Walking the Dog

In which The Author’s old friend comes sniffing around again

In Living in the Past I told you why I didn’t go to the Digital Champion session in Abercynon a few weeks ago. I also mentioned in It’s Grand Oop North! that two unrelated things had happened to me in as many days. First, the course organiser had rung me with the revised dates for the course. Second, I’d made the mistake of returning to Aberdare after a great trip to Manchester. This latter occurrence reminded me of just what a shithole I live in.
I’ve tried to gloss over this aspect of my life until now, but while I was working on my next blog entry (see, that’s Project Management for you!) I came upon the following paragraph in Barry Took’s Round The Horne: The Complete and Utter History:
Producer John Simmonds was, on the whole, a serious man with expertise at maximising the abilities of his performers to their utmost advantage. However, like Sir Winston Churchill, he had days of ‘Black dog’ when everything seemed grim and no gleam of humour was apparent to him in the script he was reading that day.
Like Sir Winston and Mr Simmonds, I too have a Black Dog which haunts my life. Actually, I’ve got two. One is Stella, my friends’ insane Labrador who chronicles our adventures together in her own blog Stella’s Rambles. She’s friendly, fun, and full of life. I always enjoy her company, even when (as happened one morning last week) she covers my trousers in mud and runs away, doing whatever Labradors do instead of laughing.
The other Black Dog first entered my life when I was at Brunel University. It took a fancy to me on a night out in Central London, followed me home, and has turned up on the doorstep from time to time ever since. The first year of university, away from home and in new surroundings, should have been the time of my life. It wasn’t.
There were good points, of course. I got to see a lot of decent bands (and some not-so decent ones), as I’ve related in previous entries.
I discovered interesting places and explored some nooks and crannies that people don’t tend to know about.
I made good friends, but unfortunately (in the pre-Social Networking era) we lost touch subsequently.
I fell in lust with uncountable numbers of punk/goth girls.
I learned absolutely bugger all about the subject I was supposed to be studying. (See In the City.)
The plan had been to study Pharmacy, as I’ve noted previously. My first choice for the course had been Bradford University, with Chelsea as my reserve offer. In the event, a combination of hollow cups (see Results Day) and some unforeseen aldehydes meant that I was two points short of Bradford and one short of Chelsea.
Now I had another set of options: resit my A Levels the following summer (which would have meant leaving school at 19); throw myself on the mercy of the Clearing system; or try to find a polytechnic which offered a similar course. It might sound snobbish now, but I don’t think any of us had ever considered applying to a polytechnic. (Note for younger readers: Polytechnics were degree-awarding bodies which concentrated heavily on the applied sciences.)
The majority of us had applied for universities and nothing else. One or two of the boys had applied to music colleges, and one even went to theological college, but for the most part none of us considered an alternative path.
Polytechnics were something people laughed about in TV dramas. They even had their own application forms, the PCAS form, which was processed separately from the UCCA form. I had to get mine from the old Careers Office in Wind Street.
[A digression: By the time the 21st Century arrived, the former polytechnics had all been awarded university status. They obviously couldn’t choose the same name as an existing institution, so a lot of them had to try and pick something that connected them with their location. That’s why we have peculiar names like these:
John Moores University (formerly Liverpool Poly) – John Moores was the founder of the now-defunct Littlewoods company, based in that city);
De Montfort University (formerly Leicester Poly) – named after Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester;
Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Poly) – named after former principal John Brookes;
The Universities of the West of England, and Bath Spa University (formerly Bristol and Bath Polys) – named to avoid obvious clashes;
and the University of Glamorgan (formerly the Polytechnic of Wales), my old stamping ground in both its incarnations.
The naming process during the transition from Poly to Uni wasn’t always smooth. Roger Bayliss, one of the freelance reps I used to see, once told me a lovely story about the renaming of Newcastle Poly, in the heart of Geordieland. The proposed name had been approved by the student body and the faculties. It had been given the thumbs-up by the Senate and the Vice-Chancellor. Central Government was good to go. They had a change of heart only when the printer charged with producing their new headed stationery rang them up and queried the job. He was wondering whether their new name  – City University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – really worked as an acronym. Think about it…]
Anyway, I went down the Clearing route and a couple of weeks later I was accepted to read Applied Biology at Brunel University. If ever a course had a misleading name, that was it. It contained very little biology, and seemed to have very few applications.
As for the University, it was named Brunel on the tenuous grounds that the Great Western Railway had run through part of its original campus at Acton. A complete pig in a poke. I only lasted one year.
Olly and I were chatting a couple of weeks ago about our respective lack of formal qualifications. He mentioned that obtaining a degree doesn’t prove that you know anything about the topic at hand – it only proves that you can stick at something for three or four (or even five) years. As I told him, I’ve proved twice that I can’t.
In a Creative Workshop during my Second Year, we were invited to come up with openings for short stories. My contribution was this:
When he returned home after his first term at university, his parents announced that they were splitting up. On his second return trip, he learned that the family dog had died in his absence. He didn’t go back for another term in case another disaster struck while he was away.
Everyone laughed when I read it out, and I said, ‘I’m glad you think it’s funny – it’s entirely autobiographical!’ Then I gave them my second offering, which I’d come up with in work some years before:
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’ve always found it far quicker and much less messy to go straight through the chest wall.
My first effort was indeed entirely autobiographical. At Xmas 1984, I learned that my parents had decided to get divorced. It hit me very hard, and I was only half-serious when I wrote that little piece for Creative Writing. I couldn’t settle back into studying when I went back to London. I got heavily into the social scene instead, operating the follow spot on band Fridays and Alternative Cabaret Sundays, with my mate Duncan on the lighting console beside me. Even better, since I already had A Level Maths and Pure Maths, I didn’t need to attend the 9am catch-up lectures on Monday mornings. I could have a few leisurely pints, see some up-and-coming acts (including The Joan Collins Fan Club with Fanny the Wonder Dog, better known as Julian Clary), have a bite to eat (either a pizza or a burger from the Union takeaway), and not have to worry about setting the alarm clock too early when I got back to my room. Sunday nights rapidly became the high point of my week.
The undoubted low point was Friday afternoon, and the three-hour Biochemistry practical, only relieved by the prospect of a couple of pints in the evening. I could never get into the laboratory-based aspect of the course, which is why I hated the Criminalistics module in my second First Year. I don’t suppose there’d be many openings for a Theoretical Biologist, though. At least Theoretical Physicists can content themselves with scribbling on blackboards and playing with computer programs. It’s a matter for conjecture whether I’d have enjoyed studying Pharmacy in Bradford any more, of course. If anything, there would have been even more practical work. It wasn’t my thing at all.
I know it was only my first year, and I’m sure it would have got more exciting subsequently. I didn’t hang about long enough to find out. I managed to prove Dr Johnson wrong. I wasn’t tired of London, but I was tired of Life (at least as a field of academic study).
During that winter, the Black Dog first came sniffing at my heels. I was in Central London at about midnight (probably after the Andi Sex Gang/Danielle Dax/The Knives gig at Heaven, just behind Charing Cross Station), with time to kill before I caught the N91 night bus back out to Uxbridge. I’d gone for a walk and found myself halfway across Hungerford Bridge, the delicate pedestrian link leading to Waterloo Station. I stood there for a few minutes, looking out over the city skyline, and for a while I seriously contemplating climbing over the handrail and just dropping into the water below. It’s obvious that I didn’t, of course, but it would have been almost stupidly simple.
In 1990, visiting the Ashton Court Festival with Andy, Maddy and the rest of the Bristol Class War gang, I had to cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge to get there. I’d only even seen Brunel’s masterpiece in photos, so it came as a shock to see it up close and personal.

Brunel's masterpiece

I hadn’t anticipated how high above the river it would be.
Clifton Bridge 2
Look at the little Matchbox cars!
I hadn’t anticipated the 2p toll we’d have to pay to walk over to Ashton Court. (Cars were charged at 15p.) I hadn’t anticipated the way that the deck would move underfoot as cars drove past, settling into true dynamic equilibrium. I certainly hadn’t anticipated this…

Clifton Bridge plaque

A few years later, on tour with Jason, Nigel and Ray, I was surprised at how unnerved my beer-swilling rugby-playing mates were by the thought of crossing the bridge. A few years later again, Gaz and Billy wouldn’t even contemplate setting foot on it. Funnily enough, the height never worried me. (However, a friend of a mate of mine was rock-climbing in the Avon Gorge when someone passed him on the way down. He was severely traumatised by the event.)
Just before my 35th birthday my Uncle Tony died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 59. He and wife Elaine (Mother’s real sister) had two sons; Julian was a year older than me, and Matthew was a year older than my brother. Julian was living in Oxford at the time, with a job and a girlfriend. A year later he lost his job and his girlfriend left him. This triple whammy was more than he could bear. He hanged himself.
At his funeral I broke down entirely. We had been the Fab Four throughout our childhoods, and Julian’s death was a cruel blow which none of us had anticipated. The Black Dog had robbed me of my favourite cousin, and now returned to snap at my ankles in a big way.
For some time I’d been convinced that I was starting to lose my sanity. I was experiencing strange dreams (nothing new there, then!), and occasionally heard sounds and voices without any apparent source. Whenever I closed my eyes, random words would appear to me, as if they were being displayed on a computer screen (watch the initial scene of The Matrix and you’ll get an idea of what it was like). I was drinking too much, ending up in stupid places and in daft predicaments (see The Truth is Out There), or trying to get off with totally unsuitable women.
I saw my GP and he referred me to a Clinical Psychologist at St Tydfil’s Hospital in Merthyr. My consultation lasted about an hour, after which I got a clean bill of health. Considering that at least half a dozen of my friends have spent time there as inpatients over the years, I was relieved to know that I needn’t have packed an overnight bag. As a result, whenever anyone tells me, ‘You’re fucking mad!’ I can reply, ‘No I’m not. I’ve got a letter from the specialist to prove it.’
Quite a number of years ago, I noticed that my mood used to dive-bomb during the autumn and rise again in the spring. I even used to joke about it, saying, ‘I’ll be okay once the clocks change.’ Over lunch with an old friend, a nurse, I cracked that very joke.
‘It sounds as though you might have Seasonally Adjusted Disorder,’ she suggested. (She meant Seasonal Affective Disorder. I forgot to mention that it was a liquid lunch.) When I took her idea to the GP, he agreed that she might be on to something. He prescribed me an antidepressant, and for a couple of weeks I felt as though I was stoned the whole time. Considering that I’ve never been stoned, that was a weird feeling! I went back to him and he prescribed something else. That one was better, and I was able to resume work with a somewhat raised mood.
Mother rang me one day when I was stable under the new medication. She’d read an article which claimed to link antidepressants with an increased risk of suicide. Julian had been taking prescribed medication. According to Mother, I needed to stop taking them immediately!
Needless to say, this article appeared in that world-renowned peer-reviewed science journal the Daily Mail. I told her to forward me the results of the double-blind clinical trials and I’d do my own meta-analysis. That didn’t go down well, as you can imagine. I didn’t do tabloid scare stories then, and I don’t do them now.
Most of the time, working in Dillons was fun. We had a good gang, with similar tastes in silly humour, and we spent time socialising outside work as well. Helen, one of the upstairs gang, once told me that she loved it when she and I were working on the counter together as I never failed to cheer her up. (I can only assume, in hindsight, that she was feeling worse than I was.)
Things changed after the company was rebranded as Waterstone’s, and I became increasingly disillusioned with the place. I hadn’t wanted to work for Waterstone’s. Tim Waterstone, the chain’s founder, had given an interview to the Observer in the early 90s. He said (I quote from memory), ‘We only employ graduates as we want our customers and our staff to be on the same intellectual level.’
Well, fuck him! I wasn’t a graduate; nor was Helen, nor Jeff, nor Trish, nor Laurie.
However, we were fucking good at our jobs!
Between us we’ve forgotten more about the book trade than most of the people working for Waterstone’s will ever learn. But that was the way Waterstone wanted to play it. Harry Wainwright, the regional manager, knew how pissed off I was by that statement after we chatted informally over coffee one day. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to get out. But it’s South Wales. We’ve been in a recession since the Miners’ Strike. There wasn’t much else on offer.
Sam was living in London by now, so our relationship had foundered for obvious reasons. I had a short flurry of unstable girlfriends before giving up on women entirely. I just didn’t see the point of trying to get a girlfriend. As Bob Marley didn’t quite say, ‘No Woman, No Hassle!’
After we transferred to the shop on The Hayes in Cardiff, the conditions in work slowly became intolerable. We had no autonomy to run our own sections, and the previously relaxed atmosphere was replaced by an extremely authoritarian regime. Even the customer profile shifted from friendly, chatty people who’d enjoy coming in, to people whose only reason for visiting the shop seemed to be to set impossible challenges. I started looking for another job, but I knew that my sickness record was against me.
My growing dislike of the job, and the increasingly grey and wet Welsh weather, were only one factors in my mood disorder. The other major factor was a constant crippling pain in my right shoulder, triggered (I’m still convinced) by the weight of Uncle Tony’s coffin when I was a bearer at his funeral. It took a good many trips to the GP, three X-rays, an MRI scan, and two consultations with Orthopaedics specialists, before the NHS got to the bottom of the problem.
I suffered seven years of this condition, technically known as an impingement: I often had to sleep upright in a chair, as any downward movement would trigger the pain; I found it difficult to put on a shirt or a jacket; at its absolute height, the excruciating agony even stopped me from doing the crossword, as I couldn’t hold a pen in my right hand. I was on a constant diet of anti-inflammatories and powerful painkillers, and I lost a lot of work through being constantly in pain.
Even when I transferred from the shop floor to the cash office, I had to be very careful of how I moved, for fear of exacerbating the problem. Coupled with that was a deterioration in the lower spine, caused by compression of the lumbar discs. When my shoulder was okay, my back played silly buggers, and vice versa. I was starting to fall apart, both mentally and physically.
In April 2008 I finally had the shoulder operation that I needed, and after a month I was able to return to work. By then the atmosphere in the shop had changed again. We had a new manager (the latest of several I worked under during my eighteen years with the company). He took ‘anally retentive’ to its logical extreme. There was simply no need for his micro-management of our everyday tasks, but he couldn’t help himself. When the company decided to restructure its workforce, a year later, I didn’t even think about reapplying for my job.
By then it was abundantly clear that the old Dillons faces weren’t welcome amongst the youthful, trendy, good-looking Waterstone’s crowd. Seven of us walked away with varying redundancy payouts and I turned my back on a business which had been part of my life for twenty years. I still dream about the place now, mind, three and a half years later. I think it’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Dad had passed away in February 2006, in circumstances which I’ll discuss at a later date. He’d had his own Black Dog, although I didn’t realise it until I was used to taking my own for regular exercise. (The Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother has one as well, but his is fierce and evil, rather than docile and passive. Genetics, eh?)
Although Dad’s death came as a massive blow, his death was nowhere near as sudden and unexpected as Uncle Tony’s. As a result, I’d been able to psych myself up for it, in a way. As I related in From a Land Down Under, the first time I cried after his funeral was about five months later, and it was triggered by something else entirely. Somehow I managed to come through it relatively unscathed.
In 2010 I read the eulogy at Denis’s funeral. Denis was Dad’s first cousin, my godfather, and the oldest surviving member of the Irish side of the family. In the direct line from Denis and Margaret O’Gorman, (see Picture This) I was now the oldest living male descendent – I was only 44 at the time.
It wasn’t the official, family-sanctioned eulogy, mind you. I added a couple of lines myself the night before, swiping quite savagely at Denis’s ‘friends’ who’d robbed him blind and shoved him into a so-called ‘care home’ to see out his last days. It caused a few raised eyebrows at the Crematorium, and the couple in question didn’t come to the wake which they themselves had arranged. They knew I’d exposed them for the lying, cheating, thieving bastards they really were. I’d called them out in public. It was worth it.
Denis passed away in the early Spring, the same time of year that Dad had died, and the same time of year that Tony had died. This time my mood plunged down in quite spectacular fashion. There was nobody left whom I could talk to about the grandparents I’d never known. I’d been able to talk to Denis about family stuff, and confide in him in the full knowledge that it wouldn’t go any further. Now that escape route had been cut off too.
For the second time in my life I sought professional help, and visited a counseller at Student Services. We had a few productive sessions, and one which we cut short because my back pain was so bad that I just couldn’t concentrate. Before one session I bumped into Sarah T., one of the girls from my History of English Language module, who was coming out of the counsellor’s office. The counsellor apologised, and asked if either us were embarrassed at seeing each other there. I told her that Sarah and I didn’t have any secrets from each other, and we both knew we were having counselling. How many people even have the courage to broach the subject with friends? They’d rather suffer in silence and pretend they’re the only ones with a problem.
Thanks to my counsellor I was able to put a Mitigating Circumstances form in for a few delayed assignments and passed my First Year. The Second Year went supine for reasons I explained in Everything Changes. That time I crashed again, and really didn’t know whether I’d come back up. The GP changed my medication once again and increased the dosage gradually. After a while I hit the prescribed ceiling and that’s where I remain to this day. 40mg of Citalopram a day must be doing me some good, I suppose.
I made it through last winter, unlike a very good mate of mine. He hanged himself on December 30th last year, and switched my Train of Thought onto an entirely new track, as I outlined in Not Born Beautiful. A couple of months before, we’d compared notes on our situations. He was on a downer as well, but he was doing something he enjoyed and was slowly coming to terms with a broken relationship. I didn’t have a job or a relationship. If anything he had the upper hand (on paper, at least.) I didn’t think either of us would really hit the buffers, but Jon did. Poor sod. Nobody saw it coming.
All of us are experiencing Survivor’s Guilt to some degree, wondering if we could have done something to prevent him going down that path. In the event, he posted a single-word Facebook status – ‘Goodbye’ – before going on his last walk into the woods. There was nothing anyone could have done to stop his runaway train.
So here I am, nearly a year on from Jon’s death. I’m back in Aberdare, still recovering from my post-Manchester comedown, on the last day of November, and the Black Dog has made itself quite comfortable in my bed again. Some mornings, it’s even stronger than Stella. Stella wants me to take her out every day for a long walk amongst the fallen leaves, play Stick with her in the river, find a warm dog-friendly pub, and catch what little winter sunshine we get at this latitude.
Meanwhile, my own Black Dog just snuggles up under the quilt with me and encourages me to stay put. The other afternoon I got up in time to catch the end of Jeremy Vine’s show. Why did I bother getting up at all? It was pissing down and I couldn’t even be bothered to walk to the library. It’s not as though I was missing anything anyway. Besides, when your dreams are as weird as mine, would you want to come back into the Real World?
I think The Black Dog’s moved in for the winter. In a month it’ll be Xmas, and I’ll be thrown once more into the maelstrom of memories of family breakups and bereavements, lasting well into 2013. My adviser in the Jobcentre asked me earlier if I had any plans for the ‘festive’ season. I told her I’d decided exactly what I’m going to do. ‘As Tony Hancock didn’t quite say, “I’m going to take two of my pills on Xmas Eve and wake up on Boxing Day.”‘
As for New Year, it’s time for a real change. I’ve already lined up Plan A. I’ve started looking for jobs in Manchester. I’ve had a complete gutsful of Aberdare, and I’m pretty certain that a change of scene and a new circle of friends would be at least half of what the doctor ordered. C— feels the same way. If I rented out my house, that would take care of a fair amount of renting a place up there. We could find work there without any problem. We could share a flat and make a brand new start. We both think it’s a viable and very tempting idea. After all, Manchester’s lively and thriving and friendly. Aberdare’s moribund and increasingly hostile, even if you’ve lived here all your life.
Plan B is on the back burner. It’s The Jon Alternative. It’s there in case of emergency. I don’t know if I could put it into effect. I’m too scared. Everything’s written up, just in case. I don’t know how many of my friends would want to fight over the pick of my books and LPs. There’s little else left of practical value. I’d just need to sit in front of the webcam and record my valedictory speech before I opened the box and finally let Hope escape.
My GP once asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about suicide?’
‘Oh, come on,’ I said, ‘Anyone who’s read Hamlet has thought about suicide. Anyone who’s seen It’s A Wonderful Life has thought about suicide. If you mean, “Have you thought about committing suicide yourself?” then, no, not for a while.’
It has been a while, actually. Not since Everything Changed, in fact. But Plan B is in place as well – just to be on the safe side…
TOOK, B. (1998) Round The Horne: The Complete and Utter History. (London: Boxtree.)
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