Who is Winston Smith?
If you’ve ever read the opening pages of George Orwell’s 1984, you will realise the futility of this man’s resistance. His clever subtle campaign against the regime of “Big Brother” was about to be crushed through brute power and ignorance. The thought police had him. He was a marked man.
David Bowie’s 1984 track has parallels of his wretchedness. I can hear the relentless pulsating motifs and the lyrics, hell bent on self destruction. It is not pretty music.
I entered 1984 screaming with emotional angst. That’s girlfriends for you! And 1984 had other little tricks up its sleeve. I had an escort estate. It was a nice quiet car but the best thing was the stereo. I’d bought it from Broadway Radio in instalments. My car was my haven and the music was my medicine.
During one moment of turmoil, I was listening to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. I realised how much music mattered to me. Then it stopped working. When something like this happens early in the year, I see it as an omen.
In 1984, I was not wrong. Thankfully it was repaired. (At a price.) Then my beautiful car stopped working on the motorway. There were four of us in it at the time. I was with Julie, Sue and Marian, my current significant other. The weather was grey. For someone with little money and no breakdown cover to grind to a sluggish halt on the motorway, was the living hell I truly dreaded.
I could see the dull tarmac stained by years of filthy exhaust.
The narrowing lanes stretching to the bleak horizon gave me thoughts of a small town bully, crawling around the well off (newer cars which didn’t break down) whilst grabbing me roughly about the neck to squeeze every bit of luck out of me. The passing traffic roared with laughter. And on the opposite carriageway sat a police patrol car.
For several minutes he scanned my poor broken friend before speeding off behind me.
“He’s coming after me.” We all got out and started to push. That was me and three lady friends. I don’t know what it looked like. They were not rufty-tufty types. Just girls in girly clothes with long hair flapping madly in the breeze. Poor Sue was not the most of diminutive of ladies. She wailed loudly at her lot. Sunday morning was for lazy cups of tea and toast; not for hefting great hunks of steel along bleak hard shoulders. Fortunately there was a slip road a few hundred metres away. But at the bottom of the slip road was the Vauxhall roundabout. This is a circular titan.
It took ages to push my little red king of the road to the oasis of the famous Little Chef. I’m sure the staff could tell all sorts of tales about poor wounded wheels seeking refuge in their much maligned car park. It was my second time.
The year before, Squirt, my orange Mini Clubman had limped into the very same spot with a dodgy distributer. Good old Sue; she went to the loo inside the restaurant (Sue always needed the toilet) and rang her dad who towed me to my friend Irvine who was prepared to repair the engine trouble.
We used the whole incident as an excuse for a Sunday lunchtime pint. This set the theme for the year. In times of trouble we found solace in a good old drink. It wasn’t the maudlin threnodies of failed artists wailing over limp gin.
It was the happy celebration of having friends to share our burdens. We were all there for each other. I made my deepest friendships that year.
In complete contrast to my disasters, there were some real highlights. Everton were beginning to emerge from the dark ages into something like a half decent team. They reached the final of the league cup. I had a ticket. I was going to Wembley. This did not go down well with my other half. In fact there was an implied ultimatum. “It’s either the football or me!”
I was actually still in bed when my brother called for me. He’d hired a Ford Sierra for the big day. Off we went. I was a little hung over. The previous night, I’d deliberately gone to a concert at my beloved Philharmonic Hall; that would keep me out of the pub. The trouble was, I had a lift home so I was able to get in the local by ten o’clock. I made up for lost time.
Going to an iconic place or venue is a memorable occasion.
You gaze at images familiar only on the television or in the press. It’s different in the flesh. As the growing crowd marched purposefully and vocally down Wembley way, I was becoming truly excited. Inside, I studied every inch of the old familiar stadium. I’ve had similar experiences with the sights of London, attending a prom concert, Aintree, Epsom, The Oval, Hampden Park (scary) and other places and cities around the world.
As it turned out, the game was goalless and we lost the replay at Maine Road. But we were back in May to win the FA cup and August for the charity shield.
Now, in the true spirit on the grumpy old man however, let’s fast forward to some of the grimmer highlights of the year. I was on course to complete my Open University degree. It had started out well enough. I was happy with my music assignments and received good assessments from my distant tutor. As a final add-on for the six full credits, I was doing a half credit on Italian Renaissance art. I was not feeling so good about this one though.
The tutor was really fussy about the number of words. It seemed to be his priority. Without offering any warning or guidance he just docked my grades. But I was up for it. I was big enough and ugly enough to cope with such meticulous pedantry and set myself on the gritty road to self-improvement.
Then came the disaster. I was behind on the fees and the warnings were coming thick and fast. Then when I returned from a week in France, I was faced with being rejected from the current courses. Not only that, they wanted all fees paid in full if I wanted any chance of being accepted the following year. My saviour was my employer. He knew what it meant to me. He settled the fees and I was to pay him back but my whole cunning plan was put back a year.
“Hang on,” you say. “You had a week in France?” Well yes, my mate Peter was doing a year of his languages degree in situ. I had a week with his brother Martin dossing on the floor of his tiny room in some hall of residence in Lyon. It was very studentish. We took the overnight boat train to Paris and the TGV to Lyon. I can’t even begin to describe the squalid conditions of the journey to Paris. But we had a week of brilliant weather and brilliant food and wine.
Another highlight. Then back to the hard rock of cold reality.
We were entering into the silly season. Every night was a pub night. We begged and borrowed odd bits of cash for our evenings’ parties. It wasn’t a drunken brawl. It was good company and late night dancing in silly clothes to great music.
As the summer was approaching I knew that money was dwindling. My teaching hours had decreased and I was having to think. There was going to be five weeks of no work. What could I do? Bar work? Dull! Odd jobs? Get treated like shit! Squeeze my pupils for summer teaching? Give them a break! No, the best thing was to spend four weeks working at Crowborough Coachworks, then Highway Servicing, down south with my good friend Steve. He’d started the business the previous year.
Not everything went smoothly. I really didn’t mind the long hot days crawling under rusting old cars, struggling with nailed on nuts and bolts, scoring my knuckles on a jagged corroded chassis. I coped well with angle grinding a bolt and having a metal splinter in my eye for most of the day. In the end, I had to go to the local minor injuries unit. I felt like a Victorian chimney sweep. I was so filthy I didn’t think they would let me into the sterile rarefied air of a small town hospital. With the splinter removed, it was off to the pub.
But I did appear to be bringing my bad luck with me. There were some troublesome jobs. The worst was a Renault Five Gordini.
It was a sporty thing. It had three wheel nuts on each wheel:
“How can anyone take a car with three wheel nuts seriously?” my mate Steve said in exasperation. The car was with us for three weeks. There was a desperate afternoon when we were towing the thing at great speed on the main trunk road trying to get the bloody thing started. All to no avail.
Then we decided to sell my escort so I could buy an Austin Cambridge Estate. It had a quick spray job and we sold it. Great! Oh no, it came screaming back to us. I had to sell it for less.
I still bought my Cambridge though. It was old and grand. It rolled along like a true country gent. At higher speeds it took on a reassuring hum. The leather seats were sumptuous. I sat in it, bidding goodbye on my return to the north. It felt glorious. It was my second A60 and I was so pleased.
In the days before the M25, I had to drive through London. I called at the Pied Bull in Streatham for drink with my friend Martin. Then it broke down. I’d never changed a clutch before. Once again, I was caught between asphalt and chassis with a side salad of gearbox oil. It got rid of my dandruff!
On the Monday evening I set off for Wallasey. There was a sense of relief. I was smiling all the way up the motorways. I looked at the other traffic alongside me. I felt special. I was in my own rare classic car. In the middle of the night, the familiar sight of St Hilary’s church emerged on the murky horizon.
It had been an amazing four weeks. Steve had been a true friend. Now I couldn’t wait to show off my new car. In some fleeting moment of utter madness, I actually cleaned and polished it. I loved the look on people’s faces when I turned up in my dashing grey steed.
Two weeks later, I proudly picked up my friend Kate to go to the Phil for a Sibelius two. At the end of the concert it wasn’t there.
“Where was it stolen from?” asked the desk sergeant of Hope Street police station.
“See that gap in the parked cars?” I replied, pointing through the glass doors. I never saw it again. It was the sting in the tail. I spent the next few months scrabbling about on an aging bicycle and a borrowed mini. The weather mocked me. “On your bike? Well here’s the rain. Ha ha ha.”
Towards the end of the year, my pupil numbers picked up again. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Sometime in October, the phone rang. It was a polite quietly spoken man frim the local tax office. My accounts were in a mess. Even though I had a main employer, I was self-employed. When the inland revenue catch your coat tails, they are not content with just hanging on and waiting for you to produce the goods. They use their initial grip to crawl all over you; they supress and suffocate your freedom. Then they block the way forward until you have given them every possible second of your time. They wanted my accounts sorted and they wanted it yesterday.
I was convinced that someone was following me, checking on the work I was doing. I would change my routes and nip down alley ways and footpaths hoping to lose my imaginary stalker. It took three weeks to present four years of accounts but it was done. They were off my back for another year. I paid them and that was that.
The whole year had been a hard lesson of life. It had been dark and constricting with occasional bursts of sunlight and freedom; it was that dancing naked in a field type of freedom. But sometimes it felt so bad that escape was impossible. I had a stock phrase to help me get through the bad times:
“It could be worse, it could be February.” We still say it now. The vacuum between Christmas and new year brought some mild weather. On January 30th, I walked up Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach with a musician friend.
The cycling helped. I left him standing. I did the whole ascent in shirt sleeves. There was the sense of the lunar landscape as we made the final push in amongst the featureless clouds. It was the fourth peak of the year. Many were to follow, so were happier times. And do you know what? The same friends are still around me.
Thank-you for reading.
“Beware the savage jaw of 1984.”