STARTER FOR TEN - excerpt
ALL young people worry about things, it’s a natural and inevitable part of growing-up, and at the age of sixteen my greatest anxiety in life was that I’d never again achieve anything as good, or pure, or noble, or true, as my O-level results.
I didn’t make a big deal about them at the time of course; I didn’t frame the certificates or anything weird like that, and I won’t go into the actual grades here, because then it just gets competitive, but I definitely liked having them; Qualifications. Sixteen years-old, and the first time I’d ever felt qualified for anything.
Of course, all that was a long, long time ago. I’m nineteen now, and I like to think I’m a lot wiser and cooler about these things. So my A-levels are, comparatively, no big deal. And besides, the idea that you can somehow quantify intelligence by some ridiculous, antiquated system of written examinations is obviously ridiculous. Having said that, they were Langley Street Comprehensive School’s best A-level results of 1985, the best for fifteen years in fact, 3 As and a B, that’s 19 points – there, I’ve said it now - but I really, honestly don’t believe that’s particularly relevant or impressive or anything, I just mention them in passing, that’s all. And besides, compared to other qualities, like physical courage, or popularity, or grace, or good health, or good looks, or clear skin, or a rich, varied and rewarding sex-life, just knowing loads of stuff isn’t actually that important. Unless of course you don’t have any of those other qualities, in which case you’re frankly just grateful for what you’ve got.
But like Dad used to say, the important thing about an education is the opportunity that it brings, the doors it opens. Because otherwise knowledge, in and of itself, is a blind alley, especially from where I’m sitting, here, on a late September Wednesday afternoon, in a factory that makes toasters.
I’ve spent the holiday working in the despatch department of Ashworth Electricals, which means I’m responsible for putting the toasters in their boxes before they’re sent out to the retailers. Of course, there are only so many ways you can put a toaster in a box, so it’s been a pretty dull couple of months over all, but on the plus side it’s £1.85 an hour, which isn’t bad, as much toast as you can eat of course, and there’s the radio to listen to, and I like to think I’ve got on pretty well with my fellow members of staff. As it’s my last day here, I’ve spent the afternoon keeping an eye open for the surreptitious passing-round of the goodbye card and collection for the leaving present in the manila envelope, and waiting to find out which pub we’re going to for the farewell drinks, but it’s 6.15 now, and I think it’s probably safe to assume that everyone’s just gone home.
Probably just as well though, because I had other plans anyway, so I get my stuff, grab a handful of biros and a roll of sellotape from the stationery cupboard and head off to the pier, where I’m meeting Spenser and Tone.
At 2360 yards, or 2.158 kilometres, Southend pier is officially the longest pier in the world. This is probably a little bit too long, to be honest, especially when you’re carrying a lot of lager. We’ve got twelve cans 500ml cans of Skol, sweet-and-sour-pork balls, special-fried-rice and a portion of chips with curry sauce, flavours from around the world, but by the time we reach the end of the pier, the lagers are warm and the takeaway’s cold. Because this is a special celebration Tone’s also had to lug his ghetto-blaster, which is the size of a small wardrobe and, it’s fair to say, will probably never blast a ghetto, unless you count Shoeburyness. At the moment it’s playing Tone’s home-made compilation ‘The Best Of The Zep’ as we settle down on a bench at the end and watch as the sun sets majestically over the petrol refinery.
‘You’re not going to turn into a wanker are you?’ says Tone, opening a can of lager.
‘He means you’re not going to get all studenty on us’ says Spenser.
‘Well I am a student. I mean, I will be, so…’
‘No, but I mean you’re not going to get all twatty and up-your-own-arse and come home at Christmas in a gown, talking Latin and saying ‘one does’ and ‘one thinks’ and all that…’
‘Yeah, Tone, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.’
‘Well don’t. Because you’re enough of a twat already without becoming even more of a twat’. I get called ‘twat’ a lot by Tone, either ‘twat’ or ‘gaylord’, but the trick is to make a sort of linguistic realignment, and try to think of it as a term of affection, in the same way as some couples say ‘dear’ or ‘darling’. The problem with Tone is that he thinks cleverness is just a sort of extreme form of stupidity. Tone’s one great skill, and it’s one we get to witness a lot, is that he can look at a car registration plate, and I mean any, and tell you almost instantly when it was built and where the owner comes from. Unfortunately, there is currently no formal academic qualification for this, and Tone’s just started a job in the warehouse in Currys, and is starting to develop a nice little sideline in knocked-off portable hi-fis, like the one we’re listening to now. It’s his Led Zeppelin tape too; Tone likes to call himself ‘a Metallist’, which sounds more vocational than ‘rocker’ or ‘heavy-metal fan’. He dresses like a Metallist too; lots of light blue denim, lots of long, flicked-back lustrous blond hair, like an effeminate Viking. Tone’s hair is actually the only effeminate thing about him. This is, after all, a man steeped in brutal violence. The mark of a successful evening out with Tone is that you get home without having had your head flushed down a toilet.
It’s Stairway to Heaven now.
‘Do we have to listen to this fucking hippie bollocks, Tone?’ says Spenser.
‘This is The Zep, Spense’
‘I know it’s The Zep, Tone, that’s why I want you to turn the fucking thing off.’
‘But The Zep rule.’
‘Why? Because you say they rule?’
‘No, because, they were a massively influential and important band’
‘They’re singing about pixies, Tony. It’s embarrassing…’
‘Elves then.’ I say.
‘It’s not just pixies and elves, it’s Tolkien, it’s literature…’ Tone loves that stuff; books with maps in the front, and cover-illustrations of big, scary women in chain-mail underwear, holding broad-swords, the kind of woman that, in an ideal world, he’d marry. Which, in Southend, is actually a lot more feasible than you’d think.
‘What’s the difference between a pixie and an elf anyway?’ asks Spenser.
‘Dunno. Ask Bri, he’s the cunt with the qualifications’
‘I dunno, Tone’
The guitar solos kicked in and Spenser’s wincing now. ‘Does it ever end or does it just go on and on and on and on…’
‘It’s seven minutes, 32 seconds of pure genius’
‘Pure torture’ I say ‘Why’s it always your choice anyway?’
‘Because it’s my ghetto-blaster…’
‘Which you nicked. Technically, it still belongs to Currys’
‘Yeah, but I buy the batteries…’
‘No, you nick the batteries...’
‘Not these, I bought these...’
‘So how much were the batteries then?’
‘So if I give you 66p, can we have something decent on?’
‘Oh alright then, Jackson, you gaylord, let’s put some Kate Bush on then, all have a really good time listening to Kate Bush, all have a really, really good dance and a singalong to Kate Bush …’
…and whilst Tone and I are bickering, Spenser leans over to the ghetto-blaster, nonchalantly ejects The Best of The Zep, and skims it far out to sea.
Tone shouts ‘Oi!’ and throws his can of lager after him as they both run off down the pier as I sit and watch. It’s best not to get too involved in the fights. Tone tends to get a little bit out of control, possessed by the spirit of Odin or something, and if I get involved it will inevitably end with Spenser sitting on my arms while Tone farts in my face, so I just sit very still, drink my lager, and watch Tone trying to hoist Spenser’s legs over the pier railings.
Even though it’s still September, there’s the beginning of a damp chill in the evening air, a sense of summer coming to an end, and I’m glad I wore my army-surplus great-coat. I’ve always hated summer. You have to draw the curtains to watch the telly in the afternoon, and there’s this relentless pressure to wear t-shirt and shorts. I look terrible in a t-shirt and shorts. If I were to stand outside a chemist in t-shirt and shorts, I guarantee some old dear would try and put a coin in the top of my head.
No, what I’m really looking forward to is the Autumn, to kicking through leaves on the way to a lecture, talking excitedly about the Metaphysical Poets with a girl called Emily, or Elizabeth, or Francois, or something, with black opaque woolly tights and a Louise Brooks bob, then going back to her tiny attic room and making love in front of her electric bar fire, then reading Shakespeare aloud and drinking fine vintage port out of tiny little glasses and listening to Miles Davis. That’s what I imagine its going to be like anyway. The University Experience. I like the word experience. It makes it sound like a ride at Alton Towers.
The fight’s over, and Tone is burning off his excess aggression by throwing sweet and sour pork-balls at the seagulls, so Spenser walks back to me, tucking his shirt, sits down next to me and opens another can of lager. Spenser really has a way with a can of lager; watching him, you could almost imagine he’s drinking from a martini glass.
Spenser’s the person I’ll miss the most. He isn’t going to University, even though he’s easily the cleverest person I’ve ever met, as well as the best-looking, and the hardest, and the coolest. I wouldn’t tell him any of that of course, because it would sound a bit gay, but there’s no need as he clearly knows it anyway. He could have gone on if he’d really wanted to, but he fouled up his exams; not deliberately, I don’t think, but you could see him doing it. He was sat at the desk next to me for the English Set-text Paper, and you could see by the movements of his pen that he wasn’t writing, he was drawing. For his Shakespeare question he drew The Merry Wives of Windsor, and for the poetry question he drew a picture entitled ‘Wilfred Owen Experiences the Horror of the Trenches at First Hand’. Everyone could hear his pen, scribbling away, and they knew what he was doing, and I kept trying to catch his eye, so I could give him a kind of friendly ‘hey, come on mate’ kind of look, but he just kept his head down, drawing away, and then after an hour he got up, and walked out, winking at me on the way; not a cocky wink, a slightly tearful red-eyed wink, like a plucky tommy on his way to the firing squad.
After that, he just stopped coming in for exams. I tried raising the subject, but he just said he didn’t want to talk about it; ‘And anyway, you didn’t see the drawings. They were fucking good drawings. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t get a better grade than you.’ In private, the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ was mentioned a couple of times, but Spenser’s far too cool to have a nervous breakdown. Or if he did, he’d make the nervous breakdown seem cool. The way I see it, that whole Jack Kerouac-y, tortured existential thing is fine up to a point, but not if it’s going to interfere with your grades.
He narrows his eyes, looks at me. ‘What d’you mean ‘do’?’
‘You know. Job-wise’
‘I’ve got a job…’ Spenser’s signing on, but also working cash-in-hand at the all-night petrol station on the A127.
‘I know you’ve got a job. But in the future…’
Spenser looks out across the estuary, and I start to regret raising the subject.
‘Your problem, Brian my friend, is that you underestimate the appeal of life in an all night petrol station. I get to eat as much confectionery as I want. Road Atlases to read. Interesting fumes to inhale. Free wine glasses…’ and he takes a long swig of lager, and looks for a way to change the subject. Reaching into his Harrington, he pulls out a cassette tape with a hand-written inlay card; ‘I made this for you. So you can play it in front of your new University friends, trick them into thinking you’ve got taste’.
I take the tape, which has ‘Bri’s College Compilation’ written down the spine in careful 3-D capitals. Spenser’s a brilliant artist too.
‘Thanks Spenser, that’s really amazing of you…’ Glancing at the inlay card, I can see that it’s mainly old soul, Al Green, Sly Stone, Gil Scott-Heron, that kind of thing; Spenser trying to educate me again.
‘This is brilliant, Spenser, thanks mate…’
‘Alright, Jackson, it’s only a 69p tape from the market, no need to get all gay about it.’ He says that, but we’re both aware that a ninety-minute compilation tape represents a good three hours of work, more if you’re going to design an inlay card. ‘Put it on will you? Before the muppet comes back…’
I put the tape in, press play, and it’s Curtis Mayfield singing ‘Move On Up’. Spenser was a mod, but has moved on to vintage soul. Spenser’s so cool he even likes jazz. Not just Sade and The Style Council either, proper jazz, the irritating, boring stuff. We sit and listen for a while. Tone’s moved on to trying to wheedle money out of the telescopes with the flick-knife he bought on a school trip to Calais, and Spenser and I sit and watch like indulgent parents watching a child with acute behavioural problems. After car number plates, petty crime, heavy metal and brutality, Tone’s other great passion is sea-fishing, so we’ve spent quite a lot of this long last summer on this pier, getting drunk whilst Tone pulls diseased mackerel from the estuary, then repeatedly bangs their heads on the pier railings. Ah, happy days, happy days…
‘So are you coming back at weekends?
‘I don’t know. I expect so. Not every weekend.’
‘Make sure you do though, won’t you? Otherwise I’ll just be stuck here on my own with Conan The Barbarian…’ and Spenser nods towards Tone, who’s now taking running jumps and drop-kicking the telescope.
‘Think we’ll grow apart?’ Spenser’s question takes me back a bit, and I’m not sure if he wants me to answer him seriously. Best not be serious.
‘Don’t know. I expect so’ I say.
‘I expect so too. In fact I fucking hope so. I certainly intend to anyway.’
‘Shouldn’t we make…a toast or something?’ Spenser snorts, but we chink cans anyway.
‘To the future’ I say.
‘What kind of sappy toast is that? How about ‘To Growing Apart.’
‘Alright – to growing apart!’
By the time we’re on to the last cans of beer, we’re pretty drunk, so we lie on our backs with our eyes closed, not saying anything, just listening to Spenser’s tape, Otis Redding singing Try A Little Tenderness, and on this clear late summer night, sat at the end of the pier listening to the sea underneath the board-walk, and watching the lights blinking on the petrol refinery chimneys, with my best mates sat either side of me, it feels as if real life is beginning at last, and that absolutely everything is possible.
I want to be able to listen to recordings of piano sonatas and know who’s playing, I want to go to classical concerts and know when you’re meant to clap, and not get bored and read the programme. I want to be able to ‘get’ modern jazz without it all sounding like this terrible mistake, and I want to know who the Velvet Underground are exactly. I want to be fully engaged in the World of Ideas, I want to understand complex economics, and what people see in Bob Dylan. I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates round wooden kitchen tables, saying things like ‘define your terms!’ and ‘your premise is fundamentally flawed!’ and using words like ‘eponymous’ and ‘solipsistic’ and ‘utilitarian’ with confidence, and then suddenly discover that the sun’s come up and we’ve been talking all night. I want to learn to appreciate fine wines, and exotic liqueurs, and fine single malts, and learn how to drink them without turning into a complete div, and to eat strange and exotic foods, plovers’s eggs and lobster’s thermidor, things that sound barely edible, or that I can’t pronounce, and make love to beautiful and sophisticated women, during daylight or with the light on even, and sober, and without fear, and I want to be able to speak many languages fluently, and maybe even a dead language or two, and to carry a small leather-bound notebook in which I jot incisive thoughts and observations, and the occasional line of verse. And I want to visit beautiful European cities, staying in modest but comfortable pensiones, and converse easily with the locals, and eat lunch alone in an open-air café with a book leant up against the cruet set, and I want the book to be in German or Italian or something. Most of all I want to read books; books thick as a brick, leather-bound books with those purple ribbons in to mark where you left off, cheap, dusty second hand 15p books of collected verse, incredibly expensive, imported books of incomprehensible essays from foreign Universities. At some point, I’d like to have an original idea. And I’d like to be fancied or maybe loved even, but I’ll wait and see. And as for a job, I’m not sure exactly what I want yet, but something that I don’t despise, and that doesn’t make me ill, and that means I don’t have to worry about money all the time. And all of these are the things that a University education’s going to give me.
We finish off the lager, then things get out of hand, and Tone throws my shoes into the sea, and I have to walk home in my socks.