At secondary school in Cambridge, I was friends with an extremely strong boy. Let’s call him Alan.
Once, all the boys in our year were involved in a rough version of rugby. You had to get the ball from one side of the playground to the other and could use any means necessary to get the ball off your opponent. Most of us didn’t want to hold onto the ball too long for obvious reasons. But Alan went the whole length of the playground, jaw clenched, taking a torrent of kicks and punches like a badge of honor. He was a warrior who did not register physical pain. For that episode, we all got lined up and told off by the headmaster.
When we played chess, Alan would put his King into battle, trying to make it do the same job as his Queen. He enjoyed this valiant fight.
A warm and intelligent friend
On a school trip, some kid kept provoking me, hitting me. In the end, I retaliated, but I was crying at the same time. I felt humiliated. For me, the other kid had won. But Alan said no. It didn’t matter that I was crying. I had beaten the other kid, and that was all that mattered. I had won. In fact, that kid never bothered me again.
Alan was a warm and intelligent friend to me, although as we grew into our mid-teens, his schoolboy enthusiasms turned into something nastier.
A fine example of the English hooligan
I changed schools and lost touch. By chance, I saw him and a couple of mates lobbing plastic bags filled with water at punters on the River Cam. Pity the poor punter who took the bait and got into a fight with Alan. A bright tourist guide might have commented: “And on your left is a fine example of the English hooligan.”
Cambridge United was a fourth division football club, but a clash with Chelsea put its hooligans into the Premier League. I think Alan was a Cambridge United hooligan. He ended up in a Young Offenders Institute (YOI).
With a friend and his mum, we visited him. It is a day that has stayed with me since; the long car journey, the dreary English countryside, our grim final destination.
The ultimate punishment
Alan seemed okay, but there was one thing about his appearance that was absolutely shocking.
Alan had always had very short hair, not a skinhead but a suedehead, a mod, a Jam fan.
I thought that being in a YOI or prison was like being in the army. Short back and sides all around. But no.
The face looking back at us through the glass – Alan, the strong boy; Alan the mod, the casual – was framed by long – horribly long – wavy, greasy hair. I could barely look at him.
It was a punishment. They had disfigured his identity.
I had one last encounter with Alan, and very unpleasant it was too. But that’s another story.
(These memories played a part in writing “Teardrop Caravan”)