Monday, 20 August 2012

Remembering Geoff

I’ve known Jesse since I was four. We sat opposite each other in the first class at primary school and shared a bunch of classes at High School. I’m not exaggerating when I call Jesse my Jedi Master. There’s not many people that can calmly persuade you to see a situation from a different angle, but Jesse is one of those. He got me started on graphic novels, let me read his 2000ADs, and was just a cold stone solid dude.

My family went through various iterations and recreations, occasionally tearing itself apart over the years. It was good to be able to go to Jesse’s place and forget about it. And the more that I think about it, the more I’m convinced there is a kind of magic at Jesse’s house. 

His mum, six feet of Swiss German matriarch, was ever welcoming, with an easy smile and tolerant approach to our teenage antics. It was one of those houses featuring a guitar leaning in the corner; distinctly bohemian compared to my working class, non-musical upbringing. We cried with laughter listing to Victor Borge, played mutant versions of Scrabble in the kitchen, and worshipped at the alter of Jesse’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelf  (where the aforementioned graphic novels appeared in greater and greater numbers).

And of course there was Geoff, Jesse’s dad. He had a good throaty laugh that seemed on the verge of ending up as a coughing fit; unsurprising given the roll-ups he smoked. Geoff was a fine deliverer of jokes, often recounting bits and pieces of Monty Python to the teenagers who sprawled in his lounge drinking tea and talking shit. Politically incorrect just enough to scandalize, but never falling foul of being crude. Well, not much. And not often. He would sup cider and watch late night TV, chipping in small nuggets of wisdom in a voice sandpapered by the passage of years. And those endless roll-ups.

Our little gang of friends went our separate ways, rarely straying far from each other. Even now I write this knowing my oldest friends are in Southampton and Brighton respectively (and knowing this makes me wonder why I don’t see more of them). There were times when we would re-unite, and it was a rare Christmas that passed without a visit to the house. We’d stumble in, beered up, warmed by the buzz of nostalgia and familiarity. Geoff would us bid us sit down on the couch, and we’d quickly slip into the old routine of jokes and one liners of our teenage years. Now in our twenties we traded quips, savouring our long friendship, sharing good times, sharing our victories. And sometimes our defeats too.

Geoff passed away recently. Those god-damn roll-ups got him in the end. I’d not seen him for a few years, and knowing I won’t again is a hard thing to accept. A bright star from my childhood now darkened.

Goodbye Geoff.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Escapologist

"Show me a man who has enjoyed his school days and I'll show you a bully and a bore."
— Robert Morely

I did not have a good time at school. People who chunter the old adage ‘Schooldays are the best of your life’ are likely to get an eye roll and sneer from this quarter. I was, like many boys I suppose, a slow learner. I had a head full of X-Wings and found spelling a black art perhaps only known by the Sith. Teaching me maths was not unlike showing a dog a cardtrick.

At one particularly low point I found myself dragged out of my chair by my teacher. She’d decided the best way to make me stand was to drag me upright by my hair. I was around 7 or 8, and far from the 6’2” loomer I am now. I’d been cheating on a spelling test out of desperation, soundly tired of getting the lowest scores in the class. Miss Trim, a routine nemesis of mine, gave me a stern dressing down (but never asked if I might like additional help with my spelling). It would be fair to say I wanted the Earth to open up and swallow me.

It’s a wonder I ever got into writing at all, or indeed, ever read for pleasure. But then something wonderful happened. Something magical. The first thing was I got away from Miss Trim. The importance of this cannot be understated. Total hag. Second was that I discovered a series of books called Tim and the Hidden People.

The books were published in the 70s and aimed at kids from 4-7, part of a ‘Flightpath to Reading’ range. I was really reading below my age group, but I got two very important things from these books. The first was pure and total immersion. I loved these books desperately, even staying behind school sometimes to read more. All the bad results, the trouble at home, the bigger kids in the playground – nothing. I was free whilst I read, free of everything. Escapology through fiction. The second thing I got was confidence. I could read, even if my spelling would to continue to suck for years to come. And I came to love words, even if I had to look them up.

Just check out that cover. A kid on a broomstick with a black cat. ZOMG! I’m pretty sure the cat could speak, and there was a silver key, and possibly a ball of magic thread too. So much awesome for an 8 year old.

So thank you Shelia K McCullagh, you changed my life.