Friday, February 6, 2009

I can do a backbend, I cannot pot a red

Many years ago, when I was a callow pale skinned youth with only a robot obsessed girlfriend for conversational company, my friend and next door neighbour invited me to a snooker hall somewhere in Largs. This was a very exciting grown up thing to do, as there would be a convivial atmosphere, full length snooker tables that actually managed to fit in a room (I had a pool table that didn't fit into our spare room, so you would play shots from the south end with the cue 1/2 way up the artexed wall), a smoky haze in the days before Roy Castle taught us a smoky haze was a bad thing, and maybe if we pulled just the right face, the chance of a beer. As it turned out, the snooker hall was in a suspiciously crack den like atmosphere, the snooker tables were so big that no one potted a ball for an hour, and no one wanted to admit the night had lost it's fizz like the McDonalds style coke we were forced to sip on when the barkeep saw through our flimsy unbroken voices. Just as we were about to collect our coats, still loudly proclaiming that Largs was the best baize town in the whole damn world but with an unconvincing tone, a fat man in an aqua blue tracksuit with sharply jagged patterns came in, and to quote the song, everyone knew his name, and with the ludicrously overpriced drinks he was ordering for everyone, they were certainly glad he came. I don't know much about him, but this was his second home, clearly a converse paradise that only he could see, as people came from everywhere to say hello and clap his dog (that means give it a pat, not applaud it's rendition of Old Man River). I never found out if he was a crime boss, some sort of ducking and diving Del Boy figure or just a fat alchoholic, but at that stage in my life, I was strangely envious of such a sense of belonging and kinship. After all, this was relatively early in my stint in Scotland, and I was still desperately homesick for the mythical beauty of Upper Burnie Video and Big Ms, so any kind of belonging would have been fantastic. It was only just as we left, as he stumbled up to laughs behind his back and missed an easy red in the left pocket, that I realised my aspirational figure of belonging was actually just a drunken bum, who had traded in his dignity the same day he traded in his fashion sense. It was a strange moment for me, a rare moment I actually had built someone up and seen them fall down in the space of one poorly framed moment of snooker. All I knew was he still had a place to belong, and that put him one up on me. His heaven may have been hollow, a ball of nothing and poorly constructed faux white soul selections on the jukebox, and his station in life was such he couldn't possibly hope for something more, but it was a start...

It was abundantly clear to me that I while I didn't want his long range potting ability, side part or highly flammable tracksuit, I did more or less want such a refuge, somewhere where I could feel comfortable amenable conversation without the posturing or conversational dead ends. It had been a confusing evening after all, since I had envied the living and tracksuited dead, but who could I explain it to? Certainly not my Dad, searching for his own sense of belonging among the equally living dead, or the students of Auchinleck Academy to give them their official title, living the glamorous life of a supply teacher who always got the last of the sandwiches literally and metaphorically. Debbie wasn't much help either - she'd got it into her head that Maltesers were disgusting and couldn't talk about anything else. Plus it was the early 90s, no one had invented blogs, just some program on the AMSTRAD where you could ask the computer questions, and even it sounded bored at my musings. I was lucky though, I had a friend who would listen to anything I said, the boy who lived round the corner Chris, red of hair, endlessly amused by a cartoon in a computer magazine which wrapped up a squirrel three panel with a nut joke, always playing soccer with his toys and demanding that I provide the commentary. I figured he had a mature head on his shoulders, so I could ask him a question or two about the spurious nature of belonging - about the politics of envy, about all sorts of things really. We could sit with a Wispa bar and I could talk out my problems and the woes of loneliness and my pining for a Choc Pine Big M from the fridge of a popular milk bar in Penguin. I could explain the nature of an aspirational figure, it would clear my ch...well, that was the intention, I still got a Wispa bar after all, but I got about two sentences into a well rehearsed plea for understanding before he cut me off simply by putting the toys down, looking at me and imploring me to commentate. Had I been older and wiser, I would have realised that this was a form of belonging - the invitation to the snooker club, the invitation to commentate, the sharing of chocolate, I had been accepted, but it didn't feel like it at the time. I would have walked the short distance to my house, no doubt overwhelmed with self pity and frustration, feeling like all role models are flawed, all understanding lost, all homesickness clouding reasonable judgement. Of course, at that age, such judgements are fleeting, figures of admiration exist to be torn down, and a feeling of deep loneliness even in the midst of a crowd and with a girlfriend pass quickly once you get a can of Irn Bru from the fridge, and Paramount City is on TV. Debbie, incidentally, said in the future no one would be lonely because there would be robots, but then, I would expect nothing else...

Many years later, a boy in a neatly pressed uniform is sitting bleary eyed and hungover in a small cramped office - it's midday, the boy is staring at the files and notes of a million students before him, in a guidance counsellors office which may or may not have been a cupboard, the tension palpable as it is widely expected by now that I (for that boy was me!) should have a plan or a focus for my life, or at least something to talk about in this scheduled against my will appointment. She has got me a job at the ABC though, so I have to attened and be nice, and hopefully pretend like I have a career plan, maybe continuing my staggering success interviewing Hungarian ultra marathon runners at 7even in the morning. Instead, after several seconds of non committal drifting and conversational dead ends where my brain is still soaked in tequila and can't work out what a metaphor is, the guidance counsellor takes off her glasses, flashes me a thoroughly professional smile and begins to talk about whether I have any heroes. It's such a generic conversation, designed to kill time when the student witters on for a while, so much like my Dad when he sets a test in silence just so he can read the paper, it almost loops around to become a thoughtful question. So I give it something of a thoughtful answer, after some consideration and clock watching I recap about the man in the tracksuit and how he proved anyone could be an aspirational figure given the right, if ultimately twisted, reasoning. It's designed to be a somewhat intelligent response, something she can ponder, maybe respond to, something other than a generic reply from a bored child...it's midway through the story I realise she's absolutely not listening to me. If she'd yelled at me to commentate, it would been a massive sense of deja vu. Her face betrays a mask of indifference, random nods failing to disguise uncomplicated thoughts about how hungry she is or that she needs to remember to get some milk on the way home. I'm too far into the story to just stop, but I wrap it up nice and quickly, bypassing several of the lesser twists. When she realises I've stopped, she stops thinking about milk and taps a pen on her desk. She smiles, although a little nervously since her mind has wandered out of the room and been chatting to a local shopkeeper for several minutes, and says something like what about Jerry Seinfeld, he's very good. She has linked me with a what is the deal style comedian, although I suspect even the thought to make a connection between me and celebrity X has been too much effort for her. So I smile, nod, and say he's very good when I'm plainly lying, and we escape unscathed as the bell for lunch rings. I wonder why I felt the need to unburden my tracksuit story to this stranger right now, maybe it was the hangover, but it felt weird to have even remembered it. Maybe it only comes up in times of deep alienation, although I don't think that day I was feeling especially fragile. What was even stranger was when I left the office, the first thing I did was go to the store and buy myself a carton of plain milk to drink...it was a strange mind meld, one that has yet to be replicated...

I'm quite lucky that through a process of open dialogue, age, wisdom, and several acts of forgiveness on both sides, those child like feelings of alienation and envy have largely faded as I have accquired a solid and unremarkable group of like minded friends, and thus a place to belong. If I told the story about the tracksuit man to them, they'd shrug it off, and then bring up some obscure 1980s cricketer like Tom Hogan to make us all feel more comfortable. Time has continued to disappoint me with heroes, or supposed role models - too many Australian cricket captains have tried to pick fights with my friends Dads to make me feel anything but cynicism towards those I should replicate in action. When I walk through Hobart late at night after drinking, I no longer feel the need to avoid the gaze of those in a relationship and feel envious of them, and all is good. Last night, there was a table of young early into their university classes girls near us, all blonde hair and bad study habits, mobile phones and overuse of ribald language. I sipped quietly on my Victoria Bitter, now old enough to be the kind of person who doesn't chat these girls up but offers them fatherly advice. They don't even know what Airwolf was. When I look, I see a girl at the back of the group, in a clingingly tight orange top, regulation blonde hair, but patently unsure of herself. When they trotted off, she was the one who was at the back that no one seemed to notice or tell what generic Hobart nightclub they would be visiting next. She seemed to leave a full 5ive seconds after everyone else, while my friend pointed out that quite obviously she was their designated driver. I thought she looked depressed and underfed, with elbows that in the throes of passion would give you paper cuts, and eventually she caught our gaze and smiled, then frowned again when she had to catch up to the extras from Gossip Girl that made up her friendship group. There is a slim possibility that our comfortable conversation, easy jokes and relative self assured friendships are a point of envy to those at the back of a group feeling nervous and awkward - we envy their youth, they envy our lack of care, and the world continues to move around in ways that aren't as different as the demise of the shell suit would have you believe. It is the Telegraph after all, the worlds strangest pub, and as the latest dance pop sensations flicker idly across the television screen shaking their hips, someone at one of the pool tables up the back misses, in a drunken stupor, an easy red, and a circular pattern is completed that makes me ponder the continuing nature of existence and...

Well it did, but someone mentioned Tom Hogan, and I lost my train of thought...

5 comments:

Kath Lockett said...

In your inimitable way, MMcC, you've realised something that it took me nearly 40 years to realise - that no matter what group you find yourself in, there's always another one nearby to envy.

Unless you're wearing a shellsuit.

sparsely kate said...

I really enjoy your blog, you know that. I too have pondered the life of the track suited man that is overly friendly with strangers in bars. I always think there is something a bit sad about it and I feel for his wife at home washing his jocks and watching a current affair wondering when he'll come home reeking of pints and peanuts.


I had a guidance counsellor at school. She was a softly spoken alternative sort that wore striped socks and cable knitted jumpers around her chin. When I was 14 she got me to play with this mini-sandpit in the office. I had to build something that represented 'me'. So I erected this tower with thick blocks and she said, "Aha! See how you chose the thick blocks and not the thin ones? It's because you lock yourself in...you set up such huge walls so that you can't get hurt"
(cue the deep from the stomach sobs)

Anyway, have fun in Hobart drinking and make sure you never ever wear a tracksuit. x

Georgie B said...

I discovered pool/billiards at a young age myself.

I still play it to this day and I find its the best relaxing exercise in futility that one can do.

Jack Dorf said...

Belonging is the oddest thing.
I often fret and are deeply uncomfortable in social situations.

Yet according to many observers I am the epitome of confidence and good fellowship in social situations.

Miles McClagan said...

I really wish I'd never worn a sheel suit, it stands out horribly as my worst fashion disaster. And yeah, there's always someone to envy in every group. It's always horribly flawed when you meet that person though...

There's a bar here called The Black Buffalo which is nothing but locals, it's all a bit sad, men hiding from the missus and using the TAB. What would have happened if you used the thin blocks? That all sounds like spurious set the kid up to fail nonsense - or so my Dad would say!

In Scotland, they say snooker ability is a sign of a mis-spent youth, ping pong is the sign of a young offenders home...

I think most people would think in company I'm one of the funniest people around, but if I don't know people, I think I've got nowt to say...it's funny. I hate sitting on my own though...I know that much!