The Optimist, Part 1

‘As I go around smiling…’

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I was born in April 1988, in Norwich, England. My earliest memories are of playing with toy trains in soap suds, singing ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ whilst sat in a circle, and feeding some ducks by a stone bridge. When I was four, my family moved to North Wales, and I distinctly recall being given a sticker album to keep me occupied for the five-hour journey. (It would definitely have worked. I was an only child, and according to my mum, ‘never a moment’s trouble’.)

My next memory is of starting school; walking in the door, late (for whatever reason), into a room filled with what seemed like 100 enormous children, blasted by a wave of noise and energy. I was guided to a vacant seat, and discovered there were a few abandoned building blocks in front of me to play with. I clearly remember slotting them together, and thinking something like: ‘well this isn’t so bad, at least they’ve got blocks!’

I was obsessed with stories as a child, reading and writing them. We were tasked with keeping a journal in that first year of school, and when I dug mine out recently, I found it was filled cover-to-cover with outrageous fabrications. On the weekends, according to five-year-old me, I was surviving plane crashes, parachutists were landing in the back garden, and I was foiling robberies by masked convicts (complete with black-and-white striped shirt, and ‘swag’ bag). At the bottom of each story, the teacher would write ‘very exciting, but did this really happen?’ (I wonder what she’d say if she read this article — she might think I’d never grown out of it.)

Aged six, I produced my first book (with only a little adult help). It was called The Jelly Turtle, and it was an updated take on the Gingerbread Man. The titular hero came to life, ran away from his creator, had a few narrow escapes, then got eaten by a fox: but in a post-modern twist, the fox’s teeth fell out because the turtle was too sugary (this fear was being drummed into us at the time). Then there was a final scene with the fox at the dentist, getting false teeth; would have been a ‘post-credit sequence’ in the film version.

At home, I would fill exercise books with wild tales of action and adventure; fully illustrated, and with all the trappings of a ‘proper’ book. That includes a title page, table of contents, copyright page, promos for other books in the series… and on the back, blurbs, barcode, and ISBN number. (I think it’s those last two that are particularly unusual, at age six.) I’m told that most children go through a phase of making books — but I continued mine for twenty-five years, with a gradually-increasing degree of sophistication (though rarely with plots as exciting as those first efforts).

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At the age of eight, I made a sideways move into periodicals. My dad had brought home a BBC Acorn computer that his school had finished with (he was a teacher), and I soon got to grips with the word processor — I remember it had only one piece of clip art, a very stylish 3D arrow, which I duly added to every document. My masterpiece was a functional template for a class newsletter, designed to be printed on A4 but then folded into a four-page A5 leaflet. Encouraged by this productive departure from Lemmings, Space Invaders and Pacman (also present on the Acorn), my parents allowed me to take each new issue to a print shop, on floppy disc, and run off 30 copies on coloured paper. I then took them into class, and handed them out — it was cheerily called ‘The 4D Funletter’. (We were class 4D, by the way; the newsletter wasn’t attempting to transcend the third dimension.)

The content wasn’t too subversive: there was ‘joke of the week’, news of any forthcoming events (either sports day, craft fair, or disco), and tough-ish puzzles like ‘fill in the gaps in this word: i_ _re_ _ble’. It ran happily for a month or two — and that should be the end of this story, but during one lunch break, me and my best friend at the time (let’s call him Jim) went back into the classroom and discovered that two of our classmates (girls!) were in there working on their own, competing class newsletter. In fact, it was more of a magazine; and though I wouldn’t admit it then, it was much better than mine. (They had articles, for a start, and the clever idea to print them off in black and white text, decorate the pages beautifully with coloured pencil, then photocopy those pages and have them bound into a finished mag.)

I was furious, and so was Jim. ‘I can’t believe they stole my idea!’ I would have said, as we stormed back out into the yard. ‘I know, man,’ Jim would have replied (I’m taking a little creative license with this dialogue), ‘those girls are the absolute worst. It’s a crime, is what it is.’ ‘Thanks Jim. You’re a good friend. Thank goodness I’ve got you to rely on.’

The very next day, I walked into class to find Jim handing out his own newsletter. Less inspired than the girls, he had called his ‘The 4D Funnyletter’, and it was just a regular piece of A4, no folding, with thinly-veiled copies of my original features (like the date of the next disco, and ‘name that word’). ‘JIM! THIS IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS MY NEWSLETTER!’ I would have yelled, shaking my tiny fist. He replied (and this isn’t made up): ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about! It’s all my own work.’ ‘But the name is exactly like mine!’ ‘That’s just a coincidence.’ And he kept an absolutely straight face. Needless to say, this was the end of me and Jim’s friendship.

What was he thinking? ‘Oh man, this newsletter train is leaving the station… I’d better get something out quick!’ Anyway, soon afterwards, Matthew Everett started doing his own weekly newsletter (kind of like mine, more clip art — he had Windows at home. Me and him were known as the two kids at the school who were into computers; in years to come, when the headteacher finally got a PC with Windows 95, me and Matthew were the only pupils allowed to use it.) Then, a couple of other kids brought out their own, vastly inferior publications… it got to the point where the class would spend every break time trying to hand out newsletters, destroy the competing ones, and argue about who was reading whose, and which was best. Almost everyone was working on some kind of periodical. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, but I swear this is exactly what happened.

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One day, the teacher, at her wits’ end, gathered the class together and announced that all newsletters were banned. ‘Even mine, miss?’ I asked. ‘Yes even yours, Jamie McGarry,’ was the reply, her eyes narrowing. (I didn’t really get on with this teacher; all my memories of that year, besides this saga, are of me in the front row with my hand up, straining, desperate to contribute, and being deliberately ignored ‘to give everyone else a chance’… still, maybe she had a point.) My parents came in for a special meeting, to ask if perhaps Jamie could still be allowed to do his newsletter — he was first, after all — but no, it was a complete silencing of the press. Censored. I did a few more class newsletters over the years, but they never struck a chord quite like this one.

Thinking back, as each year passed, my behaviour and proclivities got a little further from what you would consider normal. There was a year in which I became obsessed with scoring in sports; for a start, I would push my toy racing cars around various tracks, carefully drawn on large pieces of paper — so far, so average — but I would note which cars finished in which positions in each race, award points, and run hotly-contested, carefully administered daily championships. I would quite happily fill an entire rainy Saturday like this, sunrise to sunset.

I brought this to the playground, too. Each year group had just two classes (5D and 5H, for example), and there would be a football match between these factions every single lunchtime, without fail. I say ‘match’… the boys from 5D would stand around one goal, 5H round the other, then a ball would appear and the boys would chase it around for an hour. A few of us would linger around the goals in case the scrum ever came near; while doing this, I had the idea that I could be both the manager of my class team, and the scorekeeper.

My management tips were routinely ignored in favour of just chasing the ball around, but they did take my advice to claim the goal nearest the school as ours — I’d noticed that the playground sloped down away from the building, so the ball would naturally head away from our goal and towards theirs. Effectively, gravity became our reliable 12th player. This one tactical masterstroke, and possibly the fact that I was the one scoring, meant we won almost every match and indeed the championship each term. No one even knew there was a championship until I turned up on the last day with a golden trophy (belonging to my granddad from his footballing days, hastily re-labelled), a notebook with detailed scores from every match played, and declared that we were this term’s champions. We then ran around the playground with the trophy, cheering, while the boys from the other class looked on, in exasperation.

I also learnt to score cricket, and would occasionally sit next to the real scorer at local cricket matches, filling in an elaborate A3 grid with details of each over. I got quite into cricket in the final year of Primary School, not through a thirst for sporting triumph (the P.E. teacher would say I was ‘built for comfort, not speed’) but because I read a brilliant series of cricket books by Bob Cattell and got carried away by the excitement and romance of it all. (Stories, again.) So off to cricket practice I went.

The problem was, there were 13 boys who went to cricket practice, and of them I was definitely the 13th best player (with a big gap between me and 12th). A cricket team needs 11 people, so however keen I was, I was never going to get a chance to play. Towards the end of the year, the coach felt so sorry for me that he lobbied the headteacher to launch a Year 6 B-team, of which I was to be the Captain. I’ve got to tell you, I was beaming with pride when I got the news. (Looking back, though, surely this was significantly more effort than just letting me have one match in the A-team. Was every match that crucial?)

New problem: they wouldn’t let me have any A-team players in the B-team (I guess that would defeat the point), so my first task as Captain was to find 10 other boys in Year 6 who were interested in cricket, knew how to play, and were willing to turn up to at least one practice. I found exactly one person who fit this description, and he was so thoroughly unexcited at the prospect that I barely noticed he was there. So it ended up being me, him, and nine boys who did not really know how to play cricket, or particularly want to (I think I even gave that snake Jim a spot in the starting XI — and the primary school Bill Gates to my Steve Jobs, Matthew Everett.)

Nonetheless, our team was set up with an official match against another school — but, somewhat humiliatingly, we were playing that school’s Year 5 girls team. Can you see where this anecdote is headed? I turned up on match day in all my kit, my whole family there as support, full of optimism, but I knew something was wrong even at the coin toss. I smiled at my opposing captain as we shook hands — she was freckly, ginger, considerably shorter than me, and a girl of course, but she had this steely look of determination in her eyes (and to be honest, an uncomfortably firm handshake). I knew as soon as I saw that look that we were screwed. She meant business.

To cut the rest of this story (mercifully) short, I scored 5 runs, that unexcited lad scored 1, and everyone else was bowled out instantly. This was the last organised sporting event I ever took part in, and perhaps the low point of my short life so far. (I’d had things pretty smooth, I don’t mind admitting; but if you’re reading this purely for the schadenfreude, don’t worry, this won’t be your last opportunity.) That same year, I had something like 12 teeth taken out at once — due to overcrowding, I should add, not sugary turtles — and I came within centimetres of plunging off a cliff in Snowdonia, but neither event came close to matching the fear when I looked in that 10-year-old girl cricketer’s eyes, or the shame when they announced the B-team was to be immediately disbanded.

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At some point after this, my parents split up; I guess it happened gradually, my dad disappearing into the distance bit by bit between ’99 and ’01. I’m not going to write about that here at all — that’s their story to tell, if they ever want to. What does an 11-year-old understand about adult relationships? By then, I was already developing the life philosophy that gives this article its title; we’ll get onto the origins of that soon.

I celebrated ‘millenium eve’ with my mum and her parents, who I called Nannie and Granddad. There were no shades of grey in my relationship with my maternal grandparents; I loved them completely and unconditionally, and vice versa. I realise now that I didn’t really know them at all, as adults, but that’s okay too — seeing my parents interact with their grandson (fast-forwarding a bit!), I’m reminded that the grandparent/grandchild relationship, done right, transcends the irritations and compromises of everyday life. They are never going to be the longest relationships in our lives, so every day you get to spend with even a semi-respectable grandparent is a gift. (Luckily, my uncle Peter, who also inherited the ‘stories’ gene, has written about my grandparents; he’ll do them more justice than I can here.) I never got the chance to meet my dad’s mum, and met his dad only two or three times; which reinforces the point.

High school, in Wales, was a pretty smooth ride — I made a new best friend called James, who may well be the closest I’ve ever come to a soulmate. The guy got me, and vice versa. Whatever was going on around us, for that brief time, I knew someone would always have my back. (Unlike that snake of a man, Jim!) James was wise beyond his years; he would flatly turn down any pointless activity that was the slightest bit dangerous — no, he wasn’t going on the speedboat, thank you — and it was he who discovered how to beat the half-hour-long queue at the school canteen, which I’m forever grateful for.

The issue was, it was a big school (probably 2,000 pupils), and there was just one standard-sized serving hatch… so if you didn’t get out of your lesson on the stroke of noon, you were pretty much going to be standing in the canteen, patiently clutching your tray, until half-past. (If you tried to be clever and stroll in at ten to one, the queue would be gone, but so would the food — and who wants to spend their lunch break hungry, anyway?)

Far away from the main serving hatch was a fairly sad row of trollies constituting the ‘healthy food’ alternative; mainly cold, green foodstuffs, and things like couscous. No queue issues there. But James realised that they had somehow managed to justify including big, delicious sausage rolls among the ‘healthy’ items, delivered straight from the oven at noon; so not even cold, if you got your skates on. We went to the ‘health bar’ every day after that, and never had to queue for dinner again — which drastically improved our quality of life, though it did mean having sausage rolls for lunch pretty much every time. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, as you can see from this contemporary photo.

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The one other story I remember from my time in Wales involves Pokémon trading cards. The computer game hadn’t really caught on yet, and I certainly never heard of anyone playing the card game, but one day the cards themselves were everywhere — everyone seemed to have some, and they were frantically swapping them in an effort to secure the ultimate prize: a shiny Charizard.

I was nonplussed for the first few weeks (and James completely ignored this entire phase), but then someone gave me, out of pity, three copies of the same common card, which they didn’t think would be of any use. In what must have been a fascinating series of transactions, I was somehow able to strategically trade these until I had a whole host of rare cards to my name; then I handed over my entire collection to possess the sole, creased shiny Charizard that existed on school grounds. Mission accomplished.

I didn’t know what to do then, so just carried it around for a while. Then one day, on the way to school, I was approached by a fellow pupil who went by the somewhat intimidating name of Axe. ‘I hear you’ve got a shiny Charizard,’ he growled, breath smelling of cigarettes. For context, this was perhaps the hardest 12-year-old who ever existed; a skinhead with a rap-star's idea of school uniform, you would have put him down as closer to 16. We were all scared of the guy, but I never heard of him actually menacing anyone, as such… in a way, he was so hard, he was almost above that. I was astonished he was even talking to me.

‘Er, yes?’ I replied, squeakily. He then pulled out a crisp £20 note, and offered to buy the card. I said yes, of course, and I’m pretty sure he replied ‘pleasure doing business with you’, then swaggered off, presumably to sell it to some other kid for £40 — I probably funded part of his criminal empire. This was the first time I’d ever had such a large sum of money in my hand; now I was carrying that around, not knowing what to do with it. I didn’t think my mum would really understand how I’d come into possession of a £20 note. The whole thing seemed faintly illicit, so what I eventually did was launder it — I deposited it onto the pay-as-you-go system that we used to buy our lunches, and enjoyed two sausage rolls a day for the rest of the term.

As I’ve been hinting, my days of living in Wales and learning Welsh were to be cut short — we moved away, across the country to East Yorkshire, just a few days after my thirteenth birthday. I’m still not 100% sure why, but in any case, the decision was above my pay grade.

I’ve managed to describe almost a decade in Wales without giving you the slightest hint of Welsh culture, so let me drop something in before we depart: the Welsh word for carrot is ‘moron’, and I took great delight during Welsh lessons (particularly when we had a supply teacher) of asking: ‘Miss, what’s the Welsh word for carrot?’

‘Moron,’ she would reply.

‘Well there’s no need for that,’ I would quip, with a straight face. ‘I was only asking.’

I decided to take the change in circumstances in my stride; as an adventure into the unknown. I was positively chipper about it, in fact. Poor James was not so resolved; when I broke the news, he burst into tears in the middle of class, and went running off. Once again, he was a very wise young man — although I promised we’d stay in touch, since he was never really into the internet (not instant messaging, emailing, or even social media when it came around) we lost contact pretty quickly. I think he knew that would happen as soon as I told him.

James, if you ever read this, I’d like to apologise for using your real name, and sharing these semi-unflattering anecdotes. I’d love to hear from you, even to complain! Tweet me, if your Nokia flip phone can manage it. (I kid.)

So off we went, to a new town that could best be described as nondescript — I’m not going to name it, for reasons that will soon become clear. What I remember most about this move is that I was in charge of looking after the cat, which was to be transported during the three-hour journey in a cardboard box; of course, this was an absolutely ridiculous idea, she had escaped before we got to the bottom of our road. Luckily, she decided to sit on my lap, calmly, for the entire remainder of the journey. (They didn’t give me a sticker album, this time — seems a bit thoughtless!)

Me and the cat were pretty close; she was originally a stray that had taken up residence in our garden, and I had put out a bowl of dry muesli, which she was desperate enough to eat. I named her ‘Aggie’ (before we even knew she was a girl), and over time she moved into our back porch, then the kitchen, then the rest of the house, and then our hearts. Aww.

The cat settled into our East Yorkshire digs within a week, but it took me a little longer. I had a new school to get used to, and it was definitely a step down from the last one — when I joined, it was a big, sprawling mess, and the headteacher was three months away from retirement. I once looked through his office door and saw him having a nap; so, not the most motivated custodian. At lunchtime, the teachers ran outside the school gates to smoke and drink. (No, that’s not even a joke. I wish!)

I arrived two-thirds of the way through the academic year, knowing no one and essentially nothing about this new situation. So I was bullied, emotionally and physically — which was upsetting, but looking back, inevitable. With the school basically a free for all, when you turn up without a single friend or acquaintance, looking like this:

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…I mean, if the bullies weren’t going to pick on this kid, who were they going to bully? They would have had to admit their heart just wasn’t in it any more, and go back to spray-painting bus stops (or whatever).

Realising things couldn’t get any worse, I took the route of telling absolutely everyone about the bullying, loudly and repeatedly, until it couldn’t be ignored; by July, the ringleader was expelled. If you’re reading this as a bullied child (or adult), I would give that strategy a go — I also find making a lot of notes is an effective remedy, recordings even better. If the bully says ‘guh, I never touched him’, but you’ve got a sound recording and a binder of detailed, time-stamped notes… and the rule of law is even slightly in place… you’re going to win the war, if not any of the battles. (Like in my playground football league, it’s hard to lose when you’re the one keeping score.)

Soon enough, summer arrived, and we’re finally getting to the anecdote that gives this article its title. (I say ‘article’; in the process of writing, I’ve slipped into ‘comprehensive autobiography’ territory. Hard to stop, once this stuff starts coming out!)

I was still writing a lot in my spare time, and reading, and so it was that I picked up a leaflet in the library advertising the East Yorkshire Poetry Competition. The first prize in my age category was — hang on to your hats — fifty pounds, and my eyes lit up thinking of all the complicated Lego sets that could buy (a fair few, in those days). I also mentally calculated how many other young people in the region were likely to be bothered writing a poem and sending it off… certainly no one I’d met so far. So, after a suitable amount of procrastination, I set aside an afternoon to work on my entry, then popped it into an envelope and sent it on its way.

Here’s the poem. Not fantastic, but not bad either, all things considered.

The Optimist
by Jamie McGarry, aged 13 ⅓

As I go around smiling,
people say: ‘What’s to smile about?
The world, it is an awful place,
I wish they’d kick him out.’

‘I hate my rotten life,’
says one. ‘He irritates me so.
Whatever’s making him so glad?
I’d surely want to know.’

‘I’ve heard of him, he’s such a fool.
He thinks the world’s just great.
He makes me mad, and how I wish
he’d disappear without a trace.’

‘He thinks that life’s a total peach,
that everyone’s his friend.
He says that we should all cheer up,
the world’s not about to end.’

I don’t hear all this, of course.
This nasty talk I missed.
I go around smiling because
I’m an optimist!

I just typed that up from memory, which gives you some idea how significant this poem has become within my personal narrative. It’s a manifesto, really, then and now. I’ve refined the philosophy over the years, from the rather unenlightened ‘we should all cheer up, the world’s not about to end’, to the Buddhist-inspired ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ (I think the latter might even qualify as a ‘koan’.)

Don’t be fooled though, this attitude has nothing to do with generosity of spirit or ‘zen’. It’s a form of defiance and rebellion — ‘Oh, you’re going to put me down? Screw you, I’m still happy.’ ‘Did you just spit at me and belittle my beliefs? Fair enough, I’m off for an ice cream.’ See also: ‘the best revenge is living well’, or perhaps more constructively, from third-century B.C. Stoic teachings, ‘don’t worry about what you can’t control.’

The same thought is almost expressed in the song at the end of Life of Brian (which I hadn’t seen yet), and the attitude is there in Casino Royale (the modern one), specifically the scene where Daniel Craig is tied to a chair. (Who was winning, in that confrontation, before he gets rescued? The guy with the whip?) If you refuse to let circumstances get you down, you’ve already won, in a way. I’d been slowly figuring that out during my first thirteen years on the planet, and it finally clicked into place that summer, when I wrote my first (voluntary) poem.

Many years later, in 2015, I was in hospital for a couple of weeks with a mystery stomach complaint, unable to eat or drink without throwing up instantly (they never found out what it was, they gave me five different cures and one of them eventually worked). Health is one of the few areas of life actually worth getting upset about, but on this occasion I still didn’t — I decided to treat it as a holiday, keep my iPod nearby, enjoy the drugs (not something I’ve much experience with otherwise) and let the medical professionals figure it out.

When he stopped by my bed on his daily rounds, I would grin at the doctor and ask him how things were going — maybe manage a quip or two. ‘This is no good,’ he eventually said, shaking his head in despair. ‘You need to look more sad, or no one will be motivated to cure you.’ So that, I guess, is the opposing side of this argument.

As for the poem, it was entered in the 13–18 category… and you have to think, if there had been one 18-year-old with a passing interest in poetry in the whole of East Yorkshire, surely I’d have lost. Perhaps as a result, you’d never have heard of me — and you’d certainly not be reading that poem, two decades later. But fate had something different in store.

To be continued…

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Founder @valleypress. Have mostly written here about small press publishing, but am starting to branch out. Stay with me, people!

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