Christmas drinks at home divided our family. Me and my mum got by on port and lemon, snowball, and shandy made with an inch of beer. My dad bought the drinks, though. And most of it was for himself. There was his Pernod period. He would drink a bottle of Pernod in a couple of days. My mum would have a go at him for drinking the disgusting stuff so fast but she never had an inkling that his actions were symptoms of a bigger drink problem. She thought it was just a couple of days at Christmas. But this was the tip of the iceberg.
My dad brewed his own beer for a while. He added more sugar than the recipe suggested to make it stronger. He gave me a taste and it nearly put me off beer for life. Why would anyone want to drink bitter this bitter?
My dad loved his garden and his allotment. He grew potatoes, tomatoes, runner beans, broad beans, marrows, purple-sprouting broccoli. He tried to get me interested but I was having none of it. He would have liked to have lived The Good Life, except unlike Tom and Barbara his dream was not only to opt out of the rat race and become self-sufficient but to move away to the country, too. His relations with his boss at work were getting worse and his boss's surname had become a dirty word in our house. My dad thought the company needed a union to stand up for its workers.
Meanwhile he was getting closer to my sister whilst I was growing apart from him. Maybe it was me hitting those awkward teenage years, having a downer on everything, not communicating, withdrawing to my room, not being enthusiastic about anything, not speaking clearly, not standing up straight. He helped me with homework for the first few years of Big School, even with my favourite English, but after that I was on my own. My sister got more and more attention when he was around at the weekends and I became the independent one. We had no common interests.
In my early teens I was persuaded to join the Scouts by the twins. I hated the Scouts. God and Queen and all that bollocks, unfurling the Union Jack, standing to attention, the awful games like British Bulldog which involved a mass free-for-all and bruised knees on the hard Scout hut floor, horrible greasy gristly sausages wrapped in stale sliced white bread, sleeping on the floor of the Scout hut because the tents had collapsed in the driving rain in the field, the creepy short-arse boy-loving scout leader, the other gigantic sadistic scout leader with a need to drive vulnerable boys at 100 m.p.h. around roundabouts.
I took the O-Level for my favourite subject, English Language, at the end of the third year. This was where I lost a lot of academic motivation. I would have been enthusiastic about developing my writing further but English Language is seen as the most important subject to pass but the least important one to improve your skills over the years. So I studied my favourite subject by far for just three years, got it out of the way so I could concentrate on English Literature, the study of the greats, no matter what innate talent we may have had ourselves, we had to devote our future writing to an understanding of the experts, our papers marked by more experts who all came to the same conclusions about the same works. Creativity in writing was stamped out of us in Year 3.
So we moved on from reading lists of books which were rewarding and interesting and easy to understand in the third year to Shakespeare and Milton and Hardy and Lawrence and Woolf in the fourth. The greats of English Literature. Bollocks to the rest of the world. No, let’s make things complicated, let’s expand their elastic minds. How many teenagers were put off reading by being made to study incomprehensible texts? How much better are things today with set books by Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons? Hmm…
In sharp contrast to my literary studies, cultural life at home was whatever I found funny on the telly. Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen, Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery, Benny Hill. All shared with my mum. Crying with laughter along with my mum to Benny Hill! Strange days. I even at one point believed Freddie Starr was a genius!
I went to the cinema, too, with my mum. The Railway Children, On The Buses, Steptoe and Son. The days of film versions of popular television sitcoms. They won’t come back again and I am proud I was around to see them.
After years of sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, programmes that had no relevance to my life, 1976 saw The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin which was a rite of passage for many teenage boys, me included. It got me thinking about my future, what I was going to do when I left school in a few short years. What I definitely didn’t want to do was a Reggie, commute to a boring office job and come home to a blissfully domestic household. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I didn’t want this. But did I want to go to university and become a teacher? No way! I’d had enough of spending my days with teenagers. A lifetime of the bastards would be impossible to bear.
Some kids were prepared from an early age. My friend who came to Big School with me from primary school wanted to be a G.P. from a young age. Presumably from some very grown up discussions with his parents. But I had no idea. My one piece of careers advice left me absolutely depressed. The room was full of careers brochures which I was left alone to browse through. I wasn’t interested in doing anything. Everything seemed so boring. Then I happened to come across a brochure advertising oceanography, the most ridiculous field of employment I could think of. The careers adviser asked me whether there was anything that stood out to me. I said oceanography. He asked me if I had an interest in the deep. No, of course I didn’t. A lot of use he was.
Everything was falling apart. Even my skill on the cricket pitch. Where once I could bowl accurately at perfect length, now the ball stuck to my hand as I tried to release it, I would hold onto it for too long and the ball would land halfway down the pitch and roll apologetically to the batsman who would scratch his head in bemusement. I wasn’t being picked for any football teams, the twins were happily playing in the team their dad ran and I didn’t get a sniff. Rugby at school was Hell. Being a little overweight, I fitted in nicely as prop forward. I hated those sweaty, cramped conditions in the scrums. Why would I want to get this close and personal with smelly teenage boys?
I had always been a big eater and was on the chubby side. But at age 15 I was active enough and my metabolism was fast enough so that I could lose weight just by cutting down on the gross amount of food I was putting away. I still had school dinners and seconds but when I got home I restricted myself to cheese and Ryvitas and a Mars bar straight from the fridge. I lost weight quite quickly but I never had a flat stomach like most of the boys no matter how hard I tried to pull it in. Even using a Bullworker a few years later only my shoulders developed that manly look. I suppose had the shoulders of a swimmer. A swimmer with a fear of water.
My dad took me swimming in a final attempt at conquering my fear. I now wish he had taken me at a young age as he did with my sister but football was our only common ground back then.
I seemed to have beefburgers every day before I went swimming with my dad. They would repeat on me and I would use my belching as an excuse for not being able to breathe properly as I attempted my strokes. I was at my best underwater where I would keep my breath held and paddle furiously with my feet, my arms outstretched in front of me. Anything above the surface, though, was fraught with breathing problems.
When I was 17 I decided to take the bull by the horns and teach myself properly. I cycled to the baths, psyched myself up and it went pretty well, I was even beginning to do the crawl, breathing quite confidently. It probably helped that I hadn’t had beefburgers beforehand. But at the end of my session I noticed my right ear was filled with water. Over the next week the inner ear was becoming more and more irritated and on holiday in Pendine at the beginning of the next week white gunk started coming out of the ear. I spent all week in bed with a painful ear infection, in the same ear that had the perforated eardrum caused by my measles at the age of four. I saw a surgeon about repairing the eardrum but my dad didn’t want me to have the operation, not trusting the medical profession so I was never to swim again.
The holiday in Pendine was notable for one other thing, the first time I’d noticed my dad might have had a sex drive. The antibiotics were working and I went out to the camp’s clubhouse with the rest of my family. Dancing to the music was a large woman wearing a dress that showed rather too much. From out of nowhere my dad leaned over to me, nudged me in the ribs and said, rather too loudly, ‘That…is a whole lotta woman!’ She was, indeed a lot of woman. But really there was no need to point it out so blatantly.