Monday, March 09, 2015

The Precariat

An Autobiography in Cross Sections by Rogan Whitenails

Trier One: My Uncle’s Circuitous Yawn

I admit to being somewhat sheltered as a 13-year-old living in Kingston village (CB3 7NG) and whilst I was accustomed to hiding in the tree house at the bottom of our lane quietly smoking John Player Specials, there was little in my life up to that point that could have prepared me for Stoke-on-Trent's heavy metal-loving scene as personified by The Wagon's clientele.

In writing about my early life in Cambridgeshire, it occurs to me that I was probably always happy, and so what interests me is to isolate moments, over the years, when I remember being keenly aware that I was happy. I have chosen to plot these moments along a timeline depicting the numerous phases of my uncle's circuitous yawn.

When the yawn begins, with a sudden rapturous vowel, I am aged six, watching Syd Barrett striding across Christ's Pieces in his greatcoat shouting anti-royal slogans; and later when the yawn evolves into lip-smacks with my uncle slapping his own thigh, it is dark and I am waiting for my mum outside the old Arts Cinema in Cambridge watching snow falling across the yellow glow of a streetlight – it is the Christmas holidays and I am eleven, with a huge crush on a girl called Anya. In both these moments I had the thought "This is happiness. I am safe."

I moved to Kingston with my family – Mum, Dad, sisters Kathryn (two years older than me) and Melanie (six years older) and our labrador Emma – shortly before the yawn's inception. Life in our previous home, in a cul-de-sac in Wickford, Essex, had been chaotic for me, and much later this would be adequately captured as biography: when Kathryn was 18 and working as an au pair in Boston, Massachusetts, she called the bedtime stories she was telling the two children in her care "Martyn Stories".

The boy and girl enjoyed hearing about what I used to get up to, especially as they were then around the age I had been: attempting to feed goldfish to a neighbour's rabbit; attempting to steal the postman's bike; painting the neighbour's garage door a different colour when he was away; letting the hand brake off so that my dad's car rolled back into our own garage door; on my first day at school standing up during assembly and shouting "Timber!"; on my second day at school, all the children were asked to draw pictures and when the teacher asked me at the end of the lesson what the tiny scribble was in the centre of my paper I replied, with a portentous hiss, "It's... a bionic eye." But really these "Martyn Stories" were hagiography, omitting incidents that would have appeared much less "cheeky" and been decidedly less edifying for the children from Boston: lobbing bricks over my neighbour's high fence and on being discovered by my Dad calling him a "bloody fool", because I was going to be smacked anyway; throwing stones to knock petals off my neighbour's flowers; repeatedly dropping my sister's pet bunny rabbit until it died; chewing the remnants of a condom I had found on the pavement; chewing polystyrene until my gums bled whilst at the same time colouring in my belly button with a red felt tip pen.

As a five-year-old I slept with the bedroom and the hall lights on, my door open. The walls of my bedroom were painted red. Mum used to take me to the bakers in Basildon and after I pointed to a cake among the selection on display, she would say, "Not that one, it’s not real cream. You want real cream", and so I would point at a different one and she would say, "No, that's artificial. You want real cream. That one, with jam in it – that's real cream." My mum worked at a pub in the evenings, saving the money to buy me a bike for Christmas. One evening, when both she and Dad were out, I took a knife out of the cutlery drawer and chased the baby sitter and my sisters around the house.

I still think about my Dad chasing me round and round the cul-de-sac after I called him "bloody fool", and I remember the man next door telling him that it was lucky the bricks did not hit their baby girl who had been sleeping in her pram; and I still think about my sister's rabbit. Every day Dad would commute from Wickford to London and on getting home in the evenings sit in the back room, alone. Was I a bad person in Essex, a good person in Cambridgeshire? I remember that I stole money from Mum's purse to buy cigarettes at some point in the first few years of living in Kingston, but I think in general I was better behaved because I was happier. Something very good happened to my family in Kingston. We all were happier living there in those early years.

Dad no longer sat alone with the curtains drawn and with tears in his eyes. He would play football with me in the garden until it was dusk; and once, when he was going for an interview, I cut out the "The best to you" scroll from a packet of Kellogg's Cornflakes and put it in his briefcase to find; and that one pet rabbit probably saved many other animals because the memory of hearing my sister sobbing that night has continued to haunt me to the point that I literally find it hard to kill a fly, although I do of course, occasionally; and for years I would surreptitiously open up Mum's purse, and put money in there, to make up for the money I stole.

At the time of writing this I am 42, living with my wife, two children and dog on a street called The Borough in the village of Crondall in Hampshire (GU10 5NT). Our house is close to a pond, or conduit, that was constructed in the 1960s to catch runoff water, via a series of ditches, drains and culverts, as it descends from elevated fields and roads to the west of the village. Each day, me and my children walk together out of The Borough and along the short pavement that separates the pond's bank from Well Road. On the side of a section of curb furthest away from The Borough, there is a slit that receives road surface water, channelling it below ground and into the pond where it merges with water that has come through the deeper drain system of pipes and culverts. Having traversed the pond's length, the water is then directed into another large culvert, one that ingresses below the last building on Well Road before the road turns into The Borough. My daughter and son have always been fascinated with the slit because of the sound it makes when the water level is high, and I tell them stories about the Gurgle Monster, a confused curmudgeon with a hopelessly restricted view of the world. I also chat with them on his behalf, interpreting his glugging sounds and turning them into words, questions for the children to answer, challenges and also warnings. The Gurgle Monster tells them not to go too far down the bank lest they fall in and are swallowed by the culvert and taken underneath all the houses along the north side of The Borough, including the village store, only, if they are not snagged on the way, to emerge at The Withies near the centre of Crondall. The Gurgle Monster tells them of those unfortunate children in the past who were snagged, how from time to time people now living in houses on The Borough will hear forlorn cries emanating from below the floors.

Let my uncle's yawn be associated with felicity and a sense of well-being, and allow me to harness the Gurgle Monster's unthinkable allusion by making that course beneath The Borough's houses a timeline on which to plot moments in my life when I was aware of feeling acutely precarious.

There was only one time amid the blur of my life in Essex when I remember being calm enough to become aware, just for a few moments, that I was not happy. As the current is taking me towards the culvert, I am sat on a chair in a room with the curtains drawn behind me.

He is pleading with me – the little boy catches my eye and appears to be pleading with me. A group of women regularly gather at his mother’s house on Belmont Avenue in Wickford. My mum is kind and sociable and she has agreed to attend for one session although she is nervous and unsure of the arrangement as it has been described to her. The other women guide her as they manhandle the boy, laying him on a table wearing only his underpants. He is of a similar age to me, but taller. They are moving his thin limbs methodically up and down, manipulating them gently at the joints, turning him onto his side, counting, then onto his back. The mother is loudly calling out commands and making sure throughout that her son's wrists are secured using straps or someone's hands. He is moaning horribly, drooling from one side of his gaping mouth and arching his back. His eyes stop rolling momentarily, as he looks at me through a gap that has opened up between two women, and I do think he is pleading with me. I smile at him. He turns his head away, but quickly looks back at me once more before the gap closes.

Even now, my mum insists that she was helping with an experimental exercise regime all those years ago. The mother had been acting on the advice of a professor whose theory was that the boy's damaged brain could be “re-wired” through physical manipulation. My mum says that a mother would try anything for their child, though she never saw any improvements. As a five-year-old sitting in the darkened room, I experienced the event as something more sinister, and over the years have sometimes wondered if the purpose was not to exercise but to exorcise the boy of demons. One of the other women in attendance was Mrs. Camp, who a few weeks later would return home from holiday to find two dead goldfish in the soft hay lining her daughter's rabbit hutch.

When we first went to Cambridge looking to buy a house, I remember the gutters at the side of the streets were gushing with water. I didn't know that this was because the River Cam had overflowed. I thought the rushing water was a permanent feature. I felt it was a magical release for me, like the waters had broken and I could finally be delivered of my impulsive existence. I felt like I had come to.

Me: "I want to be ə paɪ."

Mum: "What are you saying, Martyn, do you want to be 'up high' or 'a pie'?"

Melanie: "Is he asleep? I think he's saying he wants to be "up high."

I am lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling with the bedclothes down to my waist. I raise my arms and with more emphasis repeat: "ə paɪ! I want to be ə paɪ!"

Melanie: "A pie?"

Me: "ə paɪ!"

Mum: "Up high?"

There is a pause. Me: "I love sound when it is between its source and the ear. A star is more clear when I gaze at the sky beside it, the sun feels warmer when it is about to go behind the cloud."

Mum: "He is sleep talking."

I was 14, my uncle's yawn was in its phase of exaggerated newspaper rustling and he was weaving his chin to make the vowel tremulous. It was my first song in the night, the first time I felt the presence of my intercessor. I wanted at first to be with her – she was so beautiful as she floated. I implored her to let me rise to the ceiling, to let me be with her up high. But she said I could not, and she told me that I was a "rhyme-botherer", and she made me feel that I could write without any apparent human influence in the process, write an eclogue that seemed to have been written by the forests and the stream themselves and not by a human. I did not know that one day I would be part of a lost generation, that before I could write about the stream in a way that felt like it had been written by the crayfish and potsherd lying on its bed, I would spend many years, in my twenties and thirties, seduced into writing selfishly and self-pityingly about myself, my toilet habits and my sense of failure, and that my wife would long suffer.

I did not know that as a 42-year-old I would be poking around in the rivers and tributaries of England, trying to find grace among the ossified theodicies, and that I would become a slave to the rolling improvements paradox (RIP), that onerous desire to increase the value of one’s house by building an extension or the like: your neighbour seeks planning permission, it is granted, and presently you are being kept awake by the sound of sheets flapping on the scaffolding; and so then you seek planning permission also, and the neighbour on your other side is soon kept awake in turn by his own covetousness; resentment spreads outwards through the village and by the time building work has finished on the last house, the original neighbour is starting a new extension or conversion; and the village is constantly clad in scaffolding, and angry sheeting, and the overall impression of the village is less picturesque. That is the rolling improvements paradox, as experienced in the village of Crondall in Hampshire.

Deprived of Perridge Pale for nearly two years following a regrettable exchange with the landlady of The Flowerpots Inn (she accused me of drinking takeout pints on the premises), I think my not inconsiderable loquaciousness on Friday afternoon had as much to do with the excitement of being reacquainted with this superior sup's apricot-like aroma as with its alcohol content.

As we sat in the garden together, I told my wife about a man I had worked with at Soho Studios, how he would slide his hand subconsciously down the back of his jeans when asked by a runner what he wanted for lunch, and then palpate in between his buttocks, presumably to examine the state of his anus before committing himself to spicy cuisine.

Perridge Pale ale, sole cultural experience left me,
By which, I concede it was impetuous to cry "calumny!"
When the landlady was simply concerned that I stay in the fold.

They spring interventions, united in their design to stymie
The eloquence of my memoir – someone claims without irony,
“My husband is in the public eye.” My intercessor forth told
Of this desolateness when she spoke supplications and when she
Sang me songs as a boy: “Be kind, be bold, let your candour be
Like a trier drawn unflinchingly from a squat pillar of cheese.
The resulting cylinder’s structure and veined pattern will not please
Everyone, and they would have you stick your trier into coy curds,
But then you should make no attempt to ingratiate through your words,
As you will, as you must, with the landlady of The Flowerpots.”

Please understand what is left me – ale that smells of apricots,
When my latitude to write is removed, when my rhymes are all gone.
Suppressing the most incriminatory veins of Trier One,
I may yet avow the precariousness occasioned thereby,
Through an allegory of the bullying I suffered in my
21st year. Supplying no name, nor positions relative
To mine, I now depend on that stereo yes vegetative
Culvert-graph, that odyssey beneath The Borough, in which the mind
Falls insensitive to all ephemera and the eyes are blind
To theodicy, when God is washed of all culpability.

I must rely wholly on that graph, but first will submit that he
Had asked if I might stay seated to chat with him after dinner:
Sucked into the culvert, and having knocked my head on the inner
Surface of its abutting section, I am just now coming to.
“Fret to your detriment, rhetorician with new name in situ,
Carried from that field known as ‘Diagonal’, that unsure terrain
Silent but for the babble of floodwater, the wings in a skein
Overhead; inert but for the gaping mouth of a basking shark,
The exposed roots and their opposite cavity forming an arc
At one end of a fallen tree, dry soil slowly being dispersed.”
A voice, so present that my lips are involuntarily pursed
To bar the breath of the person speaking lest it makes incursions
Into my own lungs, continues: “Your intercessor’s compersions –
Those songs sung to you in the night – have carried you here so that your
Yearning may gain refinement, but, unlike Tannahill and Rimbaud,
You will emerge, and speak for those of your generation who roam
The ‘Diagonal’ in their mumpsimus, who delay going home
So that they may search for omens in mud and moonlight,
To portend a change in their prospects. Songs that you heard in the night
As a boy were not sent to separate you from your peers, rather
Their purpose throughout was to intone the value of the father,
Though you understood the singer to be female. The children, see!”
Through the gloom and the scum at the far end of whatever snagged me,
I discern a sessile hordeolum, but then see tiny feet
And hands and faces. Perhaps the rousing voice I heard was conceit,
To shield myself, but it is struck dumb by a sudden extrinsic

Hush little darling, don’t say a word, Daddy’s gonna use Mama’s money to buy you a mocking bird.

I post photos of myself tirelessly, headshots that look the same –
Repetition adds to repudiation of my given name;
And yet I try, under a pseudonym and with senses disordered,
To write about the boy I was. Like the sun when it is bordered
Momentarily by a cloud, or a star when it is perceived
To its side, truth radiates more forcefully when it is relieved
By lacunae, which in my story arise from my being non-
identical with that boy, and the assessment of Trier One
Necessarily precluding veins of subsequent cross sections.
Whilst my allegory pre-empted familial objections,
And was my way of cringing to limit froideur in those I love,
I could describe how my own son holds his fist gingerly above
His sister’s head as she hugs him, before letting the blossom fall
Onto her hair, and the truth will be affirmed, by virtue of all
That is not described either side of it, when the reader fixing
On vacuity catches sight of the boy I was.