“We haven’t much money, but we do see life!”
My mother used to say that a lot. Only the first part was right, but one contradicted her at ones’ peril!
I was born in a two-bedroom terraced house in Hull, some 61 years and 11 months ago, in July of 1958. Kingston-upon-Hull, for the 99% of you who’ve never heard of it, is a large town, or small city, on the northern bank of the River Humber, straddling the confluence of the River Hull with the larger estuary, roughly 200 miles north and a little east of London. At that time, its’ ‘metro area’ was home to some 365 000 souls — a figure which has since declined by around 40 000.(https://www.macrotrends.net/cities/22856/kingston-upon-hull/population)
At that time, the city was accounted a major trading port and perhaps the foremost fishing port in the country, but was already in decline -though it was not truly noticeable until many years later. Certainly the docks and trawlers were major sources of employment, along with the chemical works, the typewriter factory and a few other light manufacturing companies (many providing unskilled part-time work for the wives of trawlermen, who might be gone for months, and who didn’t get paid until they brought their catch home.)
The house I was born in was in the middle of a working-class district. Not that my parents regarded themselves as working class, but the house was available, cheap and — most importantly — just down the street from my mothers’ parents.
It was in a row of identical, red-brick houses with square bays on both floors at the front, a little square of front garden, a longish but narrow back garden, and rear access via a passage referred to locally as a ‘tenfoot’. Previous owners had converted the smaller rear bedroom into a bathroom, holding a washstand and bath. They had then widened and roofed-in the extension and knocked through the pantry and bunker to create what my mother always called a ‘kitchenette’. The WC remained in the corner of the kitchen, walled off except for a single door-an arrangement which would now be illegal. This turned the former kitchen into a living room and the front living room into a parlour — though we called them the ‘back room’ and the ‘front room’. It was cramped, there was no double -glazing, central heating or insulation. For heat, a coal fire was lit in the room we were using — usually the back room except for high days and holidays -until replaced by gas fires in the 1970s.
My brother and father and I bathed twice a week, changed our underwear every three days and our shirts once a week. Because boys and men didn’t need to be fussy, unlike my mother, who bathed and changed daily. My brother and I each owned two sets of ‘play’ clothes, one school uniform, two pairs of pyjamas and one set of ‘best’ clothes. We wore slippers in the house, plastic sandals for outside play and Wellington boots in heavy rain or snow. For everything else, we wore black lace-up shoes — Bluchers or Derbys — which from the age of ten, we were required to polish every night. We wore raincoats in the summer and dufflecoats with knitted balaclavas in the winter
I was, I think, around seven (1965) when we got our first television set. In those days, we had four radio channels: the BBC Home Service, BBC Light Programme, BBC Third Programme and Radio Luxembourg. There were three TV channels, BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. It wasn’t until 1970 or so that we got a colour television.
I’d like to say I was a quiet, studious child, but I was not. I was an early talker and a precociously smart-mouthed kid, always ready with a quip, a pun, or a touch of sarcasm. I was poorly-coordinated and bad at maths -nowadays they would call me dyspraxic, back then I was just clumsy and thick.
Well, not exactly thick, just trying for my teachers. Because back then all that mattered to most teachers and parents was English and Maths. The Main Subjects, always mentioned together. History, Geography, Science, these were all ‘afternoon’ subjects, to be dealt with after the mornings’ helping of English and Maths. A clever child was one who scored highly in both The Main Subjects. But I was always, always, bottom in Maths and top in English (we were graded against each other, not against external standards). A paradox my teachers and parents could not cope with. How could I be so good at one of The Main Subjects and so bad at the other? My fathers’ reaction was to give up on me — Maths was all that mattered, it was how he made his living, after all. My mother was delighted at my prowess in English and History, two subjects she herself enjoyed, but couldn’t see how they’d help me to get a good job.
Sport was another bone of contention. As a boy, I was supposed to be consumed by passion for football (soccer). Being from Yorkshire, I was also supposed to delight in cricket. Unfortunately, poor coordination, laziness and an inherent dislike of group or team activities left me utterly indifferent to sport. To the even more severe disappointment of my athletic father.
There was the core of the issue. I could not, and still cannot, abide crowds and noise. I hated being forced to interact with other kids. I had picked up the skill of reading very quickly, and my disinclination for active games led me to spend my spare time buried in one book or another.
Not typical kids’ books, either. My mother, a strict disciplinarian with a fierce temper and a heavy hand she didn’t hesitate to use at the slightest offence, also knew the value of reading. From an early age she read to us. My early memories include her readings of Norse myths — Thors’ visit to Jotunheim and the tricks the Giant king played on him has always stayed with me. The Greeks were there, too. The Wooden Horse of Troy, the travels of Odysseus, the Labours of Heracles, the Quest of the Golden Fleece. At school we heard about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
By the age of 11, I was done with Enid Blyton and C S Lewis. My mother introduced me to Isaac Asimov and his robots, to E E ‘Doc’ Smith and the Lensmen. Television had already given me Doctor Who and Star Trek. My father, in a last attempt at bonding, introduced me to Conan Doyle -not just Sherlock Holmes, but the Professor Challenger stories. He used up space on his personal library ticket to bring me books he thought I would like, but could not take out myself at that age. Dracula; anthologies of horror and SF tales that introduced me to H P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and others. Jules Verne and H G Wells followed. I explored the bookshelves in the front room and found the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mabinogion, the Canterbury Tales and even an abridged translation of Journey to the West. These were my escape, my safe places in a crowded, noisy house.
At 18, I duly went to University, having secured the required A-levels. I chose Universities based on their distance from home and courses on the basis of a mild interest. I knew that if I took English Literature, I would be expected to get a First-Class degree and become a teacher. So I didn’t. I ended up at Warwick University, which is closer to Coventry than Warwick. I spent three years attending lectures, staying silent in seminars, avoiding classmates and reading anything that took my fancy. Then I didn’t bother with my finals, took the money I’d saved by not drinking and partying, and moved into a bedsit in Coventry.
Seven years of blissful solitude followed. I got by on the then-generous State benefits. I made extensive use of Public Libraries to peruse ‘many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’. I attended occasional courses at the insistence of the Government, where I acquired reasonable admin skills and discovered a talent for analysis and an easy relationship with the then new and mysterious devices called ‘computers’. I challenged myself by volunteering at an Adult Literacy centre, where I realised that I could teach -if not conventionally at least fairly well.
I even experienced some -I was going to say ‘random’, but perhaps ‘accidental’ might be better — sexual encounters with both men and women. I came away with the impression that the whole sex thing was rather overrated, and took pains to avoid any further such occurrences.
There came a time when the Government insisted I should go on a work-scheme. I applied for one involving working with children, on the assumption that, as a male, I wouldn’t be considered. I was wrong, and suddenly found myself trundling around the various clinics and community centres of Coventry, with a bag of toys, in the company of a good-hearted if somewhat vacuous young woman. It was a nightmare! I mean, I like children -though I couldn’t eat a whole one — but the so-called adults were every bit as bad as I had feared they would be!
That was a busy year. I’d applied for a degree course at a local Polytechnic, just to see if I could do it. Also, while working at the clinic, I met a single mother with an 18-month-old daughter and found myself falling in love. That’s weird, right? Weirder still, we’ve been married 32 years, have a grown-up son of our own and three grandchildren! The little girl is now a grown woman who is in some ways closer to me than the child I actually fathered!
I got the degree that time, and went from job to job before finally joining the Civil Service, working in a couple of different departments until the end of last year, when I’d finally had enough!
You know what? I’d been right all the time! The majority of people I’ve had dealings with have been either fools or complete arseholes! I’m not — never have been -the sharpest knife in the drawer, but nevertheless. The inability to grasp something perfectly straightforward at the third time of explanation. The refusal to cut the BS and get to the point. The tendency to turn a simple process into a labyrinthine set of ‘procedures’ that turn an hour’s work in to a week-long farce of checks, ‘alternative strategies’, counter-checks and multiple sign-offs. Drives me up the wall!
I got fed up. Fed up of picking up the pieces whenever some overpaid incompetent dropped the ball. Fed up of taking weeks ‘working collaboratively’ to complete a job I could have done on my own in days. Fed up of trying to use project management techniques designed to produce IT applications to run research projects (kind of like using a corkscrew to open a jam jar). Fed up of being criticised for ‘not bonding with your team-mates’ — people with whom I had nothing in common except a place of work.
I tried to do the right thing. I joined the Union. I got co-opted onto the Branch Committee. Then when our Chair flagrantly broke the rules and got herself fired for it, I was pushed into the breach. Management expected soft-pedal, but got a grizzled old class-warrior who knew how to stay within the rules and still play hardball. It got me respect, of a kind, but cost me promotion. That’s how it works.
I got old. I got tired. I got depressed. I was promised support, but what it boiled down to was, ‘if you behave the way we want you to behave, we might be able to let you keep your job.’ I got out while I still had enough of myself left.
So that’s me. Nothing special, not a genius or a hero, not terribly good at anything. All I do is look, and say what I see. No ideology to speak of, except maybe a little cynicism and a chunk of misanthropy. I’ll be direct, I’ll be stroppy and I don’t care if you like me or not.
Racism? Bloody stupid, if you ask me. Of all the things you can judge a person on, the tone of their skin is the least reliable. Do they look you in the eye when they talk to you? Does what they say make sense? Are they smart or stupid? Are they a decent person, a nasty piece of work, or just a fool? That’s how you decide about people -what they look like is irrelevant.
Religion? Part delusion, all con trick. Just a way for a few crafty and unpleasant people to get a decent living without working for it. And a lifestyle choice — if you don’t like what people do in the name of your religion, choose another religion. My kids, when they were teens, didn’t fancy being Chavs or Townies, so they were Goths -same applies to religion.
Gender? You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the saying goes. I will treat you as you present yourself to me. If you present as a woman, I’ll probably open doors for you and stand up when you come into the room because that’s the way I was raised. If you present as non-binary I’ll do my best, but I’ve never come across anyone who does this, so I’ll be learning as I go.
Sexuality? Whatever floats your boat, no epidermis off my proboscis. Unless you’re into kids, in which case be afraid, be very afraid.
War and peace? As my late father-in-law used to say “You’ll get more with a kind word and a two-by-four than you will with just a kind word!” It seems to be built into our nature that some things can only be resolved after a fight — not by it, but after it.
If a tree falls in a wood where nobody can hear it, it does not make a noise. Because ‘noise’ is the conceptualised response to the physical sensation caused by a change in the frequency and amplitude of vibration of air molecules within range of our hearing. The tree causes the air to vibrate, but it takes a human brain to turn that vibration into ‘noise’. Reality is not limited to what we perceive, and we do not perceive all of it, nor do we always perceive the truth of what we see, hear or feel. Bear that in mind when you feel like getting on your high horse!
The Universe seems to be deterministic, simply the multiple effects of a cause or causes which may themselves be the effects of earlier causes. Certainly the effects we see are also the causes of other effects. There is no universal morality or grand plan. Our moralities and ideologies are the effects of our thoughts, which in turn are the effects of our perceptions, which themselves are the effects of evolutionary causes, and so on. Some of these causes and effects fall within our control, in that we can choose what effect a particular causal event will have on us. But those choices are themselves affected by the accumulation of inherited and learned behaviours that constitute our characters. Learned behaviours can be unlearned and new ones acquired, with effort. Making that effort has been responsible for much of human advancement.
So there I am. I’m not going anywhere, and don’t expect me to shut up. Also, don’t expect me to take sides, or be conventional -or necessarily polite -in what I say!