Staying afloat

A cartoon of a bald man with his head just above the waves

Everyone manages their mental health differently. For me, it’s about treading water to keep my head above the waves.

As a teenager and twenty-something I was a wreck: depressed, often thinking about suicide, prone to panic attacks and insomnia.

Now, in my mid-forties, I still have low days, still don’t sleep well, and sometimes catch myself saying “Ugh, it would be easier if I was dead.”

But it’s under control, generally speaking.

That’s thanks largely, I think, to a single course of counselling on the NHS. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, or isn’t enough, but it worked for me.

It helped me stop worrying about what I can’t control (sleep); to let myself step off the high-achiever treadmill; and to address the scars left by childhood poverty.

I’ve also learned to talk to my other half when things feel bad – which isn’t often. Sometimes just verbalising it makes it go away.

That’s especially true of what I call, coyly, “the old SI” (suicidal ideation). Mostly, it’s an escape valve thought, an extreme form of “Ah, fuck it all.”

Stability and routines help, too. A wise friend once told me there are two types of people in the world: those who want a rollercoaster ride and those who want a steady life.

I’m the latter.

I wake up at the same time, seven days a week.

I know my plans days and weeks in advance.

I run on a set schedule.

Oh, yes, that cliché: I hate running but I have to take my medicine. If I skip a run, my mood dips noticeably.

I can also be thrown out by working late or at weekends, which doesn’t happen often; by too many social occasions in a row; or by, oh, you know, global pandemics.

Things like that interrupt the rhythm of my little legs, churning away under the waves, causing my head to dip below the surface.

That need for stability has probably prevented me being successful as a writer, to a degree. I need a nine to five job to cling to and it’s hard to write when you’ve been working all day.

But I also know that I’ve been lucky to enjoy 15 plus years of relative calm.

I don’t take it for granted. After all, it might only take one bad day to drag me right back down.

This quick post is a risk in its own way. “Talk about your mental health!” we’re constantly told. It’s good. It’s healthy.

Well, not for me. It’s like picking at a scab. I’ll decide when to do it, thanks, and might never do it again.

Concrete and tall grass: inventing a place

After World War II, a second great wave of housing estate building began, with off-the-peg urban landscapes pushing up against the shrinking countryside. The Sydenham Estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, was one such manifestation.

Until I read this passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that where I grew up had once been nameless – not a place but a void between them:

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.

On pre-war Ordnance Survey maps it is just a series of numbered cells – digits afloat in paper snow. But maps, and especially administrative maps, tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. In fact, those numbers represent individual fields on farmland stretching out behind Bower Farm. Bower Estate would have been a good name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead the authorities got its new name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

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 Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a famous incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries yet again and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-man’s-land between industry and the railway line, used by Courtauld’s Ltd for hospitality and meetings, it became inaccessible, invisible, and forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick cottages built in 1865, and to a grand Victorian house called Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – red brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region more generally, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built from concrete caused some controversy in the late 1940s. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline as the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed stockpile of 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where was the manpower required to turn them into homes?

The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment, so concrete it would be.

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 prefabricated 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?

Sydenham was constructed around a kilometre long boulevard called Parkway, down the central green spine of which marched crackling pylons. The streets that branched off Parkway were closed loops, leading nowhere. Sydenham Road, one of the four half-mile-long crescents, had an advantage, however: it formed the eastern edge and backed onto what everyone called The Fields.

The Fields were what remained of Bower Farm, overgrown and beautiful in their own way, with waving blonde grass and the remains of orchards, like something out of Laurie Lee. There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we want to wander there when we had public greens and playgrounds? All that meant, though, 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 in breach of the tenancy regulations. 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 – muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

As a frankly cowardly child The Fields scared me. There were things concealed in the grass that I didn’t care to encounter – hunks of rusting farm machinery, plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying of all, nests of adders. In autumn, low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like gatherings of ghosts.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 11-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. On the other hand, I disliked change. I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses, but this was more drastic again – a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields unnerved me, they also provided a contrast to the concrete and municipal repetition of the estate, and it felt simply wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate. Hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whorls and loops along dusty new artery roads. 

Sydenham, meanwhile, became a place, but one 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, of course, 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.

Because of this reputation, steps, as they say, were taken, and Sydenham seems to be fading away. 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”.

But those Cornish Units and Easiforms, designed to last a few years at best, are still there 70 years on, albeit with raw concrete disguised by paint and pebble-dash. They invaded, they persisted, and they saw the countryside off. There are no orchards anymore – no adders, no whispering grass, no wild frontier.

Work in progress: the next novel

IMG_20190911_124441-04

A few people have asked if there’s another novel on the way, and there is.

As if today, 29 June 2020, I’m 47,500 words done on another crime novel, which will be 80-90,000 words when complete.

This one is set in Bristol in the 1950s and features a character I hope will fuel an entire series of books – a detective, of course.

I like him a lot. He’s not boring. He doesn’t listen to opera or drive a vintage car. He does things I don’t expect him to do – always pleasing.

I’ve been sharing chunks of it with my writers’ group for a while and so far, the reactions have been largely positive. And it can be a fairly brutal forum, so this is encouraging.

I’ll be honest, writing during the height of the coronavirus crisis wasn’t easy.

It didn’t seem important, for one thing – at least not as important as refreshing Twitter every five minutes for a fresh shot of condensed doom.

At the same time, when I did sit down to wrote, constant background anxiety made every word harder to extract.

I’m in the flow, now, though, thank God.

One job I’m not looking forward to is rewriting the whole thing in the present tense. Having devoured a few currently popular crime novels, I decided to give it a go and it was an obvious, immediate improvement.

Books set in the past always bear the risk of feeling distant; this small tweak transports the reader and makes the action feel way more vivid.

But 40,000+ words now need fixing.

I guess it’s one way to force a close edit of my own text.

At my current pace, it should be done by the end of September. Then I need to put it aside for a while, rewrite, edit, edit, edit, edit and…

Send it away with great hope and low expectations in January 2021, perhaps?

Reading 1959: Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners is an invigorating virtual reality experience – a hot London summer spent swimming in the primordial soup of a teenager’s head.

If No Love for Johnnie was about a generation struggling to break free from Victorian tradition, the misery of slum-life and the trauma war, then Absolute Beginners presents what is left when the cocoon is finally shed.

The nameless 18-year-old protagonist didn’t fight in the war, though he is a ‘Blitz baby’, and doesn’t care for the ‘sad, gloomy and un-contemporary’.

He successfully presents himself as cynical for the first half of the book, professing to care about nothing, not even the ever-present threat of atomic war. He seems to despise his pathetic cuckold of a father, his promiscuous mother, and his hopeless half brother. At one point, just when the reader might be warming to him, he exploits a girl’s heroin problem for his own ends.

But a steady tap, tap, tap of optimism and enthusiasm begins to shine through: he loves his on-off girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, wholeheartedly.

He loves jazz, too. Really loves it, not for show, but in his bones: it ‘sends him’.

He takes pornographic photos to pay the rent but all the time he is slowly turning into a real photographer – into an unashamed artist.

When he is really tested, when he is asked to prove his humanity as race riots turn West London into a warzone, he cannot pretend to be other than an idealist. He sides with the underdogs, against the racists, and risks his neck to do the right thing in a pocket civil war.

Ultimately he can’t even conceal the love he feels for his parents. “Don’t be a c–t,” says his his mother at one point, but we, and he, know what she really means.

Almost everyone in this book behaves surprisingly, from the proto-hippy pimp who turns out to be a bright-eyed fascist, to the retired Admiral who refuses to be homophobic for the TV cameras. These characters are hard to grasp and all the more real for it.

But Absolute Beginners was written in the late 1950s, and so perhaps Crepe Suzette is lacking a dimension or two – a manic pixie dream girl with the sex dial turned up. On the whole, the female characters aren’t as convincing or as interesting as the male characters, even Big Jill the lesbian pimp.

After a stretch where it seems black characters might be treated merely as a background mass, individuals emerge, though still primarily as non-player-characters for the white protagonist to react against or move towards. Some of his best friends are black, and all that.

(But, come on, let’s be fair: compare this with the grimmer, greyer angry young man novels where there are hardly any non-white characters, and in which women are generally either fantasy figures or ambition-crushing marriage traps.)

Quibbles aside, spat out of the far end of Absolute Beginners, my heart was beating fast. I could still see the colours, hear the beat, and the roar of the Vespa. I felt 20 again. I wanted to go out on to the streets and do something to make things better. (And, very badly, to see my Dad for a pint.)

Smoke & Mirrors

Grandpa smoking.

I’ve never smoked but I spent my childhood in smoky  rooms, surrounded by grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, all smoking.

Bronzed fingers, yellow nails, picking at cellophane and gold paper. Those fingers flicking at lighters, pressing a fresh cigarette to the orange glow of another already underway, or pushing one through the bars towards the orange-purple flames of a gas fire. Those fingers hooked around cigarettes, lifting them to lips that kissed me goodnight or spat into tissues to wash my sticky face.

The smoke itself had a warm smell of home, not the wholesome smell of a wood fire but sweeter and dirtier. Like an animal. It created its own fog, sepia toning as practical effect, until breathing was like chewing and my eyes ached and ran wet. And there was no escape: “Shut that window, it’s bloody knottling.”

There were ashtrays on tables, windowsills, the arms of chairs, all full of smooth grey dust and bent filter tips, some with lipstick stains. Ashtrays were souvenirs, gifts and ornaments — the lozenge of green and red glass, the magic machine with the button to open the trap, the porcelain Whitbread promotional piece the size of a toilet seat, the vintage car with the red plastic seats — and yet nobody could ever find one, which is how cigarette ended up in tea cups or the empty foil trays from Sunday’s jam tarts.

All the houses were tanned brown, nicotine jam on every smooth surface, from fireplace tiles to the smoked grey plastic lid of the Hi-Fi. Scrape it with a nail and it would come away, pleasingly, in curls. There were burns in odd places, like either the tracks of tiny meteors or wormholes, depending where and how the tip of the fag had landed.

Player's No 6.

Smoking was a mode of personal expression: Uncle Ernie’s meagre roll-ups, Grandpa Newman’s stubby naval non-filters, Dad’s attention-grabbing pipes, his mate Mark’s cigars, all made some sort of statement. Some brands were ladylike, others masculine, and everyone had a preference.

I asked my Grandpa Roland what he wanted for Christmas every year and he always gave the same reply: “Packet of fags.” (Players No. 6.)

We woke to morning coughs — to the sound of lungs trying break the belts that bound them with a hack, hack, hack, rattle and release, and then repeat. Later there were inhalers and oxygen tanks, and yet still cigarettes. Give up smoking or you will die, the doctors said, and most of my relatives looked from cigarette to doctor and back again, and took another drag.

I sometimes miss the smoke, the smell, and especially the smokers, happily smoking, sharing cigarettes to show their affection for each other, sitting in a cloud they made together.

But, like I say, I’ve never smoked.

The Comprehensive Club

The Comprehensive Club (exterior)

Do you know the Comprehensive Club on Pall Mall? It’s an extremely exclusive institution whose members are required to have attended a non-selective state school.

It’s housed in a plain brutalist building built in around 1964, and quite discreetly advertised. The bar is a pub, the restaurant a canteen, and instead of leather armchairs and grandfather clocks it’s all knackered but comfortable sofas, and plastic school chairs. There are TVs and lots of noise and if you want a cup of tea, there’s the kettle, make it yourself.

But for some reason – I’m vague on the details – membership is much sought after by posh types. They grovel and beg to be admitted but, no, they’re simply not the right sort of people. It sometimes seems as if the committee takes a perverse pleasure in humiliating them as it turns them down in favour of someone from one troubled council estate or another. The chair can sometimes be heard to mutter, “Taste of their own bloody medicine…”

"Guests must be signed in the visitors books at all times."

Other than the comprehensive school requirement, the rules are quite simple. First, only fifteen new members may join in any given year, based on their personal achievements, and bearing in mind the circumstances of their upbringing. Secondly, members must avoid wearing jackets, ties, black tie, gowns, or any other symbols of formality at any time. And, finally, it is a serious offence to do anything to belittle, embarrass or otherwise ‘lord it over’ (those are the words in the constitution) any other member. If someone wants to eat chips with their fingers, mind your own business.

But beyond that, despite having been a member for 25 years or so, I’m not entirely clear about how it all works – about the practical details. Where does the money come from? Surely the members can’t be expected to pay huge fees, unless it’s only for people who’ve somehow got rich, which would hardly be desirable. I’ve never been asked for a penny. Another thing: what does it offer that the real world doesn’t? Why not just go to the pub, or a café? And isn’t the idea of an exclusive club, even on these terms, just a bit… wrong?

Truth be told, I go there less often these days. I don’t need it as much as I did in my teens and twenties when I found it a refuge – somewhere my manners could never be too clumsy, my tastes never too crude – and, at the same time, a delicious means for exacting revenge against the public school set. In fact, as the weight on my shoulders has lifted, and the wounded creature that used to whisper in my ear has become less insistent, I sometimes wonder if the Comprehensive Club ever existed at all.

Smiling Somerset

Grey concrete in black-and-white.
The sea wall at Burnham.

When I tell people I’m from Somerset they usually say, ‘Oh, lovely!’ recalling holidays they’ve had. But my home town, Bridgwater, isn’t lovely. I mean, I love it, but it’s a working town, with barely a touch of twee about it.

When I bumped into one of my former A level tutors in a pub in London years after leaving home he described Bridgwater as being ‘Like Barnsley or Bolton dropped into the middle of the rural West Country.’ Someone else once summed it up as ‘a small town with inner-city problems’. And a graffito left in the town centre, on display for many years, was pithier: ‘All this town cares about is fucking carnival.’

I should explain Carnival. It takes place every November and is the town’s pulse — an obsession for many and something of which the town is rightly proud. To understand the scale and drama of the event you can do worse than listen to this excellent episode of The Untold narrated by Grace Dent and produced by Polly Weston which goes behind the scenes of  a friendship rent asunder by competing carnival club loyalties.

One of my favourite things is to make habitually unimpressed sophisticates watch videos of Carnival on YouTube; imagining bumpkins prancing about on the back of flat-bed lorries, their jaws drop when they see the fully illuminated mechanically animated behemoths thundering along in clouds of noise and steam. It is amazing. Barmy, brash, camp, yes, but truly amazing.

Then there are the holiday resorts of Burnham and Weston where the sea is merely a concept, once popular with working class Brummies and northerners who would pass us on the motorway as we headed towards Fleetwood and Blackpool. Again, there was no twee in Burnham, just full-throated fun when there was sufficient booze and sun, or oppressive uniform greyness when there wasn’t.

Wintry scene with morning colours of pale purple and orange.
Frozen nettles on the Somerset levels.

When I started to take myself for long walks as a teenager, it was along the banks of drainage ditches, in the orbit of the sinister Royal Ordnance Factory. However far I walked, I could always hear the sore throat of the motorway and occasionally military aircraft would thunder low overhead. There were pillboxes everywhere, unremarked upon, brutalist cubes in the middle of otherwise pretty fields.

As a young man my council estate conditioning and a comprehensive school cringe made even the most ordinarily pleasant town or village feel intimidatingly posh so that for many years the prettier side of Somerset felt all but inaccessible. It didn’t matter, though, because I liked the flat, grim, gritty, gleefully tacky version that I understood. I never called it a ‘shithole’ like some of the other aloof university-bound kids. I never really wanted to leave.

More recently, fuelled by homesick reading, and with the chip on my shoulder finally beginning to disintegrate as I enter middle age, I’ve begun to explore — to appreciate the nature, architecture and deep history of a place I thought I knew. I’ve realised it’s not all institutional severity — there are orchards, forests, cliffsides, ancient churches and a thousand other delights. And I like that version of Somerset too, even if I still feel like a tourist there.