Learning To Love You More




Assignment #14
Write your life story in less than a day.

Cardiff, Wales UK
Email Toby



Toby (a life in three hours)
I was born in 1946, In London, on Valentine's Day, but that isn't the romantic bit. What is romantic is that (working backwards) I found out that I must have been conceived on or about VE Day, which was the day Peace broke out in Europe in 1945. Of course, there were still the atomic bombs to go (when I had been in the womb a few months) making me perhaps one of the first heavy metal mutant babies....
Still, I didn't know all that until later. I was born at home with a midwife and family around (I am told). The house was one that my grandfather had bought, so we were settled in one way. He had had three daughters (my mother and my two aunts) and they had been well educated. One aunt married well, another was a spinster all her life, and the third (and youngest) was my mother Sheila. She had been in Switzerland when rumours of war being imminent were spreading, and, after she died, we found a diary of hers logging her difficult journey back to Great Britain before the borders closed. She'd have been in her twenties then. I never heard many stories of the war, and how they lived during the Blitz. I know Sheila helped re-house refugees, and I know she met my father when he was working as a fireman (not an occasional call-out job, like now, but a whole city burning - they used to leave churches until last, as no one lived there). And he had been a wandering puppeteer in the Thirties, which is what he reverted to. He suffered the poverty of loving and promoting yet another minor and neglected art (I was to become a juggler - the Arts Council didn't think that was an 'art' either).
It has often helped me to think that I was a celebration baby. When Sheila described to me how much of a disappointment my father was later on, she always said that 'at least you were conceived in passion!'
But these aren't my memories, of course, they are what I was told. My sister Julia was born a couple of years before me, so she can probably verify little bits of this, but as we grow older the age difference shrinks all the time. When she was 5 she was twice as old as me, now the difference is more like 4%.
I am not sure whether it helps doing a life in a linear fashion. It's good for some things, but I notice that in many biographies they have to start at the peak of someone's career, and then go back to ancestors, family and school afterwards, to fill it out. I do not have many diaries or other documentation to go by, so I guess I have to do the memory route, where things and events seem to be filed quite differently. Certain aspects of life get filed together, without much chronologic.
So where to start? Firstly, WHY do I want to do this? Well, I spend a lot of time retelling my story, to both myself and others. Sometimes it's like a psychoanalytical thing, sometimes its just nostalgia. I am still not sure whether I could consider this life a success or a failure (or if I even have to decide an either/or like that).
It certainly didn't come out as I planned, but that's because I don't plan much. And it didn't come out as I expected, because of a deep pessimistic streak (not to say self-destructive), and it turns out it ain't so bad. I had highs I could never have foreseen, lows I wouldn't have thought I could survive. I could have sworn I wasn't going to be a parent, but (biologically at least) I am one several times over. (And that IS a long story).
Another reason I was resisting this writing process was not knowing how much I can invade the current mental space of people still living. Can I name names? Even if I use pseudonyms isn't it going to be obvious (to some other people at least) who I am referring to? And if I write my whole life story in a day, the mood of that writing day alone is going to colour all of it.
Enough with the notes.
I was born in London. In my very earliest years we lived in the countryside south of London, as Sheila was working in a home for emotionally disturbed children. Julia and I were staff children, of course, but we still saw our peer group as unpredictable people - and we were no doubt spoiled and told how 'normal' we were!
Eventually Sheila returned to the family house, sharing with my grandmother and the spinster aunt. I was surrounded by women. There was a brief attempt to live with my father in Slough, but it didn't work out. My mother's family had been quite affluent (professional middle classes) but Sheila was working as an actress, and never had much money. She eventually qualified to teach, which stabilised her income a bit, to bring up two children alone. She became a very eminent voice teacher.
Meanwhile, my dad used to visit on Saturdays, and take us out. Parks, zoos, shows - partly dependent on the weather, or his financial state, or whatever, but he kept it up for quite some time. I have a few great memories of those times, and a few distressing ones. I am going to zoom forward for now, however.
It's a funny thing how I ended up in show business after all. I was selected at age 11 to go to the school for smart kids, heading down that academic road. A British school that taught Latin and Greek and boxing and had an army cadet force and all that pseudo-public school stuff I might need if I was going to reach Oxbridge. I am certainly a bookish person (I work in a library now) but in early teens I figured boys should be running around (and no, not forlorn winter cross-country runs!) and following their hobbies and interests (mine was conjuring, at the time).
I hadn't wanted to go to boarding school when my mother re-married, but she went with 'Uncle' John to Malta, and although I was parked with an aunt who lived near my school, I was effectively without emotional support for a while, and got a bit wayward. When John died, and Sheila returned I tried to do my best, not to be a burden, but was back into a 4 mile journey in a London rush-hour to get to school. My friends did not live in my neighbourhood.
Came the crunch time (1964, I was 18) and I just dropped out of all that. I wasn't alone in this, of course - it is the famous period of 'Dropping Out' - but at the time I thought I was the only one taking that risky step. It wasn't popular with my school or my mother, and I was then out of touch with my dad. I went into a withdrawal because I had no idea what else to do if I didn't follow the laid-down tracks. No one had coached me in failure, or getting a job in - rdinary everyday life'. My dog got me through that period (sleeping all day, and walking the suburbs at night).
I knew I had to work, but the 'working class' went to the Labour Exchange, and this middle-class schoolboy was hard to place (especially saying he wanted to work outdoors). They didn't know what to do with me. I went to an employment agency, and they didn't want to offer me a job as a clerk - in fact the woman at the agency said she knew my headmaster and that I should be ashamed to be throwing away my education. I never went back there again.
It took a while. Eventually I came across archaeology - a mixture of physical and mental work which seemed perfect, so I went off as a volunteer on a dig. They fed and housed us and gave us spending money. After a while I became more useful, and did that work off and on for about three years. I worked one season on a fairground, running an Octopus ride. In the winters I retreated to London, cleaning houses for arty people through an agency, and later finding work in a coffee bar (Bunjies) where folk music was played. This led to me getting another gig at Les Cousins, a Folk and Blues club through which all sorts of famous people passed in those glory days for music (mostly singer/songwriters, but also other exotics of Soho). I ended up sleeping on sofas of other members of staff at Bunjies, which exposed me to Notting Hill Gate, and another hotbed of 'goings-on' at the time. There was the West Indian community (and hash), an artist sub-culture, and the whole thing that became the poorer side of the Sixties. Not that Chelsea glamour of Quant and trustafarians, but the hippie/bohemian aspect, which had its day about then.
Never Work! Was painted on the graffiti wall opposite my front door. I tried. I never was very good as a petty thief or drug dealer however - and dishwashing wasn't quite my image of myself (even with George Orwell, and Henry Miller extolling the virtues and hazards of the tramp life).
Somewhere in there I chose to starve for my art (but I didn't know which art it was going to be!) I don't mean I was determined to be poor, just that I wasn't going to take a 9-5 job. After my school experience I never wanted to wear a tie, or turn up at 9, or be well behaved in any way. The adult culture was still one in which most people smoked twenty a day, and almost everybody drank alcohol. Sliding away into dope and (later) acid put me in a very small group, and we lived a dangerous illegal existence. It's hard for people now to realise. There were upheavals in all areas of life, from the ending of censorship in the theatre and publishing, to making it legal to be gay, from legalising suicide to sit-ins in schools and colleges, (demanding relevant education!), everything was changing, and a lot of people didn't like it.
Still, people were coming out of the post-war depression, and feeling better off. The'old money' in the country knew people were breaking up the old class structures and needed to keep us all locked in, so they began offering credit to people who had always lived in a cash economy. Bank accounts, once only available to the middle classes and the rich, now became available to most people. Hire Purchase was invented, so you didn't have to save up for things, but could have them now, and pay later. Getting people to use up their future earnings was a great way of creating a less rebellious work force. It also forced up the price of everything (not just because of the interest, and APRs etc) because there was no longer a limit. If you wanted to promise away the next 25 years of your life then you could buy a house. And because you could promise so much you could easily outbid anyone who had only saved up' for a house. House prices started going up, and have never stopped since (well they boom and bust, but they keep going up). I despised all this, and resented it, too, knowing I was never going to own anything much. Especially as I had been born in a house bought and paid for, which I would not inherit.
Hand-to-mouth, I struggled on against the tide. For a while the hippie sub-culture was quite a supportive thing, but that didn't last long. At a moment of despair, an angel turned up in the guise of a French woman who wanted to go around the world, and couldn't find a fellow traveller. I had nothing to lose. I went to Paris with her, we sold jewellery made by a friend of hers, then set off to the USA (hoping we could earn enough to get to Japan, etc).
At this time most people were going to India and the East generally, where your money lasted longer, but, as I didn't have any, it made sense to go somewhere affluent where I might be able to work a bit, and live off the crumbs from the rich man's table. Eventually I spent 18 months in The States, and then 6 months in Mexico - the longest journey I have ever (or probably will ever have) taken away from this country.
It turned my head around. Just as physical work had made me healthier, America brought out a certain confidence in me. I had to find it and stop being such a diffident Englishman, just to keep up. It helped that it was fashionable to be British at that point.... Beatles and all that.
Mexico was where I started finding my own way to trade with people around me for food and shelter. In the market place. I started juggling (before that was very common) and doing bits of magic, fire-eating, acrobatics, etc. The street performing worked for me, so when I (finally) returned to Europe I thought I had something to concentrate on, and work towards.
It kept me going right through the Seventies. By the time I realised I was selling all my hours, and still only earning a humble living, I knew I had to change again. Break it up, shake it up, and move around at risk for a while.
This led (and that's another long story) to working in the film business as a puppeteer. It was odd, as my father died in the year of the great shake-up, but I found myself in his realm without planning.
Part of me thought I had reached a new level to which I was entitled, after paying so many dues, but another part thought I was selling out my own, small, humble, creative streak. After years of solo performing, to find myself in a hive of activity like a film studio was amazing. I really enjoyed being a small cog in a huge process. Still, it's a fickle business if you don't excel, or have a unique ability.
By 1987 I had worked on six films, and was fairly comfortable, (if still on the road - bought travel not things) but the British Film industry was being given no edge by the Thatcher government, so foreign money started going elsewhere to film. Many big American movies had been made in Britain for economic reasons, as well as for the pool of talent (and weak unions). Suddenly they were gone, using studios and locations elsewhere, and that was the end of films for me. I went into a serious decline for this (and other) reasons, and only survived because of having no pride (willing to work menial jobs) and thanks to finally becoming part of the system, and so entitled to minimal welfare assistance. I was in my early 40s, and lost again.
I am aware I am leaving out my partners in all this. As I said, I don't wish to implicate people, or judge people, who are still out there, living their lives. I think they are entitled to their privacy. Perhaps I have to go against my own (show-biz type) principles and publish this anonymously, and with pseudonyms. It seems a shame, when I am trying to write the whole thing in less than 24 hours, and don't want to distort the story too much. Perhaps it is suffice to say that I think women are wonderful. I grew up surrounded by women at home, and hated the all-male environment of school. It has kept me on the straight-and-narrow (at times!) not wanting to go to prison. I was lucky I missed the draft into National Service. Still, I can't say women have given me an easy passage.
I may have been young in The Sixties, but (in spite of the rumours) it was mostly a later generation who slept with dozens or hundreds of other people. I lost my virginity in a great way (worth the wait) with a beautiful Swedish girl...she wasn't impressed with my British guilt (getting girls into trouble, and all that Fifties stuff) and said that EVEN if she got pregnant she would just go back to Sweden, get a single mother's flat and carry on with her life. I started glimpsing just how uptight the whole British Welfare State was.
Sadly, it was shortly after that easy, natural and comfortable event that I met someone older and rather more difficult to deal with. Initially I thought she was a wild bohemian woman, but it slowly emerged that she had been married, and abandoned a son, and that she was violently jealous. I became a battered 'husband'. I mistook my feelings for love, I thought her past had made her so mad, and I really thought I might change it. I didn't realise that (as I remained faithful throughout the following three years) she was sleeping with my friends and strangers and so on. I nearly called it a day, so she announced a pregnancy. That slowed me down, even if it was only a phantom. Then she really became pregnant.
This bit is long and complicated, but one day I found that the spell was broken and I woke up, to realise that there was nothing I could do, that I had wasted several years feeling guilty, and that there was plenty of life left. Another man was by now living-in as stepfather, anyway, and was jealous of my visits (rightly, of course, if she was as promiscuous as I now believe).
Anyway, that's when I took off to America. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
And my French companion was wonderful, but she was dealing with a broken man, so she had to work hard to bring my confidence back up. I owe her forever. After our two years travelling we went our separate ways, but it was an real education from a sister.
For a while I concentrated on my new-found 'art'. I took classes in mime, acrobatics, theatre, improvisation, masks - and started teaching juggling (as no-one else did that). I had a couple of brief liaisons, then met another wonderful partner an actress and musician - who, again, would stimulate my ambition, encourage my talents and keep me happy for quite a while. I always regret that in the year my father died I split from her, our home and all my hard-won performing and teaching jobs, and ran off.
You'll see a pattern of abrupt change reappearing....
I had been picked up on by one of my students - a beautiful and exotic woman several years younger than myself. We went to Greece for a while, but on returning I was insecurely housed, and she came and went as she pleased. She always had rich connections, affluent friends to stay with, and I was back on the spare room/sofa routine again for a while. It wasn't easy to get through that particular winter.
It was a shock when we met up again, and I saw the ring in the pregnancy test. I knew she slept with other people (in spite of protestations of love) so I wasn't 100% sure, and was even more upset to find her visa was expired and she was being deported from the country within days. I couldn't even marry her, (as she was still married to some guy in Holland). Helplessly, I saw her off at Heathrow.
She did finally return, and my son was born in my presence, but we had no bonding time, and my squat in Brixton wasn't quite how she had imagined bringing up a child, so off she went to her country friends again. I had had her marriage papers translated from Dutch, and the divorce came through, but by the time I thought to ask if she would marry me she had already married an aristocrat just to get back into the country after a winter in India. More humiliation for me. We are talking serious ' money' here - playing polo with Prince Charles types.... oh yes, he might have been playing the bohemian son (off to India!) for a bit, but he was due to inherit half of Gloucestershire....When the polite but firm aristocratic family bought her out (I don't suppose they needed my son to end in line to inherit, or any chance of that happening) she hung out for a bit (I had film income) but eventually went off to Australia with another man with assets.
It's not like I haven't met the rich. Being a court jester / juggling fool took me everywhere. I worked for poor housing estates, and posh folks at Embassy events - I visited children's hospitals, mental hospitals, a prison - I saw all sorts of different life-styles in those years. I went into theatres, and TV studios, play groups and parks. I have no real objection to people being well off. Hell, we're all allowed to pretend that now - we just have to borrow a bit more of our own future earnings to act it out. (Wage slave holidays).
But I should keep all that stuff for a separate rant (weblog). That very son, my son, came back and visited at the age of 23 last year (we leap to the present) and it was a joy to find out what he was really like.... and that it was all worth it, and what a great job she had done in the parenting work.
If I backflash now then I find myself in poverty at the end of the Eighties, poverty and a touch of self-hatred. The love of a good woman got me through those years in London. I even felt like I had a home. I betrayed its trust a couple of times (thanks to thrashing around in disillusionment and despair) but it still felt like home for a while, even when I worked in a Bristol circus school for a year, and came home every weekend.
Things still had to change, however, because I wasn't made for a life on the dole. By the 90s I was looking to get moving again, and some ex-students of mine had bought their own Big Top and were going on the road as a circus, so I joined in and had a great few summers from that. Eventually, the year my mother died, I thrashed around again, and found myself homeless, broke and disliking London. I moved to Cardiff (home of the circus) and relaxed a bit. One winter, after a summer tour doing a performance of a circus version of Treasure Island - with no savings, no welfare, no contracts coming up, I got a temporary job in the local library, and five years later I am still here.
Public services are low paid, (and libraries are traditionally 'women's work' or secondary incomes to households). Still, I was working with materials I love, in a space I like, and when the job came up in the computer room I went for it, and got it. Since then I have been learning a lot about computers/libraries/networks, and I feel as though I have landed on my feet. It is something for an older man to do in the 21st Century (Christian calendar), although we are just approaching Chinese New Year for 4700 (if I remember right).
I still do occasional freelance jobs. I walk to work. Cardiff is a city, but I feel as though I live in a village (with so many friends in the neighbourhood). I got involved with a woman who owned her own home, and finally (rather reluctantly, because of my lack of resources) I moved in. I have a horror of being dependent or parasitic - but I also have a fear of being around significantly richer people (my snide comments are rarely welcome). We did pretty well when we were sort of on a level, but last year was a crisis year when her job (with a higher salary and more leave) got supplemented by a rise in house prices which left her feeling rich. Most of what she has borrowed against the rise in the house's value has gone back into home improvement (and I won't mention the disruption of months of builders), but there was plenty left over for luxuries with which I couldn't compete. We hit a bit of a crisis at the end of the year - and my health wasn't helping - it was an accumulation of many things, after four years together. I am glad to say that we seem to have come through and are now looking forward to a future together, and I feel we have a realistic chance of making it work (with a little help).
Right now, however, she is in Thailand with her daughter for several weeks, and I am sitting here in Cardiff, in my den, with snow imminent, trying to be creative with my time. Their holiday in Thailand may be a last fling - to me, it's a last demonstration of the gap between our resources. It was, after all, booked when we had separated for a brief while. Now we have made peace, we are just missing each other a lot.Timing is perhaps the key. Synchronicity and synchronising.
What's that? That's the 3 hour version with little editing.
And now I approach it later, knowing I should find more details and incorporate them, but equally feeling that I should just tag them on, as nothing is arriving in any particular order, and I don't know how many more details to add. I am going to the funeral of a close friend (of a similar age) in a couple of days, so I am feeling mortal. Perhaps that is why this was the project which appealed to me on the website - Just try to get it all down. It's hard though. My son set off to LA in November, but I haven't got any recent news. My daughter in The States may well have got a daughter of her own (this came from the grapevine of funeral phone calls and old contacts). My third child hasn't even been mentioned, but now we really do have to be careful. I was a sperm donor for a couple with an irreversible vasectomy - and I was chosen for what HAD been a failing - chosen (amongst other things) for being unlikely to come over all possessive and kidnap the child back (sometimes being a negligent parent becomes a virtue!) And that's far too terse.
There's no way I can fit everyone in, and do them justice. Other people have always been important to me, which seems strange for someone so adamant about being self-contained. Inter-dependence seems inevitable, but it's the hierarchies that bother me. The power balance.
I am not sure I can go back and add more, even though I have a few hours left.
And after a busy day, with no free time, I find I have passed the deadline. I enjoyed the ride. I hope you may, too.