You must remember this

Grandpa’s hand feels like soft, rumpled leather. His nails are thick, curved and brown. His black Harrington jacket smells of tobacco and sweat. When he smiles, only one side of his mouth turns up. He’s been dead since 1990 but I can remember him in 3D, HD, stereo surround.

I remember more things, in finer detail, than many other people, or so I gather. As a writer, that’s handy. I can summon places, people and textures from storage and describe them.

It helps me write pieces like this, about the pub I lived in between the ages of three and five, and this about my family’s smoking habits throughout my childhood.

As a human being, it’s sometimes a problem. Once or twice a day I’ll wince with embarrassment or sigh with sadness at something that happened more than thirty-five years ago.

“It’s weird that you remember literally every moment of your childhood,” someone said recently, which prompted a conversation with members of my family about how their memories work.

My Mum swears that her earliest memory is of Grandpa, her dad, leaning over a balcony in a checked dressing gown. When she asked her late mum about this she all but spat out her tea: this moment, she thought, could only have occurred when Mum was a nine-month-old baby in her pram, looking up at the house from the garden.

My brother, on the other hand, got quite emotional admitting to us that he didn’t really remember Grandpa at all. He died when my brother was nine, not even that young, but my brother doesn’t have deep memory banks. He lives in the present and doesn’t do nostalgia. It’s interesting, too, that he’s the mathematician-scientist in the family and proclaims himself totally uninterested in the visual arts.

Outside the family, there’s my friend Jack and his photographic memory. We only discovered this when, years ago, he recalled some minor historical detail.

“How do you remember stuff like that?” someone asked.

“Same as anyone else,” he said, shrugging. “I just picture the front page of the newspaper for that day and then, you know, read the headlines and then zoom in on the story for the details.”

My partner’s sister is similarly gifted and seems able to remember useful things like what everyone in the family ate at her twelfth birthday meal and who got what for Christmas in 1987. She’s also got a knack for recalling sporting statistics and who won what at which Olympics back to 1984.

I sometimes doubt my own memory, though. Am I a good writer because I have a good memory, or does my memory seem good because I’m imaginative?

In the last few years I’ve been working on novels set in the 1950s and seem to be able to draw on memory to fill in their details, too. Not my memories but secondhand memories from my parents, grandparents and other relatives, filled in with details I’ve plucked from family photos, film, television, novels and goodness knows where else.

I remember holding Grandpa’s hand, the curve of his fingernails, the smell of his jacket… Or I have a few sketched lines, a single fuzzy frame, and, like one of those machine learning demonstrations that lights up the internet every other week, my brain fills in the gaps with guesswork and borrowed textures.

Lost albums, lost boys

SMiLE

I was 17 when Tom from college turned up at my parents’ house with an urgent need to talk about Brian Wilson.

At that point, I knew very little about the Beach Boys, and even less about Tom – an intense boy who had to bow to pass through doorways, who dressed in indie beige and stoner moss, and communicated mostly through Chris Morris quotes. We barely spoke in classes and certainly didn’t hang out after hours.

Who were his friends? The double-barrelled weed kids, I suppose, because they wore the same non-uniform uniform and the same carefully unstyled, uncut haircuts. They slouched around together, forming and disbanding songless bands every five minutes, dopey and aloof at the same time.

As Tom barged through the front door and made his way towards my room, distant and half-smiling, I thought, oh no, this is part of some elaborate mockery that will end up with my social status sinking lower than it already is.

He inspected my very small record collection, mostly stolen from Mum and Dad or bought at Woolworths: best-ofs and B-side compilations of the Kinks, the odd 99p Britpop single, some albums by the Jam on tape, and an embarrassing number of Hancock’s Half Hour tapes.

No comment, and then, eyes locked on, “Do you know about Smile?”

Smile? What was that? A band, maybe? I was too startled to reply.

“Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys. Smile.”

The Beach Boys, as in ‘Surfin’ USA’? As in the scratched LPs my uncle kept alongside the Ventures and Chris Rea in his Hi-Fi cabinet? My Dad, cooler than me then and always, had no time for the Beach Boys at all.

“No,” I said, and off Tom went, delivering the kind of passionate monologue that would end up on YouTube these days but back then had to be directed at people from college you barely knew, face to face, on gloomy Wednesday afternoons.

Brian Wilson, Tom said, was a genius but driven mad by LSD while producing what was to be his masterpiece, the album Smile, scheduled for release in 1967. It was a symphony, impossibly complex, like Pet Sounds but ten times more ambitious. And then Wilson, so Tom told it, scrapped the album, retired to his bedroom, and was never seen again. But, he went on, the tapes had leaked, and it was possible, if you were connected, to hear snippets – glimpses of something magical out of reach, of pop music on another level.

I don’t remember that I said anything – I was warily awaiting the punchline, and so gave the odd noncommittal uh-huh and mmmm.

After a while, Tom left, and we continued at college as if this moment had never occurred.

But Smile lingered.

It became my ‘thing’, in fact, for many years. I woke up to ‘Prayer’ every morning and listened to hour after hour of ‘Heroes & Villains’ sessions, trading tapes with oddball Americans and eccentric Scandinavians.

When Brian Wilson performed a finished version of Smile in London in 2004, I was there, laughing and sighing with delight.

Smile was found, but Tom got lost.

What I’d taken to be ironic detachment turned out to be clinical. I heard stories of his decline – that he’d dropped out and become a ghost, stalking our home town, back and forth from bedroom to record shop, shaggy and strange.

A Brian Wilson of our own, I suppose, without the cushion of songwriting royalties or the warmth of the sun.

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?”

“Burglars.”

“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.

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.

The Kid

A faceless ghost child.

My life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to spend all day, every day, looking after this obnoxious kid.

I’m trying to live a life here – to have fun, get things done, make the most of my allotted time – but there he is, bringing me down, looking up at me with that pathetic expression.

And he’s a coward. If I think of doing anything messy or dangerous he gets into a terrible state, holding me back with all his petulant strength. He’s much happier when we do the same things, in the same places, with no chance of humiliation. Every now and then I assert my authority and take a risk despite the kid’s pleading and it’s almost always worth it, which makes me resent the drag he generates all the more.

When I want to make conversation with strangers he distracts me with constant demands for attention, pulling at my sleeve, in agonies of shyness so that I stumble over my words and end up only half-engaged. When I come away, I’m as angry at myself as I am at the kid.

Can you believe I have to take him to work, too? Have you ever tried to project dynamism and ambition when there’s a child standing next to you giving the old stage whisper: “We shouldn’t be here. You’re making us look stupid. These people are laughing at us.”

The kid likes me to keep my head down because he equates being noticed with being mocked. He makes me eat too much, and bad food at that. He won’t let me wear anything too smart or stylish, pointing mournfully at his own clothes – the cheap coat from the market stall, the hand-me-down trousers, the black daps. I end up watching the same old films, the same TV programmes, because he finds some comfort in them and shuts up for a few bloody minutes.

He has catalogued every time I’ve ever put my foot in my mouth or done something stupid and will suddenly remind me of those moments when I’m feeling at peace or content. How does he know the worst possible time? Does he do it with malice?

In his nastiest moments, the kid even tries to stop me writing, though he’s the one that got me started on all this. He knows the more I write, the less time I have to address his constant, petty neediness. In fact, the more I write about him, the more he fades into the background. He’s telling me right now not to post this, not to share the link on Twitter, listing reasons it will backfire on me.

Of course he’s not all bad. If it wasn’t for the kid it would never occur to me to stop by the waterside and skim stones, or sit cross-legged building sandcastles. Every now and then – this is when I like him best – he laughs, and it’s a lighter, freer laugh than mine.

And when I see the kids some other people have to drag around with them – bruised, broken, full of rage – I know I got off easy.