Who Am I? Part Fifteen


My time at New College was extremely enriching, sometimes a lot of fun; whilst at the same time very difficult. I was the only full-time mature student on the course, although there were other mature students doing separate modules. I got on like a house on fire with the kids, who were mainly 16 year-olds. This was a great honour for me, considering that the other mature students were quite often the butt of the kid’s jokes. There were also some older kids, between the ages of 18 and 21; these were the ones who tended to lead the younger ones astray, however, I also got on very well with them. I suppose I’ve never really grown up and always had this child-like practical joker side to my character, which has always appealed to young people. I also found that I was able to use my own experiences of my childhood and adolescent years in order to provide help and guidance when needed. I got invited to nights out with the other students, I got invited to birthday parties and even got to meet some of the parents.

However, it wasn’t all rosy. With the kids being so young and having the negative influence of the older, stronger characters, there was usually quite a bit of disruption in the classes, which I found quite frustrating. Worse than that, the tutors also proved to be very unreliable and would from time-to-time simply not turn up. I had made quite a sacrifice giving up full-time employment. Whereas the kids would go home to their parents and not have to fend for themselves, I was having to do various mundane jobs in the evenings and at weekends in order to pay the bills and keep the car on the road. This put quite a strain on me, but before I elaborate more on this I will share with you some of the more positive aspects of the experience.

I had joined the course as a guitarist. However, it very quickly became obvious that I was actually quite a rubbish musician. There was 16 year-old kids playing like Jimi Hendrix, and I was still at the stage where I was siting on the edge of my bed trying to strum a tune. But my disappointment was short-lived because I found I had a flair for acting, which was a completely new experience for me. I loved the theatre modules that formed part of the course and I got involved in our production of Little Shop of Horrors. A part-time tutor, John Williams, had a very sympathetic view of my situation. He could see that I had a great deal of enthusiasm for acting so he got me some paid work with the murder mystery theatre company he was involved with.

The college had links with a utility company that had offices in Swindon. The utility company had an amateur theatre group that raised money for charities through their productions. Initially, this was very annoying for us students as the utility company used the college’s facilities, which would sometimes mean that our course would get pushed to one side so that these people could use the space. As you would imagine we resented this very much, but college politics always dictated the state of play. In the long-term however, it proved fruitful for me. I’d been working behind the bar at the council-run golf club in Broome Manor, Swindon, I’d worked at the big Honda factory serving food and washing up, I worked as the barman at the Nationwide Building Society social club and I’d also had bar work at the Wyvern Theatre in Swindon. They were all mundane, boring jobs that paid very low wages; especially the bar job at the Wyvern. Eventually, one of the tutors had a word with someone at the utility company and I got a job there in the evenings as a temp. In time this led to a full-time position, which I’m still very grateful for to this day.

During this period I even ventured back to the Spiritualist church from time to time; nothing seemed to have changed and I still felt like I didn’t belong.

Meanwhile back at New College… The course was descending into a shambles. The kids were still disruptive and less than enthusiastic about doing the course work, the tutors were becoming more and more unreliable and college politics meant that the course was hanging in the balance anyway. The principle and her deputy were constantly at loggerheads with our tutors. It seemed that performing arts students did not fit the image that the college was trying to promote. But they still wanted the kudos of being able to offer theatre productions to the public. I was forever sinking down into the depths and trying to pull myself up again. I found it very hard trying to undertake a college course that seemed doomed to collapse, whilst at the same time scratching a living and keeping the demons in my head at bay. Then it happened…

Something occurred that made me feel that I’d let the team down. In hindsight, I didn’t let anyone down, but at the time , that’s what my head was telling me. The pressure built up and I broke down; I just couldn’t stop the tears and this quite shocked my young friends who witnessed it happen. I think it was the next day, we were in the theatre hall discussing stuff when I received a revelation. Martin “Whitey” White was 18 years old, he was very outspoken and opinionated and he was one of the kids that I got on extremely well with. Martin was a bit of a nightmare at times, but that day he did me a huge favour. Suddenly during the discussions, he pointed at me, and in no uncertain terms exclaimed, “YOU’RE SUFFERING FROM DEPRESSION”. He went on to say that if I wasn’t 100%, then I couldn’t give 100% to the group, so basically, I was a liability. I thought that was a bit rich coming from Martin and I became extremely indignant. After all, wasn’t depression something that girls and pansies suffered from? I, on the other hand, was a big, tough bloke; how on earth could I possibly have depression????

When my ego returned to earth I realised that there was a lot of truth in what Martin had said. He planted a seed that day, and for the next couple of weeks I pondered his words. It made so much sense; it explained my strange behaviour going way back to my army days and even before that. It also explained why I would sink down into such terrible depths of despair and feel so much emotional pain. Even in the 1990s people didn’t really talk about depression and it was still widely considered to be a weakness. I decided that I was going to do something about it and several things happened in quick succession that meant it was going to be “all change” again in my life.

The course became more and more chaotic by the day. With all the pressure I felt under, exacerbated by my depression, I decided that I had to move on. The kids didn’t seem interested in doing the work, the tutors seemed to have their own agenda and college politics meant that performing arts was living on borrowed time. I left the course in June 1996 and it coincided with me being given the opportunity to work full-time at the utility company, albeit still as a temp. At this time I also decided to go to the doctor. I made an appointment and told him that I had been suffering from depression for many years but had only just found out. I then asked him to give me some “happy pills”, and he duly obliged. The only thing with the pills was that you are not supposed to drink alcohol while you are taking them. Oops! Hang in there for the next fun installment!!!!

 

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Who Am I? Part Fourteen


The remainder of the nineties up to the year 2000 were a very crucial time for me. They brought me a lot of pain, but they served as the springboard for greater things. It was in 1993 that I put an ad on the notice board at work stating that I was looking to rent a room or flat somewhere. One of the supervisors approached me and said he was looking for a lodger. I won’t mention his name for reasons that you will understand in due course, but he was a bloke that I got on well with and he had a reputation for being, “one of the lads”. He lived in West Swindon and in no-time at all I was moving out of my mum’s for the last time.

We got on great, having similar tastes in music and alcohol. He was also able to get hold of cannabis; combine that with my new-found hobby of making my own beer and we had a situation that was doomed right from the start. There were all-night drinking sessions and other goings on; our antics even managed to annoy the next-door neighbours, whom we both got on extremely well with. It was mainly our habit of deciding to go out into the garage after midnight to play the vinyl 45 version of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix at a rather loud volume.  You see, the stereo system in the living room had no turntable, but in the garage my partner-in-crime had an old system that we were able to play vinyl on. The wild times endured for a few months, but the cracks were starting to appear and I saw the writing on the wall. It was mainly due to my friend’s rather complicated personal life, which only seemed to get more and more complicated as the weeks went by. My emotional pain was very evident too at this time and I would have episodes of deep blackness, which would not go away regardless of how much I drank.

In the May of 1993 I took myself away on a holiday to Turkey. I liked the country so much that within a few days of getting back I’d booked up to go there again in six-week’s time. My friend decided he wanted to come with me, so he booked up too. I’m no saint, but my friend’s behaviour was extremely embarrassing from the time we set off right up to the time we got back. For some reason, he felt the need to be extremely loud in public places; even in the presence of young children, and his behaviour in general was at times rather strange to say the least. Within the first few days after we arrived back home, certain things happened, which resulted in him making a spur-of-the-moment decision to go and stay with his ex-wife. He told me he would probably be back the next weekend. During that week I was on a late shift and I came home one evening to the sound of music playing as I opened the door. It was a particularly doleful song by Annie Lennox; the name of which escapes me. As I entered the living room I saw my friend sprawled out, face down, on the couch and a near empty bottle of bourbon on the floor next to where he lay. I smelled a rat and went out to the kitchen to find a suicide note on the worktop.

I was angry; it was as though he knew I was on a late shift and did this knowing I would find him. I did not ring an ambulance immediately; I was too angry. At some point I decided I should ring one, so I called 999. I waited outside for the ambulance and within no time it arrived. However, in between me making the call and the ambulance arriving, my friend came-to. He staggered outside asking what was going on and I just ripped into him for putting me in this situation. He was taken into hospital and eventually he went into the mental health hospital in Devizes, Wiltshire. For the next few weeks I was in the house on my own. I looked after things for him, but at the same time I knew I needed to get out. It was while I was taking care of the house that I found out that my friend had played his suicide “trick” several times in the past. Another friend at work, Mark, said his mother had a spare room that I was welcome to use as a stop-gap. I most gratefully took up this offer. After living with Mark’s mum for four weeks, I moved in with a family friend of their’s who happened to be looking for a lodger. One rather amusing thing happened during this time that I will share with you.

I had bought a fez whilst we were in Turkey, and any Brits reading this will know that a fez was one of the trademarks of the late British comedian, Tommy Cooper. I went to visit my friend one day while he was being treated in Devizes. I turned up wearing the fez; I wanted to put a smile on his face. It did the trick and we laughed about it months later, saying that I was lucky they didn’t keep me in.

Eventually, the dust settled, my friend came out of hospital and started to get his life on track again. We met up a few times when he was well again but our friendship dwindled and we went our separate ways. My latest abode was in the Penhill area of Swindon, which was considered, wait for it….. a rather dodgy area. However, any place is what you make it; my new landlady was OK and so were the neighbours. It was a fair distance from work but I had acquired a car again just before moving to West Swindon, so that wasn’t a problem. I plodded along for the next couple of years getting more and more disillusioned with my brain-numbingly boring job at the Royal Mail. Then something happened that gave me an idea. My nephew had moved to Swindon in an effort to get away from the drug scene in London. However, he simply replaced the London drug scene with the Swindon drug scene. He eventually had a mental break-down and was admitted to the most horrendous mental health institution, Seymour Clinic, in Swindon. My brother’s ex-wife also moved to Swindon in an effort to supervise her son’s recovery. It was during a conversation with her that I had an idea.

She told me that she was a student, studying politics. She was slightly older than me, so I thought that age really isn’t a barrier and it would be a great idea to try something completely different. Being a music enthusiast, I’d been practising guitar for a few years and decided that I would do some kind of music course. I made some enquiries at New College in Swindon and realised that I would be letting myself in for a really difficult time. But the atmosphere amongst the performing arts students was so infectious that I got to thinking that there must be some way to achieve what I wanted. I decided to throw caution to the wind; a Popular Music course was to start at the college in September 1995, which marked the new academic year and I signed up for it. A few weeks before I was due to start I received a letter saying that due to low uptake the college was no longer running popular music, but… they were running a BTEC Performing Arts course, which contained musical elements and would I like to transfer onto that. I decided to go for it and gave my notice in at the Royal Mail.

During the last couple of years me and Gillian had got back together on numerous occasions, but she eventually followed her sister and moved up to Binbrook to be near her parents. Now at the age of 40 I was a full-time performing arts student at a sixth-form college in Swindon, surrounded by teenagers. I really didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, however, it was during my time at New College that I finally discovered why I had been experiencing such deep emotional pain for so many years.

Part Fifteen will be with you before you know it!!