This story was first told as part of OneTrackMinds Hidden Tracks at Omeara London on January 15th 2019.
I am listening to the lyrics of my favourite song, the sun is in my eyes and the weather is sweet, yes. I daren’t sing along, because I don’t actually know what they are singing, so I listen intently, hoping that the penny will drop. It is too difficult to work out, so… head bop and pursed lips it is then. It is loud, I am proud and I waiting for a crowd. They’ll be here any minute…
I was 11 years old and desperate to be cool. Not in the “I am a creative individual who wants to change the world and make my mark”cool but cool like I want the local kids aged between 8–15 that all hung in a big glaring gang to embrace me into the bosom of their posse… because there is nothing you want more when you are kid than to be included and accepted, no matter what the cost. And boy did I pay…
I always ended up being the scapegoat, or butt of a joke, or beaten up after Friday club to continue their evening of entertainment on the short walk home. “Ha ha ha ha” Oh how they laughed.
I was on my 4th year of seeking their approval. I tried to stay away after really cruel treatment, but the desire to be a part of something exciting and unruly was like a pimple that had to be popped. Their confidence and criminal ways always overruled my inner compass. What would you choose? Soap operas and cheese based snacks or ruling the world with your mates? Well just until 9pm. I was always the first called in. No more ruling the world after 9pm Katie O’Brien - “Katie, BEDTIME!” would be roared from our balcony, like a pet-owner summonsing their stubborn unwanted dog back from the bottom of a hill.
Sometimes I did manage to worm my way out of being the punching bag by coming up with ways to divert their attention. I was the oddball, or the stupid one, or the fat one, or the immigrant, putting it very mildly. “Get back to where you came from you fucking Paddy!”. That is a sign of affection right?
I would have gone back if I could, but I was 5 and had about 50p to my name.
To temporarily win their respect I’d supply cigarettes. My mum had 200 duty free Blue Silk Cut that she didn’t like hidden in a drawer (She smoked the Purple ones). Periodically, I very carefully siphoned off a few at a time.
I also worked out how to break into empty flats which would become our secret hang outs. Squatting is too strong a term as we never stayed the night and they were often nicely finished. Squats in the early nighties, if ever, definitely didn’t have freshly laid carpet. I was the only one looking at the carpet wondering if it was a Wool mix or just Nylon and how it would be a good present for my parents. While at no point thinking they’d ask me, “Where did you get this from Katie? You are 11 and very small”…
Yeah, OK maybe I was just a tad bit unusual to have very good sensibilities for my age. But you see my Mum was obsessed with interior design. There was literally a stack of Home & Garden magazines next to her bedside table, and my Dad was a very savvy builder who commandeered amazing interiors from work because they ‘obviously’ would have ended up in a skip otherwise. Lead by this combination of examples, it was no wonder I already had an eye for sourcing quality goods for free.
We all came from a varying spectrum of working class families living within a few doors of each other, or a short bop away. I think working class back then is different to now — the parents had trades jobs if they worked, and some were pally with local homeless Alcoholics and drank with them in the daytime, in a small triangle shaped park called, Gwynder Gardens. This park was the epicentre of our worlds — everything happened in this three gated green patch and I mean everythang. Even the caretaker would get a bit naughty.
“The park isn’t so busy today, the sky is pastel blue, occasionally broken up with fading white darts and diagonal streaks — left by planes that ferry folks to and fro Heathrow. I’m gonna spark up a snout. I think I have listened to the song 3 times now, it’s on a loop.”
In those days, it was standard to record a song back to back and listen to it repeatedly. On this particularly beautiful day, I had decided my way to signal to the world, I say world, I mean to the local crew of 10 kids that I am officially “Kool”.
In those days it was “Kool” with a K, and if you had a name ending in ‘ie’ you might change it to end in a ‘Y’.
My preparation for my coming out as “Kool” with a “K” was to record the song I loved from the radio onto a cassette tape, which almost seems like I’ve made this up. I really remember the skill required to record your favourite song from the radio, capturing the song without the Disc-Jockey loving the sound of his own voice, or adverts cutting the song short.
For those of you born at the worst possible time in the world ever-ever, i.e. after the millennium, a cassette tape is a plastic case filled with two rolls of tiny tape that holds information on that you play til the end or rewind and fast forward with guess work to replay a song you wish to hear again or physically removing the cassette and turning it around with your hands to play the second half of an album. Yeah, listening to music was once an activity similar to driving, all eyes-n’-ears-and-hands-on.
“So there I am, I’ve pounced onto the park ready to cause a scene with my music songs. They’re coming! They’ll — They’ll be here!”
Gwynder Gardens is paved with original flags and has flower beds in the main grassy areas and around the top of a sunken level which had steps down to a pond with more benches and flower beds.
The pond area was the main feature. Whether or not there would be fish or drunk people in the pond depended on who was in charge at the time. When I was really small, and fresh off the boat from Ireland, I remember witnessing the life-cycle of tadpoles and goldfish in this pond and getting lost for as long as I was permitted following the shapes and shadows of the fish as they wiggled up from the murky bottom to just below the diluted brown water’s surface.
Technically it was a Second World War Memorial gardens so activities were supposed to be restricted — no ball games, no dogs and it closed at dusk, but picnics, reading on a bench and sex in the bushes were fine.
I was never in the bushes. Just saying.
The thirsty regulars would be dotted along the benches like a scene from a tableaux. They did try to curtail their antics but often failed to avoid attention from the authorities and would be moved on.
Sadly, so many of the dedicated drinkers disappeared over the years. The local council took their furniture, and suddenly, without notice, there were no benches on the high streets for them to sit or snooze, or have some booze on. Like me they also needed a place, a space to congregate and belong.
There seemed to be less separation then, from people who had a roof over their heads and those who didn’t. I often small-talked with Mary, who had obviously been beaten within an inch of her life as her face was full of scars and lumps. Me and the other kids would give her clothes and she would buy us Super Kings or B&H, depending on how many pennies we could muster.
“My mum was right to abandon these Blue Silk cuts, they taste like dusty melting metal.”
My cassette player was Sony, black and oblong, no hard edges — it was the 90’s guys, everything was suddenly smooth. Tech, hair styles and silky fabrics, even the melancholic and rebellious Britpoppers didn’t have a hair out of place without a stylist’s deliberate comb. It had a twin tape deck and a radio obviously and if you put eight mouse sized batteries into the back you could make it portable.
Bearing in mind it was 1992, and a portable music playing speaker was like having something magical, heads would turn. “Where’s that music coming from? It’s not from an open window or a car, oh my god it’s coming from the stereo on the end of her hand!”
Even now I can recall my younger self bursting with anticipation as if it was only yester, before leaving the house with my cordless technology. I just need to say it again so it’s clear: I left the house and was able to play music out loud without a cable or plug!.
(I needed to reiterate as nowadays some children don’t even understand the concept of a landline. Recently I explained to a 5 year old that back in the day a phone had to be wired into the wall and then all around the country and she told me I was taking the piss.)
Although I desperately wanted acceptance sometimes I dug a bit of a hole by expressing my an eclectic taste with clothes, a jumble of stuff from friends, John Lewis and free alcohol branded T-shirts from my pub landlady Aunty in Ireland.
On this particular day I had a knee-length skirt, not too dissimilar to Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a free T-shirt my dad got from a job he was on with the name of the building site ‘Chelsea Harbour’, and LA Gear basketball trainers (because suddenly in the early 90’s everyone was slam dunkin’).
The other kids attire was mostly Naf Naf, Reebok or Nike and leggings with a lace trim. I was often trying to find them, be a part of the latest happenings, like a showcase for Friday club or a birthday party, but I was often missed off the list of invitations. Yeah, probably just an admin error. The only time they would knock for me or include me purposefully was to take something I had or lock me into a caged playground. I lived on thin ice and watched them sharpen the blades but couldn’t see another way to have friends at the time. In my head it was like The Wonder Years but in reality it was how I imagine a Kindergarten would be in Guantanamo Bay.
“This tune is phat and I know that, if they see me playing this song, they will want to hang out with me. I want to have another cigarette but I will be sick. I am starting to feel a little bite in the breeze. I don’t think they are coming, surely one of them would have walked through the park by now! Emma or Zoey or Jodie, or Julie or Paula or Holly or Charlie or Fat Jack or Steven or Terry or Ross or Jenny…no, they must be somewhere else, doing something else.
They will never know how cool I am.”
Eric — a black skinny gay man who did Pottery at Munster Road Adult Education Learning Centre walked past. He was wearing thick rimmed sunnies, a patterned shirt, tight denim flares and an over the shoulder bag with a can in one hand. His teeth were wide and hard to hide behind his lips. Luckily he loved to smile. I didn’t know he was black and gay at the time - it wasn’t a thing for me, he was just Eric who was always really nice. Once he gave me a mug he’d made himself with my name painted on it. He didn’t do that for the other kids.
I wished I wasn’t seen through adjectives and nouns used to separate and segregate. Black, white, Paddy, fat, thin, poor, posh, gay, straight, thick, boffin, bitch. I think they used all of these for me — apart from Black, although I did copy everything my black friends did. Just a little tip, cocoa butter doesn’t suit pale skin with blue eyes. It just made me look like a shiny pig.
This song was the beginning of my discovery of music that acted as the gateway to a new era in my life. It lead me away from wanting to be accepted by the local impenetrable circle and instead pulled me into another crowd. The old lot didn’t like it — they didn’t understand it and sometimes would ask me why I wasn’t talking to them.
I had bigger funk to fry, and higher trees to smoke. I broke down my Tetris wall and Hadoukened them, metaphorically.
Thanks to this song, I realised I could reinvent myself at ‘big school’. How would they know I’m not a badass?
And although I looked like Romona from the 1980’s TV series, I was developing a taste for underground music, I was a bit like a Transformer in disguise, a mis-mash of clothes with a haircut like a mushroom, but I was becoming bold and funny and bigger, just like a Transformer. In my “cooler” years, I learned to use music to alter my state and find release and relief.
Some of you may have forgotten the lyrics to this song. I forgive you — especially as it’s been awhile since it was in the charts so I have included these mystical lyrics below to refresh your memories. Enjoy, I know it still excites me. (P.S if anyone knows what the hell they are saying, let me know).
Katie O’Brien is an Irish-born Londoner who trained in Fine Art. After University her first venture was the feminist performance group The Muffia followed by many more explorations of performing. Since studying at Philippe Gaulier’s Clown school in France for a year Katie has been working on one woman shows and more recently developing her writing.
Follow, friend, fan @KatieDoesComedy