First things first: I’ve realised that my waffling has been getting worse, not better. When I first pressed what WordPress laughingly call the “publish” button, it was about 12,000 words long. About “normal” for me these days. And I got sick of reading it. As it was about my big deal, I thought I’d have a go at paring it back to – sort of – its essentials, with a couple of digressions here and there, but one step at a time, eh? I’m no one’s idea of Ernest Hemingway…
I do this for my mental health. It keeps me busy and I might get a bit of perspective from doing it, and that helps. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but I’m still a bit of a fruitcake.
Anyway, without really meaning to, I sort of hit pay dirt with this one. In terms of getting to the root of what’s wrong with me, really. And I didn’t know I was going to do it, and I didn’t realise I was doing it while I was doing it. I didn’t want to do it because it was easier not to think about it, but I feel a bit better having done it. Like you sometimes do after you’ve been sick. An egregious way of putting it, but it’s probably more accurate than I’d like it to be…
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – Proverb.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Matthew 7:1.
“It’s absolutely bloody amazing to think that anyone ever believed any of that. Really, it’s absolute balls. Beautiful, of course. But balls.” Philip Larkin on The Bible.
This Be The Verse and I both came into being in April 1971, and we both entered the world, specifically, in Hull.
I’m not suggesting it’s about me, even though we came into being more or less simultaneously and within a couple of miles of one another, because it’s about everybody – well, practically everybody, I suppose. I’m not qualified to speak for anyone else, but I think it’s fair to say that its sentiments are pretty widely shared, at least among ponces like me.
My mother wasn’t very nice to me when I was a kid, but she didn’t mean it. She couldn’t help it. Her mother didn’t like her. My Dad, who was nice to me, wasn’t very nice to my mother – he didn’t hit her or verbally abuse her – when peace was made between them, it was always him who instigated it. The arguments they had were always instigated by my mother. On the other hand, the things she started arguments about with him, she had a point about. At least, she certainly had provocation. He didn’t pick fights, at least he didn’t start arguments in terms of starting the shouting, but my old man, as you’ll soon gather, was a bit of a philanderer. On yet another hypothetical hand, living with my mother wasn’t something that many people would find very easy either. Which came first? Who knows? I sure as hell don’t.
The arguments she instigated with me – and I never started any because I was fucking terrified of her – I have less sympathy with, some of them at any rate, because what I did one day would be the best thing in the world; the next day, doing exactly the same thing would be the worst thing in the world. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going and I couldn’t do right for doing wrong. She’d hit me and she’d verbally dismantle me until I couldn’t even stand up for trembling. I wanted to make her happy and I couldn’t. I wanted to please her and make her proud of me and, the odd isolated incident apart, I failed miserably. Cats on hot tin roofs were paragons of poise and balance compared to the twitching wreck that was the young Middlerabbit.
I didn’t let on to anyone about it for years. When I was little, I just assumed everyone’s relationship with their mother was the same as mine until I went round to my friends’ houses and realised they weren’t. Then, I assumed it was my fault and just didn’t really invite anyone round to my house so they wouldn’t have to witness what went on there. When I was older, and started going out with girls, I did my best to do the same which was more difficult because a son who doesn’t have a good relationship with his mother isn’t a good look for a boyfriend. I had to introduce Clare to my mother because we went out for so long, and they didn’t get on. Mind you, I didn’t get on with either of them, so make of that what you will. I managed to delay their introduction for about a year, which is probably the longest I managed. My being away at university for most of the year made what I was doing slightly less obvious.
The fastest introduction to a girlfriend was when my mother picked me up to go home for Christmas in my last year at university, and I was in such a good mood because the girl from Morecambe’s and my relationship was going so well – ostensibly, although I’d already messed it up but hadn’t told her what a twat I’d been – and I was so happy, I took my mother up to her room and introduced them. The girl from Morecambe said, as I popped back alone to say goodbye, “Your mum’s just like mine.” I smiled and didn’t believe her. Maybe she was, I never got to find out.
The girl from Morecambe’s early introduction was a one off. It felt as if we’d already known each other for years and we just sort of slotted together, like your hands do. I don’t believe in things like, well, I don’t even know what you’d call it, a cosmic connection or something. I can’t believe I’ve actually written that: cosmic connection. Jesus. I’ve spouted some bollocks in my time, but that’s the worst thing I’ve ever said. I don’t often have difficulty expressing myself – even though I go on a bit – but I can’t explain what was going on there. I don’t think I understood what a normal relationship was by that point. Even that relationship wasn’t normal, but it was a different sort of abnormal to the other ones I’ve been in. Hence introducing her to my mother so soon, I guess. I still don’t know what was going on there. I wish I did. I’d ask her if I could but she won’t speak to me, and I don’t blame her. She always had more sense than I did. Reflection, according to Confucius, is the noblest path to wisdom but it only goes so far. I’d like a second opinion, and her is only other one that exists and she’s not letting on. I understand how I blew it and I understand that’s that, but I don’t understand what was going on, hence the cosmic bollocks and its regular reappearance in my brain, I suppose. I want to understand things and it bothers me when I don’t, especially when it leads me to writing things like “cosmic connection“, for Christ’s sake.
Prior to that, I didn’t understand why my parents were together in the first place, and that bothered me too. They didn’t seem to like each other very much. They didn’t appear to have anything in common, and they didn’t get on. I didn’t know what was going on there either, but I think I assumed that was what normal relationships look like, so I could cope with it. I wish I hadn’t. It fucked me up, like Larkin said it would.
I later realised what it was that they did have in common – they were both the youngest kids in their respective families, and neither of their mothers gave a shit about either of them. Both of their fathers were sympathetic but neither father was prepared to really do anything to fix it.
I initially meant this post to be all about Gordon Richardson, who was the Head of Trading Standards at Humberside County Council in the late 1980s, and how his behaviour towards a nobody – me – mystified me and, on the rare occasions that I think of him these days, continues to mystify me. But it didn’t turn out that way and what went with it, as a sort of contextual aside, sort of took over, as well it might have.
When I was at Primary school, I’d already learned that, however bad some of the kids were, it was the adults you really had to watch. I’d have been five or six when I first worked that out and although secondary school was a fairly different proposition in the 1980s compared to what it’s like now, most of my teachers weren’t so much out to get anybody as they didn’t really give a shit one way or the other.
I started work at Humberside County Council’s Trading Standards department in January 1989, on about £6000 a year, which was alright then. And that wasn’t it, they paid for college courses and they were keen that you wouldn’t stagnate in one role.
My job title was “Trading Standards Assistant”. Which was on the bottom rung of the ladder.
Most days, you’d generally be in pubs and clubs, testing beer pumps and optics; in shops, testing scales or taking samples of meat products to send to the labs, or you’d be visiting complainants, taking statements.
When I started work there, I was 18 months into my A levels, which I was doing on day release at Hull College of Further Education. This was an unusual position for a Trading Standards Assistant to be in because most of us had begun on YTS courses, having done badly in our O levels. Well, most of them had, I hadn’t.
So, I sat my A Levels that spring and, when I got my results in late summer, I ended up with three Bs.
I didn’t know anybody who’d been to university – it was something that happened to other people. Other people I didn’t meet, evidently. So, while I could have applied to university and gone in 1989, I didn’t.
I had a friend who was in the year below me at school and in his last year he showed me his UCCA form – which he’d filled in early because he was applying to go. So, having realised that I could apply to university, I did.
The main reason I applied, as you may have gathered, was to get away from my mother. My mother who had a shitty childhood because her mother was horrible to her and, frankly, it drove her mad, and then she handed the baton onto me.
That would probably have been more than enough, but as it turned out, my old man didn’t really do her too many favours once they were married, in terms of stability. Perhaps it was due to my mother’s mental health issues, perhaps it wasn’t but, whichever it was, my old man wasn’t anybody’s idea of faithful.
I caught him at it a few times. We’d go to visit his mother and he’d slope off to just nip and get something from somewhere, or to visit one of his old mates, or something like that, and I’d be left on my own in my Grandma’s living room, pissing about with her open fire, watching repeats of Sgt Bilko or Basil Rathbone in black and white Sherlock Holmes adaptations on BBC2 while my Grandma was avoiding me in the kitchen, or in the shed. She wan’t interested in her youngest, my dad and, I gather, I was put in the same basket. Mind you, she wasn’t really interested in anything much. She was one of those old women who used to go to wrestling and boxing and shout at the people doing it. If you ever watched World of Sport on ITV in the 1970s, you’d have seen hundreds of old women like her in the audience, baying for blood while Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki were prancing around the ring, performing their choreographed, corporeal combat just after dinner on Saturdays.
If I got sick of those things, I’d play in the tenfoot round the back, hitting a tennis ball against the wall with the back of short broom handle to practise playing cricket. When it got too dark for that, I might wander off and see what was going on around the streets.
What was going on around there was that my old man would be having it off with some other woman in his car. Not always the same one, either. As I say, I caught him at it a few times.
The first time it happened, I’d noticed that his car windows were steamed up. I peered in and saw what was happening. Shocked, but strangely calm, I knocked on the window. Let them see it was me, and walked back to my Grandma’s house, where I sat on the front wall and waited to see what would happen.
What happened was my old man turned up, looking shifty and told me that “(his girlfriend) was worried in case you were going to tell your mam.”
I told him, of course I wasn’t going to tell my mam – life at home was already far too hectic already, without me adding further fuel to the already blazing fire there. I knew that if I told my mam about it, first there’d be even bigger rows than there already were, and second, they’d get divorced and I’d have to live alone with my mother, without having my old man there to dilute her rage.
When my old man went out on a night, I was at home by myself with my mother and, as she knew what he was like, her mood tended not to be too relaxed. Understandably, of course. Still, it needed taking out on someone, and I was the one who was there, so I got it in the neck.
In the same way that I didn’t realise that people like me could go to university, I also didn’t realise that you could just leave home and get a flat. Nobody I knew had done that either. The only reason I was aware of that people ever left home was to get married, which I assumed I’d do at some point, but not in the foreseeable future. I was in no hurry to get married, my parents’ marriage didn’t look like a barrel of laughs to me and I wasn’t even one of the participants.
Anyway, I got in at York and accepted my place there as soon as I got it, in case they realised they’d made a mistake and changed their mind.
By about march 1990, I was summoned into Trading Standards’ Manger, Gordon Richardson’s office in the main tower block on Bond Street in Town for a meeting about my future. He told me that, as I’d been at Trading Standards for over a year now, I had to sign up for a correspondence course that would allow me to progress to the next rung of the Trading Standards Ladder because I’d finished my A levels, hadn’t signed up for any other courses and, naturally, I was stagnating.
I told him there was no point: I wasn’t stagnating, or if I was, it was only because I was going to university that autumn.
Mr Richardson told me that he could understand that, but the rule was that any Trading Standards Assistant who had been working there for 12 months, and who wasn’t currently completing a qualification would be automatically signed up for it.
Bureaucracy, eh? I asked him what I was supposed to do about it. He told me that all I would have to do would be to keep hold of the course materials and, when I resigned, hand it in to the office and, maybe, have to pay £5 or some token fee for the registration to pass onto whoever was next in line to take the course. There would be no problem, he told me, it happened all the time.
So, I signed up for it, collected the pack – which was voluminous – and left it under my bed, unopened.
July arrived and I handed my notice in. I was called on the phone by Gordon Richardson.
Mr Richardson told me that NALGO, who ran the course, were sick of people signing up to it and then not bothering to do it and signing it over to someone else, so they’d put a stop to it. He told me he’d spoken to the regional boss of NALGO and he’d said there was nothing he could do about it.
NALGO were going to charge me the full amount for the course, which was £450.
I told him I just wouldn’t pay it.
He said they would just deduct it from my last pay packet. He was very sorry, but he couldn’t do anything about it.
I was pissed off. NALGO was my union, for Christ’s sake. I hung up, found the number for Sid Cunliffe, the NALGO boss at County Hall and rang him up.
I explained that I was going to university, and told him what Gordon Richardson had just told me.
Sid Cunliffe sounded bemused. NALGO said no such thing, he told me. All I needed to do was hand my pack into the office and sign it over. That was it, there was no £5 admin fee, no nothing.
I told him that Mr Richardson had told me that he’d spoken to you – Sid – himself. Sid Cunliffe told me he’d never spoken to Gordon Richardson in his life.
I was fuming. What the hell was Gordon Richardson playing at?
So, brimming with self-righteous indignation and secure in the knowledge that a) I was leaving anyway, and b) I wasn’t going to have to pay £450 to get off a course I hadn’t wanted to sign up for in the first place, I rang Mr Richardson back.
We had to call him Mr Richardson, and I called him “Gordy”. I told him that I’d just got off the phone with Sid Cunliffe, and repeated what he’d told me.
“Gordy”, who reminded me that I should call him “Mr Richardson”, told me that wasn’t what Sid Cunliffe had told him when he rang him up earlier that day.
I told Gordy that he was a lying arsehole because Sid Cunliffe told me he’d never spoken to him in his life. I told Gordy that I didn’t know what he was playing at, but whatever it was, he could stick it up his more than ample arse and fuck himself with it because I’d had enough of dickheads like him.
Then I put the phone down and remembered that I still had a month’s notice to work.
I went to the front office and told the girls that I’d just been on the phone to Gordon Richardson and been extremely rude to him and that I was going home. The phone rang. Liz answered it and mouthed that it was him, asking to speak to Frank (our building’s manager) and he didn’t sound happy.
First thing next morning I was summoned to Frank’s office.
Frank was alright. I asked him if Trading Standards were in the habit of recording telephone conversations. He said they weren’t.
“In that case, Frank, no, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He looked at me.
I shrugged. I was prepared to see how it went at least – pretending that the conversation had never happened and that Gordon Richardson had gone prematurely senile and was fantasising abusive phone calls from me, but I felt bad for Frank because, as I say, he was alright really. Well, he was when he wasn’t chasing me around the docks, threatening to cut bits of my body off and send them to my mother, who might have been quite pleased if he had: it would have saved her and the postman a job.
He said, regardless, Gordon Richardson had told him about the phone call and he’d never been spoken to so rudely in his life. I told Frank what happened with Sid Cunliffe and how Gordon Richardson was a lying twat.
Frank told me that Gordon wanted me to appear before a disciplinary panel, but he’d talked him out of it, seeing as I’d resigned anyway.
I said that, seeing as Gordon Richardson had lied through his teeth and that I had witnesses that what he’d said was a load of crap, I wouldn’t have minded going to a disciplinary panel, and might have done some good, actually.
Frank asked me if I knew who the head of the disciplinary panel was and I said I didn’t.
“Gordon Richardson’s the head of the disciplinary panel” Frank said.
“Ah.” I said.
When the time came to go to University, I fell out with my mam again. I was going in town to get some stuff to take with me. She said to me that she was going to give me a lift to my hall of residence and that I could introduce her to my friends when she did.
I told her that I wouldn’t have any friends because I’d have been there as long as she had by that point, and she took umbrage, shouted at me and told me I could get myself there.
In town, I went to the train station and bought a one way ticket to York, got whatever bits and bobs I needed and caught the bus home.
At home, my mam told me she’d forgiven me and she would take me to York anyway. I told her I’d done what she’d told me to do and bought myself a train ticket and she went berserk again. She had the nastiest tongue on her that I’ve ever heard, she knew how to hurt, alright. Me at least. And she did. That was it for me: I’d finally had enough after years of keeping my mouth shut and trying to comply with her ever changing expectations and trying and failing to be a good kid, what with goalposts that didn’t so much move as perpetually and unpredictably orbit the planet at a million miles an hour, and I saw red.
We were in the living room and I walked towards her with intent, my brain vibrating manically. She’d hit me plenty of times in the past, but I’d never retaliated. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I suspected I was going to find out. My old man must have seen the look in my eyes and stood up between us to stop me. I shoved him him back onto the settee and carried on. He stayed down. I wasn’t speaking, but I’m pretty sure I was growling.
Nose to nose with my mother, who was starting to look concerned, I shook as tried to keep my calm and I didn’t shout. I told her quietly and breathlessly I was only going to university for one reason and that reason was to get away from her because she’d made my life a fucking misery and, ideally, I would never set eyes on her poisonous fucking face again.
She was horrified. I’ve never seen my mother look like that before or since. I turned on my heel and went to my room to pack but, once I was there, I didn’t, because I could hardly breathe.
From downstairs, I heard my mother spit at my old man, “How could you let him speak to me like that?”
My old man said, “If you treat people like you’ve treated him for that long, what do you expect?”
In the end, my old man drove me to Fairfax House, my hall of residence. My mam didn’t come with us – we didn’t speak for a couple of months. When I rang up, on the communal phone, I spoke to my old man. When I went home for a weekend in November, we pretended it hadn’t happened. It was what we did, it was what we’d always done. Nothing ever got resolved, nothing was ever sorted out. Same as it ever was.
During the holidays, things went back to normal. Normal for us, anyway. I got a job at the local Odeon in the first Christmas holiday and worked as many hours as they could give me, meaning I was out until very late most nights, and back there again at about ten the next morning. It suited everybody.
By that summer, I’d met Clare and she always rented a room somewhere – so I lived with her pretty much through the rest of the holidays, apart from when she kicked me out periodically.
When I graduated, I had no choice but to go home – Clare hadn’t come back from her third year in Italy and, anyway, she’d dumped me earlier that year. In my third year, I had to go home at Christmas, but I spent Easter in halls, ostensibly to revise, but actually to just not go home. By summer, still being dumped and having nowhere else to go, I went home for about a fortnight, until I met Jayne and, pretty much immediately, moved in with her, until Clare came back and we got back together for a bit, then I moved into a shared house, then my own flat.
This Be The Verse allows everybody to wallow in their own suffering and misery, safe in the knowledge that not only was it not their fault, but it wasn’t even the fault of the people who did it to them – and maybe that’s not something that appeals to people who are into the idea being quite self-righteous in their judgements of other people – or maybe it does. Or should. I don’t know. Larkin wasn’t a believer, but in his most famous poem, he certainly adhered to Matthew’s above mentioned tenet.
But that’s what’s great about the poem: you can wallow in your suffering, and you can wallow in your own sense of guilt at the same time. And you don’t have to disown those closest to you who did it to you, because they probably didn’t even mean to, the same as you (I) didn’t.
I don’t know about anyone else, but that appeals to me. I was fucked up by people who didn’t mean it, just as they were. And I’ve got plenty to feel guilty about, myself. Most of the time, I didn’t mean to say or do the mean things I said and did, but I did them all the same. I’m not letting myself off.
And despite Larkin being nobody’s poster boy for tolerance or forgiveness, maybe he sort of should be because he understood human fallibility and he understood that good intentions don’t always have good outcomes. Maybe there aren’t any good outcomes, really.
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning?…
…What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
Extracts from The Old Fools. Philip Larkin first published 1973.