Following are some sample pages from this upcoming memoir.
First a note about the IMAGES that I have included on these pages: They are my own unedited screen grabs from the British Transport Films series (BTF), which is in the care of the British Film Institute (BFI) https://www.bfi.org.uk/ . I had a phase where these iconic documentary films became a cult in my own mind. I was mesmerised by how their impressionism matched the themes and feelings that I want to bring out in my memoirs of a life in Britain. Great credit should be paid to the BTF film makers whose discerning eyes provided a unique slant on British life. Learn more about the BTF series here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-british-transport-films
And an explanation about the BOOK TITLE: My first home after birth was above a railway station so steam trains got into my blood and now provide a useful allegory for this memoir. The title is a spoof on the ‘New Age’ that later swept me up where, among other rituals, participants were enjoined to seek their ‘Inner Child’. More on that in my second memoir LEARNING TO DANCE http://learning-to-dance-memoir-in-progress-70s-80s-uk-usa-sample-pages
THE INNER TRAIN- INTRODUCTION
Often running. Sometimes spinning wheels. Sometimes stopped by another’s arm. Often hot. Sometimes cold. Intense energy. But sometimes weak. More often the local stopper. Less, the single-minded express. The down days, when the fire was out. And useless ashes laid in a pit. The back door of suicide creaking open, inviting me to creep away.
This was the journey of my train- from childhood through to the end of youth, in the murky days of ‘50s and ‘60s Britain
FIRST TIME DEATH, FIRST TIME FIRE
Even in the slowness of summer come the quickness of death and the tainting of innocence.
Sometimes on warmer evenings, we would picnic on a tartan blanket in the ‘back garden’, which was a small patch of grass behind our cramped semi-detached house, edged by hedgerow and fence. A landmark sound of summer would be the rhythmic grind of the two-wheeled mechanical mower, with my dad bending and rising, pushing and heaving in an uphill slog. Picnic fare was dried boiled eggs or lunchmeat pie, with lettuce leaves, tomatoes and one or another item. All coated of course by salad cream. The smell of fresh cut grass blended with lettuce or cucumber, or was countered by faintly bitter watercress.
One early evening as we picnicked in a murmur of small talk and my childish chatter, a commotion started in the hedgerow; an eruption of rustling and crackling twigs. But it was a thin, piercing sound that arrested our peace. My dad said it was the squealing of a mouse caught by a cat. We could see neither hunter nor prey because the drama was hidden by thick growth, so the agitation bloomed inside my head. The squealing pierced my mind, as much as the silence that followed, fed by our knowledge that the mouse was dead. Then I spotted briefly through the leaves a feline shadow stealing quickly away, with something hanging from its mouth. I remember my mother’s nervous voice trying to console, but inside I was mauled.
In another twilight when I was still three, the tires caught fire and I thought the world was ending.
When the fire started, fear billowed with it. Thick oily smoke loomed outrageously from behind the station house and footbridge. It was my dad who recognised its source as the tires in the dump, caught alight. At that moment I had no idea that there was a tire dump, nor did I know that it was some distance from the station. To my inbred panic it looked as if the station itself was going to burn down and we would be next. There was an ominous crackling sound as the flames must have been spreading and snaffling up ancient wood. Evening had moved into night adding a terrible glow, red and filled with sparks onto the low sky. The toxic smell of burning rubber violated our nostrils. I remember my mother running into and then out of the house, towing me in erupted panic while my dad attempted to douse our hysteria with the semblance of a calming voice.
The drama was heightened when we heard the first of many bells from fire engines, clamouring and clanging towards the scene. As with the invisible cat on the mouse, we were blocked from seeing men and machines pouncing on the fire, except for an occasional arc of water cresting rosy silver among the roofs. Fear filled the void between.
The following day a faintly acrid smell lingered in the gray air. Something bitter had touched my innocent world. Now, perched back on my fence, I would look beyond the rushing trains, trying to comprehend the dark smudge that hung above the rooftops.
LOVE AND THE BIG LOW LOADER
Love pervades, no matter what. Whereas we may have differing views about the existence of a God, and those views may derive from innocence, inner sensation, religious conviction, or rejection, we live anyway in a matrix of love. It is an abiding stream in which we all swim or drift. We are either consciously active in giving and receiving love, or we are floating leaves moved randomly by the stream, denying its push but inseparable from it. And no matter how clamped down our expressions of love may have been before, the best excuse to feel it and reveal it is when we are lovers, or fathers and mothers.
I have a photo of my dad cradling his new-born baby in his arms. I never later saw quite the purity of expression as was on his face in that picture, while he was regarding me. The self-conscious, tight lipped British restraints had fallen away and Love had come out.
So when, some three years after that photo, this less fettered father came home one evening, he was excited to take me and show me something that he had just seen. Even though he was probably tired from work he took me by the hand and we left the house, reversing his homeward walk. A few streets away, we should come face to face with his discovery- an enormous truck which had been parked up. I imagined it dominating the street of ruddy-bricked terraced houses.
On the way, he eagerly told me that it was a ‘Scammell’ and that it was very big to pull very big loads. He cautioned me that Its low-slung trailer was empty now. I could but imagine what huge things it might have carried, which had chewed and dug the splintered gouges in its planks, and gnawed the dents into its steel. I believe he talked of ‘turbines’ and ‘generators’. I trotted next to him in awe and anticipation, for my routine flow of cars, vans and smaller lorries had been broken. This would be something special- a giant had come to rest in our streets.
When we turned the last corner, he came to a stop and his shoulders slumped. The juggernaut had gone. The only sign of its presence was a long gap between the parked cars, where the surface was still dry on the drizzly street. We stood together staring at the footprint of a missing beast.
Children can inadvertently serve adults as much as adults should serve children. My young excitement had infected my dad, giving him permission to grin like a child while we walked together. And when the giant was gone we shared the same crestfallen sadness. Today I remember more the presence of love in that hour than any passing disappointment.
Now we were in Shotton town, where the Teddy Boys hung. Black and blue movements of drape coats, leather jackets and greased quiffs. Ducks arses swaggered over pointed boots or thick-soled brogues. Drainpipe jeans practiced steps in and out of the shadows of the railway bridge.
Others leaned back to the wall, feigning indifference with low slung cigarettes and foot propped behind. And the girls- with splayed out skirts and ponytails- created a sweet and innocent look chastened by secrets. Cherry red lips awaited exploration in the coming dark.
By now I was four and we had moved from Cheadle Heath to Shotton to stay temporarily at the ‘Station Hotel’, where my grandfather was the publican. My parents soon noticed the group on the corner and for my sake labeled them the ‘bad boys’. Those perpetrators of minor street displays were to be avoided and thus my view was tainted by an all-embracing illogic. I had no way to realise that from my upper floor window I was watching the birth of youth expression and revolt. I was too young to know that then, but I got the news later when listening in hindsight to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.
Only retrospection lets me better understand those times. Then, while pottering and tinkering in my tiny corner of the late fifties, I would occasionally hear adults mention ‘the War’. Only now do I realise that a global holocaust had passed so close before my birth and so large that it had obliterated World War One from a generation’s view. All the adults above me had been caught inside their own dark or torrid war and many would still be struggling to accept that the eclipse was over. Lingering pain would not be mentioned for the sake of outward appearance. It’s how they got through…..
…….By now, however, just enough years had passed that the new youth on the street would not have ‘served’ and would want no part of the grimy rations-and-rubble thinking. Meanwhile those older ones, who were still struggling to break from the great shadow, probably resented the young ones who were brashly stepping out. Rock ‘n Roll must have delivered a kick in the gut.
THE STREET CORNER LIGHT (A Study Of Fear)
With my bed room light switched off I could stare daringly into the flickering scene below without being noticed. The shivering sensation of ghosts that may lurk behind me in the room was diminished by the distractive view outside. The secure glow of the corner street lamp was fringed by loitering Teddy boys and lovers. The pool of light suggested protection from the shadows beyond, where the ‘bogie man’ lurked…..
Fear of the dark was instilled in me by my mother, and the ‘bogie man’ was the eternal myth traded by other kids to put creeping flesh onto our primeval fears. Bad things lurked in the shadows waiting to pounce on me, if I had ever dared to go there alone.
The youths and lovers were themselves half-lit people, also to be feared. If figures moved away from the street light and into the shadows they were, according to the repetition from my father, ‘up to no good’. What was ‘no good’? A meeting with the bogie man? Smoking cigarettes? Kissing? If lovers slid into the dark where they could not be seen, they were ‘being dirty’. At the time of receiving that confusing information I had no idea what sex was, so ‘being dirty’ became another soiled crime in which all youth was implicated.
The gruff counsel from my father would at that time have been agreed by his peers to be necessary caution. Protect the children by instilling fear. His own dad was sourer still, so I am left with questions. Did my dad mimic his father’s oppression beaten onto his own brow even though he seemed to hate his stifling father? And a further question impossible to conceive in those times: Was my dad’s dismissal of ‘street corner louts’ actually a jealous reaction? In our world then, passion was impossible. Was he jealous of passion and of this new breakaway expression by ‘58 youth?
Across the street, the orange rhythm of a slow flashing Belisha Beacon pumped false reassurance into the night. But yards away other pulses and tensions filled the dark.
And intermittently, with disregard for the ‘no good’ things in the shadows, a train would rumble over the bridge and embankment above, briefly splashing light and sparks onto the shadows below. In the low glow of the carriage compartments I could see slumped, blurred faces, themselves blind to the darkness outside of their windows, and ignorant of what it contained. I could be their unknown observer from within that darkness, or I could turn back to my own fears, deeper below.
Fear was a sensation moving in my spine, and ‘butterflies’ in my stomach. The parental and peer programming made me cringe away from that undefined, unlimited darkness down the alleys, made even darker when standing below street lights and losing the capacity to see through. It is the fear of panicking blindness, fear of the unknown, where things grow in the imagination, and not in reality.
Morning transformations were remarkable, miraculous. Morning light, though often grey from filtering drizzle, exposed the corner shop; simple, pleasant and as safe as houses. The black world had vanished, replaced by red brick, roof slates and a large window with colourful signs in it promoting ‘Vimto’, ‘Bovril’ and ‘Lucozade’. Drab coated women with shopping bags and kerchiefed heads would trickle in and out announced by a tinkling bell. Far, far away were the fears of the dark. Only an experienced eye might have noticed the cigarette butts in the gutters and condoms in the back alleys as clues left behind by the real but secretive night.
Today I embrace the dark, and when in the pitch black of my surroundings or my soul, I try to practice seeing with my inner eye; with my heart. If I am out in the ‘wild’ country at night I hate to use a hand-held light. I prefer to practice seeing in any other way. The beam actually re-awakens those old fears, because it cuts off my chance to see as far as I wish. The frontier at the end of that light pool cannot be passed, and beyond it lurk the dark things, reawakened. Instead in the unlit country, the darkness is my security; not the light. Now, I do not like to be exposed.
ROMANCES- MY EARLIEST
I believe in the idea that our first three years on Earth are the most formative ones. At that age each year seems anyway to be as long as life itself. By now I know that scars and desperation could have marred this first imprint for many children. In my case it was the later years of school oppression and stifling cultural reserve that began to pull me down, but with thanks to the grace of destiny and well-intentioned parents my earliest record was relatively innocent. Thus my imprint includes no more damage than the smoke and steam of a train running in my veins and thanks to Aunty Lucy, a penchant for women with curly auburn hair, Romani earrings and voluptuous lipstick.
My crush for her was infantile, but her impact on my tastes was lasting. Although Aunty Lucy was not a blood aunt she was the lady next door and it was normal for all my parents’ friends or neighbours to be introduced to me as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’. Aunty Lucy had a husband, but I don’t remember him because I was probably asleep by the time he came home in the evenings. I do though remember her weekly visitor, Uncle Jack. She inferred to my parents that he was a ‘good friend’ and my mother had no reason to change the story for my ears. Uncle Jack’s Hillman Minx, with its two-tone hues of green and white and its flamboyant windscreen visor, would regularly appear at lunch times. He parked quietly by the kerb near our window and slipped to her door, which seemed always to open without hesitation. I am glad for my innocence, which knew no more motive to his visits than friendship. Hence I could always believe Aunty Lucie’s flirtatious smile over her hypnotic trinkets, each time that she promised to marry me. I just had to be a little older, she said.
Tall, slender with wavy auburn hair, she had an air to her; confident, less timid than many of the girls. We were five, then six years old, so linked as though forever. We had love but we could never say it. In our occasional moments away from the schoolyard clamour I was the quiet one. Apart from those rare interludes, hardly any of our throng was quiet or retiring at ‘play time’. We created a chaos of running, yelling, and screaming. The boys would kick a ball around in a disorder of dust, mud, scuffed shoes and scruffy fallen socks on the beaten yard. And we had gangs. I was in Michael William’s gang. A great rush of power surged inside me as we poured screaming around the corner of the school building, running like Mongol hoards in pursuit of the other warriors. Gang violence in those days was a mêlée of pushing, shoving and name calling, until the bell rang. Then we would tumble into our designated lines, and fall quiet like spent soldiers, waiting to be roll-called by the teacher.
That tribal din concealed the chronic shyness that would surface in our few stolen moments face to face. And as I recall, Jackie made all the moves. In the shadows of ’59, peeking at 1960, children were still contained from awareness of sex. So we had no elemental knowledge, but looking back from here I can see that we were already following instincts. Jackie and some of the other girls would invite some of the boys to the ‘girls toilets’ to ‘show us their knickers’. As we slipped furtively across the yard we would glance over our shoulders, as much to add to the thrill of the dare, as to actually worry about teachers. Then in the recessed corner of the old brick toilet shed, the girls would fleetingly lift their skirts while making self-conscious whooping sounds. Their panties were uniformly dark blue, and as drab as school itself. Jackie would look in my direction to make sure that I had seen, but the moment was gone as quick as the flutter of plumage. Neither she nor the other girls ever went further, but they came away giggling and we urchins felt wicked without knowing why.
As the months of afternoons passed, and another summer holiday intervened, Jackie and I seemed to let more crowds come between us. I was always scared of the crushing mockery that would be turned onto me for having a ‘girlfriend’ and with an air of sad disappointment she moved to other corners.
THE LANDLADY’S DAUGHTER
She said she would show me how to play hockey on the back lawn, where sand spilled through the tenuous roots. Our family summer holiday had brought us to a Bed & Breakfast near Barmouth. She was the landlady’s daughter and we had shyly crossed paths not long after our arrival. I found out that her name was Alwen.
At the moment of her suggestion, the notion that hockey was only for girls and sissies dissolved from my mind. Anyway her real intent was to find an excuse to get us outside, away from parents. She found two hockey sticks and placed the ball in the middle of the small patch of grass. She showed me how the opening move was for each player to face off over the ball, then to rhythmically hit the ground with the stick and clack against the opponent’s stick. So we began back and to, in a beat like a war dance, thud-clack, thud-clack in a deepening litany…..
…..I forget now how many times we were supposed to hit sticks before making a lunge for the ball. Nor did she remember on that day, for at the moment of locking eyes we stumbled into a chant of personal questions. We were grasping for any straw of commonality, any excuse to add fuel to the flame that had awoken between us. Great importance was attached to the discovery that our mutually favourite school subject was English, and that we shared a dislike for maths. When we unearthed the colour green as favourite for both of us, marriage seemed inevitable. There was no measure of time before one of us spotted with a self-conscious giggle that our sticks were still clacking. Our hands had continued the rhythm long after our eyes had taken us on to a different dance. I was enchanted by the lilting tones in her soft voice. We were both ‘almost thirteen’ and a new feeling was whispering and teasing my insides. We had clicked together on a grassy mound of sand, in a bowl of rare blue sky and drifting seagulls. But still we were too shy to kiss.
From within that meandering holiday, I had noticed a tramp ship’s curl of smoke on the horizon, but I know only from other records that trains wandered along the track down near the dunes and the sea. Of them I remember nothing. On the contrary, at the day of departure, I distinctly remember waving through the back window of our car until Alwen’s waving silhouette disappeared from view. My brother had been there as always on such holidays but I recall none of the usual beach and sea games, nor do I remember him on the back seat beside me during the homeward journey. I was withdrawn into a private and growing ache while the miles rumbled away..
I never saw Alwen again, and could not palate the notion that another summer player may have taken her off the grass and down to deeper games in the sea and dunes.
A few more years in a boys-only grammar school turned me into a wreck that quivered at the notion of meeting girls. No less than three pints of Guinness could loosen my tongue. I eventually escaped into the wayward gang of the Merchant Navy and steamed away, out onto the sea of ships and gulls. The green and foamy waves spilled me like a fleeting visitor into the ports of women with dark locks and earrings. There I would flow and ebb beneath the moon, then leave in the morning, baptised by lipstick and cheap perfume. The chrysalis skin which had stifled my youth was beginning to crack.
SUICIDE AS A FINANCIAL ASSET. Retrospection From The Turn of the Millenium
My dad had a fear of debt. My wife and I made it a way of life. But our small-town America had loan shark’s teeth. We had joined the throngs of moths attracted to the light of credit card nirvana. But plastic melts, and in the first year of the twenty first century we had reached a family financial crisis.
I had been laid off while still struggling to keep our home and life steady for our daughters. They were in their final years of schooling and we were trying to hold together our nest while the winds of change were ripping the twigs from our periphery. Now like vengeance I felt the flesh and blood strains that my own parents had gone through.
At points in my past I had thoughts of suicide as a depressive escape, but this time when those thoughts returned, it was because I had a healthy Life Insurance with no suicide clause. It would save my wife and family, and I calmly considered the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ in terms of financial calculation. Though I will not deny that the blankness of depression had numbed my feelings.
So from somewhere in that mêlée I wrote (provoked during a business trip from my stateside town to London): ‘ Some Underground stations in London, although part of the tunneled system, are exposed to overhead daylight. I have often enjoyed standing in such places on a sunny day. Yet to my left and to my right are the mouths of tunnels, and I notice other travellers on the platform; eyes glazed with loss, as we await our vehicles into the dark. Nonetheless the last moment is filled with sun rays, stray autumn leaves, old fond smells, red brick stained with age, and reflections on my penultimate steps down to here. I am glad that the coming train clatters loudly enough to break my reverie, for it signals the end of doubt, presses certainty into my final step and I reach the track one second ahead of the squealing brakes.’
I think that writing the imagined scenario helped purge the notion away, and our recovery began not long after. My train was again thrashing uphill on the long and familiar slog, and a hazy sun was blessing the tracks. There were no warning signals of the derailments yet to come….