Chapter 1 - The Alien In The Attic

On turning sixteen years old I left the boarding school 'for the maladjusted' that I had attended for five years. Apparently I was 'no longer maladjusted'. Whether this was less because the school had cured me of all the maladjustment I'd had, or more because I had to leave sometime and they decided that this year was the time to leave, was impossible to tell. One point was clear to everyone; I was not leaving the place on my own terms. If I were then I would have left two years earlier and served an apprenticeship for a skill whilst both skills and apprenticeships were still available. Nor was I returning permanently to the parental house on terms I'd chosen, As a building it always seemed to set it's own terms on whoever lived in it, much to their chagrin.

There were surely letters and discussions between Social Services and my parents prior to me returning to life in the parental house but I knew nothing about them. I was merely the subject of the letters. Any pretend-cosy chat between Mother and the social worker, Mrs Hunt, were a private matter between them. I am sure they kept all knowledge of them from dad. 

In the twenty first century the issue of mass surveillance via digital media is well known if somewhat weakly understood. In the analogue world of 1977 The Social Services were not seen as part of a surveillance society. Yet the way that they collected and compiled information on children and parents, and the highly selective way with which they shared what they knew, made them appear to be one part spy network, one part approved 'soft policeman' and wholly to be feared because they dealt with mental health which was a taboo subject. The view anyone took of Social Services depended on their level of engagement with them-the less anyone had to do with them the more benign they seemed. The more anyone had to deal with them the more authoritarian and evasive Social Services became. As sort-of-policemen they often used very odd phrases, which made interrogating them using plain speech rather hard and dispiriting. But it was plain enough to all when anybody dared to retrospectively look at the records they kept on the children 'in their care' who were now adults that Social Services behaved as if they were a law unto themselves.

When I returned to live in the parental house permanently my parents took up exactly from where they had left off being my parents five years previously, regardless of everything that had happened in between. To them, particularly dad, nothing that had happened over my five years between school and home made it worth them reviewing how they saw me. In some ways there was literally no change. When I was ten Mother had described me as 'having an interest in electronics'. In the September of '77 I was going to college full time to further the interest that she described me as having had six years earlier.

In the parental house my interest in electronics did not get very far. As a decoration Mother had saved the glass that showed the radio stations on the radiogramme that I used to idle my time with aged ten, when the rest of the radiogramme was eventually thrown out. I could wistfully gaze at that piece of painted glass with all the radio stations on it and do very little else. It became yet another piece of useless bric-a-brac to fill my bedside table with like a badly laid out shop window display.

Being in full time education rather than working and getting a pay packet meant that I had let myself be put in a financial and social bind. I was on 50 pence a week pocket money, full family allowance with Mother overseeing what clothing I got. I was listed as a dependent on dad's tax allowance. For having spent three quarters of every year for the last five years away from the town I had no local friends. Nor had I hobbies and interests that I had developed on my own that I could share with local boys the same age as me, were I to find anyone to be friends with. Mother was my proxy and minder for nearly everything that passed for 'my social life'. This reached the point that a few years later some less perceptive people saw the two of us together, going shopping around the town and assumed from our body language that Mother and I were man and wife. But I was never the helpmate Mother wanted. Dad was meant to be that. But he refused to be her helpmate because he had his public reputation with is drinking mates to uphold. I stood in because she left me no choice but to when dad refused. I did not know how to refuse her. If life is life because it is shared, then an isolated life seems like a non-life. If isolation through service to others is all that there is going, then it too has to be accepted as a substitute for the life that we imagined we wanted before isolation through service presented itself as Hobson's choice. Dad isolated himself from Mother, Mother made me fill in for dad as much as possible. For all that we all lived and shared with each other in the parental house a large part of how we shared was about how we cut each other down, tried to cut ourselves off from one another, and boxed each other in with the loss of choice.

In the parental house I returned to what Mother called my bedroom, in the attic. For all that I slept there it was never my room. I had no say in how it was decorated, the layout of the room, or how the room was that filled with stuff so that the main floor space left was a narrow corridor around the bed that was broad enough for stripping it and remaking it every Sunday. 'My room' was the biggest store room in the house, and it was yet another area where Mother was practically omniscient and omnipresent in my life. I could have been Adam in the garden after the original sin had been committed, but before the direction that Adam and Eve should be evicted. I hid in that room in plain sight, having nowhere else to go. There were three functions for that room overall. It's first and most consistent use was a store room. It's second use for the previous five years was as a rest room from the family for Mother when I was away for three quarters of the year. It's third use up to that time was as my bedroom when I had to live in the parental house, during school holidays.

Mother stored household things in literally every room in the house except my sister's bedroom and the bedroom that she shared with dad. Where things were most used they were stored near where they were going to be used. But in the midst of these most used things Mother remained a random and forgetful hoarder. In the medical cupboard there was the unused twenty odd year old bottle of olive oil and dropper for softening the wax in our ears. In the pantry there were the decades old jars of rice and pasta that she had never learned how to cook, and feared that we would reject if she tried cooking with them. On the top shelf of the pantry there was the tin of lemonade powder from the days of rationing which had ended circa 1952. On the pantry floor there were the too many bottles to count of the blackberry vinegar that she made as a cold cure every year from steeping sugar and blackberries in white wine vinegar which she then boiled to stop it turning alcoholic. That she would never get colds enough to use even half of it was beside the point.

The 'never again' stories of poorly bottled home made alcohol exploding and people blaming the alcohol when the bottling was what was at fault, were the cause of much repeated rueful mirth between her sister Alice and brother in law Terry when Mother and I saw them. Terry liked his home made wines. He drank modestly at home with his wife rather than getting pissed on bought alcohol in pubs with male friends. Whilst Mother protested I was allowed to taste Terry's wine, once when I was aged fifteen. That people exploded when full of alcohol more often than home brew did when it was poorly housed was a truth so sharp and self evident that it was not safe to mention the fact. But the evidence was there in front of me if I were brave enough to recognise it.

At the start of the next four years of my being returned to the parental house I would stay in and watch television on my own of an evening more often than go out anywhere. It was an obvious choice, particularly initially when I had neither friends nor money. I was drawn to the science documentary series like 'Horizon' (BBC 2) and current affairs/news programmes because I wanted to learn, not that I knew then what I wanted to learn most. One sign of a good television programme was that there was a book that I could read that would be more detailed source material.

At the time I could not explain to myself, never mind him, why I loathed what he liked. My reasons for disliking sport on television were that I disliked having to play competitive sport in school. I always did badly in it, and could not see the point of being so bad. Sport was on television reminded me sport in school. Other reasons for disliking television sport were that it was all recorded. Because of that it was more television than sport. I was watching a recording of a competition which I disliked and beyond viewing it I was not even taking part in it. Viewing television sport made me feel played out. The main exception to this rule for me was the snooker. It was slow, quiet and calm.

Dad never explained why he disliked news and analysis programmes and liked televised sport. He saw television sport the way he saw life as being, apparently apolitical. I saw life and television differently. As a family were never allowed to discuss politics, religion, sex, or money. By extension he thought that the television programmes that we viewed were not meant to be sources for discussions for the subjects portrayed, particularly not if they were live choices one of us might try. To him discussion lead to process, process lead to open disagreement, and all open conflict was bad. Television did a lot of relatively immature and sentimental monologues on the subjects that we banned each other from talking about. Since they were all monologues then they were without conflict. However immature or lacking in content the programmes were, their lack of open conflict was their virtue. The only television that was acceptable for creating discussion was a beauty pageant where the discussion between us was which contestant might win and why.

Television sport left me deeply conflicted. It was politics by a name I disliked, particularly when part of how it presented itself was as if it were 'not for analysis'. That left me unable to ask myself why I so disliked it. The politics of televised sport lay in it's presentations of competition, rules, and team values. This politics was delivered by splitting the message between the action and the commentary. Dad was one of those people who would watch the action and ignore the spoken words, and then say that there was no message or political logic behind it. I was the klutz who barely endured school sport who did not know how raw he was about many of the experiences the boarding school had put him through, therefore did not know hwy he reacted the way he did.

Television sport seemed to be about worshipping the winners. But for anyone to win there had to be losers who had to keep wanting to play. There also had to be mentors and trainers, and corporate support. And last but far from least a team needed fanatics or fans who made winning seem personal to both the team and it's supporters. Often with the way television presented sport all that was needed was the winner, they did not credit anyone or anything else as being important of the game.

Then there was the Gordian knot of the television wrestling. Aged ten, triggered by my schooling, I had endured a nervous breakdown and for seven months after I was on heavy anti-depressants which often left me feeling rather absent from myself. Mother made sure I took the tablets whilst we both knew what they were for, but did not like to say. But in this period of extreme mental fragility for me every Saturday afternoon around teatime dad would insist that the wrestling be on in the background whilst we ate. All through this period, and long after, I would sort of  'trip out'  on the television soundtrack coming from behind his head, every grunt groan and noise of a wrestler making a noisy and painful landing came to me from past dad's head. The characters of the triumphant one, the plucky loser, the cheat et al in the wrestling ring echoed the different school children who were part of why I had the break down. The roar of the crowd watching the wrestling echoed the noise of the class room when the teacher was absent which was when the break down happened. Add to that narrative my now sixteen year old self full of raging hormones and the proto-homoerotic images of large men in small trunks being tactile and aggressive with each other and you have clear conflict that is far from the light entertainment that the wrestling presented itself as. The more I developed an obsession with body builders and aggressive men being aggressive towards me the less I talked about it with anyone and the harder the urge got to contain or explain to myself. Trying to take control how I came by this obsession and how it affected me daily would eventually make the obsession a key part of me for the rest of my life.

But when I was sixteen I could hide all sorts of things from myself because I was living with an unobservant hoarder. The materials stored in 'my bedroom' lined three of the four walls of the room to a depth of three feet. The only reason nothing was stored along the fourth wall was because most of that wall was either sloped or it was taken up with the stairs that led up to the room. The rest of the wall was a short floor space/area that led to the other three sides of the room. The longest wall was covered by a thin pale blue curtain that dominated the room because it was six foot high. It hung three foot out from the far wall and covered much of  the slope of the attic wall behind it. It covered a storage space that was full to bunged with things to be brought out every Christmas and other occasions in the calendar where the item was used once a year and had to be kept. Between the bed and the long curtain were three storage boxes a metre square and four foot high covered with wallpaper. The other side of the bed there were more storage boxes that lined the walls. The box nearest the bed to my left was 'my bedside table', with all the bric-a-brac Mother and I could muster put on it. Further along the wall and going round the shorter wall that led to the top of the stairs there were more boxes the same height and volume as the ones the other side. In the boxes to the left of the bed were all the toys Mother would not dare let us let go of. If asked about them she would say that she was keeping them for her grandchildren. Anyone who tried to tell her that with the advent of television what children like to play with changes from generation to generation was setting themselves up for banging their head against a brick wall long enough to give themselves a headache. The toys were now hers, as was the space they took up. I was powerless to argue against them.

There were things in the room I agreed with a little more. There was the the odd black hardboard cupboard and mini-wardrobe for what clothing I had. That the cupboard on the floor was the sawn-off top of the wardrobe, which otherwise would have been too high for the room was neither here nor there. To give that room the final 'homely touch' there was the green bucket with the permanent ammonia stains fixed at the bottom of it that stood amid the floor in the biggest open space in the room. It was put there to collect the rain where the sealing around the skylight leaked during the worst of the wet weather. But it too was dual function, it was for me piss in at night.

One reason television was so attractive was because what ever we saw on it, everything had it's own space and that one space had one function that one time. With her hoarding and making every room except my sisters's and my parents' bedrooms multi-use almost simultaneously Mother made the parental house something like an inside out TARDIS. The TARDIS was bigger on the inside than the outside, our house was much smaller on the inside than the space in it suggested it should be. What made it smaller was how full of junk it was, and with the junk came the time travel element. The junk stored far too many mis-remembered and half-told-never-to-be-repeated histories.

In this crowded space I had a few things of my own. They were not much and very little of it was truly personal to me. I had some cheap books, most of them were rather juvenile in nature. But I enjoyed the reductive exercise where the more juvenile and evasive the books were about sexual relationships, the better I understood them, that was what not being an adult was about. My dad read cowboy books and cheap detective thrillers which he got part exchange money back for when he returned them to what we would now call 'a pop up shop' so I drew from his example there.

I had enough cheap clothing, and some good shoes. I discovered Air Wear shoes for the first time on the market that first summer that I was staying for good in the parental house. From the moment I found them I wanted no other brand of shoe. Also I quietly prized my recently bought second hand mono copy of The Beatles 'Revolver', which sounded good on even the cheapest of record players. But what I had most of and enjoyed playing were the seven inch singles which were the first collection of anything where I alone chose what to collect. Mother had said I was 'interested in stomps to the boarding school and bought British commemorative when they were issued for me over the last five years but that was an interest that she decided that I had. I chose the ex-juke box singles I bought when I could afford nothing much else. Because juke boxes changed their records regularly the stock of singles that arrived in the wooden box to the right of the counter in our local grocers shop also changed regularly. There was always something new to browse and some musical treat to find whilst Mother was looking around the shop for food items, usually tinned goods.

If we boxed ourselves in physically with the hoarding then we also boxed ourselves in verbally, with the subjects that it was family custom never to talk about. There were just four subjects, money, sex, politics and religion, which covered most of life. I inherited these rules without knowing who set them up or why. Probably dad had liked living that way when he lived with his brothers and sisters. For living a rough life his mind inclined against being thoughtful. Tell him a cheap joke, preferably one from the back of a matchbox, and he was anyone's. He had been drinking and smoking since the age of fourteen and had only recently stopped smoking. Even that was involuntary, doctors orders. What was interesting was that it was false to say that we were never to talk about these things. It was more true that if anyone had to ask about any banned subject then they had to be precise with their question, first time. They were going to catch everyone off-guard with it and their audience would be on guard and defensive against who ever asked with their second attempt.

I tested the rule, partly because I had to. I also asked partly because I wanted to know how the rule worked. I was in a quandary because without my applying for the money I was sent a cheque for £40, £1 per week by college 'maintenance' for being in college for the next year. I had been taught very well how to play at being poor and not want money, I had Mother's example to follow. So I said that I wanted her or the house to have the money, not me. She refused it, and said that I should put the cheque into the only bank account that I had, the Yorkshire Penny Savings Bank. I made so few entries in the account that  I was still on my first bank book, with it's deep navy blue cloth cover and the bank's name indented into the cloth. I opened the account, when I was in short trousers. Mother kept the book for me in her accounts cupboard. For the book being  kept for me I rarely saw it. When I put the cheque in the cashiers wrote the entry into the book in longhand in indelible ink and added several years interest at the same time.

When I spoke to Mother about what I to do with the money from college my asking about it allowed her to talk a little about money. She spoke with me 'in the strictest confidence' about how badly the household budget was doing. It had been a stretch when she was had to feed three mouths with what dad gave her. When I arrived for good dad gave her an extra £1 a week. Half of that went to me directly. She sounded worn down and in despair as she talked about how the figures in the food budget would not tally however hard she tried to make them add up. It took a relatively short time with her for us to both work out roughly work out how much food for me for a week cost and therefore how much she was freshly short. It seemed natural to respond to her quite emotionally as she spoke and we did the sums.

I did not think of myself as 'stepping up to the plate' in that particular sharing but with hindsight I did. On most days the longest time that I saw dad and he was not being absorbed by the television screen he was at the meal table. At meal times there was often a strained and weary silence that seemed to lift with us leaving the table and going off to do something else. I broke the tension at the table when I spoke to him directly about him not giving Mother enough housekeeping money to feed four people. I did some simple maths for him and told him that with the tax allowance for me when previously I'd been away for most of the year he should not be lacking, financially.

The atmosphere at the table did not instantly make the food we were eating go cold, or make me mangle my the logic of my argument. Dad's response was best described as muted thunder. He denied that he had been presented with a clear and logical argument about something that mattered to all of us. The discussion, if such it was, was brief and embarrassing for everyone. My comments hit him where it hurt, his capacity to make decisions when challenged to. His unstated view of about us generally was that we were meant to be submissive to him without him asking us to be, or even working out first what submissive behaviour towards him should involve. He wanted us to be submissive mind-readers to help him to bypass the need for language. In return for which he was happy to stay in the house and have us in the house and him pay for it all. As long as he could do what he wanted, no need to explain anything, he thought all would be well. The television was our mind-reader general.

How we watched television created a shared life for us all and bound us all together. Much of what was broadcast had a reading age of around ten at best. Limited in intelligence as the programmes were, their virtue and purpose was that we could form a consensus of opinion around them. The more intelligent and argumentative the programme became the narrower the consensus that we could form around the points it raised. We valued agreement much more often than rejected any programme for it being dumb. Television unified us in a passive consensus which seemed to be a good thing in a world where we were afraid of disagreeing with each other. None of us learned at that time how to cope with us all being complex and individuals. When difference separated us from each other we had to hide our differences, however awkward such open opacity became.

As the household alien I was at my best when I watched Dr Who. For the first time I watched a whole season of episodes. I followed the arc of the story however absurd it seemed. And I felt dad's distant approval from across the room when I sensed that he knew that my watching the programme made me obviously happy. He let me watch it even though we all knew that his choice were it on would have been some glossy high-budget low-on-continuity american drama where the point of the drama was the size of the cars and men were real men because they all carried guns about with them. The gun made the man. Dr Who was a different universe to all that, literally.

Find Chapter 2 here.

Find the Introduction and Chapter Guide here.


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