Years ago, Hull was snowed under with second hand book and record shops. Not anymore, although it’s still better than a lot of places I visit.
One of the main ones was called Sheridan’s and it was on Anlaby Road, not the number one salubrious area in the city. Sheridan’s sold books and records and I frequented it, well, frequently.
I knew a girl who worked there – B – who had the milkiest blue eyes you’ve ever seen. I also knew her from Spiders, one of the alternative nightclubs in the city, where two of her flatmates who were also friends of mine worked behind the bar – Luke and Cathy.
Most of my excursions into Sheridan’s have been deleted by my brain, but one remains. I bought a paperback copy of Molloy by Samuel Beckett. B was behind the till and, as I handed it over to her to buy, she gave the back cover a cursory glance and said, “Why does everything have to be so fucking highbrow, Neil?”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just shrugged and gave a dopey smirk, as if to say, “What can you do, eh?” There were no flared nostrils of recognition emanating from either of our faces.
My brain has held tightly onto this short exchange from about 1995 for all these years and I wonder if it’s trying to tell me something. I wonder if there’s part of my brain that I ought to be paying more attention to sometimes.
Rewind back to 1988-9. I was working at Trading Standards in Hull city centre and beginning to realise that I had no intention of turning out like Geoff, who was in his sixties and still doing the same sort of dogsbody work that I was doing at seventeen, eighteen and so I’d applied to university. It’d never occurred to me to go to university due to my experience at school where the common consensus was that I was no academic hot shit.
I had long suspected it and didn’t quibble. So, when I didn’t actually manage to remove my hand from the door handle of my sixth form interview and enter the room, because the Head of Sixth Form looked at me and wearily drawled, “I don’t think so, do you?”, somehow nasally emphasising ‘think’, I wasn’t surprised. Or bothered because I had no intention of staying at school because I was sick of it. I was sick of the building, sick of the teachers and sick of most of the kids.
I signed up to be a YTS plumber at the Direct Works Unit in Anlaby on the princely wage of £28.50 per week. I soon found out that I wasn’t cut out for plumbing. For one thing, it was far too cold. For another, it was far too wet. I realise that I should have known that a fairly large aspect of plumbing revolved around water, but, frankly, it was about par for the course for me. There was quite a lot of unprocessed shit to deal with too.
My dad went to collect my ‘O’ level results because I couldn’t be arsed and, when he dropped them off, gave me a smirk and told me, “I think you might have surprised one or two people, Kid.” I’m an only child – an only man, I suppose – but he never calls me by my name. Neither does my mother. It’s always been, ‘Kid’. Not ‘Our Kid’, just ‘Kid’. Don’t ask.
I had, not least myself, I don’t know what my teachers thought. Bugger all, I expect. These days, six ‘o’ levels doesn’t sound all that many. My year was the last year that ‘o’ levels were sat, to be replaced by GCSEs, when people really started coming away with fifteen of the buggers. I knew that GCSEs were a crock because Stephen Fewster’s younger brother who really was as thick as pigshit came away with five of them the next year.
The result of my results was that I was encouraged to move to the office, presumably because it turned out that I could read, give up the plumbing course I’d been given a day off a week to attend and do something academic instead. In fact, I was encouraged to spend two days a week at college and go for a couple of evening classes as well, which I did. It was nothing like school and I found myself enjoying it. not least because the first thing that the first teacher said to us was, “If you can’t be arsed to write essays or read books, you might as well piss off now, because I’m not going to nag you about it,”
I soon got another job, this time in the mail room at County Hall in Beverley, which was a doss. As a consequence of getting caught doing far too much dossing, I then went to Trading Standards, where I managed to complete even less work because by that point, I’d passed my ‘A’ levels with Bs all round and my friend, who had gone to sixth form, showed me his UCCA and PCAS forms and I thought, “I could do that.” So I did. I went to an interview at York which consisted of my sitting in a room by myself, completing a non-verbal IQ test – no interview, I didn’t even meet anyone. Anyway, it must have gone alright as I soon received an unconditional offer at York, so I didn’t give a shit about even pretending to look like I was working at Trading Standards after that.
Diversion – IQ Tests.
When I was about nine, my old man brought me home an IQ test that you could complete and send off for marking. I did it, gave it to my old man and, a few months later, I asked him if he’d had the results back. He said he had and I’d scored 100, which sounded pretty good. “That’s pretty good, isn’t it? 100?”
“It’s average,” he said. “The average IQ is 100.”
When you’re a kid, average is pretty good. There are downsides to falling too far on either side, so I was happy with that.
Once I’d actually started at university, we had to sit IQ tests every term. We were also told what we’d scored on our ‘interview’. I’m not going to go into any details here – or anywhere else, but it turned out that it’s ludicrously high, and it remained there for the duration of my degree. I’ve since done my utmost to reduce it, but I’ve not bothered sitting another one. You know what people who go on about their IQs are like.
When I rang home to talk to my parents that week, I mentioned my IQ score to my old man, who seemed entirely unsurprised by it.
“You don’t sound surprised,” I said, “After I did that one years ago…”
“Well, I’m not surprised Kid,” he went on, “Because that’s what you got then and all,”
“No, I didn’t’, I got 100. You told me it was average.”
“Well, yeah,” he said, like he was explaining which one was my elbow, “If I’d told you what you really got, you’d have turned out a proper bighead, wouldn’t you?”
End of Diversion.
What I did instead was mainly wander around town. I’d begun to view myself in a slightly different light now I’d been accepted by a fancy arsed university. Well, I say I viewed myself slightly differently, I thought I probably ought to try to be a bit different.
I knew nobody who’d been to university. Nobody at all, so all I had to go on was what I’d seen on telly. Not that I watched the Open University, except for laughs, but I quite enjoyed period dramas and films from the sixties and seventies, some of which featured seats of higher learning. I anticipated a world of extremely well-read, serious young people who wore graduation gowns at all times. Mortar boards, the lot. Oh, and who got involved in semi-violent protests about fascism and things like that.
I liked reading and The Smiths had led me to Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf and The Stone Roses sent me to Albert Camus’ The Fall and The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman. That was about it though and I didn’t really know where to go after that, so I thought I’d better go and have a look.
In those days, apart from WH Smiths, there was one bookshop that sold new books in Hull: Brown’s, which was fairly close by the Trading Standards’ offices. I went along and, working at the till near the classics section was a vision of bespectacled, blonde beauty. I was transfixed and, as usual, wondered what opening gambit I could use in order to break the ice and get to know her and the answer wafted straight into my brain: “She works in the classics section of a bookshop, she’ll be impressed by youths who buy classic novels.”
Brilliant, eh? No, not brilliant.
I spent the next month buying the most difficult classics that I could think of. The sort of books that people talked about when they wanted to sound educated. Crime & Punishment, Jude The Obscure, The Illiad, that sort of thing. Honestly? Several of them were chosen because I enjoyed the picture on the cover.
Not that I managed to engage her in conversation at all, you understand. Our transactions were perfunctory, until one day she asked me, “Where do you work?”
I stammered that I worked at Trading Standards and she raised her eyebrow.
“Your boss must be very understanding to let you have so much time off to go around bookshops,”
“Oh, well, no.” I said, seeing an opportunity to impress her with my imminent elevation from Trading Standards drone to undergraduate, “I’m off to university in October, so I suppose I can pretty much do what I like. What are they going to do? Sack me?”
“They might,” she said.
“Ah, so what? I’m off soon. Big deal,”
There was no doubt that this girl was as unimpressed by my total lack of work ethic and moral fibre as she was by my burgeoning library of classic literature that was piling up on my bedroom floor, unread.
I thought I might as well take advantage of her decision to initiate a conversation with me, even if all it had done was highlight what a waste of time and space I was.
“Would you, er, like to go for a coffee after you’ve finished here?”
She gave me a look of totally unconcealed yet withering pity and said, “Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend,”
I shrugged. My experience of going out with people was that people dumped their partners mainly in order to go out with someone who’d turned their head. I didn’t consider her being in a relationship already to be of any consequence at all.
“I’ve got a boyfriend. Do you understand?”
“I understand you’ve got a boyfriend, but I don’t understand how that prevents you going with me for a coffee,” I replied.
She looked at me like I was shit and toddled off.
I was far too embarrassed to return to Brown’s for months after that and, I realised, I had enough books to last me years anyway, so it didn’t really matter anyway. Not that I had so much as opened a single volume of a single book I’d bought in my vain attempt to impress the girl who worked in the bookshop and that made me feel bad, so I thought I’d give one of them a go.
Crime & Punishment looked like an impressive sort of book, and it was only ever mentioned on telly as the sort of book that you needed two brains to comprehend, so I thought I’d give it a go.
And it was fucking ace. It really was. I don’t know if the extended rumination on guilt, utilitarianism and rationalism that old Dostoevsky constructed just magically appealed to me, or if I was just ready for something different, but whatever it was, it worked. From there, I went through my pile and, although some of them were a pain in the arse, my brain appeared to be getting plenty out of them and reading them made me happy.
Fast forward again to 1995 in Sheridan’s.
I thought back to the girl in Brown’s I’d attempted to impress by buying highbrow classics and wondered if I wasn’t just blithely continuing along that path, even though I didn’t fancy B, who had hair like Betty Boop.
And then I thought, “No, it’s not that. It has to be highbrow because my brain demands it, and if my brain doesn’t get what it wants, it stops working and that’s bad,” And I believed that.
I mentioned earlier that I had no idea what to expect when I went to university because I didn’t know anyone who’d been there and I’d based my expectations on Brideshead Revisited and Rising Damp. When I got there, I found that nobody wore gowns, which was handy because I didn’t have one anyway, and very few people seemed to adhere to the entirely fictional stereotype of the awkward, studious poet. At that time, York university had a higher proportion of public school students than Oxford or Cambridge. Also, when you arrived at most universities, you were asked the same three questions interminably in the first few weeks of term: Where do you come from? What are you studying? What did you get in your ‘A’ levels? At York, there was an additional fourth question: Did you get rejected by Oxford or Cambridge? I didn’t get rejected by either of them because I hadn’t applied to either of them. I might have been fairly confident by the time I applied to UCAS, but I wasn’t that confident.
The students, many of whom were public school through and through, seemed to want to do the same thing and the opposite of what I’d gone to university to do which, in my case was: fresh start, clean slate, make out you’re some sort of intellectual ponce. The public school kids were mainly pretending to have been brought up on Bransholme. I was pretending to have been raised by Nanny in the east wing of Mummy and Daddy’s country pile. Well, in my head. It soon became apparent that these kids were far more impressed by the reality of my upbringing than the one I would have preferred them to think.
So I quickly ditched the intellectual schtick and reinvented myself as a gritty, northern autodidact. Or, more specifically, I went back to being what I actually was: a northern autodidact who made out he was a bit grittier than he actually was. It was alright. In my first year, a kid called Nijul (sic) who had grown up on a commune in Wales told me that, come the revolution, the likes of me would be first against the wall, and the idea quite appealed to me. Not getting shot as such, but being singled out as some sort of class traitor.
And I still wonder about the part of my brain that hangs on in such detail to things that I still can’t work out, but I don’t worry about it. I wonder about the highbrow thing and now, what I realise is that it might not even be the books and films that are highbrow, I think it might be more to do with what you, as an individual, bring to whatever it is you’re reading or watching.
B’s dead now. She od’d long after she moved out of the flat she shared with Luke and Cathy. We lost touch when she moved out and Sheridan’s shut down, replaced by Norman’s Place, which was truly outstanding in all aspects. I didn’t hear about it until long after the funeral, but I went to visit her little plaque at the crematorium, where I sat down and read her ‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’ because it doesn’t look very highbrow, what with being aimed at primary school kids and having pictures in it. But it is. And I thought she’d like that.