143. The North Kent wane

 

Easy to say in hindsight, but I should never have left Essex in September 1981.

Somewhere in that list of digging holes to climb back out of was the decision to start a one-year post-graduate teacher training course at Christ Church College, in Canterbury.

But something had to be tried. Manual work was easily found but always boring in the end. And I could not get the best memories of Birmingham out of my head. So a return to academia held out a certain promise.

I had applied and been accepted many months previously, and Maureen helped me hunt around for accommodation. A room was found, at the top of a tall house in Herne Bay, on the North Kent coast, about 8 miles away from the college. Quiet town, with seaside promenades. And a nice boozer nearby, the Druids head.

 

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It was easy to kid myself and others that I was on the way to getting a qualification for a career. Deep inside, I couldn’t envisage it. Didn’t believe in it. The propensity for any kind of career was lacking, unless somebody would pay me to indulge in the pleasures that interested the most.

The kidding continued during the first few weeks in Kent. I made a good gang of new friends, having worried that I would struggle to fit. It helped that I was 24, whereas most of my fellow students were fresh from university.

Every appearance of confidence, for the moment. Tapes of Heaven 17, Wah! and Echo and the Bunnymen playing in my room, as I skimped through the course material. Autumn warmth still in the air. Minor friendships were struck up with my new housemates, Helen and ‘Grubs’, a Welsh wannabe novelist. Big Dad paid a surprise visit from Manchester one weekend, joining Maureen and I for pub jaunts.

But nothing could halt the looming cloud of teaching practice, which began with an observation period for several days at a school in Faversham. That clarified what I had known quietly. By the end, I had observed beyond doubt that teaching was not for me. More specifically, I had no interest in the subject, history, and almost zero inclination to put myself in a situation where one performed publicly for most of the working day. Worse, the necessary imposition of class discipline went completely against the grain. That other people could adapt to that was of no concern. That’s how it was for me.

I decided to jack it in, rather than pretend until the pretence ran out. On the Sunday before I was due to start in earnest, I took a bus to the school and left a mass of loaned materials and books on the reception doorstep. Glancing around quite shamefully.

Relief and terror punched and fought hard on the bus journey home. What the hell could I do for a living? Living at home again with mum and dad was a depressing thought. I was beginning to fret about my hair again, in the autumn winds. Was there any future?

There was another massively troubling issue. My bleak outlook had been enlivened by several women showing an interest in me in the first few weeks at college. Cheating on Maureen was never contemplated, but it flattered my ego at a time when the general outlook was shrivelling by the day. One of them had showed an exceptional interest, exacerbated by alcohol. Another was very open to my company, and a third always made time for a chat. All three exerted a waxing moon pull on my waning stability.

With little future on offer, everything seemed to matter less. After wrestling with myself for many days, I sent Maureen a letter on the day that I officially dropped out of my course, saying that I wanted our relationship to stop. We had been growing apart. There was some truth in that. Some of it down to greater geographical distance.

The bigger, overwhelming feeling was of everything coming to an end. Purpose running down to nothing. Still I dropped the letter into the red postbox with dread, with no certainty that I wasn’t cutting away the best source of nurture, friendship, love and support that would ever be available. Ever.

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Maureen’s response beamed out dignity and class. She wrote back, saying I had hurt her immensely, but that it was probably for the best. And that yes, we probably had been growing apart from each other.

With bridges burned, there was freedom to explore temptation. Before too long, the attractions were seen through.

My recollection is that a typical male stance kicked in, of not dwelling too long or hard on my actions. I signed on, looking for work. Applied for a pub job in Canterbury, and was knocked back. I was told later that it was a gay pub. Maybe my homoerotic tendencies were insufficient. Worked for a day in a Herne Bay home for the physically and mentally challenged, but it didn’t feel right.

It was clear that I was destined to be on my own for a while. I lived in what was now a cold coastal town, and would stay in bed until lunchtime. Then buy a paper, look at the racing form, and split the afternoons between a warm betting shop, where I might spend £1, spread out over the course of an hour, and a warm library, to keep pumping out the letters to mates that I enjoyed so much. Cook a warming stew, and go to bed early, to read. Always scanning the job pages, but feeling unsuited to most tasks. Living on less than a tenner a week, and with absolutely zero prospects in my own head. Emotionally desolate, but reluctant to admit that.

Weekends were sometimes filled by visits from friends. Steve Lowndes and Jon Marks, on one nicely drunken occasion. John Devane on another. Once a week, to break the tedium, I attended a Quaker-run course on philosophy and meditation at the house below with a lovely Scouse guy from the teaching college, John.

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Whether to fill in the time, or unable to resist the black hole of genetic gravity, I decided that there would never be a better opportunity to make a massive and thoroughgoing effort to learn as much as I could about horse racing. Despite the win on Shergar, I had not let myself be carried away with bigger stakes. That was a one-off. But I had been fired up inside by the growing notion of becoming a “professional gambler”, having read that guys such as Alec Bird, Phil Bull and Simon ‘Dodger’ McCartney were alive and well and making it pay. And from the little I had read, it seemed that they simply studied the formbook with more perspicacity and dedication than others.

With no firm concept of how to achieve such a desirable destination as theirs, it seemed that the old adage about perspiration, rather than inspiration, would be the watchword. So I made a start, and studied a book in Herne Bay library each day on the racecourses of Great Britain. ‘Horses for courses’ was an old saying that I had given little more than lip-service to.

In particular, I would pore over the spread of articles in a weekly publication entitled the Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book, which were giving me ideas on why horses win and lose races. In the paper’s section for readers’ letters, a bloke called Mr Van Der Wheil (or VDW, The Flying Dutchman) first introduced himself into my life, albeit initially as just one of many readers claiming to have cracked open a chink in the bookmakers’ armour.

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I settled down to make some serious notes. And carried on wrapped in my sleeping bag late into the night, as there was no money to heat the room for more than 2-3 hours a day. I remember rising one morning with iced phlegm hanging from my nostrils.

I cannot say that I won anything overall from my betting, but it began to strike me that the winners of certain races had a logic to them, as patterns seemed to assert themselves on the racecourse, as in nature. I liked it that any of my small perks, such as beer and newspapers, might depend on nothing more than one’s judgement and courage.

Nonetheless, as Xmas approached in 1981, that activity covered over a constant feeling. I had cut myself off from something never to be regained.

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