Sunrise

I wake, and step out into the cool winter air of dawn, and the day is ahead, with its to-ings and fro-ings. Its potential is based on my sense of place in it. I judge my intention to engage or to stand off and watch. For me, this is something that happens momentarily. Shall I feel the day or shall I act it? Will I be buffeted by its pressures and expectations or will I drive through it, choosing a route, seeking a destination? Does it have purpose and structure, or will it drift and eddy? These are tentative questions, not fatalistic fears about the way the world will treat me. You know there are enough of these stacking up. You know how we are dragged by infinite planetary gravitational forces. We’re becoming lunatics under their influence. They are national, global, geopolitical, socio-economic, moral and cognitive, but also insidious, subliminal, irrational and nightmarish. Too much of our time is taken up with holding our orbit in space.

In the morning light, as the sun rises, streaks of vermilion and cerise cut through the slate clouds. It feels like something piercing the amniotic protection, though what would I know about that? The fug lifts on my day. The rays of light disperse through the prism of my wakefulness, colouring the choices.

If feelings have forms, this one is perhaps a sphere with an indent, perhaps it is a partially deflated ball, one that the dog chewed and some air escaped, so that she could hold it in her mouth. Its surface is smooth, but not like vinyl or polypropylene, more like skin. The feeling is warm, not quite blood temperature. It is spongey, rather than encrusted. Liquid-filled. The day ahead reflates it, the sun hardens its surface. The oozing bite-marks form scabs, the ball cools and it is ready to be played, kicked, driven forward.

Karl, Uber and sweaty hands

I’d been browsing online for a high pressure hose system for days. A Christmas gift for a cleanaholic in the family…

I’d been through to a couple of retailers which offered online sales, and asked for prices on the Karcher K140. It was going to be €199 for the basic machine and I really wanted the extension for upstairs windows. I began to notice ads appearing in my Facebook page for Karchers, and for Nilfisk options, but the prices all tended to be higher than I’d first seen on Amazon. No surprises there. I’ve been getting targeted advertising based on my browsing history for a while.

Then I started getting ads for the Karcher K180, which said that I’d need the bigger machine for my bigger property, and that most of my neighbours in Kinsale had the bigger machine. Amazon wanted €250 for the K180, and I didn’t want to pay that much, but as I spent more time looking at the prices for this bigger machine, I stopped getting ads for the K140, and all the main online retailers’ prices on the K180 seemed to go up. Christmas delivery dates were running out and I was getting desperate. Prices kept rising…

Personalised pricing, or price discrimination has begun. We’re getting allocated a price based on our address and demography, and that price is going up or down based on our ability to walk away, or our impatience to buy. Mac users get given higher prices than PC users, and depending on their browsing history, they will be deemed more or less desperate to buy. Outrageous! But hang on, last time I was in Marrakech, in the Souk, I was no more than amused when I refused to buy a rug and walked away, that the shop keeper followed me and offered me a lower price, but when I just had to have that beautiful chess set which had been carved by the little boy with no arms, using his bare feet, the price was non-negotiable.

I’ve heard that soon the technology will sense our emotional state and prices will be adjusted accordingly. The more impatiently you browse, the more the price goes up. Time to start playing online poker, I think.

“Balderdash”, I hear you cry. Surely the price is the price? Surely we’re not becoming part of an Orwellian nightmare where commerce robs from the rich and gives to the poor? Or is it a Marxist utopian dream we’re having?

In Finland, speeding ticket prices are linked to income. Time for a more integrated and open system where “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is applied electronically to equalise social injustice – the fair distribution of wealth. So if I want to buy the Karcher K180, because I live in a fuck-off house, but Joe, who lives in the council estate down the road, in a small terraced house, also wants the K180, because he wants one over on his neighbours, who should pay more for the same machine? Does his mobile phone report on his motives and the fact that his is a ‘luxury’ purchase, while my needs dictate the bigger machine and in my case it is a necessity? Can the algorithms weigh wealth against greed? Can they choose who deserves what? Not yet. But remember, the number one objective of ALL commercial organisations is to maximise return on investment for shareholders.

Your mobile phone has sweat detection sensors, which measure galvanic skin responses to stress or excitement, it can pick up your heartbeat, has motion detectors which can probably tell how often you go to the toilet. As you move around a shop, the phone identifies where you stop, and for how long. The wifi connected packaging on the merchandise (which is already built into high value items) in front of you also reports when it is moved, picked up and examined, and if you keep fiddling with the new sandwich toaster on special offer, and it is something which is also for sale in another shop within the mall, why not offer a ‘special price’ just for you, using a personalised digital display? The advertising boxes which show digital ads in the mall already change depending on the time of day and whether it’s about time you fancied a pizza. In fact, the mobile phone can even detect stomach noises if you’re hungry, apparently, and matching them to your normal feeding patterns and shopping habits would allow the ad to be that perfect pizza you drool over in the takeaway. Why wouldn’t the ads be personalised to suit your own preferences as you pass the ad box? Only that there are some ‘legislative hurdles’ about data privacy to get over, apparently. Uber’s algorithms can tell how low the battery is on your phone, and therefore how desperate you might be to book that cab before your phone dies. They have evidence that people will pay a higher price for the cab in such circumstances…

So do we just wake up and smell the brand of coffee we like? Can we learn to play poker against an algorithm? I think not. So, first rule is leave your mobile phone at home in a lead-lined box when you go shopping, and every so often, buy something you don’t want, or perhaps do someone else’s shopping.

 

Thanks to Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian for poking my unending fascination…

How do they decide?

OK, so in the early 2000s, I thought I would take up Irish citizenship on political grounds because Tony Blair took Britain into Iraq and I felt ashamed to be British.  I got hold of the forms from the post office and only stumbled when I found that the Government required copies of my 1984 divorce papers, which I didn’t have.  I could probably have applied again for them but I didn’t. So then about 14 years later, Britain did something equally shaming, in voting Brexit, and I decided to try again for Irish citizenship.  In the intervening years, the forms had become pdf’s and the requirement for the old divorce papers had been dropped.  The fee for applying (with or without success) had gone up to €175 and the fee for success had become €950.  Since there are 250,000 UK passport holders living in Ireland apparently, this could potentially underwrite half the costs of the latest public sector pay rises.

So, besides the 17 page application form, I supplied: Copies of my own and Val’s long form birth certs and marriage certificate, certified by a solicitor, Three separate proofs of my address for each of the last 5 years (bills etc), two passport photos, certified by the solicitor, my own passport original, Val’s original passport, three months’ bank statements from all my bank accounts, An affidavit that I now hold one of the new Public Services Cards (a form of chipped ID introduced into Ireland recently), and a bankers draft for €175 (no other form of payment accepted).

All that done, I have since been asked to dig out three years of bank statements, showing my name and address on them.  This might sound straight forward, but since internet banking came in, one can only download 15 months of statements (and these don’t have my name and address on). The branch apparently keeps these on file, but I am informed that I will need to have them stamped and a letter provided by the bank that I live at this address.

So I have to ask on what basis all this is needed.  I have lived in Ireland for sixteen years and been married to an Irish citizen for 28 years.  I’m eligible for citizenship on both counts.  I have proved both to be true.  I have paid taxes in Ireland for 16 years, spent my hard-earned and taxed income in the state and generated employment for others.  I estimate my financial contribution to the state to be in excess of €500,000 in that time, excluding stamp duties and fees on the purchase and sale of two properties.

But Irish citizenship is a privilege not a right, it says on the website.  I wonder if the vast number of Brits now looking to apply have made it unattractive for the Government to rubber stamp applications…

Since I started the process, I have become addended to the idea on an emotional level, though it began as a practical one, to do with access in Europe.  I am disgusted by the Brexiteers, the racist rhetoric, the myopic decision based on ignorance and miss-information which led to such widespread suffering and economic doom, and potentially to the disintegration of the EU, something I hold dear.  If I should fail because of some bureaucratice anomaly, such as the lack of an address, it will hurt I think.

Now what’s going on: Episode 7

And so, finally, here is episode seven, which is about the culmination of sixty years. It seems slightly unfair to have to write seven ten-yearly episodes for a sixty year life. At least this time, the news is easy to remember, even with a noticeably shortened span which begins to undermine my sense of establishment (as if I had one).

Besides the overwhelming impact of Trump combined with Brexit, and the effect of the Syrian war on migration and the related racist backlash, there were the Russian and Irish scandals of Rio, Shakespeare was 400, Shimon Peres died, Brazil got a new president, Jeremy Corbyn was elected and re-elected while Nigel Farage retired, resigned, won, retired and stood in again as leader of UKIP while drawing his MEP salaray for not attending the European Parliament he wanted the UK to leave… The political manipulation of fear has driven so much this year. The fear centres on territorial protection and unnamed threats to personal safety from people hungrier and more disenfranchised that ourselves.   Looking back on episodes 1-6, I think socialism has been a dominant theme in my life, even though I don’t think I’ve ever put myself on the line for the welfare of anyone not close to me. But things have definitely shifted since Episode 6.

Between 2006 and now, so much has fallen away, or been rejected, or done the rejecting. Symbolically, perhaps, I’ve applied for Irish citizenship, having realised I no longer want to be British.  The values which caused the vote for Brexit revolt me, and the people who espouse them are the same people who shouted abuse at me and my fellow marchers on Brick Lane in 1976 when we joined The Anti-Nazi League to put the British National Party back in its box.  They were so much more obvious then, with their Union Jack teeshirts and shaved heads, but the smart suits and anti-immigration rhetoric change nothing.

Almost all my entanglements with voluntary organisations, committees and boards are gone. All those responsibilities abrogated. It’s been the most rewarding experience to let go. It’s been a conscious process in an unforgiving but demanding environment. Ireland’s tiger roared in 2006 and was skin and bones by 2010. The pottery diminished to a point where Groupon tickets became currency and parents bargained over the price of their children’s art classes, or simply kept their kids away.

I launched Custom Breaks Ireland in 2009, with support from some great and good people, into a globalising online tourist market and increasingly sophisticated Google model, which swallowed it and spat it out.

Then the recession receded and the pottery began to regenerate. A smart American arrived in a chaufeur driven car one day and offered to bring a weekly tour visit of 40 rich customers every summer, starting two years hence, which has turned out to be the lynchpin in the business.

Ger pulled me into Sponge It just when I needed a rock to hold on to, and I rediscovered my love of business, and my forgotten expert status. It should have felt tired and passe. It certainly sounded like a retrograde step, but somehow, this time, it didn’t feel bad. It wasn’t my business and ultimately, not my responsibility. I could do what I was good at and be paid and then step away.  And I almost didn’t.  One night I woke in a cold sweat after offering to take over running the company at the same time as accepting a place in the creative writing masters programme.  It was a simple enough choice between the old and the new.  Between holding on and letting go.  I chose the masters, and cut back on the consulting, but there was no need to let go completely. Felim appointed me as a non-exec to his London publishing company and I started a research division for him. He bought a company based in Dublin and I became his non-exec there too. Sponge I became Opinions, and I moved back into the role of freelance Research Director there too.  Back to doing what I’m good at for fees.  But even with this regenerative experience, the letting go continues. Sometimes I worry that I will let go of it all and end up with nothing, become nothing. But each window I open to let out some stale air lets in bright light and fresh wind, and a view of a wider horizon. It would be great to stop seeing everything from one’s own eyes, and to begin to see things from the eyes of everyone else. That would really be letting go.

The A to Z of Letting Go (2011)
A is for Acceptance and authenticity, but also for arrogance, aspiration and anticipation
B is for Being, just being
C is change, consistency and character, the loss of which is not a pre-requisite for letting go
D spells definition, but let’s also look at defence and deferral. D is also for devotion
E must be for The Energy, but let’s not forget expectations, evolution, enervation and emasculation
F feels free
G is for growth and gain but also for grasp and greed
Happiness, a peaceful, powerful state which we can hope for in letting go.
I am the ego and self, I seek status and I must watch how I see myself. I is also for idea and for ideal
Jealous, Justice – and fighting injustice, Judgement: hinderances to letting go
K is for kindness – not philanthropy or patronage – kindred kindness
L is for lost and lonely, but also for love
M is for mother – try letting go of that! M is also for Maker, as in meet thy… M is for meaning and motivation
N…Nothing, nothingness nihilism, negativity and nastiness. N is for need and name
O for ordinary, opting out but mainly for openness, options, order
P is persistent and perseveres. P has purpose, perspective and purity
Q has to be for Question, and perhaps for quiet
R is for rage, but also respect, respite, reason and reality
S is for senses, sensitivity, surety and serenity. S is also for status, surprises and standards
T trusts and tolerates, but also tempts and tests
U represents utopia, but is also unseen, uncomfortable and unappreciated. U is for understanding, unravelling…
V for The Voice but also the vanity
W is whole, wise, washed. We wish and wait for this
Xist, xcite, xternalise… xcuses
Y oh why are we where we are? Whisper truths. Y is also for youth – letting go of this is hard
Z is the zenith and like omega, the completion of the journey.

 

What’s been going on: Episode 6

It was the year we didn’t catch bird flu, but inoculated our children and gave them narcolepsy instead. It was also the year when the world’s most wanted terrorist, progenitor of WMD and figurehead of evil, Saddam Hussein, was executed. In 2006, the US legislated to build a border fence with Mexico. Dell recalled millions of computer batteries because they might catch fire, and anti Muslim cartoons caused protests and deaths in Libya. Deja Vu? Google bought YouTube and Nasa launched a probe which was due to reach Pluto by 2019. And in November, 349 people died when a Saudi plane crashed into a Kazakhstani plane. Michael Stone strode into Stormont and tried to blow it up.

The world I occupied had changed immeasurably since 1996. My own self-determined space, in which I’d collected together the sum of the parts of my ‘old life’ and shaken them through a sieve and found no nuggets in the panning tray, was pretty empty. I’d chosen to reject myself as corporate man, then I’d given up or failed to be a true entrepreneur, and then I’d thrown out my comfortable middle-class London lifestyle. I could argue that all three steps were carefully thought through. I could say that I’d approached the precipice and jumped because I knew, or at least believed, I could fly. But really, I’d jumped, expecting to be dashed on the rocks below, because that would feel better than what was behind me. In reality, I hadn’t jumped but had fallen. In the end, it amounted to the same thing. I floated down to earth, more like gliding than falling, but I didn’t fly. My soft landing wasn’t so soft for the family. What seemed a positive step forward for me was an unwanted wrench for them.

We’d left London abruptly in 2000, packed up the house and sold it, bought a house and collection of outbuildings in Ireland and moved over. I gave up paid work and began to live on savings, ploughing large amounts of them into renovating the house and its outbuildings to make a home and a new business premises, for Kinsale Pottery. The physical structures took shape without the concomitant emotional investment, and time passed.

But it does matter whether I fell or jumped or tried to fly, because everything up until that point had been about control of my self-definition in the external world, about my status. That wasn’t just a material status, though much of it was about wealth and title and control. It was fundamentally about potency. You peel away the layers of protection, the well-made clothing in which you’re used to parading, and you find yourself naked. You take away the needs which you satisfy in others and you find yourself to be useless. You remove your responsibilities and you wither.

And so the years approaching November 2006 were a lurching nightmare, interwoven with a sense of release, irresponsibility. Slowly, and much more carefully, I built a new identity around art. I was the artist and teacher, and mostly it felt good. I stopped being the bastard Managing Director who drove his minions ever harder. I stopped being the fat cat who drove his BMW. I stopped being needed, and I began to shrink, like Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man, and it was very hard to find something to hold on to.

incredible-shrinking-man

In 2005 I joined Mareta Doyle to develop Kinsale Arts Week, and after the July 2006 festival was wrapped up and reported upon, I realised that people in Kinsale had begun to see me. And I started to feel needed. I set up West Cork Calling, a tourism marketing network, and Hands On West Cork, a craft teachers marketing network, and I signed up for a tourism training programme, and I chaired Cork Professional Craftworkers Forum, and I built walls and piled responsibilities on them and definitions and it began to feel like the old days.

But everything was somehow less appealing, less engaging, less of a rush than it used to be, and it felt like I was building on sand. The old foundations were gone. All the values on which I’d build my career were meaningless now. 2006 was a hollow rampage of gestures.

What’s been going on: Episode 5

From the position of wage slave in a sweat shop in West London in 1986, I’d been hopping from rung to run on the ladder. Euromonitor took me on to set up the research consultancy, which was full of pioneering energy and personalities, then United Newspapers wrested the UK music charts from the record companies and hired me to run the aptly named company CIN which tried to balance the egos of record execs with record retailers and the media. Three years in and I’d had enough of the whole lot of them, and of corporate life at UN, which was unbelievably hierarchical. All I wanted was to own my own ideas and to work for myself. And that’s how Market Tracking International came about, with the help of Don and John, both of whom were freelancers. We started out in a small dungeon, sharing a cell together, and quickly added staff. The first year’s Christmas party was for the three of us, the second for eight and the third for 33.

By November 1996, North London was abuzz with the sale of the company to The Daily Mail. We really thought we were going to be millionaires. Just three years into the childhood of our only son, he was growing too fast, almost uncontrollably. The monthly salary bill had reached about £75K, and as MD, all I could think about was where the hell it would come from each month. That, and how to mend PCs or toilets, or who to hire and fire.

‘The Interactive Future’ was our report of the year, in co-venture with Management Today, it sold over 250 copies at £500, because the world was completely panic stricken by what the internet meant for their businesses. Its contents list would read like a history book on technology now, but then it was like a sci-fi novel – What was MP3 and how did a JPEG work? DVD was the future of mass storage, and DVDR just a twinkle in the eye of developers at Phillips and we looked forward to when internet access speeds would increase from 14.4kbps modem speeds to 56kbps. The phone still made that iconic hissing noise as the modem dialled up, and visual images crept down the pc screen. The report even talked about the possibility of cable models which would carry up to 0.5mbps, within a few years.

We might have been in the forefront of publishing on such technical topics, but our own 50,000 pages of analysis was still sitting in Word and on paper. Time to bring in a tech nerd who could upload it to a website called MarketFile, in simple pdf format, and include a search engine. We added a nice home page and wheeled it in to our main client, The Daily Mail’s business journals division, which published such popular titles as ‘Oils and Fats International’ and ‘World Tobacco’, with which we had very profitable co-ventures.

So with our P/E at 10 and DMGT’s at 20, it was a no-brainer for them to buy us. They could double the company’s value overnight, if we succeeded, or take a healthy tax credit if they had to write us off as a failure. Since Lord Rothermere was sitting on £200M profit each year, he could do with a few losses. We took the downpayment, which we split three ways and paid off our credit cards, and we chewed on the mouthwatering earn-out payments we forecast for the next five years. Then we three lambs were ready for the slaughter. But hold fast, there’s the slow bleeding that any good sacrifice demands. So let’s employ expensive lawyers to tie the whole deal in knots that will take six months to unravel, while we scrabbled for cash to pay those salaries, and the generous guys in Kensington advanced us money every month on the deal. They called a meeting to tell us that the downpayment was halved – take it or leave it. We took it, since we were already in hock for working capital. The half-sized downpayment arrived and DMGT generously agreed to pay the legal fees (which were, incidentally, larger than the downpayment) and then we were ready to become another line in their P&L. Once that was over, I could get back to consulting.

Karlheinz Koegel, owner of the German music charts company and Baden Baden Airport which he later sold to Ryanair, wanted me in Germany to help him build MediaControl’s radio tracking business in order to sell it to Viacom, owners of MTV.  Sally Whittaker wanted me in Bloomsbury to help build Book Track, the book industry charts, and David Kusin, a retired banker and art lover from Dallas, wanted me to find out how the European Art Market worked. Everyone wanted me to make things happen and it felt like my hour upon the stage.

All this was against a backdrop of grunge in Holloway Road, in our industrial office-block, shared with Ian Dury’s recording studio, with our sweatshop of linguists, slaving over government statistics and copies of the FT.

We were all strutting and fretting, and it signified nothing.

What else was happening? I was ignoring everything else. Ignoring the needs and pleasures of my family, failing to see the world, barely touching art, hearing but not listening to music. John Major had a weak grip on the country. Scargill was leaving the Labour party, the Maxwell brothers survived their father’s fraud and Charles divorced Diana. This last upset stopped me getting him to attend the Deutsche MedienPreis, so instead, Karlheinz got his friend Helmut Kohl to persuade Boris Yeltsin to attend. Not much of a follow-on from 1995, when we got Arafat and Rabin (though Rabin was assassinated two weeks before the event). Boris and his entourage drank themselves into a singsong in Baden Baden, and probably slept it off on the flight home. I see that Hilary Clinton won the preis in 2004, given to her by Angela Merckel, Bono in 2005 and the Dalai Lama in 2008. Then it was downhill with Richard Branson in 2010 and George Clooney in 2014 …. after my time.

What’s been going on: Episode 4

So much changed between 1976 and 1986, both personally and in the world I occupied, that I can’t describe November 1986 without a run-up.

Post-student life was one uphill marathon of career ambition, marriage, parenthood and separation. It could be called growing up, but that would infer some sort of maturity which wasn’t there before. Compromise and loss maybe. You start your adulthood with principles, ideals and a sense of freedom, all of which are pooh-poohed by older people as naivity of youth or the result of an unsustainable cosseted upbringing, and then it’s all downhill into the mire of conformity and materialism. I’d rejected the extreme left, after Iz disappeared to Portugal with a communist thief, who didn’t just steal her, but many expensive items from the shops of Sheffield, to work in a Portuguese tomato canning factory. I worked my way through The Milk Round to end up in a market research agency as a trainee, and from there to Esso as a market analyst and then a refinery planner. By 1984 I was looking at climbing the multi-national’s corporate ladder as my square peg was being hammered to fit into their round hole, when Carol asked for a divorce. She’d met her first husband at 13, married him at 18, divorced him at 21 (for me) and now, at 25, wanted freedom to find her lost youth. I woke up to my own freedom from marriage, and to a terrible grief associated with non-custodial fatherhood. Though I had open access to visit Emma, and we met every weekend, I began to wonder whether this was not helping her settle into her new family life, as well as not helping me to handle my own break-up adequately. 50% of non-custodial fathers stop seeing their children within two years, and I was going to become one of them.  I started PATCH (Parents Away from Their Children), by putting posters in local libraries. I did that because Families Need Fathers, which was patronised by Bob Geldorf among others, made me feel guilty because I had visiting rights, while most of them were accused by ex-wives of being child molesters, and refused access. Of course they weren’t interested in the psychological issues of being a weekend dad… PATCH quickly attracted non-custodial mothers, many of whom had left their marriages for other men, only to find their access to their children taken by the courts. It was a deeply depressed and ostracised group, and one I felt inadequate to host. Once I met Val, I no longer attended my own meetings.

When I started dreaming product codes for Brent Crude and the workings of oil refinery pipestills, I realised the inappropriateness of Esso to my view of life, and left to become head of research for PolyGram, the largest record company in the UK, something which Esso attributed to my divorce. For half of 1985 I partied, staggering from gigs to bars, picking one-night-stands over long term relationships, till in September I went on hoiday to Greece and met Val. I’d moved from a semi in Croydon to a ground floor flat in Stockwell, right next to Brixton, which was an Afro-Caribbean melting pot. The Brixton Riots in 1985 were all about police brutality , but in Thatcher’s Britain, and in the context of the ‘Loadsamoney’ culture, they spilled over into Mayflower Road, where we lived. My friend of the time, Gordon Pincott, worked for Saatchi and Saatchi, boasting of champagne breakfasts every day. Helived in a flat round the corner in Oval above Nigella Lawson, but between my place and his, on the Clapham Road, Val witnessed six police beating up a black man at eight on a Sunday morning, as she walked to the tube. She had to put her head down and walk on, because her Irish accent might have led her to ‘disappear’ into custody for up to a week, since The Brighton Bombing was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

But by 1986, she’d given up her life in Ireland to live with me in London, just as I was left the music industry for a job in Mass Observation, a sweat-shop of a research agency, housed in the vacated social security offices of Acton Town. Why the come-down? The record industry prided itself on intuition and inspired gambles, not on market research, and some sense of dedication prevented me joining in. After all the upheaval, the new life was a wonder. Stockwell became a haven, a nest in which, despite the damp and cold, the blaring reggae and loud neighbours, we found and lost ourselves in one another.

Thirty seemed old then. The Millennium seemed like the end of time.

What’s been going on: episode 3

Like a Bird on a Wire, and Suzanne roll through my memory while I’m writing about 1976. Forty years ago he was one of a multitude of welcome gatecrashers trying to get through the front door into the party. “Music to slit your wrists to” and “passé” then. He died last night, and when we saw him in 2008 in Kilmainham, he proved he’d never lost his right to be at the party.

By November , I’d been at Sheffield University for just over a year, studying for a Bsc in Psychology, at a time when Hubel and Wiesel, the leading researchers, thought perhaps our memories resided each in individual cells which each recognised one thing – The Grandmother Cell Theory, and when Bowlby was king. Computers were running fuzzy logic for pattern recognition, using ticker tape for programmes, written in ‘braille’ and PCs were still a twinkling in the eye of Bill and Steve. Though strangely, Phillips had already invented the lazer disc, a 12 inch equivalent of the CD. Most of us were still hooked on audiotape and especially vinyl and we cherished the gate-fold album, extra suitable for catching loose tobacco during the joint rolling process. Yellow Brick Road and Quadraphenia and Songs in The Key of Life and The Double White Album and Yes all have a spotlight shining on their artwork, even now.

Sheffield was a typical university. Friendly, buzzing, full of flairs and incipient punks, a bunch of stark sixties and early sevenites tower blocks and a couple of ivy-clad red-brick buildings funded, no doubt by Sheffield Steel. There was a pater noster, an amazing invention to transport people up and down the twenty stories of the Arts Tower, like a squashed ferris wheel. We lived in the student union cafe, on meat n potato pies and warm beer, and I also lived in the student theatre, acting in and directing 17 plays in three years.

By November I’d moved into Brunswick street, which had been home to the city’s brothels for the previous fifty or one hundred years, but had been overtaken by student bedsits and colonies of rats. Rent was £4 per week for a room in a shared house, and, having met the first love of my life, Isabella Mann, I was contemplating a move to more salubrious accommodation in the form of a bedsit across the street, with more privacy and space for a double bed. It had been a year of sexual adventures and more than a few misshaps, and meeting Iz brought a change of status from singleton to half a couple. Iz was a Liverpudlian who had grown up within shouting distance of Anfield, where Bob Paisley managed and Kevin Keegen sported a perm. Iz’s father had been a seargent in WW2 and still cleaned his teeth with soot from the front-room chimney. He was an ardent supporter of Labour’s Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist movement led by his friend Derek Hatton. This was the Scargill era, the Three Day Week, Tony Benn’s heyday. We marched across East London for The Anti Nazi League and chanted “What shall we do with Martin Webster” the fascist, leader of the British National Party, Enoch Powell’s legacy and UKIP’s grandparent.

But that whole movement was more about music than politics for me. I was surrounded by people who wanted to hear Tom Robinson and The Clash, and who thought we should pierce ourselves with safety pins but were too scared of becoming septic. But having older siblings and middle class parents, I loved Bowie and Bach and Dylan and Beethoven and Cohen and Mozart and The Beatles and Scarlatti and Picasso and Nietzsche and Hesse and Epstein and Waugh. The self absorbed nature of being almost twenty meant everything was on display. The Penguins were colour-coded on my bookshelves, The albums in alphabetical order. Sartre sat beside Simone de Beauvoir and “Art is Optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty” occupied wall-space next to “What is it, is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man”. Life was all one explosion of sensual and intellectual stimulation and realisation. My egocentricity was unbounded.

 

What’s been going on: Episode 2

I am somewhere in this video.

Ten years is a long time. Not just for a small boy, for whom every day is an adventure, full of fears and wonder, but for a world in transition. Between ’56 and ’66, all hell had broken loose in the minds of the war veterans, on the wireless, in the generation gap. The home service was being attacked by Radio Caroline, Cliff by The Animals… The short back and sides by The Beatle Cut. You were either for The Fab Four or the Stones, Mother’s Little Helper or She Loves You, Ian Smith, Desmond Tutu, LBJ, Nixon and Vietnam, Berkeley race riots when Martin Luther King’s dream became a nightmare, the independence of Rhodesia, the death of Winston, Yuri Gagarin and that monkey, Mohammed Ali and good old Harold Wilson. Ten years after the hovercraft was invented, we had a cross channel service, and stamps issued in its honour. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced. Till Death Do Us Part started airing on BBC, alongside Steptoe and Son, Watch with Mother and nobody batted an eyelid at nignog, spastic, shirt-lifter and fag. Gay still meant happy.

We’d moved home three times, from 86 Psalter Lane in Sheffield to a crumbling pre-war terraced rental in Carshalton Beeches to sedate suburban Belmont, where we moved into a 1920s detached doctor’s house with an air raid shelter in the garden and the phone number Vigilant 0060, a house which cost £5,000 in 1961. June wore billowing flower print skirts and wide red leather belts, low-cut blouses and rich red lipstick, which marked her untipped Senior Service butts and the rim of her whisky glass. Jeremy and I played out in The Dell, or crept into the basement of The Henderson Hospital where Victorian operating theatres lay untouched, or threw stones at windows, broke the indicateors off morris minor cars and stole sweets from the local newsagent. Jacko, the cleaner, must have been born around the end of the Great War. She wore overalls and slippers to work, and chain smoked as she ran the rotary polisher across our parquet floors, filling and emptying ashtrays all day long.

By November 66, I’d been at Westminster Abbey for just over a year, and progressed from probationer to ‘number 22’ in the choir, singing for Winston’s funeral, the independence of Trinidad and the 900th anniversary of the Abbey itself. Five hours a day of choir practice and services, regimented time-keeping. Up at 7.10 for a run twice round Dean’s Yard before breakfast. Beds made with hospital corners, bath rota, prayers, no talking after lights out, obligarory letter writing home on Sundays, black marks for running in the corridors. Long grey shorts and long grey socks held up by garters with Cash’s Name Tapes and a small gap between for scuffed and chapped knees.

I was in love with the deputy matron, a woman in her twenties probably, who subsequently married the science master, and went to live near Abingdon. She’d held me over her knee every evening for weeks, carefully removing hundreds of splinters from my buttocks, after my attempt to swing off two iron bedsteads in the dormitory had gone wrong. I’d become the class joker, the boy who hid in cupboards during French, who dreamt Latin declensions and climbed on the piano in the practice room so he could squirt passers-by on the street below with his newly acquired water pistol. Had I been beaten by then? Headmaster Francis Tullow, fresh from the 8th Army in North Africa, had several sticks and a cricket bat for particular crimes. We lived for the exeat, three hours with our parents every three weeks, with an hour deducted for three black marks accrued in the intervening time. But already mine were forgetting to come on time, forgetting to take me to The Golden Spoon or to see Thunderball or whatever the other boys’ parents did. Mine were fighting too much to notice any emotional deprivation caused by putting their eight year old into boarding school. Already Alan Clinch, the maths teacher, was preying on Mikey Brain, my best friend, and Loats the caretaker was paying him in sweets for a grope in the boiler room. That all important gap between the bottom of the shorts and top of the socks became a battle ground for many boys, trying to defend themselves from prying hands.

But the formative experiences of 1966 made an intricately woven blanket of self defence and a cape of invisibility.  It was a time to slip between extroversion and introversion, a chance for sensory exploration and a prodding, singeing, knuckle-wrapping education in self-discipline and social caution. The first turning point?

What’s been going on: episode one

It was a Friday 21897 days ago. 322,000 babies were born that day.

  • Saying of the year: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” (James Dean)
  • Dwight D was in the White House
  • Heroin was finally criminalised on 1st January
  • Britain’s first Berni Inn Steak House opened
  • The Melbourne olympics were on
  • Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean disappeared from the UK and emerged in Moscow
  • Archbishop Makarios was deported from Cyprus to the Seychelles
  • Anthony Eden was PM and Macmillan was chancellor – he launched Premium Bonds
  • ‘Love Me Tender’ came out
  • Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft
  • Britain’s first nuclear power plant at Calder Hill was opened
  • The Soviets were in Hungary, Khrushchev visited Britain
  • The average house price in Britain was £2002. In 2016 it is £206,346 (103 times). The average salary was £786, in 2016 it is £27,500 (34 times)
  • There was petrol rationing because of Suez
  • Third class rail was abolished
  • Fats Domino was in the US charts at number 2 and Elvis had ‘Hound Dog at number one in the UK
  • Segregation on buses in Alabama was ruled unconstitutional
  • Videotape was first used on TV, Granada TV launched in Manchester
  • Someone babysat Andy, Helen and Richard while June went into labour
  • George was working for The Iron and Steel Corporation of Britain, later nationalised. They employed 268500 people at the time.

Did the sun shine?  Was everyone feeling optimistic?  How do we see the world we entered, and does it bear any relationship to this one? What happened that shaped us? Did that then make me what I am now? Which axons grew and which synapses started firing because of all that? Did I somehow start the clock according to James Dean’s motto? Was the brave new world that 1956 heralded formative in my always looking to the future?