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?


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