If we are to believe Dante, love moves the sun and the stars (“l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle”); Sappho compared it to a mountain wind, and Aristotle believed it came about when a single soul inhabits two bodies, but back in the real world I was more inclined to go with songs like “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (the Rolling Stones, double A-side with “Ruby Tuesday”, 1967), or “Somebody to Love” (the Great Society, 1966; Jefferson Airplane, 1967). It was sex that mattered to my fifteen-year-old self, even if I tended to gloss it as love. I persuaded myself that I was in love, on average, about five or six times a week – with my mother’s friend Beryl, say, or the Pinta Girl, or the actress who played Doctor Who’s assistant, Zoe; but love, in any scenario I dared to imagine, was mostly just code for desire. Mostly. The one drawback was that my ideas about such things had been formed by radio – my mother’s radio, in fact, which, for the first twelve years of my life, was permanently tuned to the unending sentimental education provided by Pick of the Pops and Sing Something Simple on the BBC Light Programme. Here, sex was rarely, if ever, mentioned. It was always love.
Listening to the radio wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was a declaration of loyalty. The TV sat in what we had recently started calling “the lounge”, and was used mostly by my father; my mother spent very little time in that room, at least when he was at home. She would clean it, and keep it tidy and, in the winter, she would get up at six and make a fire, but her true domain was still the kitchen, where she lived like a ghost from the 1950s with what she still called “the wireless” – and, because everything that was real in our lives happened in the kitchen, it was radio that provided the white noise and the soundtrack to my daily round, a constant wash of mostly vintage love songs, all never let me go and you belong to me and, worst of all, I don’t have anything, since I don’t have you . . . My mother knew most of them by heart: “You’re All the World to Me”; “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (the Perry Como version, not Elvis); “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.
At that age, I didn’t know that she was hanging on to a fantasy that she couldn’t do without, a fantasy, not that the many-splendored love her marriage so clearly lacked existed out there somewhere, but that, underneath it all, behind all the fights about money and the tears and the abuse, she and my father still loved one another as they had in the beginning (a time she never spoke about, oddly enough, though he would, when the mood was on him: how they met, the presents he brought back from his RAF postings, their honeymoon in Aberdeen, of all places). In extremis, he would even grow maudlin about it all, declaring that he’d never loved any woman but her, though he’d had every chance back in his RAF days, and even now, the women down at the club were throwing themselves at him. Those sentimental nights provided us kids with a sorry spectacle that my mother never stayed up to see, yet in spite of all this, in spite of the fact that she had every reason to feel bitter, or to have dismissed the whole many-splendored thing long ago, she could still be brought to a halt, in the middle of cooking, or a Saturday baking session, by some old favourite with lyrics that, in any explicable world, would have stuck in her craw. She would stand by a window, or over the cooker, ladle poised above the split-pea soup, singing along – she had a thin, but oddly sweet voice – and it didn’t matter if I rolled my eyes, she just went on singing, a true believer, if not on the workaday level, then at least in the abstract.
On the one hand, the impulse to mock this nonsense was both natural and pressing – and yet, at the same time, there was a sense that something real was concealed behind it all, something that, if it were allowed to sour, would leave a gap, not just in my mother’s, but in all our lives, an emptiness that nothing else could possibly fill. Where we lived, everything was cooked in lard, white pudding was a Saturday-night treat, the men all smoked eighty a day and drank themselves into oblivion every chance they got, but the real killer, the thing that truly sapped your strength, like a leech sapping the blood from your heart, was disappointment (synonyms: failure, defeat, frustration), a word whose etymology – from Middle French desapointer, “to undo an appointment, to remove from office” – barely hints at its destructive power, but, given a moment’s further analysis, does express something of the pain of workaday defeat that people in that world endured. If a soppy love song could ease that sense of defeat for a while, who was I to mock? The fact that, on occasion, during my clever-clogs years, I did mock now shames me more than I can say.
The older I get, the happier my childhood becomes. I still know about the times when my father got drunk and came home covered in blood (“bleeding like a sheep”, he’d say, beglamoured by the reek and the heat of it), the nights when I had to climb out of the window to escape his drunken rages, the hours of waiting, wondering where he was, and whether he’d spent all the money: I know this, but I don’t feel it now the way I feel those Saturday afternoons in our various kitchens, the table or fitted counter sheeted in flour and three trays of fairy cakes in the oven, the back door open to let out the steam, blackbirds singing in the neighbour’s lilac tree and Andy Williams on the radio singing “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. On the radio, love was a many-splendored thing, but the marriages I was privy to seemed more like war zones.
I don’t want to suggest that matrimony was necessarily a tragic affair – some of our neighbours’ marriages seemed quite functional, if somewhat routine; nevertheless, in the workaday world, it is wedlock that is most likely to offer the occasion for life-threatening disappointment. Wedlock, or parenthood – and, when it’s not caused by poverty or ill-health, most of the misery inflicted by parents is a result of their marital unhappiness. Growing up, I blamed my father for everything, overlooking his very obvious wretchedness, and it wasn’t until much later that I began to wonder what wedlock had cost him, married as he was to a dutiful and sexually repressed Catholic of a certain class and generation. I cannot rule out the idea, now, that he could have been a painfully frustrated sensualist, a husband cheated of what might have been the only means he had to express his love; his passions, his inner boy’s desire for joy and sex curdling into violent frustration. That frustration might not have been the sole cause of his drinking and gambling, but it’s not very surprising that he should take refuge in the sins he knew to escape the shameful and ugly desires that had once seemed the most natural thing in the world (within marriage, of course). Wherever my father ended up in his mind or in his spirit, it may be that, to begin with, the poor man just wanted to play. Maybe they both did, but they couldn’t quite elude the stare of the little yellow-eyed, jaundiced god that had been implanted at the back of their minds. I remember, once, much later, I found a stack of dirty magazines hidden in his wardrobe while I was searching for a tie to borrow and he came in just as I picked up a copy of Knave from the top of the pile.
He didn’t say anything then, he just turned round and went back downstairs to the 3.15 at Chepstow or whatever, but that evening, in the Hazel Tree, where we used to go to play crib, father and son together, he told me quietly not to take any notice, he never read that stuff, it was just something a mate from work had passed on. For a moment there, it all seemed to balance out: they had both been cheated, not just by the class system, as such, but also by the sexless, loveless moral apparatus that, as I grew up, I increasingly came to think of as societal, an apparatus that existed for no other reason than to stifle in its subjects any sensual pleasure and any kind of sex, other than the plastic-fantastic couplings of porn, or the bowdlerised, abstract crooning of Tin Pan Alley.
No surprise, then, that, as we took the floor at the Catholic Club disco or the end-of-term dance, we didn’t hear any songs that talked about the slow attrition of mistaken commitment. Songs where the heart resembles nothing so much as a knob of lard tossed into a skillet and skittering around on the hot steel, squeaking and fizzing as it gradually diminishes to nothing. That was what everlasting love meant to me, before I even got on to the dance floor. It was a pose, an attitude – and I wanted nothing to do with it. Fat chance of that.
Sometimes, though only in my most unguarded moments, I can still think of Annette Winters as my first love. At fifteen, she was tall, slender, very dark, an intelligent, sly girl possessed of what I think of now, though I didn’t think of then, as a kind of debatable beauty. She refused to be pretty in the ordinary sense that made girls attractive in our neck of the woods, but the main thing that drew me to her was that she did what she wanted, come hell or high water, and that was rare. In the town where we grew up, the will of girls and women was continually sapped, from cradle to crone, boyfriends and husbands taking over where parents left off, but so far Annette had come through with all her faculties intact. Maybe it wasn’t love so much as admiration that drew me to her, but I was drawn – and there were times when she was drawn to me, too, though if what happened between us could even be described as a relationship, it was very much of the on-off variety. When it was on, we spent hours lying around on my bed or her parents’ floor transforming endless foreplay into a form of torture (there being no after to this fore, so to speak; Annette was, after all, a good Catholic girl); when it was off, it was because she had suddenly remembered that I wasn’t her type.
Not being her type included a wide variety of faults, from having light brown hair to being “bookish”, features that I thought neither here nor there. In fact, the whole “type” thing was just so much nonsense, in my enlightened fiteen-year-old view. It might have been interesting at another level, where it really told you something about a person. For example: is your type the pretty, loyal “secretary” who is always in the background in old American detective movies, or the mysterious, but slightly too existential woman who turns up in his office unannounced and will, almost inevitably, betray him in the final reel? Though, come to think of it, that doesn’t help much either: I usually fell for the hat-check girl you see in passing when the detective drops by the fat man’s nightclub to give him the once-over, or maybe the femme fatale’s younger sister, excluded from the grown-up stuff and left to sulk by the pool in her swimsuit or her immaculate tennis whites. Whenever Annette went off on one of her not-my-type deals, I would sit in the town library compiling questionnaires like the ones that used to appear in newspapers and women’s magazines.
What’s Your Type?
Answer these ten questions to find out if the girl you’re with is really the one for you . . .
1. You are invited to meet one cast member from Pal Joey. Who do you choose? Is it:
a) Rita Hayworth? b) Kim Novak?
c) Frank Sinatra?
2. The girl you’re with has a new
hobby. Is it:
a) Playing the piano b) Hill-walking
It’s pitiful, the depths to which we sink when abandoned. At fifteen, I didn’t know much about much, but I did know that the one thing worse than endless foreplay is no foreplay at all.
We had all seen enough of our parents’ lives to feel that marriage was a trap constructed, not by women and girls, but by “The System”, to keep us in order. That was the term we used as a kind of shorthand for a job at the Works and your name on the housing list and the ubiquitous conspiracy against human wildness. The pleasures of married life weren’t too visible in Corby in the early 1970s and, even if you weren’t the political type, it was clear that marriage tied people to a life that suited the bosses. The joy of being a parent wasn’t much in evidence either: what kids saw, growing up, was the worry, the strain, the sad business of not having enough money for the televised Christmas ideal, and the shame of not being able to say so. But there was one difference between boys and girls on that score: if he is paying attention, the boy has a chance at a kind of negative freedom, because he has not been trained since infancy to believe, as the girl has, that wedlock and the workaday are not just the norm, but as close to the ideal as can be expected. For as long as he could hold out, any boy might still have a few years of relative freedom.
It was luck and nothing else that kept me from falling into the trap. Luck, in the form of Annette Winters’s notion that there was such a thing as her type, and that I was not it. I might have been growing into a cliché boy’s own world where the basic premises were a) have sex with as many attractive girls as possible – by attractive, I mean not attractive to oneself, necessarily, but attractive in the eyes of others – and b) keep moving so you don’t get trapped – but I don’t want to suggest that there was anything cold or cynical about all this.
More of us actually liked the girls we knew than were prepared to admit it, but we only had to look around to know that, whatever we thought or felt when we were alone, romantic love – disco love – as constructed by the movies and TV and pop songs, was a carefully baited trap, intended to lock us for life into a routine of drudge labour and joyless domesticity, with nothing to take refuge in but alcohol and “the football”. This wasn’t about “fear of commitment” (that cliché); it was about common sense. We had not forgotten that the word “commitment” can be used in two, by no means contradictory, senses: i) being prepared to engage fully in a (disco) relationship, and ii) being contained in a psychiatric medical facility. We had to cram what living we wanted into a few good years, because work was a life sentence and marriage was a lifelong battle with someone terminally conditioned for nest-building and social propriety – and the biggest irony of all was that the pleasure part, the sex part, the exquisite play that got you into all that hassle in the first place started to evaporate the moment you carried your bride over the threshold.
So, when people wonder why boys want to stay boys and never grow up, as if there really were some difficulty to that particular question, I find it embarrassing, because the answer is obvious. A boy gets to play; a man doesn’t, at least not officially. A man is obliged to act out the part scripted for him, all the while pretending that there’s something genuinely fulfilling in being promoted to Deputy Sales Manager or being chosen as Employee of the Month by other men who, while not visibly smarter or more able than him, get paid a whole lot more.
Men are police officers, husbands, company directors; men work in middle management and fret about sex and their position on that supposedly recreational squash ladder. Men lay down the law and take up arms. Men, to the boy I was, were dull, neuter, slightly stale when you got up close and infinitely tedious. The burdens they carried with such absurd solemnity seemed to me entirely fictitious and the presumption of authority that defined them to a standstill was utterly alien to how I imagined a just world to be, alien and pointless, and painstakingly justified, for each individual man, by a self-perpetuating system of titles and obligations that were unfailingly referred to as “the real world”.
So there we were: trapped. Boys in striped shirts and basketball shoes listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Doors in our bedrooms, knowing it couldn’t last. Boys smoking dope on the patch of waste ground behind the garages; boys fiddling with hooks and zips in front rooms and parked cars; boys going out alone in the cool of a summer’s dawn to swim on that stretch of river only they know. Men in waiting, all, tagged with the sorrow of knowing pretty well what is to come and not wanting any part of it. Manhood is what the boy wants to avoid, as he grows into the mould, but he doesn’t know how, other than by continuing to be a boy. Moving on, every time love turns from serious to solemn. Deferring that dread moment when it comes time to settle down and open a savings account, putting a little by every year till he’s got enough to make the down payment on a house that looks just like every other jerry-built house on the estate. Laughing at the disco love lyrics on the radio and Top of the Pops.
What would real success look like, for a boy who chose not to be that kind of a man, but grew at his own pace into the creature he could have been, had his future not been decided for him years ago? The boy’s only answer is a desperate one, a beginner’s guide to clutching at straws, but it’s all he has and what it mostly consists of is refusal. Pyrrhic and half-imagined as it is, his only victory is to let go and move on, for as long as he can, as decently as he can, for the thrill of that first meeting and the dark pleasure of the goodbye that keeps the heart in play, no gods above, no larks, no love song finer, only the drama that staying cannot confer, the exquisite and inevitable affirmation of every time we say goodbye.
All this might be a little crude, but I don’t think it misrepresents the way my generation and class of boys thought and behaved, except in one key detail: that is, the question of “whatever we thought or felt when we were alone”. I know that, in my case, the drive to have sex and move on was based on a fear that, in all probability, quite a few of my classmates shared: the fear, not so much of The System as of my own profoundly romantic male nature.
It took me a long time to work it out, and even longer to acknowledge it, but, looking back, I see that my teen self, contrary to appearances, had, in fact, been converted by my mother’s radio into a hopeless romantic – and for all I know, if Annette Winters hadn’t been so finicky about who might or might not have been her type, I could be married to her now, and wondering how in God’s name I’d got myself tangled up in that particular mess. According to Oscar Wilde, “marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”; the trouble was, if you lived in a two-up two-down council house in Corby New Town, keeping a marriage alive took more imagination than most people could spare – and if any of us had been possessed of even the most basic intelligence, we would have seen right away that, in a society that worked so hard to keep us from loving, or even liking, ourselves, expecting us to love somebody else – not a type, but an actual person – was a bit much to ask.
This is an edited extract from John Burnside’s “I Put a Spell on You”, published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)