Send me to sleep

A bedroom.
Bedroom in a prefab at St Fagan’s Museum, Wales.

These days, I have reached a fragile accord with sleep, but for a long time it, or rather its absence, dominated my life.

In my twenties I struggled with sleep. I never had any trouble getting off but staying under seemed impossible, and I had often given up by 4:30 or 5 am and was up and dressed, just me and the mice.

Then I realised: I’d become one of those tiresomely tired people who responds to the polite question “How are you?” with “Ugh, exhausted.” This could not go on; steps had to be taken.

I started taking naps in the office canteen at lunchtime, until my boss made it clear he didn’t approve.

I tried giving up caffeine (no difference), I tried exercise (good in other ways, but didn’t help my sleep).

I drank more (really didn’t help), less (a great improvement, but only for one night) and different: whisky gave me mad dreams and indigestion, cocoa did nothing, fruit tea did nothing, steamed milk did nothing…

Nytol worked brilliantly – absolutely knocked me out, so that I woke feeling completely renewed – but, again, only for one night.

Hot baths, soothing music, fancy lamps and alarms, writing a pre-sleep diary, eating lighter meals, ditching carbs, sleeping on the floor, nice pyjamas, new pillows, a new bed, everything, anything. No joy.

Eventually I accepted the facts of the matter: it was my brain.

A sleeping statue.

That led me to the doctor, which led me to counselling at a terraced house in Chingford where I travelled after work on a bus every Friday for two months.

My only mission was to sort out my sleep. Other than insomnia, I thought, my life was pretty good, and I was sure I was fundamentally happy.

Talking out loud, though, I realised there was some weird stuff going on:

“I usually wake up first at about 1 am. I feel very alert and sit up to check the back garden.”

“What do you mean, check the back garden?”

“Just, you know, stare out into the dark until my eyes adjust, to make sure there’s nobody out there.”

“Like who?”


“Interesting. Have you been burgled?”

“Well, not recently, but…”

This took me back to the council estate and the people who used to raid our shed every other night, who stole our bikes, and rattled the back door from time to time. That’s when, between the ages of about 10 and 17, I got into the habit of staying up late watching the garden; of waking up throughout the night to look outside, hoping to catch them; and getting up early to see what damage they’d done.

Remembering that took me to university where staying up late was normal, and getting up early felt like an evolutionary advantage. I’d usually read a book or two by breakfast, and spent an hour or two in the library before most of my peers had stirred in search of lunch. So not sleeping became an embedded habit, and I powered through it on adolescent adrenaline.

But reflecting on university also took me into what turned out to be a foul well of pent up resentment, sadness and minor humiliations, the weight of which had slowly built up on my shoulders so that I hadn’t noticed myself being pushed down.

It all became clear: I wasn’t exhausted because I wasn’t sleeping – I was exhausted because I was burned out by going from estate to school to work to university to work to work to work… No gap year, barely a pause for breath, and no second chance if I failed.

A streetlight at night.

Counselling, I’m pleased to say, dealt with all that – I’m lucky enough to have been easy to fix with a bit of talking, which I know isn’t how it goes for everyone – and by the final session I felt a million times better, but…

I still couldn’t sleep. The counsellor, I sense, was a bit exasperated by this.

“Would people know you’ve slept badly and feel tired if you didn’t tell them?” he asked eventually. “Does your work suffer? Are you less effective? Does it stop you socialising?”

“Well, no, I don’t think so.”

“So don’t tell people. It can be your secret. Why not just let yourself be.”

With that finger-snap, everything seemed to change. I stopped talking about sleep (or at least, stopped constantly talking about sleep) and learned to accept it.

And you know the punchline: because I stopped worrying about it, I did begin to sleep a little better. Not well – I still don’t sleep well – but a touch deeper, a few minutes longer throughout the night. Waking up in the dark no longer felt like a personal failure, just a fact of life. I almost learned to like it.

At some point, I’m not quite sure when, I even stopped checking the garden for burglars.

The days after especially restless nights can still feel difficult but I’ve grown philosophical: like the man said, nobody knows, and bad sleep last night increases the chances of good sleep tonight, or tomorrow, or maybe the night after, but soon.

In the meantime, think of all those extra hours for reading, writing, for just being.

I was prompted to write this by a bad night’s sleep, an article in the New Yorker, and this excellent Tweet.

Council Houses: Haunted by Something

In Britain hauntings occur in ancient manor houses, old inns, and Gothic asylums – places whose very age makes them groan and creak, where shadows sit deep, and which are scarred by the lingering imprint of lives lived and lost. And yet arguably the most famous British ghost story of the 20th century took place somewhere quite different: in a humble council house, only half a century old, in Enfield, north London.

There, between 1977 and 1979, sisters Margaret and Janet Hodgson were the centre of a poltergeist manifestation that has inspired books, articles, and even a recent Hollywood film.

This turns out to be far from the only such instance, however, and was certainly not the first.

“The world of the ghost is riddled with class,” wrote Roger Clarke in his 2012 Natural History of Ghosts, “and the poltergeist is occasionally tagged as ‘the council house ghost’.”

Here are just a few examples of that particular, peculiar phenomenon.

Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, 1947-50

The tenants of a red-brick council house on Queen Street, built only in 1945-46, reported having seen a figure glide through the hall and then disappear. Mrs Thomas Bicknell (her own name is not given) first saw the ghost in around 1947, as reported in the Northampton Mercury and Herald for 6 January 1950:

She and her late husband, Mr Thomas Bicknell – a man with 23 years’ service in the Royal Artillery and not given to imagining things – had just finished a game of cards when they heard a rustling and tapping noise coming from the direction of the hall… Their dog, a large Airedale retriever, rose to its feet, raised its hackles and growled… Mr Bicknell went into the hall but could see nothing. The dog went up the stairs, still growling, and his master followed. Again there was nothing, but as he turned to descend the stairs, he saw a ghostly figure glide through the hall, go into the kitchen, and disappear. Mrs Bicknell, sitting in the living room, saw it too.

After her husband died, Mrs Bicknell saw the ghost a second time, on Christmas Eve 1949, doing the same gliding and disappearing act. When her distress story was reported at a council meeting it was met with laughter. “This added amenity warrants an increase in the rent,” said Mr D.H. Jelley, following in the grand gentlemanly tradition of scoffing at superstitious proletarians.

Church spire with pull quote from below.

Earby, Lancashire, 1954

Mr E. Peasey, a chimney sweep, evacuated his wife and nine children to a single downstairs room in their council house at 1 Melrose Street as a result of ‘queer things’ happening upstairs, and multiple ghostly apparitions. Here’s a summary from the Burnley Express and News for 16 October that year:

[For] three years doors had opened on their own, footsteps had been heard overhead, crockery had flown into the air and pictures had gone crooked… One of the boys, 14-year-old [Bobby] described a shadow in his bedroom. At first he thought it was a reflection but it advanced to the middle of his room and then began to tickle his feet and scratch him… The ‘thing’ was white, with no arms or legs, and when an alarm clock went off it had backed into the corner and disappeared… Ten-year-old Kathleen described seeing two hooded figures “floating” and similar shapes were described by others in the family.

Another report, from the Barnoldswick and Earby Times for 15 October, adds more details: a bright light seen in an upstairs room, door knobs turning on their own, and two of the children waking their father to report that they had “seen a man in Daddy’s attic”. A small twist: this was apparently an older slum property with gaslighting rather than a modern council house and the story came to light precisely because Mr Peasey wrote to the council requesting a move to just such a new-build.

Sedgley, West Midlands, 1954

From the same year and month as the tale above comes the minor story of a haunting in Sedgley in the West Midlands in which the tenant, an unnamed woman, supposedly asked the council sanitary inspector to fumigate for ghosts while he was hunting rats on the property. It was reported in the Birmingham Gazette for 29 October 1954 as a “Nowt So Queer as Folk” sidebar scant on details, and with a decidedly unfunny punchline: evidence of haunting in her daughter’s bedroom was chalked up to the resident vermin, and the family were evicted for failing to maintain the house properly.

Barbed wire with pull quote from below.

Sunderland, County Durham/Tyne & Wear, 1957

It was in spring when Norman and Audrey Dixon first reported that the council house in General Havelock Road, Sunderland, into which they had recently moved with their three young children was haunted in a rather colourful fashion, as recounted in the Birmingham Post for 23 October 1957:

[The ghost] takes the form of a zig-zag line [which] appears on the wall of their living room…. The first night they slept upstairs sheets were ripped off the bed and fingers dug into their chests, Mr Dixon said. “A few nights later I felt something clammy on my back and so did my wife. There seemed to be no air in the room. We staggered downstairs and took the family to my brother’s house.”

This case was taken seriously enough by the local vicar that he appealed to the Bishop of Jarrow, J.A. Ramsbotham, who visited the property and conducted a ten-minute blessing service on 22 March, including the sprinkling of holy water. But when journalist Ken Culley followed up (‘I was guest in the haunted house’, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25/03/1957) the Dixons told him that the exorcism had been effective for only 24 hours and that the “unwanted visitor” had returned in full force.

They too were eventually evicted after refusing to pay their rent in protest at the Council’s refusal to provide them with alternative accommodation. (Newcastle Journal, 29/10/1957.) Another family, the Rowes, moved into the house in November 1957 and reportedly found it “all quiet”, and that was that. (Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 05/11/1957.)

Swindon, Wiltshire, 1966

A brand new council house in Penhill Drive in Swindon was the subject of national press coverage when Gladys and Robert Tucker, who lived with their adult children Beryl and Victor, asked to be moved after they saw a shadowy figure on the landing and strange lights on the walls. (Daily Mirror, 04/04/1966) The council agreed to rehouse them, reluctantly, and had the house exorcised by a priest before reallocating it to new tenants. In his 1967 book Swindon: An Awkward Size for a Town Kenneth Hudson reported this incident as a blot upon the image of a town keen to present itself as modern and forward looking.

Council houses and pull quote from below.

Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, 1968

In March 1968, Gerald and Audrey Burke, 34 and 31, moved out of their council house on Fern Avenue as a result of “tappings, loud thumps and the breaking of glass”, and the ghost of “an old lady…. wearing a white hat”. Mrs Burke asked the Council to re-house the family. (Aberdeen Evening Express, 13/03/1968.)

It seems the Burkes were not the first tenants to complain of such occurrences (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27/02/1968) and so the Council resorted to sending in, first, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gerald Walker (Birmingham Daily Post, 27/02/1968), and then “psychic experts” – brothers Alan and James Bell, from Formby – to attempt to exorcise the property.

The Bells were convinced by the evidence they saw and urged the council to move the Burke family, even offering to rent the house themselves while they continued their investigations. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 04/03/1968.)

I haven’t been able to pin down what happened next but I can say this: Fern Avenue no longer exists, even though nearby Ivy, Pine, Larch, Ash and Laurel avenues do.

A young family in black and white.
John and Lynne Edwards, 1973.

Coventry, West Midlands, 1973

In 1973 it was a council house in Stoke Heath that scared away its residents. Lynne and John Edwards first moved their family into a single room at 63 Hill Side, before fleeing altogether, after they heard “whining noises and footsteps”, and felt the house turn freezing cold in in instant. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19/11/1973.)

* * *

After all that, it begins to feel as if not only is the council house not such an unusual setting in which to encounter a ghost but, in fact, a setting positively prone to hauntings.

What can possibly cause these relatively history-less houses, designed to be light and airy, to be such fertile ground for the uncanny?

In America the answer would surely be an ‘Indian burial ground’, as in Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, which sees shiny new-build suburban houses haunted not by the ghosts of previous inhabitants but by those who once possessed the very land. (Sort of. It gets complicated in the sequels.) But, based on historic maps available via the National Library of Scotland, there’s no such obvious plot engine – no burned-down orphanage or gruesome battle site – at any of the other locations listed above, though a couple are near cemeteries.

Then again, it doesn’t take much age at all for a house to gain the potential for a haunting. In the 1968 haunting of another Coventry council house, this time at Treherne Road, the anxious 37-year-old resident, Miss Barbara Mills, connected a serious of spontaneous fires with stories she had heard of a wartime suicide at the property. (Birmingham Daily Post, 22/10/1968.) The Dixons in Sunderland invited a local psychic, James Long, to conduct a séance at the General Havelock Road house which resulted in a message from a drowned man, John McKenzie, who apologised for the trouble he had caused, but mentioned that there was also the “earthbound spirit of a woman” haunting the house. (Newcastle Journal, 29/04/1957.) Legends grow quickly, even in poor soil.

In more concrete terms (no pun intended) is there perhaps something about the way the houses were constructed? In the Sunderland case journalist Ken Culley slept in the haunted bedroom but, despite apparently making every effort to spook himself, saw no evidence of anything supernatural. What he did observe was that the construction of the house made it uncomfortably stuffy, while opening the window caused a localised breeze to swirl oddly around the foot of the bed, numbing his feet. Light and airy may have been the intention but large rooms with high ceilings, sparsely furnished, offer great potential for echoes, reflections and strange circulations.

Then there is the question of location, and here I’m going to indulge my own memories of growing up on an estate. Council developments often occupy what in the jargon of the psychogeographer are called ‘edgelands’, neither town nor country, and can resemble lonesome frontier towns. All that space, a joy on a summer afternoon, has its downsides: winds whistling across shopping precincts and playing fields, or along showpiece boulevards; long, dark gardens with no walls and too many shadows, butting on to fields or woodland; neighbours at arms’ length, and family further yet, back in the old country. A bedroom for the parents and one for each child sounds like the ideal unless you’re used to something more intimate and find yourself alone at 3 am listening to silence, staring at a black shape creeping across an excess of freshly-plastered wall. With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the cases described above resulted in the afflicted families bunking up together in a single room, or crashing with neighbours or family. Could this be a sort of stress reaction to the trauma of being almost forcibly cleared from the so-called slums?

Roger Clarke’s observations on class are relevant here, too. He suggests that, at least until recently, middle class people were less likely to publicly report experiences of ghosts, even if they might admit to them privately. Talk of ghosts is viewed as evidence of either peasant stupidity (see above), or working class mendacity, and either way ‘showing off’ by talking about this kind of thing for whatever reason is rather vulgar.

Finally, there is the very fact of the stress of life on an estate. I should be clear here: in my experience, English council estates aren’t as bad as some people like to suggest; but nor are they, in practice, anything like Utopian. There is crime, and there is anti-social behaviour. One small example: our back door-knob used to rattle after dark when my Dad worked nights. A small thing, but terrifying. My Mum got into the habit of having my Uncle’s Army riot baton by her armchair or next to the bed, and I got out of the habit of sleeping too soundly, just in case intruders needed seeing off. Living like that, never quite relaxed, wears you down and sets you on edge. And, at the same time, you are also dealing with poverty which can leave you cold and hungry, and which at the same time can erode your sanity and sense of self.

“I cannot stand it much longer…. I am living on my nerves”, wrote Peasey the Earby chimney sweep with nine children to feed in his letter to the council. He was certainly haunted by something.

A Place Called Nowhere

Until I read the below passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that the place where I grew up had once been nameless.

Regarding Eastover housing scheme, it was reported that the Minister of Health agreed in principle to the proposal to acquire 75 acres of land between Bath-road and Weston Zoyland-road. The District Valuer was instructed to negotiate for acquisition of the land, and it was decided that the site should in future be referred to as the Sydenham Estate. [1]

Not a place, then, but a void between places, and that’s certainly how it looks on historic maps of Bridgwater:

A map of field patterns.
SOURCE: Know Your Place West.

But maps, and especially this type of administrative map, do tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. The abstract above – that snow drift and irregular fishnet – actually represents a pattern of fields stretching out behind Bower Farm. (The buildings of Bower Farm were demolished years ago, swallowed up by another estate – private, this time – and on its site are now a shopping arcade with a Tesco Metro and a Chinese restaurant.) Thought not named on the map I’d bet anything those fields were known as Bower Fields, even if the mapmakers didn’t know it.

Bower Estate would have been a good a name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead it took its name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

1947 aerial photo in black and white.
Bower Farm (rear) and the first houses on the new Sydenham Estate, 1947. SOURCE: Britain from Above.

The present Sydenham House was built c.1500 for the Percival family. It was marched past by the Duke of Monmouth on his way to the fateful Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a noted incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-mans-land between this huge new development and the railway line the house became inaccessible and invisible, and was largely forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick workers cottages built in 1865, and to the grander Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built in concrete caused some controversy. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline [2] and the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where are the bricklayers to turn them into homes? [3] The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment. [4]

Drawing of a council house.

Perhaps this was a mistake. A place being created from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, could have used something to tie it to the town of which it was supposed to belong. As it was those Laing Easiform and Cornish Unit concrete houses not only seemed alien but were also the same as thousands of others up and down the country, which meant the Sydenham Estate could have been anywhere. Shown photographs with only the name for a caption, wouldn’t most people guess that it is in south London? Later on, in the late 1950s, when permission was given for a brewery to build a pub on the estate, magistrates quietly objected to the suggested name, The Lorna Doone. It was changed, accordingly, to The Withy Cutter in reference to the Somerset levels willow industry. [5] Too little, too late.

Drawing of a council house.

When Sydenham really became a place, it was defined by negatives. It was referred to on the news as ‘the troubled Sydenham Estate’, and my peers called it The ‘Nam. This was a self-deprecating joke – it was hardly South Central Los Angeles – but also reflected a low-key ghetto mentality. We’re stuck out here together, us versus them, and it’s a combat situation. Who ‘they’ were depended on context. Within the estate, Sydenham Road and Longstone Avenue had a wary rivalry, each convinced the other was a no-go area; and the Sydenham Estate as a whole was set against the Hamp Estate on the other side of town, where we kids were warned never to go. (Of course when I did go, I found a twin – approximately the same kinds of houses, an exact clone of the shopping arcade, and a secondary school which looked like an off-kilter version of mine.)

But Sydenham, barely baked, seems to be fading away. Sydenham Villa, on the other side of Bath Road from the estate, was demolished as long ago as the 1950s. In around 1991 my secondary school ditched the doubly toxic Sydenham Comprehensive label in favour of ‘East Bridgwater Community School’. Then, in 2011, Sydenham ceased to exist as a council ward, replaced by Fairfax and Dunwear, two new wards that split the estate through the middle and effectively deny its existence. Estate agents marketing houses in the area tend to refer to them as being “on the east side of town” or, even more vaguely, “a popular residential location”. I wonder if this place, conjured into existence in 1945, will make its hundred years.

1. 6 October 1945, p.5.
2. Taunton Courier, 4 December 1948, p.3.
3. Taunton Courier, 5 January 1946, p.6.
4. Taunton Courier, 6 October 1945, p.5.
5. Taunton Courier, 29 March 1958, p.8.

A World I Recognise

A red sports car on a council estate.

BBC sitcoms Detectorists and This Country do something previously rarely seen on TV: they capture the England in the cracks between cities.

Too often fictional portrayals of small towns and villages lean on the twee – the heirloom plate version of the England What We Have Lost, where Miss Marple ever knits socks for the eternal Home Guard unit that will return one day aboard a steam train when our country needs it most. But Detectorists and This Country both recognise a space between town and country where people live and work without necessarily thinking of their lives as ‘rural’, and without nostalgia.

The world of Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists is gentle and idealised, but not by much. People have jobs cleaning motorway verges, polishing hospital floors, packing and dispatching vegetables; they struggle for money; they live in red-brick houses or flats above shops, not cottages or farmhouses. The pubs look like real pubs, where people more often drink lager than the ale prescribed by lore. Yes, the countryside is beautiful, and filmed beautifully, but it is also full of cars, vans, litter (“Ringpull… ’83… Tizer.”) and infrastructure. It looks free and open viewed from the right angle but is actually carved up by invisible lines into ‘permissions’, not only a human landscape but one that has been that way for thousands of years, filled with the debris of a million past lives.

Daisy May and Charlie Cooper as Kurtan and Kerry Mucklowe.

If there’s a ‘but’ with This Country it’s the sense that the writers, actually middle class, are chuckling at ‘chavs’, turning out a form of prole porn. I’m very sensitive to this as the bearer of a working class shoulder chip sufficiently hefty that it causes me to walk in circles if I don’t compensate but, on the whole, I credit Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, who write and star in the series, as acute observers rather than sneerers. Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in the kind of plain post-war council houses of pre-cast reinforced concrete that you’ll find in every town and village the length of England, and any hint of the bucolic is undercut by the sight of pylons and motorways in the background. There are moments when I think, hold on, wasn’t I walking down that street last week? Didn’t my aunt and uncle live in that house?

Both shows depict ordinary people with ordinary un-town accents having complex relationships, deep feelings, and pursuing strange obsessions. If you think Kurtan taking the scarecrow competition deadly seriously is far-fetched then you don’t know Bridgwater Carnival. An obsessive detectorist would have fit in well on the estate where I grew up among the scooter fetishists, boat restorers, woodworkers, quilt-makers, Hammond organists, gooseberry growers and CB radio enthusiasts. Even the cool boys from school would gather in the playground to peruse catalogues of angling equipment.

I have a bias towards the south and the rural, of course, but I might just as well have mentioned Car Share, created by Paul Coleman and Tim Reid and brought to life by Peter Kay. It depicts an only slightly heightened vision of the suburbs, retail parks, ring-roads and roundabouts where so many people live lives nonetheless full of feeling.

If this is a golden age for British programmes about ‘boring people doing boring things’, as John Lennon once said in dismissal of Paul McCartney’s social realist songs, then it might be just what we need at a time when it feels as if half the country doesn’t know or much like the other, and when the question of what it means to be English has once again become so grimly present.

The Cult of Elvis

Elvises on a council estate.
Adapted from pictures by Dr Neil Clifton and wgossett under cc-by-sa/2.0.

Council estates are grey, bleak, boring places. That’s what the propaganda says, anyway. What they don’t mention is how weird they can be, and on my estate Elvis Presley was a particular nexus for weirdness.

There were numerous small manifestations of his spirit. For example, I was at school with multiple Aarons, all born in the immediate wake of the death of The King of Rock and Roll, whose middle name it was. (I was nearly called Aaron until my parents, Elvis hating contrarians, realised the connection.)

There was at least one house with a shrine in the front window: candles, framed pictures, commemorative plates, and a brass statue of chunky mid-period Elvis mid-hip-swing. In the background was a wall-hanging depicting near death Elvis, picked out in light colours on black velvet. They sold those at Highbridge Market, I seem to recall, alongside similar tributes to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and wolves at howling at the moon.

It was perhaps all of that which generated sufficient energy to fuel the resurrection of The King himself.

Sure, I was startled the first time I saw Elvis strutting around the estate in his famous white Vegas stage outfit, zip-up Chelsea boots and gold-framed shades, but it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The sideburns were the right size and shape but definitely blonde, and the bell-bottomed jumpsuit, though a bold effort, lacked the polish, intricacy and glitter of the real thing. And would Elvis ever have carried round a portable music system playing his own greatest hits? Well, maybe, come to think of it.

The Bridgwater Elvis was a man whose passion for the Memphis Flash combined with grief at his passing to cause a permanent transformation, or rather permit a possession. I never saw him dressed any other way and he answered to Elvis’s name when piss-taking kids yelled it at him in street, not seeming to mind, enjoying it even. He identified as Elvis on a deep level and would probably have been more offended to be addressed by his own name.

When he died a few years ago his family made sure to list Firstname (Elvis) Lastname in the obituary. I wonder what’s on his headstone?

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances

A mod scooter.

“Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances.”

Peter Meaden, 1978

For a few years as a teenager and twentysomething I tried to do the mod thing but it didn’t really take. Practical modism requires a certain arrogance I don’t think I have, and certainly don’t know how to project.

It’s relatively easy to do ‘plastic mod’, buying items of uniform off the peg at mod shops, but real mods will let you know that’s not the point: you have to really like fashion, really care about sweaters, really commit to having a ‘hairdo’. Doing it properly, or even half-heartedly, takes a fair amount of money. And, ideally, you also need to be slim – a straight streak with no lumpy protuberances to spoil the cut of your suit.

So, all of that being out of reach, I let it go, though I still thrill at the sight of a Lambretta and listen to all the right music.

Looking back, though, I wonder if the appeal of modism to me, and perhaps to other young working class people, was something beyond the clothes, records and scooters: it was the clean precision of it all.

When I got together with my partner about twenty years ago this week she was into grunge and the scuzzier end of indie, at home in festival fields. Not long after we met one of her friends described me as “a clean boy”. It was not intended as a compliment, in my view – she meant to say that I was a bit boring, a swot. But it was true, in literal terms: I don’t like to be muddy or sweaty; ‘slumming it’ holds no thrill for me; I like clean socks, clean shirts, clean bedclothes, and being clean shaven.

I think I understand this instinct of mine. A council estate upbringing is almost the textbook definition of the “difficult circumstances” described by Peter Meaden, the original Ace Face and associate of The Who, in a 1978 interview. “Clean living” is the smallest, cheapest unit of defiance. (Disposable razors can be used multiple times if you dry the blade after use; a bar of soap lasts longer than shower gel and costs buttons.)

Later on, at university, it was a way of feeling in control of a distressing situation. Scrubbed clean, dressed and out of the door every morning before many of my peers had even thought about sliding out of bed and into last night’s T-shirt, I at least started each day fresh and sharp. One of the few things from Cambridge I look back on with any fondness are the bathing facilities: constant scalding hot water delivered via showers like firehoses, or cascading into luxuriously deep Edwardian tubs. The industrial laundry facilities weren’t bad either.

But I have to admit there was also a cringe in all this. It was a way of saying, “Yes, I might be here now, but my soul and body has already begun the ascent to a better place.” If I smelled of anything at all, or had a dirty collar, I subconsciously believed I would be marked out as a ‘prole’.

Of course my up-tightness did that far more effectively, and I daresay continues to do so.

Undercover Poverty

Illustration: "Brass in Pocket"

“A man ought to have some coins to jingle in his pocket, even if it’s only coppers.”

My Mum used to say that when I was a boy as she sent me or Dad out of the door with 12p in small change scraped together from saucers and purse-corners, to make sure nobody would realise we were poor.

Poor. There’s a word.

A few years ago, having come through university trained to more-or-less pass in middle class environments, I ended up in a meeting at work where various well meaning people were trying to find a way to avoid describing children as poor. “You see, Ray, it’s stigmatising.” What they came up with as an alternative was ‘experiencing disadvantage’. I kept my mouth shut at the time but something about it made me angry. Perhaps it felt like a euphemism designed more for the comfort of the observer than out of concern for the Experiencers of Disadvantage, or maybe I didn’t like the suggestion that being poor, or being called poor, was anything to feel bad about. Being poor only feels shameful because nobody wants to admit to it.

Whatever the reason it made me want to stand up and shout I WAS POOR! Or maybe even I AM POOR! I’m not sure it’s a state you pass out of; it’s like a birthmark, or a lost limb.

The coins in the pocket are one face-saving fib among many. When you’re poor, you’re often far too busy to attend birthday parties and school trips, even though, of course, you’re not busy at all. You tell people you don’t like eating out, that you don’t like the cinema, or that you’re not interested in activities and clubs, even though you yearn for all those things. Or, rather, you would yearn if you hadn’t smothered the yearning before it had chance to cry out, convincing yourself that it’s true. “The cheaper version is every bit as good,” you say, daring anyone to doubt it, making it true through sheer force of desire.

You jingle, you swagger and bluff, and hope nobody calls you on it — “Shall we do rounds?”

Of course that doesn’t happen, as long as you know your place, where everybody has the same handful of nothing.

Some Forgotten Fields

Bridgwater sky.

Sydenham Road was where town met the countryside — where the grey council prefabs pointed their rear ends at the tall golden grass of The Fields.

The Fields seemed infinite and wild to me as a frankly cowardly child. There were things concealed in the growth I did not care to encounter – hunks of rusting metal; plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying, nests of adders. In autumn low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like a gathering of ghosts. On one of the rare occasions I did dare to explore my foot got sucked into mud and I lost a trainer to the avaricious earth, which felt to me like a near-death experience.

There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we need to go there when we had public greens and playgrounds? (I once found a bag of dead rabbits behind the tank-shaped climbing frame in the park on Chamberlin Avenue.) All that meant was that kids clambered over back-fences, crushing the chain-link to the ground over the course of years, while certain enterprising residents installed their own back gates. During the day, and especially during the summer holidays, that meant cousins and friends could run in and out of each other’s gardens using folk paths worn through the vegetation. At night it facilitated more sinister goings-on – the whine of ‘borrowed’ mopeds and motorbikes, muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 10-years-old, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad news. On the one hand, I knew it would bring the wilderness into line – no more snakes or child traps, and an end to the sinister whispering of the grass beneath my bedroom window in the blue small hours. On the other hand, I disliked change — I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses — and this amounted to a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields scared me they were also natural and beautiful in their own way and it felt wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Perhaps I also picked up on grown-up grumbling: a council house with something even approaching a natural view is a coveted thing and here They came to take the view away.

During the building The Fields became fearsome in a different way. First, infrastructure had to be laid, which meant heavy plant roaring all day long and then lying around, yellow and silent, after hours. Tarpaulins flapped and snapped in the wind, louder and more alarming than the grass had ever been. And concrete pipes were set about waiting to be laid underground, half-heartedly fenced off, with signs to warn kids away. But my best friend wouldn’t be warned away from anything.

I can’t remember how we met. I was shy and small; he was swaggering, round-fisted, and a year older. We wrote and drew comics together, planned elaborate bases, and pooled our collections of toy cars to make a museum in his parents’ garden shed. We played American football, too – he taught me to throw the ball with a twist so it would spin and find its target, and insisted that we tackle each other with full force despite the absence of armour or helmets. (I wonder, with hindsight, whether he had decided it was his duty to toughen me up in preparation for secondary school.)

Like a lot of intense childhood friendships, though, it couldn’t last, and as the building went on I lost him to The Fields and the company of naughtier, more adventurous kids than me. He kept ringing the doorbell and inviting me right to the end – “Coming over Fields?” – but I was too afraid and so he would go without me.

Then one day my uncle turned up, white-faced, and sat me down to tell me the bad news: my best friend was dead. A concrete pipe he had been clambering around and inside had rolled free of its anchoring and crushed him.

So when I say I lost him to The Fields, I really mean I lost him.

Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate – hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whirls and loops along dusty new artery roads. Now the frontier with the countryside is old Bower Lane beyond which there is a stretch of flat farmland right up to the motorway. It’s muddy alright, but not wild or free. Enclosed, carefully tended, and private, it is no haunt for serpents or ghosts.

Cutting the Brie the Wrong Way

Frosty fen.
Cambridge, c.1998.

I haven’t written about my time at Cambridge for various reasons, including a sense that my experience 20 years ago probably isn’t relevant today – that the weird world of public school rituals, boating clubs and silly gowns was fading then and so must surely have completely disappeared by 2017.

Only, it turns out, it hasn’t, so here’s how it went for me.

I grew up working class, mostly on a council estate in Somerset, and went to a comprehensive that was very near the top of the Ofsted Hard as Nails League Table. From there, I was one of a handful of kids who went on to do A levels at the local sixth-form college. There, rather to my surprise, I continued to do well academically and was identified as Oxbridge material by an ambitious college administration. They put all of us swots into special coaching sessions run by an inspirational lecturer, the son of a Nottinghamshire miner who went to Oxford in the 1970s and kept a bust of Lenin on the desk in his classroom. When he told us that, yes, Oxbridge was full of weird posh people but, no, that didn’t mean we should avoid it, it carried weight. We had as much right to be there as anyone else; we shouldn’t let them keep the best stuff to themselves out of fear or misplaced humility.

It all felt as if it happened by accident, to be frank – just a matter of taking what was for me the easiest path, filling in the forms that were put in front of me, tackling one hurdle at a time. I got an interview which took place on a frosty winter day and gave me my first taste of the problems I would have later. I was told to wear a suit, which meant finding the money to buy one; and we couldn’t afford a hotel, even if had been the kind of people who even thought to stay in them. (A reminder: the bar for ‘expensive’ is low when you have bugger all.) So Dad drove through the night and I arrived angry and exhausted at breakfast-time.

The other interview applicants were somewhat reassuring. There were a couple of northerners with proper accents who seemed as anxious as me, and several people who, although clearly Home Counties middle class, had a relatably similar comprehensive-n-college background to mine. The interviews, which seemed almost designed to sabotage people like me, went well, partly thanks to the preparation I’d had at sixth-form, and partly through adrenalin. I remember arguing slightly too vigorously with a pair of terrifying college fellows that Eastenders was as interesting as Wordsworth and that the half-rhymes were the most interesting thing in Wilfred Owen’s poems. It turns out they like this kind of thing – ‘independent thought’ – and so that was that, I was in.

* * *

What people sometimes fail to understand about growing up working class – or at least as I experienced it in the 1980s and 90s – is how scared and innocent it can leave you in some important ways, even if you seem bullish and practical in others. Public transport is expensive so you don’t take it, which is how I got to the age of 18 being unsure how to use trains or buses. I could count the number of times I’d eaten in restaurants on one hand, and had never eaten Chinese food or take-away curry. I’d never seen an olive, or houmous. I’d only been abroad once, on a three-day educational trip to Brussels sponsored by the EU. I didn’t know what ‘smart casual’ meant, or that Earl Grey tea is supposed to taste like Fairy Liquid. I didn’t realise that it was frightfully vulgar to discuss money or politics, or how to make polite small talk over glasses of wine. By contrast, all the upper- and middle-class kids I met in my first week seemed like globetrotting sophisticates: they’d had gap years, spoke multiple languages, and seemed to have been trained in cocktail chat and advanced canapé consumption techniques.

Things only got worse when I realised that there was a tier above this – the blazer-wearing rugby and rowing sorts who were so posh they didn’t even have to pretend to be pleasant or polite, and could behave more or less however they liked. I spent several years just flat out avoiding them, scurrying round the edges of the College, hoping I wouldn’t encounter a drunk member of the pride enraged by, say, a complicated door mechanism, or the complexities of operating a kettle.

Money was a persistent problem, even in those tail-end days of grants. I tried to live off a pound a day, not wanting to tell my parents I needed more cash because they didn’t have it, and having been told by the College not to do any part-time work under any circumstances. So in my first term I lost about two stone and was constantly hungry. (This seems insane now I see it in black-and-white but it’s true.) I eventually cracked and told my tutor that I was getting a job and they could stick it if they didn’t like it, which magically unlocked a bursary fund, after a brief round of mildly humiliating means testing which required my parents to provide copies of their bank statements. Even that only covered living, with nothing left over for having fun. That wouldn’t have been so bad if the rich kids hadn’t been having lots of very loud, visible fun all around me – weekends away, parties, restaurant dinners, fancy clothes, and skiing holidays paid for with their loans ‘because my Dad says I might as well take it, given the low rate of interest’.

(Some of this is probably on me — I am capable of having absolutely no fun under almost any circumstances.)

But the hardest thing was that oppressive sense of cultural alienation. I had a meltdown about this at one point and, in desperation, unloaded in near hysterics during what was meant to be an academic supervision. I chose the right teacher to talk to – someone who had come to Cambridge from Africa and had an experience far more stressful and bewildering than mine. “The whole place is designed to make you feel like an outsider,” he said, with uncharacteristic feeling. “Everything they do, all the rituals and manners, even the way the buildings are designed, is intended to exclude people like us. Do not let them achieve what they want.

I never stopped feeling like an oik – someone once loudly mocked me for cutting a slice of brie the wrong way, which is the elevator pitch version of my time at Cambridge – but I did eventually stop thinking it was my fault.

I learned to spend as much time as possible away from the College, wandering around reassuringly normal housing estates outside Cambridge, or sitting on benches at the Grafton Centre, which felt a bit like being in my home town. This wasn’t homesickness — it was pining for the real world, and a reminder that it was that lot inside the College walls who were the freaks, not me. I found friends who didn’t make me feel like shit because I didn’t know which way to pass the port, and who liked sitting around drinking tea while we listened to records — something I could afford.

I left with a good degree (having no fun meant I had time to read all the books and revise),  a certain confidence in the quality of my intellect, and several important relationships that are still going strong today.

Other than that, I don’t feel like a ‘Cambridge man’, or have lingering affection for my College. I don’t have any ties or scarves, have dodged every reunion to date, and when the College kept bothering me for money I asked them firmly to stop phoning, emailing and writing. Our business with each other, as far as I’m concerned, concluded the day I walked away with my degree. Cambridge is an ex I dumped after a long, dysfunctional relationship.

So, when young people from similar backgrounds to mine ask if they should go to Cambridge, I find it hard to give a straight answer. One the one hand, not going is a kind of surrender – letting them have it all to themselves – and if it’s not quite world-as-oyster dream I was sold I guess my degree did get me as far as interview stage for my first couple of jobs after university. At the same time, I feel duty bound to be honest with them about my experience, so at least they’ll know what they’re getting into.

Cambridge is what Cambridge is.

Hungry for Culture on a Council Estate

BOOKS: Quiet Flows the Don, The Rattle Bag, Jeeves and Wooster

It’s been interesting to see conversation in the past week about working class access to culture prompted by Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at Glastonbury.

Personally, though I get where they’re coming from, I’d like commentators to think twice before implying that to be working class is to be essentially lumpen, leaden, tasteless and disengaged.

I grew up in a working class family, mostly on a council estate in Somerset, and mostly skint, but there was culture everywhere, assuming you don’t define culture only as Shakespeare and Beethoven.

There were libraries, both in town and at school, where idealistic librarians delighted in the slightest sign of enthusiasm on the part of kids like me. They went out of their way to push cool books and to acquire books by authors in whom I showed any particular interest. By the age of 16 I’d read, for example, Joseph Conrad, James Ellroy, William Gibson, Ernest Hemingway and Philip K. Dick. (All a bit male, I realise, but I’m working on that now.)

I had teachers who refused to talk down, either in terms of age or social class, and lent or gave me copies of books by C.S. Lewis, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mikhail Sholokhov. (Actually, I never got round to reading that last one…)

And, though I didn’t realise it at the time, the bearded socialist in the Lenin cap who ran the secondhand book stall in my home town was carrying out practical redistribution when he tipped me off to an unadvertised five-Penguin-paperbacks for a pound offer. I built a library that way, stacking my rickety shelves with everything from George Orwell to P.G. Wodehouse, via Len Deighton and Dashiell Hammett. Libraries are great but owning a book — scribbling in the margins, bending the corners, dipping in and out over the course of years — is different.

Then there was Auntie, and her extended family. When I started to develop a serious interest in films as a young teenager I didn’t need an art-house cinema because I had the BBC and its lingering Reithian desire to improve and educate. There was Moviedrome, for example, which saw Alex Cox beaming the cultest of cult films into the corner of my bedroom. (I inherited my Nan’s nicotine-stained punch-button TV and VHS recorder when she upgraded. Something something flat screen TVs something something benefits.) And I remember being floored by a season of film noir in about 1993 where I saw things likeThe Big Combo and Double Indemnity for the first time, book-ended with serious-minded discussion and accompanying documentaries. Meanwhile, Channel 4 gave us the Banned season which my friends and I stayed up to watch hoping for titillation but came away from having seen The Life of Brian, fully contextualised as part of a serious debate about censorship. I started listening to Radio 4 at about the same time — hours a week of quality drama (Clive Merrison is the best Sherlock Holmes) and discussion of varying degrees of intellectual rigour running as background noise, drip-feeding my brain.

My parents not only encouraged my consumption of culture but also set a good example. My Dad has been a serious, obsessive fan of blues music since he was a teenager on his own Somerset council estate. Though he’s not a great reader in general he will read about music and so our house was always full of heavyweight volumes by American musicologists, either borrowed from the library or (the secret weapon in many working class bookcases) cancelled and sold off by the library service for 10 or 20p. He also introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock, spaghetti westerns and Hammer horror; to the Kinks, the Bluesbreakers, and the Pretty Things. All, with hindsight, pretty hipster cool for a small-town lathe-operator.

Mum is and always has been a reader — one or two books on the go at any time, speeding through the pages, always keen to explain why she likes or dislikes any particular book. She expected me to read and to enjoy reading and — not in a pushy parent way, but quite naturally — and it worked; I did, and I do. On a couple of occasions she even tried to write novels — Mills & Boon romances, I think — on a typewriter in the dining room. She didn’t get far but that sent a powerful message, too: just because we’ve got fuck-all, and live somewhere like this, doesn’t mean we have to be passive — we’re allowed to create! I started writing myself on the typewriter she abandoned. (Or did I just steal it from her?) I suppose Dad’s various bands over the years, and his dabbling in songwriting, underlined that point.

When I went to university I was sure I would be at a disadvantage and, sure, I sometimes felt a bit lost when people started to compare experience of going to the theatre — to date, I’ve seen, I think, four plays, ever — that is a world from which I feel cut off. In many ways, though, I felt more rounded in my education than some of my peers, and more confident in my own sense of what was good and bad, and what was worth studying in the first place.

I worry sometimes that the infrastructure I enjoyed has been eroded. Libraries have closed or become less ambitious, and TV seems less willing to lecture or challenge in case it gets accused of being patronising or pretentious. But then I hear a story about a refugee in the Lebanon learning to play the violin largely from YouTube videos, and remember the existence of, say, Project Gutenberg, or, and I think, no, there’s reason to be optimistic. There’s more culture to enjoy, and more cheap or free ways to enjoy it, than ever before.

And if there’s one thing we council types are good at it’s stretching scraps and mince out to a full meal.