I knew I’d be happy. ‘I’d love to. Hey, do you want me to record you on my Walkman?’

‘Can you do that?’

‘Yeah, go on I’ll set it up, while you make us tea’

She put her hands on her hips, ‘Who said you’re getting a drink?’

I posed a look of shocked disappointment.

‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to make you one now, aren’t I?’

I wiggled my eyebrows and added with an evil grin, ‘Never fails’

As she walked to the kitchen she shouted, ‘You’re incorrigible.’

I got my recorder set up and a few minutes later she brought some mugs of tea in. She picked up the guitar, stood in front of me as if she was on stage, and sang the Beatles’ song ‘And I love her’. I was genuinely impressed by how good her voice and playing were. ‘Wow, that was amazing.’ I said, ‘Do you want to hear the recording?’

‘Yes please, I haven’t heard myself for years.’

As I played it back to her, she looked astounded. ‘Oh, my God, I sound so different to what I hear in my head, wow, it’s actually ok. I might start busking as I need the money’

Surprised, I asked, ‘Why, are things that tough at the moment?’

‘Yeah, you know how it is?’

I nodded as if I did, but I didn’t.

She continued, ‘I’m pretty skint at the moment. Actually, I was going to ask you, do you want to buy some albums I’m selling?’

‘What have you got?’

I went home that night with one small kiss goodbye and a load of albums including Phil Collins ‘Face Value’, John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’, Roxy Music’s first album, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Super Tramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’, and some Genesis albums.

*                      *                      *

Weaving Relationships

If you’re struggling to keep up with who’s who in this chapter, I’m sorry. For me too, back then, it was a bit of a strain, but at least I wasn’t calling on the same people too much anymore.

*                      *                      *

Amanda part 3

Amanda and I met up about five times in our first month of getting to know each other. We’d often have interesting conversations but, one evening we went to a party where she was acting like we were going out with each other, and I felt embarrassed about it. Something didn’t feel right.

*                      *                      *

Intersectionality Part 2

On the 1st of February 1983, I had to go to Roehampton limb fitting centre. During the bus ride there I bumped into a girl I knew called Dawn who gave me a big ego boost when she said I made her laugh like no one else ever did, although thinking about it, that might not have been such a compliment. Anyway, I was walking on air for the rest of the morning until I visited the LGU which was the ward I’d stayed on previously. I’d popped in to cadge a free lunch from the dinner trolley.

I ate at a table in the middle of the main square room, there were some benches to the sides where a couple of nurses sat. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but I told them I didn’t like the way people with physical and learning disabilities were automatically mixed, especially within care institutions. The two nurses quickly became irate, they couldn’t understand why I’d ever think such a thing. With half a sausage poised to enter my mouth I couldn’t explain clearly either, all I could say, between mouthfuls, was people often treated me as if I had learning difficulties and I didn’t like it.

Had I argued that it was a common experience to be treated as if I was unable to make wise choices for myself (ok they may have had a point on that one); Or that physically disabled people were often seen as somehow emotionally unbalanced as a result of their disability, which has been historically a common feature in stories involving disabled characters; Or maybe anything I did was because I had a chip on my shoulder; Or I was deluded regarding what I was capable of. Even now, aged 57 I often detect an incredulous look on people’s faces when I tell them about some of my exploits. Had I been able to tell them all of that, then maybe they’d have understood why I felt the way I did. But I couldn’t and I’m not sure if it would have made any difference.

As the nurses’ voices intensified, they called me a big-headed, ugly, nasty, little person at which point the ward secretary, Rose, and occupational therapist, Mrs Hardy, came out of their office to the side of the room, to see what was going on. Within a few seconds, they told the nurses to calm down and pointed out that whether they disagreed with me or not, bringing it down to personal insults didn’t benefit anyone. The expressions on the nurses’ faces showed they rather doubted that as they seemed quite pleased to have got a few in. As I sat there going through all the things, I should have said I realised the most annoying thing was, I was so distracted I couldn’t savour the hospital food to my normal satisfaction.

Paradoxically, a lot of people with learning difficulties might say they don’t like being subjected to people’s negative assumptions about them either. There’s a scene in a film where an Indian guy says to an Arab one, he hates the way people think all Arabs are terrorists. Not because it’s racist to think that way, but because many people confuse Indians with Arabs, and he was worried about being seen as an Arab and consequently attacked. It was funny in the film, but the humour might be a bit lost in translation here. However, if you think about it and don’t feel about it, you’ll probably laugh, well at least a little.

*                      *                      *

For a long time after this argument with the nurses, my opinion regarding mixing people with physical and mental disabilities didn’t change. Within the disability political world, the deaf community were adamant that they should be treated as a separate group and that rarely ever got questioned. They saw their situation as being related to language barriers rather than disability. However, as intersectionality began to gain ground, the ethos within the movement changed towards bringing everyone together under one umbrella rather than being segmented off.

Historically, oppressed groups were prone to turning on each other. So much so that the notion of divide and rule often played a part in keeping the masses at bay. The belief that ‘our oppressors’ benefited from us being ‘divided’ was partly why intersectionality as an antidote to this became so popular. However, just because someone’s oppressed doesn’t automatically make them a credible ally.

There were plenty of convenient allegiances, but deep down the same suspicions and dislikes simmered between groups, especially those who had a history of conflict, and given multi-culturalism tended to keep groups separate from each other things didn’t improve in any significant way. Just as with any relationship, forcing a marriage to broker peace won’t necessarily result in love. Significant, real love and care tend to come from getting to know each other in-depth, and if anything, multiculturalism did the opposite. People of different cultures may have mixed in the workplace, but when they went home, they closed their doors on each other and returned to their own segregated worlds.

*                      *                      *

There was another aspect to all this. Not wanting to be lumped together with people with learning difficulties was partly because I was very aware that other people’s opinions could influence my life dramatically, therefore, I wanted to create as positive an image of me in their minds as possible.

*                      *                      *

Chelsea College of Art Interview

By the spring of 1983, I had to decide which universities to apply to. I put The Slade and Edinburgh down for Art and Leicester and Bangor Universities for psychology and Philosophy. Later I’d come to realise that attempting to get into the Slade straight from doing A levels was very ambitious. Most candidates would have at least completed a foundation course in art for a year after leaving school before ever applying there and those who’d ever get in straight from school were far more accomplished than I was.

As a safety net, I also applied to Chelsea School of Art to do the equivalent of a foundation course, a BTEC in General Art and Design. This required going for an interview at their Hugon Road building near Wandsworth Bridge. In order to carry my artworks, I tied two karate belts around my large one-meter-long portfolio, that way I could slip my arm between the belts and hold it across my back. I hadn’t realised I’d have to do this for a mile and a half from Putney Bridge Station to the college, and that was after taking buses and tube trains from Wallington. By the time I got to the interview, I was covered in sweat and probably didn’t look my best.

I barely remember anything about the interview now, but about 30 years later I bumped into one of the interviewers called Peter at The Chelsea Arts Club. He recognised me and said “You know, I was on your foundation interview panel. They didn’t want you because of your disability. Did you know that?”

I told him I didn’t

“They thought you wouldn’t be able to cope. It was only because one of the masters from your school had sent a very positive letter about you that a few of us voted down the others who were against you being offered a place.”

I told Peter I was very glad he stuck up for me. Nowadays, most colleges would very likely bend over backwards to help a disabled person attend, but 40 years ago, it was a different world.

*                      *                      *

Abbie part 3

Abbie and I bumped into each other in the library, but instead of making up, we came away disliking each other more than we ever had. The group she was with came across as being politically concerned, but to me, it all felt like a pose. So, when I said something derogatory it really didn’t go down well. But then, I must have known that’d be the result.

*                      *                      *

Bettie’s Story – 1940 –  The Year of Horror

For most Jews living in Latvia (and everywhere else in the world), there had always been a sense of foreboding. One might have thought what was going on in Germany would have sent them into a panic, and maybe for some, it did. But the practicalities of escape meant very few could.

Currently, in 2022 the Russians are threatening to use nuclear weapons in relation to the war in Ukraine, and it’s not beyond possibility that they will. Even so, life is going on here in the UK as normal, which may well be a form of denial. However, are we not always facing death, it’s just the probability of it occurring is a number we will never know that fluctuates continuously and given there’s very little we can do about it, we’ve learned to live with it?

Back to 1940. Once the Nazis invaded Poland, there was a power grab. In retaliation, the Soviets illegally occupied Latvia, as well as most of the other Baltic states. ‘Illegally occupied’ could not be more of an understatement. Their tactics included mass killings, the disassembly of democratic institutions, deportations, and population replacement. By decimating Latvia’s security forces and law-and-order institutions, it became an easy target for the Nazis once Hitler turned on Stalin in 1941. As the Nazi tanks rolled in, the non-Jewish Latvian population actively welcomed them and quickly accepted Nazi propaganda blaming Jewish Bolsheviks for the Russian Revolution. They were quicker still in believing the Jews aimed to take over the world. Within hours of the Nazi’s arrival, the killings started.

It’s easy to look back and wonder why people didn’t see this coming, but the Jews were not the only ones living in denial. The Soviets received plenty of intelligence warning them of a Nazi attack but ignored the reports as “fanciful theories”. Likewise, The Nazis thought they’d beat the Russians in to submission within months. Instead, it was to be the conflict that would break the back of the Third Reich.

*                      *                      *

Amanda – Part 4 – February 1982

Even if Helen hadn’t been in the background, I doubt Amanda and I would’ve ever got together properly. I knew from our first kiss it wasn’t likely to develop into anything long term, but I wanted to give it a chance, even a very cursory one. Still, I didn’t want to hurt Amanda, but when we looked into each other’s eyes, I knew I was going to. After a few weeks of seeing each other, I asked her if we could cool things down a bit. She said she understood, but when she came to my place the following day, it didn’t seem to curb her enthusiasm for jumping on me every time John finished his 10-minute patrol to make sure we weren’t getting up to anything. Possibly, my pulling away the day before, drove her to go for it even more so. As John marched down the stairs, Amanda was on top of me undoing my trousers and sliding up and down on me. Even then, faced with the opportunity of having sex, I knew things didn’t feel right, so against all my teenage desires, I didn’t push it further. (Don’t go there).

It’s very hard to set out the terms and conditions upon which things ought to proceed in such situations. So, I let things slide that time but a few days later Amanda made it clear she wanted a relationship. It was then my mind turned to making a new plan Stan, hopping on a bus Gus, and setting myself free. The thing was, as I pulled away from her, I felt guilty, I really didn’t want to hurt her. (Just as I wrote that Paul Simon’s face was coincidently on my smart speaker screen, it was fate telling me I’d have to pay to use his lyrics).

*                      *                      *

Man of Peace – February 1983

There was a guy called Marcus, (not his real name), who was in the same English and Geography classes as I. For the last year and a half, we’d got on very well, but this day, I must have annoyed him because as we came out of the lesson, he swung his bag at me with force. Although it seemed like he was mucking about, it caught my head hard enough to hurt. It must have been a day for it as earlier on, another kid went to punch someone else, missed him, and caught me in the face. I’d snapped at him but just left it as he seemed genuinely apologetic. Marcus on the other hand was not.

After the bag attack, I confronted him about it in the 6th form centre. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘tough shit’, so I swept his leg away which made him lose his balance. He went to hit me, which I blocked. I then kicked him lightly in the head. I don’t think he appreciated that very much as he proceeded to punch me 3 times in my face, none of which I stopped, but luckily, they didn’t hurt. I was, however, rather taken aback. He then threatened me and hit me a couple more times, again, I didn’t feel any pain. Although I was embarrassed not to have parried any of them away. Later, my violently talented friend, Tim, told me I should have just whacked him, then added, that I always procrastinate too much. Maybe what held me back was I realised a proper fight might have gotten us both expelled. Fortunately for me, just as he’d landed his final punch, one of the teachers came into view. He immediately intervened and marched us off to have a talk. As we walked across the room, I felt an overwhelming surge of anger and pushed Marcus from behind, which in the moment felt just as pathetic as it does here.

After the teacher left, Marcus went into the toilets, so I followed him in. He leant against one of the basins trying to look relaxed. I knew I could kick his legs from beneath him which would have caused him to fall, but I was also aware he’d probably strike his head on the sink if I did. ‘Was it worth it?’ I asked myself. Still, I was angry and wanted him to know, so I kicked one of the basins instead. The only thing was, I almost dislocated my knee in the process. I stepped back, trying not to openly wince. At that point, Marcus started to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, I wasn’t after dominating him, but I didn’t want him dominating me either. Given I limp a bit when I walk anyway, I don’t think he noticed the extra limp caused by my badly executed attack on the sink as I hobbled out.

A bit later I sat next to him in the library and told him I was angry because hitting me put me in an awkward position, especially since he’d started being violent in the first place. I also made it clear, if he thought he could have me in a fight, we could settle it later. Given his punches had been so ineffectual I’m pretty sure he didn’t fancy going for a second round. As I limped off, Tim taunted him with “Yeah peace man”, and for a long while afterwards Marcus and I ignored each other.

I realised Tim was right, I did procrastinate. Partly that came from my reasonable fear of getting into fights, but also, I was beginning to realise that there’d be severe consequences from those in charge if I acted too inappropriately. Still, the next day a kid took the piss out of me as he passed me in one of the corridors at school so, instead of just saying something, I took Tim’s advice and pushed him hard against the wall. I then told him to shut up, which he did and from then on, he never bothered me again.

*                      *                      *

Helen – Part 5

A day after Amanda’s erotic games between John’s patrols, I visited Helen. She’d told me she’d be at hers by 7 pm but when I got there she hadn’t arrived. Gill let me in to wait, but by 10 pm I thought it best to leave, so went home feeling despondent. The next evening, she apologised and invited me again, this time she was there, and we had an enjoyable evening together. When I got home, I realised this felt similar to how I’d felt with Jules, as if my moods were dependent on whether I saw her or not. I knew this was more akin to an addiction than love, but nevertheless, it made me more determined to prevent the relationship with Amanda from going too far.

*                      *                      *

Amanda – Part 5 – Valentine’s Day

Amanda had invited me to a party. On the way to meeting her, I posted a Valentine’s card in Helen’s door. Just as it went through the letterbox Tessa came up behind me.

‘What are you up to, posting Helen a valentine’s card?’

‘Is it that obvious?’ I said.

She laughed ‘I think you might have fallen head over heels for Helen, and everyone knows’

‘Really? Does Helen? Anyway, I haven’t fallen head over heels, I just fancy her a lot’

Tessa raised her eyebrows, ‘Is there a difference?’

‘Yes, head over heels is for losers and fancying is very cool’

Nodding her head, the way the police do just before they arrest someone, she said ‘I’ll definitely bear that in mind.’

She didn’t say anything more about it, and I had to rush off, but this was the moment when I decided to stop pursuing Helen so ardently. That didn’t affect my plan to bring things to a close with Amanda though. At the party I made it clear I didn’t want to do any public displays of affection with her, so, when we met up a few days later I handed her a Dear Jane letter most of which was based on Elvis Presley song lyrics. She cried a little, told me that it was beautiful and said she understood. Then Simon and Amanda left the building.

At the time, I may have thought that was that, but a year or so later we met up again, but even then, I still had very mixed feelings, which I’m sure she picked up on. Again, I felt guilty, but soon after that she met her husband to be, and a couple of years later she invited me to her wedding. As I left the reception we hugged goodbye, and realised, as much as I knew from the outset we were never to be, I was genuinely touched by her. So much so, even now it haunts me a little. I experienced a different kind of, well I won’t call it love, but it was definitely a caring feeling with Amanda. It may have partly been based on me projecting my own feelings of rejection onto her, but it also came from a place of compassion for her as another sensitive human. I’ve never contacted her about any of this. I can only imagine if I did, she, like most of the others I’ve been feeling guilty about for the last 4 decades, would barely remember it either.

*                      *                      *

Karina – Part 4 – 2nd March 83

After our initial recording session, come album buying extravaganza, I visited Karina a few more times. We hadn’t kissed or anything, but I got the feeling that things were heading that way. Once again though I didn’t feel the same power of connection I’d felt with Helen, so was a bit nonchalant when dealing with her. That might’ve been why she showed some interest in getting together. Eventually, I’d realise that for some people, indifference can be quite an aphrodisiac, but I hadn’t quite worked that out back then.

When Karina invited me over for a meal at her place, I got the distinct feeling this was a date. It was snowing lightly so the buses were running late. I didn’t want her to worry so tried calling her from a phone box, but there was no answer. As I walked towards her place, I bumped into her friend Suzie who lived on Karina’s Road, so we accompanied each other for a few minutes. When we got to her place, I said goodbye, she grabbed me and gave me a big hug. A week earlier I’d made a joke in my diary about every time I saw her, she’d be with a different man at the pub and given I rarely ever saw them again, wondering if she’d murdered them. As she hugged me, I tensed slightly just in case she was going to throw me behind the bushes into a freshly dug grave. Anyway, she didn’t, so once released from her tight grip, I hurried on to Karina’s.

Within ten minutes I’d arrived and rang the doorbell. There was a long delay before I could see her shadowy shape move towards me through the square pane of wired and obscured safety glass. The door swung open violently, I looked up to see her glaring at me.

In a raised voice she said, ‘You do know you’re late?’

Once again, I found myself on the backfoot with her. ‘I’m sorry, I did try calling. The buses were running slow.’

‘Oh really, so it wasn’t because you went to see Suzie then?’

‘No’

‘Don’t lie!’ she screamed

I stepped back thinking she was going to attack me. It suddenly dawned on me that it was possible that like a ‘murder she wrote’ plot twist, it had been Karina killing Suzie’s men all along.

‘I saw you!’ she said, ‘I saw you outside her house!’ she took a big breath, ‘I saw you kiss her! I passed you both in a cab because I had to pick up our takeaway. I was doing everything to make tonight lovely, I thought we had something, but, but you, you were seeing another woman behind my back!’

Trying to pacify her with the truth, which isn’t my normal approach, I said ‘I met her on the way, and I just gave her a friendly hug as we said goodbye’

‘Yeah, right, that’s not what I saw. Anyway, you can go back to her because I don’t believe you. Just fuck-off Simon!’

She glared at me, tears in her eyes and slammed the door.

I was stunned and given I was hungry, was a bit disappointed at the direction the evening had taken. At least I was still alive though. Not content with surviving one fantasy serial killer, I walked back down the road and knocked on Suzie’s door. I told her what had happened to which she said Karina could be highly strung at times, and eventually, she’d calm down. As far as I was concerned, she could take as long as she wanted, I didn’t want anything else to do with her, which I have to say is not my normal reaction to difficult women.

Suzie made me a sandwich, and as I ate it, trying not to show how famished I was, she asked if I had my camera with me. I told her I did. She then added, ‘I’ve got some black and white film and wondered if you’d be willing to take some photographs of me naked?’ Without thinking I slipped in the classic joke ‘As long as I can keep my socks on’, which she didn’t laugh at, I sighed and as indifferently as possible, told her I could. She then passed me a roll of film which I loaded into my camera as she positioned lamps across her bed. Everything felt highly sexually charged right up to the moment she took her clothes off at which point I went into ‘life drawing mode’. I doubt you can imagine how disappointed I was with myself. Instead of getting turned on, I focused on my focus, light meter, and composition. All the while she kept asking ‘What do you think of this pose?’ to which I’d say ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s great’ whether it was or not.

I couldn’t tell if she was after getting up to anything so eventually, I felt it only polite to ask, ‘Do you want to have sex?’ I said.

Had I played along with whatever fantasy she might have been acting out, things may have taken a turn for the better, but as I uttered those words her expression changed, and blankly she just said no. In a way, I was relieved.  

I took a few more photos, and then 24 shots done, I wound the film back, emptied its cartridge and passed it to her. She had her own darkroom and asked if I wanted to wait while she developed it. I told her I’d be happy to. She made me a cup of tea, said she’d be about half an hour, and disappeared into her bathroom/makeshift darkroom. I put my Walkman on and thought about Karina getting angry. I felt both annoyed and sorry for her all at once.

When Suzie came out of the bathroom, she shook her head from side to side slowly as if a great tragedy had come to her attention.

‘None of them came out’

Taken aback I asked ‘Really?’

I couldn’t believe it.

She looked down and shook her head again. ‘You must have got your settings wrong’

I was sure I hadn’t.

*                      *                      *

I’ve used a different name to hide Suzie’s identity but when I was researching this chapter, I looked her up to see if she was on the Internet. When I did, the first photograph that came up looked exactly like her, only it wasn’t her, but someone else with the same name who’d lived a hundred years beforehand in America. As for both Karina and Suzie, I couldn’t find any trace of either of them online, but they definitely existed. Not finding them was a bit like that idea about trees falling in a forest. If no one sees it, did it happen? If someone can’t be found on the Internet, you start to wonder if they ever existed?

*                      *                      *

Chapter 37 Part 3

Joanna Part 1

After my Chelsea Interview, I decided to streamline my portfolio for the Slade, as they would be assessing it the following week. If the work wasn’t up to scratch, there was no chance of an interview. My life drawing tutor, a Slade graduate, gave me some ‘suggestions for improvements’, so, not wanting to forget what she’d told me I went straight to the study area at the top of the library where I started to implement her advice. Halfway through I realised I had to pop to the shops to pick something up, so, not wanting to pack everything away, I asked the girl sitting next to me if she’d be willing to guard my portfolio for half an hour. She smiled and affirmed she could.

When I got back, quite a bit later than the promised 30 minutes, the girl had gone. My portfolio, thankfully, was still there and next to it was a piece of paper upon which she’d written, ‘Sorry I had to go. I couldn’t wait any longer. I hope there aren’t any art thieves in the library today. Joanna.”

*                      *                      *

28th February 1983 – Part 1

In hindsight, the 28th of February 1983 was a significant day for me. For a start in the lunch hour, we were doing some karate training in the school gym when a tall 16-year-old boy, called Lee, came in and said something annoying. I went up to him and asked him to leave. Without warning, he grabbed my arms and tried to pull me to the ground. My immediate reaction was to lightly kick him in the ribs as I thought he was mucking about, but then he tried to put me in a neck hold, I realised he was serious, so I performed a hip throw, (an Ippon Seoi-Nage), which brought him down to the ground followed by me landing on him. He still didn’t let go, so I dug my pointed stump into his side which I knew would hurt him enough to loosen his grip. As he did, I decided enough was enough, so, I kicked him in the balls, at which point he curled up in agony. Tim was watching from the sidelines and said, ‘You should have just given him a scrotum burger in the first place’. As usual, he had a point.

28th February 1983 Part 2 – Alison – Intersectionality

After school, I went to SCOLA to attend a life drawing class. As I walked in a hush fell. Across the room was a girl with no arms at all holding a pencil in her mouth. Back then the comedy show ‘Little Britain’ was still a few decades off, but still its regular sketch of ‘There’s only room for one gay in the village’ would have been very apt. The girl looked at me, I looked at her, all we needed was the soundtrack to a Western gunfight film scene.

Everyone else in the class was engrossed by our reaction to each other. A few years later Alison and I would get to know each other a bit more, though we never really got on that well. You probably know of her too as she became famous for Marc Quinn’s statue of her pregnant body being displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and for her involvement in the TV documentary, ‘A Child of Our Time’.

Although I joked just then about ‘The only gay in the village’ syndrome, there is an issue that relates to it here. Those of us bought up amongst other disabled people, often react to each other very differently from people who weren’t. If anything, our approach is harsher and includes very little sympathy. When Intersectionality highlighted how one oppressed group may indirectly contribute to another’s oppression it disregarded that groups may often oppress themselves too. Some might argue that externalising our oppression is well documented but I’m not sure if what I’m touching on here is the same thing. Externalisation is about making up for feeling powerless by exerting control in some way, but the lack of sympathy and care I’m talking about might be more related to sibling rivalry. When members of oppressed groups refer to each other as sisters and brothers, it’s generally done with the intention of expressing family unity, however, as most of us know, when it comes to families there are plenty of divisive feelings too.

When the other members of our class looked at Alison’s work, they all said how marvellous it was, but as far as I was concerned it was average and I think Alison knew exactly what I was thinking.

*                      *                      *

28th February 1983 Part 3 – Joanna part 2

At the end of the class, I started packing up.  A girl’s voice came from behind me ‘I’m sorry about the other day’. I looked around to see the girl I’d asked to watch my stuff in the library a few days before.

‘It’s ok, sorry I took longer than I said and thanks for your note’

She smiled ‘I take it your work didn’t get stolen?’

‘It did, but when they saw how rubbish it was, they brought it back’

She laughed then asked, ‘Your name’s Sam, isn’t it?’

I shook my head and smiled. ‘No, it’s Simon’

She went bright red and whispered ‘Sorry’

*                      *                      *

It’s a Date Cake

The next day I came to college for another class. When I went to the café at break time I flirted with the woman serving behind the counter. She was probably in her late thirties, was quite fat and had blonde curly hair. Just before I left, she beckoned me over. Quietly not wanting to be overheard, and half biting her lip, she said ‘I finish work on Saturday at 3, so’, she paused ‘if you meant what you said, come and meet me here and we’ll do something together’.

‘Really?’ I asked

She nodded, and I either went very pale or red.

*                      *                      *

That evening as I sat with Helen, I realised I didn’t want to meet up with the café woman on Saturday. It wasn’t so much about her, but I loved this feeling I had when I was with Helen, and even though I knew things weren’t going to go any further, she reminded me of what I really wanted and how I wasn’t going to find it in the café store cupboard, no matter how much fun we got up to.

When Saturday came around, I avoided going to the café, both during our break time or at 3 pm. I should have at least popped in to let her know I wasn’t going to come, but I didn’t. The following week when I couldn’t avoid her any longer, she made it clear that she was more than disappointed. I told her I thought she had been calling my flirtatious bluff, so hadn’t taken the offer seriously, but after a few more minutes of dirty looks, I realised she knew I’d just chickened out. Still, a week or so later I kicked myself for not taking advantage of the situation, not so much because of the sexual experience I lost out on, but the thought of all the extra cakes that may have come my way.  

*                      *                      *

Joanna Part 3

Joanna was a few inches taller than me, her skin was pale, her hair curly, but naturally straight, and its colour wasn’t its own. Her lips were full and pulled and pushed together revealing every thought she had. She was quiet, but not because she wanted to be. Everything that wasn’t her revealed to me who she was. From the outset, she touched a part of me that felt for her, but I didn’t fall for her as I had done Helen. If I had, maybe that would have put her off, but that lack of oomph made me hold back as if something wasn’t quite right. For all that, there was something that drew us together.

*                      *                      *

Riga 1938

Latvia’s capital, Riga, was a modern metropolis compared to my father’s hometown of Rēzekne. In 1918, Latvia had declared itself an independent democratic nation and aligned itself to Western Europe rather than Russia. Consequently, money poured into Riga and within a few years it became a vibrant, architecturally beautiful, and culturally exciting city. For close to twenty years, it was considered the Paris of the North.

 *                      *                       *

Bettie – 1940?  – Tea for Two

For two years, Bettie and Chanan stayed in their little apartment. They got on well with their neighbours who they’d often socialise with.  This new world soon became home. Their friends would often tease them about having children, to which they would say “If it happens, it happens”, but after two years, they began to worry if, after all, it wasn’t to be.

One night, neither of them could sleep. The next day was a workday, so they tried their hardest not to disturb each other but eventually, they knew a good night’s sleep was no longer on the cards. Chanan wasn’t even feeling sexually turned on but decided to broach the possibility anyway. “Maybe if we make love that will help.”

Bettie wasn’t in the mood at all. “It won’t, I can assure you.”

Chanan, still not turned on, wasn’t going to let it lie. “You know, in the olden days, when a husband wanted his conjugal rights, a wife could not refuse him”

Bettie pulled her nightgown up and positioned herself on her back.

“Go on then. If you must.”

Chanan pulled his pyjama trousers down and mounted himself over her. For a few seconds, he rubbed himself on her thigh then placed his face to her breasts. She flinched slightly and turned her head away.

“I can’t do it.” He said, “You’re not turning me on”

She looked back at him, “The feeling is mutual”.

He got off her, pulled his trousers up and walked to the window. It was a summer’s night and the sun had already started lightening the sky. His fingers tapped lightly on the green window frame. His forehead against the glass, feeling the cool against his skin. For a moment, everything disappeared, all he was conscious of was the light, the green peeling paint, and the calming glass.

Bettie looked at him, she was struck by both the beautiful scene, and how angry she felt. She pulled her nightgown down, turned away from him and curled up.

Chanan walked back to the bed and laid down, his hand hovered over her shoulder for a second, then as if the morning air changed a weathervane’s direction, he pulled his hand away and closed his eyes. He couldn’t sleep though. All the issues of what had just transpired filled his mind. Over and over, he asked himself: Did she still love him? Why didn’t she want to make love? Who should apologise first? Should he go to the Rabbi for advice? Should he wake her and speak about this, or should he hold firm and wait? And over and over, no answers came.

Between the incident and their alarm clock ringing he probably had slept a little, but, if he did, he wasn’t aware of it. When he got out of bed, he found Bettie was already up and dressed.

“Tea?” she said as she poured him a cup. She didn’t turn to face him. He approached her gently and quietly said. “I’m sorry”.

He hoped that would be enough, but instead, she asked. “Do you know what you’re sorry for?”

Then, as part answer, part question, he mumbled “Yes, for, for upsetting you?”

She laughed a little, “Yes, correct, for that you can have one sugar lump in your tea. You can have two if you tell me why I was upset.”

His eyes widened like an animal facing its prey. It wasn’t so much he didn’t want to express his feelings or try to understand hers. It was simply he had no idea how to answer the question. She might as well have requested he solve a mathematical formula stretched across a large university blackboard.

She shook her head slightly in disbelief. “You know, it takes two to make love, don’t you? If either of us don’t feel in the mood it isn’t a big deal, just let it go and maybe be gentle and kind, instead of trying to force me. And I can assure you, conjuring an image of our forefathers did not help at all” She was going to ask him how he would feel if she tried to force him into having sex when he didn’t feel like it, but after a moment’s consideration she realised that wasn’t a good tactic. These were not the thoughts of a woman who’d read any feminist texts, but she’d always had a sense of what was right and fair.

Very cautiously, he nodded in agreement. For him, there were the rules of marriage and then there was this reality he was experiencing, neither seemed to bear much resemblance to the other. He knew he was tired, so, didn’t pursue the matter further. Instead, he felt relieved that the marriage wasn’t over, and this was just a minor bump in the road that he’d learnt from.

When they parted to go their separate ways to work, she kissed him gently, and once again he felt happy. They both did.

*                      *                      *

Joanna Part 4  

The third time I met Joanna was in another class the following week. During the break, we sat near each other in the college café. My café temptress wasn’t in that day so I could get back into my normal flirt mode.

Joanna was very shy but that didn’t stop her from injecting caustic funny comments here and there. At one point I looked across to her and caught her eye. She flicked her gaze away and half-listening to the person beside her, nodded at something clearly unheard. As we walked back to class I asked if she fancied meeting in the library café for a cuppa and a chat after college one Saturday.

‘I would, but I’ve got to work in the afternoon’, she said, “I could meet you in my tea break though.’

I stopped walking so we wouldn’t get back to the class before the plans were finalised.

‘What time’s your break?’ I asked.

She came to a standstill too and faced me.

‘3 to 3:30’

‘OK, where shall we meet?’

She paused, her lips tightened and pulled to one side. ‘My mother doesn’t like me seeing boys so how about the bench in the churchyard next to the library?’

‘OK, I’ll see you there.’

That Saturday it rained. The bench was overhung with branches, so I didn’t get that wet. I waited for half an hour, then feeling agitated I picked up my bag to go. I couldn’t help but think this was Karma for me standing the café woman up. I laughed to myself at the thought that being ‘stood up’ is the opposite of being ‘laid down’.

As I walked back to the library, I heard someone running toward me. I looked around; it was Joanna. As she reached me, breathless, she half wheezed, half panted, ‘I’m so sorry. They wouldn’t let me have my break at the normal time. Can you still stay for a while?’

I forgot all my gurning thoughts. ‘Of course,’

In a very concerned tone, she asked ‘Did you worry I’d stood you up?’

‘Yeah, a bit’

She shook her head ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ Then she paused and added, ‘well, not to you’

I laughed ‘Do only ugly blokes get stood up?’

She looked quizzically at me, smiled, and said ‘I’m prepared to make an exception when it comes to you’

I laughed.

For the next few weeks, we’d meet and chat for half an hour on this bench, then one day just as she was about to leave, I leant across for a kiss goodbye. Instead of a quick kiss on the cheek, I held my mouth near hers. We kissed gently for a few seconds then she moved away and sounding surprised asked, ‘Why did you do that?’

I raised my eyebrows, ‘Would you rather I didn’t?’

She bit her top lip, leaned toward me, and kissed me hard. She paused to hold the moment, her mouth to mine for a few seconds, then jumped up. Confused, I stood up too.

‘I’ve got to go, sorry, I can’t be late, the manager knows my mother’

‘Hey before you go’ I said, ‘Do you want to come to see a play called The Crucible with me next Friday, it’s my birthday?’

‘I’d love to, but I’ll have to check with my parents first. I’ll call you.’

A few days later she got back to me with the go-ahead, although the proviso was, I’d have to bring her home straight after.

*                      *                      *

My birthday came around soon enough, and to my relief, Joanna hadn’t cancelled, so, I met her outside The Secombe Centre, which was a newly opened arts venue just behind the library car park. As we watched the play, Joanna held my arm, and during the interval, we went to the bar. For the first time in my life, I bought an alcoholic drink legally. I’d been buying them since I was 13, but this was still a milestone. I also couldn’t help but feel proud to be seen with Joanna, even at the time I knew it was shallow to think like that, but I liked it. When you look like me it’s very hard to move around in public anonymously. So, I don’t think it’s any wonder I wanted to take some control of the situation.

On the way home, we bought a bag of Pork Balls from a Chinese takeaway and ate them in the freezing cold while waiting for the bus. I even dropped her off in good time as promised. Her father came to the door while her mother looked through the curtains. I smiled and waved goodbye. Joanna and her father waved back but her mother just watched.

*                      *                      *

The following Friday Joanna was allowed to come round to do ‘homework’ at my place provided my parents were there too. While John and Mum watched the News on TV in the front room, Joanna and I lay on the floor in the back one, her long legs wrapped around me. As we kissed, she pushed her tongue hard into my mouth. I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t like it. Then hearing the door to the front room open, we quickly got back into our homework poses. As mum walked past with a big grin on her face, she asked if we wanted a cup of tea. Pushing the hatch open from the kitchen she continued ‘you must be very thirsty doing all that schoolwork?’

‘Yep’, I said ‘my lips are sore from all the debating we’ve been doing’

Mum laughed, ‘I bet they are’.

After she went back into the front room Joanna asked if my mother was always that open with me, when I said yes, she told me I didn’t know how lucky I was.

It wasn’t long after we finished our tea that Joanna’s dad knocked on the door and whisked her away.

A bit later Joanna called.

‘My mum wants to meet you, can you come over next Friday evening?’

‘Yep, of course, does she want to check me out’

‘Yes, sorry, I think she does’

My heart dropped.

*                      *                      *

Meeting the…

Joanna lived in a similar house to the one I did, so, when I went to hers, I didn’t feel like we were from such different backgrounds. However, her parents were quite a bit older than mine. Her mother was in her 50s, had bright ginger curly hair and wore blood-red lipstick. Her father looked older and walked with a fear-filled stoop.

As we sat down to dinner her mother asked all the usual questions. What qualifications was I doing and what did I want to do when I left school. Undeterred I managed to change the subject to the safe arena of politics. Joanna’s eyes were darting from side to side as if she was watching the final of a National Chinese table tennis match, but I wasn’t ready to worry about her mother, and yes, it got worse. When Joanna’s mother told me she knew better because she was older than me, I said ‘Age doesn’t necessarily make someone right.’ Everything went very quiet. I should have felt embarrassed but instead, I was angry. I could see what her mother was up to, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. Even so, I knew this wasn’t going to bode well, but possibly because I wasn’t in love, I could be myself, even if that meant being a little fucker.

Joanna broke the silence. ‘We’re just going to go out to see Simon’s friends who live around the corner, we’ll be back in an hour, is that ok?’ As if faced with someone disarming a bomb and being told the blue wire was just about to be cut, her mother said ‘Alright’.

I politely thanked her parents for a lovely average meal of cannelloni, mashed potato and peas. Ok, I didn’t include the word ‘average’, and as Joanna and I walked down the road I apologised for being rude, although I did add the meal was one of the strangest, I’d ever had.

Joanna stopped and faced me. ‘No, I’m glad you did that, she thinks she can bully everyone, I’m glad you stood up to her.’ She pulled me close to her, kissed me and stroked my hair. For a moment I thought I was going to get a medal but as one didn’t appear, we marched on.

I had a friend who lived around the corner, he was my friend’s mum’s boyfriend who I’d always got on well with. I’d called him earlier and asked if I could pop round with my new girlfriend. Mirek was Czechoslovakian and had escaped about 20 years beforehand so was well established in the UK, but his sister and her husband had only just arrived, so they still hadn’t acclimatised to living here.

In the USSR both Mirek’s sister and husband had been chess champions. Even their wedding had been themed around the game. They were so good they could play multiple games simultaneously. When I told them I could do the same they looked astonished. Mirek translated as they asked, ‘Is this true?’

‘Yes, of course’ I said, ‘I never win any of them though.’

Mirek laughed, interpreted what I said and yes, they did laugh too. Still, he may have said something completely different like ‘Just laugh, he’s probably KGB’.

Mirek’s sister asked if we’d like a cup of tea ‘Of course they do,’ Mirek said, ‘they’re English’. She went to the kitchen to prepare some, but a few minutes later there was an acrid smell of burning plastic. Mirek went to the kitchen to see what was happening. There was a muffled commotion, some panicky raised voices and then quiet. Mirek came in with a big smile on his face.

‘They haven’t seen electric kettles before. My sister put mine on the stove. There might be a bit of a delay before tea arrives, I hope you don’t mind.’

Joanna and I both shook our heads politely. As they dealt with the melted kettle we had a quick snog on the sofa, but this time when she stuck her tongue hard into my mouth I said, ‘I don’t like that, can you do it more gently please?’

‘Oh’ she put her hand to her mouth ‘I thought that’s what boys like’

‘Maybe some do, but I find it a bit uncomfortable, sorry.’

She hid her face in her hands ‘Oh God, I feel so embarrassed.’

I tried to reassure her. ‘It’s ok, I hope you’d tell me if ever I did anything you didn’t like’

She looked at me with an expression that clearly stated, ‘No, I wouldn’t’.

The door opened, and Mirek entered holding a tray full of mugs.

‘Here we are, finally, tea for two’.

*                      *                      *

Joanna – Part 6 – The End of the Beginning

A week passed before we were due to meet again. I’d invited Joanna around and said I had some red and yellow tulips for her. She’d told me they were her favourite, plus they represented forbidden love, so, I knew she’d appreciate the gesture. I called her to see if she was still coming over, but she said she wasn’t allowed out.

A few days later I received a letter telling me her mum had banned her from seeing me. Even though her father met my parents when he came to pick her up that time, her mum said they hadn’t been there, and Joanna had lied. When Joanna pleaded to her father to admit he’d seen them, he just said ‘Don’t argue with your mother’.

I’d sensed something like this might materialise. After what had occurred with Jules, I wondered if my girlfriend’s parents not approving of me might always be an issue. True, I’d been rude by contradicting her mother, but still, I got the feeling they didn’t want us getting together way before that, and I think anyone could understand me wondering if my disability played a big part in all of it. This time though, I didn’t feel heartbroken, instead, I was a little sad and very angry. So angry that I planned to accost her father at the college as he attended a class there too. But when I saw him, he looked vulnerable, so I left it. Also, there were feelings for Helen still resonating in me, consequently, when she finished it, I was a little relieved.

*                      *                      *

While some people found my loud and out-there personality very off-putting, Joanna was drawn to it. Years later a friend told me about a psychoanalytic theory regarding women with powerful, but hurtful mothers who dominated their weak husbands, often being attracted to people whose social image exuded power. Ok, I’m not saying I was powerful, but as you may have noticed, I was outwardly very confident, and that probably triggered something in Joanna. On top of that, after standing up to her mother and becoming forbidden fruit, seeing me wasn’t just an act of rebellion it gained an emotional charge that was in addition to whatever we’d have naturally felt for each other.

Joanna and I would get to meet up again in secret about a year later, and over the next 10 years, we’d sporadically bump into each other at social events. Then, in the early 2000’s we started seeing each other again. Joanna had gone through some major surgery in the intervening years which left some big scars on her stomach. As we made love, I wanted her scars up against me because they were a part of her, and I wanted her. When we kissed in the warm light of a single lamp in her room, I looked at her beautiful face and knew I’d never forget that moment. Not falling head over heels with her initially, wasn’t, after all, a barrier to touching the emotional depths I’d dreamt of all those years before. But back then, when I was 18 I would have sworn they must be.

There’s something else. Once our romantic relationship came to an end, we still had a friendship. Even now, over 40 years on, we often message each other and occasionally meet up. The same goes for Helen, we’re still friends, and even Sarah and I communicate through social media on a friendly level.

As much as romance and sex have a profound effect on relationships, there is also something very true in Eric Fromm’s teachings about love partly being a recognition of each other as lovable, connectable humans, whether Eros’ poison arrows cut through us or not.

*                      *                      *

Joanna Part 7

In 2003 Joanna took me to a family wedding, as we walked in, arm in arm, both her parent’s jaws almost touched the ground. As God said, ‘Vengeance is a dish best served cold’. Ok God didn’t say that, but it’s still true.

*                      *                      *

Abbie part 4

Abbie and I hadn’t spoken for months, but one day we did. I can’t remember who called who first but for all our annoyance, we were still in each other’s minds. We had a short chat and arranged to meet later that day. This time she didn’t let me down.

Soon after arriving, she told me she was angry I’d ignored her. In return I let her know how hurtful it was to hear she’d told my schoolmate I was annoying. She explained I’d hung around too long that day, and that was all. Then I added her continual last-minute cancellations really pissed me off. I did add however that since experiencing an onslaught of calls, I now realised I’d probably tried to see her too much and wouldn’t do that anymore. We looked at each other and laughed.

‘I’m glad we’ve had this conversation’ she said.

I smiled. ‘Me too’

She grabbed me and, in a monster voice said ‘Come here and give me a hug’

*                      *                      *

Friendship Between Men and Women – Part 1

I was still seeing the other friends I mentioned in the previous chapters, but I’ve tried not to refer to them in this one as I didn’t want to make it any more confusing than it already is.

It won’t be any surprise either that there was a difference in my relationships with female and male friends, and it was marked. When Ruth came to see me, we’d speak about art, poetry, and religion while we stroked each other’s necks. It didn’t go any further, maybe we wanted it to, but perhaps this was enough. There was a softness and intimacy that, while we were single, filled a gap, and would never happen between me and my male friends.

I tend to mention my female friends in these chapters more than my male ones. I did have male friends, including Mark who I’d listen to music with, Tim with whom I’d discuss guns and violence, and Sunil who I’d mainly watch rubbish films and chat about girls to, plus there were a load of others who I’d see too. But those relationships tended to feel more ‘of the moment’ and rarely included discussing feelings. Maybe, my male friends and I would have appreciated more emotionally intelligent conversations but had any of us tried doing so, we would have probably reacted as if we’d witnessed a psychotic episode. We weren’t ever openly told to be like that, it was just the way things were.

*                      *                      *

Intersectionality – Men and Women

Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on ‘The patriarchy’. Ok, that doesn’t scan that well, but you get the point. Sorry, I just can’t, I just can’t, I just can’t control myself. Anyway, if you like blaming the world’s woes on the patriarchy, I’d argue it’s far more complicated than that. Both sexes not only have a profound effect on each other but also harbour very complicated feelings about the opposite sex, their own and any other genders too.

Our parents, siblings, family members, peers, teachers, media personalities and so on, all these people play a part in forming our internal models of the same and opposite sexes. Throughout our lives, the nature and quantity of contact we have with each other will also continually modify these internal models.  Not only that, but each of our external relationships with the opposite sex will vary considerably from one another because, well, everyone is just so different. We’re all unique, just like everyone else.

In the realm of romance, love, and sex, my relationships with women seemed to exist on a far more abstract level than the relationships I had with women as friends, even with those who’d previously been lovers. As lovers, we ironically felt at odds, a unit of ‘you and me’, whereas once our friendship developed, it was far more a case of ‘us’.

I was often told that men and women couldn’t be friends, maybe to those who said that the sexual roles proved too difficult to overcome, but it was only through such friendships that I came to see how much common ground there was between us.

*                      *                      *

The Romantic Illusion

Like many of us, I searched for a romantic illusion, but the women I’d tend to fall for rarely fell for me too. And, conversely, if anyone did fall for me, I’d seldom reciprocate. Of course, there were other drives, such as loneliness and lust that often lead to half-hearted involvements. The only problem was they’d leave all those ‘un-involved’ feeling empty, unfulfilled, and desperate to escape. Sometimes though, even when I was with someone I hadn’t fallen for, I’d wake up one day to find I suddenly felt deeply connected to them. Occasionally it would manifest itself as an ‘in love’ feeling, but there’d often be other situations when it would come from a far more caring part of me. Rarely though, if ever, was it a mixture of both.

I’ve often heard others say, ‘I’ve fallen out of love with my partner, they’re more like a friend or a sibling now’. But I wonder if it was the other way around. When we’re ‘in love’ it’s ‘Eros’ making us fall, and without that feeling, we think love is missing but were we wrong?

Still, for all of that, as much as I’d yearned to connect with a woman the way my romantic illusions had suggested when it came to coping with the real world where that didn’t happen, getting involved with women purely on a sexual level tended to be my fallback position.

*                      *                      *

Bettie Riga – November 1941

The note on the door had said the police would be back later. This temporary evacuation was apparently for their own safety. There had been several arson attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods, so the police advised evacuating the residents from this area until things died down. They also told everyone to take their valuables with them as the safety of the building couldn’t be guaranteed once they’d left. The residents were informed the securest place to stop, would be near the police station. Chanan, who would be working from 2 am told Bettie he would meet her there after work.

At 3 am the door knocker banged loudly. Bettie opened her eyes, sat up on the side of the bed, took a sip of the leftover black tea she’d started earlier then stood up. There was a lot of shuffling and hurried voices from the corridor. She put on her coat and pulled her hat tight over her head – it was freezing outside and getting very cold inside too as the fire had gone out completely. She felt for the wedding ring on her finger, and looked in the mirror, the moonlight touched just one side of her face, so she swung her head from side to side a couple of times as she checked herself. As she opened the door to the hallway, she tensed at the light and noise. Picking up her two “essentials and valuables only” suitcases she looked back into the room. The moonlight illuminated their bed, the small dining table, and the kettle on the stove. She breathed in suddenly, wondering if it would still be here when they returned. Then backing out into the corridor she placed one of the cases on the ground and pulled the door shut.

One of her neighbours called out to her, “Bettie, Bettie, sorry, can you help me please, can you take Joseph’s hand?”

“Of course,” Bettie smiled at the young boy who walked from his mother to her side. She placed the suitcase under her arm, gently held on to Joseph’s hand and walked down the stairs to the police escort.

[To be continued]

*                      *                      *

Imperfect Stranger

It wasn’t a perfect stranger who stole our love

It was our immaculate longing

It wrapped itself around us

Pulling us down

Headlong over high heels

Madly, untruly

First cut

Deeply

But time, the avenging healer

Revealed we’d loved each other long before we’d ever met

But those perfect strangers

God, they’re so heartbreakingly hard to forget

*                      *                      *

The woman in the featured image is Joanna

*                      *                      *

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