On growing up clever, lonely and working class
No one should feel alone for wanting more from life than little
“You know, some people got no choice
and they can never find a voice
to talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
that allows them the right to be
why they follow it, you know, it’s called bad luck.”
Street Hassle, Lou Reed
There are things that you learn when you are working class. The first is that you must not be clever. The second is that whatever you do to make the world fit you will betray someone else.
It is difficult now to imagine that in the days before the web, I lived a life shut up in my own head. I felt like I carried a bomb in my chest; a dangerous improvised device that might explode at any minute and destroy those around me. I was clever. And I was alone.
To be alone inside yourself is to never be able to try anything safely. To try something is the same as doing it and the ripples it creates are not different ripples to ripples any change creates. I would have loved to have been proud and defiant and to have launched myself into the future like a bullet but for years I had nowhere to target myself and no one to pull the trigger. Cleverness meant loneliness and loneliness meant death.
I grew up on the edges of where it was really bad, not quite in the back-to-backs of the west end of Newcastle where bottle glass set in mortar gave teeth to the back lanes, or in the vast grey coral reefs of the post war estates where the roads looped back on themselves and rang with sirens and revving cars. Even to describe these places as anything other than a landscape makes me squirm with pretension. These are places people live. Have always lived. They claim no one understands but then dismiss anyone who tries to explain.
Once it was simple. The cleverest working class children were spirited away by the eleven plus and turned into middle managers and architects and the geography teachers of the future. Or they went to art college and hung out with richer kids. Or they rose up the ranks of the union; took correspondence courses. The pride of their communities they wrote plays about their roots; provided colour in review shows. To be clever was not to be exiled. By the eighties, in the north east at least, that had broken down.
When I was 10 my teacher took my mother aside and told her that there was nothing that the school could do for me. That I had a reading age of an 18 year old; that I had already outstripped the children in the year above me. That I was too clever for the confines of our inner city red brick victorian school. My mother somber, voice heavy with the significance of the information she was imparting to me told me “You must never tell anyone why you moved school.”
She had been proud of her blond haired child; taking me from shop to shop on Adelaide Terrace, basking in my precociousness. She would tell the stories of how the women in the chemist, the man who had the fruit and veg barrow; the woman in the cafe would say ‘get him to say something, get him to speak.’ They had been amazed at the child who would walk everywhere with a book in a house without many books. No one knew where this creature came from.
Slowly, certainly, a cigarette resting in the crystal ashtray, my mother had told me the things that I would need to survive this life as a changeling. I must learn to fight, she said. That if I didn’t hit them then she would hit me. That I must be careful of making other people feel stupid. In darker times, nearly in tears she would tell me to stop talking; to stop making her feel stupid. It is impossible to believe now that it would take decades of yearning to find a way to escape from the feeling of having been made for a world that did not, could not exist.
At school, I would learn to hide my cleverness, but I would not be able to with any great certainty. Because I would give myself away; I would not be able to hide it. My thirst for adult attention; for a world of books and new things would give me away. Even at primary school teachers would furtively slip me extra pieces of work; would give me the book they were abridging when reading it aloud to the class crossed-legged class on the carpet, so that I could finish it alone over the weekend. And I would devour it impatiently then sit with the others aware of the passages not read; the subtexts excised, the story already unfolded and carried within me. To be clever was to be dishonest; to have secrets.
I learned that, as a changeling, the first rule of survival was camoflage. But like all changelings I eventually forgot that there was a land I was supposed to return to at the decreed time. In fact I forgot I was a changeling at all. My people did not come to collect me. I did not slough off my human skin and skip into the gorse and bramble to the kingdom under the hill.
I made the mistake that many changelings make. I forgot that I was different. I instead believed I was wrong.
When I went to secondary school the school was huge, a city state of its own. An enclosed universe of decaying brick and concrete surrounded by fields of mud; distant purple hills in the distance. I was not middle class, I did not come pre-announced. I was a boy. The bomb in my chest ticked. There was not a shining path that would save me; would lift me into a world of books and ideas and safety. In this totalising world; and the network of streets and estates; I learned that whatever was needed here was not what I had.
I was lumped in with the other boys. The year was so big there were two populations with different timetables so that teachers and rooms could be shared. An accident of allotting children to populations based on feeder school meant that all of the middle class children were in one population; the children of ideological driven parents and those who had done well for themselves. I was not like the boys in my population. I was not like the boys in my form. I learned to hide the books and to hide the thoughts.
There is a word ‘glakey’ in geordie that means to be slow; to be not quite with it. I was in early adolescence commonly labelled glakey; slow, dull-witted. This was because everything I said had to be planned in advance; carefully weighed and evaluated. Would it blow my cover? Would it give me away?
The site of a social study of sorts; we were tested for IQ and similar in our first year. By our third year the experiment had begun; those with highest IQs were smuggled from lessons to a special thinkers class. Where they tried to teach us reasoning skills; to stretch us. But we were never to tell. I learned that it was possible to cover the idea of cleverness with the idea of mystery. That it was possible to disguise the shame of being singled out, of being singular, by pretending it was a kind of affliction, a kind of punishment.
Then my life was saved by Rock ’N’ Roll. Suddenly my world was filled with boys who looked like girls and girls who looked like boys and every variety inbetween. It is impossible to overestimate how important this was. Music was the strange wave that carried queer into my life. But at that time I didn’t know things about myself. I wasn’t aware. I didn’t even really have desires; at least not ones that I recognised. Looking back I spent a lot of time trying to get the attention of older, cooler boys. ‘Because they like the same music as me,’ is what I thought at the time but it wasn’t, not really.
By the time I got to sixteen I had made the usual dull stabs at relationships and had learned how to kiss girls, sent the embarrassing letters, had the awful dates. It wasn’t a happy period, I dropped all of my male friends because I couldn’t reconcile them with my sense of myself. My hair grew, I wore beads and necklaces and bangles.
I’d got it into my head that sex would ground me in my body, like sealing a final division, or falling prey to a curse that would transfix me. That it would literally trap me in my body. I was full of Gerard Manley Hopkins and The Spire by William Golding and Brighton Rock and punk rock. I was terrified of being trapped as male forever. I read ‘Sexual Personae’ by Camille Paglia and become obsessed with the idea that what was beautiful about the boy was his androgyny, his precise not-quite femaleness. At the point where puberty was becoming an issue I had decided I was against it.
I learned that to be different was to be alone; and to be clever was unkind, unfair, divisive. To be clever was a life of pyrrhic victory. And so I became confused. Without a language shared with others, without a heritage or lineage I did not know if I was clever. The connection with others I craved became dirty; fumbling: a shameful blush that heated my ears like catching a glimpse of porn ripped up beneath a hedge.
To avoid violence meant never to reveal how much bigger on the inside I was than I appeared. To survive was to lock in a box all that I was and bury it so deep in soil and mud and scratty grass that eventually I would only know its outline. I assumed to grow was to grow beyond it; that in a ceremony known only to myself I would renounce my changeling status forever. The ticking and whirring inside me could be quietened, the beautiful horror of my true nature disguised forever.
Loneliness is not the condition of having no one to talk to or to be around. That more correctly describes isolation. True loneliness is like knowing that you are an intricate machine of clockworks and flywheels and gears, waiting to be set in motion but never finding the rightly gauged cog to set your workings turning.
The problem with loneliness is that it usually breaks people. A room unaired grows sour. The tool unused is rusted shut in its case. Loneliness born from ill-fitting your situation warps you; makes you prone to fantasy and despair. Loneliness creates dogmatism; crankishness. The garden inside withers; grows weeds, is choked by vines. The loneliness of hiding in plain sight turns hope inwards; begins to erode the very thing the lonely person cherishes. To be lonely is to need. Just as hunger eventually eats muscle; so need eventually eats kindness.
And that’s the bad luck, the loneliness that must be disguised with anger or hate or extremes. The first time people find someone who might listen the trap is closed. I spent years transmitting a signal that was actively dangerous to me if it were intercepted, a beacon that might call help or attract predators. To be working class in the north east arse end of Tory Britain was to be unable to jump the rails of the path set out; no space or resource to play and to discover. It took me years to realise that I was not wrong; just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I look at the web now and see a battle between the people who grew up never feeling lonely and the people who hate them for it. A war between the people who have found a place to call home and the people who resent them.
Growing up I didn’t know whether there was anyone like me in the world and had no way to find out.
I love the modern world for a reason.