Thursday, 21 January 2016

Mr. MacGuffin's road to nothing.

If your life were a book, who would have written it? And if that book had a hero, would you be he?

As a young man, as with all young men, I harboured great expectations that, one day, I'd be revealed as the hero of my own story. The adventures of my grandfathers (men unfortunate enough to have been born into an age when it was possible for an ordinary man to live or die as a hero and fortunate enough to fall into the former category) were still relatively recent history. I saw photos, read letters and enjoyed tales of derring-do while balanced upon the bouncing knees of my still-living ancestors, looking forward to the day when I'd have stories of my own to tell.

I'd been born on the cusp of two decades, one of flower and one of dour, and so my teenage years played out before a back-drop of black ash furniture and Grolsch stoppered shoes.

The eighties were shit.

Chances for heroics in Thatcher's Britain being as thin on the ground as gruel in an orphans bowl, I eventually settled into my role as a bit part in a series of books written for others by authors I'd never have chosen to read.

When finally I stumbled upon it during a period of abject poverty, the genre that suited me best turned out to be not action/adventure or eroticism (my preferred choices) but Dickensian. My role was neither that of romantic lead nor overcomer of perilous tribulations. I wasn't a love interest and I wasn't a baddie. I was just the chap leaving the pub who stumbled into the hero of the tale causing him to drop and lose some important plot device in the snow, thereby necessitating an intriguing series of events. I was the Maltese Falcon to someone else's Bogart and the suitcase stuffed with money in the trunk of a monochrome car, pushed into a lake by a motel owner with an Oedipus complex. I had to be in the tales, but only so the tales could be told. I wasn't important to, or even mentioned in, any climactic final chapters.

As I grew into the role I'd been given I began to develop my character (I felt he should be a pipe-smoking wearer of increasingly bizarre millinery, as is befitting of a Victorian money lender or ruddy faced drunkard with a cough) and I began to enjoy it.

Many people have said that I put the "Dick" in "Dickensian"

I began to feel at home just sitting on the sidelines and watching the delicately interwoven stories of others being written around me.

Recently, as is if my life needed to be any more Dickensian, a street urchin joined my little band of minor characters. A waif, not quite stray, who has gatecrashed my life at the point where I'd come to think I could just shut the door and cease to give a shit.

Disappointingly, he's not an orphan with a surprising heritage. He's not even able to pick a pocket or two.

But he's learning fast.

The urchin is, in fact, the spawn of Dickfingers and, until recently, he'd lived what I'd previously believed to be a lovely life a couple of hundred miles away with his father. I'd only spent a few weeks of the few years I've been putting up with his mother's shit in his company, at Christmas and such like, so my view of his happiness was skewed by the fact that he was generally in possession of a new bicycle or mobile phone. It's easy for a child to be happy when he's getting gifts in a house many miles from any problems.

For one reason or another, though, he wasn't quite as happy as an eleven year old should be when he went home.

One dark and stormy night things came to a head. His father, along with the obligatory wicked step-mother, were what could only be described as at the very tip of their tethers and, abracadabra, a snotty child with a suitcase and an appetite that has devastated my fridge turned up on the doorstep. Fittingly, it began to snow shortly after he'd plonked himself under a pile of dogs and commandeered the remote control.

All we now need is for him to befriend an escaped criminal, that'll pop a blob of icing on our Dickensian cake.

Initially for a weekend, then a week, then another weekend and, as is the current state of play, until some future time yet to be decided upon, my life changed from one of wandering around with my dogs and smoking the occasional pipe in front of the fire to one of wandering around with my dogs and a child and smoking the occasional pipe in my back yard. No great shakes, really. There's not a great deal of work being done, my being in the fortunate position of having to answer to no one means I'm playing the role of responsible adult for much of the time instead. I'm also eating a lot of sweets, to heroically save the little bugger's teeth and to starve the legion of tapeworms (that are plainly helping him to dispose of all my bacon) into submission.

It's fucking brilliant.

Still only a bit part, and one that will eventually end when the action moves to another location, but maybe I'll get my name in the credits.

It turns out that although all kids want to grow to be heroes of one kind or another, most of them don't achieve it. To realise one's insignificance in the whole grand scheme of things takes some of the weight off our shoulders. We shouldn't fight our way to the top of the credits, the most that will achieve is cement our place as villain of the piece.

Had I been able to write my life myself, my version would've been cram-packed with cowboys, dinosaurs, bionic limbs and a golden castle. I would travel everywhere by hovercraft and my best friend would be a threadbare Teddy bear by the name of "Mangy". I would never have been to school, I'd be employed as an astronaut and, right, now I'd be sat on my father's knee watching Bodie and Doyle kick arse as my mother makes choc ice and chips for tea.

All well and good, but who'd have helped the urchin?


Saturday, 9 January 2016

No hot ashes.

For many children, their first day at "proper" school is the beginning of the most epic journey they'll ever take. Some kids can't wait to don those grey shorts or those ankle socks and slip into the ridiculously shiny shoes their parents took them to Clarks' for, to pass through those gates and into those dusty halls where they'll gain the brief freedom from the restraints placed upon their every move by their despotic parents.

But I dreaded it.

My father, the selfish bastard, had taught me to read and write long before I'd got anywhere near a school hymn book or desk. A patient man, he'd write down words for me to copy on Sunday mornings at the big, round kitchen table whilst my sister broke things and screached and my mother stood in the hallway chatting to her friends and occasionally shouting "shut up, I'm on the bloody phone".

We would make up stories together, usually about cowboys or space-aliens, and he would transcribe our imaginings into words on paper, leaving space between the lines for me to copy the words he'd magically formed. Writing was a piece of piss.

Reading the written word I found to be a little more difficult, but I managed to perfect that too, thanks mainly to the comics he bought me. The Beano, the Dandy, Topper, Beezer and Victor. Tales of war, tales of naughty schoolboys, of a huge cowboy with a penchant for red meat and a myriad more fantastical things.

On the eve of my first day at 'proper' school my father found me hiding in our dustbin, with a torch, my teddy bear "Mangy" and a (by then empty) box of Farley's rusks that had previously been bought to placate my constantly bawling sister, liberated from the top shelf of the larder.

I stole those delicious little rusks at every opportunity, and there were many opportunities. It was the early 1970s and my mother thought nothing of shouting "I'm nipping to the shop, watch your sister" to her four year old son as she disappeared out of the door.

These brief spells free of parental guidance and control gave me a window of time just long enough to drag a dining chair to the shelves and clamber up, never stealing more than a couple and only ever from an already opened box so as to ensure my theft remained undiscovered and a new, potentially more difficult to reach, hiding place wouldn't be found and used and require new circumvention.

I'd been hidden in there for what, to me, seemed like days but was probably no more than twenty minutes. My father lifted the lid and deposited a bin bag on me before he noticed.

"What are you doing in there, son?" He smiled down at me with a look of confusion on his face.

"Practising my reading, dad."

"In the dark?"

I smiled as I clicked on the torch, pleased with myself for my quick wits and silver tongue.

"Oh, okay, what were you reading?"

I panicked as he lifted me out of that stinking, plastic tub. I'd not for one second expected a follow-up question. I looked around.

"That." I said, pointing at the little label on the inside of the bin's lid.

He didn't believe me, even when I correctly deciphered the legend. He knew exactly what his five year old prodigy was doing hidden in a waste bin with the toy he'd owned since the day he was born and a (by now empty) box of his sister's rusks on the evening before his education was set to commence. 

He took me inside and we sat at the kitchen table. Then he had brought me my favourite comic and, as I began to flick through, he put a plate stacked high with rusks and a big glass of Vimto in front of me.

"So what's up?" He didn't look at me as he asked, he just unfolded his newspaper and began reading. It's easier to open up to your dad when he's reading the back page of his evening paper, so I came clean.

"I don't want to go to school" I replied from behind my new, purple, Vimto 'tache.

"Oh, right." He paused a moment as he turned the page. "Why's that, then?"

I opened my comic to the centre pages and turned it to face him.

"I don't want to be caned for being naughty" I said as he smiled at the colourful images I'd shown him.

"The Bash Street Kids?" He laughed. "Son, that's not real. It's just a comic."

"But I saw a program on the telly..."

"That's not real either" He said as he licked a thumb and turned a page, "And stop picking your nose".

My dad explained that those tales were fantasy, like the tales we'd written together at the very table I was dropping crumbs on. The creators of my early literature were liars, the lot of them. Comic book artists and the heroes of my favourite TV shows had mislead me terribly. Not only would I not be caned but, my father promised, I'd also not be going to war, fighting off savage red-skins or flying to the moon.

I never did get caned (though I was walloped by a PE teacher, given the slipper by a woodwork teacher, winded with a vicious prod from a headmistress and dragged by my hair away from a fight by a dinner lady) but, all the same, I hated school.

My taste in comic books matured as I grew from a snotty nosed five year old newbie into a confident and strutting eight year old with a snotty nose. I now read of heroic, square jawed Americans with the ability to don Lycra and fight crime, of alternate realities and of evil, megalomaniac villains.

Most mornings I would walk to school alone, a coin in my pocket to spend at the healthy tuck shop at break time. Not being a fan of apples, crackers or bottles of panda pop I would, along with a couple of friends that always met me at the subway where we could safely pass underneath the dual carriageway, pop into the paper shop next to our school and buy packets of Space  Dust or bags of Golden Wonder Cheese & Onion instead.

One morning early in 1977 my friends and I made our usual, brief detour. The owner of the newsagents, Frank (Or "Fat Frank" as all the local kids knew him), was using a flick knife to cut the bands that held the bundles of newspapers and magazines he'd had delivered.

"You like comics," He said as I gazed at the confectionery, "have you seen this one?"

He held up the first issue of a new publication. Only eight pence and with a free toy, a "Space Spinner". I've always been a sucker for a free Space Spinner and so, having quickly done the Maths and replaced the packet of fruit Polos I'd already selected, I bought it.

It was a windy day in February. The Space Spinner had, on it's maiden flight, been diverted from the trajectory I'd intended (the target being the back of my mate's head) and carried by the wind back across the East Lancs' Road where it landed gracefully in the playground of the High School that sat on the other side. No doubt some older and luckier child found it. I was gutted. Until I read the comic.

It was a British publication and, unusually, every bit as good as those imported comics with the tantalising adverts in the back for X-ray specs, stink bombs and hovercrafts that were, annoyingly, only available to American readers.

I loved it. Stories of cyborgs, of futuristic, fascist police men, great floods and natural disasters caused by man's mistreatment of his environment. Some stories told of a Britain plunged into civil war or of society breaking down and lawlessness taking over. In some tales the rich lived in magnificent, walled communities and employed security guards to keep them safe from the desperate, hungry masses. Poorer people lived insular lives in tower blocks, wars were fought over scarce resources, television was God.

Machines designed and built better versions of themselves, negating the need for human life. Cars drove themselves, men lived on space stations, most folk were obese, people communicated by video, smoking was banned in all public places and plastic surgery was as normal as nipping to the hairdressers. Mutants, the result of the Strontium 90 deposited on the UK by the atomic bomb blasts of the recently fought Third World War, were shunned and feared by their own neighbours. These "others" eventually left their own country, travelling to foreign lands and alien worlds before, eventually, returning to wage war on those they saw as their oppressors.

Every one of those brightly illustrated tales pointed toward a dark, and not too distant, future. The weak persecuted, the good lambasted, the evil in charge. Orwellian stories of a world in which man struggled to survive, in which cruelty and danger were everyday problems, twisted realities painting a future to fear. A future of scorched landscapes and of cities ablaze, the smoke of the fires carrying the cinders of our brothers and sisters away from their suffering and into our lungs.

It's a good job they're just comics, that there aren't really any fascist police officers, that our people don't really live on one side or the other, that we don't fear those different to ourselves and no hot ashes are choking our children.

Can you imagine if any of that shit came to pass?