There have always been words. Not necessarily words that together make any sense, but words have always been there. Of course, by always, I mean since 1976.
1976 was the very hottest of summers, with endless days of blue cloudless skies, scorching sunshine, cracking pavements, sticky tarmac roads and of course the obligatory hose pipe ban. There seemed to be a heat haze wherever you looked, all the kids found out what mirages were and understood, while even the shade or usually cool rooms seemed to offer little relief.
I got badly sunburned playing out in the paddling pool dad had erected in the back garden. The inflatable pool has yellow walls and is blue inside. Through my minds eye I can see the reflection of a skinny little nine year old staring back at me from the large conservatory window. He has short, almost white fine hair atop a face that is just slightly pinker that normal and up close has that beautiful unblemished look as if the skin of a fresh peach. His eyes are large, green and timeless, with a life unknown ahead of him. He wears a wet t-shirt that is usually white when dry. You wouldn't know but the t-shirt is stuck to the blistered skin of his back and the cool of the pool is blessed relief.
Primarily, despite the glorious weather and painful sunburn, the summer of 76' was most notable for an event that took place just before we broke up from school; I had been placed in remedial class for slow readers as basically I couldn't’t, read that is. At least, not to the level that was expected of little boys. But then, nobody had given me anything that I wanted to read, so I hadn't.
Mrs. Hanks was my remedial teacher and remember thinking at that tender age that she was particularly beautiful. Browsing now through these images of the mind, recorded through a child’s eye during that summer; she had long mousy hair, an attractive but slightly pock marked face and was slim. She looked a bit like a hippy, but dressed better in what seems like dark corduroy, but I suspect the last is influenced by images of teachers from that time I have since seen.
Of course these images were recorded some years before it would have occurred to me that any other details were worth recording. I think in the main that she seemed attractive then because she was very kind and patient.
Mrs. Hanks told me, amongst, I am sure, many other things that I don't recall, that it would be a good idea to join the local library. In particular she thought I should spend the summer reading some of Enyd Blytons books. The ‘Famous Five' was proffered as good a place to start as any. I wasn't particularly thrilled, sounded entirely too much like work and during the summer holidays!
So it was that I found myself sitting on the extremely hot black seats in the rear of my dads White Vauxhall Viva, heading back home with a brand new library card and a famous five book in hand. I doubted a murderer could possibly feel any guiltier than I currently felt. Mum and Dad had not been impressed with the whole 'remedial' concept and had reacted with a typical Victorian sternness.
It was probably a good thing that it was the summer as I might have wallowed in the ignominy of remedial for a good deal longer. But as it was, during the summer months, mum had pretty much had her fill of kids come 5:30pm and both of us were tucked up in bed, fed, freshly washed and with clean teeth by 6pm.
Of course we, or certainly, I, was wide awake at 6. Hell! I could still hear all the other kids playing 'simple simon' out front and occasionally the blood curdling screams as agonising death overcame pre-teens hotly contesting a round of ‘war’; which basically involved one kid sitting on a wall legs a dangling, while all the others ran at him or her. The kid on the wall would then toss an imaginary grenade amidst us and the winner would be whoever managed to pull off the most graphic and noisiest of deaths.
Everything always sounded better while we were lying in bed during those summer nights, whoever was sitting on the wall must have had some really big grenades.
Usual fair, post 6PM for this nine year old was a selection of comics such as Look-In and Beano but these usually lost appeal within an hour or two. From there I would normally lay in bed listening to radio two, hopefully there would be a European game on and even better if it was Liverpool!
The prospect of opening an actual book was somewhat daunting. I remember, out of boredom mostly, leaning over the edge of my bed on a number of occasions, picking up the book, opening it, looking at all the words and thinking gosh! There just seemed so many. I would then lean back over the bed and place the book back down on the floor and carry on listening to Radio Two. I would deliberate on many occasions the possibility of finding a magical way to just suddenly learn how to read good without going through the hardship of actually learning. Of course the magical solution evaded me, at least for the time being.
On one particular night where the radio wasn’t good or wasn’t working, I can’t remember! I picked up the book out of abject boredom and read the bit on the back for the hundredth time. I decided it was time to read the first page and see what it was like.
It is past midnight and the room is moonlight dark save for the increasingly failing small glow in the corner of the room. The glow is barely encompassing a white haired head set around drooping eyes. I turn off the torch and lay the book down beside my bed. Sleep reaches out.
For so many of the long nights that had passed before, I had dreamed of some magic to make me read and all the while it had been sitting beside the bed. In one night an imaginatively well written book had turned a remedial nine year old kid that just about finished comics, into a child that was to be removed from remedial almost as soon as school restarted, had finished all 21 Famous Five Books before the end of October and spent that Christmas reading Jaws.
Of course within six months I was being chastised for spending to much time reading books but then that’s just life when you’re a kid.
Words started coming soon after. Words of my own that kinda almost made sense in a story that always seemed to big to make sense of, or write down for homework. There was one outing that seemed to please Mrs. Hanks beyond my usual endeavours, but very few more of the words were to go any further than my mind whilst lying in bed during the dark winter nights where daylight failed at 4 and pocket money didn't stretch to enough batteries for the torch and radio.
1980, Fresh faced and sitting in Mr. Holroyd's English Language class. He is explaining that Ronald Reagan has just been elected as the new President of America. It seems puzzling through my own 13 year old mind, an actor was now in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, an old one at that. My granddad was the same age and couldn't remember what he had done the day before! I can remember feeling sorry for the billionaire peanut selling Carter, whose somewhat hapless term in office was dogged in the main by a bunch of Americans held hostage in Iran.
Mr. Holroyd was pretty much the male version of Mrs. Hanks without the bumpy bits, and was indirectly responsible for the next big step in my love affair with words. Four years after the summer of 76’ I was still reading avidly although my ideas continued to be bigger than the scope allowed by homework, almost too big to comprehend. The words in my mind never seemed to come together into that whole, just lots of fantastical ideas with a related theme.
During the spring of '81 Mr. Holroyd caught me reading a copy of 'Commando' under my desk, during a lesson.
A few evenings later, that had in turn seemed to take forever and came too quickly, I found myself standing to attention behind my very stern looking Mother and Father, who in turn sat opposite Mr Holroyd. Despite not being able to see their faces I didn’t need second sight to know that stern was the order of the day. They had failed to say much to me since receiving the letter summoning them to the school, other than; 'to your room son!'
Two days earlier, the journey home from school had been a tortured one. With the thin, sealed white envelope grasped in my hot little hand, my mind had raced. Despite not knowing the contents of the letter I guessed it wasn't along the lines of;
“We caught you son reading a comic in class today, but don't worry he's a genius, its just a phase!”
Was there anything I could possibly do to cover my tracks? Having discounted digesting the said item as impractical I came to the depressing realisation that fate had laid its track before me, there really was no deviation from its path.
So it was then, that I handed the letter to my unsuspecting mother soon after arriving home. The feeling in the pit of my stomach could not have been much different to that of a man handing a loaded gun to his executioner.
Right now in the school Dad was wearing a grey sports jacket atop a shirt and Navy tie. His dark brown wavy hair was slicked back and down more than usual, I could smell his pipe tobacco mingled with fresh aftershave. Mum wore a big dark woollen coat over her rounded frame and an orange neck scarf fastened at the front with a broach of some kind. It occasionally served as a not altogether flattering headscarf.
Mr. Holroyd looked twice as grave as they did stern, which wasn’t good. My stomach felt like it had a lead weight in it, guilt filled my mind and fear gripped my soul. My whole world was about to come crashing down around my ears and I had a ring side seat to the pre-game show.
Mr. Holroyd explained the details of my heinous crime, at the end of which placing Exhibit A on the desk between him and them; the 'Commando comic'. I actually thought these were a good read that actually tried to tell you through pictures and words some of the base morals in life and war, but refrained at that time from offering this as defence.
After a few short moments of silence where both parents in unison had looked down at the comic and then back up at Mr. Holroyd, he then quickly summarised my considerable under achievement at school. This of course only backed up what had been detailed by every other teacher in reports during the previous two years;
“John is a particularly imaginative young man who shows considerable promise, when interested, unfortunately this is seldom so and he is currently underachieving!”
There was a further silence as Mr. Holroyd looked back down at his notes and moved my unfinished copy of Commando to one side. He was probably having a crafty smile to himself at managing to linger longer than required on the word 'underachieving'.
'Underachieve' is another of those words that parents typically don't react well to. School reports are one thing, having to visit the school and be told face to face by a teacher, is quite another. My parents, at this time remained still and quiet, another bad sign. Knowing this was going to all change the minute I walked through the front door of their house was making me giddy with dread, lights were pinging before my eyes, my head swirled and a moment longer, I would probably have passed out.
Mr. Holroyd's voice brought me back to reality. He said something quite remarkable, for my mind anyway. For my parents it was just another jumble of words, doubt they heard.
"John evidently reads a lot …"; This time his eyes flash, apparently indicating to my parents that he is being funny and ironic, not that I knew that at the time of course.
"… which is never a bad thing for a lad of his age. He does sometimes translate this into some promising work. I would be prepared for him to write about anything he desired for the next few essays if it were to result in completed coursework and renewed interest in English Language!"
As expected, the hour after Mr and Mrs. Potter arrived home with their very quiet son saw them considerably more animated and definitely more verbal than they had been in front of the pony tailed Mr. Holroyd.
Midnight came and went. The house lay quiet save for the creaking of cooling wood and the relentless ticking of my bedside clock. The bright moon is creating shadows of the vines atop the neighbours roof, that gently dance across the pale blue wall’s of my room. A few years ago they would transform into monsters and reduce me to a quivering, sweating wreck under a pile of bedclothes. Tonight they are almost unnoticed. I lay on my back, both physically and mentally exhausted. My eyes are sore to even blink and stinging wet, while my body is weak from angst. Despite being untouched throughout, I feel as if I have barely escaped with my life. They have instilled the fear of god into me, I certainly wouldn’t be reading any more books, unbidden, in class.
Other than diminishing images of my parents remonstrating with yours truly, Mr. Holroyd's closing words echo bounce around the back of my mind. A plan is beginning to formulate and that plan includes the phrase; “write about anything” and is entwined around a feeling of optimism, and the inkling of a plan. Not so much a plan of revenge, but expectation and fulfilment multiplied many times over.
The next day was English with Mr. Holroyd who reminded us that we were expected to hand in essays by the same time next week. As we trailed out of the lesson he caught the attention of my still red rimmed and puffy eye’s. His face reflected sympathy in the knowledge of what I had endured the night before but did not contain a shred of malice or a hint of victory. It occurred to me that there was a look of expectancy, that of someone who had pressed a sequence of buttons and was quite looking forward to the results. I didn't plan on letting him down.
My Uncle Jim had been buying me Commando ever since I had started showing an interest in reading. His arrival every other Sunday with the small bag of books was eagerly anticipated. Commando comics essentially contained black and white drawn art with speech represented in bubbles and rectangular boxes describing anything the pictures or speech couldn't. All the stories involved the matter of war, most of the time it was WWII, occasionally this would deviate to WWI or a futuristic war yet to happen. What it always tried to do, for my mind, is show heroic men experiencing the good and bad of such times with some healthy morals for the budding young man thrown in. Basically, as the publishers intended, boys own at its best and I thought they were brilliant.
The commando that Mr. Holroyd currently held in his possession, was to be the last I would ever receive from my Uncle. Not that he was unwilling given the circumstances of my crime. Instead they were banned by parents determined that their days discussing their errant son’s scholarly antics face to face with teachers, were over.
I only realised the true gravity with which this event was held by my parents as we made our way over to nan's that weekend. We were all in my uncles VW camper van with Mum and dad discussing where my education and more importantly I, was headed. They recited the story of the boy down the road who had dropped from school and got caught burgling a house. They considered this would be where I would end; in jail, if they didn’t take immediate action.
As the coastline approach to Portsmouth flashed by, I do remember that my Uncle remained quiet, while I seriously re-appraised the severity of what I had actually done. I couldn’t help thinking that I was missing something. There were kids that attended school a lot less frequently than I, others smoked and there were several boys and at least one of the girls that claimed to be ‘doing it’. I wasn’t actually sure I really understood what this was despite being showed a picture from a magazine. Whenever anybody talked about ‘doing it’, there was lots of cautious excitement and lots of whispering. I did feel sure that whatever word parents used for ‘doing it’, it wouldn’t be received well by mine in any of my school reports or partially crumpled, white enveloped letters.
For my part, I had been caught ‘reading’ a book in English Class, and not a particularly interesting class at that. At least I could read, I thought to myself.
What my parents didn’t twig and too this day I am not sure why, is that my Uncle had been buying me these comic’s for roughly three years. I had absolutely heaps of them in boxes under my bed and in the wardrobe, along with editions of Shoot and 2000AD. Whether they just assumed that I threw them out or what I don’t know. Despite feeling aggrieved at not receiving any new copies of Commando I was mighty pleased that I still had those that had gone before.
I was careful of course not to amplify this fact, never openly reading a Commando magazine despite spending an increased amount of time doing so in the days following the ‘Commando’ incident. In fact, the reason I was going through my backlog of commando’s, was because one would feature heavily in my English homework assignment as defined by Mr. Holroyd.
I was looking for a Commando story that was shorter than the norm and one that contained a sad ending, which limited my choices. Come Sunday night as the batteries of my torch once more failed I had my chosen copy of ‘Commando’ to hand. For the first time in a long while I was looking forward to school the next day.
The story that I had chosen is only faintly recalled in my mind some 22 years after the fact, the story itself was unimportant. I do recall it involved the moral of having to rely on the man next to you in war and that if not all men did their bit then death came to both those that fought and those that didn't. Great stuff for inexperienced minds!
During the next 4 days at school, during lunch and breaks and even during one night at home the day before the homework was due, I translated the picture and words of this comic into a story.
Mostly this revolved around trying to use my own words to detail that contained in the rectangular descriptive boxes found once or twice per page and cut down versions of the dialogue. I barely finished the story before the English class and in its entirety was 16 pages of my text book, I remember. I was slightly concerned that Mr. Holroyd might twig. Accomplishment though, and that wonderful incomprehension for consequence that is the good and bad of being adolescent blinded me.
A week later I had finished another story and received back my grade for the first; A++, which had never been heard of during the lifetime of this copyright infringing dude!
The second story received another A++ as did the third along with a short one on one conversation with Mr. Holroyd. He relayed his extreme pleasure at seeing me start to fulfil my potential. I don't think he noticed the glimmer of guilt that passed behind my black rimmed glasses.
Reviewing the events in my mind, I think he must have known the ideas weren’t mine, but maybe didn’t know quite how much had been ‘lifted’. I know he was sure that I had at least written the 12-16 pages that I was on average churning out each week, there was surely nobody else that wrote quite so badly.
By the time I left the last of Mr. Holroyd's classes before breaking up for the summer I would simply read through a copy of the commando comic and write the story myself from memory. These versions never attained the lofty heights of the originals, so to speak, but consistently attained marks in the regions of B- to B+. Importantly, this repetitive re-scribing of crafted stories imprinted upon my mind the basic edicts of writing. I now knew you started a tale by introducing your characters, prepared your audience for the climax during the middle section and then hit them with the end.
I am not sure why that had never clicked during lessons, Mr. Holroyd had of course talked about this but what it actually meant had never sunk in. The words and images that now floated around inside my head while lying in bed at night started to build around this framework.
Once again I had achieved, continued to achieve, at least in English Language and as has so often would happen through life, failed to move on, got bored and lost interest.
Next year I was going to be under the tutelage of Miss. Steptoe, who was hot with a capital T despite everyone thinking that she was a lesbian cos she wasn’t married and had a female friend. I couldn't wait.
I used to love reading out loud in class; 'Lord of the Flies' was consumed with wide eyed horror as was 'Walkabout' and the concept of kill the young to live. Finally there was the ultimate in Science Fiction, for my mind; Aldous Huxleys 'Brave New World'. Despite being written during the 1930's it is a worryingly accurate depiction of 21st Century life. Not that it meant that at the time to me, it was just an astonishing book.
Miss. Steptoe had voiced her opinion to me on several occasions that she thought I could produce coursework that was a lot better with an imagination like mine, it was a message I had heard on many occasions, by many teachers of many years. I have no idea whether it was the schooling or me but I continued to feel singularly un-motivated to excel, when I could have done, only raising the game when I thought a white envelope might soon be produced.
In April of 1983, Miss. Steptoe did do something quite amazing.
With Spring in the air, a moist ground but the not quite so chill wind whistling around the school buildings, she strolled into the classroom one afternoon, handed out a magazine or newspaper article to each one of us and instructed us to make up a story based on the article. I laboured throughout the class as mine was totally uninteresting, one that I can not even recall now, it had been torn from a Sunday magazine.
The class came to an end and we were instructed to complete the story for homework that week. I tucked my magazine article into my weighty brown adidas school bag and headed out the door.
I am not sure what led me to tug the crumpled article from the bottom of my cluttered bag, the night before the homework was due. I think it was the lack of anything that could credibly be classed as coursework, with my final year exams looming in the near future. Whatever the reason I was imbued with a desire to do this, although my enthusiasm was tempered as I scanned the words for some sort of inspiration. I turned over the page and was greeted with the beaming smile of a man in army uniform. It was one half of a two page article on a 'Mercenary' and was written from the reporters perspective as she approached the mercenary's house. She was commenting that this house looked nothing like she thought a mercenaries house would look.
A thought suddenly struck me, maybe my copyright infringing days weren’t over! I sat down, copied the available page of the article word for word onto my sheets of lined A4 paper, finishing as the reporter walked through the door. I ripped up the article into very fine pieces, stuffed them into my pocket and after a surreptitious trip to the bathroom flushed them down the toilet. If asked to produce the article I would plead 'I lost it'! I then went to sleep that night with an untroubled mind.
The next day I handed in my coursework, sat through the lesson, was given more homework, which I may or may not have completed and then turned up for the following lesson a week later oblivious to the considerable excitement that I had unknowingly been generated in my English Language teacher.
Its not every day that you walk into English Language, sit down and are addressed by an obviously excited teacher that declares she is blessed to be teaching a Shakespeare and that Shakespeare was in this class. As she walked about the classroom, handing out coursework, chirping like a dawns chorus bird, I wondered with some jealousy who this person might be. They had certainly pressed Miss. Steptoes scholastic buttons. Eventually she stood there with one piece of paper in her hand, baring a smile that could have lite a stadium and I was the only person that hadn't received back their homework. Bugger.
I was caught full on like a rabbit in headlights. Despite being consumed by her aurora of fulfilment, her years of hard work paid off, experience had taught me this seldom lasts. A sense of doom and gloom descended on me, a white letter was surely imminent, surely someone would twig.
Miss. Steptoe then announced that she was going to read this Shakespearean piece and explain why it was just so.
That thirty minutes, that Miss Steptoe took to read and explain my essay was probably the most productive lesson I have ever had. Every time something of note occurred in my essay she explained why it was so good. The one example that stands out in my mind to this day was the way the reporter described the garden as she walked to the front door.
Miss Steptoe explained; Rather than simply write;
'I walked up the path to the door passing a pond'
John has written in such a way that allows us to create a picture of the garden in our minds. She then read out loud the words a paid journalist had written and I had copied;
'The gravel path looped its way down the garden, past a large oval pond, covered in lilies and reeds, round two laden crab apple trees and a bench. Judging from the paraphernalia scattered in neat groups on its worn surface it was frequently used during summer months. You could imagine the occupant sitting there during evenings looking out over the water and the trees beyond, watching the small yellow dingy bob gently too the ebb of the pond, that seemed a haven not only for small fish but for sparrows and blackbirds that feverishly sat on the rocks splashing water over their wings'
Miss Steptoe paused and for a moment I thought she was going to cry, this was all a revelation to me. I had of course taken in all the words when I copied them, but they had simply been words that were being copied to achieve a purpose. But as Miss. Steptoe was explaining their full weight was becoming obvious to me and the magic that I had enjoyed in countless books over nearly 6 years was now being revealed, easy! I thought, I am going to become a writer when I leave school.
Of course I didn't, that essay and its revelations did spur me on to a good 'o' level pass, my only one, but I left school and spent two years selling shoes, painting and decorating and working as a drivers assistant. Fortunately I managed to stay out of jail.
I did of course carry on reading and constantly marvel at the craft of well written prose often with some jealousy. These small experiences left a permanent mark on my mind that for many years just meant I read books but always there has been that desire to write and never a shortage of ideas, just of time and I suppose desire. I have written in that time lots of fragments, several short stories but never anything with focus.
Some 6 weeks after the Steptoe Articles I turned sixteen and by complete chance brought my first computer, which was to be a whole new focus and a catalyst that some 19 years later would result in you spending 30 minutes reading something I wrote, but that's another story!
Submission: March 2003
Revision: April 2006