“Do you think it understands you?” 6 words that would change my life. Another 6 words, words of Wisdom would also change my life, but that’s another story.
What is normal? Normal is what everyone else perceives to be the same as ‘they’ are, what they are used to. My life was to me normal. To others it was totally abnormal. Talking to a concrete rabbit might not be considered ‘normal’ but if you are used to trying, yes I tried, to talk to someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge you even exist, concrete becomes ‘normal’. If you have ‘the alcohol gene’ drinking yourself into oblivion becomes ‘normal’. Being abused and discarded as nothing, plus the alcohol gene, what does that make you? People far more clever than me will argue there is nothing called the ‘alcohol gene’ but believe me it does exist. I’m proof it exists or am I just fooling myself, making up another alcoholics excuse? Is there really such a thing? Apparently ‘it’ only happens, ‘it’ being drinking alcoholic beverages, only happens after a long sustained period of drinking. How long? Days? Weeks? Months? I’m no scientist, but I do know that the first time I had anything alcoholic, a half of bitter at a pub near the docks at Gunness with my uncle Bob, I really liked the feeling. Floating, seeing myself as a gull might see me. Me, a 7 year old sitting next to the Humber river, drinking and laughing with my uncle. Happy. Not scared. My uncle wouldn’t let anything happen to me no matter how high I flew, Aunt Alice would go nuts if he let go of me. He would have to grab hold of my ankles and bring me down to earth, down to the table where he, we, were sitting.
I never met Dad’s parents because they were drinkers. Dad was born in Rainham and raised in the East End of London by his Aunt Glad and Uncle Henry. Dad’s Dad, when he was sober, took him to see United, West Ham United, play every now and then. Dad wore a claret and blue scarf, the colours of his team, his tribe. At the first sign of danger during a game, if anything threatened him, a little ‘un, his tribe would unite to protect him. I was born in Ealing and raised by Dad’s Aunt in the East side of Bath. My Dad, who hardly ever drank, took me to see United, Scunthorpe United, every now and then. I wore a claret and blue scarf, the colours of my team, my tribe. At the first sign of danger during a game, when I was threatened, a little ‘un, my tribe united to protect me. It’s sad that we both had to rely on aunts and uncles and total strangers to be our real tribe, to protect us. Dad from alcoholic parents, me from football hooligans and ‘semi organised violence’ from my ‘Mother’.
Talking to a concrete rabbit wouldn’t I suggest be the starting line in a best selling book titled ‘How to turn your life around’. I wanted my life to change, to come clean about me, not the me hiding behind a mask of misery. “Do you think it understands you?” ‘I hope so’. If you are at a party and given the choice between talking in the kitchen to a ‘I’m hip cos I drink Dubonnet’ person or sitting outside with a concrete rabbit while working your way through a packet of Marlboro cigarettes and a can of bitter, I’d always choose the rabbit. “Hi”, I wasn’t the greatest at talking to ‘the fairer sex’, in fact I was useless. What happened next? I found myself talking to a young lady wrapped up in the warmest coat I had ever seen. Silence. I didn’t know what to say, even if I did I wouldn’t have known how to say it. We both sat outside in the rain and instead of smoking all the Marlboro myself I shared them with the young lady.
“Does the rabbit have a name?” It’s concrete for f’s sake, but I didn’t say so. Who was this lady? “What’s your name?” ‘Tim, what’s yours?’ “Jane” She was friendly, enquiring, interested and interesting. Her voice was a happy voice. A voice that made me want to carry on listening too. We talked. I wanted to talk to the young lady with the happy voice. Sitting in the dark under a constant fine drizzle, slowly getting wetter and wetter we talked. I was cold she was warm. My language was coarse her language became coarse. I had a Saturday job she had a Sunday job. I worked on Windsor Crown Estate forestry department for 5 days of the week she didn’t. I lived near Ascot she lived in Harrow Weald. I was 17 she was 17. I was 6 feet 2 inches, 44 inch chest, 32 inch waist, she was, to me, perfect. I had a 3 wheeled Robin Reliant van with no name she had a horse called Chekoba. As I had the van parked outside I gave her and her boy friend a lift home. I also had a motorbike but she, Jane, didn’t know that. Not the most romantic introduction to the person who brought me alive but it was, for me, a very special introduction. An introduction to a family who over the next how many years would teach me how to live and enjoy life. An introduction to the best friend anyone could ever wish for. To ‘The Mother I never Had’, to a Dad who laughed and didn’t cower, to the Best Man at my wedding and me the Best Man at his, to a beautiful sister I love and to a cat called Yurka. I’m not sure if I was introduced to the fish? If I was I’ve forgotten their names, I was far to busy learning and enjoying life. Not only was this new unfolding life beautiful, she was, to me, beautiful too. A stunning eye opener in more ways than one! Not just visually, the things she did, how she did them, who and how she was but the way she laughed, her Mum laughed, her Dad laughed, when he wasn’t guzzling tea her brother laughed and her beautiful sister laughed. Fun.
“You shagged ‘er yet you lucky bastard” ”Erd she goes like a train, come on gi’s the details”. People who make those comments would never and could never understand a Jane and Tim. Sometimes we slept naked in the same bed in the same bedroom. Sometimes we slept naked in the same sleeping bag in the same tent. We hugged and we kissed, linked arms and held hands. Tim told Jane he loved her, Jane told Tim she loved him. Jane had a body that I felt and explored and loved. I didn’t want to enter this beautiful body. Jane’s body was perfect, why would I want to invade perfect? Love. Tim and Jane were 2 young people in love riding on a motorbike or in a 3 wheeled Robin Reliant van or on Chekoba ‘n Torro loving and laughing together. Aged 17 I found a new family, a new life and love. I was unknowingly being shown how to enjoy it.
(I’d had sex before. I knew the ins and outs of the female body when I was 6. I loved Jane, everything about her meant love to me. Love was returned. We didn’t need to partake of a primordial mating right. We laid in each others arms exploring love, not sex.)
I had no desire to stay at school any longer than I had to. I hated it, I hated the crap, the balls they were trying to teach me. “For homework tonight I want you, in your own words and in your own opinion, to describe what Sir/Madam someone old bloke/woman is trying to say in his/her poem/book and how it affects our lives today.” In my own words I write, ‘Sir/Madam someone old bloke/woman is trying to tell me that my life is wonderful and filled with floating daffodils that are wandering around fields feeling lonely. Poor little daffodils’. I don’t put ‘They must be very happy daffodils if they can wander off on their own and not be returned to their mother to be cleaned. Sir/Madam old bloke/woman doesn’t have a friggin’ clue how I affect them or they affect me. They are dead, and from their writing it seems they were dead a long time ago’. Conclusion ‘Sir/Madam someone old bloke/woman doesn’t know the foggiest about me and probably couldn’t give a monkeys if they did and to be perfectly honest I feel the same way about them.’ In the morning I hand it in. Next day I’m given my homework back. “See Me for Detention! This is not what Sir/Madam old bloke/woman means in his/her poem/book at all. You obviously haven’t listened to anything in class”. Yes I did. You asked for my opinion. That is my opinion of what Sir/Madam old bloke/woman is saying in their poxy poem/book. If you don’t agree with my opinion hard luck. My opinion is what I think. If you don’t want my opinion don’t friggin’ ask for it.
Easter 1974, at the ripe old age of 15 me and Dad travelled England to find me a job in forestry. Why forestry? To be honest I’m not sure. Cumbria, Newton Rigg, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Derby-shire, Wales. What a week. Me and Dad. A different Dad to the one at home. This Dad was really good company. We stayed in Bed and Breakfast places every night, had a good breakfast and off we went, laughing. If you look at an aerial view of England and Wales there is quite a bit of green shown between the towns and cities but try and find out who owns it and if they cut down any trees on it. We must have travelled miles. Nottingham. If there is anywhere in England that must have forests surely it must be Nottingham. Probably it has but the car blew up just as we were crossing the invisible county border. Bang, chug chug, Bang the big ends conked out. A train back to London and back to ‘home’. Of course it was a waste of good money getting the car repaired and what the hell it’s his fault, probably. It transpired that Dad actually knew someone who knew someone who knew Jock Taylor the person in charge of the forestry department on Windsor Crown Estate, just 22 miles up the road.
I left school just after taking my O’levels and C.S.E. exams. I had a job, the job came with a tied cottage, I could live in the tied cottage, I didn’t have to live with that woman for a second longer than I needed to. Mr Bish, the second in charge forestry manager, took me to see my new home. It was absolutely wonderful. A line of 4 semi detached cottages set back from the main road, mine was the one at the end, No 1 Woodend Cottage, my new home. I cried. I stood there and cried. I was asked if I would rather travel from ‘home’ instead of living in the cottage, after all I was rather young so if I was going to be home sick or upset but it was quite a way to travel each day but if I wanted to……….. I wasn’t crying because I was upset, far from it, I was overjoyed. I was free from that woman, my ‘Mother’.
I shared the house with 2 other blokes. Both older than me, both bigger than me and both spoke like me. Colin was about 5’10”. A powerful man with a soft voice from a town just outside Plymouth. Martin was a surly 6′. Very dark but with a happy tuneful voice from a village just outside Oxford. Colin had a Plymouth accent, Martin an Oxford accent. Individual regional accents from different parts of the same country. I realised I didn’t have to pretend anymore, I could speak how I was taught to speak not how I was told to speak on the pain of being ‘cleaned’. I could be ME.
Monday 29th July 1974 at 7’30 in the morning, aged 15, maximum 5 feet 5 inches tall, chest size probably about 32″ max and weighing 6 stoneish, if I was very wet, I lined up with 3 other ‘new boys’ outside the Windsor Crown Estate saw mill. I’d been working in a sports shop on Saturdays since I was 11 and had managed to save enough to buy a shopper trotter moped sort of motorbike, a pair of Levi’s and a pair of size 5 Henke walking boots. Someone came across, a young lad, very cocky “Any of you catch a dose put your dicks in that cylinder and press the green button, that’ll soon clear it up for you”. Nice bloke. “And, and if any of you go anywhere with or near my sister I’ll put you in there myself”. The cylinder in question was the timber pressurised preservative plant or Tanalith. Arsenic and other lovely chemicals. I wonder what his sister looked like. Any family resemblance wouldn’t be in her favour!
‘See him over there, that’s Danny, his nickname is ‘The Bear’. Once, all by himself, he managed to roll a huge oak log from the saw bench just before it reached the saw blades. Someone tripped over onto the bench as the log was being loaded. The log pinned him to the bench, he’d have been sliced in half if ‘The Bear’ hadn’t been close by. Bloody lucky. Always call him ‘The Bear’ not Danny, he doesn’t like the name Danny’. A 15 year old’s curiosity “D’you know him then?” ‘Course I do, Dad’s the manager of the saw mill, I know everyone here’.
2 of us on mopeds, me and Clive, and 2 in the Estate Land Rover, Andy the saw mill managers son and Russell, were taken to meet Don our teacher. I’d never seen, or heard, anyone who looked like Don, and to be honest never have. One bright blue eye the other a frosty white, a nose that had obviously been broken more than once and a set of pearl white teeth, not a complete set but those he had were pearl white. His head was part football part rugby ball, tanned leather brown surrounded by silver grey hair neatly cut, long but not too long but not too short either. I liked him instantly. Don was the archetypal ex WW11 Spitfire pilot poster boy. “Staaack mee love a chicken, what have you brought me here Graham? Not a whisker between them”. Ask anyone who worked on the Estate who said ‘staaack mee love a chicken’ everyone knew it was Don. ‘Get on yer bikes and follow me if you haven’t got a bike run’. Don had a gleaming red Honda 90 sit up and beg motorbike. It never went below 30 mph no matter how many ruts there were in the paths or if Don wanted to impart a lesson. So at 30 mph we heard ‘Listen, lesson number 1, paths are called rides on the ‘Estate’. Paths are for pavements, Rides are for forests’. 5 minutes later the red brake light came on and we all stopped next to our ‘Plantation’. Our plantation was a mass of scrawny trees, bracken and brambles. The tallest tree was a silver birch which was about 15′ tall. From under some bracken Don produced 4 shiny ‘Billhooks’ and 4 sets of large keys. The keys would open every gate on the Estate, lose them at your peril. ‘Listen, lesson number 2, this is Her Majesty’s land, these are Her Majesty’s trees and these Billhooks and keys are Her Majesty’s too.’ Off to Tower of London if I dare lose them. ‘Lesson number 3, If I give you a swear warning you DO NOT swear. If you cut your leg off DO NOT swear. Her Majesty and Her family ride their horses round these woods and She doesn’t want to hear Her workers swear’. Off to the Tower of London if I swear and Her Majesty hears. We were shown how to use our Billhooks, how to sharpen our Billhooks, how to cut trees down with our Billhooks, how to clear brambles with our Billhooks, the one thing we weren’t told about our Billhooks was that after about a quarter of an hour our silky soft hands would be covered in blisters and blood. No swear warning so bloody is OK, Her Majesty doesn’t mind that sort of bloody.
I’d started smoking when I was 15 not because I wanted to look ‘ard or anything like that but to show my school Cross Country and athletics teacher I wasn’t going to put up with anymore of his bull. In the 4th form, at 14, I was the best in the school at Cross Country bar 1. Ray was a lovely bloke in the upper 6th 17 and a half years old. I was the 5th best in Harrow. I ran for Harrow in the Middlesex trials over a course in Ruislip Woods. I was given a lift there by my teacher but hearing I’d only come 35th I had to find my own way ‘home’. At the end of the year prizes and school colours were handed out to pupils who excelled at something. 4 people in my year were awarded colours for their intelligence, lots of people in the 5th 6th and upper 6th received awards for their sporting prowess. I’d beaten all of them bar 1. Ray sought me out after the assembly, I’d walked out before the final hymn, and told me it wasn’t right, as the Red’s, Waxwell, House Captain he had argued that I should get my school colours but was overruled by the Cross Country teacher. Ray was leaving that year and the next Red’s House captain was someone I’d beaten in every distance that year during the schools house athletics competition. I played Rugby, Cricket, Ran, High Jumped everything for the school but I wasn’t good enough to be rewarded. Next year when I was told to line up for the school cross country trials I had a cigarette in my mouth and blew the smoke into the teacher face when he asked what did I think I was doing. He now wanted my opinion so I told him to Fuck Off. I knew that whatever I said would be wrong, would be different from his opinion, I’d already found that out with clouds and daffodils.
I smoked Marlboro, Don liked to smoke Marlboro, John Players, Benson and Hedges and occasionally his Silk Cut. Clive didn’t smoke!
What seemed like months but was in fact only a few weeks my hands were calloused and bitten. We were all callus, unless we’d had a Swear Warning of course, and the horse flies enjoyed ‘biting’ us. It was a good excuse to thump someone ‘You had a horse fly on yer back’ then laughter. What a different world. I grew. I’d kept my Saturday job going because the money was good, almost 3 times the amount I was paid working in forestry. £12.15p flat rate for a hard week or just over £30.00 for a day selling ski equipment and sports clothing. I bought sandwiches and sausages from the pub across the road. I also drank in the pub across the road. I started to work in the pub across the road so didn’t have to pay for my drinks. I was given a meal much cheaper than it was for the punters in the pub across the road. Rich people going to Ascot to quaff champagne, eat oysters and lose money. Toffee nosed snobs with more money than sense. “Have you finished with your plate sir, madam?” ‘Of course I can fill your glass for you sir, I wont be long” “£5.00! Oh no sir that’s too much”. “You won how much on the horses! Oh, well, Ok then, Thank You Sir.” It was my idea to call them sir and madam, the other ‘peasants’ wouldn’t stoop so low. Eric and Eileen were told what a ‘nice polite’ man I was. They beamed and lapped it up. I was good at grovelling. I knew how to grovel.
I was 16 when I had my forestry accident. A small tree I cut down kicked back when it hit the ground straight between my legs. It was painful. I creased over and played to the laughter, then carried on. A few days later my nuts, my whole scrotum had swollen to about 3 times it’s normal size. I went to Heatherwood Hospital and spent 2 weeks on drips to clear the infection after the puss had been drained out. When I was discharged I was also given an appointment to have a sperm count done. Negative, nothing. 16 years old I was sterile. I was referred to Windsor hospital, nothing. I went to Windsor hospital for another 5 years still nothing.
What a Christmas 1974 was. For about a month we were thinning the young trees. 1 out of 3 were allowed to live the others were felled with one slice of a Billhook, then 4-6 at a time dragged the length of the plantation and loaded onto a trailer. Every evening they were towed away by ‘Bessie’ the blue winch tractor up to a compound near Sand Pit Gate. A fortnight before Christmas I was working selling Christmas trees to the public. It was crazy. Sitting on top of bundles of Christmas trees lifted high of the ground by ‘Bessie’s tines. I was taught how to drive Bessie. A white Rolls Royce turned into the paddock. A man and lady plus 2 excited children got out and started to lift up and inspect the array of trees. Long thin ones, dumpy fat ones but none were big enough. “Is there anywhere around here, do you know, where we can get a bigger tree?” Certainly sir, if you tell me how big you want it I can go and cut you one and be back in about 15-30 minutes’ “Daddy can we go too?” “Can we Daddy? Can we?” ‘It’s a bit muddy so I’ll have to take the tractor’ “Please Daddy, Pleeaase” ‘I can take you to somewhere that isn’t so muddy but it will be a different tree than a Norway Spruce’ “Ok, come on kids lets follow” ‘I don’t have a licence to drive on the road sir, sorry’ “Well get in and direct us then, Ok kids” So in a white Rolls Royce sitting between 2 beaming kids I went to cut down the biggest tree I’d ever done and would ever do with a Billhook. Next to ‘my’ cottage was the Omorica block, trees about 30-40 feet high. “Wow, Daddy can we have that one. Can we. Can we?” “What do you think dear, is it OK” “if that’s what the kids want of course it’s OK” ‘OK sir, madam, kids stand back’ They only wanted about 15 feet so they got 15 feet. ‘Do you have a van or something to get it back sir?’ “Do you think we could get it in the car, tie it up on the roof?” Too keep those wonderful kids happy we found a way to tie a 15 foot tree on top of a ‘Roller’. I told Don how big the tree was, the gentleman paid and I was given a £20 tip. I couldn’t help but wave goodbye and wish them all a Very Merry Christmas. What a super family those lucky children.