#3 In Darkness, The Seed Sprouts
It seems perhaps a little paradoxical to start the New Year with a tale of depression, especially after the sentiment of my last post. Yet it was this descent that made the light at the end of the tunnel all the brighter, and while it was a negative time, I know that my depression was a symptom of the need for change, straining against what I subconsciously found restricting my growth.
Moreover it was also a recognition that there was something wrong not only with myself but with the world around me. I would be described by one person as “indifferent”, but deep down the opposite was true – I was deeply concerned and looking for some sort of diagnosis for the world around me. Why was humanity in such a mess? And why did the public not seem willing or able to do anything about it? In the vacuum of teenage life it became an existential crisis regarding life, humanity and purpose. There was nowhere to turn but inwards, and that’s just what I did, becoming withdrawn and morose.
My only escape, my catharsis, was the three mile walk to Reigate College in the morning (and back again in the afternoon) with my cassette walkman for company. Come rain and shine, come the darkness of winter, there I was in my long black coat and army surplus boots heading over Colley Hill and into the suburbs of the well-to-do in Reigate, my headphones provisioning me with distorted guitars and pounding drums.
At the time heavy metal still lingered on the fringe of mainstream culture, and although grunge had captured the charts, a trip to HMV or Virgin would still only reveal a small selection of bands. There was no online searching then. I had to order things from indie record shops. I remember waiting MONTHS to get a copy of Electric Wizard’s Come My Fanatics – this was the sound of HP Lovecraft colliding with a Dorset dole queue after smoking a bag of ganja.
It spoke to the outsider in me, and still does today.
The thing was that heavy metal was made by people on the fringe, by frustrated kids in basements, by the marginalised and the angry. Sure, some of it was fantasy, some of it was cheesy, but as I pointed out in Part 1 it was the first place that I found people talking about politics, about inequalities and the problems of the world. Sure it was going to be hated on by the conservative elements who were in authority.
For example, take Obituary’s World Demise. It was my first contact with notions of environmental decline. Were we really killing everything off on the planet? It’s gate-fold images of oil covered birds and homeless people were the dark rewards of modern life, unsettling and grim.
And the much-loved Sepultura album Chaos A.D. that hails from Brazil and begins with the in-utero heartbeat of the singer’s son as back drop to the albums snap shot of a violent and uncertain world. This was how I learned about things like the death squads the used to clean the streets up in the ghettos. It is an album that still resonates today, especially in a country that’s just elected an ex-military leader who’s happy to cut down the rainforest, who would rather his son died than be gay, who claimed a woman was too ugly to be raped and who is ready to exterminate the country’s (remaining) indigenous peoples.
In other words, a real charmer…..
Or take Testament – a band fronted by a Native American – and their song P.C. which has lost nothing in the intervening years.
Damn the machine the system’s corrupted
Abusive power is everywhere
Our elected officials pass laws to help
But who’s paying them off?
And in the end, we the people pay
Such a heavy price, just for being alive
And if this country was really free
We’d make paper from hemp and let the forest live
But corporate America, and billion dollar industries
Have too much power
And they stand to lose
Too much fucking money
There’s nothing we can do but…
Take back all that we’ve lost
At any price that it costs
Our freedom was worth fighting for
Resistance now or nevermore
And what about the CIA?
What the fuck is their real job anyway?
Starting civil wars in Third World countries
Importing heroin from the far east
Talk about cocaine, neither kept away
From the youths of today… now
There’s nothing we can do, but…
Take back all that we’ve lost
At any price that it costs
Our freedom was worth fighting for
Resistance now or nevermore
So here was one side of a teenage reality. The other was an educational world whose purpose regarding my future was unclear and which was now asking me to select three subjects which would turn out to be Computer science, History, and Media Studies.
I don’t remember why computer sciences. It was terrible, boring and the teacher wasn’t right in the head. Somewhere along the line he’d (apparently) got a PhD but was stuck teaching us the basics. He resented us and I hated the monotony. So I quit computing and took up Classical Civilisations. A great choice, and things like the Greek myths are still a part of my life today, but at the time it was also the most awkward class I had. I was one of three boys to about a dozen girls? Or should that be men to women….?
Did I forget to mention that there were girls at college?! That’s right, the genius of segregated education was now at an end! Unfortunately, the alienation of having been to an all boys school and living in the middle of nowhere was now to be compounded further by the chance at, and utter mystery of, adolescent relationships.
But I digress. Classical Civilisations would be one of the first places I tried a creative approach to an essay about comparisons between Athenian and Spartan equipment. A bit like Enemy Mine, it was a conversation between two enemy combatants who had washed up on an island after a battle. It earned me a merit.
Then there was media studies, my first taste of social science. Back then it had very little to do with becoming a PR manipulator. Oh no! This was about analysing the media, about analysing the structure of news reports and how children’s programmes were put together. I was sold at the introductory day by a very tall teacher called Mr. Pitt who enthused: “Listen, if you’re a suspicious bastard, then this is the course for you!”
Damn straight, and although I didn’t achieve a high grade, I had been introduced to the basics of reading between the lines.
Finally, history. Well, there’s not much to tell about that. Our European history teacher was a rather attractive young lady who berated me for writing an essay in “pub talk”. Apparently Guiseppe Garibaldi didn’t “patch things up with the Pope.” On the other side of things I had this decrepid old fart teaching me the Industrial Revolution. I never did any reading or homework for this, and it’s ironic that I would later come to learn and understand just how much of a monumental change this caused. But at the time it was tedium unparalleled.
Amid this academic routine the days passed and I found my first crush. It’s a funny word that: Crush. That’s what it did to me. Crushed me. With no way to understand these feelings it seemed to fuel my drive towards sentiments of fatalism and struggle which were reflected in my love of songs like Boo Yah TRIBE’s Buried Alive.
Back then I didn’t understand what this suffering and negativity was really about. I look back now and I think that it was really like a cocoon, the pain of transformation or the sprouting of a seed from the cold, dark earth. There I was, just the emerging seed of the person I would grow to be, heading for the distant light at the end of the tunnel and in that darkness there would be two men who would guide me and save my sanity.
The first was the comedian Bill Hicks. A friend had given me a cassette recording of Hick’s Dangerous album and this spent a lot of time in my walkman on repeat until some scumbag stole it from me. I was more upset about losing the tape than the walkman.
Hick’s was the first voice in the wilderness that sounded like he was saying something I could relate to, someone who was angry and who took a joy in pointing out hypocrisy.
Below is one of his rants about music. At the time music subculture (as far as I could perceive) was divided between heavy metal and techno/electronic. This stood outside of pop which was enjoying the delights of New Kids On The Block. Against this backdrop the words of my new guru would be the baseline for my attitude towards music for years to follow.
(Warning: this skit does contain some material which might offend those with more delicate sensibilities – Hick’s was always trying to shock his mostly middle-class audiences out of their complacency).
At the time Bill Hicks was a life saver, and it wasn’t just his comedy. His philosophy and faintly prophetic monologues were just as poignant. I quote here his Just A Ride speech because it was one of the few reassuring things that I had ever heard anyone say during my short time on earth:
“The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are.
And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly coloured, and it’s very loud and it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question – is this real, or is this just a ride?
And other people have remembered, and they come back to us. They say ‘Hey! Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’
‘Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride. SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and family. This just has to be real.’
It’s just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok.
But it doesn’t matter because: it’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings, and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love.
The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourselves off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.
Here’s what you can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.
And just as I found someone to connect with in the outside world, so too was there someone trying to reach into my inner world. That man was my form tutor, Mr. Butterworth. Here was the first adult I really recall treating me as an equal, as someone he could have a conversation with and who actually cared that there was something wrong with me.
So when I didn’t pick an elective unit for my free period (a one-off, weekly activity) he signed me up to write letters to death row inmates for Amnesty International. When I didn’t attend he asked me why? I told him that they were just going to die anyway, so why waste the time? He remarked what a deeply cynical person I was, but didn’t punish me.
(In regard to this anecdote I think he’d be pleased by the fact that I went on to become an anthropologist.)
When it was time for the college year book he took my picture – I had my head down on the table, resting on my arms with my baseball cap covering my face. I might have been asleep. You can hardly see me. I think fondly of that photo even though I don’t possess a copy.
I would often read in the short period of time that I had with Mr. Butterworth. He would take the register and often just sign me in even though I might be late; he knew I walked down to college, even in winter, and one day asked me if I didn’t get cold feet. I told him that I wore two pairs of socks. He smiled and said, “You an old hand Dave.” Then he asked me if I’d ever read The Wasp Factory. I’d never heard of Iain Banks, but Mr. B assured me that I would love it.
Anther day he asked me what I was reading. It was the Legend Of Huma which I had found in a charity shop (I used to get lots of books from charity shops in those days). He pushed up the cover, looked at it and shook his head. Then he said to me words that have never left me, words that live at the roots of my own story, the words:
“A typewriter and a bottle of whiskey, and you could write this stuff Dave.”
And that, my friends, is were this journey as a writer really begins…..