The culmination of a recent university course (Open University A215 - Level 2, Creative Writing) involved a final exam (known as an EMA). Its purpose is to test students on the three aspects of study over the last year - fiction, poetry and life writing (biographical or autobiographical writing) - or a combination of two of these.
For my EMA, I chose life writing. Going back to my 18 year old self was an interesting journey...and at times quite a difficult one also. I think it's also important to realise that (hopefully) we are not the person we were at 18. In many ways that person is unrecognisable to me today. Yet, the spirit of who I was back then still remains. I just know more stuff in 2012 than I did in 1981 and possess more confidence to be able to do things with it.
However - probably along with 6 billion or so other people - I sincerely wish I had the ability to go back to my younger self and spend a good hour or twenty.
Mostly, I'd tell myself that everything would be OK. Just hang in there.
Mostly, I'd tell myself that everything would be OK. Just hang in there.
‘What we have here is a failure to communicate.’
Paul Newman, ‘Cool Hand Luke’.
Communication is arguably the most precious of creative expressions; providing basic connection and bonding with our fellow humans. Alternatively, when the priceless gift of speech is lost behind impenetrable, personal barriers, it follows that an individual’s confidence will suffer.
Around the age of thirteen, I become such an individual. Understandable, emotional dents form as my chronic stammer deepens. Less understandably, dents also occur materialize at school, when a couple of cruel teachers decide that I constitute an excellent source of class morale. Another of many memorable dents occurs with a local bus-driver, listening as a schoolboy politely attempts to state the designated fare of ’Fifteen please’. When a twenty second burst of echoing ’f-f-f-f-f-ffffff’s emerge, he reduces his passengers to raucous, rib-aching merriment with the arrival of a perfectly-timed punch line;
’I think you’ve got a puncture there, lad.’
At such testing moments, the possession of analytical reasoning and sheer bloody-mindedness become my most valuable allies. Through experimentation, I discover that stammering is greatly decreased while (a) singing, or (b) inebriated. Both options are quickly discarded, but soon fate provides me with an option (c).
During a break in lessons, a fellow pupil executes an appalling impression of the cartoon character, ‘Top Cat’. Malicious faces in the playground excitedly turn towards me.
‘Go on, Milsom…d-d-d-d-d-o…Ta-Ta-Top…C-c-c-c-cat!’
I sigh inwardly, but realize that any refusal means getting thumped. It takes three lines of gibberish in Top Cat’s voice before realizing that I haven’t missed a single beat.
‘Hey, that’s not bad…do another.’
I square my shoulders and launch into John Wayne.
‘Okay pil-grims, we’re gonna get these wagons in a circle and keep the teachers at bay, see?’
For the first time, an intoxicatingly, delicious sound of people laughing with me, not at me, hits my ears. I want more.
The threat of total strangers engaging me in conversation no longer equates to blind panic. Of all the accents I explore, the broad London dialect is the easiest to reproduce. By placing a cassette tape recorder by the television whenever ‘The Sweeney’ is transmitted, it isn’t long before I’ve nailed John Thaw’s character, ‘Inspector Jack Regan’. Meanwhile, every day is spent before a mirror, practicing my speech and dreaming of a day when society can regard me as ‘normal’
Immediately prior to the beginning of the following story, my eighteen year old self has been asked for the correct time. Somewhere in a small dressing room within my mind, a bell sounds. Enter, stage left, ‘Inspector Jack Regan’ to give suitable response.
‘You what? Oh, I fink iss five to nine mate.’
My enquirer appears suitably satisfied and nods his thanks.
After quickly checking his face to make sure that no further conversation is forthcoming, I turn my attention back to the growing commotion some thirty feet ahead. It’s a wet, 1981 spring morning outside Bristol’s Colston Hall and the long queue in which I am standing is becoming restless as a vociferous, scruffy opportunist seeks to push to the front of the line.
‘No…oi bin ‘ere all along…oi only went to the toilet…’onest!'
In unison, several fellow Bristolians relay their unanimous verdict.
There is certain uniqueness about the sound of hundreds of people performing a simultaneous, sharp intake of breath, as our latest time-waster is physically ejected into a busy Colston Street; causing an oncoming 74 bus to swerve wildly. As a driver with the physical stature of a gorilla emerges from his cab, I stare at the ground and let my mind wander away. I’m not one for observing physical violence and I sense that the guy’s likely to get a ’knuckle sandwich’.
While gazing at the darkened, rain-stained pavement, my thoughts drift towards heroes, role-models and precisely how I came to be standing in this queue. A knowing voice from the past resonates around my mind.
‘Always have heroes in life, son. There’s always plenty to aim for.’
Ah yes, heroes. Mentally, I leave the rain-sodden queue altogether and disappear back to the early hours of a July morning in 1969, where my father and I are seated upon our new avocado and magenta sofa. Before us, upon the fuzzy screen of our twenty-inch, black and white television set, Neil Armstrong is about to take his first ‘giant leap for mankind‘.
‘We’re watching a legend, son.’
‘Like Geoff Boycott, dad? Or Bobby Moore?’
My father winced. In his eyes, cricket and football were games invented by God Himself. The fact that there was nothing at the start of The Bible stating that, “on the eighth day, the Creator fashioned a fine cricket pitch and taught Adam the value of the forward-defensive batting stroke…” was merely evidence that the ‘Holy Book’ had been tampered with by ‘soppy, dress-wearing non-cricketers’.
‘Well, almost, son...let’s not get carried away, eh?’
When dad ‘nipped out for a packet of cigarettes’ in late 1976 and decided never to return, it became evident that any quest for inspirational heroes would take place outside my paternal, family line. In 1980, lurking within a highly chaotic musical genre, I discovered my ‘Holy Grail’.
Raised on a diet of classic ‘Rock & Roll’, my major prerequisite for a song involved it being energetic, to the point where one’s entire body was unconditionally compelled to dance. After a glorious childhood of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis, the 1970’s would have to raise the artistic bar considerably. Unfortunately, the whole ’Glam Rock’scene - comprising men with girls’ haircuts and apparently wearing sequined tin foil with matching moon boots – stirred nothing within me. Subsequently, I was content to spend the entire decade cocooned in blessed Rock & Roll. Until punk…
Punk was loud, brash and quite beyond articulate reason. Punk was a chaotic cocktail of energetic noise. Punk was the very epitome of being different. Punk was putting two fingers up to the world and telling it where to go. Punk was…
‘Have you seen her before?’
Current thoughts immediately disintegrate as my gaze meets that of my former time enquirer, now grinning in friendly fashion.
‘What? Ahhh…not before, no. Iss my first time, mate.’
‘Oh.’ He seems disappointed, but continues smiling. I’ve learned from experience that over-stretching conversation is never a good thing. My accent can waver, I can easily lose track of what I’ve said and there’s always the risk of people asking awkward questions, such as from which part of London I originate.
‘Which bit of London are you from?’
Sighing inwardly, I give a stock, well-rehearsed answer, avoiding any hard consonants, such as ‘B’ or ‘D’, which are more difficult for me to say.
‘I’m from Enfield, mate. Norfff Laandon’
Recorded to memory are researched roads, postcodes, schools and landmarks, local for Enfield. I offer my enquirer nothing else; instead lighting a cigarette and expressing a scowl, perfected from many Clint Eastwood westerns, which snarls: ‘leave me alone’. Aside from a nod, he appears to respect my wishes and I return to gazing at the ground.
This is a hated aspect of my predicament. By nature, I abhor all aspects of rudeness, yet, for fear of being ridiculed as a freak, there are times when I have to become exactly what I despise. If he sees through my façade, it could be less than ten seconds before the whole queue is pointing at me and laughing. With yet another possible new friendship in tatters, I resume my chain of thought…ah yes, my precious record collection. Soon, I had amassed an assortment of multi-coloured vinyl offerings from bands with quirky names, such as ‘X-Ray Specs’, ‘The Clash’, ‘The Sex Pistols’ and ‘The Dickies’; mostly containing unintelligible shouting, performed at a hundred miles per hour against a whirlwind of pounding beats.
In 1980, I become aware of a diminutive, flame-haired singer called Toyah Willcox. Imaginative lyrics, containing elements of mysticism and science-fiction, were often backed by thumping, tribal rhythms. From the outset I am intrigued by Toyah. Dubbed the ‘Princess of Punk’ by the music media, she is derided by lesser journalists for possessing a heavy lisp, along with snide remarks about her physical disabilities from birth. Instantly, I warm to her rebellious spirit. The more people laughed, the louder she shouted back that she didn’t give an ‘airborne act of lovemaking’ what anyone thought of her.
1981 returns with a jolt, as I realize that there is only one person between myself and the ticket office. His subsequent departure leaves me at the head of a mile-long queue, and I am suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to use my own voice. The mere thought is enough to start my shoulders shaking, but I concentrate on my breathing, while counting slowly in my mind.
‘Six…seven…eight…you can do this…nine…ten…eleven…you ca… ‘
With a deep breath, I take six heroic paces forward. For a fleeting moment, I am Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston and Genghis Khan combined; a force of cool bravado and ultimate strength, unrivalled amongst all warriors, past and present.
Dimly aware that my mouth is opening and closing, it’s not until my shoulders begin rocking that I start losing hope. A large bead of sweat drops from my forehead onto my spectacles, rendering the receptionist’s facial features into swirling patterns. With an emergency klaxon echoing around an internal dressing room, Inspector Regan rushes to the scene.
‘Yeah, I’m lookin’ for something in the stalls to see Toyah… as close to the stage as ya can. What ya got, love?’
The next two months are spent sampling everything performed by my musical heroine. Toyah’s latest album, ‘Anthem’ is her best work to date and it takes me two days to confine every lyric to memory. Her current single, ‘It’s A Mystery’ is riding high in the charts and the words resonate deeply with me as I sing them aloud, with gusto.
‘Somewhere in the distance,
hidden from the view.
Suspended in the atmosphere,
waiting to come through...’
Like an impatient child waiting for Christmas morning, I cross days from the calendar. In a fit of compulsion, I purchase every badge pertaining to Toyah, punk, bands and youth culture that Bristol has to offer. By the time I attach them to my favourite jacket, I have thirty down each side. My mother is distinctly unimpressed.
‘You look like a bloody Pearly King!’
Being in full teenage rebellious mode, I remain impassive.
‘R.ri…rig.ht…j-j-just for that, I’ll b-b-b-b-b…’ I pause, silently cursing whoever invented hard consonants. ‘I’ll p…p..pur…ch-chase even mo-more!’
She laughs, but her eyes reveal how much it hurts to see me struggling.
With a cloudless dawn, the Fourth of June, 1981 finally arrives. The day is spent mostly pacing and trying to contain mounting excitement. A long morning crawls into a lengthy afternoon. By seven o’clock, an unseasonal chill has crept into the evening air, yet the exterior of the Colston Hall is positively bursting with animated warmth. In the passing of minutes, dozens multiply into hundreds; noise levels growling upwards into higher decibels as more bodies swell our crowd…and what a crowd…rows of brightly-spiked hairstyles bob around, all vying for attention from excited owners; many of whom clearly favour studded, leather attire and an imaginative choice of body areas to pierce their skin.
I turn around to discover an orange, Mohican-topped head closely examining my array of badges. A heavily-ringed finger points out a badge with a young girl’s face, promoting a Gloucestershire band I liked, called ‘Pigbag’.
‘I’ve got that one too.’ He turns his head, revealing the same badge pinned through the lobe of his right ear. In no particular dialect, I mouth ‘Wow!’ He grins.
‘Where are you sitting?’
Pulling my ticket from an inside pocket, I show my designated seat number, about six rows from the stage. A huge hand slaps my back.
‘Just stick with me, right?’ I nod; returning his infectious smile as he spots someone he recognizes.
‘Marcia!’ A girl, about my age, trots over; a beaming grin surrounded by thick, black make-up and several facial piercings. Topped with three tall spikes of blue hair, she reminds me of a stegosaurus. Between them, Mr. Mohican and Marcia appear to know everyone else in the crowd.
It’s an hour until Toyah. Amid a tribal composition of stamped shoes and slapped palms upon glass barriers, the outer doors to the Colston Hall finally open. Wedged between new comrades, I am swept forward as a youthful stampede ensues, causing all in its path to react with life-preserving speed. Everyone has an allotted seat, but as we charge towards the stage, no-one cares. For the next couple of hours, we’re all together; a crowd of one. A woefully undermanned team of bouncers briefly attempt to push us back. After ten minutes, accompanied by helpful - yet largely physically impossible - advice from the crowd, they relent and leave us be.
Twenty-five minutes until Toyah. A supporting act has finished a brief set to polite applause. The crowd becomes noticeable more animated as adrenaline levels surge.
Ten minutes to go. Hunger, thirst and toilet requirements are utterly forgotten. Everything becomes immersed within a cacophony of chanting and stamped soles…a final sound check and my heartbeat gains noticeable momentum…chanting rises until it threatens to loosen the elaborate, Victorian fixtures and fittings. Screams replace chants as finally, the lights dim.
Then it arrives; an opening bass line that bursts through the crowd like glorious thunder from the Gods; a matching volley of drums detonating around euphoric ears as the stage lights up. It’s her! As one, we jump up and scream her name.
‘Good evening, Bristol!’
The bass line smoothly slides into a familiar pattern as the band launches into the opening number, ‘It’s A Mystery’.
‘Sing it back to me, yeah?’
Two thousand people adoringly comply.
‘Sometimes, it’s so far away,
sometimes, it’s very near.
A sound being carried by the wind,
just loud enough to hear…’
I’ve no idea if heaven exists. If so, then it must equate to the ‘Utopian’ bliss, I subsequently experience as my tiny heroine completely dominates a large stage; holding a captivated audience within a masterful grasp. Two hours and three encores later, she is gone and unwilling feet trudge towards exits. With a slap on the back, Mr. Mohican is at my side.
‘Was that awesome…or what?’
I smile back and nod.
‘What time you got?’
I glance at my wrist.
‘It’s abowt twenty-foive to ten…’
I pause as my Bristol accent hits my ears.
‘Nice one…I’m Dan by the way, what’s your name?’
‘Me? Oi’m Kev. Nice to meet you, Dan.’
‘You too, Kev…take it easy, yeah?’
A final slap on the back and he disappears into a dense forest of fascinating hairstyles.
Once outside, I stop strangers just to ask them the time; each in unbroken, Bristolian tones. One spots my watch.
‘Oops…oi’m a daft bugger, I am!’
Instead of a three mile walk home, I hail a taxi.
‘Downend Road, Horfield, please….oi’ve just bin to see Toyah at the Colston…bloody fabulous she was…you had a busy night, mate?’
With adrenaline still pumping, my speech is flawless.
A blissful week dawns before the stammering returns, but now I know – beyond all doubt - that at the culmination of this long war, I shall be the victor.
Three years later, Inspector Jack Regan gives his final performance and is retired. An accompanying newspaper announcement would have read:
‘Whilst immensely grateful for Jack’s priceless contribution of many years, it’s finally time for Mr. Milsom to commence a challenging and exciting, new chapter of his life.’